Book Trailer: Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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


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


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


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

Book Trailer: The Absoluteness of Nothing by C.G. Watson

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Absoluteness of Nothing by C.G. Watson (Simon Pulse, May 2017) releases today in paperback. From the promotional copy:

Caleb Tosh has suffered one personal trauma too many, but this last one – the sudden departure of his mom – has pushed him down a dark and disorienting path.


His favorite video game, the Boneyard, becomes his go-to coping mechanism, and Tosh gladly gets lost in the maps of the game rather than moving through the landscape of his own grief. 


As Tosh falls further and further down the rabbit hole of abandonment and loneliness, he doesn’t see that there are others fighting both virtual and real-life battles alongside him. 


What will it take for Caleb Tosh to leave the safety of the Boneyard, rejoin reality, and deal with the wreckage of his actual life?


Cynsational Notes

C.G. Watson is an author, youth activist, and veteran teacher from Northern California. In 1986, she earned a Spanish degree from California State University Chico, a teaching credential the following year, and a masters in education in 1994.

In 2000, C.G. was given a life-changing opportunity: to bring anti-bullying and conflict resolution programs to the high school where she taught. For five years, she coordinated the powerful Challenge Day program, and created and ran a successful student mediation program as well. These have become the heart of her work as both a YA author and youth activist.

C.G. Watson co-founded Never Counted Out, a non-profit organization that provides books and creative mentorship for students, schools, and youth programs whose access to both books and mentorship is limited. C.G.’s debut novel was Quad (Razorbill, 2007) and her novel Ascending The Boneyard (Simon Pulse, 2016) is re-released today in paperback under a new title, The Absoluteness Of Nothing.

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.

Guest Post: New Voice Katie Bayerl’s Path to Publication

By Katie Bayerl

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Katie Bayerl is the debut author of A Psalm for Lost Girls (Putnam, March 2017).

From the promotional copy:

“Tess da Costa is a saint — a hand-to-god, miracle-producing saint. At least that’s what the people in her hometown of New Avon, Massachusetts, seem to believe. And when Tess suddenly and tragically passes away, her small city begins feverishly petitioning the Pope to make Tess’s sainthood official. Tess’s mother is ecstatic over the fervor, while her sister Callie, the one who knew Tess best, is disgusted – overcome with the feeling that her sister is being stolen from her all over again.


The fervor for Tess’s sainthood only grows when Ana Langone, a local girl who’s been missing for six months, is found alive at the foot of one of Tess’s shrines. It’s the final straw for Callie.


With the help of Tess’s secret boyfriend Danny, Callie’s determined to prove that Tess was something far more important than a saint; she was her sister, her best friend and a girl in love with a boy. But Callie’s investigation uncovers much more than she bargained for: a hidden diary, old family secrets, and even the disturbing truth behind Ana’s kidnapping.”

I wasn’t the girl who dreamed of becoming a writer.

I loved reading, though, and I loved being around young people and being part of social change—so I found my way into a career as an urban teacher. In my classroom we talked about books, filled notebooks with big ideas, and wrote impassioned essays and heart-cracking personal narratives.


My first career didn’t go the way I expected.

First year at Boston International High School

Being a full-time teacher took a toll. I stockpiled anger at a system that treated my students as disposable. Daily injustices battered my heart badly. I was young, discovering my limits. When my mental health nose dived, I faced a choice: turn down the volume of my heart to survive or step away from the career that I’d believed was my calling.

I chose to walk away (a messy decision and the bravest of my life). My sleep schedule was erratic in the aftermath, and I found myself up late one night watching Lifetime version of Speak (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson.

And oh. A revelation.

Young adults and books. The two great loves of my life. I should be writing for teens! I drafted an outline of my first young adult novel that night.

I poured my wounded heart into that first story. And the next one. And the next.

10 years passed.

Dorm room at VCFA

I got a bit of recognition, discovered I still had a lot to learn, pursued an MFA, began submitting my work, found I still had things to learn.

You know this story. The writer who faces rejection, persists. Except I’d always been impatient. I went full blast at the things that came easy. When things got hard, I found an out.

I couldn’t quit again, though, not after the last defeat. Also, I could sense that the pieces were beginning to click. My stories were changing, becoming deeper, more true to me.

Things started to happen.

First, an agent. Then, a book deal. My born-again author career was suddenly becoming real.
But—plot twist—over the same period, my first calling had wormed its way back into my life. I picked up creative writing classes at GrubStreet and found that, in smaller doses, teaching teens still filled my heart in a way nothing else did.


I wondered: Was being a writer enough?


I’d been watching other writers carefully, noticing how they braided their work as authors with their deepest-held concerns. I looked to Kekla Magoon, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Dana Walrath, among others.


I wanted a career that could incorporate all sides of me.

I found myself circling around an idea that had been planted in grad school—a few of us had a notion that Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) could become a hub for diverse young writers. We had a solid idea. All we really needed was someone who had the time, passion, and persistence to make it happen. Passion I had. Persistence I’d learned. Time I could make.

VCFA Young Writers Network Kickoff event with author Kekla Magoon.

Shortly after my book deal became public, we announced the launch of the VCFA Young Writers Network.

It’s a balancing act.


Leading this work means I won’t be a book-a-year author. I’m ok with that. I want to be in the business of cultivating stories, plural, and elevating voices, most especially young writers from marginalized groups. I feel this as a white author in a severely unbalanced field and as an educator who still feels the tug toward social justice.



Last fall, I returned to the role of student. 


The Launch Lab, designed for soon-to-be-published authors, helped me get clear about my goals and weed-whack through the clutter of promotional activities to find those that can help me become the writer, teacher, and change-seeker I want to be.

There are still many questions about how this will go, what comes next. But if 10 years as a writer has taught me anything it’s how to stay the course.

Cynsational Notes

When Katie Bayerl isn’t penning stories, she coaches teens and nonprofits to tell theirs.

She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught creative writing in schools and a variety of community settings. She currently leads the VCFA Young Writers Network and teaches classes for teens at GrubStreet.

Katie has an incurable obsession with saints, bittersweet ballads, and murder.

Publishers Weekly gave A Psalm for Lost Girls a starred review, describing it as “richly and evocatively written.” Peek:”Through these two perspectives—alleged saint and grieving sister—debut author Bayerl unspools a gripping story of loss and grace.”

Kirkus called it “packed with vivid cultural scenery, this ambitious debut offers readers a journey worth taking.”


Enter for a chance to win one of five copies of A Psalm for Lost Girls in a giveaway from the publisher.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on March 13, 2017 and 12:00 AM on March 27, 2017.  Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about March 29, 2017. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

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: Lamar Giles on Writing Mysteries, Diversity & His Writing Journey

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lamar Giles’ last Cynsations visit was in 2014 as a debut author.

Since then, he’s had two novels named Edgar Award finalists by the Mystery Writers of America and helped found We Need Diverse Books.

He serves as senior vice president of fundraising for the non-profit organization dedicated to putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.

I talked with him recently about the writing life and his latest mystery novel.

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

The thing I love most about being an author is the moment of breakthrough.

Every thing I’ve ever written is hard, so hard I want to quit almost every time. It’s a point of endless anxiety…until it isn’t. If I work long enough, and hard enough, the murkiest most non-sensical manuscript starts to clarify, then it flows, then when I’m at the end of the journey I have something enjoyable that feels like it came from somewhere else.

That feeling is remarkably satisfying. And, if I’m fortunate, I’ll get to do it over and over again for the rest of my life.

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

I write best in the mornings in my home office (that’s not very exciting, I know). That’s been my routine for almost two decades. Though, I’ve been experimenting with alternate locations and times due to having to travel more.

I’ve never been great at writing on the road, but it’s becoming more and more necessary as people ask me to visit their state/school/library. Recently, I wrote a book proposal on my iPad while sitting in a traffic jam (my wife was driving…I’m not that good). I’m evolving.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?


So, I’ve been writing stories since I was eight years old, and there are several milestones that stand out. Chief among them, my first pro short story sale at age 21 (then the subsequent three years I couldn’t sell anything).

Being awarded a Fellowship from the Virginia Commission of the Arts when I was 26, newly married, and close to giving up on writing for “more realistic” pursuits like being a real estate agent (I’m a much better writer than real estate agent).

The rise of digital/self publishing, which allowed me to put out material with no one’s permission. My first novel sale at age 31.

Then, understanding how few books were written for or about children of color, making me very fortunate to be working, and using my platform to open the door for more diverse material.

Could you tell us about your upcoming release?

Overturned (Scholastic Press, March 28, 2017) is the story of a teen poker player in Las Vegas trying to discover who framed her father for murder.

For those who know my work, it’s got twists and turns and action like my previous novels Fake ID (HarperCollins, 2014) and Endangered (Harper Teen, 2015). For those who don’t know my work, I think you’ll find Overturned is a great entry point into my brand of noir mystery.

Nikki Tate, the hero of the story, plays in illegal poker games as a way to earn money for college way on the other side of the country.

She wants to get away from her family’s failing casino and the stigma of having a dad on death row. But, when her father’s sentence is overturned, and he returns home bitter and obsessed, it turns Nikki’s world topsy-turvy. I’m not much of a gambler myself, but in this case I’m willing to bet you’ll have a hard time putting Overturned down.

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

At Matt de la Pena’s Newbery
acceptance speech

Well, the most obvious thing is Nikki’s Black (as am I).

Growing up, the lack of Black heroes in all the things I loved–books, TV, Film, Video Games–left me feeling deprived as a consumer of the arts.

In my teen years, I was outright angry and close to giving up on reading and writing (beyond what was required to pass classes). Discovering many black writers/characters in my late teens altered the course of my life, and made me believe storytelling was viable option for me.

That being said, Nikki’s blackness isn’t just surface level.

She and her family deal with things like false accusations and unjust incarceration. A local police force that’s cold to her family because they had the audacity to speak up. Nikki being viewed as older and more dangerous than she actually is because of her complexion.

These things are subtle–the mystery is front and center–but the circumstances are background constants, as they are for people of color in real life.

Additionally, Nikki has a diverse group of friends, classmates, and business associates. I tried to write Las Vegas as I saw it–and the world in general–populated with various people of all colors, shapes, sizes, etc.

What appeals to you about the mystery genre?

I like puzzles and Legos, and writing a mystery feels like the literary version of putting something together. You have all these little pieces that don’t really make sense scattered about, but through the progression of plot and character, you start to pull them together until you have this beautiful picture or structure that makes you appreciate the tough parts of the process even more.

Cynsational Notes:

Kirkus Reviews called Overturned “an utterly compelling whodunit” in a starred review. “Nikki is a totally appealing character: gutsy, practical, and strong, at the head of a cast of well-drawn supporting characters. The interracial romance between Nikki and Davis, who is white, is handled deftly, as is Giles’ skillful evocation of the townies-vs.-tourists of Las Vegas.”

Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone by Lisa Doan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone by Lisa Doan (Sky Pony, 2017). From the promotional copy:

A funny middle grade mystery adventure complete with an unconventional knight, a science experiment gone awry, a giant spider, and a boy to save the day!

Twelve-year-old Henry Hewitt has been living by his wits on the streets of London, dodging his parents, who are determined to sell him as an apprentice. 

Searching for a way out of the city, Henry lands a position in Hampshire as an assistant to Sir Richard Blackstone, an aristocratic scientist who performs unorthodox experiments in his country manor. 

The manor house is comfortable, and the cook is delighted to feed Henry as much as he can eat. Sir Richard is also kind, and Henry knows he has finally found a place where he belongs.


But everything changes when one of Sir Richard’s experiments accidentally transforms a normal-sized tarantula into a colossal beast that escapes and roams the neighborhood. 

After a man goes missing and Sir Richard is accused of witchcraft, it is left to young Henry to find an antidote for the oversize arachnid. Things are not as they seem, and in saving Sir Richard from the gallows, Henry also unravels a mystery about his own identity.

Congratulations on your upcoming release! What do you think of your new cover?

I love it! Huge thanks to Sky Pony and my editor, Adrienne Szpyrka, for capturing the humor of the book while at the same time working in two prominent elements – the giant tarantula and a journal detailing a trip to South America.

The tarantula is Henry Hewitt’s problem and the journal is the key to figuring out what to do about it, which he must do to save his friend and protector, Sir Richard Blackstone.

More specifically, how does the art evoke the nuances of your book?

We wanted the journal to feel Old World, hence the faded brown, as this story takes place in the late 1700’s English countryside.

Sky Pony’s designers had the genius idea of having the tarantula holding the journal to tie it all together. The red and yellow lettering really pop and signal the lighthearted tone.

I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

Isn’t it every middle-grade writer’s dream to have a cover with a tarantula on it?

I know it has always been one of mine!

Cynsational Notes

Lisa Doan has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the author of the award-winning series The Berenson Schemes (Lerner).

Operating under the idea that life is short, her occupations have included: master scuba diving instructor; New York City headhunter; owner-chef of a restaurant in the Caribbean; television show set medic; and deputy prothonotary of a county court. She currently works in social services and lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Guest Post: Amy & David Axelrod on The History of Magic & The Bullet Catch: Murder by Misadventure

See facebook page, excerpt  & educator guide.

By Amy Axelrod & David Axelrod
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When we began, we knew that we wanted to write a novel about a down-and-out magician during World War I.

We knew the setting would be New York City and that this washed-up magician, who we named Barzini, would be involved with a roster of famous illusionists of the time. And finally we knew we would have a young protagonist, named Leo, whose life would serendipitously change from being a petty criminal to a stage magician.

Both of us had interest in the history of stage magic and its legendary personalities. The early 1900s was an exciting and innovative period in the history of magic. But it was also a time of intense competition, jealousies and theft.

When trying to come up with a plot for the book, we kept circling around one magician in particular: Chung Ling Soo.

He was an American named William Ellsworth Robinson who masqueraded as a Chinese conjurer and became a world-wide sensation. His signature illusion was the bullet catch, which would ultimately kill him during a performance. Chung Ling Soo became Barzini’s nemesis, and Leo became entangled in their rivalry.

Writing an historical novel is like being on a treasure hunt. One clue leads to another and another.

We read and cross-referenced many Internet sources, biographies on Houdini and books on illusion written by magicians of the golden era.

Chung Ling Soo (Ransom Center, U.T., Austin)

One particular gem was a book written by Harry Houdini in 1906. The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals, was intended
to be a handbook educating the public on the ways of criminals. Instead,
it read as a primer on how to commit crime, and was taken out of print.
This book proved helpful when creating Leo, a pickpocket, and his gang
of thieves.

We also researched the magicians’ collection and Houdini’s private scrapbooks at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Other books used in researching The Bullet Catch (Holiday House, 2015):

Jay, Ricky. Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women. New York: Warner Books, 1986.

Jay’s Journal of Anomalies. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001.

Celebrations of Curious Characters. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books 2011.

Steinmeyer, Jim. The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer. Boston: de Capo Press, 2006.

Cynsational Notes 

Follow Amy @amy_axelrod & David @chunglingwho at Twitter

Amy Axelrod has written many picture books, including The Pigs Will Be Pigs Math Series (Simon & Schuster), and the middle-grade novel Your Friend in Fashion, Abby Shapiro (Holiday House).

David Axelrod works in publishing and has written numerous YA novels under pseudonyms.

Read more about their research and collaboration at Amy’s blog at Goodreads.

Guest Post: Simon Nicholson on An Alternative History & Investigator of Mystery

Excerpt, educator’s guide & more information!

By Simon Nicholson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I was reading books about Houdini. It seemed to me one of the most exciting things about him was that, as well as being the world’s most famous illusionist, he also devoted much of his life to doing battle against “magic”.

Enraged at the thought of ordinary people being exploited, he worked ceaselessly to expose fake séances, false mediums, Spiritualist hoaxes.

With his stunts and de-bunking activities, the great Houdini sought to prove that man was master of his own fate, that no “magic” could be more powerful than what ordinary men or women could achieve with their own skills, muscles and wits.

An extraordinary quest—particularly for his times. I started wondering what could have made Houdini so driven in this way. Something in his childhood perhaps?

An idea for a series of books for middle grade readers took shape; in which a young Harry Houdini, boy investigator, would be faced with supposedly magical mysteries, and would use his emerging escapological skills to unmask the truth.

I started work on an alternative history: a series of events that didn’t happen, but which, just possibly, might have done. I knew that the real Houdini’s boyhood had been a relatively peaceful one in Appleton, Wisconsin; but I asked myself whether that could have been a “cover-up”, a carefully devised tale to conceal a far more thrilling reality?

So I placed my Harry on the Manhattan streets in 1886, shining shoes; I introduced him to two young friends, Billie and Arthur. Together, this trio find themselves getting swept up in a series of frightening mysteries; an elderly magician kidnapped by unknowable forces; the mayor of New Orleans falling victim to a daemonic curse. People are terrified, rumours of magic abound; but young Harry uses his skills to expose the truth…

And to outwit the danger that results. Generally, people create rumours of magic for sinister purposes, and the villains in my books would be no different.

More on Simon Nicholson!

The real Houdini made powerful enemies through his determination to expose falsehood; that would be true of my boy investigator too. His enemies would try to silence him by the most deadly means possible, leading him to develop those unbelievable powers of escape.

Over and over again, he would escape to tell the tale; he and his friends would travel the world to defeat mystery. And at the end, I decided, there would be neat scene in which Harry would decide to invent his “cover story”, a convincing tale of how he grew up peacefully in Wisconsin, USA…

So: Young Houdini, investigator of mystery.

Cynsational Notes

Simon Nicholson is the author of The Magician’s Fire, the first book in his Young Houdini series. Young Houdini: The Magician’s Fire is published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in the U.S. and by OUP in the U.K. and rest of the world.