Guest Post: Barbara Dee on Keeping it Middle Grade: Handling Tough Topics in Fiction

Learn more about Barbara Dee.

By Barbara Dee
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

About a year ago, on a NerdCamp panel called “Tough Topics in Middle Grade Fiction,” we were talking about how middle grade was evolving, growing up, tackling subjects that used to be considered taboo—for example, sexuality, terrorism, refugeeism, and drug use.

I asked the educators in the room which underrepresented topics they’d like to see on their bookshelves.

A middle school principal raised her hand. “Things we used to see only in high school,” she said.

She went on to explain that lately she’d been struck by the frequency of mental health issues among her students—depression, anxiety, self-destructive behaviors like cutting—that previously she’d associated with teens.

“We need more middle grade books on these subjects, so we can start the conversation with younger kids,” she urged.

Her remarks were disturbing, but not surprising to me. At the time I was finishing my first draft of Everything I Know About You (Aladdin, 2018), a middle grade novel about a seventh grader with an eating disorder.

As someone who had survived anorexia and bulimia in my college years, I’d always assumed that disordered eating was a strictly YA sort of topic, best explored in a book like Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, 2010).

But when I came across several articles about the recent rise of eating disorders among middle school students, I sought out a social worker who specialized in treating these patients.

Oh yes, she said. Her patients were definitely getting younger. Fewer high school and college kids, more kids in the middle grades.

And they—and their friends—needed middle grade fiction. Books that reflected their struggles. Books that offered hope.

Given my own experience, I knew I’d hit on the right topic for my next novel. I understood the challenge: to treat a serious, emotionally complex, potentially scary subject in a way that was appropriate for nine-to-thirteen-year-old readers.

My previous middle grade novel, Halfway Normal (Aladdin, 2017), was about a cancer survivor’s return to seventh grade, and the way she used Greek mythology to help her connect with classmates and teachers.

Before that I’d written Star-Crossed (Aladdin, 2017), about an eighth grader’s coming to terms with her own bisexuality via the middle school production of “Romeo & Juliet.”

I’d had some experience exploring sensitive topics in a way middle graders would find accessible and appealing.

And for Everything I Know About You, I knew my approach:

First: Don’t be depressing. Middle schoolers may crave tougher topics these days, but they still want to be entertained. Since the subject matter of anorexia is inherently upsetting, I decided to come at it from an angle—with a narrator who wasn’t the character struggling with the disorder, but another girl who was both healthy and funny.

Tally is a math nerd who dresses outrageously and tells fart jokes about Pythagoras; at once altruistic and self-involved, she takes a while to understand the full extent of her roommate Ava’s problem.

This is a technique I’ve noticed in several recent middle grade novels which tackle tough topics: Write from the point of view of a an entertaining, often funny, narrator, who may or may not have full information.

Some notable examples: See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng (Dial, 2017); Alan Cole is Not a Coward by Eric Bell (Katherine Tegan/HarperCollins, 2017); Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (Sterling, 2017); The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegan/HarperCollins, 2018).

Or write from the point of view of a character who is strong and resourceful, like the protagonist of Amal Unbound (Nancy Paulsen, 2018), who finds herself forced into indentured servitude. 

Author Aisha Saeed explains how she kept her narrative buoyant, despite Amal’s troubles:

“Amal is deeply upset about her circumstances, but it’s also true that people are stronger than they can give themselves credit for. I know in my own life there have been difficulties I’ve gone through that, were I to look at them from afar, I would have thought I could not have made it through the other side, and yet when thrust into those difficulties I found I was stronger than I realized. 

“The only way through dark times is to keep on persevering, to find and hold on to light wherever we can find any, and to keep on going.”

Second: Weave the “tough topic” into a bigger picture. I set Everything I Know About You on a four-day field trip to Washington, D.C., where the kids stay at a quirky, slightly surreal hotel. To foster class unity, the teachers assign roommates, creating conflicts among several kids, especially the main character, Tally, and her roommate, Ava.

In this way, the “tough topic”—anorexia—is just one part of a larger story about friendship, self-acceptance, family, and a crazy field trip.

Some middle grades which create a whole complex ecosystem around characters facing various challenges: Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callendar (Scholastic, 2018); See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng; Paper Chains by Elaine Braithwaite Vickers (HarperChildren’s, 2017); The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore  (Knopf, 2017).

Third: Give the characters an identity separate from the “tough topic.” Sometimes YA novels seem to hyperfocus on the main character’s struggles, which leads them to existential despair.

Middle graders often need a break from the darker stuff. It helps them as readers to create characters who have other frames of reference, other things going on in their lives—for example, friendships and hobbies.

In Everything, when Tally isn’t wondering about her roommate’s troubling behavior, she’s thinking about math, her collection of weird fashion accessories, her friends, her dad’s bakery, her own adoption, her dog…oh, and dying her hair Sour Apple Green.

As author Tae Keller (The Science of Unbreakable Things (Random House, 2018)) puts it:

“There’s an idea that when scary, difficult things happen to us or people we love, that scary thing becomes our entire life. And sometimes that’s true. But a lot of times, the difficult parts of life are just that—one part. 

“Natalie is in seventh grade. She goes to school and does her homework and deals with friendships and crushes and all the things middle schoolers deal with. I don’t think she’s so much obsessing over a distraction as she is trying to understand how all the pieces of her life fit together. ”

Other middle grades featuring characters who use strong—sometimes obsessive—interests to help them cope: Lights, Camera, Disaster by Erin Dionne (Arthur A. Levine, 2018)(movie-making); The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (Legos); See You in the Cosmos (rocketry and space); The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla (HarperChildren’s, 2017)(ornithology); Stanley Will Probably Be Fine by Sally J. Pla, illustrated by Steve Wolfhard (comics)(HarperChildren’s, 2018); Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (reading); Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart (Delacorte, 2016)(saving the tree); Saturdays with Hitchcock by Ellen Wittlinger (Charlesbridge, 2017)(classic movies).

Fourth: Include benevolent (but imperfect) adults. In some YA novels, it seems as if all adults are absent, alien, untrustworthy or even malevolent.

Middle grade readers reading about “tough topics” need some reassurance, some sense that an adult (or two) is capable of offering guidance and support. But they’re unwilling to believe that a perfect fairy godmother/teacher/parent is going to swoop in and solve all their problems.

In Everything, Tally is deeply bonded with her parents, and comes to see that certain adults she’d previously judged (her history teacher, Ava’s mom) are more complex than she’d realized.

Some middle grade novels with flawed but well-intentioned adults : Amal Unbound (Nasreen, both parents); Hurricane Child (the parents); See You in the Cosmos (various adults).

Learn more about Aisha Saeed.

Aisha Saeed says:

“Humans are very complex beings and as an author I find it deeply rewarding to explore why people behave the way they do. While it doesn’t excuse the behavior that is problematic, awful and/or unjust, understanding why people behave the way they do can be very informative. 

“That is why when I wrote Nasreen and Amal’s parents, I wanted to write about their actions honestly but I also wanted to make sure they were more than just their flaws, as all of us humans are.”

Fifth: Be true. I know I could not have written Everything, Halfway Normal or Star-Crossed if I didn’t have some strong connection to these topics. But I don’t believe fiction is autobiography. And even as I’ve plumbed my own experience to write those books, I’ve looked outside myself, researching, reading up on the subjects and interviewing kids and experts.

While I don’t believe you need to have lived a subject to write about it, I think it’s essential to locate the truth in your topic, and find the corresponding truth within yourself.

Of course, the challenge for the author is not to overdetermine the “truth,” or rely too heavily on her own experience. Describing her process in writing Mason Buttle, Leslie Connor says:

“I kept asking myself, is this really true for Mason? Is the writer standing out of the way?”

Some middle grades which I find notable for emotional resonance and veracity: The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017); Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017); Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm (Scholastic, 2015); One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock (Scholastic, 2018); Hundred Percent by Karen Romano Young (Chronicle, 2016); Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017); Ruby on the Outside (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and Nine, Ten (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Nora Raleigh Baskin; The Night Diary (Penguin Random House, 2018) by Veera Hiranandani; The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor.

Sixth: Offer hope. Middle grade readers want to walk away from a “tough topic” feeling reassured.

I ended Everything with Ava getting help for her disorder, telling Tally she’s almost ready to return to school.

When I finished Mason Buttle, Amal Unbound, Ruby on the Outside and Hurricane Child, I cried tears of relief for the title characters. They were okay. They’d be okay. Despite their struggles, they had things in their lives to look forward to.

As Leslie Connor says about writing Mason Buttle:

“Often, a compelling character is one that has some sort of sadness to their story; it’s part of what they’re up against. 

“I’ll write about the sadness, sure. But I don’t want to write a bleak book either. I think of hope as the reward that the reader, writer, and character share at a story’s end. Something good has to be on the horizon.”

Seven: But don’t sugar-coat. Middle grade readers have fake-detectors tuned to eleven. If you write a sappy ending, they’ll roll their eyes in disgust.

At the end of Everything, I was careful not to promise a friendship between Tally and Ava—just as I didn’t promise a happily-ever-after ending for Star-Crossed. Maybe things will work out for the characters, and maybe they won’t.

The world is tricky and full of surprises.
That’s a life lesson for middle grade readers—and maybe another “tough topic” right there.

Cynsational Notes

Barbara Dee is the author of nine middle grade novels, all published by Aladdin/S&S.

Everything I Know About You has been called “poignant and often hilarious” by Kirkus Reviews, “a strong addition to library collections” by School Library Journal, “honest and engaging,” by PW, and is a Junior Library Guild selection.

Barbara’s two 2017 releases have received much attention.

Halfway Normal earned starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and SLJ, is a 2018 ILA Young Adult Choice Reading List pick, a 2018 CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, a 2018-19 Pennsylvania Keystone list pick, a Dorothy Canfield Fisher Vermont State list pick, an ALA Booklist pick (“Surviving Middle School”), and a Junior Library Guild selection.

Star-Crossed is a 2018 CCBC Choice, a 2018 ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, a 2018 CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, a 2018 Goodreads Choice finalist, and listed on several Best of 2017 lists, including those by the Chicago Public Library, King County (Washington State) Library and Cleveland Heights (Ohio) Library.

Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives in Westchester County, New York.

Interview: Author Christine Marciniak & Editor Madeline Smoot on Once Upon a Princess

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The popularity of the recent royal wedding illustrates society’s continued fascination with monarchies. 

A new middle grade novel, Once Upon A Princess by Christine Marciniak (CBAY, 2018) offers a twist on familiar tropes. From the promotional copy:

After a coup in her country, Her Royal Highness, Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Morh (or Fritzi to her friends), wakes up one day no longer a princess. 

Stuck hiding in a suburban American middle school dealing with mean girls, cafeteria lunches, and teachers who don’t understand (or know about) her unique situation, Fritzi just wants to go home to her kingdom and be a princess again. 

She turns to social media for help, but will her efforts work or make everything worse? With opposition forces trying to force her father’s abdication from the throne, Fritzi discovers that being a true princess doesn’t come from a title.

I recently talked with Christine about the book’s path to publication and her CBAY Books editor, Madeline Smoot about her current manuscript wish list.

There are lots of Cinderella stories about average girls becoming princesses, but you decided to flip that trope. Can you tell me what inspired that idea?

Every little girl wants to grow up to be a princess (or a warrior, I suppose). The Cinderella tropes you mention are proof of that. It’s the classic fantasy. One day I will wake up and be something completely different, something much more fascinating.

Like you said, I took that and turned it on it’s head. What if a Princess wakes up and finds out that she’s just an ordinary middle schooler? What would that look like? How would that even happen?

The inspiration for the idea came from Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries (HarperCollins, 2000), and wondering, “what if.”

What if this story were flipped? Almost immediately I came up with the title and the name for my Princess, the rest took a while to get right. 

How did you approach developing the character of Her Royal Highness Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Mohr? (Since I’m assuming you’re not a princess….) 

I’m not a princess. I’ve complained to my father about that, but he says there’s not much he can do, since no one is likely to make him a king.

For Her Royal Highness Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Mohr (Fritzi for short), I tried to think what would make her different from the average middle school student and the thing that came to me was that as a princess she would have no shortage of confidence.

Middle school kids are at that awkward stage of growing up where they aren’t little children anymore, but they are not old enough to have real responsibility or freedom, and everything is changing and more often than not they are not sure of themselves or their place in the world.

Fritzi, on the other hand, is very sure of that. She’s a princess. She is special. This has been ingrained in her since she was small.

This confidence doesn’t go away when she goes into hiding and it colors her interactions with everyone from the school secretary to the “mean girl.”

What was your path to publication like for this book? 

Rollercoaster would probably be a good way to describe it.

I’d actually started the book about ten years ago, but only wrote a dozen or so pages before putting it aside for other projects. Several years later, I picked it up and finished it, sent it to beta readers, revised and polished and queried agents.

And then something happened that had never happened with any of my previous books: an agent signed me. This was heady stuff, and I had visions of bestseller lists and movie deals.

Alas, this was not to be the immediate path.
Although there was interest from various publishers, no one that my agent sent it to ended up buying it. As a result, after a year my agent and I parted ways (okay, he dumped me; there I said it).

Christine’s summer office

But I was not ready to give up on this book. I took all the rejection letters from the various editors and compiled them, and searched for common ground.

At that time, part of the story had Fritzi traveling back to Europe on her own to try to save the kingdom. It turned out that this part of the story was a stumbling block for quite a few people. So I took it out and revised and decided to try my own luck at submitting the book to publishers.

I chose Madeline Smoot of CBAY Books because I’d had other interactions with her and I had read and enjoyed some of the books she’d published.

Much to my delight, Madeline accepted the book and with a few more minor revisions it was ready to go.
It’s been a long road, but the destination has definitely been worth the journey.

Madeline, what drew you to this story?

I was drawn to the strong voice Christine gave Fritzi in this book. She stood out not just because of her confidence, but also from her resilience. Her world is falling apart, and she does complain about it, but she also tries to proactively take concrete steps to fix things.

I also loved the idea of turning the rags-to-riches trope on its head. There are various stories where the regular person discovers they are an aristocrat or royalty, but very few tales that go the other way. I love books that upend our expectations like this one does.

What Christine does when she’s not writing

Christine, what advice do you have for beginning writers?

Don’t be afraid to revise.

So often I see revisions that amount to not much more than changing the wording here and there or adding a few more descriptive passages. I’ve taken huge chunks out of stories and replaced them with something different. In another of my books, I re-wrote the first chapter so many times I could probably publish the outtakes as a full-length novel.

Figure out early what the core of your story is.

In the case of Once Upon A Princess, it was that a princess discovers she’s not a princess any more, and she wants to save her kingdom and become a princess again. No matter what revisions the story went through, that basic concept remained the same.

I had really liked the section of the story where Fritzi ran away to Europe and encountered adventures on her own. I did research into the airports and the youth hostels and all sorts of things. I figured out the train schedules and how you get from Charles de Gaulle airport to the train station.

Basically, it was a lot of research and a lot of words – nearly a third of the story – and I could have stuck to my guns and kept that part in, despite the overwhelming response that it was pulling the rest of the story down.

Instead, I deleted it and ultimately made the story much better. I had to realize that the important aspect of the story wasn’t Fritzi running around Europe, but Fritzi trying to save her kingdom… and in this day and age, she could do that with social media.

The key is to not give up, to keep writing, and revise, revise, revise.

Editor Madeline Smoot

Madeline, I noticed CBAY Books has a query window opening up. What would you most love to see in your inbox?

My manuscript wish list includes:

  • Tween-voiced fantasy or science fiction with a strong first person voice. 
  • Adventures or mysteries in a fantasy or science fiction setting or with fantastic elements.
  • Genre mashups (as long as fantasy or science fiction is at least one of the genres).

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said of Once Upon a Princess, “children who have faced changes in their circumstances will welcome the message.”

Christine Marciniak was born in Philadelphia, but has spent most of her life in New Jersey.

She started her writing career as the editor of The Official Cruise Guide. When her second child was born, she stayed home full time to raise her children and write fiction.

She has written several books for middle grade, young adults, and adults and hopes to write many more.

Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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.

New Voices: Inside Scoop on Debut Author Groups with J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth & Deborah Schaumberg

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

After years of writing you finally have your very first book deal! Now what? How do you promote your debut novel? I talked to four Maryland debut authors from the Electric Eighteens to get the inside scoop on how debut groups for young adult and middle grade authors work.

Deborah Schaumberg, J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth
Let’s start with some basic introductions. Tells us about your book and your publishing journey.

J.H. Diehl: Tiny Infinities (Chronicle, 2018) is a contemporary novel for ages 10 and up. It’s about a competitive swimmer whose dedication to her sport, unlikely new friendships, and science experiments with fireflies all combine to help her navigate the tough summer she turns thirteen, when her parents split up and her mom suffers from depression.

I’ve published picture books, leveled readers and short fiction in literary journals. Tiny Infinities is the first novel for young readers. After many revisions, I’m grateful it found a perfect home with Chronicle Books.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The Battle of Junk Mountain (Running Press, 2018) is a middle grade contemporary novel that tells the story of a friendship in peril, a grandmother who’s a hoarder, and the danger of trying to hold on too hard to one’s past.

I was a documentary scriptwriter for about ten years before trying my hand at novel writing, and from there, it took another ten years before I got a book deal.

Jonathan Roth: I write and illustrate a humorous chapter book series, set in space school, called Beep and Bob (Aladdin, 2018). Books one and two released (Beep and Bob: Too Much Space! and Beep and Bob: Party Crashers) March 13, book three (Beep and Bob: Take Us To Your Sugar) releases in September.

I wrote many picture books and middle grade novels before discovering that the sweet spot for me seems to be the six-to-nine-year-olds right in the center.

Deborah Schaumberg: The Tombs (Harper Teen, 2018) is a young adult historical fantasy set in 1882 New York. It is about a young aura seer who must free her mother from the Tombs asylum where seers are being experimented on and used against their will.

My publishing journey began many years ago with a middle grade novel. After tons of rejections I started over, writing for young adults, and finally found an agent through a SCBWI conference.

Who are the Electric Eighteens?

Jonathan Roth: The Electric Eighteens are a merry band of international debut middle grade and YA (and some chapter book, like me) authors who support each other online and in person through the highs and lows of the publishing process, through networking, reading advance copies of each other’s books, attending launch events, and dozens of other large and small ways.

Unlike earlier debut groups, we do not have any specific marketing requirements. It is more about helping each other as we are each able.

Deborah Schaumberg: [It] is essentially a support group. It’s like holding hands to jump in the pool!

J.H. Diehl: The group is run by volunteers, who put up and maintain a website, a closed Facebook group, a complicated set of ARC tour spreadsheets and a wonderful series of weekly member interviews.

Smaller sub-groups have organized ‘pods’ on Instagram and meetups at conferences, festivals and launch events.

How did you find out about the Electric Eighteens?

Deborah Schaumberg: Word of mouth. I found out about the Electric Eighteens from someone in a new critique group that participated in the Sweet Sixteens when her book was published.

J.H. Diehl: In August 2017, when my book’s final edits were nearly done, and I allowed myself to think ‘this is really happening’, I did an online search for a 2018 YA/middle grade debut group. I’d seen prior year debut groups and thought it would be great to join one. I didn’t know just how great until I became part of the EEs.

Jonathan Roth: I was a member of the Swanky 17s (rebranded as the 2017 Debut Group) and like many from that group, had my release date bumped to 2018. So I promptly applied and jumped over.

Though having to wait six months longer for what already felt like an eternity was initially a bit of a downer, I find having two groups of new friends has turned out to be a real blessing. Don’t fear the bumper!

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Jonathan set up a monthly local SCBWI get-together, and it was there where I met him and Deborah and learned about the group.

Deborah invited me in and introduced me and instantly I had tons of people welcoming me, complimenting my book cover – it was an amazing feeling.

How have the Electric Eighteens helped you in promoting your book and how has it help you build a local community?

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: We follow and support each other, not only on Facebook, but on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

The ARC tour is extremely effective because often an EE member will post a picture of your cover with either a shout-out or a full review and you can share that across all your social media platforms for maximum exposure.

I do feel a kinship between us four local authors, all from the same county, and I enjoy seeing them face-to-face once a month.

Jonathan Roth: Beyond the typical online sharing, I have attended many ’17 and ’18 debut book events in the D.C. area, and was thrilled to have a number of debuts attend my launch.

Though I greatly appreciate being able to connect online with other 18s around the country and world, being able to sit around a table or chat at conferences with people is my preferred method of networking.

Also, I suspect most promotion is actually invisible (when I talk up books to fellow teachers and media specialists at the school where I teach, for example).

J.H. Diehl: Some EE members who are bloggers or librarians (or both!) have reached out to the group to offer opportunities to circulate advanced reader copies to teen reading groups or to participate in blog interviews. Likewise, some established book bloggers have reached out to the group to offer guest blog opportunities.

There have been some helpful threads in the Facebook group about book swag.

Thanks to the EEs I found a terrific designer for bookmarks and other items, YA author Kristen Rae, a member of a previous YA-middle grade debut group.

What have you learned about book promotion from being in the Electric Eighteens?

Jonathan Roth: Though we share all sorts of helpful tips with each other, my main take away about promotion is that no one actually knows the proven path, but we’re all stumbling down it together.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: I’ve learned about a whole community of librarians and teachers that are active on social media and willing to review and share ARCs. They are an awesome resource, especially for middle grade authors, because if they like your book they will shout it from the rooftops!

Deborah Schaumberg: I’ve learned so much from my fellow Electric Eighteens!

As someone that is not particularly tech-savvy, I can watch to see what other people do. As a result, I have created a book trailer, learned what a GIF is, and learned how to post on Instagram. We discuss what is working and what isn’t.

What surprised you about being in the Electric Eighteen group?

Deborah Schaumberg: How close I feel to many of the Electric Eighteens members.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor; we usually don’t have people around us when we write.

And as an introvert, I’ve been to events where I was too shy to talk to people I didn’t know.

At a recent conference I met another EE for the first time. I immediately hugged her hello because I felt like I knew her already from all the online sharing.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The flood of information surprised me. Your Facebook newsfeed becomes inundated with advice, questions, musings, good and bad news.

At first, it was overwhelming. I had to remind myself that I didn’t have to like or comment on every single post.

There’s also a tendency to fall into the comparison game. Why didn’t my book didn’t get a starred review? Why am I not booking as many events as so-and-so?

You have to pull back sometimes and remind yourself that each publishing journey is unique.

What advice would you pass on to future groups like the 2019s, 2020s, etc? 

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Embrace this opportunity. Learn from each other. Share. Support. Cheerlead. It’s a special club, and I’m proud to be a member.

J.H. Diehl: Go into to it knowing you can participate as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, and get ready to be surprised and humbled by the support you’ll experience from the other debut authors in the group.

Go into it knowing it’s a great opportunity to give support to your fellow writers and also to experience tremendous gratitude.

Deborah Schaumberg: Also, the way the administrators of the Electric Eighteens structured the group works really well. I think past groups had lots of rules about how many advanced reader copies each member had to read and so on.

We are a support system only, all promotion is voluntary, and we are respectful and inclusive. I never feel pressured to do more than I can handle and I participate as much as I want.

Jonathan Roth: The groups grow to up to 200, so it’s pretty impossible (at least for me) to bond with everyone and/or read all their books. Like so much in life, you get out what you put in, but be selective and realistic. And most of all, be excellent to each other (and party on, debuts)!

Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher

By Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Check out the cover of Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher (McElderry, Oct. 2018). From the promotional copy:

A runaway boy befriends a polar bear that’s being transported from Norway to London in this lyrical and timeless adventure story about freedom, captivity, and finding a family.

The polar bear is a royal bear, a gift from the King of Norway to the King of England. The first time Arthur encounters the bear, he is shoved in her cage as payback for stealing food. Restless and deadly, the bear terrifies him. Yet, strangely, she doesn’t harm him—though she has attacked anyone else who comes near. 

That makes Arthur valuable to the doctor in charge of getting the bear safely to London. So Arthur, who has run away from home, finds himself taking care of a polar bear on a ship to England.

Tasked with feeding and cleaning up after the bear, Arthur’s fears slowly lessen as he begins to feel a connection to this bear, who like him, has been cut off from her family. But the journey holds many dangers, and Arthur knows his own freedom—perhaps even his life—depends on keeping the bear from harm. 

When pirates attack and the ship founders, Arthur must make a choice—does he do everything he can to save himself, or does he help the bear to find freedom?

Based on the real story of a polar bear that lived in the Tower of London, this timeless adventure story is also a touching account of the bond between a boy and a bear.

From author Susan Fletcher:

Journey of the Pale Bear is based on the true story of a polar bear given by King Haakon IV of Norway to King Henry III of England in the year 1252.

When you put a polar bear at the heart of your novel, you’re almost guaranteed a good cover. I mean: a polar bear. Those guys are inherently gorgeous and magnificent.

Still, it took me a moment to catch my breath the first time I saw the jacket art. I wasn’t prepared for just how stunningly beautiful it would be.

It’s the light—the puddles of light on the surface of the water, the streaming undersea light, the tips of light on the polar bear’s snout and neck and crown.

It’s the texture of the bear’s fur. It’s the masses of intense underwater blue.

It’s the expressions of the bear and the boy—worried but not hopeless, setting off on an adventure not of their own choosing, straddling the boundary between documented history and some kind of dream.

I love this cover, and I’m very grateful to everyone who helped to make it happen, especially my editor, Karen Wojtyla, and illustrator Shane Rebenschied.

Guest Post: Author Deborah Lytton & Agent Stacey Glick on Middle Grade Series Proposals

By Deborah Lytton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Thanks to Gayleen and Cyn for having us on Cynsations. It’s always such a pleasure to be here!

Today, I have asked my agent and friend, Stacey Glick to join me to discuss the Middle Grade series proposal.

Stacey is Vice President at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret Literary Management and has been my agent for over 12 years. Stacey and I share a background as child actors, although we never worked together as kids because she was on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast. 
Hi Stacey, thanks for chatting with me today.

Stacey: So happy to be here! I’m thrilled to talk about Debby, one of my favorite people, and her books!

Deborah: Thanks, Stacey. You’re one of my favorite people, too. Before we discuss books though, we have to talk about being child actors. (I’m including our acting headshots here. I really love my 80’s red vest and tie!)

How do you think your acting background helped you become a literary agent?

Deborah’s acting headshot

Stacey: I think my ability to network and schmooze with almost anyone stems from my experiences as a child actor.

That skill has served me very well in my almost 20 years as a book agent!

Deborah: That’s so true! Speaking about books, it’s so exciting to see the first book in the Ruby Starr (Sourcebooks, 2017) series released.

Creating the series proposal was such a collaborative process between us and the proposal was an effective selling tool for the manuscript.

Why do you think it helps so much?

Stacey: I think when you are talking about a series with a protagonist who has a big personality, like Ruby or Junie B. Jones (by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, Random House), it’s important to map out not only the plots for the proposed books in the series, but also the characters and the arcs they will follow throughout the series.

Deborah: The first step was to come up with an idea for a book that could extend into multiple stand-alone books.

My other published books have been stand-alone titles, and I have also written some manuscripts for trilogies, but a series is really different from a trilogy where you leave certain storylines unfinished to extend the threads through the second and third books. With a series, each book stands alone and is connected through the character and the setting.

What do you think the important differences are?

Stacey: I think it’s just what you said. A series like Ruby Starr is really about a group of characters working through a very different story and set of circumstances in each book. A duology or trilogy is really one story that continues over the course of two or three books.

Stacey’s acting headshot

Deborah: Once I had the idea for the series, I wrote the complete manuscript for Book 1.

Then after you read it, you suggested writing a proposal as well. I remember it was really helpful when you sent me an outline for the proposal because it gave me an idea of what I needed to include.

There was a short synopsis of the series, a character list, a list of multiple other stories, and then a section about me.

If we were pitching the series again, would you add anything to the proposal?

Stacey: No, I think the proposal we put together was really perfect to show the scope of the series and your ability to write it. All of the components put together made for a very strong sales pitch for the series.

Deborah: You told me that I could be creative within the format and change things around if I wanted to convey the personality of my series but still create something that editors would be able to read easily.

The most flexible section was the information about the book. I used some of the wording from the manuscript and then shared my vision for the market age range for the book. I also added a section about similar books.

Why do editors and agents like to hear comparisons in order to consider a book?

Stacey: It’s so important for agents and editors to get a sense of how you see your work in the marketplace. You need to highlight books that will appeal to the same audience as your book. This will help you and your agent and publishing partner work together to effectively market and promote the books to the right audience.

Deborah: We spent a lot of time working on the books to follow the first so that the theme of the series was really consistent and the whole package focused.

What is your tip for writers who are working on a proposal without an agent to guide them?

Stacey: Do your research and find resources online. There are a lot of sample proposals available and, if you follow the guidelines you suggested above for a series proposal, including the manuscript for Book 1, it should be more than enough for agents to be able to consider the work.

Deborah: Stacey, thanks so much for chatting with me today!

Stacey: I loved it too. And hope you all have a chance to read the Ruby Star series. She’s adorable and so much fun!

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Peppered with references to her favorite books, Ruby’s fresh, humorous, first-person, present-tense account of her fifth-grade traumas, her real and imaginary friendships, and her supportive family rings true…amusing saga of primary-school friendships with a clever pro-reading subtext.”

Book 2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, is now available for pre-order and will be released May 1, 2018. Ruby and the other Unicorns are involved in a new adventure to save the school library.

Deborah Lytton is the author of Jane In Bloom (Dutton Children’s Books, 2009), which was selected for several state reading lists and chosen by Chicago Public Library as one of the Best of the Best Books of 2009. See Deborah’s Cynsations Interview About Jane in Bloom.

Her YA novel, Silence (Shadow Mountain) was a nominee for the Florida Teens Read Program. See Deborah on What’s True to You from Cynsations.

Deborah resides in Los Angeles, California with her two daughters and their Papillon, Faith. She is active in the writing and blogging community and is a member of SCBWI.

Stacey Glick joined Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in 1999 after working in film and television development for five years.

Stacey grew up just outside of Manhattan and is a former child actress who appeared on television, in theater, and in feature films. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband and four daughters (the youngest are identical twins), and enjoys cooking and baking, sipping wine and cocktails, taking pictures, shopping, theater, going to Mets games and eating chocolate, cheese and spicy tuna hand rolls (not necessarily in that order) when she can find the time.

She represents young adult, middle grade, nonfiction and picture books.

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: Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley (Dial, 2017). From the promotional copy:

From the New York Times bestselling author of Circus Mirandus comes the magic-infused story of a golden gator, two cursed kids, and how they take their destinies into their own hands.

When the red moon rises over the heart of the Okefenokee swamp, legend says that the mysterious golden gator Munch will grant good luck to the poor soul foolish enough to face him.

But in 1817, when two fools reach him at the same time, the night’s fate is split. With disastrous consequences for both . . . and their descendants. Half of the descendants have great fates, and the other half have terrible ones.

Now, Tumble Wilson and Blue Montgomery are determined to fix their ancestors’ mistakes and banish the bad luck that’s followed them around for all of their lives. They’re going to face Munch the gator themselves, and they’re going to reclaim their destinies.

But what if the legend of Munch is nothing but a legend, after all?

Full of friendship, family, and the everyday magic and adventure that readers of Savvy and A Snicker of Magic love, Cassie Beasley’s newest middle grade book is another crowd-pleasing heart-warmer—perfect for reading by yourself, or sharing with someone you love.

Book Video: An Evening of Ectoplasm

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From the acknowledgements: “Icky paranormal history with award-winning authors William Alexander, M.T. Anderson, and Kekla Magoon. Special thanks to Alice Dodge for her spirit photography, Kelly Murphy for the gorgeous illustrations, and The Parlour Trick for graciously granting us permission to use ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and ‘Pandora’ from their album ‘A Blessed Unrest.'”

About A Properly Unhaunted Place (Margaret K. McElderry, 2017)

From National Book Award–winning author William Alexander comes a wryly humorous story about two kids who try to save their town by bringing back its ghosts.

Rosa Ramona Díaz has just moved to the small, un-haunted town of Ingot—the only ghost-free town in the world. She doesn’t want to be there. She doesn’t understand how her mother—a librarian who specializes in ghost-appeasement—could possibly want to live in a place with no ghosts. Frankly, she doesn’t understand why anyone would.

Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot. His father plays a knight at the local Renaissance Festival, and his mother plays the queen. Jasper has never seen a ghost, and can’t imagine his un-haunted town any other way. Then an apparition thunders into the festival grounds and turns the quiet town upside down.

Something otherworldly is about to be unleashed, and Rosa will need all her ghost appeasement tools—and a little help from Jasper—to rein in the angry spirits and restore peace to Ingot before it’s too late.

Guest Post: Writing Across Gender Lines: Fiction that Appeals to Boys and Girls

By Yona Zeldis McDonough
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve alway thought of myself as a girly-girl writer. Although I’ve written bios for kids that appeal to both boys and girls—many of them in the popular Who Was series (Grosset & Dunlap) —my real love is girl-friendly stories. I like dolls—no fewer than five of my children’s books have had the words doll or doll house in the title—and all the girly stuff that goes with them. I also like kitties, pretty dresses, and tea parties, and all these things find their way into the fiction I write for kids.

I never saw this as a particular problem or even issue to be addressed. As the fans of mystery, dystopia, humor and fantasy can happily attest, subsets in the field of children’s books abound, and there are many ways to make readers happy. So writing books that appealed chiefly to girls didn’t seem like an issue to me.

But a chance meeting with an editor from Boys’ Life made the first chip in my frilly, feminine facade. We had been invited to speak on a panel together and when it was over, she encouraged me, strongly, to consider writing fiction for the magazine. I was flattered but didn’t think I was the right person for the job. I felt like I was too far out of my comfort zone and I wasn’t confident I could do it. But an invitation from an editor is something to take seriously, so I began to play around with some ideas, eventually settling on a story set in 1941 that was slated for the December 2016 issue. That was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and in my story, a 12-year-old boy finds himself defending his best friend, Kenzo, a boy whose Japanese family had arrived in the United States some 10 years prior. It was about the need for facing down prejudice and bigotry and it advanced a message of tolerance and acceptance. The editor liked what I had written and asked for more stories, which I was happy to provide.

So when I was tapped by an editor from Scholastic to write what eventually became The Bicycle Spy (Scholastic, 2016), I had already taken some tentative, baby steps across the gender line. Scholastic wanted a book about a 13-year-old boy who lives in the Southwest of France during World War II. His parents own the bakery in town. Unbeknownst to him, they are members of the French Resistance and he’s been delivering the messages that they have baked into loaves of bread. He’s also an avid cyclist and fan of the Tour de France—suspended during the war years—and bicycling was to play a major role in the story. And he had a new friend in school; when he learns the truth about her family, he is called on to help them escape. These were the bare bones—the rest was up to me.

I was now faced with writing a book whose primary audience would be boys, a much more challenging and complex task than writing a 1,200 word magazine story. If I was going to succeed, I needed to widen and expand my range as a writer. This made me very nervous. Yes, I had written boy protagonists, but always in the short run. Could I sustain a boy’s point of view and hope to engage boy readers for a whole chapter book? I sure hoped so!

To my surprise, I found the task less daunting and more exciting than I expected. I wanted to make my protagonist Marcel appealing and relatable, so I turned him into an unlikely hero: small for his age, bespectacled and the unhappy target of the class bully’s teasing and aggression. Marcel loses to his best friend in a game of chess, flubs the occasional answer in class and dreams constantly of being stronger, taller and faster—like the winners of the bicycle race he reveres. And yet, for all his flaws, he’s also shown to be brave, loyal and determined.

As Marcel’s story evolved in my mind, I realized I wanted it to include a female component, something that would appeal to girls as well as boys. And so I began to develop the character of Delphine Gillette, the new girl at school who loves cycling as much as he does and is revealed, midway through, to be Jewish. Her family has fled Paris and is hiding out in this small town, protected by the false papers her father has been able to procure. But when the Nazi presence intensifies, Marcel learns that the papers of the residents, particularly those newly arrived, are going to be scrutinized carefully. Delphine and her family are no longer safe. They will need to flee again and it is Marcel who is instrumental in the daring plot to help them find their way to freedom.

As I wrote, I tried to keep the concerns of both boys and girls
balanced in mind. I knew that boys would like the suspense aspects of the story, the coded messages, and the workings of the Resistance movement, as well as the descriptions of both the occupying soldiers and the French gendarmes who supported them. I also made sure to include details about Marcel’s relationship to his parents—his mother’s worry and occasional tendency to nag, his father’s pride in his courage—as well as the push-and-pull with his school friends.

For the girl readers, I explored Delphine’s experiences as the new girl in town, her efforts to fit in and be liked, but also her spunk and her courage. I added references to the clothes she wore—because yes, girls do care—and her affection for her pet cat.

But as I got deeper and deeper into the story, I also began to notice a certain softening of gender lines and began to realize that the concerns of these two characters were more alike than different. They both loved cycling, worried about their place in the social pecking order, and had to deal with parental expectations. Both faced the awful upheavals of war and both feared an uncertain and potentially devastating future.

I had started out believing that boys would relate to Marcel, and girls to Delphine; I came to see that each of these characters would have appeal for the other gender. It’s a revelation that I hope to carry with me when I approach my as-yet-unwritten next book. Writing for boys taught me something about writing for girls and I am glad to have discovered that that universe of fiction is far broader—and more inclusive—than I had formerly imagined.

Cynsational Notes 
The Bicycle Spy was recently named a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries

Author Interview: Zetta Elliott on Ghosts, Magic & Imperialism

Zetta Elliott‘s last Cynsations interview was in 2009. Since then she’s published more than two dozen

books and nearly twice as many essays, like Decolonizing the Imagination for The Horn Book (March 2010).

I’ve been thinking a lot about the lasting effects of Imperialism and how it influences both society and literature. When I learned Zetta’s latest MG novel explores those themes – and includes castles and ghosts – I had to know more!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

There was a time when almost everything I wrote could be traced back to something I saw on PBS. These days almost everything I write can be blamed on what I don’t see on PBS!

I love period dramas, but people of color are usually erased or marginalized even though we’ve always been present in – and contributed to – the eras being depicted.

I also wanted to address the issue of harm and reparations in a way that children could understand; I grew up in a “former” British colony (Canada) and so consumed a fair amount of literature and television programming that in no way reflected my own reality.

I’ve written elsewhere about my struggle to “decolonize” my imagination, and The Ghosts in the Castle (Rosetta Press, 2017) is really my attempt to heal some of the wounds caused by the erasure or misrepresentation of Black children.

It’s the book I wish I’d had as a child: a Black princess, a Black prince, and a haunted castle in England. All that’s missing is the dragon!

It’s also the book I wish my father had had when his Caribbean grandmother forced him to stay indoors and read Alice in Wonderland (which he loathed). That experience turned him off fiction for the rest of this life, and today I regularly meet kids of color who aren’t enthusiastic about reading because there aren’t enough books where they get to have magical adventures. This book is for them.

What were the challenges in bringing the text to life?

I’ve written several historical fantasy novels and the biggest challenge is always balancing fact and fiction. The research process can be time-consuming and rather tedious – especially when I know that I’ll probably only use 10 to 15 percent of it in the book. There’s nothing worse than info-dumping, no matter how interesting some facts may be, they only belong if they somehow advance the narrative or help with world-building.

Because I write speculative fiction, I also allow myself to bend history sometimes. For me, the story always comes first.

The internet made researching this book a lot easier. In 2015, I came across some elegant antique photographs of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843- Aug. 15, 1880) on Facebook; that led me to At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic, 1999).

I decided to write a story about Sarah (Myers’ book is nonfiction) and for some reason thought she had spent time at Kensington Palace.

When I finally got my facts straight, I found out that another African child had a connection to Queen Victoria. Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia (April 23, 1861 – Nov. 14, 1879) is actually buried at St. George’s Chapel, and so I headed to London in October 2015 with the intention of visiting Windsor Castle. I went back in February 2016, and slowly the story began to take shape.

Photography isn’t allowed in the castle or chapel, so I took notes, but also reached out to the Windsor Castle library and a very kind archivist there answered some questions that helped a lot.

A neighbor with expertise in Ethiopian history and culture assured me I’d respectfully and accurately represented the prince’s sad story.

I wrote the book off and on over a year, but tried to honor the earliest chapters I’d written back in 2015. Initially, the two children didn’t get along, and when I reread those passages months later, I wondered whether I should change that. But I’m happy with the book’s resolution and their reconciliation.

I try to honor my initial impulses when I’m writing a book because they’re largely intuitive and not informed (limited) by subsequent research.

As an author/scholar how do your various roles inform one another? (Did this influence your decision to write this story for a MG audience?)

I wear a lot of different hats, but I definitely think about how the books I write could be used to start a conversation between kids and adults at home or in the classroom. My dissertation was on literary representations of lynching, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about trauma and its impact on Black people. I feel quite strongly that I have a responsibility to “teach the youth the truth” and that’s one reason I self-publish.

The Ghosts in the Castle is a book that likely would not appeal to corporate publishers and neither would Billie’s Blues (Rosetta Press, 2015), which gives lynching as one of the reasons for the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South. When I told my college students that I wanted to write a picture book about lynching, they were shocked. Yet many of those same students were furious that they’d never learned about lynching until they reached college. Children are taught about the Holocaust and some kids learn about slavery in the U.S., but many textbooks are sanitized or decontextualized.  
There’s a real fear within the dominant group that if children know the ugly truth about the country’s history, they’ll become embittered and “unmanageable” (to borrow a term from Frederick Douglass). But I think young people are empowered by the truth, and so my challenge is to make events and figures from the past relevant to contemporary kids who think Harry Potter novels have taught them all they need to know about England.
You have both self-published and traditionally trade published books. What are the challenges and benefits of self-publishing?
Illustration by Charity Russell

The benefits include telling my story my own way without needing the approval of someone who’s not from my community and not familiar with my culture(s). I’d already collaborated on two books with Charity Russell and so immediately went to her when I was looking for an illustrator. She’s brilliant and put in the time it took to get all the details right.

Last summer I wrote a book that would have been the third in the City Kids Series, except my agent – against all odds – managed to sell it to Random House. I won’t have a final say over the illustrator that’s selected and I can’t do anything about the Fall 2018 publication date.

But that sale prompted me to finish The Ghosts in the Castle. I wrote a thousand words a day for most of November until the book wrapped up at 25,000 words. Charity whipped out the illustrations and we got the book ready for publication in about two months.

I was at the Brooklyn Public Library last month and a youth librarian said, “Wait – you’re Zetta Elliott? A parent came in the other day asking for more easy readers by you.”

That parent and her child don’t matter to corporate publishers who need to sell thousands of books, but I can respond to that need within my community. I can act on the sense of urgency that I feel, and that kind of autonomy is really empowering. I know some folks will complain that I’m not following the conventions of other series: I don’t use the same protagonists in every book, and the reading level and length vary, but I’m not trying to mimic anyone else. To me, what connects the three books is the way they blend Black history with Black magic. I subvert some conventions and preserve others in a way that reflects the rupture and continuity that defines the African diaspora.
The challenge now, of course, is that most review outlets (including bloggers) won’t accept self-published books. So I have to rely on social media to get the word out.
Cynthia has supported me as a hybrid author from the very beginning and so I wasn’t afraid to approach Cynsations. But when I surveyed blogs that focus on middle grade fiction, most were closed to indie authors. So the marginalization and exclusion I’m writing about in my novels plays out in real life, too. But I’ve connected with some folks in the U.K. and they’re not snobbish about self-published books, so I’m hopeful that my book will find a home!