New Voice: Bridget Hodder on The Rat Prince

Excerpt & Curriculum Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Bridget Hodder
is the first-time author of The Rat Prince (FSG/Margaret Ferguson, 2016). From the promotional copy: 


The dashing Prince of the Rats–who’s in love with Cinderella–is changed into her coachman by the Fairy Godmother on the night of the big ball. 

And he’s about to turn the legend (and the evening) upside down on his way to a most unexpected happy ending!

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist?

Is it okay for me to say that getting to know Prince Char of the Northern Realm was a bit more like spirit possession than a process of discovery?

One day I was thinking about my dissatisfaction with the story of Cinderella and so many of its modern versions–the weak, passive main character, the inexplicable behavior of her negligent father, the mysteriousness of her stepmother and the insta-love between her and the prince.

Then I kid you not, I suddenly heard a voice in my head.

It was Prince Char, telling me to write his story–the real story. He has a commanding way about him (as befits royalty), and I basically just gave in. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming from my fingertips; details that were unique to his way of life, and the person he was, and the upbringing he’d been given at Lancastyr Manor in the Kingdom of Angland.

After that first otherworldly contact with Prince Char, I saw the events in the book as if they were a movie happening in front of me in real time, and I simply described what I saw and heard. It was incredible, exhilarating…and exhausting.

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

Though I’m devoting myself to writing full time now, I worked for many years with children who have various learning differences, primarily on the autism spectrum.

Interacting daily with people who sometimes literally can’t speak for themselves has taught me to listen, to pay attention, and be present with others in a much deeper way than I ever did before.

Human beings are wired for quick judgment based on obvious traits, like the way someone speaks or looks. But these things are not the totality of a person; they are the beginning of a story.

If you let others tell you their own stories, in their own ways, rather than making up stories about them in your head, you open up a whole new level of meaning in life.

I think that new awareness helped me go deeper into the point of view of every single character in The Rat Prince. People have asked me how I “figured out” the motivations for personalities on the fringe of the original Cinderella story, like Cinderella’s father, and the fairy godmother.

The answer is: I paid attention, and I realized their situations spoke for themselves. Just like with Prince Char, all I needed to do then was write what I heard them telling me.

Bridgit’s living room

New Voice: Christian McKay Heidicker on Cure for the Common Universe

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Christian McKay Heidicker is the first-time author of Cure for the Common Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Jaxon is being committed to video game rehab…ten minutes after he met a girl. A living, breathing girl named Serena, who not only laughed at his jokes but actually kinda sorta seemed excited when she agreed to go out with him.


Jaxon’s first date. Ever.


In rehab, he can’t blast his way through galaxies to reach her. He can’t slash through armies to kiss her sweet lips. Instead, he has just four days to earn one million points by learning real-life skills. And he’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal, even learn how to cross-stitch—in order to make it to his date.


If all else fails, Jaxon will have to bare his soul to the other teens in treatment, confront his mother’s absence, and maybe admit that it’s more than video games that stand in the way of a real connection.


Prepare to be cured.

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?

John Cusick

This all began when I told my agent, John Cusick, that I’d write a YA book about a kid committed to video game rehab. His excitement was infectious, and I got that fluttery feeling of embarking on a new adventure. Of darkness unlit. Of stones unturned. Of all the little surprises that come with blindly slashing out with my pen and hoping for the bloody best.

That fluttery feeling vanished when I realized I hadn’t played video games for years, let alone had any clue what it was like to be addicted to them.

In order to survive as a freelance writer, my entire life had become carefully structured to eliminate time-wasters. I worked all possible hours, filled my downtime with reading, exercising, eating healthily, and not buying expensive things like the next generation of PlayStation or Xbox. I had become completely unversed in the world of video games and unhealthy amounts of playing.

I realized if I tried to write a book about video games, I’d out myself as a fraud. I’d make out-of-date gaming references, the community would eat me for breakfast, and I’d become next on Gamergate’s death list. (Now that I know a thing or two, I can confidently say that many gaming references do not go out of fashion, and that being on Gamergate’s threat list is actually a good thing.)

Let’s face it. As novelists we’re all impostors. We don’t really remember what it’s like to have that first kiss. We’ve never reached to the back of the wardrobe and in place of fur felt pine needles. Our goal is to seem the least impostery as possible. To convince the reader that this stuff is legit.

Christian’s office & Lucifer Morningstar Birchaus (aka writer cat)

Still, the idea was good. Video game rehab? I’d never seen that before, and that’s a rare thing in any medium. So I needed a plan. My plan was this: get addicted to video games.*

So out with work!

Sod off, schedules!

Be gone, exercise routines!

Forget healthy eating and gluten intolerance. Forget that coffee turns me into an absolute monster and dairy turns my insides into the Bog of Eternal Stench!

I bought myself a month and turned my life into that of a sixteen-year-old video game addict on summer vacation. I drank coffee from noon (when I woke up) until three in the morning when I went to sleep. (My character drinks energy drinks, but one can only go so far, dear reader.) I slept too much. I didn’t exercise. Sometimes I put whiskey in my morning coffee. I only read gaming news, but only if I really felt like it and only if I had to wait for a game to download.

Mostly, I played video games. I played a lot of video games. I continued to play throughout the duration of writing the book, but in October 2012, I played so much it would have made the characters in my book quirk their eyebrows.

I was trying to get addicted. All of my dopamine release came from beating levels, leveling up characters, downloading DLCs. When I went to the bathroom, I brought my iPad with me and played Candy Crush. (Considering what my new and worsened diet was doing to my digestion, I played a lot of Candy Crush.)

I beat Dark Souls. I beat Sword & Sworcery. I played Starcraft and Hearthstone and Diablo III. I bought a Nintendo 3DS and played through all the Mario and Zelda games I’d missed out over all the years. (Definitely the highlight.) I got lost in world after world, and adulthood as I knew it became a faint haze around an ever-glowing screen.

And guess what? It was hard.

You’d think it would be easy doing as little as humanly possible, only filling one’s time with video games.

Video games are fun. Many are designed to keep you falling into them again and again, to captivate you enough to stick around for hours on end. But I had so carefully trained myself to not be that way so I could write.

During this indulgent month of October, I felt lazy. I felt sick. I felt jittery and uncomfortable in my skin and a little voice inside my head kept saying, “No, no, no. Stop doing nothing. You’re dying.”

I was disgusted with myself. I liked the games I was playing, but they didn’t bring the same satisfaction of selling a short story.

Like I said, it was really hard. But it was nothing compared to what I was going to embark on next.

I ended my month of terror with a bang. On Halloween night, at 11:56 p.m., I drank four shots of whiskey and became a vomiting sprinkler on my friends’ front lawn. (Apologies, Alan and Alan).

My girlfriend at the time drove me home and poured me into bed. I slept for thirteen hours. . . and when I awoke late afternoon on Nov. 1, I began something new.
I didn’t put on the coffee pot. I didn’t boot up the PlayStation to see if any system updates needed downloading. I didn’t bring the iPad to the bathroom.

Instead, I entered Phase 2 of my research.

The character in my book was going to rehab, where all creature comforts would be taken away from him. And so I spent the entirety of November without sugar, caffeine, music, phone, books*, internet*, or of course, video games.

I called it my no-nothing November.

(Er, no stimulants, at least. But that isn’t quite as catchy.)

After surviving a two-day hangover unaided by stimulants of any sort, I crawled out of bed . . . and I went out into the world. I ran in the morning. I talked to people at coffee shops while sipping herbal tea. I took ukulele lessons. I learned how to cross-stitch. I cleaned Alan’s and Alan’s puke-covered lawn (just kidding I didn’t; I just realized this would have been a nice thing to have done (sorry again, Alans)). I studied life without my nose buried in a book.*

And mostly, I wrote. I wrote about a kid who had all of his comforts taken away and was forced to earn points through a sort of gamified therapy.
I don’t know if any of this actually worked or not . . . I’m not sure if it really added anything to the book.

So, um, take that into consideration before flying off the rails for your own book.

*I use the term “addicted” lightly. Read Cure for the Common Universe for a full explanation.

**The most difficult, by far.

***I also didn’t surf the internet, save my email—for emergencies and so I wasn’t fired from my job.

****Ug, this is starting to sound like some sort of new age instruction manual, which I swear it is not; I just wanted to see what it would be like to be the character in my book.

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?

@cmheidicker on Twitter

Video games are the fastest growing medium in the world, so it’s pretty difficult to remain relevant when writing about current games. Fortunately, there’s a persistent spine in gaming (your Blizzards, your Nintendos, your Easter eggs). I tried to focus on those mainstays and accept the fact that no matter what I did I would probably piss off and please an equal number of gamers.

If I had attempted to copy the language of gamers verbatim, I would have set myself up for failure. (Although having a game-addicted roommate during the edits of this book definitely helped me sprinkle in some legit jargon.) That’s why I like to follow the Joss Whedon rule of leading the charge on language instead of attempting to copy it.

For the dialogue, I ended up stealing a lot of hilarious lines from my friends—truly iconic things that I lifted straight out of real-life conversations and put into the text. During a rousing game of racquetball, a friend aced me, stuck his racquet in my face, and screamed, “Nobody puts princess in a castle!” A barista once mentioned how stepping on a LEGO was a lot more rage inducing than playing Grand Theft Auto. And a previous student told me about a—ahem—particular sensory combination involving Nutella. I blushed . . . and then I stole it.

I stole all of these with everyone’s permission, of course.

New Voice & Giveaway: Maria Gianferrari on Penny & Jelly

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maria Gianferrari writes both fiction and nonfiction picture books from her
sunny, book-lined study in northern Virginia, with her dog Becca as her
muse.

Maria’s debut picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder (2015) led to Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars (2016)(both HMH Books). 

Maria
has seven picture books forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press, Aladdin
Books for Young Readers, GP Putnam’s Sons and Boyds Mills Press in the
coming years.

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

In the spirit of my main character, Penny, an avid list maker, here are my top five answers:

1. Ammi-Joan Paquette:

I am so grateful for my amazing agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette!

Where do I begin? I owe my writing career to Joan, for taking a chance on and believing in me. She has been sage guide, a cheerleader and champion of my writing from the get go.

She’s made my writing dream come true!!

2. Crumpled Paper Critique (CP):

I would not be where I am today without my trusted writing friends and critique partners: Lisa Robinson, Lois Sepahban, Andrea Wang, Abigail Calkins Aguirre and Sheri Dillard. They have been such a wonderful source of support over the years, in good times, and in bad.

Yes—it’s kind of like a marriage—that’s how dedicated we are to each other’s work! They’re smart, thoughtful, insightful, well read, hard-working and the best critique partners one could hope for!

We have a private website where we share not only our manuscripts, but our opinions on books, ideas, writing inspiration and doubts. I treasure them and wish we lived closer to one another to be able to meet regularly in person. Hugs, CPers!

3. Emu’s Debuts:

Like many other writers, I’m quite a shy and introverted person. If you’ve seen that classic hamster ball cartoon about introverts, that’s me! Having a book debut is extremely intimidating.

I was so lucky to have joined the ranks of Emu’s Debuts, so named for clients and debut authors affiliated with Erin Murphy Literary Agency (EMLA).

The Emu’s Debuts blog is a place for sharing thoughts on the craft of writing and illustrating, being debuts, and most importantly, helping launch our books into the world. I have since fledged, but it was so helpful, reassuring and fun to be a part of this community of very talented, kind and generous people. Check out the current flock of Emus.

4. Tara Lazar:

Picture book author extraordinaire, and founder of PiBoIdMo (picture book idea month), Tara has also been a generous supporter, not just of me, but for all the pre and published picture book authors and illustrators out there. Thousands of writers participate and are inspired by guest posts during PiBoIdMo, November’s picture book idea challenge. She shares insights on craft, the field of publishing, new books, interviews, giveaways, etc. on her popular blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them), throughout the year.

When the news of the Penny & Jelly sale broke, Tara kindly offered to host me of her blog. Later, she invited to be a contributor for PiBoIdMo, and last year she also participated in my blog tour for Penny & Jelly.

5. Kirsten Cappy of Curious City:

Kirsten’s a kidlit marketing guru and owner of Curious City. She was invaluable in sorting through the mire that is promotion.

Kirsten’s clever and creative and had so many wonderful ideas for promoting Penny & Jelly in ways that would be most comfortable for an introvert like me. She designed a Jelly banner with original art from illustrator Thyra Heder for use as a photo booth so kids could “be” Penny and pose with Jelly, as well as gorgeous postcards and business cards.

I especially love the talent show kit for library and classroom use that Kirsten designed. Please feel free to share and use it.

As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?

1. Write What You Love:

Write what you’re obsessed with. This will help you not only endure the inevitable rejections along the way, but also the winding road of revision.

My debut nonfiction book, Coyote Moon, was released this July. It initially began as an article on suburban coyotes for “Highlights.”

Well, “Highlights” rejected it, but I wasn’t ready to let go of my manuscript.

The coyotes kept howling in my head, so it morphed into a poetic picture book.

Several revisions later, it won a Letter of Commendation for a Barbara Karlin grant from SCBWI; many more revisions later, it was acquired by Emily Feinberg at Roaring Brook Press. And I am so in love Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations. They are absolutely stunning!

2. Read. Read. Read:

Then read some more. I once read that before attempting to write one picture book, we should first read 1,000. But don’t just read them, see them as teachers, as mentor texts for your own work.

One of the most helpful exercises is to hand-write or type the words of my favorite picture book texts, to feel the rhythm of the and pulse of the story in my fingers, to get under the story’s skin—see its bones or structure and the way the muscles and sinews, rhythm, refrain and repetition, are bound together. Doing this helps us find a story’s heart, its elusive soul and helps us understand our own work.

Consider joining founder Carrie Charley Brown’s ReFoReMo, where picture books are studied as mentor texts. Get ready to dig deep!

3. Don’t Give Up!

Persevere! Keep swimming! Rejection is at the heart of this journey and it’s not usually a linear journey, it’s more circuitous, with ups and downs along the way.

Take it one day, one moment at a time, and celebrate all of your successes, both big and small.

And remember, keep improving your craft, and building your connections, you will get there!

(See #1 again)

4. Play and Experiment:

To find your writing voice, play with different points of view. Change genres. Try out different structural techniques like letters, or a diary format or lists, like I did with Penny & Jelly.

Think about the shape of your story. Is it circular? Could it be a journey? Would a question and answer format enhance it? Does it have a refrain?

I’m not an illustrator, but you can do the same kinds of things to find your visual voice—switch sketching for sewing, or painting for clay. And most of all, embrace your inner kid and have fun!

5. Reach Out:

Connect with your local and online writing community—there are so many valuable resources out there. You’re reading Cynsations, so that’s a great start! If you haven’t already joined SCBWI and found a critique group, that’s a must. As I mentioned above, join Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo challenge in November, or Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee to write a picture book a day, which takes place in May.

There’s a plethora of writing groups on Facebook. One I highly recommend is Kidlit411, co-run by Elaine Kieley Kearns and Sylvia Liu. It’s such a wealth of information for authors and illustrators on writing/illustrating craft, on promotion, on submissions for agents and editors, revision—all kinds of things. And to borrow Jane Yolen’s title, above all, Take Joy!

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Penny & Jelly: The School Show and Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars. Eligibility: U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

This young and funny picture book introduces the soon-to-be star of her school talent show: Penny. Despite her desire to knock everyone’s socks off, Penny’s having a tough time deciding on what talent she might have. With a little help from her dog, Jelly, Penny tries out various talents—from dancing to unicycling, fashion designing to snake charming—with disastrous results. That is, until she realizes that she and Jelly have a talent to share that’s unlike any other.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

New Voice: Hannah West on Kingdom of Ash and Briars

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Hannah West is the first-time author of Kingdom of Ash and Briars (Holiday House, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen’s Emma and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Hannah West makes a spectacular and wholly original debut.


Bristal, a sixteen-year-old kitchen maid, lands in a fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she has elicromancer magic in her blood. Elicromancers are an ancient breed of immortal people, but only two remain in Nissera after a bloody civil war. 

Bristal joins the ranks of Brack and Tamarice without knowing that one of them has a dark secret . . . Tamarice is plotting a quest to overthrow the realm’s nobility and take charge herself. 

Together, Bristal and Brack must guard the three kingdoms of Nissera against Tamarice’s black elicromancy. There are cursed princesses to protect, royal alliances to forge and fierce monsters to battle—all with the hope of preserving peace.

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?

Boy, am I the right person to ask about revisions. When I started querying, I was fresh out of college with no industry knowledge (I studied French) and had a manuscript so thick it could have knocked someone out, no hard cover needed.

Hannah West

After my not-yet agent, Sarah Burnes, initially showed interest, she gave me some revision advice and passed on the manuscript. I made the cuts that she suggested, and continued querying and receiving requests from other agents.

It didn’t occur to me until a few months later that Sarah might actually be open to seeing the revision even though she didn’t explicitly request an R&R.

I’m so glad I thought of that! We ended up signing with a plan to continue revising it pretty heavily (read: cut left and right). We did three rounds, I believe, and then I did a few more with my lovely editor after signing with Holiday House.

I think a huge amount of cutting can be a dangerous thing, as it can really throw off the pace – such a delicate thing to begin with. But I am so so pleased with the result of talented professionals putting me through the ringer. It’s so worth it. The story itself is essentially the same, which goes to show you how many unnecessary words were lurking in that initial submission.

For debut authors, I would say never be too protective of the draft that you submit. It’s actually really freeing to put yourself in the hands of professionals, and if you’re a gifted writer, you can work in their suggestions while still retaining your voice and the aspects you love about the story.

Never react to a hard critique on the spot. Take time to think about it, and you’ll usually find that you agree, or can at least envision a compromise that will improve your work.

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

This brings me to the other Sarah in my life – the one who lives in rural Arkansas with nary a strong internet connection, eating ‘coons for supper (okay, maybe the last one only applies to her church potlucks).

Having a critique partner is a wonderful thing, but having a CP-best-friend is even better. Querying and revising and waiting was a hard phase for me.

I was fresh out of college with only a part-time job, living with my parents, so I had a lot riding on getting an agent and pressing onward (who doesn’t?).

In the hardest moments, Sarah was there, reading my revisions and offering encouragement even though we live in different states. (I hadn’t met her yet when I submitted my abominably large manuscript, so she’s off the hook).

Cynsational Notes

Hannah “lives in the Dallas area with her husband, Vince, and their rambunctious blue heeler, Robb. She proudly writes articles about sustainable living and home renovation for Modernize.com.”

New Voice: Sonya Mukherjee on Gemini

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sonya Mukherjee
is the first-time author of Gemini (Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:

In a powerful and daring debut novel, Sonya Mukherjee shares the story of sisters Clara and Hailey, conjoined twins who are learning what it means to be truly extraordinary.

Seventeen-year-old conjoined twins, Clara and Hailey, have lived in the same small town their entire lives—no one stares at them anymore. But there are cracks in their quiet existence and they’re slowing becoming more apparent. 

Clara and Hailey are at a crossroads. Clara wants to stay close to home, avoid all attention, and study the night sky. Hailey wants to travel the world, learn from great artists, and dance with mysterious boys. 

As high school graduation approaches, each twin must untangle her dreams from her sister’s, and figure out what it means to be her own person.

Told in alternating perspectives, this unconventional coming-of-age tale shows how dreams can break your heart—but the love between sisters can mend it.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

This is cheating a bit, but my answer has to be Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (Random House, 2006). This is a book that I studied and contemplated until its ideas sank in, and it helped my writing more than anything else that I’ve read.

The basic idea is one that’s seeped into the culture in the last few years, but as far as I know, it all stems from Dweck’s work: Some people have a fixed mindset, in which they assume that their intelligence, talent, and personal qualities are mostly immutable, while others have a growth mindset—an assumption that all these qualities can be changed and meaningfully improved with effort. With the fixed mindset, you hear feedback as a reflection on your immutable qualities. With the growth mindset, you hear feedback simply as useful information. And the growth mindset is the one you want.

When I read this book, I realized that I’d always had a fixed mindset about writing. Whenever I received criticism or rejections, I worried that I wasn’t a good writer and never would be—which made it harder to get back to my writing, and harder to learn from the criticism. Whenever I received praise or other kudos, I became hopeful that maybe I had talent after all.

It was a roller coaster, and just like a real-life roller coaster, it made my stomach hurt and got me nowhere.

But Dweck makes it clear that just as you can grow your intelligence, grow your talent, and grow your compassion, you can also grow yourself a growth mindset. That’s the whole point: Believe you can change, and you really can.

Still, change wasn’t easy. For me, the hardest part, but also the most important, was when I realized that in order to be less hurt by criticism, I would also need to be less delighted by praise.

They were two sides of the same coin, and there was just no way to have one without the other. I needed to hear both positive and negative feedback as potentially helpful input that I could use to improve my work, and nothing more.

In short, I had to give up caring about whether I had talent.

This change in mindset allowed me to take in tougher feedback with much less discouragement, and it allowed me to become much more merciless in cutting and overhauling my manuscripts. It also meant less time wasted on feeling bad about criticism and rejections, so I could get back to work sooner.

I’m not claiming to be fully reformed, but I think I’ve come a long way, and I think it’s made a huge difference to the quality of my writing.

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?

The truth is, although I haven’t been a teenager for quite a while, I never really changed the way I talk.

When I’m at my most relaxed, I still use pretty much the same speech patterns, the same sarcasm, and the same words I used then. I was never one for the most faddish slang, so I didn’t say “rad” as a teen, and I don’t say “bae” now, but I’ve been overusing “awesome” and “cool” the entire time.

Gemini was originally all in Clara’s point of view, and her voice was the first thing that came to me and drove the book forward, so it wasn’t something I struggled to find. But it was basically just a relaxed, uncensored version of my own voice, mingling with some of the thoughts and perspectives and worries that I had as a teen.

Hailey’s voice was added much later in the process, and hers was a bit more challenging, because I wanted her to feel distinct from Clara. They have two different personalities, but because they’re twin sisters who have never been apart, they also have a lot of similarities.

Since Hailey has a harder, tougher edge than Clara, I decided that she would tend to speak in somewhat shorter sentences, with shorter words, and with some mild swearing that we don’t get from Clara. I made her less inclined toward metaphors and other writerly ways of saying things; she’s more direct and literal.

With both of them, though, there was an element that I think must resemble what Method actors do, in imagining themselves into a character. I just tried to be this person and see things through her eyes, and let the voice flow from there.

For writers whose natural voices are more formal or mature than mine, I would suggest that you still just lean into whatever voice comes naturally to you, and allow it to be what it is.

I doubt that trying to consciously imitate younger people’s speech patterns would ever work very well, and I don’t think it’s necessary. There are plenty of great books for young readers that don’t have an obviously teen or kid-sounding voice.

Read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (Hyperion, 2009) or The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown, 2008). These books have pretty formal-sounding narrative voices, and they’re fantastic, and young readers love them.

Granted, they’re in third person, but who says you have to write in first person?

And then again, if you want to write in first person and still give your narrator a more formal style, who says you can’t do that?

Kids and teens have all kinds of voices, and their slang doesn’t necessarily need to be on fleek. (Which MTV tells me is out anyway. “On fleek” was so 2015, apparently.)

Guest Post: Amy Bearce on World-Building Woes (& Wows)

By Amy Bearce
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Confession: I have a terrible time with world-building. So, naturally, I consistently write fantasy, where world-building is critical.

You gotta be kidding me! Credit: Pixabay, mintchipdesigns, CC0

In real life, I’m not very observant about the space around me. I notice people’s emotions, but not what they are eating or what they are wearing. But in writing, all those little details make a place come alive. And in a fantasy story, they are even more important because readers must trust you to be their guide through an unknown world.

Right this way, please. Credit: Pixabay, InspiredImages, CC0

My first book, Fairy Keeper (Curiosity Quills, 2016), and the sequels are set in the world of Aluvia, full of magical creatures and beasts. Through writing these books, I’ve learned a lot about how world-building works best for me.
When writing about a fantastical world, the phrase, “Write what you know” now has yet another meaning. One way to create new magical creatures is to extrapolate what you know from the real world and tweak it.

My fairies were inspired by bees and have a lot in common with them. My merfolk are bioluminescent like deep sea squid and jellyfish, and in book 3, dragons are awakening from a long hibernation like giant wild bears with wings (and flames.)

As a girl of the plains, I had to watch a lot of documentaries to get a better idea of what was in the deep ocean. As it turns out…pretty amazing stuff! Credit: Pixabay, emdash, CC0

Originally, I had only considered fairies. But as I wrote about my fairy keeper character, soon I had merfolk and dragons and fauns…and had to decide details about each of them. It became apparent that while my world had magic, it was pretty broken. My magical creatures were less magical than many of their traditional representations. But I didn’t start off knowing that.
Essentially, world-building sneaked up on me.

This stealthy kitty is hunting dragons, mermaids, and fairies. Credit:
Pixabay, rihaij, CC0

Others writers build an encyclopedia of knowledge first. Google
“World-Building Tips” and you will receive an avalanche of questions to
answer.

How do people live here? What foods do they eat? What is their religion? Have there been wars? What economic system is used?

Here’s my secret: I hate those questions worse than a pop quiz in math. They almost hurt to ponder.

My expression when trying to answer “world-building questions.” Credit: Gratisography, CC0

I don’t know most of the answers until they suddenly appear in my story. I’m not saying it’s the best way to do it. I do it because creating details about a new world does not come naturally to me. But when my character is walking from point A to B, as I’m writing, my mind fills things in, and it mostly works. Mostly.

There always comes the moment my husband reads it and says, “Hey, these parts don’t make sense.” And he’ll be right. So I change things.

The cost of this build-as-you-go approach means that I often end up with a draft full of contradictory information. There’s a lot of clean up involved. I’m sure it would be easier to build the world before writing anything. But for me, it’s exactly that little stuff that trips me up. Every. Single. Time.

World-building: My own personal banana peel. Credit: Pixabay, stevepb, CC0

The good news is that if I can create an imaginary world with consistent magic rules and an actual map inside the book, you can, too. Don’t let overwhelming questions stop you. Try writing some scenes and see where they take you.

 Be patient, keep writing, and don’t be afraid to change things if you need to. Turn your woes to wow! After all, you are the master of your universe! Own it! Write it! And have fun with it!

Sing it with me: “I’ve got the power!” Credit: Pixabay, Skitterphoto, CC0

Cynsational Notes

Amy Bearce writes stories for tweens and teens. She is a former reading teacher with a Masters in Library Science.

As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany, though they still call Texas home.

A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book. Her latest release is Mer-Charmer (Curiosity Quills, 2016).

From the promotional copy:

Fourteen-year-old Phoebe Quinn is surrounded by magic, but she can’t muster any of her own. Her sister is a fairy keeper. Her best friends are merfolk. And all she does is dishes and housework.

When Phoebe finds out a terrible sea creature is awakening that preys upon the gentle merfolk, she resolves to help them, even though it means risking her life deep in the ocean.

Beneath the waves, Phoebe learns she’s more like her sister than she realized. The merfolk are drawn to her, and she can sense the magic of the sea all around her. Magic is finally at her fingertips, but that’s precisely why the stirring dark power under the waters decides it wants her most of all.

Now she must not only help the peaceful merfolk escape this ancient enemy, she must master her out-of-control powers. If she fails, she will die, and darkness will rise to enslave the merfolk once more. But embracing her full power could cost her the very people she loves the most.

New Voice: Kurt Dinan on Don’t Get Caught

Educator’s Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kurt Dinan is the first-time author of Don’t Get Caught (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016). From the promotional copy:

10:00 tonight at the water tower. Tell no one. -Chaos Club

When Max receives a mysterious invite from the untraceable, epic prank-pulling Chaos Club, he has to ask: why him?


After all, he’s Mr. 2.5 GPA, Mr. No Social Life. He’s Just Max. And his favorite heist movies have taught him this situation calls for Rule #4: Be suspicious. But it’s also his one shot to leave Just Max in the dust…


Yeah, not so much. Max and four fellow students-who also received invites-are standing on the newly defaced water tower when campus security “catches” them. Definitely a setup. And this time, Max has had enough. 

It’s time for Rule #7: Always get payback.


Let the prank war begin.

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

Having a full-time teaching job, papers to grade, and four children under the age of ten, let’s just say that writing time (or any free time for that matter) is pretty sparse. So basically, I’m a anytime/anywhere possible type of writer.

I write in the mornings before my students arrive, on my lunch break, in the fifteen minutes before I head home to get the kids, during my kids’ practices, or in the time after the kids go to bed if I’m not too tired and my brain is still functioning.

It can be a very piecemeal process, but I’m not too hard on myself and have a very realistic goal–500 words a day. When I get that finished, I don’t stress out about my writing the rest of the day.

That’s nice in that it allows me to focus my efforts and energy in other places they are needed.

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

Follow @kurtdinan on Twitter

Other writers have good-naturedly ribbed me for having a secret “in” to the world of teenagers, and I suppose I do. I’m surrounded by them all day, and I hear their conversations, their worries, their humor, etc. I get to use all of that when I’m writing.

Being a writer has helped me immensely in the classroom though because kids love my honesty about how hard writing can be, about revision and brainstorming techniques I’ve learned, and about how you want to write something you’re proud of, not just something you’ve finished.

 Basically, I’m not just someone forcing them to write, I’m someone going through a lot of the same struggles they are, and a lot of them appreciate that.

Interview: Author Carole Boston Weatherford & Illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford

By Carole Boston Weatherford
& Jeffrey Boston Weatherford

From Carole

Set during World War II, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (Atheneum, 2016) follows the training, trials and triumphs of the U.S. military’s first African American pilots.

The book pairs my poems with scratchboard illustrations by my son, Jeffrey Boston Weatherford.

The title is our first collaboration and Jeffery’s publication debut. The book, which includes a detailed timeline and links to primary sources, connects to both the language arts and social studies curricula.

You Can Fly had a long incubation period. The egg may have been laid during a family trip to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The earliest version of the text was for a picture book written in second person.

After I was unable to sell that manuscript, I sat on the egg for a few more years. Then I began re-envisioning and reshaping the manuscript as a poetry collection for middle grades-up. I switched the point of view to first person under the title “The Last Tuskegee Airmen Tells All.” Still not satisfied, I changed to third person. Finally, I settled on second person.

Around that time, Jeffery came on board. During a summer internship in children’s book illustration, he created digital art to accompany my poems. We sold the package, but just before the book was about to hatch, the flight got cancelled.

Carole & Jeffery in 2000

I began to wonder if the book would ever leave the nest. I continued to
revise the manuscript and to add poems. Jeffery and I decided to scrap
the digital art in favor of scratchboard illustrations.

Armed with a
revised manuscript and sample drawings, we sold the package to Atheneum.

In the subsequent year, Jeffery completed the illustrations and I added
a few new poems.

In mid-April, Jeffery and I received our comp copies.

Our first book together finally has wings.

Fly, little book, fly!

Author & Illustrator Interview

Jeffery and I recently interviewed each other about You Can Fly.

Jeffery: Why did you want to write this book?

Carole: The Tuskegee Airmen’s saga moved me personally. It is powerful—historically, politically and emotionally. I thought the story begged for a poetic treatment.

Carole: You were a serious gamer growing up. Did gaming influence how you illustrated the battle scenes?

Jeffery: Yes, absolutely. I had lots of residual visual references from battles across galaxies. I played everything from Halo to Call of Duty.

Jeffery: When did you first notice my artistic talent?

Carole: Your kindergarten teacher prodded you to finish coloring and work up to potential. By third grade, I was concerned that you were doodling planes, cars, weapons and anime characters in your notebook rather than paying attention.

Around middle school, I realized that your drawings were good. I put you in studio art classes, starting with cartooning. By high school, you were taking private art lessons with the assistant principal who became a mentor.

Carole: What is your favorite illustration from the book?

Jeffery: My favorite is of the boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. It’s a closeup scene from their historic rematch.

Jeffery: What’s yours?

Carole: The one where two planes on a mission have bombed an enemy aircraft. The explosion is so animated; like a comic book.

Jeffery: What is your favorite poem from the book?

Carole: It’s “Head to the Sky,” the first poem in the book and also the first that I wrote—early on when the project was envisioned as a picture book. “Head to the Sky” reflects the power of a dream fueled by self-determination.

Carole: Tell me about your first flight.

Jeffery: I had a window seat and was looking outside. As the plane sped down the runway, I said, “We’re blasting off!”

Carole: That was hilarious. Well, your career as a children’s book illustrator is off to a flying start. How did it feel when you first saw the printed book?

Jeffery: Like a child at Christmas.

From the promotional copy:



I WANT YOU! says the poster of Uncle Sam. But if you’re a young black man in 1940, he doesn’t want you in the cockpit of a war plane. Yet you are determined not to let that stop your dream of flying.



So when you hear of a civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute, you leap at the chance. Soon you are learning engineering and mechanics, how to communicate in code, how to read a map. At last the day you’ve longed for is here: you are flying!



From training days in Alabama to combat on the front lines in Europe, this is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the groundbreaking African-American pilots of World War II.

New Voice: Kathryn Tanquary on The Night Parade

Discussion Guide & Common Core Teacher Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kathryn Tanquary is the first-time author of The Night Parade (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016). From the promotional copy:

“I thought you might sleep through it.” The creature smiled.


Saki’s voice was little more than a whisper. “Sleep through what?”


It leaned over. She stared into its will-o’-the-wisp eyes.


“The Night Parade, of course.”



The last thing Saki Yamamoto wants to do for her summer vacation is trade in exciting Tokyo for the antiquated rituals and bad cell reception of her grandmother’s village. Preparing for the Obon ceremony is boring. Then the local kids take interest in Saki and she sees an opportunity for some fun, even if it means disrespecting her family’s ancestral shrine on a malicious dare.


But as Saki rings the sacred bell, the darkness shifts. A death curse has been invoked…and Saki has three nights to undo it. With the help of three spirit guides and some unexpected friends, Saki must prove her worth-or say goodbye to the world of the living forever…

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?

Though my protagonist certainly isn’t the most “edgy” in terms of behavior, she does start the story with a pretty big chip on her shoulder.

Saki’s act of rebellion is the catalyst that sets off the main events of the plot, so it had to be significant enough to provoke consequences without losing too much sympathy for her character.

To find this balance, her motivation was the key. From the beginning, Saki is a flawed hero with a lot of internal conflict; she’s trying to manage a toxic adolescent social life and her own need for acceptance from her peers, so it’s understandable when she caves to some of that pressure and makes a few bad decisions.

Making a big mistake may seem like the end of the world to a lot of people—and Saki certainly thinks so in the story—but I decided right from the concept stage that I wanted to deconstruct that idea.
A lot of the books I read growing up had a protagonist with a very strong sense of self, but Saki doesn’t have that yet. Her weaknesses are very human, and sometimes even a little petty. She’s still getting to know the person she’s becoming and that’s okay. Another key theme of the story is forgiveness, and Saki’s journey is all about second chances.

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?

Writing longhand in Osaka

The theme certainly evolved as the characters found their voices, but a sense of duality was there from the very beginning: city and country, young and old, modern and traditional, humans and spirits.

Anytime these things are put side-by-side there’s a tendency to pit them against one another. Go one step further and people start to separate themselves based on these perceived qualities.

One of the major themes of Saki’s story is finding the balance. Part of her journey towards self-discovery is recognizing that she can be dynamic and adaptable, and that she can inhabit more than one world at a time. In a world that seems increasingly divided in its thinking, I believe that’s a quality we should all aspire toward.

On a more concrete level, the story speaks to the issues of age, multi-generational families and tradition. Saki understands on some level why some of the rituals her family performs during the Obon holidays are important, but until she has an experience of her own she doesn’t feel as connected to the tradition.

Younger generations worldwide are facing similar experience gaps. The world we live in now is simply not the same as the world our parents and grandparents grew up in, so unless we invest some of our time in communication there is a lot we risk losing. Fittingly, this was one of the themes that took the longest to mature.

In both fantasy and reality, understanding the past is usually the surest way to help prepare for a brighter future.

New Voice: Shari Schwarz on Treasure at Lure Lake

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Shari Schwarz is the first-time author of Treasure at Lure Lake
(Cedar Fort, 2016). From the promotional copy:

An epic adventure—that’s all Bryce wants this summer. 

So when he stumbles upon a treasure map connected to an old family secret, Bryce is determined to follow the map, even if it means risking his life and lying to his grandpa while they’re on their wilderness backpacking trip. 

Bryce must work together with his difficult big brother, Jack, or they…and the treasure…may never see the light of day again.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? 

How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

One of my very favorite craft resource books is Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012).

I took it everywhere with me for a few months and read through it twice as I was writing Treasure at Lure Lake. One thing I struggled with in my book was giving the brothers, fourteen-year-old Jack and twelve-year-old Bryce, the right level of interiority, as Mary Kole calls it, which is access to the character’s thoughts and feelings about what is going on.

I wrote Lure Lake from the perspective of two boys, and if you’ve ever spent a lot of time around teenage boys, they aren’t always the first to share their emotions and deep thoughts. Of course, there are some that do—I do have four boys myself—but it was definitely a challenge for me to get into each of the boys’ heads and get their internal voices just right in my story.

Mary Kole’s book teaches about the importance of interiority.

She writes, “First we should see characters in action, and then we get some Interiority to really drive home the author’s intentions…With this one-two punch we can move on with a solid understanding of what we’ve just witnessed and learned.” (p. 59)

Another lesson I learned the hard way (through many revisions and trial and error) was how to make the reader care about Jack and Bryce at the beginning of the book. If the reader doesn’t care about their journeys very early in the story, then what would be the point of reading it? On p. 90 Kole writes, “…introduce not only a great character but a character with Objectives and Motivations. Then imbue the character’s life with enough conflict, both internal and external, to really get the story engine humming.” And, of course, there has to be interiority if we are to know the character’s goal, objectives and motivations.

Shari’s boys

I also listened carefully to my own boys and their friends. I listened to anything that would point to their hopes, dreams, goals and motivations. It is still a constant learning process to perfect these story elements that make or break a good book.

Another element is creating a complex, layered character. One who seems real. There are books I’ve read where I was certain that the story was biographical, in large part because the main character was so invested in the plot.

Mary Kole not only stresses interiority, objectives/motivations to create a real character, but she also helps writers by taking them through creating a character with a complex core identity full of strengths, weaknesses, virtues, roles, emotions, responses, boundaries etc… She writes on p 109, “If you can create a strong character with a strong sense of core self, then thrust him through a plot that attacks those pillars of identity, and surprise the reader with some of his choices, you will have an amazingly layered protagonist on your hands.” And she doesn’t leave it just at protagonists. She advises the same for the antagonist.

I highly recommend this book for all writers, those new to the craft and also those who are well-experienced. I can’t imagine that anyone has “arrived” when it comes to writing. I know I will be writing and revising and learning over and over again with each new book I write.

It’s a challenging but inspiring process, and I’m thankful for the inspiration found in books like Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole.

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

Cody (Corgi) and Jasper (puppy)

Before I started writing seriously, I received my elementary teaching degree with an emphasis in literacy, and then I worked as an elementary school librarian. I had the privilege to study children’s literature in-depth for my teaching degree which carried over into being a librarian where I was able to share with children my love of reading.

I didn’t begin writing Treasure at Lure Lake until a couple of years later. I think being a librarian allowed me to see and understand in general what kids love to read. There are those books and series that a lot of children gravitate towards, but they’re not for everyone. There are always at least a few outliers who don’t follow the trends and find their own niche in books they love.

There is also a difference between books that adults want children to read and books that children themselves want to read. Yes, there is a bit of a crossover, but there are many books that children love that adults roll their eyes at or worse.

As a librarian, my job was to connect readers with books. And the only way to do that is to find books they love based on their interests, reading level, prior books read and sometimes just a bit of luck. Part of connecting children to books meant that I needed to be up to date on new books coming out. How could I gush over a book to a student if I’d never read it?

American Lakes, Northern Colorado

Reading so many children’s books also helped me in writing Lure Lake. There is such a wide variety of readers which is one of the reasons why there are so many different types of books out there.

As a new author, it can strike fear in my heart to think that some people will not like my book. Some people may judge it harshly. Of course! No book is the perfect book for every reader out there. This has helped me realize that my book will not be for everyone which is a good reality check. But there are children who identify with parts of my story, whether it is the plot or the characters or the themes…and that is who I wrote my book for.

Being a librarian allowed me to have numerous conversations with students who loved reading. They would tell me about why they loved the books they did, what they wanted to read next and how the book impacted them.

I also was able to listen as students told me about what made a book hard for them to get through or why it was boring. And, best of all, I was able to work with those students who just hadn’t found a love for reading yet. They were the children who came back, week after week, still searching for a book that they might finally like.

There isn’t anything more gratifying as a librarian than to finally find that one book that makes a reader’s eyes light up for the first time. Seeing a reluctant reader finally devour a book, especially if it’s part of a series, is an amazing process to watch and the greatest blessing of all in being a librarian.

One of my own sons struggled with reading throughout elementary school. But when I placed The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, 2005) in his hands when he was in fifth grade, he was hooked for the first time and read straight through that series and into the next.

Helping a child find the joy of reading is why I started writing Treasure at Lure Lake in the first place. I wanted to write a fun, exciting adventure that would be easy to read and would hopefully catch the imagination and hearts of reluctant readers that resonate with its story.