New Voice: Leanna Renee Hieber on Darker Still

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Leanna Renee Hieber
is the first-time YA author of Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul (Sourcebooks, 2011). From the promotional copy: 

I was obsessed. 

It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto
the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I’d ever seen–everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable…utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike.

There was a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury never had committed suicide. He was alive.
Trapped within his golden frame.

I’ve crossed over into his world within the painting, and I’ve seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me too. He and I are inextricably linked–bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit cobblestone streets of Manhattan. 

And unless I can free him soon, things will only get Darker Still.


What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year? 

1848 “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype of Poe

From a very early age I was attracted to Dickens, Poe, Austen, Wilde, 19th Century writers. I adored ghost stories and some of my earliest memories are of telling them, so Edgar Allan Poe really spoke to me from my very first encounter with his poetry and stories.

The more I write, the more I feel Poe’s influence.
I can’t explain my intense attraction to the era from such an early age–maybe a past life?

I started my first novel when I was about 12 years old, it was set in 1888, so this has always been “a thing” of mine. The 1880s has always felt like home and while I love my modern life and always have, I’ve always felt as though I am a child of that era too; that I hold an echo of it in my soul and I feel it whenever I read literature from the 1800s, enter a building from that era, listen to music of the time, or put on clothing from the time.

(Yes, my Victorian wardrobe is also “a thing”).

I’ve always been charmed by the rich language of the Victorians, by their beautiful clothing and elegance, and also horrified by the conditions so many lived in and by the arrogance and double standards.

Yet the contrast of the era is fascinating, the grit and grandeur of the era holds endless questions and curiosity for me.

Also, big words are sexy. That’s become somewhat of a mission statement for me as a writer.

Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul, set in 1880 New York City, is my tribute to my favorite writers.

It includes shout-outs to Gothic and atmospheric tales like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, the nightmarish visions of Poe and more, all my favorite classic works that have defined me (I like my classics with a scary edge).

I’ve always wanted to write a haunted painting story, so this is my chance.

The sequel, The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart, continues the Gothic adventure this November 2012.

As a historical fiction writer, how did you capture the voices of the era? What resources did you turn to? Did you run into challenges translating the language for today’s young readers? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines? 

I didn’t choose this era, this era chose me. As a pre-teen I fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic style. I loved Victorian ghost stories.

I was about 12 when I started my first novel; a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, set in 1888. The aesthetics were the first things to draw me in; the whole look of the time period, the music, the language, the literature. I studied the era in college and after graduation took to adapting works of 19th century literature for the professional stage. I acted in Victorian-set productions and got a chance to ‘live’ in the era every night on stage. I traveled for research to various Victorian sites, and I read (and continue to read) a lot of 19th century fiction.

So I’ve “experienced” this past time period in as many ways as I possibly can, so I honestly don’t think too hard about “capturing” the voices of the era. I’ve been living and breathing those voices all my life and have to trust in all my homework.

Some people suggest it’s a past life that drives me. I’m not sure; all I know is that the era is my muse.
Because I live in a modern world but feel a Victorian one within me, I feel there’s a natural fusion between the modern ear and my internal Victorian voice.

The most important resource is reading the work of the era, watching carefully researched films of the era (and on that count, I only trust the BBC for accuracy) and then distilling the density slightly for modern audiences.

Pacing has to be adjusted, too. Watching films is helpful because there’s already a more edited version of the language in a screenplay.

Author Leanna Renee Hieber by gaslamp.

In writing for teens, its important to never talk down to the teen reader, I want to challenge every reader with rich language and big sexy words.

The most important thing in writing YA is to keep in mind the themes that appeal to teens and make sure they are universal ones, themes and conflicts that will ring true no matter the era.

My editor is vital, I could never write books without editors, and we go several rounds on a book to make sure both the voice and themes are firing on all appropriate cylinders. (One of my pitfalls is always pacing.) I get reined in here and there and have to be reminded to spread out historical detail so that it’s evenly dispersed and not just little lectures. (It’s hard, because I think historical details are like gems and I want to throw them in everywhere).

But the important thing is to make sure details are doing at least double duty and telling us something not only about the era, but about the world-building, character development and or plot.

Thank you so much for the privilege of being here, Cynthia, keep up your wonderful energy and talents! Every blessing!

Cynsational Notes

Find Leanna Renee at Facebook and Twitter.

Readers, have you ever imagined yourself living a past life? What era(s) call to you?

New Voice: Krista Russell on Chasing the Nightbird

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Krista Russell is the first-time author of Chasing the Nightbird (Peachtree, 2011)(teachers guide). From the promotional copy:

Fourteen-year-old Lucky Valera is a seasoned sailor about to join the crew of the whaling ship, Nightbird. But when his estranged older brother suddenly kidnaps him and forces him into servitude as a mule spinner at the mill, his life takes a dramatic turn for the worse.

Determined to escape, Lucky links up with some unlikely allies: Daniel, a fugitive slave who works alongside him at the mill, and Emmeline, a Quaker ship captains daughter. Emmeline offers Lucky passage on her fathers ship in exchange for his help leading escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad, but Lucky knows getting out from under his brother wont be easy.

When their plans go awry and Daniel is threatened by ruthless slave catchers, Lucky discovers that true freedom requires self-sacrifice, and he comes eventually to realize he is part of a larger movement from which he cannot run away.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Young Krista

I grew up in New England and, as a kid, one of my favorite places to visit was the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I guess you could say my research began back then, with books from the gift shop and the rope bracelets my sisters and I wore every summer.

While New Bedford has long been famous for whaling, its connection to the Underground Railroad is not as well known. I first read about it in a newspaper story describing a secret room found when a building in the downtown area was demolished.

I was fascinated, and started to do a little digging. I learned that Frederick Douglass traveled the Underground Railroad using borrowed sailor’s protection papers. He actually lived in New Bedford and worked on the wharves as a ships caulker. Around the same time, huge textile mills had begun to spring up, competing with whaling for the city’s workforce.

It was a tumultuous period, and a story I couldn’t resist.

More about Krista

When I began research for the book, I looked at photographs, newspapers, and first hand accounts to get a picture of what New Bedford was like in the mid-1800s.

I also wanted to know more about life on a whaleship.

What I found was that the ship formed its own society, and in many ways a very egalitarian one. The work was so dangerous and the crew so dependent on one another, that their judgments tended to be based on ability rather than skin color (on my website is an advertisement made by the crew of a whaleship).

Still, my biggest roadblock was getting into the head of my main character, Lucky. Despite all the research I’d done, I was having a difficult time putting myself in the shoes of a boy who’d spent more time at sea than on land. How would he view the world? What were his hopes and dreams? What rules did he live by?

I was stuck.

After working on several different versions of the story, I set it aside for almost two years.

As writers, we often find inspiration in unlikely places. My greatest coup came from an estate sale. While looking through a box of books, I found a title I hadn’t come across in my research. Black Hands, White Sails by Patricia C. and Fredrick L. McKissack (Scholastic, 1999) is an inspiration in more ways than one.

Aside from offering a well-researched history of African American whalers, it contained a list of whalemen’s commandments. Rules such as fight anytime you think you can win, run when you think you can’t win, and never volunteer.

As soon as I read the whalemen’s commandments, I knew I’d found my main character, Lucky.


As a historical fiction writer, how did you capture the voices of the era? What resources did you turn to? Did you run into challenges translating the language of the era for today’s young readers? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines?

The voices of the era were a challenge, mainly because there was such a diverse cast of characters. I turned again to primary sources, but also to works of historical fiction to see how other authors handled the voices of their characters. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon & Schuster, 2008) is a favorite and a great example of brilliant dialogue.

Aside from the voice of a whaleman, one of my main characters is Quaker. To make her dialogue authentic I needed lots of thees, thous, and thines. Enough to make your head spin. What I’d done (at least on the first pass) was to get it written. But, of course, it was important to get it right. And to do so without making her speech so clunky that it stopped the reader.

Another challenge was that I’d fallen in love with the seafaring jargon of the era (my editor came to call it pirate-speak) and went overboard in the manuscript. I had to be brutal about cutting words or phrases with meanings not immediately clear in context. The dialogue needed to flow, and I had to resist the urge to launch into a history lesson.

An author is born!

 But I wouldn’t change the process I went though. The salty language and Quakerisms made writing the story fun.

I guess my advice to other writers would be to jump right in: immerse yourself in the voices of the era you’re writing about. Revel in the wonderful words, phrases and expressions you’ve worked so hard to uncover in your research. You can always trim the sails later.

Cynsational Notes

Don’t miss the teachers guide to Chasing the Nightbird or extras from Krista Russell.

New Voice: Shannon Wiersbitzky on Making Time to Write and The Summer of Hammers & Angels

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Shannon Wiersbitzky is the first-time author of The Summer of Hammers & Angels (Namelos, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Most folks have never seen an angel.


I know, because I’ve asked them.


I asked Miss Martha at the post office.


“Maybe someday, Delia, God willing.”


God does a lot of willing in Tucker’s Ferry, West Virginia.



The Summer of Hammers and Angels is the story of an amazing summer in a girl’s life, a summer of surprises and challenges, of shocks and recovery, of discoveries and friendship, and of loneliness and community.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career?

Know that excuse? It’s the one that goes like this, “I’d (fill in the blank), but I don’t have any time.”

Whether we like to admit it or not, each of us makes time for the things that matter to us—family, friends, exercise, television, shopping, even house cleaning.

We all have time.

We simply choose to prioritize it in different ways.

I’m a working mom with two young boys, ages 11 and 8. I do not have a nanny or an au pair or a maid. The choices I make: involved in homework and reading at school, not involved in organizing parties or chaperoning trips, and I probably choose to clean less than the average mom…unless company is coming.

As for the working part, I am the Director of Market Research and Voice of Client for one of the world’s largest investment firms. I spend roughly 50 hours a week uncovering why people do the things they do, and how they think.

Oh, and I write.

I know a few things about busy. According to family legend, I was born with a day planner in one hand. And according to that day planner, seven months was plenty long enough to gestate, thank you very much! I had things to do, stuff to accomplish!

So out I came, feet first, ready to tackle the world. I was type A from the get go.

On that day planner this week, and for as long as I can remember, read, is always a to-do.

Robert C. O’Brien’s books spoke to me as a child, The Silver Crown (Atheneum, 1968), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Atheneum, 1971), and Z for Zacariah (Atheneum, 1975), which is a gripping tale of a teen girl who may be the last survivor of a nuclear war. I recently reread Z for Zacariah, and it was just as compelling as I remembered!

John Christopher’s sci-fi Tripod Trilogy—The White Mountains (Simon and Schuster, 1967), The City of Gold and Lead (Simon and Schuster, 1968), and The Pool of Fire (Simon and Schuster, 1968), were three I read and reread (and bought again as an adult). I’d lay awake at night imagining looming silver alien machines pulling me up and capping me, then controlling my mind. Eek!

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

When friends and colleagues find out that I write, their eyebrows arch, the tone of their voice jumps two octaves and they say, “How do you find time for that?”

My answer is simple.

I get up earlier. I choose to sleep a little less so I can write. As the pop music begins to play, my alarm clock flashes 4:30. (Full disclosure. I usually hit snooze once.)

Our guest bedroom doubles as my writing “office”. I wish I had one of those perfect offices I see in other blogs, with lovely cork boards packed full of ideas. Instead, I shuffle into my guest room each morning yawning, snuggle into the blankets, fluff the pillows behind my back just so, pull my laptop off the night table, settle it on my lap and away I go. When I work, this is what I see.

 
I’d say about 90% of my writing is done in the dark.

For me, maybe because of the time and space and lighting of where I write, writing feels like an extension of a dream. Still drowsy and warm and flexible from the night, I can string together words and images without interference from anything “normal” around me. No TV, no music, just the tip-tap of my fingers on the keyboard, the occasional bird chirp from some other early riser, and the deep hum of the heater as it kicks on in the basement.

Now there are days (or weeks) when that alarm screams at me and I do not feel like getting up. My blankets could win an Academy Award some mornings. I think about how wonderful the fresh air from the cracked window feels on my face, I replay whatever dream was interrupted and I think, maybe I’ll skip writing today.

That is when day planner me takes over with a bullhorn and a cattle prod. I nudge myself awake with whatever motivational tactics are required for the day. The only way to get published is to write! Or I might think through my to-do’s—finish Chapter 15, rename that character, think of a better ending for Chapter 3. Sometimes I need to take the drill-sergeant approach: Get your lazy butt up and write!

I’d say I have a 95% success rate.

What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

More from Shannon on Writing

If you’re not already in the habit of writing, then find 10 or 15 minutes a day to start. Try to make it the same time every day. Not everyone is a morning person. Writing at the stroke of midnight might work better, or a few minutes over lunch (which I did for years).

I heard Eileen Spinelli say once that she stole minutes here and there for writing…in the line at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office with the kids, or waiting at a sports event for school. I thought…I can do that!

You can do that too. If you feel inspired to put words on paper, choose to write!

Cynsational Notes

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of The Summer of Hammers & Angels are donated to Habitat for Humanity®.

New Voice: Helen Landalf on Flyaway

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Helen Landalf is the first-time novelist of Flyaway (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year-old Stevie Calhoun is used to taking care of herself. But one night, her mom, who works as an exotic dancer in a downtown Seattle nightclub, never comes home.

That’s the night Stevie’s life turns upside down.

It’s the night that kicks off an extraordinary summer: the summer Stevie has to stay with her annoyingly perfect Aunt Mindy; the summer she learns to care for injured and abandoned birds; the summer she gets to know Alan, the meanest guy in high school.

But most of all, it’s the summer she finds out the truth about Mom.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

There were a number of things I had to research in order to make Flyaway as authentic as possible. For one thing, I had to learn about the rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wild birds.

Visit PAWS

Print research is never enough for me, so I decided to get some hands-on experience by volunteering to work in the Bird Nursery at my local PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society). There I learned how to feed baby birds with an eyedropper, watched the birds progress from incubator to basket to aviary, and even got to witness a rehabilitated robin’s release back into the wild.

One of the major characters in my novel grew up in foster homes, so I needed to find out how that might have affected him emotionally. For that piece of research, I turned to a co-worker’s husband, who not only grew up in the foster-care system but also now works for the Anna E. Casey Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping foster kids. I did a phone interview with him and also had him vet portions of my manuscript for authenticity.

The most difficult aspect of my novel to research was methamphetamine use; as dedicated as I am to hands-on research, I draw the line at engaging in illegal activities. Both fortunately and unfortunately, someone close to me is a former meth addict, so my portrait of Stevie’s mom is largely based on my experience with that person. I also frequented some Internet sites where users discuss methods of taking the drug, the feel of the high, etc. I even called a drug rehab center and conversed at length with an intervention specialist.

The greatest coup for me, research-wise, was being able to spend a day at Second Chance Wildlife Care Center, a wildlife rehab center based in a residential home. When I saw the teens volunteering there, completely absorbed in caring for wild birds and mammals, and when I learned that they had been placed there to fulfill a community service requirement, I knew I had found the perfect model for the bird rehab clinic in Flyaway.

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

In addition to being a writer, I work as a freelance Creative Dance teacher in preschools and a Pilates instructor at Pilates Northwest in Seattle.

I love combining teaching with writing, because I get a chance to experience both my introverted and my extroverted side each day.

And even though only one of my students is a teen (my youngest dance students are two and a half; my oldest Pilates client is 85), just being in contact with so many people and listening to their stories and concerns can’t help but stimulate the idea-generating part of my brain.

Plus, with all the butt-in-chair that writing requires, I really appreciate the fact that movement is a major part of my day job.

Add to that the fact that my work in Creative Dance has spawned five nonfiction books for teachers, and you’ll understand why, for me, teaching and writing are a match made in heaven.

Cynsational Notes

Helen is previously published in the picture book and adult nonfiction; however, the fact that this is her first YA novel makes her a “new voice” for our purposes at Cynsations.

New Voice: Prudence Breitrose on Mousenet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Prudence Breitrose is the first-time author of Mousenet, illustrated by Stephanie Yue (Hyperion, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

When ten-year-old Megan helps her uncle invent the Thumbtop, the world’s smallest computer, mice are overjoyed, and they want one for every mouse hole.

The Big Cheese, leader of the Mouse Nation, has orders: follow that girl—even if it means high-tailing it to Megan’s new home on the other side of the country. While Megan struggles as the new girl, the mice watch, waiting for their chance. But when they tell Megan the biggest secret in the history of the world—mice have evolved, and they need her help—she isn’t sure anyone will believe her. 

With all of Mouse Nation behind her, Megan could become the most powerful girl alive, but just how will she create a Thumptop for every mouse?

Brought to life with whimsical illustrations, Prudence Breitrose’s debut novel is full of charm and adventure and will captivate today’s computer-savvy middle-graders.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

In a sense, the research process approached me in a dream that confused computer mice with the real thing. That led me almost seamlessly into the world of the rapidly evolving Mouse Nation, with its complex systems of governance and education and communication.

True, where mice were concerned, I positively avoided biological research so that I wouldn’t have to face up to certain inconvenient truths, such as their short lifespan and their inability to discipline poop. But I wanted everything else in the book to be as fact-based as possible–to give my speculative fiction the most solid of foundations.

With the help of Google, I scoured airplane and Greyhound timetables to make sure my characters’ travel plans made sense; checked height limitations at the Great America theme park to verify that my Megan was tall enough to ride the Demon; found the correct names of local newspapers; and knew the venue where rock groups perform in Eugene, Oregon.

I even annoyed my editor by pointing out that in an illustration showing a Thumbtop computer strapped to the back of a mouse, the Velcro was only about 1/8th of an inch wide whereas–according to my research–the Velcro company made nothing narrower than 1/4th of an inch. (She won that round).

My most intensive research involved climate change, which is a major theme of the book. I don’t include much hard environmental science, but the book does assert as a given (through the Big Cheese, my mouse leader) that climate change is happening, and that human activity is responsible. To back up my mouse, I worked my way through a half-dozen climate books, and my computer is set to produce instant facts about (say) the melting rate of Greenland glaciers, or why the Medieval Warm Period wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

That’s not because I doubt the wisdom of the Big Cheese (mice know everything) but in case I have to defend him: I had visions of climate-skeptics complaining noisily that children were being brain-washed (by Disney, no less) into believing unproved theories that in their view had been cooked up by Al Gore and his scientist cronies to make money.

Please note that my main goal in adding the environmental theme was not to provoke. I fervently want to help children accept the facts about climate change and know that they can do something about it. But a little provoking wouldn’t hurt.

Consider The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Simon & Schuster, 2006). All it took for that book to be banned in certain school libraries (and celebrated on NPR and in the New York Times) was the mention of one dog scrotum. Surely climate change could get Mousenet a little of the same treatment? Rush Limbaugh? Glenn Beck? Anyone?


How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

No offense to my agent, who is the best, but I didn’t do a lot of deciding. After years of rejection from almost every children’s agent in the business, I would have agreed to be represented by a ham sandwich. Any “deciding” was on the other side.

When I’d finished the first draft of my book in 2003, and considered it perfect, I sent off query letters to six children’s agents. Five replied with rejections, but one asked for the first 50 pages. On the strength of that sample, he asked for the complete manuscript which I sent without an SAE because hey, the book was as good as sold. Right?

Prudence’s writing space in her kitchen.

I heard nothing for weeks. Months. At this time, let it be said, I was working in a ridiculous state of isolation. I hadn’t joined a critique group because I thought criticism could squash the fragile flower of my creativity. I wasn’t reading current children’s books because I was afraid that a) I might inadvertently plagiarize or b) I would be so intimidated that the fragile flower of my creativity would wilt. I didn’t even dare try out the book on the nine-year-old next door, because what if she didn’t like it?

And I didn’t dare e-mail the agent to ask what he’d thought of the book. My response to him (as to all subsequent agents who turned me down) was internal. Surely he must have disliked such and such an angle in my story? No problem, I could fix that. Maybe he didn’t like that particular character? I’d throw her out.

In six months, I’d corrected the imagined faults so that now the book was really perfect, and in the fall of 2003 I e-mailed the agent with that great news. Yes, he remembered that book. By all means, send the new version along,

And so I did. And again, silence for months and again, I thought my way into his brain. Maybe he would have liked more adventure? No problem. I could add adventure. A visit to the Headquarters of the Mouse Nation–that would provide the oomph that was missing.

In the spring of 2004 I was still busy adding adventure when the agent’s assistant called to ask if the manuscript was still available. Was it ever! She gave me her own comments–the mice were fine but my humans weren’t sufficiently differentiated. No problem! I spent a month differentiating humans and off went the manuscript again. Surely this time, with extra adventure and better humans?

And indeed there was a response this time, in the form of a rejection letter: “While I am impressed by the storyline changes, ultimately this just isn’t ringing true for me.”

Yes, she liked the mouse world “that you have imagined so vividly,” but “the characters and the dialogue, while improved, are still not on the level that I think is necessary.”

This letter should perhaps have been the signal to give up. If I, as a human, couldn’t write humans, was there any real hope? Was it time to try a picture book? Tiptoe into the fertile fields of YA? Find a co-author for Mousenet who could help me with the human thing?

But I thought it worth one more try, even if that turned into several more tries. Once a year, more or less, I would discover a new angle, or shoehorn a new adventure into the plot, or have my humans try on new personae. And with each version I would invent new ways to approach agents. “I see your agency has moved to Palo Alto. What a co-incidence, that’s where I live!” Or “I see in a profile of you that you have red hair. What a coincidence–so does my protagonist!” And sometimes these agents would consent to read the first chapters, but no more.

Socially, these years had their awkward moments when I had to admit that, yes, I was still working on that mouse book. The looks were pitying.

I was known as a good writer, inventing crisp new ways to get health information into people. But a mouse book might be beyond me. Just a nice hobby that kept me off the streets.

Seven years after I’d started the book, my husband and I were passing through Amsterdam, and had dinner with an ex-student of his, a woman of the new age persuasion.

Like most people who are not agents, she was fascinated by the outline of my story, and asked the simple question: once mice prevailed upon my ten-year-old human to help them get computers, wouldn’t they then have a fantastic opportunity to do good? How could mice best make use of all that power?

Once I thought about it, the answer was obvious, because I’d been deeply influenced that year by “An Inconvenient Truth,” and had followed it up by reading a couple of climate books. Mice would slow down the rate of climate change. Once I had that environmental thread to weave gently through Mousenet, a crisper plot clicked into place.

And there was something else. Either I’d spent enough time with the characters to know them inside and out, or I’d finally taught myself to write, or both. My humans came alive.

Six months after Amsterdam I had a new version with a sprightly new title: Megan Saves the Planet. I e-mailed the original agent. Could he bear to see it, one more time? Sure, he wrote. One more time. I sent off the manuscript but again heard nothing for almost three months.

Then came the phone call on a Thursday evening with my husband away at an academic meeting in Brazil and only the dog to freak out with me as the agent said, “What happened? It’s great! We don’t want to change a word, except for that terrible title, which has to go.”

He handed me off to a new junior agent* so I had the best of both worlds: a big name agency, plus the energy of someone with all the time and enthusiasm in the world. And she sold Mousenet a few weeks after she started trying.

Cynsational Notes

*Prudence says: “This agent moved to Europe and I am now with a senior woman in the agency who is perfect.”

Silicon Valley’s second acts can lead to surprises by Mike Cassidy from the Mercury News. Peek: “The promise of Silicon Valley is that it’s a place for second acts and reinvention; a place where age doesn’t matter, as long as you’re creative enough; a place where believing in yourself is half, OK maybe one-quarter, of the battle. Prudence Breitrose knows all of this. She just published her first book — at age 77.”

New Voice: Kimberly Marcus on Exposed and Scritch-Scratch: A Perfect Match

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kimberly Marcus is the first-time novelist behind Exposed (Random House, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Liz is Photogirl – sharp, focused, and confident about what she sees through her camera lens. Confident that she and Kate will be best friends forever.

But everything changes in one blurry night. Suddenly, Kate is avoiding her, and people are looking the other way when she passes in the halls. 

As the aftershocks from a startling accusation rip through Liz’s world, everything she thought she knew about photography, family, friendship, and herself shifts out of focus. 

What happens when the picture you see no longer makes sense? What do you do when you may lose everything you love most?

Told in stunning, searingly raw free verse, Exposed is Kimberly Marcus’s unforgettable debut.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2011, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

When I first began writing with the goal of publication, some ten years ago, I knew I had a lot to learn. I had always loved to write, but there was much to be figure out about craft and the sometimes-crazy world of publishing. Still, I believed that, if I kept working at it, I would someday be published.

Four years earlier, I had left my job as a child therapist to raise a family. I was now a stay-at-home mom with two busy toddlers. I spent a ton of time pouring over wonderful picture books with my little ones, drooling over beautiful illustrations, soaking up the words. Then I began writing my own picture books, hoping to one day see them on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

I wrote a lot, most of it bad. I wrote more.

I dog-eared my copy of The Children’s Writers & Illustrators Market, sent perfectly formatted stories to carefully targeted editors, and piled up rejection letters. I joined SCBWI and enrolled in a year-long graduate program in picture book writing at Emerson College.

My husband was a godsend, leaving work early twice a week to care for the kids while I drove over an hour each way to Boston (and fighting rush hour to get there) for courses in both the history of children’s literature and the craft of picture book writing.

I learned. I wrote. I rewrote. I revised for editors who ended up passing. I kept writing. I was constantly in search of the best words to service my stories. I joined a critique group, attended writing conferences, and made connections with others within the fabulous community of writers for children.

On my son’s tenth birthday, in November of 2006, Susan Kochan from G.P. Putnam’s Sons left a message saying that she loved the revision I had sent her and wanted to publish my first book.

Learn more about Scritch-Scratch: A Perfect Match

Fast forward to April 14th, 2011, when that book, Scritch-Scratch A Perfect Match, hit the shelves.

Happy Day!

Though that picture book was the first book I sold, it was not the first book of mine to be published.

At around the same time as I got “the call” from Susan, and at the encouragement of an editor I had met a SCBWI conference, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel.

I loved writing picture books, still do, but wanted to see if I could pull off a longer work of fiction.

Many years and many revisions later, that work of fiction became Exposed, my first novel for young adults.

Exposed started out as the story of Kate Morgan, a high-school senior trying to cope after being raped by her best friend’s brother. Having work with trauma survivors, and having experienced trauma myself, I felt I could write this story with some authority.

Although Kate’s story was not my story, I could visualize her story arc – where she was at the beginning of the novel, and where I thought she would be at the end.

As I was writing, however, I found myself more and more intrigued by Liz, Kate’s best friend. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in her position, caught between two people she loved. For a while, to explore this more, I wrote the story in alternating chapters, from both points of view.

As I’ve mentioned, I felt as though I knew Kate’s story from the outset. It was Liz’s story that sent me stumbling and, the more I wrote, the more I knew that this novel was meant to be hers, and hers alone.

I needed to know what it would be like to be that girl.

I never do things the easy way, and I had no clue at all how Liz’s story would evolve, so I had to write the novel to find the answer. I kept the faith throughout the writing process because I felt I owed it to Liz to get her story right.

In addition to the change in my point of view character, I also changed the form in which the novel was written. This story began in standard prose. As I was writing, I became stuck on the best way to show the core emotion of my character in one particular scene.

A writer friend, who knew of my love of poetry, suggested I try writing the scene as a poem, as an exercise to get “unstuck.”

I did it and it worked. I tried the same approach the next few times I was stuck and found that writing in free verse allowed me to capture snapshots of emotion, much in the way my main character used photography to capture snapshots of people.

With that realization I made the decision to write the entire novel in free verse form.

After many revisions and much hair-pulling, I sent the novel to an agent, Tracey Adams. Lucky for me, she saw something in my writing and signed me on as her client. Tracey sent the novel to Shana Corey at Random House. Shana acquired the book and, with her guidance and support, helped me shape it into the book that is now on the shelves.


Do you plan to continue writing both picture books and novels for young adults? Is it difficult to switch between writing for younger children and writing for teens?

I do plan to continue writing for both audiences, and feel as though each presents its own challenges for me as an author.

With picture books, I try to leave space for the illustrator to take the text and add something to it that will bring the book to a higher level.

Since many of my picture book texts are written in rhyme, I work hard to ensure that the words flow easily and fit well within the context of the story, and I avoid near-rhyme at all costs.

With novels, I try to make sure that each scene feels intrinsic to the story, and that the scenes serve a purpose by illuminating relevant aspects of my main character’s journey.

I love the balance I’ve found in writing funny, read-aloud picture books and novels that deal with tough issues that today’s teens might face. I hope I can continue to publish books for both audiences for a very long time.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more about illustrator Mike Lester.

New Voice: Mike Mullin on Ashfall

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Mike Mullin is the first-time author of Ashfall (Tanglewood, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Many visitors to Yellowstone National Park don’t realize that the boiling hot springs and spraying geysers are caused by an underlying supervolcano. It has erupted three times in the last 2.1 million years, and it will erupt again, changing the earth forever.

Fifteen-year-old Alex is home alone when Yellowstone erupts. His town collapses into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence, forcing him to flee. He begins a harrowing trek in search of his parents and sister, who were visiting relatives 140 miles away.

Along the way, Alex struggles through a landscape transformed by more than a foot of ash. The disaster brings out the best and worst in people desperate for food, clean water, and shelter. 

When an escaped convict injures Alex, he searches for a sheltered place where he can wait—to heal or to die. Instead, he finds Darla. Together, they fight to achieve a nearly impossible goal: surviving the supervolcano.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

My first reading materials were library science textbooks my mother foisted on me.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The truth is that, in a way, I foisted the library science textbooks on her.

Before I was born, she taught kindergarten in the Denver Public School system. They had a crazy rule that any pregnant women had to resign her teaching position and couldn’t return until her youngest child turned two. (I still don’t understand exactly where they thought all those kindergarteners came from.) Dad was in seminary and regularly driving their only car to Medicine Bow, Wyoming to preach.

Luckily, their apartment was next door to the University of Denver’s librarianship school, so Mom and I attended together.

I mean that literally. Mom was a great believer in reading out loud to babies. She would bounce me on her knees while reading her librarianship textbooks to me. It worked, too, since I was reading on my own before I turned four. But I still have a powerful aversion to reading library science textbooks.

Eventually, I graduated from textbooks to picture books. From age two to four my favorite book was Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963). My younger brother and I had a special ritual for it—when Mom reached the words, “‘And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!’” we would begin to dance. We didn’t need any music, just the example of Max and his subjects over the three full-page spreads that followed.

The other book I loved at that age was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (Houghton Mifflin, 1939), for perhaps obvious reasons. When Darla is geeking out over construction equipment in Ashfall, I’m definitely writing what I know.

By kindergarten, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (Hodder and Stoughton, 1911) had supplanted Sendak. I even went so far as to organize a production of it in my backyard. I recruited classmates to act, held rehearsals, and scheduled a big opening night (well, afternoon) with parents and classmates comprising the audience. When Mom asked why I didn’t have a role in my own play, I told her indignantly, “I can’t act—I’m the director.” The young actor assigned to play Captain Hook froze up with stage fright so bad he peed his pants. I convinced Dad to jump in and improvise the role.

Our family was firmly middle class, and I got all the usual stuff for Christmas: Lincoln Logs, Legos, even a bicycle one year. But the best Christmas gift of my childhood was the one I got while I was in fourth grade—a boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Geoffrey Bles, 1956).

I read the series eleven times over the following year, keeping count with hash marks inside the front covers. That year I’d been placed in a gifted and talented class with a particularly vicious and mean-spirited teacher, Mrs. Walsh, and C.S. Lewis provided me with a much-needed escape.

Once, I escaped in a literal as well as figurative sense—Mrs. Walsh interrupted her excruciatingly boring lecture about reading to scream, “Michael Mullin, if you’re just going to read that book under your desk, you can go out in the hall to do it!” Busted! So I calmly got up, left the classroom, and settled in one of the study carrels in the hall to finish The Horse and His Boy (1954).

As a teenager, I needed the escape books provided even more desperately. I read adult science fiction and fantasy voraciously, but my favorite book was one written for teens: Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (Scribner, 1955). It described my perfect world—one without adults, where teens could live without the oppressive constraints of parents and teachers. Like the protagonist, Rod Walker, I was interested in primitive survival at that time. I practiced building shelters, foraging for edible plants, and matchless fire starting, both on my own and with the Boy Scouts.

Today I prefer a lighter or matches for starting fires and hotel rooms over improvised shelter, but I still enjoy foraging for edible wild plants.

With Ashfall, I attempted to write the sort of book I would have loved as a teenager. So I dispense with all the adults in Alex’s life in the first chapter, much as Heinlein did in Tunnel in the Sky. And though the positive reviews and awards Ashfall has garnered have been thrilling, my highest hope for my work is that it will provide a few teens what Heinlein, Lewis, Peck and so many other authors provided me: a few hours of blissful escape from a childhood that was sometimes difficult to endure.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

Shirley and Mike Mullin at Kids Ink

When I finished rewriting and polishing the manuscript for Ashfall, I spent more than two weeks working on the four paragraphs of my query letter. I chose five literary agents to send it to, working mostly from Casey McCormick’s excellent Agent Spotlight series of blog posts.

Four hours later, I had my first request for a full manuscript. What’s all this fuss about how difficult it is to get a literary agent? I wondered.

Well, I found out. Two months and three batches of query letters later, every agent that responded had rejected Ashfall.

At the same time my mother, who now owns Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore in Indianapolis, had mentioned the manuscript to two editors.

One still hasn’t responded to my submission. The other was Peggy Tierney of Tanglewood Books.

With a firm offer of publication in hand, I figured signing with an agent would be easy. Not so much. I added a sentence about Tanglewood’s offer of publication to my query letter and sent it off to five more agents. Four of them rejected Ashfall, and one never replied.

Frustrated, I gave up and negotiated my own contract. I’m still not represented by a literary agent, although now that Ashfall has sold through its first printing in four weeks flat and been listed on Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011 list, I’ve had agents sending me queries.

If you’re struggling with getting published, take heart from my story. Yes, your work might not be ready. But it might also be great work that simply hasn’t found a champion.

I’m pretty confident that Ashfall wasn’t garnering rejections due to its quality. The prolific science fiction author Jay Lake said it best: to succeed as a fiction writer you need psychotic persistence. Or a mother in the industry. In my case, it took both.

New Voice: Winifred Conkling on Sylvia & Aki

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Winifred Conkling is the first-time author of Sylvia & Aki (Tricycle Press, 2011). From the promotional copy: 

Sylvia never expected to be at the center of a landmark legal battle. All she wanted was to enroll in school.

Aki never expected to be relocated to a Japanese internment camp in the Arizona desert. All she wanted was to stay on her family farm and finish the school year.

The two girls certainly never expected to know each other, until their lives intersected in Southern California during a time when their country changed forever.

Here is the remarkable story based on true events of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, two ordinary girls living in extraordinary times. When Sylvia and her brothers are not allowed to register at the same school Aki attended – instead, they are sent to a “Mexican school” – the stage is set for Sylvia’s father to challenge in court the separation of races in California’s schools. 

Ultimately, Mendez vs. Westminster School District led to the desegregation of California schools and helped build the case that would end school segregation nationally.

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first – character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

As soon as I heard about Sylvia Mendez, I knew I wanted to write about her. I actually had a lightning-bolt moment: I was listening to NPR on the car radio when I heard a report about the 50th anniversary of the Brown. v. Board of Education lawsuit that desegregated the public schools.

The story mentioned a discrimination case that happened years before the Brown case. It involved a nine-year-old Mexican-American girl who wasn’t allowed to go to the “white” school near her home. The girl’s father filed a lawsuit, and Thurgood Marshall — the famous civil rights attorney – wrote a supporting brief that included the argument he would use seven years later in the Brown case.

Without Sylvia Mendez and her lawsuit, the landmark Brown case wouldn’t have happened the way it did. I was so fascinated by the NPR report that I actually pulled my car over on the side of the road and started taking notes. Seriously.

I started reading everything I could about Sylvia Mendez and the lawsuit her father filed against the school system in Orange County, California. I read thousands of pages of transcripts of the trial. To some people that might sound boring, but I found it fascinating.

Today it’s hard to imagine a Superintendent of Schools calling a group of children “inferior” in their ability to learn and saying they have “generally dirty hands, face, neck, and ears,” but that’s what happened. I cringed when I imagined Sylvia, an impressionable third-grade girl, sitting in a courtroom and listening to her school superintendent testify under oath that he considered her inferior to the white students. I couldn’t believe the cruelty of the testimony.

I wanted my readers to share my outrage, so I used the actual court transcripts as the basis of the dialogue in the court scene in Sylvia & Aki. I didn’t want to rewrite or reinterpret history. Instead, I let the Superintendent speak for himself, which I think provides a much more powerful sense of the prejudices and discrimination experienced by Mexican-Americans in southern California, 1945.

I knew the segregation lawsuit would be the backbone of the story, but as I did my research, I became emotionally involved in a second, equally compelling story that happened at the same time. In the early 1940s, Japanese families in southern California were removed from their homes and farms and forced into internment camps for the duration of World War II.

Sylvia’s story began in 1941 when she moved to a farm in Westminster, California, and was told she had to go to a “Mexican school.” But another young girl – a Japanese girl named Aki – had lived on that farm until she was forced to move to Poston, an internment camp. Here was a second young girl who was also subjected to heartbreaking discrimination. In addition to leaving her home, Aki was separated from her father for years because he was sent to a different internment camp.

Ultimately, I realized that Sylvia and Aki both had important stores to share. Their life journeys were intertwined, and I didn’t think I could tell one story without including the other.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

About Winifred

Since my book is based on actual events, the first thing I did was find Sylvia and Aki, who were now in their seventies, and make sure they were comfortable with me telling their stories.

I found them both in southern California, not too far from the 40-acre asparagus farm where my book takes place.

I spoke with the women on the phone several times, and then I went to California to interview them in person. By that time, I had fallen in love with their story and I just wanted to tell it the best way I knew how.

I struggled with the format for the book. I wrote it as nonfiction, then I rewrote it as fiction. I wrote it in first-person, then rewrote it in third-person. I wrote it using a three-part format – Sylvia’s story, Aki’s story, then the summer with the girls together – then I rewrote it in alternating points of view on a single timeline. The story is complicated in that there are distinct narrative threads, but the two story lines share a lot of common themes, and, in the end, the girls did spend time together and become friends in the summer of 1945.

My ultimate goal was to tell the story in a way that would make it most accessible to young readers. The story was true, but I wanted it to read like a novel so that young readers would identify with Sylvia and Aki as children, not historical figures.

At first I worried that choosing a fictional approach might undermine the truth of the story, but I ultimately decided that the Truth – capital “T”, the emotional truth – of what happened could best be conveyed in fiction.

I didn’t want to misrepresent any of the events, so I had both Sylvia and Aki review the text to make sure it was accurate. When they both told me I got it right, then I knew I had chosen the correct approach.

Cynsational Notes

See teachers guide for Sylvia & Aki.

New Voice: Kiki Hamilton on The Faerie Ring

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kiki Hamilton is the first-time author of The Faerie Ring (Tor, 2011). From the promotional copy:

The year is 1871, and Tiki has been making a home for herself and her family of orphans in a deserted hideaway adjoining Charing Cross Station in central London. Their only means of survival is by picking pockets. 

One December night, Tiki steals a ring, and sets off a chain of events that could lead to all-out war with the Fey. 

For the ring belongs to Queen Victoria, and it binds the rulers of England and the realm of Faerie to peace. With the ring missing, a rebel group of faeries hopes to break the treaty with dark magic and blood—Tiki’s blood.

Unbeknownst to Tiki, she is being watched—and protected—by Rieker, a fellow thief who suspects she is involved in the disappearance of the ring. Rieker has secrets of his own, and Tiki is not all that she appears to be. Her very existence haunts Prince Leopold, the Queen’s son, who is driven to know more about the mysterious mark that encircles her wrist. 

Prince, pauper, and thief—all must work together to secure the treaty…

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

My research was multi-pronged for The Faerie Ring as I had to research Victorian London along with the history of faeries. Luckily, I found both to be fascinating topics!

I wrote the first draft of The Faerie Ring in a fairly short amount of time, then in revision, spent time enriching the historical details and checking for accuracy.

For London, I’d never been there when I started writing, and actually didn’t know anything about the city. It was really quite fortuitous that I set my main character living in Charing Cross railway station, which is the true heart of London and the point from which all distances are measured to this day.

My story is considered historical fantasy, so I’ve worked hard to keep all historical facts accurate. The Faerie Ring is set in 1871 because that’s the year one of my characters, Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, was 18.

My research was conducted through a variety of sources – several books were a wonderful resource: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England by Daniel Pool (Simon & Schuster, 1993) and Victorian London, The Tale of a City 1840-1870 by Liza Picard (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005). Additionally, I used online resources, including Google Earth.

After I’d sold the book, but before I’d worked on any editorial revisions, I had the opportunity to visit London for the first time. It was a wonderful experience and probably my greatest coup in writing this book.

As everyone knows, London is an ancient city with so much history oozing out of the buildings and sidewalks, it can’t help but to inspire a writer! I got to walk in Tiki’s footsteps (my main character) from Charing Cross to St. James Park to Buckingham Palace and more. The trip was surreal and fantastic and very beneficial in filling in some of the more oblique, but still very important, details.

For faeries, I did a ton of research into the wide and varied history within the British Isles through a combination of online research and books. Additionally, part of the world is completely imagined – one that I’ve envisioned and created – based on folklore and the lives of my characters.

Of course, some of the roadblocks I faced are the fact that I’m writing about an era that I can never actually visit and a race (faeries) that are imagined, so much of what I’m writing about is created out of whole cloth, but needs to retain the flavor of actual history in a palatable way for contemporary readers. But for a fantasy writer – that’s the fun part!

Kiki on the blue bridge in St. James Park with Buckingham Palace in the distance.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Through the generosity of other authors, there is quite a bit of information out on the web that gives ideas of how to best promote a debut book. Based on this, I knew that I would need a website before I started querying agents.

The hard part when you start a website is finding content (at least it was for me) so it’s important to allow yourself enough time to create your online presence. I started more than a year before I sold my book.

I am also thrilled to be part of the Class of 2k11, which is a group of seventeen authors whose books debut in 2011. Our class follows a model that was started in 2007 by Greg R. Fishbone and has had subsequent classes each year.

We work together to market and spread the word about our books. Not only is it more fun to spread the good news about our books as a group, but it is a wonderful support network to share the ups and downs of our path to publication.

The Class of 2k11 has had the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom of the Class of 2k10 as we will be assisting the Class of 2k12.

Additionally, I’ve been part of The Elevensies, which is a much larger group of debut authors (90+ members) who also have a “share the journey” mentality and act as a great resource to post to an online forum about what we’ve learned as we progress to our release dates, as well as having a safe place to ask questions or share good and bad news.

Some of the things I have found most effective to promote The Faerie Ring have been my website and blog. I try to post three times a week on a variety of writing-related topics.

At first, it’s kind of hard work as you find your voice, but over time it becomes easier and it’s been fun to slowly watch my readership grow. Along with my official author website, I’ve created a website specific to The Faerie Ring series, and I’ve created a website for contests.

The great part of this is that I use Blogger, which allows one to easily change and update content, plus, lets you create websites for free.

Bookmarks and postcards have been very popular, and I’ve distributed those around the world, which is kind of fun to think about. I also have buttons, which seem to be in demand, so I have an easy contest for those once a month.

Some of the most influential support I’ve received has been from the blog community. I had no idea that such a fantastic and vast network of readers existed, and I have been surprised many times by their kindness and support. Bloggers offer the opportunity to spread the word about your book through weekly memes such as Waiting on Wednesday, which highlight the book that blogger is most anticipating, as well as interviews, features and blog tours.

Additionally, there is the power of Twitter and Facebook. Social networking tools like these connect you to an amazing number of people that you would otherwise never encounter. Most people tend to prefer one medium over the other (I prefer Twitter – once you get the hang of talking in small bites of conversation), but you can set your account so one feeds to the other automatically, thereby giving you a presence in both places. The hardest part becomes time management

I guess the biggest bit of advice I’d give is to take the slow and steady approach. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is an online presence. Take your time, meet new friends, build your presence at a pace that is comfortable for you and most of all – one that you can maintain consistently over time. Friends and readers will follow.

Also, I’ve made contact with my local booksellers and teen librarians to let them know of The Faerie Ring and that I’m available for discussion panels, etc.

Finally, I have been very fortunate to have the fantastic support of my team at Tor Teen: my editor, Susan Chang, the publisher, Kathleen Doherty and my publicist, Alexis Nixon, who have provided me with the opportunity to do pre-release signings of advanced reader copies (a pre-publication paperback proof of The Faerie Ring) at Book Expo America and the annual American Library Association conference, which was an unbelievably rewarding and exciting experience.

Having fans line up for a book that hasn’t even released yet is probably every author’s wildest dream!

Cynsational Notes

Follow Kiki at Twitter and friend her at facebook.

New Voice: A. LaFaye on Walking Home to Rosie Lee

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

A. LaFaye is previously published in the novel, but Walking Home to Rosie Lee, illustrated by Keith D. Shepherd (Cinco Puntos, 2011) is her debut picture book. From the promotional copy:

Young Gabe’s is a story of heartache and jubilation. He’s a child slave freed after the Civil War, and he sets off to reunite himself with his mother who was sold before the war’s end. 

“Come morning, the folks take to the road again, singing songs, telling stories and dream-talking of the lives they’re gonna live in freedom. And I follow, keeping my eyes open for my mama. 

“Days pass into weeks, and one gray evening as Mr. Dark laid down his coat, I see a woman with a yellow scarf ‘round her neck as bright as a star. I run up to grab her hand, saying, Mama?” 

Gabe’s odyssey in search for his mother has an epic American quality, and Keith Shepherd’s illustrations—influenced deeply by the narrative work of Thomas Hart Benton—fervently portray the struggle in Gabe’s heroic quest.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2011, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

It seems almost fitting that Walking Home to Rosie Lee had a long journey to publication when you consider that it’s about a type of journey that was much longer and more difficult and silent within the pages of children’s literature.

As a historical fiction writer, I’m always looking for untold stories. Or better yet, stories that have been told, but not widely shared within the children’s literature community.

The story of family reunification among African Americans who had been enslaved has been told within that community from family to family, generation to generation, and the pages of history books by influential African American historians like John Hope Franklin.

Still, the story has not been retold often in children’s book, and it’s such a story of triumph and hope and perseverance that I wanted it to be shared and celebrated. And since it’s been a question I’ve had reverberating in my throat since I was a child, it’s no surprise that I wanted to know–why?

The picture book is dedicated by LaFaye’s daughter Adia.

What kept this story out of children’s books for so long? Sadly, I found out that one of the reasons was that many editors did not see this as a unique chapter in the history in the story of African American history.

Most of the editors who rejected the manuscript said that they already had too many stories on the subject.

They lumped my manuscript into the category of “slavery” rather than seeing it as celebration of a unique aspect of the Reconstruction period.

In my research, I found that the period during the Civil War and shortly there after contained a wealth of stories of African American trials and triumph that should be celebrated in literature. For instance, why aren’t there more books about the struggle to establish African American schools, Freedman’s Bureaus that truly served the needs of the African American community (many were run corruptly by European Americans), Exodusters, and bi-cultural communities that strived to make American’s ideal of equality for all a reality?

There are excellent examples of books about this era, including picture books (I Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Trophy, 2000) and Band of Angels by Deborah Hopkins, illustrated by Raul Colon (Atheneum, 1999)), novels (Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriette Fillem Robinet (Aladdin, 2000)) and nonfiction (Into the Land of Freedom by Meg Green (Lerner, 2004)).

At the same time, there are nowhere near the number of books that the complex tapestry of this era deserves.

I couldn’t find a single book about the reunification of African American families during reconstruction, so I wanted to write one to “get the ball rolling,” as it were.

I hope and pray that my book will inspire others to write about this trying and triumphant era of African American history.

I’ll leave the story of how Rosie Lee finally found its way into print for a later question in honor of the editor and publisher who finally saw the importance of bringing this story out into the world, Lee Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press.

As far as keeping the faith goes, I’m no expert at it, but I am quite experienced. I’ve always taken the road less traveled, mostly because I know I’ll learn new things going that way.

Taking that route often meant that I had great trouble finding sources when I did research, found it hard to convince an editor to see the value in my story, and had great difficulty in finding readers to follow me down that path. The readers that could find my work generally loved it, but I’ve struggle for over a decade to find a wide readership.

I often explain to folks that I’m more of a “writer’s writer” like the character actors we recognize when we see them and admire for their work, but we really don’t follow their career.

I’m hoping that this book will find a wider reading audience and hopefully bring more readers to my other books.

Speaking of which, one of those books Stella Stands Alone (Aladdin, 2010) is the whole reason Rosie Lee came to be. Well, that book and Susan Campell Bartoletti, author of They Called Themselves The KKK (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). More on that in my answer to the next question.

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first-character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

Susan Campell Bartoletti, a dear friend and excellent teacher, once said that if you’re going to do all of the research for a historically themed book, you should write more than one book based on that research. That makes sense. You’ve done all the research. Why not look at the material from more than one perspective?

After all, history is all about perspective. Looking at the same event from multiple perspectives allows us to see how different the same historical event/period could have been for the many different people who experienced it. I’d done a lot of research for each of my historical novels, but I’d never been able to follow Susan’s advice until I wrote Stella Stands Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2008).

Set in Mississippi just after the Civil War, the novel tells the story of Stella Reid, who inherits the family plantation when her father is murdered for trying to divide the place up amongst the people his father (Stella’s grandfather) had enslaved.

Stella fights crooked bankers, malicious plantation owners, and the KKK to make good on her father’s promise.

I wrote the novel because I wanted to explore what would have happened if individual planters had made good on Sherman’s promise of “40 acres and a Mule” before President Andrew Johnson repealed it.

In the process of writing the novel, I uncovered two areas of history that I felt needed to be shared—one to be condemned, the other to be celebrated—forced apprenticeships and family reunification.

At the end of the Civil War, plantation owners pulled out all the stops to force the African Americans they had enslaved to remain indebted to them—each institution worse than the last, destroying marriage records kept by Union officers, refusing to issue marriage licenses, demolishing schools, share cropping, fear tactics like the KKK, and the list continues.

One thing they did that I had never even heard about before was forced apprenticeships where they had a child (who could have two living parents) declared a ward of the state because the parents couldn’t produce a birth certificate or a marriage license, then forced the child to work for free until his/her 21st birthday. Some parents were coerced into agreeing to these apprenticeships. Most fought for years to regain custody of their own children.

I incorporated this horrible practice into the story by having Stella’s best friend forced into an apprenticeship while her mother, Rosie, was away trying to find the three sons she was torn away from when her owner lost her in a poker game and sent her upriver to work on another plantation.

The story of Rosie and her three boys lead to the story of Rosie Lee and her son Gabriel in Walking Home to Rosie Lee. I wanted the story of family reunification to reach more readers, so I wrote it in picture book form from a new perspective, that of a young boy searching for his mother.

To write Gabriel’s story, I drew from the research I had done for Stella Stands Alone through historical records, museums, history books, and articles. So much of the story of these families didn’t make it into print, so most of the details I had to piece together from a myriad of stories within partial tales left behind in want ads (looking for lost family relatives in African American newspapers), vague descriptions of Freedman’s Bureau, petitions for marriage licenses, and personal stories like that of William Stillwell, an abolitionist who fought for decades to reunite his own family.

It’s my sincere hope that my story can hold a candle to the courage, hope, and determination of all the people who struggled through so much to reunite their families.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

The editor for Walking Home to Rosie Lee was Lee Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press. I first came to know of Ms. Byrd and her publishing company through a writer friend of mine, Eve Tal, author of Cursing Columbus (Cinco Puntos Press, 2009).

Eve had asked me for advice on her debut novel Double Crossing (Cinco Puntos Press, 2007), and when the book came out, Lee Byrd asked me to write a blurb for the back cover. I admired the Byrds’ commitment to telling unique stories, untold chapters of history, and keeping the independent spirit of publishing alive.

When I first sent the manuscript to Lee, she wrote back to say how much the story had touched her, but that she was going to pass on the story because Cinco Puntos hadn’t published any books focusing on African American history and wasn’t sure they’d have the grounding to promote the book.

Several months later, I saw Lee at a conference. We talked, and she told me that she hadn’t returned the manuscript to me because she found that she often went back to reread the story because it had touched her. I encouraged her to listen to the voice that told her it was a manuscript that was not only worth reading, but also re-reading—the hallmark of a great picture book, in my mind.

Not to mention being a distinction that I found humbling. It’s always an honor when something you’ve written resonates enough with readers to make them want to return to the story you’ve shared with them.

Lee reminded me that Cinco Puntos hadn’t published a book in this area before, and I suggested that there’s always a first time and that they’d proven with other books like Crossing Bok Chitto (written by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jean Rorex Bridges — Cinco Puntos 2006) that they could branch out into new subject areas and do very well.

She agreed that I might have something there and promised to show the book to her husband and son (Cinco Puntos is a family run company out of El Paso, Texas) and see where that might lead.

It led to them signing on the book and finding an illustrator like Keith Shepard who was ready to illustrate his first book.

So this book is a debut on three counts—my first picture book, Keith’s first book ever, and Cinco Puntos first title focusing on African American history.

It’s my hope that it’s the first in a long line of good books for all of us!

Cynsational Notes

A. LaFaye recommends The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Peek: “…the National Museum of African American History and Culture should be a place of meaning, of memory, of reflection, of laughter, and of hope. It should be a beacon that reminds us of what we were; what challenges we still face; and point us towards what we can become.”