Guest Post: Linda Joy Singleton on Novels to Picture Books, the Long & Short of Writing for Children

By Linda Joy Singleton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I joined SCBWI, my biggest dream was to sell a middle-grade novel. I attended as many workshops as I could and was excited when there were speakers who wrote MG or YA.

But often I had to sit through talks on writing picture books.

It seemed like writers all around me were in love with the picture book genre. I enjoyed reading picture books to my kids, but I was writing for the kid in me and preferred thrilling middle-grade mysteries.

My most exciting day ever was when I got The Call. Yay!

My middle-grade novel Almost Twins sold to a small publisher. More sales followed, mostly YA and MG paperback series.

I was living my writing dream!

All along, I kept going to SCBWI conferences and learning everything I could about the industry— which usually included many, many workshops on picture books.

I learned so much that I could give a talk on writing picture books. Still, writing short seemed like a magical talent I lacked. So, I happily continued writing longer books.

And then it happened—I got the itch to write a picture book.

My picture book friends encouraged me and critiqued my first attempts. I rewrote and cut and rewrote then submitted.

The rejections rolled in, smothering me in disappointment. While my friends thought my picture books were great, editors were not impressed.

Years passed, and while the ups and downs of writing MG and YA series often frustrated me, I kept selling novels.

I’d made nearly 40 book sales, when a photograph changed my career course.

My writing friend Verla Kay, came to visit and I tagged along to her school talk. She gave a power point presentation, starting off with photo of herself as a child. The photograph showed two girls building a snow dog. This photo stuck in my head—and words followed:

“More than anything, Ally wanted a dog, but dogs made her ACHOO.”

The next day, I was driving to a writing conference when more words danced in my head. I couldn’t ignore them.

When we stopped for lunch, I grabbed a pen and scribbled the first draft of Snow Dog, Sand Dog, illustrated by Jess Golden (Albert Whitman, 2014) on a napkin.

Now I’d love to say this book sold immediately, but it went through many rewrites and two agents before it was published five years later by Albert Whitman.

Still I thought it was a fluke.

“I’m not really a picture book author,” I’d say because writing picture books was so challenging and I was in awe of talented picture book author friends.

Delighted with the sale, I considered myself very lucky. And soon I was working on my 7th series for older kids, Curious Cat Spy Club (Albert Whitman, 2015).

Then a money game I created for my grandson, inspired me to write another picture book, Cash Kat, illustrated by Christina Wald (2016) which I sold to Arbordale. And a year later, A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin (June 13, 2017) sold to Little Bee.

I started thinking maybe I did have some picture book skills, especially when my agent sold two more of my picture books: Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and Crane And Crane (2019).

Now I consider myself a novelist and a picture book author.

These genres seem opposite with word counts around 50,000 words for novels and usually under 200 words for picture books. But the genres complement each other, too.

Here are some thoughts on being a multi-genre author:

  • Writing short can be more difficult since every word counts. But to be honest, I spend about six months of daily writing on a novel and probably only a few weeks on a picture book. The challenge for me with a picture book is coming up with a good idea.
  • Inspiration is a big difference in genres. If I waited for inspiration for a novel, I’d never finish the book. Instead, I have a routine of writing most mornings until the novel is done. But with picture books, inspiration is elusive. If I force a picture book idea, it’s rarely any good. I like to tease that I’ve averaged one good picture book idea a year. So, when that idea strikes, you can bet I stop everything to write it down.
  • Word play is part of the fun with picture books. Sometimes I find myself playing with words in my novel writing, too. Smash, crash, boom! I can’t resist using fun sound words, poetic rhythm and even alliteration in longer fiction. 
  • Fun fact: My longest novel, Memory Girl (CBAY Books, 2016), was nearly 100,000 words. My shortest picture book, Crane & Crane (2019), sold with just 19 words.
  • Don’t limit your creativity. Genres are just boxes that shape the story. For a long time, I told myself I wasn’t a picture book author, but then I became one. Make a routine of writing, and say “yes” when inspiration strikes. And you can become the writer you want to be.

Cynsational Notes

Linda Joy Singleton wrote her first story when she was eight about a mischievous kitten.

Two decades later, she pursued a career in writing and joined SCBWI. She’s sold over 45 books, including series: Curious Cat Spy Club, The Seer (Llewellyn/Flux), Regeneration (Berkley Books) and Dead Girl trilogy (North Star Editions).

Two new picture books come out in 2017: A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin  (Little Bee Books, June 13, 2017) and Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, December 2017.)

Author Interview: Jennifer Ziegler on Inspiration, Confidence & Revenge of the Happy Campers

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Jennifer Ziegler to discuss the third book in her MG series featuring the Brewster triplets, Revenge of the Happy Campers (Scholastic, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Mother Nature Meets Sister Nature



Dawn, Darby, and Delaney Brewster are always up for an adventure, whether it’s ruining a wedding (for good reasons!) or turning a Christmas pageant tradition on its head. But now they’re about to go where they’ve never gone before: Camping!



They’re spending spring break with their beloved Aunt Jane at the same campground she and their mom used to go to as kids. But the first morning there, they run into a trio of boys, and one starts bragging about his plan to become the President of the United States. Clearly this is Dawn’s destiny, and the two, well, don’t become fast friends.



Between the fierce competition to see who’s the best leader and some unfortunate encounters with nature, this camping thing is sure looking like a bad idea. And when their final contest puts them in real danger, it might take six future leaders of the country to keep this from being the worst trip in history.



Camp can be such an exciting adventure. Did your childhood experiences inspire Revenge of the Happy Campers?

Definitely! I never went to “away camp,” but I had many outdoor adventures with my dad over the years, since camping and fishing are pretty much his favorite things to do.

Jennifer’s daughter, Renee, son Owen (right), and their cousin
Gabe (middle) after a successful day of camping & fishing.

Pappy Camp might not fit the standard definition of fun for a modern young person, but it was always a great experience.

I remember very primitive lodgings, fishing mishaps, bad weather, and critters visiting in the night. But I also remember the beautiful scenery, the sightings of wildlife, the thrill of reeling in a big fish, and how great food tastes when it’s cooked in the open air.

Mostly, though, I recall that sense of triumph. Every time I went on a camping trip, I came away feeling bigger, stronger, and more capable.

Renee holds up a mangrove snapper that she caught.

This is the third book in the Brewster triplets series. Were there challenges in keeping everything that happened in previous books straight, or by now do you feel like you know the girls as well as your own family? (and can readers start with the third book without feeling lost?)

Right before I started work on Happy Campers, I reread the first two books to remind myself of the pacing and rhythm and make sure I kept certain details straight.

I still had the characters’ voices in my head, so that part wasn’t very difficult. In fact, it’s going to take some serious effort to get their voices out of my head when I write a non-Brewster book.

The girls do seem like family to me now. I talk about them as if they really exist and often wonder how they’d react to world events. I find myself making remarks like, “Oh, the Brewsters would hate this,” or I’ll describe an actual person as being “like Delaney.”

It’s a magnificent feeling — and also a little alarming — when people you’ve imagined seem to have come to life.

I do think readers could start with the third book. It’s a complete story that doesn’t build off of the previous books’ plots, and background is given when needed.

Of course, those who’ve read the first two novels would recognize certain references and understand characters and relationships from the get-go.

Will there be more Brewster triplet books?

There will be! I’m currently writing Book Four in the series. I can’t say too much about it yet, except that the girls are twelve now and facing some new challenges — at home and elsewhere. I’m hoping it will be out fall of 2018.


What first inspired you to write for young readers?

The first inspiration? Probably the relationship I had with reading while growing up.

I think when you are young, the bonds you have with favorite stories and characters are stronger and more special than the ones you form as an adult. You’re experiencing ideas and feelings for the very first time and learning about yourself and the world. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say these beloved stories can help shape you into the person you become — or help you tap into parts of yourself you never realized were there.

The tales that enchanted me early in life (Judy Blume novels, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, the first Star Wars trilogy) wove into the matrix that is me. Their worlds will always seem like cherished places I’ve visited, and their characters will always feel like old friends.

It’s similar to love. No … it is love. That’s what I recognized as a young reader. And I came to believe that if I could create stories that allowed young people to recognize themselves and understand life a little better, it wouldn’t just be fun, it would also be an important, almost sacred calling.

Competition is an underlying theme in Revenge of the Happy Campers. What advice do you have for writers about competition?

I feel strongly that with writing, the real competition has to be with yourself.

There do exist official literary competitions that result in fancy dinners and your name etched on a plaque — and don’t get me wrong, such honors feel fantastic  — but they can’t be what motivates you.

Owen & Renee hiking at Enchanted Rock in Texas.

What really matters is pushing yourself to do better in some way and succeeding. If, by the time you’ve finished a project, you have grown as a writer — that’s a win.

Perhaps you’ve honed your process or attempted a new style or genre. Maybe you’ve identified a bad habit that you can now avoid or learned a trick that can help you tackle writer’s block.

Such achievements won’t get you a shiny trophy (unless you give yourself one, and that’s okay), but they’re the stuff that will keep you fueled and focused for the next writing challenge. It’s proof that you can handle the demands of this calling.

Confidence. Faith in your abilities. Belief that you can overcome the fear and doubt (which never go away). I think those are the real rewards that can change you, and your craft, for the better.


Cynsational Notes

Jennifer & Chris lead horses with Fletcher & Renee 
on a camping trip.

Reviewer Sharyn Vane of the Austin American-Statesman wrote, “Ziegler’s young democratic-process aficionados are as appealing as ever, brimming with confidence and problem-solving savvy. They’re empathetic enough to notice that their aunt is saddened by the state of the campground she remembers visiting each summer….full of real-world adventures, both wise and witty.”

Like the Brewster triplets, Jennifer Ziegler is a native Texan and a lover of family, history, barbecue, and loyal dogs.

Although she only has one sister, she does know what it is like to have four kids living in the same house.

She is the author of several books for young people, including Sass & Serendipity (Delacorte, 2011), and How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte, 2008). Jennifer lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, author Chris Barton, and their four children.

Author Interview: Uma Krishnaswami on the Creative Life, Teaching Writing & Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Uma Krishnaswami to discuss her new MG historical novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh (Lee & Low, May 2017). From the promotional copy:

Nine-year-old Maria Singh longs to play softball in the first-ever girls’ team forming in Yuba City, California. It’s the spring of 1945, and World War II is dragging on. Miss Newman, Maria’s teacher, is inspired by Babe Ruth and the All-American Girls’ League to start a girls’ softball team at their school.


Meanwhile, Maria’s parents—Papi from India and Mamá from Mexico—can no longer protect their children from prejudice and from the discriminatory laws of the land. When the family is on the brink of losing their farm, Maria must decide if she has what it takes to step up and find her voice in an unfair world.


What inspired you to write Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh?

The history itself. I can’t help myself—little-known historical nuggets of information are irresistible to me.

About 15 years ago, I came across a documentary called Roots in the Sand by filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart about this community of families in California in the 20s and beyond, in which the men were from India and the women from Mexico.

They were brought together by a perfect intersection of discriminatory laws that forbade Asians to own land, forbade people of different races to marry, and denied citizenship to people from India. And from all these incredible challenges they made a world of hope and optimism and survival. It’s a peculiarly American story. 

Once immigration from India opened up, the descendants mostly blended back into the Mexican American communities of California, but many retained a nostalgic memory of those fathers and grandfathers from India. I was totally hooked but it took me many, many tries before I could figure out how I should write this history in a way that made sense to kids.

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


I don’t think of myself as an author. That title, after all, depends on whether someone else thinks what I write has potential or marketability or whatever. 

But writing. That’s different. I am a writer. I love having an idea zing into my mind. I love the energy of a first draft, even when I know that at some point I’m going to be beating my head against it, trying to shape it into something that a reader could care about. 
I love how I can become enthralled by a story enough to keep returning to it, sometimes for years. And the thing I love best is when a work falls into place, especially after several revisions when it has felt opaque and I have felt dense and inept. Then suddenly, often overnight—as if dreaming has helped this happen—it’s all there and I can’t wait to do the work that has been revealed to me.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?



I have an office room looking out into my back yard, with a forest beyond the fence, so when I need a visual break I can see green trees. 

I can step out and walk there if I want to. But just so I don’t do that too often, I have a treadmill desk. I set it on slow when I’m writing and it keeps me on track. 
I used to write early in the morning but now I break it up—a couple of hours in the morning, a couple more in the afternoon. About four hours a day when I’m working on a project. During teaching weeks, I don’t do any of my own writing.

How does teaching inform your own writing?

It keeps me honest. I often find myself pointing out things in students’ work, then returning to my own and seeing those very problems staring me in the face. 

Why is it I couldn’t see them before? I think the way it works is this. Story (for me anyway) can often begin as something static—a snapshot, a little description, a place, a lone character, or a single idea. But the words I use to try and get at that story become prisms. They can reveal unexpected flashes of light and color. They can sparkle and create rainbows. But I can’t see that when I first use them. 
In a draft, I’m still chasing a mirage. Before I began teaching I’d often get stuck at that stage, and I left a lot of half-finished projects scattered behind me. 
Teaching forces me to put my own work away. Then when I return to that draft and hold it up at different angles, the light begins to burst through.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently juggling two nonfiction picture books with science themes and a middle grade historical nonfiction book. 

I think every book teaches you how to write that book and no other, so I feel like I’m learning all over again. 
Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews called Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, “A loving look at a slice of American life new to children’s books” and “filled with heart, this tale brings to life outspoken and determined Maria, her love for baseball, and her multicultural community and their challenges and triumphs.”  
Uma Krishnaswami is the author of more than twenty books for young readers, including Book Uncle and Me, illustrated by Julianna Swaney (Groundwood Books, 2016) selected as one of the best children’s books of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews, NPR Book Concierge’s Guide and USBBY Outstanding International Books List.

She teaches in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New Delhi, India, Uma now lives and writes in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. 

Guest Post: Jane Kurtz on Bringing Books Into the World

By Jane Kurtz

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it does.

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

Suma Subramariam and Jane

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

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

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

And they’re vital.

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

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

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

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

Jane and her siblings in Maji

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

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

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

 Pretty cool!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethiopian students reading Ready Set Go Books

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

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

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

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

Portland students and Jane excited about Planet Jupiter

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

What else is there?


Cynsational Notes

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


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

Jane in Maji, photo by Jeri Candor

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

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

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

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

Author Interview: Jenn Bishop on Stormy Middle Grade Emotions

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Tornado damage near Jenn’s home the following winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

What appeals to you about writing middle grade?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The surprise of it, I think.

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

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


What are you working on next?

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes


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

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

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

New Voice: Hena Khan on Amina’s Voice

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Hena Khan, a well-published picture book author makes her novelist debut with Amina’s Voice (Salaam Reads, March 2017). From the promotional copy:

A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community.


Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. 


Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” 


Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.


Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?


I was working as a communications specialist for an international public health organization when I unexpectedly got the opportunity to first write for kids back in 2001. 
I had a very good friend who worked as an editor with Scholastic’s continuity department. She was editing a series called Spy University and, since we had worked together on our high school newspaper, asked if I could help out with the writing. 
It was perfect timing for me because I was looking to transition out of a full-time job that required international travel as a new mother. I thought it could be the perfect stay-at-home alternative and a great way to balance my consulting work.

I soon realized that writing for kids was far harder than I had imagined! 

I’d grown a bit tired of writing and editing jargon- and data-filled technical documents with the aim of making them more accessible to lay audiences. 
And I thought that writing for kids would be a welcome change, which it was, but it took hours of practice for me to finally nail the lighthearted tone and fun style of the series. 
I had to learn to write in an upbeat, pun-filled manner, and to present a serious theme (espionage) in a kid-friendly and appropriate way. 
It was challenging at times but it helped to have an amazing mentor.

In the end, I loved writing those initial children’s books, and went on to write for three other series before my first trade-published picture book, Night of the Moon came out in 2008 with Chronicle Books.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Amina’s Voice?


I first thought about and started writing Amina’s Voice more than four years ago. 

I had published two picture books about Muslims, and wanted to write something for a middle-grade audience. Since books spoke to me the most when I was a middle grader myself, I loved the idea of connecting with that age group.

Also, parents often asked me to recommend mirror books for their tweens and I struggled since so few of them existed.

I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was an “every girl” who happened to be an American Muslim. I hoped that readers of all backgrounds would be able to relate to her as much as I did to the characters I had grown up reading and loving—none of who had resembled me in any way. 

At the time, Islamophobia was growing in our country, and I was alarmed by reports of anti-Muslim campaigns, and an increasing number attacks on Islamic centers, bullying of Muslim kids, and hate-motivated crimes. 
I wanted to offer a Muslim friend to people who didn’t have one through storytelling, and a window into my often misunderstood and misrepresented faith and culture.

Amina is a girl that struggles with common challenges—friendship changes, family conflict, finding confidence. 

Yet the story also allows readers to get to know a Pakistani American family, gain access to an Islamic center and Muslim traditions, and to perhaps see how they’re not as different as they might have imagined. 
At the same time, the story introduces the idea that Muslims are not a monolith, and that there are variations in the way we approach our faith and integrate it into our daily lives, which is an important if subtle idea in the book.

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


The biggest challenge for me was trying to make sense of the various feedback I received from editors who initially passed on the book. 

Some said they loved the writing, connected with Amina and were emotionally moved by her story, but that it wasn’t the right fit for their list. Others said they didn’t connect with Amina’s voice enough or find her story compelling. Others said the book was too “quiet,” which was a term that was new to me, or—perhaps the hardest to hear—that they felt the book didn’t reflect the type of diversity that they were seeking. 
No one actually said what they recommended I do to “fix” the story or make it work better.

I was determined to tell the story I wanted to tell, even if it wasn’t likely going to be an extremely commercial book. 

After sitting with all the opinions for a while, and getting some helpful comments from my writers group, I finally realized what was missing in the story. 
We knew all the things Amina was afraid of or didn’t want, and not enough about what she did want. She was too much of a bystander in her own story. 
When I set about to change that, and give her more of a presence, I felt that she lost her sweet quality and had a personality change. So then I rewrote the book in the first person voice, which allowed me to really get into her head, see things from her perspective and get the voice right. 
I was also able to shed unnecessary details and edit out the 40-year old woman voice that had snuck in from time to time. But the story remained essentially the same.

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

As a child of Pakistani immigrants who was born and raised in America, and now as a mother to third generation American Muslims, I have a diverse background that also feels very common. 

I grew up witnessing my parents struggle to both assimilate and hold on to their culture, balancing two cultures myself, and reconciling my American identity with my Pakistani heritage and my faith. 
My children, who in many ways are much more grounded and comfortable with their identity that I was at their age, understand that they are as American as anyone else, no matter what they might hear. I like to think that growing up in a fairly diverse community, and having exposure to diverse books from a young age helped in that regard.

In a nutshell, what I essentially bring to my writing is an example of the amazing American immigrant experience, from a Pakistani American Muslim perspective. 

Pakistani Americans make up the largest percentage of immigrant Muslims in America, but the story I tell and the family I describe in Amina’s Voice is very familiar to people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and faiths. 
To me it was important to create a character who is unashamed of her culture or faith, who is unapologetically American and Muslim. It means a great deal to me for kids like mine, and all others, to be able to identify with, empathize with, and root for a character like Amina.

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal, Booklist and Kirkus Reviews all gave Amina’s Voice starred reviews.

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Khan deftly—and subtly—weaves aspects of Pakistani and Muslim culture into her story, allowing readers to unconsciously absorb details and develop understanding and compassion for another culture and faith. Amina’s middle school woes and the universal themes running through the book transcend culture, race, and religion.”

School Library Journal called it, “A universal story of self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. A welcome addition to any middle grade collection.”

Booklist wrote, “Khan gracefully balances portraying the unique features of Amina’s cultural and religious background with familiar themes of family, belonging, and friendship worries, which should resonate with a wide range of readers. Written as beautifully as Amina’s voice surely is, this compassionate, timely novel is highly recommended for all libraries.”

New Voice: Michael Merschel on Revenge of the Star Survivors

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Michael Merschel is the first-time author of Revenge of the Star Survivors (Holiday House, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Middle school meets the Dark Side in this painfully funny survival story of social misfit Clark Sherman. 

When Clark crash-lands on the inhospitable planet of Festus Middle School, he soon learns the natives don’t take kindly to newcomers . . . particularly ones who practice Jedi mind tricks and follow nerdy TV shows like Star Survivors. 


As he faces a conspiring group of violent bullies, browbeaten teachers and a fiendish principal, Clark knows he’ll be lucky just to survive eighth grade.

Then, hope appears on the horizon: there is Les, the enigmatic boy who seems to disappear at will; Ricki, a fellow Star Survivors fan; and the independent-minded librarian, Ms. Beacon. 


When Clark and his newfound allies are imperiled, he gathers his courage and the consequences of his actions ripple through the galaxy in life-altering ways.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

To be honest, when I started, I didn’t know that I was writing for young readers. I had an idea for a story, and I decided I would try telling it, and see what happened. It was only after I submitted to an agent, and she said she’d be happy to represent my middle-grade novel, that I realized, “Oh. I’m a middle-grade novelist.”

I was fine with that, for a couple of reasons.

One of my intellectual heroes is Chuck Jones, who directed many of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. (This might give you an idea of exactly how much of an intellectual I am, but I digress.)

 I loved him as a kid — it’s because of him that I learned to pay attention to the opening credits on Saturday morning cartoons, because I figured out that if his name was listed, it was going to be a good one. And I love him as an adult, because anybody who can create art that’s still beautiful and funny 60 or 70 years on apparently knew what he was doing.

Anyhow, I remember hearing an interview with him where he said that he never created for children. He just created work that he and his colleagues enjoyed. I just found this quote from him — “You have no right to ‘write for children.’ You do the best thing that you can do. …. There’s only one test of a great children’s book, or a great children’s film, and that is this: if it can be read or viewed with pleasure by adults, then it has the chance to be a great children’s film, or a great children’s book. If it doesn’t, it has no chance.”

I feel the same way. A book is either good, or it’s not. Age doesn’t really enter into it.

Another intellectual godparent to this book would be Judy Blume. I loved her so much as a boy.

I heard her speak a few years ago, and I realized: People loved her because she told us the truth. I have done my best to emulate that spirit in my book.

One final thing that inspired me, once I realized what I was doing, is the memory of how I inhaled books when I was between third and eighth grades. I’d read my favorites eight, nine, ten times over a couple of years.

I think my nervous system was rewired around some of those books. It’s an honor, and a little scary, to realize than I’m now one of those authors. Though lightning may strike me if I dare compare myself to Judy Blume as anything more than a source of inspiration.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Mike in sixth grade,
wearing his favorite shirt 

Well, I suppose the initial inspiration was when my family moved when I was in seventh grade.

It was a real shock to me at the time, and I convinced myself, in the way that a lot of 13-year-olds do, that my experience had to have been the worst of all time. But as I grew up, I realized — lots of people feel awkward, and alienated, in their junior high years. Whether they moved or didn’t. Whether they were popular or not.

It’s just sort of a universal experience. By comparison to a lot of people, I had it really easy.

So I convinced myself — there’s nothing to write about there. It would be a terrible cliche.

But then, my oldest daughter entered seventh grade. I was up at her junior high for orientation. It looked about the same as my own junior high, which made me feel a little edgy.

I was probably extra edgy because we were standing by the gym, and to be honest, the main reason I have gone to church was so that I do not have to spend eternity in a place that looks like a junior high gym.

Anyhow, I’m standing there, and down the hall comes this gaggle of eighth-grade girls. They were dressed rather … aggressively, and they were headed straight toward me. And I literally jumped out of their way — pressed my back against the wall, tried to become invisible — because they scared me. Even though I was about 30 years older than they were.

I realized later that they had been part of some kind of skit intended to show how not to dress and behave, but the fearful feelings I had were so intense I decided, “Maybe there is something I could write about here.”

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

Finding the time. I have a full-time-plus job and had three kids and did not have an office with a door that could be closed.

I started off thinking, “I really need at least a few hours in a quiet room, with an inspirational view and the right mood music playing, to craft my art.”

By the end, I had learned that I could get a lot done at the kitchen table in the morning during the 25-minute gap between when the last kid left for school and before I had to race out the door for work. (I should note that I have an extremely supportive wife who did a lot of hard work on nights weekends when I was locked in my bedroom staring grumpily at the computer screen. Thanks, honey.)

Mike with C3PO and Anthony Daniels (photo by David Woo)

That has a direct connection to my subject matter, though. When I was searching for ideas for a
novel, I knew that I needed to choose a topic that would not need a lot of in-depth reporting. And nerdy, science-fiction-obsessed outcasts? I did not need to research that.

I did end up doing research to understand the characters, though. I read a bit about the psychology of bullying. I tried to absorb a lot of material on racism and microaggressions. And electronics.

I’m not an expert on any of those things. But I hope I learned enough to get it right.

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

I had a very clever plan for finding an agent. I’m fortunate that in my day job, editing book reviews for The Dallas Morning News, I get to work with a lot of people in the publishing world, and I asked a couple of them for advice. One was a client of Sarah Burnes’.

I spent a few days Google-stalking her, saw that we had some common nerdy interests — I knew I would need an agent who spoke fluent nerd — and our mutual friend agreed to forward my material along. And Sarah agreed to look it over.

Now, I honestly had no expectation that she would take me on as a client. She has some really amazing clients, and I knew my work was not yet at their level. But I thought — if a rock star agent like her can give me feedback as she rejects me, I can just use her advice, make revisions, and then find someone else willing to take me on.

Several months went by, and the long wait made me think — obviously, she’s got zero interest.

To compress the story, after about six months, I finally got her evaluation. It began with a critique of all the things that were wrong with my manuscript, and I thought, “Yep, just as I suspected — she’s rejecting me.” But she ended by saying that if I was willing to make changes, she’d be happy to take me on.

I told her — in my business, that’s what we call “Burying the lead.”

I would not be here right now without her. She’s a brilliant editor, a font of optimism and a clever guide who led me through two rounds of submissions and eventually connected me with an editor and publisher who have been very good to me, Kelly Loughman of Holiday House.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

I’m going to answer that by talking about two sets of writers who taught me much of what I know about writing.

The first was the set of features writers and editors I worked with when I edited the Sunday Living section of The Dallas Morning News.

They were gifted wordsmiths, and we had the luxury of talking about what makes a piece of writing work. And we had the time to go back and rework pieces until we got it right. Before I worked with those people, I thought that good writing was something that came off the top of your head. They taught me that it’s actually something that usually doesn’t show up until the fifth draft, if you are lucky.

In 2006, I started editing books coverage at the paper. Which meant I got to interview a lot of writers, and listen to even more at places such as the Texas Book Festival and the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

I probably stole some nugget of advice from every person I listened to. It was a real gift, something I highly recommend to any aspiring writer. Or accomplished one, for that matter.

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


There was a point, after the manuscript had been revised, submitted, rejected, re-revised, re-submitted and re-rejected that I had given up hope.

And while I prayed that I was wrong, I felt particularly awful not for me, but for my characters. I had put them through a lot. I didn’t want them to have suffered so much and consigned to being stuck in my brain.

Much later, late in the editing process, my editor started giving me enthusiastic feedback from other people who had read it.

I was confused — “How did this total stranger know anything about my story, which has been living in my head and shared with only a few people?” That’s when I started to realize — “Oh. This really is going to be a book.” It was a good feeling.

Young fans at the launch party, including Mike’s son on the left (photo by Amy Gutierrez)

Guests give the Star Survivor salute at the launch party

What would you have done differently?

Started sooner. I always had an excuse to not write. In retrospect, they were all terrible excuses. That’s not to say I was ready to start a novel when I was, say, 22. But I wasn’t ready at 42, either.

You learn by doing. I hope people have fun with what I came up with.

Cynsational Notes

(Photo by Christopher Wynn)

Michael Merschel is the books editor and assistant arts editor at the Dallas Morning News where he’s interviewed Norton Juster and William Shatner, just to name a few.

He lives in Texas with his wife and three kids, who tell him he is not all that funny, usually.

Publishers Weekly said, “Merschel uses Clark’s SF passions—from everything from ‘Star Wars’ to his favorite (fictional) show, ‘Star Survivors’—as a smart metaphor for coping with change, but the real heart of the story is in its complex characters, tongue-in-cheek tone, and emotional honesty.”

See also his recent essay from The Dallas Morning News on what he learned about writing fiction. 

2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Agent Gemma Cooper & Author Robin Stevens

Agent Gemma Cooper

By Melanie Rook Welfing
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations


Note: Gemma Cooper and Robin Stevens were interviewed by SCBWI Netherlands Regional Advisor Melanie Rook Welfing for the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan conference. This is the second in a series of six articles.

Gemma Cooper started her publishing career in New York, then spent several years working in London, and now lives in Chicago. She joined the Bent Agency in 2012, where she works with authors and author/illustrators based all over the world who write for every age of children – from picture books to young adult, fiction and non-fiction.

Gemma has a soft spot for all types of middle grade fiction, young adult romance, funny chapter books and animal protagonists. She also loves a good punny title and book with a big hook that can be summed up in one line.

Her monthly wishlist appears on the agency blog, Bent On Books and she loves working with SCBWI members.

Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived.

She has been making up stories all her life. When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (by Agatha Christie, William Collins, Sons, 1926) and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up.

She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She went to university, where she studied crime fiction, and then worked in children’s publishing.

She is now a full-time writer, and her books, the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, are best-selling

and award-winning. Robin lives in London with her husband and her pet bearded dragon, Watson. She’s @redbreastedbird on Twitter and Instagram and Robin Stevens on Facebook.

Gemma, you represent Robin. Can you describe the start of your relationship? What was it about Robin’s work that drew you in?

It’s always funny when I look back to the start of agent/author relationships to see how formal and business-like they are.

Of course they do continue to be professional relationships, but over time they evolve to dropping the ‘Dear Robin’ at the start of emails, to signing off with an ‘x’ – you become more informal in the way you communicate as you become more familiar with each other.

I always try to meet or video call new clients before I offer representation as I think you get a lot more out of a face-to-face chat.

So our relationship started with that first meeting – me telling Robin how much I loved her book, and then telling her all my editorial thoughts! I offered rep on the basis that she would be happy to make those changes, and asked her to take a day or so to think it over, me nervously hoping that I hadn’t said anything to make her turn me down!

I didn’t thankfully, so the next stage was me sending over my first editorial letter and a marked up manuscript. We would then have agreed a timeline for Robin sending it back to me, and probably arranged a few phone calls to discuss any questions she had during the edits.

Robin’s book was one of the first things I signed when moving to the Bent Agency, and as a massive murder mystery fan, it was exactly the book I was looking for. I remember being sucked into the voice from page one – Hazel saying she is much too short to be the heroine.

I got to page 10 and forwarded it to my colleague Molly Ker Hawn saying ‘This book is amazing, right?’

I just knew it was special and that I loved it – that terrible unhelpful agent saying of “you just know when you know.” So the voice pulled me in, and mystery kept me turning the pages.


Robin, what prompted you to query Gemma?


Robin wins the Waterstone Prize

I queried Gemma for one huge reason: she was looking for the book I’d written!

She’d made a list on the Bent Agency website of all of the projects that she’d most love to see in her inbox, and one of them was basically ‘Poirot for 8-12 year olds, a historical mystery story’.

I’d already sent Murder Most Unladylike (Corgi, Random House, 2014) to several agents, but I’d never seen anyone who so clearly was interested in the kind of book I was working on.

I knew Gemma was the agent for me – and I hoped that she’d feel the same way.

When she asked to meet with me, I was just as nervous as she was. But I saw that she got my book, and had amazing ideas of what to do with it. And she was clearly a smart, driven businesswoman, too.

I was confident she’d do right by me, and I knew she was someone who I’d be happy working with. And I’ve been proven totally correct!

At the Europolitan Conference in Brussels you will both participate in a panel on “Working Together: Relationships.” What does working together as an author and agent entail?

Gemma: Nearly every part of the publishing process has the agent and author in discussion first before coming to a consensus on a response to external parties. We discuss edits, covers, publicity, marketing, events, next book deals, new ideas, foreign offers, etc.

Working together really means just that – I’m involved in everything Robin is involved in. Even if I’m just cc’ed into an email, I still know what is going on. We tend to talk once a week, and email every few days, depending on what is going on.

Robin: I work very closely with Gemma on all aspects of my books. We don’t just talk about edits, we discuss covers, marketing and publicity directions, foreign offers – she’s my sense-check and my sounding-board, and helps me feel like I’m not in this on my own.

Authoring can be a strange and confusing business, so it’s wonderful to have an agent to turn to!

Has anything surprised you in this relationship?

Gemma: I introduced Robin to her husband!

Gemma Cooper & her clients, Ruth Fitzgerald, Mo O’Hara
Harriet Reuter Hapgood and Robin Stevens 

Something that I’m not surprised at, but that I’m very grateful for, is how Robin and my other clients are all now friends.

They cheer each other on and cheer each other up when things aren’t going well. Seeing them all congratulating each other on a book deal or prize on social media really makes me smile.

This team/collegial approach is something I’d dreamed of fostering, but in the competitive nature of publishing, I’d worried it couldn’t work. To have it work so well is a constant pleasure to watch.

Robin: It’s true! Through Gemma I’ve met friends, colleagues and, as she says, even my husband (thanks, Gemma! I owe you). Being part of Team Cooper is a lifestyle, not just a book deal, and I’m so proud of the way we all support each other.

How has it developed or changed since you first started working together?

Gemma: As mentioned above, we have a very easy style of communication now. The whole relationship is comfortable and familiar!

That means when harder conversations need to happen, there is no awkwardness or treading on eggshells. We are honest with each other and have become friends over the last four years.

Of course, there is a fine line keeping professional boundaries, but I feel we navigate that well.

Robin: Absolutely. We’re able to be honest with each other, which is really helpful. We know each other very well.

A good agent should be for life, not just for Christmas, and this is why – your relationship will improve with every project you work on together. But you do always have to remember that you’re professional friends: an agent is a colleague, not a member of your family, no matter how much you chat on WhatsApp!

Gemma, I’ve read in another interview that you like taking a hands-on, editorial approach with your authors. What are some of the challenges with that? Do you ever disagree on editorial matters, and if so, how do you resolve them? Robin, your thoughts?


Gemma: Yes, I’m a very editorial agent. It’s a hard market, so my aim is always to get a book in the best shape I can before sending it to publishers.

Gemma at Bologna Children’s Book Fair
with foreign editions of Robin’s books

I tell potential new clients my editorial thoughts before offering rep, so if there is something they are
not keen on they can walk away or find another agent who is a better fit for their vision.

I have to go into meetings with the confidence that this is the best book ever, so I have to believe that. The challenge sometimes is time – a good editorial letter takes a big chunk of a week to craft, and then the author has to take time to edit. So when you take someone on, you might not be submitting their project for 3-6 months, sometimes even longer.

If I do disagree with a client on editorial matters, ultimately it’s still their name on the book, so I will defer to them.

It’s a subjective business, and I’m not always right! If it were a bigger issue and I didn’t feel I could confidently sub the book, we might talk about the future of our relationship. The editorial process, like so many other parts of the journey, is all about communication.

Robin: I’ve always been reassured by Gemma’s directness.

If she doesn’t like a project idea, or a plot line, or a character, she will say. So you really do know when she’s behind your work! She gives me feedback on my first drafts, and gets very hands-on with shaping the plot. However, she never insists on a particular change being made. She can suggest strongly, but at the end of the day we both know that it is my book.

I can’t recall any time when I’ve really ignored her comments, though! She has a great eye for what works, and why.

Robin, you will be leading the keynote on “Better Together,” on how your writing has improved with every new connection you’ve made. How has your partnership with Gemma improved your writing? Gemma, your thoughts?

Gemma and Natalie Doherty (Robin’s editor)
visiting MMU in the shops on publication week

Robin: Gemma has been my introduction to the world of publishing.

Without her I’d never have found my editor, my publishers and my readers – it’s just impossible to over-estimate how much a good agent can change your life. But in terms of Gemma herself … she was the first person who forced me to think about my writing as being for a specific audience.

Murder Most Unladylike was 80,000 words when she first saw it, just because no one had ever told me that I needed to make sure that I was telling an exciting story as well as creating nice scenes.

She helped me cut the slack and remind me that I’m writing to entertain. She loves my characters as much as I do, and so she wants the best for them (and me).

She’s an invaluable voice, critical in the best way – I know that she won’t ever flatter me for the sake of it, and so I trust her judgment implicitly!

Gemma: Robin is so great at taking feedback, thinking it over, and then responding to it thoughtfully.

So often the gut reaction can be to go on the defense when receiving critical feedback. But Robin learnt early on that my feedback is given in the spirit of wanting to make the book stronger. Because of how she responds, I never have to worry about how I phrase things – I know I can be honest and she understands and doesn’t take it personally. It makes it a quicker process for me.

Her first drafts now are a world away from that 80,000-word version of Murder Most Unladylike. She’s learned so much, and improved with every book.

Getting to read her first drafts so early when I know her fans are chomping at the bit is one of the best benefits of my job!

Robin Stevens visiting Trafalgar Primary School

What other partnerships are essential to the aspiring author? And how best can those meaningful connections be made? (Conferences? Social media? Critique partners?)


Robin: I think it’s crucial to be part of the publishing world, but never to be totally lost in it.

Conferences, launch parties and social media can all help you find the support network that every author needs. Make sure you have trusted critique partners, mentors (authors who are further along than you in their publishing careers) and peers (authors who you can share stories of woe or triumph).

Celebrating the American publication of Robin’s first book with
Gemma’s clients Harriet Reuter HapgoodSibeal PounderBeth Garrod & Robin

Remember that no one will ever have exactly the same publishing trajectory as you, and so comparing yourself closely to anyone else will end in despair, but it’s vital to keep talking to people who share your strange career!

If you are under contract with a publishing house, try to keep speaking to them and communicating questions and ideas.

My attitude is that my publishers are my colleagues – by working together closely we can produce the best results. There’s nothing to be gained by not talking through issues!

And finally, stay connected to your family and your non-publishing friends. Sometimes you need a break and a perspective check, and they’re the only people who can provide that.

Gemma: I agree with all of this. It’s important that you make connections in the publishing world, but you still need your own life outside of it.

I love groups like SCBWI for new and published authors alike, especially their conferences. You can also reach out to other clients of your agent’s, or other authors at your publishers – if you are nice and collegial in your support of others, they will support you.

Critique partners are a godsend, even once you are published. Everyone should have at least one crit partner!

Cynsational Notes

At the age of 12 Melanie Rook Welfing’s life ambition was to be part-time author, part-time roller skater. The skating dreams died, along with the 80s hair, but the author dream lives on.

Melanie writes primarily for middle graders and has had stories published in Highlights and other magazines.

Originally from Canada, Melanie now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two daughters. She is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI in the Netherlands.

Author Interview: N. Griffin on Creativity, Mysteries and Writing a Series

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

N. Griffin is the author of Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of the Missing Goop, illustrated by Kate Hindley (Candlewick, 2016). The cheerful middle grade mystery is the second in a series featuring a diverse pair of clever student detectives.

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

My favorite thing about being an author is that I get to spend great hanks of time in my pajamas.
I have discussed this before elsewhere, but I do think it’s worth mentioning again that I always wear complete suits that make me feel like I am Lucy Ricardo.

I think pajamas are one of the great gifts of civilization and rue the day the hostess pajama fell out of fashion.

The other part about being an author I love is that I get to think up people and then spend great hanks of time with them (in my pajamas).

I always feel so much love toward my characters, even the ones that are tough to like, and that makes me feel lucky.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you? 

Good coffee cup because it is huge and fits
a lot of coffee and has a pig on it. I love pigs.

Generally I write in the early early (and I mean early, like four) hours of the morning because that is when my body insists on waking up and subsequently that is when there is coffee a’brewing.

I always wake up ready and clearheaded and in a good mood, so that’s the best time for me to be productive.

On a good day, and I mean a really good one, when the writing is going well and the good coffee cup is clean and ready to use and I feel a song in my heart, I’ll write all day.

On a bad day, I will poke at the keyboard with one finger in a maddish, desultory way and give up after an hour.

I firmly believe you have to give it an hour.
I have a wonderful study to write in but usually wind up crouched on the floor on the living room with dogs walking all over my papers and keyboard.

Somehow that spot tricks me into writing better than the quiet of the study.  Though I love my study.

Could you tell us about your new release? 

I surely can! It’s called Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of the Missing Goop and it came out in December with Candlewick Press.

SMcPatMotMG is the sequel to Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11 (Candlewick, 2015). A tale of third-grade sleuthery in which the hectic, kind-hearted Smashie and her level-headed, intelligent best friend, Dontel, work together to solve the mystery of their missing class pet.

In this sequel (you don’t have to have read the first one to enjoy the second), Smashie and Dontel are in hot pursuit of a thief who is taking their special hair goop—goop that is integral to the Third Grade Hair Extravaganza and Musicale their class is putting on.

This Goop lengthens and molds the hair into the wild styles they need for the show and even as they investigate the disappearance of the goop, Smashie and Dontel are hard at work choreographing sixties go-go dances to go along with the numbers in the musicale. So they have a lot on their plates.

I got the idea for the book from lots of places.

I always knew I wanted to do a book with hairstyles in it because haircutting has usurped flower-selling as my fantasy occupation when writing is not going well for me.

And it was also partly inspired by a hair guy I used to go to who was just terrible. I came home after every cut looking like he’d chewed my hair off in chunks with his own teeth. But he told great stories while he hacked at my head so I kept going. For years.

And it turned out to be worth it because I gave those bad haircutting skills to the mother of Charlene. Charlene herself is one of the characters at the forefront of the story because she helped her mother invent the wondrous goop the class needs for the show.

Also I wanted to do a book that would involve code-cracking (there is code-cracking in the book, too. It is a very packed book) and thought it would be hilarious to pair that thinkiness with sixties go-go dancing.

What appeals to you about the mystery genre? 

I love writing mysteries because the structure of them is so clear and that helps me as a writer because plotting is such a big challenge for me. Also I love mysteries and clues and sleuthing and truths being unveiled at the end. It is a very satisfying genre. I like to think I am preparing the next generation for Nero Wolfe (the oldest ones in that series. Not the later ones where Archie becomes sort of womanizy).

You’ve written for both YA and MG – were there any challenges in shifting to write for younger readers? 

Nicole is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Not at all!

 I had so much fun writing Smashie and found it worlds easier than writing YA, probably because the Smashie books, while they have their sticky situations, are in the main very cheerful and my YA tends to be less so.

Smashie is a bit less taxing on the soul.

What are the craft challenges of writing series books? What are the craft benefits of writing series books? 

Craft challenges abound. In mysteries, anyway, once you’ve set your sleuths up to be in a particular third grade class, suspects become limited unless you take that class places where there are other people (that was a hint about the forthcoming third Smashie book!)

But the benefits far outweigh any plot finagling that needs to happen because I love Room 11 and spending time with those children and their wonderful teacher, Ms. Early. So I can get right into the writing and I know how everyone will react to things and that part is the easy part of writing, which is good that there is an easy part since everything else about writing is so challenging for me!


Can we look forward to more books in the Smashie series?

Yes, indeed! As I said above, there is a third one coming and, while I tend to keep pretty mum about upcoming projects, I will say there is a rocket in it.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus said Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of the Missing Goop “subtly attacks stereotypes with her (Griffin’s) multi-ethnic group of hugely likable kids. Dontel’s dad is a dentist, and a Latina student’s mom is a patent attorney – a fact that also figures into the plot.”

N. Griffin is the author of The Whole Stupid Way We Are (Atheneum, 2013), for which she was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Flying Start Authors of 2013, as well as the Smashie McPerter series from Candlewick.

She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives outside of Boston with a crew of canine companions.

Author Interview: P.J. Hoover on Creating Promotional Tie-In Extras For Your Book

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I first read P.J. Hoover‘s Cynsations post that mentioned video games related to Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life (Starscape, 2014), I thought, “She’s an electrical engineer. That’s not something someone like me could actually do.”

Still, it’s  a very intriguing idea.

We hear all the time about kids playing video games instead of reading books. What if the video games could actually make them want to read?

When I heard there would be a sequel to Tut, I decided it was time to learn more about the intersection of books and gaming to share with Cynsations readers.

Tell us about the extras you created to go along with Tut. 

Thanks so much for having me here! I’m thrilled to talk about the extras to Tut! I’ll split them into traditional and non-traditional.

For traditional extras, it started when my editor asked for a “bonus chapter” to put at the end of the actual printed book.

I didn’t love the idea of a bonus chapter because I didn’t see it as a big selling point for middle grade. So instead, I sat down at my computer, put together some extras, and sent them off to her. These included:

• A glossary
• A note to readers about King Tut
King Tut’s Guide to immortality
A Tomb-Builders Guide

The short story is that she loved them! She loved them so much, that for the sequel, she asked for more. So I sat down at my computer again and came up with:

King Tut’s Most Excellent Guide to all Things Shabti
Caring for your Sumerian Monster
Henry’s Phrontistery

(Note that these make a bunch of sense once you’ve read the book.) Again, she loved the extras!

But these still all fell in the range of traditional extras, and being the tech-savvy person that I am, I decided to come up with some more not-quite-as-traditional extras.

The first of these was a game I developed in Scratch (a website developed by MIT that teaches kids to program by having them design games).

Scratch is widely used in schools which is where I first learned about it. Over the course of the next few months, I coded Escape From King Tut’s Tomb, a 10-level video game to go along with the book. It’s actually really hard to get through all 10 levels, so on my website, I included “cheats” to go along with the game.

After the Scratch game, I latched onto the Minecraft craze.

One of P.J.’s Minecraft
Tomb Builders

Minecraft popularity has died down a bit in the last couple years, but at the time of the release of Tut: The Story of my Immortal Life, it was the hottest thing.

So I hired some Minecraft developers (in the form of my kids and their friends), rented server space, and we created the Minecraft Tut world.

I was so excited at this point, and so into creating extras to go along with Tut (since they were so much fun), that I sat down and wrote out a Choose Your Own Adventure inspired game to go along with my book.

It’s called Pick Your Own Quest, and in it, you play the role of King Tut. The choices you make determine if you save Egypt from an awful threat, or if you make the wrong choice, you die some horribly grizzly death instead.

I think there are about forty-two different ways to die.

When it was time for book 2, I knew I wanted to write another Scratch game.

Here’s the thing. King Tut himself was a gamer.

Yes, it’s true! In his tomb they found many copies of a very popular ancient Egyptian board game called Senet.

This game is featured in the sequel, Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World (Starscape, 2017). So I coded up Senet in Scratch to go along with book two. Kids can play against a friend or against King Tut himself.

Warning: King Tut is very hard to beat. He also taunts you the entire time you play. For those who don’t know how to play Senet, there is an easy mode and a hard mode. There are also downloadable instructions on my website and information in the back of the published book.

What has the response been from teachers and students?
Both teachers and students love these extras!

I have gotten such great response, from seeing librarians at conferences eyes light up when they hear me mention Scratch, to kids cheering when they find out about the video games.

They love that I’ve taken the world of reading and crossed it over in these unique ways to combine technology.

Kids adore playing video games, and when they hear about how they’re related to a book, it’s like they feel like they’ve been given permission to play. Also it gets them very excited to read the books. I’ll see hundreds and hundreds of hits on my website for the extras, and it just makes smile.

Have the extras led to more school visits?
One hundred percent yes!

In addition to my standard author presentation, I also offer a breakout “Coding Chat” where I’ll talk to kids in technology classes or coding clubs about ways I use technology in my job as an author. I’ll also focus on Scratch and help them get started. I have some “starter” projects that kids can take and easily modify. 

So many schools these days have coding clubs, and the program they almost all start out using is Scratch. So I offer them not only the ability to talk about books and writing, but the vision in seeing how they can take their love of a book and express it creatively.
In addition, and it’s so hard to believe this is still the case, we are still seeing a huge drop in females in technical classes and careers. Lots of schools love that I provide the role model of a strong technical female to their students. I’ve been invited to specifically visit girls-only schools for this reason.
I have information about in-person and Skype author visits on my website.
Have the extras help boost sales? Have you heard from readers who discovered the book because they found one of the games first?
Though it’s hard to determine this exactly, I believe the extras have helped the Tut books gain visibility and stand out in the market when otherwise they might not have.

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life was chosen for both the Texas Lone Star List and the Spirit of Texas Middle School list.

In addition, I’ve also seem my game being used as an example in computer science classes around the country, both at the high school and college levels. 

Scratch also provides a way for me to connect with kids directly.

It’s like its own social networking site. Kids can comment on my games, like them, favorite them. I can chat back with them about the games. Overall, it’s a win.

Which of the games you created is the most popular?
P.J.’s original Artificial Intelligence project

Of the Scratch games, Escape From King Tut’s Tomb is by far the most popular. It’s the main one connected to the book, and the first one kids will find on my Scratch page and my website. 

Of the non-Scratch extras, the Pick Your Own Quest adventure is hugely popular. Kids will go through the paths, trying to find a safe way to save Egypt over and over again. They probably go through seeing how many ways they can die also.
My personal favorite is a game I coded in Scratch.

Back when I was in college, I took a class called Artificial Intelligence, and in the class, we had a project assigned. I wrote a game called Castle Of Doom.

I loved the game! Of course that was back in 1991 and the game was on a (most likely defunct) floppy disk for DOS.

I recoded the game in Scratch, and now I can play whenever I want!

P.J.’s game, recoded in Scratch

Tell me about the timeline of creating the extras. Did you do it all at once? Or is it something you are continually growing?

I tend to do my extras in batches, before the release of the books. That way, when possible, I can get information on the extras into the printed books themselves.

For example, the Pick Your Own Quest game is featured in the print books with a QR that links directly to the website page for it. 

The Scratch games take a while to write. I’ll try to spread this out over the course of a couple months, taking my time, so I don’t rush through anything and make mistakes (through I’m sure there are still some bugs in there somewhere!). It’s nice when I do Scratch, because I can hang out with my kids at the kitchen table with my laptop, and it encourages them to create games of their own at the same time. 
If an author wants to make a game, what are the basic steps for getting started? (is one platform more user friendly? have better graphics or sound effects?)

There are two different ways to approach this. 
PJ Hoover with Cynthia Leitich Smith at Texas Book Festival

If an author just wants a kick-butt video game to go along with their book, there is no reason to use Scratch.

In fact, there may be many reasons to not use it. The graphics are not the best (they don’t scale up great). It can be slow loading. It does not have all the functionality a skilled programmer would want.

If the goal is to just have a game that kids can play, any platform can be used.

My reasons for having a game were a bit different.

In addition to giving kids a game to play, I really wanted to tie into the technology curriculum at schools and allow educators to combine the use of my games and my books.

I was really trying to hook those kids who loved math and science but didn’t love reading and writing quite as much. For this reason, I went with Scratch. Almost every single educator out there has heard of it. Many schools have required Technology classes or lessons. Scratch is the number one go-to when teaching kids to code. 

As for getting started, having a programming background helps. But anything is possible if there is a vision and the motivation to make that vision become a reality. 
Are there costs associated with creating the extra content?
My cost was only my time. But it was fun time, time well spent, and I loved every minute of it! Also, now I have some really fun games that even I love to play.
Tell us about Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World.
I’m so excited for this book! It feels like it’s been forever since book 1, Tut: The Story Of My Immortal Life, came out. And it has been two-and-a-half years! The story picks up a few months after the end of the first book. And because they did such a great job of summarizing it, I’ll go with my publishers blurb:
Meet Tut! He used to rule Egypt. Now he’s stuck in middle school.

Having defeated his evil uncle and the Cult of Set, who tried to send him to the afterlife, the perpetually fourteen-year-old King Tut is looking forward to a relaxing summer vacation. But then Tut discovers that his brother Gilgamesh has been captured by the Egyptian god Apep, Lord of Chaos. Gil helped to vanquish Apep thousands of years ago, and now Apep is back for vengeance.

It’s up to Tut and his friends, Tia and Henry, to find Gil and stop Apep before he succeeds in his scheme to swallow the sun and plunge the world into darkness forever….

Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World will appeal to fans of fast and funny mythological fantasy. Don’t miss Tut’s first epic adventure, Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life.
Thank you so much for having me here! It is such an honor!

Cynsational Notes

P.J. with Nefertorti. Her other
tortoise is named King Tort.

P.J. Hoover wanted to be a Jedi, but when that didn’t work out, she became an electrical engineer instead. After 15 years of designing computer chips, she decided to start creating worlds of her own.

Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World, her sixth book, releases today.

When not writing, P.J. spends time with her husband and two kids and enjoys practicing kung fu, solving Rubik’s cubes, watching “Star Trek” and playing too many video games.

She is also the assistant regional adviser for Austin SCBWI