New Voice: E. Kristin Anderson on Dear Teen Me

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

E. Kristin Anderson is the author of Dear Teen Me, co-authored by Miranda Kenneally (Zest, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Dear Teen Me includes advice from over 70 YA authors to their teenage selves. The letters cover a wide range of topics, including physical abuse, body issues, bullying, friendship, love, and enough insecurities to fill an auditorium.

So pick a page, and find out which of your favorite authors had a really bad first kiss? Who found true love at 18? Who wishes he’d had more fun in high school instead of studying so hard? Some authors write diary entries, some write letters, and a few graphic novelists turn their stories into visual art.

And whether you hang out with the theater kids, the band geeks, the bad boys, the loners, the class presidents, the delinquents, the jocks, or the nerds, you’ll find friends–and a lot of familiar faces–in the course of Dear Teen Me.

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

You know, this is a funny question for me. And I think that’s because my first reaction is, well, I was a precocious reader who “outgrew” the small YA section (it was so tiny when I was young – so glad it’s huge now!) and moved on from Judy Blume, Gary Paulsen, and Lois Duncan to adult fantasy authors like Piers Anthony before giving up reading altogether in high school because I couldn’t keep up with the assignments.

But then I remembered that one of my favorite books in sixth grade was Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic. It’s a book that blew my world wide open.Some people refer to it as the modern Anne Frank, and it’s an apt comparison, since Zlata’s Diary is the diary of a young girl in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.

I identified with her. And all I wanted to read after that was diaries. There weren’t a lot, and for the rest of sixth grade, I mostly read Lurlene McDaniel books about kids dealing with illness and other “real life” issues.

So maybe it’s some strange twist of fate that my first book isn’t one of the novels I’ve written (and, fingers crossed, ones you’ll be able to find next to Dear Teen Me on a shelf one day soon), but a collection of true stories about real life issues.

I wasn’t thinking of Zlata when I started the blog or even when Miranda Kenneally and I began putting together the book. But I’m certainly thinking of her now. And I really hope that teens read some of the true stories in Dear Teen Me and think “that’s like me” or “that could be someone I know” or “I feel less alone” or “I feel like a world citizen today.”

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

Teen E. Kristin in pink pleather pants!

In 2010, I went to a Hanson concert with my boyfriend. It was the first time I’d seen Hanson, and I spent most of my teenage years idolizing the band. They were my age, they were living their dream as artists and musicians, and I loved their music. I wanted so badly to see them live, but when I was in high school, they never toured close enough to Maine (where I grew up) for me to see them.

So when I was at the concert, I kept thinking about my teen self, and how much she would have loved to be there. I went home and wrote an epically long post on my blog, a letter to my teen self, about the concert, and how much Hanson meant to us then and how it still was something we would love as an adult.

I was sitting at a café with P.J. Hoover, Jessica Lee Anderson, and K.A. Holt when I was struck with the idea that this would make a great blog. I emailed about 50 authors I knew, figuring maybe half of them would be interested. I was overwhelmed by the yesses.

And Miranda offered to help, which was amazing, because I was in desperate need of it.

When we put together the blog, we thought it was great to have a space for authors to reach out to teens in this entertaining but also heartwarming way. I think a lot of adults have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager – and why wouldn’t they? Being a teen is really, really hard!

But authors – YA authors especially – remember those years viscerally. And was (and still is) a space where teens can come and find adults who remember and care.

The fact that a book came of it is still surprising and exciting for me. I love that teens will be able to hold these letters in their hands, and pass them around, and share the issues that were just as real in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s as they are now. It’s been fascinating for us to see how no matter how different the hair and the clothes and the cars are, the insecurities, the bad days, and the big issues have remained the same.

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?

I’m going to talk about my publisher, Hallie Warshaw. She wasn’t the editor of the book, but she had a huge impact on how the book looks and feels, the concepts we ran with, and ultimately, the fact that it even exists.


I met Hallie at ALA Annual in New Orleans in 2011. I was approaching the Zest/HMH booth about possibly getting a few Dear Teen Me letters from her authors for the website.

Hallie saw my business card and asked me about it and the website. And after I explained the concept, she said it would make a great book, gave me her card, and told me to get in touch.

I immediately texted Miranda, my co-editor, who is represented by Sara Megibow. And the more we all talked with Hallie, the more we knew this was the best place for a Dear Teen Me anthology.

I think one thing that really struck me was the beauty of Zest’s books. If you haven’t picked one up yet, you should! Most of their books have full-color interiors, innovative design work, and a really fun feel. Dear Teen Me is as much about nostalgia as it is about teen issues, and I loved the idea of having a fun book that could actually include our embarrassing teen photos, and the possibility of having a few extras – like the “sidebars” throughout the book featuring answers to questions like “What was your first job?” and “What was your most embarrassing moment?”

Also, Hallie and I talked a lot at ALA and in other meetings about how there isn’t a whole lot of nonfiction out there for teens. It’s getting better, but we’re not there yet. And Zest is doing a fabulous job of filling that niche with smart, funny, beautiful, important books.

I’m proud to be a part of the extended Zest family!


Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

I have been really fortunate to have a number of amazing writers in my
life, but I think the one person that truly took me to that next level
is Jessica Lee Anderson.

Emily (with Jessica) mugs for the camera, photo by K.A. Holt

We met when I was a bookseller helping out at an SCBWI event. We were introduced by Madeline Smoot, publisher at CBAY books, who went to Hollins University with Jessica. We had an immediate connection (it was totally kismet!) and agreed to start meeting for critique.

 At the time, I was still working on finishing my first novel, and she was working on a middle grade adventure.

When we traded manuscripts, I was really apprehensive. Jessica was a pro, she had actual books out, and she was trusting me with a work in progress.

I told her that I didn’t know how much I could offer her as an unpublished writer. And she told me that it didn’t matter, because she knew how much I read, and the best critique partners are good readers. (She heard this from Linda Sue Park at an SCBWI conference, and it’s true!)

We’ve since learned so much from each other – about writing, about life, about the publishing industry. She’s always been amazingly encouraging, and never for a minute doubted that I’d “make it.” I love having Jessica not only as a critique partner and mentor but as a friend. She’s truly a blessing! (And she’s also on the cover of Dear Teen Me – see if you can spot her!)

Follow the Dear Teen Me blog tour for more information, contest & giveaways.

Cynsational Notes

Dear Teen Me contributors include Cynthia Leitich Smith.

New Voice: Lana Krumwiede on Freakling

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lana Krumwiede is the first-time author of Freakling (Candlewick, 2012). From the promotional copy:

In twelve-year-old Taemon’s city, everyone has a power called psi — the ability to move and manipulate objects with their minds. 

When Taemon loses his psi in a traumatic accident, he must hide his lack of power by any means possible.

But a humiliating incident at a sports tournament exposes his disability, and Taemon is exiled to the powerless colony. The “dud farm” is not what Taemon expected, though: people are kind and open, and they actually seem to enjoy using their hands to work and play and even comfort their children.

Taemon adjusts to his new life quickly, making friends and finding unconditional acceptance. But gradually he discovers that for all its openness, there are mysteries at the colony, too — dangerous secrets that would give unchecked power to psi wielders if discovered.

When Taemon unwittingly leaks one of these secrets, will he have the courage to repair the damage — even if it means returning to the city and facing the very people who exiled him?

A thrilling, fast-paced dystopian novel about the dangers of unchecked power and the dilemmas facing a boy torn between two ways of life.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

Photo by Robyn O’Neill

My critique group has been a major player in the creation of Freakling. When I joined the group, I was writing short stories and poems for magazines. This was great training for me and I enjoyed it.

A few years later, I decided to tackle a novel and my group was were tremendously supportive. Without that encouragement, I’m not sure I would have finished.

As it was, it took me three years to write the book, which is a long time to sustain the kind of focus that novel writing requires. Their comments helped me find the story I needed to tell. Their enthusiasm motivated me through many setbacks.

About two years into the all this, I moved from Idaho to Virginia and immediately started looking for another group. After dozens of calls and emails, I discovered there was no in-person critique group for children’s writers in my area, so I started one.

Once again, they became a vital source of energy and motivation. I got myself stuck in this endless loop of feeling the manuscript wasn’t good enough and launching into another round of nit-picky revisions.

Polishing your manuscript is important, to be sure; but in this case, revision became a safe place for me. Finally, one of the members of the group pulled me aside and said, “You’re procrastinating. There’s no good reason not to start submitting.” And I knew he was right. I promised that I would submit before the next meeting.

Things happened fast after that. When the group met again, I had four agents that were considering the full manuscript. I signed with my amazing agent, Molly Jaffa of Folio Literary Management, a couple of weeks later.

My Virginia group has been together for three years now, and it just keeps getting better. Now we are helping each other with book promotion in addition to our critique sessions.

As a fantasy writer, how did you go about building your world?

Lana’s world building binder

The idea for this story was rattling around in my head for some time before I finally tried to actually write the first chapter. I knew that I needed to understand psi, how it worked and what the limitations and rules were.

For that, I read a lot about the theories behind telekinesis—there are rational people who believe that it is theoretically possible—and even got on a few discussion boards to ask some questions. One or two people took the time to reply and that was extremely helpful.

After I had psi figured out (more or less), I started on the things that would affect a child’s life the most: school, family life, religion. But as I continued writing, I continually came to scenes where I needed more.

It was a tedious business—I won’t lie about that. I would write a little, and I’d come to a part where they needed to ride in a car. I’d have to shift from writing mode to world-building mode. What was the car like? Who drove it and how? What did the street signs look like?

Before I could write again, I’d work on that for a few days, jotting down notes, drawing pictures, a map of the city, and organizing all this in a binder. This happened many times with different topics—geography, commerce, food, clothing. The binder filled up quickly.

More than once, I had to go back and rewrite scenes to reflect the world building I was doing along the way. I wanted to show that psi had affected life so deeply that even the most basic, ordinary things had changed. At the same time, I wanted to show what hadn’t changed—kids still pushed the boundaries their parents provided, for example.

There’s another aspect that I call micro world-building; that is, the culture and traditions of that particular family. Taemon’s family is more religious than most others in his community, so their ways of doing things are slightly different. I needed to show that, too, a culture within a culture. Layers of world building.

It was a lot of work, but I absolutely loved it. One of the first things that people mention about Freakling is the world building, and that makes me happy.

Cynsational Notes

Download a three-chapter excerpt of Freakling for Kindle or Nook. See also Classroom Discussion Questions.

New Voice: Kimberly Sabatini on Touching the Surface

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kimberly Sabatini is the first-time author of Touching the Surface (Simon Pulse, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Life-altering mistakes are meant to alter lives…

When Elliot dies for the third time, she knows this is her last shot. There are no fourth-timers in this afterlife, so one more chance is all she has to get things right. 

But before she can move on to her next life, Elliot will be forced to face her past and delve into the painful memories she’d rather keep buried. Memories of people she’s hurt, people she’s betrayed…and people she’s killed.

As she pieces together the mistakes of her past, Elliot must earn the forgiveness of her best friend and reveal the truth about herself to the two boys she loves…even if it means losing them both forever.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

I thought I would talk a little bit about my sixth grade teacher. I had a series of hardworking, caring English teachers over the course of my childhood. Seriously, they were all great, but I thought I would tell you about the one teacher I hated.

I was scared to death of Mrs. Mignault. At the time, I was convinced that she was Satan’s handmaiden. Perhaps this was just an unfortunate side effect of spending too many years in Catholic school. Or maybe it was because she was strict and grouchy most of the time. Or perhaps it was because I adored my fifth grade teacher more than I’d ever loved a teacher before.  I’m sure the truth is a jumble of all those things, but for the record, I was not optimistic about the sixth grade.

I remember the English class where Mrs. Mignault had written a poem on the black board. With her thin lips pressed tightly together, she made us copy it down and commit it to memory—groan.

The poem was “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, May 1915. Mrs. Mignault began to recite the words. She walked us through each line. And we were quiet. We were listening.

 Instead of yelling at us, she was talking to us. It was the moment I realized she had poetry in her soul. The subject and the words moved her—she felt them deeply. It was about war and loss, and I could picture it all so clearly.

From that moment on, I never looked at her or poetry the same way again. She taught me that words had the power to transform people. I never told anyone what a life-changing experience I had that day in sixth grade. They would have laughed at me. Even so, I’m sorry I kept it a secret. I wish she would have known—that from that day on—a piece of me loved her.

John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.
Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, May 1915

Perhaps Mrs. Mignault is watching me. Maybe she’ll see the day that I hold my book in my hands. And if I’m lucky, she’ll know that I’ve taken her torch and I hold it high.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

I’m a mom of three boys ages eleven, nine and seven. They were six,
four and two when I started to write Touching the Surface. My dad had
passed away when I was pregnant with my youngest son. 

Right around that time, a lot of things were pointing me in the direction of writing. A friend took me to an author luncheon, I needed to have an outlet for my feelings about my dad and quite honestly, I was inundated with motherhood. I needed something that belonged to me.

So when I got up the courage to join the SCBWI, I noticed there was a local conference coming up and it was practically in my hometown.

The only problem–it was on my youngest son’s second birthday.

I always believe that my dad must have been pushing me from behind, telling me to go. But I fought it, even though it felt so right. It took awhile to digest the fact that my husband “misses” lots of birthdays when he’s at work. There was a lot of “mommy guilt” before I figured out that being gone for the day didn’t mean I was going to miss the celebration. So—I went. And I’m so glad I did.

Inspired by the conference, particularly Laurie Halse Anderson and K.L. Going, I signed up for an intimate workshop and critique with Kelly (K.L. Going.) I went home and I started to write Touching the Surface so that I would have something for her to look at.

Making that time for myself never scarred my kids, it’s allowed them to see me have passion and determination. They witnessed a dream in the making. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts I could give to them.

As a primary caregiver, I also recommend putting things in perspective. Stop being so hard on yourself.

My code word is flexibility. I’ve stopped beating myself up about my inability to keep a writing schedule or even having enough butt-in-chair time. I write in my head while I’m at the playground. I develop characters while I’m counting Box Tops, and I listen to audio books while I do the laundry or take a shower.

I don’t apologize when I have a week when the kids are sick or obligations have to get done. I also don’t beg forgiveness for the times when I rent a movie or I when I tell the kids that it is not my job to entertain them—they’re kids—they need to use their imagination and play.

My last piece of advice is to stock up. One day, several years ago, my boys came and told me that they had no clean socks to wear to school. I did what every short-for-time, over-worked forgot to do the laundry, aspiring author does…I made them wear my small, stretchy socks instead.

Problem solved—until my oldest boy reminded me, that he was also down to his last pair of underwear. It was firmly suggested that I do some laundry—very quickly—because he had no intentions of wearing my underwear to school the next day.

I got it done. But now we have a supply of underwear and socks that could take us through the apocalypse. Totally, not a bad thing.

New Voice & Giveaway: L.B. Schulman on League of Strays

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

L.B. Schulman is the first-time author of

League of Strays (Abrams/Amulet, 2012)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

This suspenseful debut follows a group of teenage misfits in their delicious quest for revenge on those who have wronged them at their high school.

When a mysterious note appears in Charlotte’s mailbox inviting her to join the League of Strays, she’s hopeful it will lead to making friends. What she discovers is a motley crew of loners and an alluring, manipulative ringleader named Kade. 

Kade convinces the group that they need one another both for friendship and to get back at the classmates and teachers who have betrayed them. 

But Kade has a bigger agenda. In addition to vandalizing their school and causing fights between other students, Kade’s real intention is a dangerous plot that will threaten lives and force Charlotte to choose between her loyalty to the League and her own conscience. 

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

When I wrote League of Strays, I never thought of it as “edgy,” but as it turned out, it’s definitely being perceived that way. I know there are some readers who’ve been scared off by the subject matter of revenge and bullying.

I didn’t think of it as edgy as I was writing it because I wrote the story through Charlotte’s point of view, who starts out rather naïve and innocent for her age. I viewed what was happening through her eyes, even justifying the other characters behaviors as she would.

In the end, I think this was the right way to write the book. It’s powerful, and it’s scary at times, but I think it’s a better book for the undiluted strength of its message.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

It’s a very hard balance to strike, and I am still learning how to do it. With a fall release date, summer was the prime planning time, and also happened to be the time when the kids are around the most. Not so easy.

In fact, as my book got closer to publication, I have had to apply some rules for myself. Having the laptop so accessible was a real problem as I found myself constantly checking email.

So I made a rule that I couldn’t look at my laptop after 6 p.m., except for 15 minutes at 9 p.m. This has made my family much happier and has lowered my stress level, too.

Another rule is that every day, I must write an hour minimum, no matter what else calls to me, from promotion to laundry. Usually, that hour stretches longer.

I also email a writing friend every day, letting her know whether or not I’ve reached my hour goal. She does the same. This holds us accountable.

“What writers do when we should be writing.” –L.B.S.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a bookplate-signed copy of League of Strays by L.B. Schulman (Abrams/Amulet, 2012). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: international.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

New Voice: Colleen Clayton on What Happens Next

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Colleen Clayton is the first-time author of What Happens Next (Poppy/Little, Brown, 2012). From the promotional copy:

How can you talk about something you can’t remember? 

Before the ski trip, sixteen-year-old Cassidy “Sid” Murphy was a cheerleader, a straight-A student, and a member of a solid trio of best friends. When she ends up on a ski lift next to handsome local college boy, Dax Windsor, she’s thrilled; but Dax takes everything from Sid – including a lock of her perfect red curls – and she can’t remember any of it. 

Back home and alienated by her friends, Sid drops her college prep classes and takes up residence in the A/V room with only Corey “The Living Stoner” Livingston for company. But as she gets to know Corey (slacker, baker, total dreamboat), Sid finds someone who truly makes her happy. Now, if she can just shake the nightmares and those few extra pounds, everything will be perfect… or so she thinks 

Humorous and thoughtful, Colleen Clayton’s stunning debut is a moving exploration of one girl’s triumph over tragedy. 

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

Colleen chair surfing.

I was born with cataracts so I wore extremely thick bifocals as a kid and pre-teen. Needless to say, I struggled socially.

As many bullied kids are wont to do, I turned to books for escape. It’s just so much easier to immerse yourself in another world than face the one you’re stuck in. A book can’t wound you in the way that real live people can wound you. and, if a book does hurt you, most of the time, it’s because you have invited it to do so.

As readers, we rejoice in injury because that sort of pain shapes us
and reveals our humanity. The first book that ever wounded me, that made
me cry hysterically, was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885). I was in about fifth or sixth grade and I’ll never forget it.

Huck says (about Jim): “He would always call me honey and pet me and do
everything he could for me,” I just burst into tears. I remember
shoving the book in my mother’s face while she was doing dishes, and
sobbing, saying “read this page!” I wanted her to feel what I was

But even though it made me cry, that book, and
other books that I tended to really enjoy as a young reader, all had a
deep sense of irony and wit about them and were rich with clever

I like to think that my debut contains these qualities as well, an ability to wound readers and reveal their humanity while, at the same time, eliciting sidelong smiles from them.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

Colleen in middle school.

Eh, boy. First of all, I’m really hoping that, ten or twenty years from now, my book has new readers.

Secondly, I’m hoping that these new readers will overlook my references to “ye ole Facebook” as well as what will likely be very antiquated cell phones. I hope that they overlook the security alarms, blog sites, TV show and home shopping references in the way that readers of my generation overlooked Judy Blume’s elaborate sanitary napkin belts and 12-step pregnancy test kits.

Of course you want to stay as current as possible while you’re drafting a contemporary story, but there comes a point, especially after a manuscript has been been bought and published, when a writer just has to say: “It is what it is” and let it go.

When I first started my manuscript, cellphones were not simultaneously capable of storing and playing music. I had to change that over the years-long drafting process.

Even during the copy edit phase last fall, I was changing things about the cellphones to keep up with new developments. Also, between the “last chance pass pages” and the point of debut, Facebook has changed its format, so one of my witty little techno-references is officially outdated and the book just hit the shelves.

Like I said, there comes a point when you just have to say: “It is what it is” and hope that your story is not terribly bogged down with pop-culture or technological references as to hinder the narrative over the long-haul.

At the end of the day, it’s about the story, characters, and the quality of writing. A good book will hold up over time and in the face of an advancing world.

Colleen perched on a stereo.

Cynsational Notes

Follow Colleen at Twitter.

New Voice & Giveaway: Nikki Loftin on The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Nikki Loftin is the first-time author of The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy (Razorbill, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Lorelei is bowled over by Splendid Academy–Principal Trapp encourages the students to run in the hallways, the classrooms are stocked with candy dishes, and the cafeteria serves lavish meals featuring all Lorelei’s favorite foods. But the more time she spends at school, the more suspicious she becomes. 

Why are her classmates growing so chubby? And why do the teachers seem so sinister?

It’s up to Lorelei and her new friend Andrew to figure out what secret this supposedly splendid school is hiding. What they discover chills their bones–and might even pick them clean!

Mix one part magic, one part mystery, and just a dash of Grimm, and you’ve got the recipe for a cozy-creepy read that kids will gobble up like candy. 

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

“They will rue the day.”

This was the promise one of my best writer friends in the world whispered to me through years of querying and rejections.

“Don’t worry, Nikki,” Shelli would say, kindly unwrapping another chocolate bar for me and handing me a tissue. “In the not-too-distant future, they will look back on this day and rue it so hard.”

I agreed. “One day, they will cry and bite themselves. They will wonder how they could have been so short-sighted, so stupid, so ridiculously blind to my amazing talent.”

Okay, maybe I didn’t get quite that dramatic, but it was close.

It sounds silly now, but honestly, having a friend who believed in me that much, and who was willing to share the ups and downs as well as countless chocolate and latte-filled hours re-hashing rejections, re-reading manuscripts to find what was wrong, what was missing…?

Having her kept me going.

When I first started writing for publication – really going at it, hours every day, intent on my goal – I quickly learned that the solitariness of the writing life was going to make me mad. As in, death beetles ticking in the wall, body hidden under the floorboards, Edgar Allen Poe-mad.

So, to avoid that, I started reaching out to other fledgling writers. In addition to my friend Shelli (who I had known in my previous career), I found a handful of talented, unpublished YA and MG writers at our local SCBWI meetings and lured them to my house with the promise of homemade soup and cookies.

We laughed, we cried, we critiqued. We also went to local conferences, and met more writers.

Published ones, sometimes, who – even though they were busier than we could have imagined or known – took time to give advice, sit down for coffee or lunch, and invite us into their circle.

Then, when I got the offer from Penguin for a two-book deal, those published writers sat me down again and talked me through the potential pitfalls of the debut year, and so much more. What a blessing! (Even if some of the warnings gave me the screaming heebie jeebies.)

I know now that this isn’t the way it is for most writers. Most live in communities where there aren’t any published writer/mentors (or if there are, they’re hiding really well). I meet solitary writers often when I speak in different cities about queries and pitches, when I sign books and do readings. They know they need community. They crave it like I did.

So, since they can’t all move to Austin, I send them to the next best place for kidlit writers: Verla’s.

Verla Kay, picture book author and grande dame of the online kidlit community, has created a safe place online for writers to meet, chat, and ask the awkward questions, at any stage in the game. 

On the Blueboards, as the forum is called, you can meet agents, editors, famous writers and newbies – all on the same thread. I found critique partners there, and spent countless hours in the online “trench” – where writers hang out while they wait to hear back from agents or editors.

Knowing that there were so many other people in the world who cared deeply about children and children’s literature, and who were not just willing but eager to talk about those things?

It transformed my writing life. They became another family, of sorts.

(The sort who all agreed that someday, those editors would absolutely rue the day.)

Of course, if I didn’t mention my actual family, I would be remiss. (And also, I would never hear the end of it! My mom reads everything I publish.) My two sons, both middle grade-aged, serve as my first readers as well as listeners for the final copy-edit read-through. My patient husband listens for months as I think out loud about characters. When he reads, he’s appropriately proud and particular, helping me hone my work, while saying all the nice things that we insecure writers like to hear.

The rest of my family does their part, watching the kids while I do signings and book-related trips.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Right now, as I write this, it is noon. I am in my pajamas. (I saved valuable work time by not getting dressed. Or, um, brushing my teeth. Hang on just a second. That may be taking it too far.)

My children are at school. I am not at their schools. Not volunteering for their art days, or their science labs, or eating special lunches with them. (Not that they would want me there, with the whole pajamas, no-brushed-hair look I’m sporting.)
Learning to say no to the thousand phone calls and emails from the PTA and teachers was horrifically hard, but necessary.

Here’s why: when my kids come home from school, I like to be able to engage with them. Pester them about how their day was, ask who they played with at recess, fuss over their homework. I like to be a mom, not a writer, for a little while.

But if I volunteer all day, if I go have lunches with my friends (who call me, and taunt me with their lunch plans!), I would have to use that precious afternoon kid-time for writing.

(By the way, I do volunteer. But I do it in an intentional way – that feeds my need to foster early literacy, through the Reading is Fundamental program, where I give away books to kids in disadvantaged schools. I get to read and talk to kids about books, and that’s the only acceptable reason to interrupt the sacred writing hours, in my book. Everyone reading this? Donate to RIF!)

I watch almost no television. Don’t get me wrong; I like TV. But when it comes down to it, I can’t be a productive writer, promote my book, parent my kids, and keep up on the latest “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Hoarders” episodes.

The view from Nikki’s writing desk

So I pick my own kids over “Honey Boo Boo.” And my own crazy characters over “Mad Men.”

Advice for other parent/writers?

Teach your children how to cook.

If my children hadn’t learned how to feed themselves (and me), I don’t know if they would have survived the past few years.

Sometimes, the time crunch gets on top of a writer. Sometimes, you remember to pick the kids up at the bus stop, but forget to buy groceries. Cut yourself some slack. Then teach the little tykes how to make a decent omelet and spaghetti. Not only will they gain a valuable life skill, you will avoid the dozens of burnt casseroles, like the ones I used to accidentally incinerate every time I started drafting a new novel.

Learn to overlook the kids’ messes in the kitchen. I mean, really – who are you to judge? You’re still in your pajamas at 5 p.m., and probably didn’t remember to brush your teeth either. The kitchen is way down on the list.

And never forget: If you spend time cleaning the kitchen, when you could be playing with your kid, or writing a new scene?

You will absolutely rue that day.

Book Trailer – “The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy” from Dave Wilson on Vimeo.

Cynsational Notes

“A mesmerizing read…a fantasy that feels simultaneously classic and new.” —Publishers Weekly

“A pinch of Grimm, a dash of Greek mythology and a heaping helping of fresh chills make for an irresistible contemporary fairy tale…Deliciously scary and satisfying.” —Kirkus Reviews

Cynsational Giveaway

Attention, teachers, librarians, and reading group coordinators! Enter to win a Sinister Sweetness Book Club Kit (10 copies, plus bookmarks and swag, plus a 30-minute Skype visit with Nikki)! Eligibility: North America. Note: please be sure to indicate the name of your reading group.

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New Voice: Katherine Catmull on Summer and Bird

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Katherine Catmull is the first-time author of Summer and Bird (Dutton, 2012).

When their parents vanish overnight, pragmatic Summer and her stormy, light-boned sister Bird follow a meager clue–well, it might be a clue–into the forest. 

There the sad, electric song of a patchwork bird draws them Down, where they must fight—against a ravenous, bird-swallowing Puppeteer; against each other; and against their own fears, ambitions, and griefs—first to find the truth about their parents, and then to help the birds find their way back to the Green Home, the birds’ true home, lost to them since the bird queen vanished years ago.

But at the border of the Green Home, earth and sky crash together like jaws, demanding a sacrifice.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

My initial revision process was to write the first chapter, complete another chapter or two, then come back a month later to find that the first chapters were hideously bad.

The narrative voice, in particular, was just dreadful in the earliest version of the first pages—it had a weird, cloying quality that probably came from certain turn of the century children’s books I loved as a child. An excellent voice for, say, The Five Little Peppers And How They Grew, but ghastly for me.

But even though every time I’d go back to my first pages, my eyes would pop out and my hair would stand up a’ la any given horror-struck cartoon character, what astonishes me in retrospect is that I didn’t give up. Not giving up turns out to be rather crucial to the process.

Narrative voice is critical to me as a reader, so all my early revisions were about coming to a voice I liked. Once I had a full draft, my later revisions were about adding texture, planting seeds, that kind of thing.

Katherine’s work room

My agent, David Dunton, helped me a lot in making the manuscript more child-friendly (which I had given surprisingly little thought to—I was writing a children’s book that I would like), as well as tighter and generally spiffier.

Then my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, taught me what major structural revisions look like — I really had no idea how to do that, or even how to think that way. She’s a brilliant editor, and I feel very lucky to work with her.

Among the many things I’ve learned that I try to bear in mind now, as I write my second book: the bits I love rereading are usually working. The bits I avoid rereading: not so much. Also, it helps to figure out what your characters most desire, and how those desires are in conflict.

As a fantasy writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time fantasy reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

I was a great fantasy reader as a child—the Alice books were huge favorites of mine, At the Back of the North Wind, all the Edward Eager books, and of course A Wrinkle in Time.

I read some of the Narnia books, too, and the Lord of the Rings. But I’ve never been as drawn to high fantasy like Tolkien’s; and something about Aslan made me nervous. I was always sure he’d find me disappointing.

I also read a lot of Ray Bradbury as a child. When he died recently, I reread a few of his pieces for the first time since I was maybe 12 or13, and realized that he had a big influence on me, even just those distinct rhythms of his prose. It’s funny how what you read in childhood can go straight into your DNA.

Katherine’s desk

As an adult, I have not read as much straight-up fantasy, but for a while I was obsessed with magic realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude in my teens, I felt a tremendous shock—you can do that? You can just have whatever you want to happen, happen, and in an adult book? Things can roll along quite normally except for ghosts, and a teenage girl who floats up to heaven, and a thousand yellow butterflies that mark a lover’s death? I felt a similar rush when I first read Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino.

If there are contemporary books that inspire me, it would probably be the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (Ballantine, 1995-2000), a children’s series that brilliantly and fearlessly delves into profound, complex subjects. I love those books.

Also, I was actually inspired to begin Summer and Bird when I read Coraline by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins, 2002). That book scared me down to the bone—though I’ve since read Gaiman saying it seems to be scarier for adults than for children.

As I set Coraline down—I still remember where I was sitting—I thought: This is a children’s book for adults. I did not know that was a thing, but it is a thing I want to do. I’d been casting around for a major writing project, and I decided that would be it.

By the way, I have no idea what I meant by “a children’s book for adults”—I mean, Summer and Bird is definitely a children’s book (as is Coraline, for that matter). But it’s what I had in mind as I wrote. Perhaps I just meant that I was writing for myself, writing the children’s book I wanted to read—which is what all writers do, or ought to, I think.

New Voice: Laura Ellen on Blind Spot

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Laura Ellen is the first-time author of Blind Spot
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
Oct. 23, 2012)(reading guide). From the promotional copy:

Winter stops hiding Tricia Farni on Good Friday.

When a truck plunges through the thinning ice of Alaska’s Birch River, Tricia’s body floats to the surface–dead since the night she disappeared six months earlier.

The night Roswell Hart fought with her.

The night Roz can’t remember.

Missing things is nothing new to sixteen-year-old Roz. She has macular degeneration, an eye disease that robs her central vision. She’s constantly piecing together what she sees–or thinks she sees–but this time her memory needs piecing together. How can Roz be sure of the truth if her own memory has betrayed her? Can she clear her name of a murder that she believes she didn’t commit?

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view-first, second, third (or some alternating combination) featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

This is such a good question. I actually had to rewrite Blind Spot twice, switching point of view to get it right. I used a lot of my own experiences developing my main character Roz.

Growing up with macular degeneration was hard and very emotional for me and I wanted to put that into my novel. But after I finished my novel in first person, a very insightful editor during a critique told me that Roz was too whiny and that her story was stifling the thriller part of the plot.

Laura’s writing space

I knew he was right. I’d spent so much time dumping my own emotions into the story, and, though very therapeutic, I’d lost sight of what I was writing. A thriller.

So, I rewrote the entire novel in third person.

It was freeing for me to do this. Suddenly I saw Roz as a character rather than an extension of me. I was able to take ‘me’ out of it and stick Roz into situations I’d never thought about putting her into. It helped push my plot further and make the thriller part of the plot tighter. but

In switching to third person, I’d totally lost the raw emotion that made Roz real, made her appealing, and made her, well, ‘Roz’..,

So, yep, I rewrote it again going back to first person. This time both storiesRoz’s struggle with her visual impairment and the murder mysterywere balanced. Though doing so was time-consuming, I learned sometimes you have to tell the story from many different angles before you get it right.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

When I was taking my first creative writing workshop in college, there was a girl in my class who would accuse me of writing ‘children stories’ every time a piece I’d written would be work-shopped.

I would get so angry and defensive. I was not writing for children; there were no fluffy bunnies or talking animals in what I was writing! Yes, my characters were teens, so what? Stephen King had written many stories with teen characters and no one accused him of writing for children!

It took me years to understand what she not-so-eloquently was trying to say.

My voice is teen.

That’s just what it is.

Once I embraced that, I realized that the reason my voice was ‘teen’ was because my teen years are still vivid and fresh to me. I can remember things like they were yesterday. My teen years were full of emotional ups and downs and it is that place where my author inkwell exists.

Even if their own teen memories are not so vivid, I think authors can tap into their teen voices by finding triggers that can transport them back. Music, videos, TV shows, Herbal Essence shampoo, Love’s Baby Soft perfume, Brut, Lip Smackers lip gloss, A-Smile painter pantsanything and everything that was part of your routine in high school can be a trigger. Once you find these things let them transport you back and then ask yourself:

How did you interact with your friends, your enemies, your parents?

How did you reason with yourself when you knew it was a bad idea to climb out the window to attend that party at 2 a.m.?

How did you got up the next morning after you’d had your heart broken the night before?
Ask yourself, and your teen voice will answer.

Laura’s son James Handy, age 14, and the legendary Muruga Booker. James and Muruga are jammed a bit before James recorded the music for the Blind Spot trailer at Muruga’s Sage Court Studios.

Cynsational Notes

In Blind Spot, Roz is obsessed with proving she is ‘normal’ despite her visual impairment. As a result, she loses sight of everything elseincluding clues to a classmate’s death. What’s your blind spot? Beating your arch rival at the state swim meet? Being valedictorian? Losing weight?

Share your story with Laura Ellen and you could win a signed copy and the chance to have it posted along with stories of authors you love! Find details on Laura Ellen’s website. Hurry! Contest ends Oct. 16 at midnight.

New Voice: Janci Patterson on Chasing the Skip

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Janci Patterson is the first-time author of Chasing the Skip (Henry Holt, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Ricki’s dad has never been there for her. He’s a bounty hunter who spends his time chasing parole evaders—also known as “skips”—all over the country. Ever since Ricki’s mom ran off, Ricki finds herself an unwilling passenger in a front-row seat to her father’s dangerous lifestyle. 

Ricki’s feelings get even more confused when her dad starts tracking seventeen-year-old Ian Burnham. She finds herself unavoidably attracted to the dark-eyed felon who seems eager to get acquainted. Ricki thinks she’s ever in control—the perfect accomplice, the Bonnie to his Clyde. 

Little does she know that Ian isn’t playing the game by her rules.

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

I write on my laptop, which travels with me whenever I go somewhere I might write.

I wrote Chasing the Skip mostly in the seating areas of the Humanities building where I earned my master’s degree. I wrote it as a for-fun project between finishing my thesis and graduation, so the writing had to fit in the spaces between final papers, thesis revisions, thesis defense, and my last classes.

These days, I write mostly at home, so the laptop travels with a smaller radius. I do a lot of work at the kitchen table–my husband runs his painting business from his work table there, so I have good company. Other times I stretch out on my bed, or lounge on the couch with the computer on my lap.

Desperate times find me other places though; I had a deadline last Thanksgiving, so I wrote in my in-laws’ basement. I’ve written in the car on road trips, and at parks, and at the library. I’ve found that where there’s a will to fit in some writing, a space can be discovered in which to do it.

I tend to work better in small snatches than in marathons, so I do my best to wrap a little writing into every day.

I do try to write during the day, though, because after eight o’clock my brain gets a little too fuzzy for intense work. I know writers who get up super-early to write, and I can’t do that either. My writer brain doesn’t turn on until about 10 a.m. But since both my husband and I are self-employed, I have the luxury of lots of hours stretched across the middle of the day that are perfect for writing. It’s just a matter of sitting down (wherever I am!) and doing it.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

My main character Ricki loves to read the news, which brought up some technology issues right away. Ricki gets her news online, which means I had to bring in internet terms. I steered away from anything brand-specific–who knows which companies will be in control of our web-browsing in five years. Anyone else remember when AOL was popular–and to describe mostly by function. The internet is sure to change, but likely we’ll still be clicking to open and typing for text input for the foreseeable future.

As for the news Ricki reads, I had her encounter news about war in the Middle East–I can’t think of anything I’d rather have date my book than a prolonged period of peace in that area, but alas, it seems doubtful.

Even though all the action of my book takes place on a road trip, technology still follows my characters everywhere. Ricki’s Dad loves to listen to audio books. While the method of audio consumption is likely to change (and has, from record to tape to MP3), the act of listening to a previously recorded reading of a book is probably not going out any time soon. So I tried my best to be vague about the delivery system, and focus on the act of listening instead. Dad has a “player” I believe, which could be anything from a tape deck to an iPod to whatever will come next (I hope!) which will hopefully help keep the book from dating quickly.

Cell phones are always tricky–much of the time, I needed Ricki to feel isolated. She’s on a road trip away from her mom and her friends and her boyfriend–if she can just call or text them all on a whim, I lose some of the pressure of an isolated road trip with her dead-beat dad. So I decided that Ricki’s mom hadn’t paid the phone bill, and Dad doesn’t want her using his cell phone–it’s for work. The word cell phone is pretty entrenched–odds are we’ll have them for the foreseeable future, so I wasn’t too worried about dating the book over that.

If the book does become dated, it will probably be over some issue that I didn’t think of–some little detail of our lives that will change drastically over the next few years.

You can’t plan for everything, especially in a rapidly changing area like technology. The best you can do is tell a compelling story, and trust that the heart of that story will carry readers past the details.

New Voice & Giveaway: Gwenda Bond on Blackwood

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Gwenda Bond is the first-time author of Blackwood (Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry, 2012)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

On Roanoke Island, the legend of the 114 people who mysteriously vanished from the Lost Colony hundreds of years ago is just an outdoor drama for the tourists, a story people tell. 

But when the island faces the sudden disappearance of 114 people now, an unlikely pair of 17-year-olds may be the only hope of bringing them back.

Miranda, a misfit girl from the island’s most infamous family, and Phillips, an exiled teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead, must dodge everyone from federal agents to long-dead alchemists as they work to uncover the secrets of the new Lost Colony. The one thing they can’t dodge is each other.

Blackwood is a dark, witty coming of age story that combines America’s oldest mystery with a thoroughly contemporary romance.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2012, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Honestly, I think I’d just gotten to the place where I’d accepted that it wasn’t inevitable I would publish a novel when we got the offer on the book. I had more or less made peace—after a couple of books didn’t sell—that things might not go according to plan. I would keep writing, choosing whatever stories felt right, hoping, still and always hoping, and working as hard as I could, but knowing that it might not happen and definitely not on any predictable timetable.

I had a visual prompt for this, actually, but a digression first.

In college, I had an excellent writing teacher who happened to teach a class in screenwriting. I’ve always loved movies and always wanted to tell big stories. I was seduced by that form, so I spent several years post-college writing scripts, many of them surrounded by amazingly talented writers from whom I learned too much to say in a private online workshop called The Left Door run by Max Adams. Eventually, I realized books were my first love, and that YA books were what my natural voice was most inclined toward. YA was what I should be writing.

So, I wrote a now-trunked novel that my dear friend Kelly Link and a newish (but now super-successful) agent both kindly gave me extensive notes on which I used to revise it, before I finally put it away.

After that, I started the novel that would become Blackwood, but stalled out. I started another novel, and decided to go to grad school, because I felt like I needed that kind of hothouse environment to really learn how to write a novel (which is, in fact, way different than writing a script).

I’m lucky to have many genius writer friends, but they were mostly a bit further along in their careers than me, and I really wanted to try to find a community where I felt more comfortable being at the level I was.

Vermont’s Writing for Children and YAs program was the only one I was interested in. And it was extraordinary for meeting that need, and for providing peers and mentors in general.

While I was doing the Vermont program, the city where we live—Lexington, Kentucky—was preparing to host the 2010 World Equestrian Games. This is where the visual comes in.

They hung a digital countdown clock up downtown that would count down 1,000 days until the games. At the time, it seemed like a huge expanse of time. Surely, I’d manage to sell and/or publish a novel by the time the clock ran out. I vowed that I would. And I’d see this visual reminder of that vow every day.

I still remember driving past it on the last day before the games, when the clock read OOOO, and, of course, I hadn’t sold a book.

But the thing was, I actually didn’t feel like a failure. Mostly I felt bemused, because I’d been working toward that goal the whole time, and I did feel closer to it. But I also felt like I’d learned that working against some artificial clock wasn’t smart or productive or logical.

There is no clock. There is only you, your own development as a writer, and the support of the people you’re lucky enough to have in your corner. I am very lucky to have a family and a husband who always believed, and also luckier than I could ever express that my agent, the fabulous Jennifer Laughran, never lost faith (or she hid it extremely well, because I never picked up on it).

And I think the fact I kept working was part of that, too. If it wasn’t this novel, maybe it’d be the next one. So as far as keeping the faith, it was more about staying in the game. Learning, putting everything I had into making each book the best I could, whether that ended up being good enough or not. I don’t regret any manuscript or draft or story mistake I’ve made. I’m glad things have worked out the way they have. This was my journey. I wouldn’t want to pretend it never happened.

For those of you out there feeling like you’ll never sell, hang in there. Keep working.

Don’t get married to one story, but also know that it’s okay to have a night every now and then when you rail and cry and feel sorry for yourself…so long as you keep working (if this is really what you want; giving up actually is a perfectly viable option—except for those of us who can’t).

As long as you’re working, you haven’t failed at the important part. You’re a writer. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Also, it’s worth noting that the imprint I ended up selling to didn’t even exist when I started the book, but has been a fabulous home for this novel. Luck and timing are huge factors, and mostly out of our control. Focusing on what we can control is always the best strategy—and that’s the writing, and maybe a very few other things. But, mainly, the writing.

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

Gwenda’s desk (pre-revision)

I have a particular love of bringing the old and smashing it up against the new to see what kind of story happens.

Blackwood is a Lost Colony of Roanoke story, and it’s set on modern day Roanoke Island, so these were issues I was dealing with from the very beginning.

I thought long and hard about how much to fictionalize, what it was okay to take a leap from, and what I wanted the story to be based on the facts I had to work with.

There’s a long tradition of riffing on the story of the Lost Colony, so I ended up feeling on safe ground to create and change what I needed to. Most of the leaps I made did come directly from my historical research—even the influence of alchemy on the early excursions to the New World isn’t a complete stretch, it turns out.

I also drew on my own experience coming from a small town in the south in creating my Roanoke Island—which incorporates many actual local landmarks and, while fictionalized, is definitely based on and inspired by the real island. Where I grew up, my parents were both principals, and I was a girl with some authority issues as a result. Everyone knew everyone else. There were things I loved about growing up there, and things that felt extremely limiting at the time.

I feel those things went into the book on a subconscious level, at least in early drafts, but got teased out more clearly as the book progressed. One of the main themes in the book is how much we’re defined by our family histories and how much we make our own destiny, and I think that’s a question all teens face at some point.

Gwenda and the actors at Duck’s Cottage Downtown Books

I was always nervous about how people who live on the island would feel about the book. But I had the most amazing experience there recently.

The co-owner of the local bookstore in Manteo on Roanoke Island—Duck’s Cottage Downtown Books, visit them if you’re ever in the Outer Banks—kindly read an early copy, started circulating advance copies around town, and invited me to come for a pre-release signing.

In the novel, Miranda Blackwood is an intern at the theater where The Lost Colony show is produced. The theater is a major setting for many of the story’s key events.

In reality, this past year was the theater’s 75th anniversary season. It’s a local institution. The bookstore co-owner contacted the show and they actually sent the actors who play Eleanor Dare (mother of Virginia, the first English child born in the Americas, and a character in Blackwood) and John Borden (a fictionalized character based on a real colonist) in full, gorgeous costume to the event.

Several other people from the theater and the town came by, too, all extremely gracious and wonderful. So, that was a particularly surreal experience, a fictional dream come true.

I hope some readers will want to delve deeper into the fascinating history of the Lost Colony.

Cynsational Notes

Check out the Pinterest board for Blackwood and Gwenda’s pics of Roanoke Island.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Blackwood by Gwenda Bond (Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry, 2012), an ultra-limited edition Blackwood T-shirt, a handmade duct tape rose pen and bonus bookmarks. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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