New Voices: Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith on Joshua and The Biggest Fish

Nancy stands behind co-author & grandkid, Kaylee.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What an honor and joy it is to welcome debut children’s authors, Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith, who’re also citizens of Muscogee Nation!

Their picture book is Joshua and The Biggest Fish (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017). From the promotional copy:

The big fish are way out in the deepest part of the river. Will Joshua find a way to catch a really big fish? Maybe then, the men won’t see him as “cepane,” or little boy. 


A historical, coming-of-age story, based on true events.

You are a grandmother-granddaughter team. How and why did you two begin writing together? What has that been like?

KM: Growing up I was always interested in writing and my grandmother, who wrote her whole life, encouraged me to follow my talents. The older I got, the more I wanted to learn about my Muscogee (Creek) heritage.

My grandmother suggested co-authoring a book to learn about our rich past and provide a way to bring us closer in my teenage years.
The process was long, and a bit tedious at times, but that’s what comes with the territory of wanting our book to be historically accurate.

This involved many trips to the Muscogee tribal complex and talking to multiple people which lead to even meeting new family members.

NS: When my granddaughter, Kaylee, turned 16, she told me she wanted to learn more about her Muscogee Creek heritage. I was so happy to hear that.

So, we drove to the Muscogee tribal complex in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and met with Buddy Cox at the tribe’s Cultural Preservation office. He shared with us many ideas, but the subject that jumped out at us was “fish kills.”

Writing a children’s book about this part of our Muscogee Creek history and culture seemed like a wonderful project we could do together. Kaylee was in her last two years of high school, and then went away to college, so writing our book was a long journey, but so worth it.

What was the initial inspiration for Joshua and the Biggest Fish, illustrated by Dorothy Shaw (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017)?

KM: Initially, we both wanted to gain knowledge of our ancestors’ past. Although I have lived in Oklahoma my whole life, I knew very little about the Muscogee Nation and I feel that most Oklahomans are the same way. My little sister was about two at the time and a children’s book felt like a perfect way to teach her and many other children a little piece of Creek history.

NS: All young Creek Indian boys are nicknamed “cepane” (chee-BAH-nee), which in Creek language means “little boy.” Our book evolved as a coming-of-age story about a young Creek boy who longs to be accepted as one of the men, and who does not like being called “cepane.” The book is named after my Muscogee (Creek) grandfather, Joshua.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

KM: The idea came about when I was sixteen, and after six years of research and writing it was published in 2017. During all of this I was graduating high school and moving to college, so this also slowed up the process along the way.

We first heard of fish kills from Buddy Cox and we both found them incredibly interesting. We decided to go with it, but literature on fish kills is very slim. My grandmother came up with some creative ways to research history on fish kills that made this book possible.

NS: Our book took a total of six years to complete. This was mostly because we wanted our book to be historically and culturally accurate.

After doing research at the Oklahoma Historical Society (Oklahoma City), I discovered historic photographs of Creek Indians taken at the fish kill in the 1920s. Finding these photos was so exciting, and some are featured in our book. By the second year, the Cultural Preservation office changed managers several times, so that was a hurdle. Finding a publisher was also a challenge.

What were the challenges (emotional, logistical, research, professional) in bringing the book to life?

KM: After finishing the writing portion of the book, I think the biggest struggle was finding a publisher. Being first-time authors in a niche market was hard to sell to publishers.

My grandmother promised me from the very beginning that we would get the book published and I never doubted her; although, it is vexing to be turned down multiple times on something you have worked so hard on.

My grandmother never gave up, even through tough times, to get this book published and I couldn’t have done it without her. I am grateful for her every day.

NS: We took at least 8 to 10 trips to the Creek Nation in Okmulgee to do research, and several trips to the Oklahoma Historical Society. You must be very interested in your project, and very dedicated to work for long periods of time toward completion. One thing that kept me going was wanting to complete the book with my granddaughter, Kaylee.

What do you hope that young readers take away from the story?

KM: I want readers to learn a part of history that few know about and to spark their interest in Indian culture. There are very few Creek Indian children’s books, and I hope this book inspires more to come.

NS: I hope young Muscogee (Creek) readers will feel pride in their culture from our book, and pride in being Creek citizens. I also hope all young readers will enjoy reading about our tribe’s past and learning about our language and culture.

What did Dorothy Shaw‘s art bring to your book?


With illustrator Dorothy Shaw

KM: The first time I saw Dorothy’s artwork for the book, I was blown away and thrilled that she brought our words to life. The story would not be the same without her craftsmanship.

NS: Dorothy Shaw brought our characters to life in a wonderful and colorful way. Her beautiful illustrations along with the historic photographs provided inspiring images to our readers.

How have you celebrated the book’s release and connected it to readers, especially in the Muscogee (Creek) and larger Native community?

With Principal Chief James Floyd & Second Chief Louis Hicks

KM: We have done several book signings and hope to start having school visits soon in the Tulsa County area. The tribe has ordered and even re-ordered the book which is very exciting.

Imagining Creek citizens reading our book is a bit mind-blowing and very encouraging. After reading your own words so many times you start to not even recognize them as words, so it comes to a point where you must stop editing and get it out there or you could spend your whole life on it.

NS: We donated seven books to our tribe’s Head Start schools, to share with their young students. Kaylee also presented our Chief and Second Chief with their own personal copies of our book. “Joshua and the Biggest Fish” is carried at our tribe’s gift shop, and we have also done several book signings. Our Tulsa City-County Library has our book at seven of their library branches. I have personally contacted over 20 outlets, bookstores, etc. to market Joshua and The Biggest Fish.

What can your readers expect from you next?

KM: I currently have something in the very beginning stages that I presume will take me a considerable amount of time to finish. It’s a different genre and different age group but something that has been in the back of my head for a while.

NS: I have started working on a middle-grade historical novel about my tribe, which I’m currently doing research on.

New Voice: Laney Nielson on Peppermint Cocoa Crushes

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Laney Nielson is the debut author of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes (Skypony, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Sasha is so excited for her school’s Winter Variety Show! She and her best friends, twins Karly and Kevin, have been working on a song and dance routine for it, with super cute candy cane costumes. 


Sasha is sure they’ll be the best. And she’s even more confident that her secret plan — to tell Kevin about her crush on him — will go off without a hitch.

But Sasha is starting to realize that she’s overcommitted herself, between rehearsing for the show, regular dance class, after-school clubs and committees, and ever-increasing amounts of homework. 


When nothing ends up going as planned, can Sasha still step up and make the most of her moment in the spotlight?

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

When I began writing seriously (with the goal of publishing), I thought I knew more than I did. I loved children’s literature. I’d been a classroom teacher of the age group I wanted to write for. I’d taken creative writing courses and I’d participated in poetry workshops. Plus, I had a bunch of half-baked stories already on my computer. How hard could it be? Uh…I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

Joining SCBWI was a great first step. That year, I also went to my first Austin SCBWI conference.

I signed up for an intensive Lisa Yee’s taught on villains. (Side note: Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Scholastic, 2003) is one of my all time favorite middle grade novels.) By the end of the weekend, I realized this was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought. So I then moved into the phase where I will probably live forever: I know what I don’t know.

When I felt like I’d reached a plateau in my learning (and in an early manuscript), I attended the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop. There my fabulous faculty advisor, Tami Lewis Brown taught me how a character’s yearning can drive a story and how to raise questions for your reader.

Alan Gratz who was also on the faculty taught a session on structure and the hero’s journey that fundamentally changed the way I think about story. I buried (figuratively) a manuscript there but those days in Honesdale, PA were invaluable. I dream of returning!

Cynthia and the 2014 Writing Mentorship finalists. Laney is on far right.
Photo by Sam Bond.

In 2014, I again attended the Austin SCBWI conference, and that year I was awarded the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentorship.

It was a remarkable opportunity to learn from a writer I deeply admire.

On every level, Cynthia helped me grow—from rethinking word choice to turning a stereotype on its head to slimming down an overwritten first draft. She was thoughtful and generous, and I will be forever grateful for the wisdom she shared.


Along the way, I’ve read numerous craft books and shared countless first drafts with my smart and supportive critique group. The learning never ends. 
My current work in progress is very different in tone from Peppermint Cocoa Crushes and right now I’m studying Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). It’s a remarkable book and the perfect one to teach me how syntax and word choice create tone and build voice.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

There are so many wonderful firsts: holding an ARC, walking into a book store and spotting your book face out on the shelf, having a reader say your story resonates with them. 

Scenes from Laney’s book party

I’ve loved seeing the photos people have posted of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes on social media. Like all the Swirl novels, the cover is very photogenic especially with a cup of cocoa nearby!

But getting to those firsts was definitely filled with highs and lows. When I signed with a wonderful agent in 2015, I thought I’d made it. I assumed my manuscript would sell within a matter of months. 

It did not. But as hard as being on submission and collecting passes from editors was, I had an agent, a business partner.

If this one didn’t sell, the next story would. But then my agent moved back to the publishing side of the business and that meant I no longer had an agent. My partner was gone. I had a manuscript that had never sold and a second one that needed a lot of work. It felt like I was back at square one!

It was a great lesson. Okay, it did not feel like a great lesson at the time! But it taught me to focus on what I can control (my ideas, the quality of my writing) because the rest of it? I can’t control.

Fast forward a year (or so) and my former agent turned editor, approached me about writing a novel for Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers. Yay! And that was the start of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes. 


What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

  • Immerse yourself in stories. 
Read! Find mentor texts for your current project. Think about what the writer does well and how they are doing it? Study the story on every level from word choice and syntax to the character arc and theme. If something doesn’t work for you as reader, figure out why not and think about what might’ve been more satisfying. 
When you watch a movie or a favorite show on Netflix, ask yourself why does a scene work? Where is the tension? How does it raise questions that keep you engaged? 
You may want to look at stories through the lens of the hero’s journey or plots points (Larry BrooksStory Engineering, Writer’s Digest, 2011) or beats (Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, Michael Wiese, 2005). Analyze. Discuss. Or write reviews. 
Stories in all mediums are of value, but at the end of the day, a writing life is a reading life. Oh, and read poetry! Nothing teaches you the importance of word choice or truth telling like poetry.
  • Spend time developing your ideas. 
Push and pull at the premise of your stories. Ask what if and who cares and so what. Imagine and re-imagine. Before you begin a project write one-paragraph pitch for your story. Would you buy that book? Be honest. Would a stranger?
  • Write! Write! Write!
And finish that first draft. The act of making your way through the beginning, middle and end of your first story is a huge milestone. Be proud. Give it a rest. And then when you’ve had some time apart, roll up your sleeves and see what you have to work with. Let the fun begin!
  • Be open to feedback. 
Find a critique group or a critique partner. Your local SCBWI is a great place to start. When you share your writing, remember you’re not looking for someone to tell you how good it is. You want to know what’s working and what’s not. Feedback is such a gift!

If you are able to go to a conference, sign up for a critique session with an agent, editor or published writer. Listen and learn. These are industry professionals who know what works and what sells. And along the way, your skin will grow thicker. I promise.

When I received the editorial letter for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, I felt like I’d made it onto the playing field. This was what I’d been training for!

  • Remember the why
For writers seeking a traditional publication path, you can’t control when you’ll be published or what that will look like or how it will all unfold. So remember why you are writing. As with the characters in our stories, the why is always the most important part! 
Cynsational Notes

See the discussion guide for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, and the other Swirl novels from Sky Pony Press.

A Booklist review called Peppermint Cocoa Crushes “full of humor and silly mishaps…A good choice for libraries looking to add some gentle romance to their middle-grade collection.”

Laney Nielson is a former classroom teacher with a master’s degree in education. 

She is a past recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her novel, Peppermint Cocoa Crushes is part of the Swirl series, Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers.

Registration is currently open for the 2018 Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference, set for April 28 and April 29.


New Voice: Caroline Leech on Wait for Me

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Caroline Leech is the debut author of Wait for Me (HarperTeen, 2017). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1945, and Lorna Anderson’s life on her father’s farm in Scotland consists of endless chores and rationing, knitting Red Cross scarves, and praying for an Allied victory. So when Paul Vogel, a German prisoner of war, is assigned as the new farmhand, Lorna is appalled. 


How can she possibly work alongside the enemy when her own brothers are risking their lives for their country?

But as Lorna reluctantly spends time with Paul, she feels herself changing. The more she learns about him—from his time fighting a war he doesn’t believe in, to his life back home in Germany—the more she sees the boy behind the soldier. 


Soon Lorna is battling her own warring heart. Loving Paul could mean losing her family and the life she’s always known. 


With tensions rising all around them, Lorna must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice before the end of the war determines their fate.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My Wait for Me journey back to World War II was prompted by a conversation with a friend in Wales who mentioned in passing that her father had grown up during the war on a farm which had German prisoners of war working as farmhands.

Craigielaw Farm farmhouse, where Caroline
imagined Lorna would’ve lived

The proverbial light bulb went off in my head, and I immediately started researching how these prisoners came to be working alongside British people on farms, in parks and forests.

I grew up on a reading diet of Colditz and The Great Escape-type books, so I expected all prisoners to have stayed locked up in prison camps, plotting their escape. But I quickly found out that many of these men—who were screened on arrival to weed out the hardened Nazis—were relieved to be far from the war, and from Hitler’s brutality. 

Life in Germany had been terrible for more than a decade, and many had been forced into the army under threat of harm coming to their families.

I also discovered that many of the men chose not to go home again at the end of the war, especially those who had lived in what was to become the Russian Zone and then communist East Germany. 

I found numerous stories of prisoners who had fallen in love with local girls, and once they were released, they petitioned to stay so they could get married and settle down in the place which gave them safe harbor. 
Even those who did return to Germany had made such close friendships with the British people they’d worked alongside, they would be friends for the rest of their lives. 
Suddenly, all my writer’s alarm bells were ringing and I knew I had my opening scene—a young German prisoner arrives on a Scottish farm, injured and traumatized, and receives a less than friendly welcome from the farmer’s daughter. But in time, she starts to see him less like her enemy and more like the intelligent and caring young man he is, a boy who is very far from home. And then perhaps he becomes something even more to her . . .

Aberlady Bay, the regional setting for Wait for Me

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?



I was very lucky to have great sources to aid my research. 
Both my parents were involved in the war—my mother was evacuated from London as a child, and my father followed his four older brothers into the army when he turned 18 in 1944—so I was never without that primary source material. 
But what was challenging to find was the balance between historical accuracy where girls lived in a very different set of societal expectations, and writing characters who were relatable to modern readers. 
By 1945, when the book is set, young women had been liberated from domesticity only to a certain extent. They were required to go out to work as part of the war effort—often doing previously “male” jobs in factories and dockyards—but ultimately, they were still expected to get married, settle down and stay at home to look after the house and children. 
Teenage girls now, of course, rightly expect to go on to further education, have a career and financial independence, even if they do later choose to get married and become mothers. 
Therefore, I had to find a middle ground where my protagonist was assertive and confident, so she would connect to my readers today, without dismissing the reality of the rules of the society in which she lived then.

Although the same rules applied for the time period of my second book, In Another Time (HarperTeen, August, 2018), it felt quite different.

My main character is one of the girls who chose to leave school and take over a job usually done by a man, that is being a forester in the Highlands of Scotland. Maisie joins the Women’s Timber Corps—the Lumberjills—and she rather makes her own rules after that!

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?


I did everything the wrong way around. Normally, you’re supposed to get your agent, who then shops your book out to editors, but I actually got my editor first.

I was still working on revisions to my WWII book when I won the Joan Lowery Nixon Award at SCBWI Houston conference. My prize was a year’s mentoring from the amazing Newbery Honor winner, Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt and Caroline
at the Texas Library Association Conference

Even though I was still working my way through revisions under Kathi’s expert guidance, I entered the first few pages into two contests with Romance Writers of America chapters in Houston. 

I was amazed to win the YA categories of both contests, the Emily and the Lone Star, and even more stunned that one of the judges—Alice at Harper Teen—emailed to say she wanted to read the whole manuscript. 
She was patient enough to wait for me to finish the revisions I was doing, and she then read it almost as soon as I sent it.

Within two weeks, she’d offered me the deal. I still didn’t have an agent, so several writer friends in Houston and Austin offered to make some introductions. 

It’s amazing how quickly agents pay attention to your emails when you approach them with a book deal in your hand! I was thrilled to sign up with New Leaf Literary & Media in New York within only a few days of getting my deal.

New Leaf’s client list includes the most stellar list of authors: Veronica RothVictoria Aveyard and Leigh BardugoJordan Hamessley is my agent, and she’s wonderfully supportive.


What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

While there’s romance in the image of a struggling author sitting alone in a chilly garret, hunched over a sturdy typewriter bashing out the next great novel, it couldn’t be further from the truth. 

My books have mostly been written sitting in a Barnes & Noble café or a Starbucks, while my writing buddy, Penny, sits alongside me, working on her own novel. I find it very hard to write in my house—far too many distractions, even when no one else is there—so whenever I need to focus and write for more than an hour or so, I escape to a coffee shop, preferably with a friend or two. We keep each other focused, and only chat a little (honest!).

The other enormous influence on my writing has been my membership of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I went to my first SCBWI conference with the sole purpose of meeting one particular agent. 

It was in Austin and even though the agent gave me a big “no, thanks,” I gained so much from that weekend, not least of which meeting other writers who became great friends. I then went to the Houston SCBWI conference, too, and met even more wonderful people.

Back then, most of my new friends were still dreaming of publication; now, one by one, we have almost all got book deals, but we are all still supporting each other’s writing from “the other side of the fence.”

Caroline at the Brazos Bookstore launch of Wait for Me,
photo by Penny Linsenmayer

I can track my book deal directly from attending that first SCBWI conference, through winning the Joan Lowery Nixon competition, straight to publication, so I cannot stress how much I owe to everyone in SCBWI.

Getting a book deal is not only exciting, it is truly terrifying! 

You are suddenly thrown into a professional world, with its own jargon and unwritten rules, and it can feel incredibly intimidating. However, I discovered that I was not alone. For years, a support group for authors debuting in any given year has developed organically – the Fearless Fifteens in 2015, the Sweet Sixteens in 2016.

Since I was having my debut in 2017, I joined the Swanky Seventeens, now called the 2017 Debuts

We share our experiences, ask and answer questions about how publishing works, and lead the cheers for each other every Tuesday when a new set of debuts were released.

Now there are second books being published, and we support those, too. My second book, In Another Time, comes out in August, by which time a couple of my debut friends who write fantasy series will be on their third publication! 

Within the group, we’ve also had some very serious conversations about how race, gender, disability and sexuality are portrayed in YA and MG books, and I’ve learned so much from my fellow debuts.

I don’t know if I could have got through this last year without their support. Even though I’ve met only a few of them in person, I have made so many fantastic friends via the chat forum and our Facebook group, it feels like I’ve known some of them for years. Over the last year, I’ve been privileged to read some of the most amazing books in advance of their publication. 

What were the best moments of your publishing journey?


One of best is certainly that lightbulb moment when suddenly this new story exploded in my mind, and I had to rush to grab a pencil to get it started. 
Women’s Timber Corps memorial statue
in Aberfoyle, Scotland

And of course, I’ll never forget the moment when I received the email offering me my book deal. We were in Scotland on a family vacation and were in the middle of my daughter’s 18th birthday party. 

I knew that Alice Jerman, an editor at HarperTeen, had read my manuscript and loved it enough to take it to her bosses that day for acquisition approval, but because of the time difference between Scotland and New York, it was already mid-evening and I was still waiting to hear.

When I felt my phone buzz in my pocket, I had a quick look without making it obvious I was checking my phone during a party. The email from Alice not only said she wanted to buy that book, but wanted another one after that. 

I had never expected to get a two-book deal, so I was totally thrilled.

From across the room, my husband saw me check my phone and looked questioningly at me. He was the only other person who knew that I was waiting for news, so I nodded and forwarded the email to him, meaning that both of us were sitting on opposite sides of the room grinning madly.

But of course, we didn’t want to distract from my daughter’s birthday, so we said nothing until the very end of the evening. It was so hard to keep the secret , even if it was only for a couple of hours.

Women’s Timber Corps, also known as the Lumberjills,
photo courtesy of Women’s Timber Corps.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?



Read, read, read and write, write, write! And keep on writing, no matter how bad you think your first draft is. You can’t revise and perfect words that haven’t been written down yet, so sometimes you need to switch off your inner editor and just get the words onto the page. You can concentrate on making them pretty later at revision stage.

Also, try to find your “writing people” as soon as you can, even if it just starts out as one buddy to sit beside you as you work, someone to keep you accountable for the time you’ve promised yourself you’ll give over to writing each week. 

Also, for me, SCBWI membership is a vital tool for any children’s/teens’ writer, and I’d say don’t just join, take part! Go to meetings and conferences, so people get to know your name and face and join in the online discussion groups. By the time you get your book deal, these people will have become your biggest cheerleaders.

And finally, even when it gets hard, keep going. As you can see from my publication story, it only takes one editor to like your story for your whole life to change. That might happen next year, or it might happen tomorrow, you can’t know. But if you stop now, you will never know.

Cynsations Notes

Photo by Priscilla Dickson

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Wait for Me, “Clandestine meetings and stolen kisses will satisfy die-hard romantics, while history buffs will be drawn in by the details of war-torn…Scotland.”


Caroline Leech is a Scottish writer who moved to Texas for an adventure ten years ago. 
Her career in public relations with performing arts companies in the United Kingdom culminated with her editing a glossy photographic book, Welsh National Opera – The First Sixty Years (Graffeg, 2006).

She has written numerous feature articles on the performing arts in a number of newspapers and magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Her next novel, In Another Time, will be published in August 2018. 
Caroline lives in Houston with her husband and three teenage children.

Get a peek at the Wait for Me launch party at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. 

New Voice: Nic Stone on Dear Martin

William C. Morris Award Finalist

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Nic Stone is the debut author of Dear Martin (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.

Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?


Reading books written for young readers! I didn’t pick up a YA book until I was 26. That first foray was The Hunger Games  by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008), and I read the entire trilogy over the course of five days.

That then started a dystopia kick for me, and I read the first two books of the Divergent  series by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books, 2011) and the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins, 2011). Then I picked up my first John Green book, and that was that.

There was something about the Young Adult category that spoke to me in ways literary fiction hadn’t, and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that YA wasn’t a thing when I was a teen, so there was this hole in my reading life.

Now I write for the kids like me—specifically the African American ones—who are still underrepresented in the YA sphere.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

The first time I went through professional copyedits, there was a note about the spelling of a particular curse word. I’d spelled the first part of it (because of course it was a compound curse word) “motha” and the note said something to the effect of “I think this should be ‘mutha*****’ because this way it looks like ‘MOTHa*****’. Okay?” I will never ever forget this note.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

The answer to this changes depending on the book I’m working on, but for Dear Martin  there were five specific ones:

1. A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2011), which is the book that helped me to see that I could play with various storytelling formats in one single novel;

2. When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2014), which helped me settle into my black boy character’s voice;

3. Grasshopper Jungle  by Andrew Smith (Dutton, 2014), which loosened me up a bit and made it clear that irreverence is an okay thing in books written for teens;

4. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (Atheneum, 2011), which was so beautiful and lyrical and helped me find my prose rhythm; and

5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2009) which showed me the power of reaching into the heart of a story and keeping the plot from taking over.

These books will always hold a special place on my shelf.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

For me, this part of the journey has been the most surprising part and it’s largely because of the way the world is changing with regard to author visibility and accessibility. It’s weird to me that people want to see me and hear from me and connect with me as a person above and outside of the work I create.

Right now, I’m in the process of connecting my writer self with my selfie-taking self and connecting two of my creative outlets: books and makeup. Working on a concept for a Youtube channel, actually. Stay tuned!



Cynsational Notes

In a starred review of Dear Martin, Booklist says, “Teens, librarians, and teachers alike will find this book a godsend in assisting discussions about dealing with police, as well as the philosophical underpinnings of King’s work. Vivid and powerful.”

Dear Martin was named a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award by the American Library Association.

Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one.

After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to  the U.S. to write full-time.

Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work.

You can find her goofing off and/or fangirling over her husband and sons on most social media platforms as @getnicced.

New Voice: Kate Hart on After the Fall

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Kate Hart’s YA novel, After the Fall, debuted in January 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. From the promotional copy:

Kate Hart’s debut YA novel After the Fall is a wrenching, emotional read and an intense conversation starter about issues of sexual consent.



Seventeen-year-old Raychel is sleeping with two boys: her overachieving best friend Matt…and his slacker brother, Andrew. Raychel sneaks into Matt’s bed after nightmares, but nothing ever happens. He doesn’t even seem to realize she’s a girl, except when he decides she needs rescuing.



But Raychel doesn’t want to be his girl anyway. She just needs his support as she deals with the classmate who assaulted her, the constant threat of her family’s eviction, and the dream of college slipping quickly out of reach. Matt tries to help, but he doesn’t really get it… and he’d never understand why she’s fallen into a secret relationship with his brother.



The friendships are a precarious balance, and when tragedy strikes, everything falls apart. Raychel has to decide which pieces she can pick up – and which ones are worth putting back together. 

Publishers Weekly said After the Fall “has a lot going for it—well-defined and believable major and minor characters, in particular—as well as a lot going on. The book takes up consent, slut shaming, issues of class and (to a lesser extent) race, unrequited love, and competition between siblings—and then adds a tragic accident and the resulting guilt and fractures.”

I’m pleased to welcome Kate to Cynsations to talk more about After the Fall, what she is writing now, and her thoughts about working on a future project with her tribe, the Chickasaw Nation.



What was your initial inspiration for writing After the Fall?

I started writing After the Fall in 2010, when I had just trunked a paranormal manuscript and wasn’t sure where to go next. Someone online suggested the “I want” technique, so I sat down and made a simple list with “I want to write about…” at the top, followed by random topics that appealed to me.

After “hiking,” “the Ozarks,” and “keeping up with the boys” showed up, I wrote a random line about rock climbing that led to an entire scene, and six weeks later it was an entire book.

A lot has changed in the manuscript since then, and it took a lot more than six weeks to reach the book’s final form, but that scene stayed and the first line remained the same.



What has your author journey been like since publication in January of this year?

It’s been complicated, because my health took a downturn right around the book’s release (which also coincided with the week of the Inauguration), and an even worse downturn this fall.

I was lucky enough to attend several book festivals in the spring, and meeting readers has definitely been my favorite part of the experience, so being unable to travel for promo later in the year was really disappointing. But that’s life with a chronic illness, and hopefully I’ll be better prepared to manage those issues next time around.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

The assault that Raychel’s character experiences is loosely based on my own, so when the first version of the book went on submission in 2010, it was very difficult for me to separate criticism of her actions from criticism of my own teenage behavior.

Seven years later, it’s not fun to read reviews that victim blame or claim that I, as an author, have somehow made light of the issue, but the time it took to get the books on the shelves gave me a while to develop a thicker skin and draw a better distinction between myself and my work.

What delighted you the most about writing this book?

With author Maureen Goo

Setting is an important element to me, so it was fun to pull parts of my hometown into the story. People have some pretty strong preconceived notions about Arkansas, and it’s been lovely to get thanks from locals who are relieved to see our area portrayed realistically.

You’ve mentioned in an interview earlier this fall that you’re working on a book informed by your Chickasaw ancestors’ experience. Will it also be a young adult story?

This is a great question because I’ve been asking myself the same thing! It’s certainly written about teenagers, but while one of the point of views is first person from a seventeen-year-old girl, the other is a “bird’s eye view” third person that may be skewing more adult.

I keep worrying about it, but ultimately you have to let the book be written in the way that works best for the story. My hope is that the finished draft will at least be a crossover – and if not, that my agent and/or future editor can help me straighten it out!

Any plans to work with the Chickasaw Nation’s White Dog Press to publish books for children and teens?

For now, I plan to stick with the major YA publishers, but I’d love to take part in some kind of anthology or project through the Chickasaw Nation.

I recently read their larger Chickasaw Press’ release Wenonah’s Story as a reference for my work-in-progress and I’m so grateful that they’re preserving the stories of our ancestors for future generations.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Find your group (but not your tribe, because Dear Internet, tribes are a totally different thing).

When I first started writing, I didn’t have any local writer friends, but thanks to sites like Absolute Write and the early days of Twitter, I ended up with an amazing support group of colleagues.

Watching their publishing journeys taught me so much, and I went into my own career well-informed because of their generosity and advice.

Any last thoughts on Native/First Nations writers for young people?

I am beyond excited for the books coming soon from Rebecca Roanhorse. Her debut novel Trail of Lightning is for adults, but she also has a middle grade called Race to the Sun coming from Rick Riordan’s new imprint, plus several short pieces in various anthologies.

I’m also a fan of Tim Tingle’s House of Purple Cedar, which takes place in Skullyville, a Choctaw town in Oklahoma where many of my relatives lived.

Cynsational Notes

After studying Spanish and history at a small liberal arts school, Kate Hart taught young people their ABCs, wrote grants for grownups with disabilities, and now builds treehouses for people of all ages.

Her debut YA novel, After the Fall, was published January 2017 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux; she’s also a contributor to the 2018 anthologies Toil and Trouble and Hope Nation.

A former contributor to YA Highway, she currently hosts the Badass Ladies You Should Know series, and sells woodworking and inappropriate embroidery at The Badasserie. Kate is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation with Choctaw heritage and lives with her family in Northwest Arkansas.

Traci Sorell joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators.

Traci writes fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies for the trade and educational markets. She has been an active member of SCBWI since August 2013.

In April 2016, Charlesbridge acquired her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, from the slush pile. It will be published on September 18, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

She also has a Master’s degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Previously, she taught at the University of North Dakota School of Law and the University of New Mexico.

She also worked as an attorney assisting tribal courts nationwide, advocated for national Native American health care, and directed a national nonprofit serving American Indian and Alaska Native elders. She now lives in the Kansas City area and is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram @tracisorell.

New Voice: Jonathan Rosen on Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jonathan Rosen is the debut author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies (Sky Pony Press, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. 


Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. 


Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.


That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. 


Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever?


What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I was a kid, the big thing for me was when my parents took me to the bookstore. Back then, there were bookstores in all the malls–sometimes two–Waldenbooks and B.Daltons. And every time we went, we’d stop in one, or more likely, both.

My parents would let me buy a book or two every single time, because I read them so fast. I always loved that excitement of buying a new book. There was nothing like it to me. My favorites, were the Choose Your Own Adventure Series (Bantam Books, 1979-1988).

Even back then, I remember thinking how great it would be to see my name on a book.

When I started writing, I wanted to try and recapture some of the magic of those stories that I loved.

I wanted kids to get excited about some of my stories because I still have vivid memories of going in and picking up favorite books. I dabbled in it, until my kids started to get to reading age, and then I made it a serious endeavor. I wanted my kids to love my stories.

My youngest has read Cuddle Bunnies a few times, and I love watching her do it.

I coach a girls softball team and they’re always telling me what books they like. And now, they’re all excited about mine.



What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This one, has kind of convoluted answer. I had wanted to do something fun, with a kind of dark humor. The movie “Gremlins” kept coming to mind. It was one of my favorites as a kid. I love the idea of these sweet-looking things containing a dark side, and that’s where Cuddle Bunnies came in.

At around the same time, I had just come at two different houses with a previous manuscript. Both places eventually turned it down for one reason or another, but both said they loved the humor in it.

So, while this evil stuffed animal book was fresh in my mind, I decided to go ahead and write the funniest book that I could. Evil stuffed animals were very funny to me.


What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

There were so many ‘worst’ moments, that I could write a book just about those. This isn’t an easy field. You have to brace yourself for a lot of rejection. Not everyone is going to like you and your work, so you just have to accept that.

Funny enough, some of the very worst moments were after I was at the point where I felt good enough to be published, and it didn’t happen. I got so close that when I went to the brink at those two houses and then got turned down, it kind of felt like it might not ever happen.

The best, was when I signed with my agent, Nicole Resciniti. It was real validation that someone in the industry believed in my work. It wasn’t too long after that when she told me that we had an offer. Soon, we signed the contract. That was the overall, best moment, so far!

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

I like to remain heavily involved in the children’s writing community as well as the larger literature community. Besides being in a regular critique group, I go to as many SCBWI events as I can and read blogs to keep up to date with what’s going on in the industry.

Jonathan’s critique group, The Tuesdays

I think it’s important to know what people in the industry are looking for, who’s working where, what types of books are selling as well as just maintaining friendships within the community.

It’s always good to support others and know you have like-minded individuals, who you can confide in and who share similar experiences.

As much as writing seems like a solitary endeavor, it isn’t really. It’s very tough to make it alone.

It’s good to have people who can pick you up when you’re down. To critique your work and offer opinions. And discuss what’s happening in the writing world.

I also look all the time to see what new books are released. There’s nothing like digging into a new middle grade book!

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

I wish I could give some eye-opening, insightful, new piece of information that’s never been given before, but I’m saving that for my pay-per-view special. Truth is, my advice has been given over and over again, but it’s so true. Never give up.

Seriously, it’s so easy to give in to the rejection. Most of the time, that’s what you get.

Remember, that’s what will separate you from those who don’t get published. They gave up. Keep going. Work on your craft. Always try and get better.

And one of the most important things: don’t be stubborn when someone offers opinions or advice. Take note of everything and use what works for you. If it doesn’t, then you don’t have to follow it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen.


Cynsations Notes

Jonathan Rosen is a teacher and freelance writer who spends his “free” time being a volunteer coach for his daughter’s softball team and a chauffeur for all of his kids.

Jonathan was born in New York and is of Mexican descent. He contributes to From the Mixed Up Files…of MG Authors and Tuesday Writers.

A sequel to Cuddle Bunnies, From Sunset Till Sunrise is now available as an e-book and will be released in print in August 2018 from Sky Pony Press.

Jonathan lives with his family in sunny South Florida.

New Voice: Ismée Williams on Water In May

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Ismée Williams is the debut author of Water In May (Amulet Books, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year-old Mari Pujols believes that the baby she’s carrying will finally mean she’ll have a family member who will love her deeply and won’t ever leave her—not like her mama, who took off when she was eight; or her papi, who’s in jail; or her abuela, who wants as little to do with her as possible. 


But when doctors discover a potentially fatal heart defect in the fetus, Mari faces choices she never could have imagined.


Surrounded by her loyal girl crew, her off-and-on boyfriend, and a dedicated doctor, Mari navigates a decision that could emotionally cripple the bravest of women. But both Mari and the broken-hearted baby inside her are fighters; and it doesn’t take long to discover that this sick baby has the strength to heal an entire family.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I love reading young adult literature. I love the fast pace and the fact that no matter what happens over the course of the story, there is hope at the end as the characters are young and change is possible.

In much the same way, I was drawn to pediatrics when I was in medical school. Kids are just so much more fun and interesting than grown ups! And kids are strong. Even when they are very sick, they have a higher chance of pulling through than us old(er) folks.

Also, I vividly remember what it was like to be a teen. I can still feel the excitement, the acute awareness of approaching potential. I spent so much time dreaming. There was so much I wanted to do with my life. The time that is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood is special and unique. I naturally believed it would be the most interesting time in my characters’ lives.

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

I didn’t set out to write about a Latina character. I set out to create a story that would move the reader.

It just so happened that I am a half-Cuban pediatric cardiologist who took care of a number of young Dominican/Dominican-American women pregnant with babies with heart defects. I was one of the only Spanish-speaking fetal cardiologists at my hospital, so these women tended to come to see me.

I remember the exact moment I thought of the premise for Water In May.

I was coming up out of the 168th Street subway, mulling over a scene in my first manuscript. My brain switched to my upcoming patients for the day. I stopped dead on the sidewalk outside the hospital front entrance. Throngs of people in scrubs passed me, headed for the glass doors.

What if there were a young Latina who wanted a baby desperately? Who wanted someone who would love her and not leave? What would she do if the baby had a heart defect and might not survive? That would make a great story.

Ambulance bay at hospital where Ismee worked.

I wasn’t ready to put my first manuscript aside. But when I got home that evening, I jotted down some notes. And I thought of that character, that strong Latina woman, over the next few years.

When I was ready, I sat down and wrote the novel in three months. This was fast for me and I think it was because I had such a strong grasp of my protagonist. Mari wasn’t based off any single patient. She was a mix of many of them, and of me as well.  Her contrary, feisty nature is me unfiltered.

But I do believe my Cuban abuelos, who took care of my brother and I growing up as both our parents worked, gave me stronger insight into my Latina patients that went beyond the common language. I understood how crazy they were about babies.

My abuelos, my mother and I were the same. And in Cuban and Dominican culture, family is muy importante. Which makes Mari’s wound of feeling abandoned by her parents and her grandmother even more acute.

Ismee’s mother, her Abuelo and teenage Ismee.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

Perhaps the funniest moment of my publishing journey was the day my agent, the illustrious Jim McCarthy, called to offer me representation.

I was working in the library, immersed in another manuscript, when my phone buzzed. I ran out to the hallway, murmuring, “Please hold on,” so I wouldn’t disturb my fellow library-mates.

The connection was so poor I could barely hear what Jim was saying. Perhaps only every third word came through. I was running up and down the stairs of the old building, trying to find a spot with good reception, my heart hammering.

Silent curses against my cell phone carrier and the very loud thunderstorm that was no doubt disrupting service streamed through my mind. After trying for a few minutes, Jim hung up!

But then he emailed me explaining that he normally likes to make the offer verbally but email would suffice. It all worked out in the end, but it was nerve-wracking while it was happening!

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

First of all, attend as many writers’ conferences as you can. I live in New York City and was able to attend the SCBWI Winter conferences five years in a row.

I attended breakout sessions with agents and editors where I learned the do’s and don’t’s of writing a query letter along with practical writing tips such as cutting extraneous scenes that do not move the plot forward.

The keynotes speeches from established authors were equally influential. Who knew that famous authors spent years trying to get published, working menial jobs or living off significant others or parents while fine-tuning their writing? That they, too, submitted to hundreds of agents and editors before finally breaking into the publishing world?

These conferences gave me the desire and hope to keep plugging away along with concrete tips on how to fine-tune my craft.

My second piece of advice is to join a writers’ critique group. I was starving for feedback for a very long time, not realizing I was surrounded by people who could help me. Find local authors/aspiring authors who write in the same genre as you do. Share your work. Offer up feedback and they will do the same. The experience is invaluable. I found my critique partners online through SCBWI.

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Water in May a starred review. Peek: “Full of spot-on cultural texture and packing an emotional punch, this is an unusual take on the teen-pregnancy problem novel. Mari’s is a voice and path that are often dismissed or derided, but Williams presents her experience in a way that demands not pity but respect….”

Ismée Williams is a pediatric cardiologist who worked at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City for fifteen years.

As the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, partially raised by her abuelos, her background helped her understand the many Maris she met along the way. She lives in New York with her husband, three book-loving kids and a dog who looks like a muppet.

New Voice: Ruth Freeman on One Good Thing About America

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Although Ruth Freeman has authored several picture books, she made her debut as a novelist earlier this year with One Good Thing About America (Holiday House, 2017). From the promotional copy:


Is it ever easy being new?

Anaïs was the best English student in her class in Africa. Now in Crazy America she feels she doesn’t know English at all. Nothing makes sense…chicken fingers


In letters, she writes to her grandmother back home about Halloween, snow, mac ‘n’ cheese and princess sleepovers. She misses her father and brother and hopes the fighting is over soon. 

In the meantime, she writes about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and wonders if she will ever feel at home in this strange new country.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I found that I could read chapter books, it was like falling in love. My seven- or eight-year-old self wouldn’t have known to call it that, but it absolutely was. I couldn’t believe the places I could go and the people I could meet, all between the covers of a book! Words melted away on the page, time stopped, and I would go off with fairies, pioneer girls, knights or rabbits. Being so absorbed and transported at that age was as close to real magic as I will ever get.

I think when you’re young and fall in love with reading, it never leaves you. You’re hooked.

As I got older, the notion of recreating the magic I found in books began to take hold. I wanted to reverse the process. Could I weave words together in such a way that the picture in my head would show up (similar but different) in someone else’s head? How cool would that be?

Of course, it’s one thing to catch the desire to write and another thing to do it, as I found out. But that’s another story (see below).

Students reading at Ruth’s school

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?


Two words: my students. I teach English language learners (ELL) at an elementary school in Maine, so everyday I work with young people, some of whom arrived in this country a week ago, some of whom were born here but speak another language at home.

It takes five to seven years to become fluent in English, both the basic conversational language as well as the academic language.

As ELL teachers, we often work with the same students over several years, which means we get to know them, hear their stories, answer their many questions and meet their families.

I wrote this book for two reasons. The first was so that my students, and students like them, could see themselves in a book. There aren’t enough children’s books about the experiences of newcomers. At least, not yet.

The second reason was so that all readers could get a glimpse of what life might be like for a girl new to this country.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, I write that there’s no way I can truly understand the experience of a refugee or asylum seeker but my hope, and expectation, is that one day my students, and others like them, will write their own stories…and I can’t wait to read them!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

Because I was writing from the protagonist Anaïs’ point of view, the biggest challenge was to make her writing, her voice, sound authentic.

I limited the words I could use to the ones used by a typical newcomer.

I added a few expressions she might have picked up such as, “for sure,” “for goodness’ sake,” and “crazy” to describe anything that didn’t make sense (which was a lot of things!). She uses “cool” and “bingo” she hears from her teacher. Because her vocabulary is still growing, she repeats words for emphasis, such as “I am not happy. Not not not happy.” Other vocabulary lessons spill over into her writing, too, such as her use of comparative adjectives: “big, bigger, biggest.”

Anaïs’ grammar and spelling was also a challenge. I wanted her writing to look as realistic as possible, so I decided it shouldn’t be perfect. I tried to include enough misspellings to make it authentic but still keep it legible.

As time goes by, her spelling, verb tenses, grammar and vocabulary improve. I worked long and hard to make the progression plausible (though her improvement is probably faster than it would be in real life). It was tricky remembering what words she had learned and what misspellings she had corrected as the story unfolded!

A fourth grade class decorated their door as the cover.

Using an entirely epistolary format must have been particularly challenging, but it works beautifully. Can you tell us what drew you to this format?

I have to admit I had never thought about writing a story in letters before. The idea for a “school” story was rolling around in my head, but that was as far as I’d gotten with it.

One spark came when I was helping some ELL students in a 2nd grade classroom. The class was writing persuasive letters, first having to state an opinion, then writing a letter to persuade someone to their point of view.

However, it wasn’t until later that the letter writing and the “school” story idea came together.

I had these bits and pieces in mind, but in the end, it was my students’ voices that made everything click. I can often hear their distinctive voices and accents in my mind long after we’re together, and it was these voices that I wanted to preserve on paper.

I felt the best way to do this was writing from my character’s point of view through letters she was writing home to her grandmother.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s writers-YA writers?


If you have a burning desire to write for young people, try it! Even though I had wanted to write for a long time there came a point when I felt time was passing and it was now or never!

But…there’s always a but…be prepared for a long, slow, hard slog. If you want it badly enough, you will stick with it. If it’s not for you, you’ll find that out and discover some other wonderful creative path to follow. It’s a journey, right?

But, if you get more and more determined to write, here are a few tips from one (and only one) writer:

Ruth in her elementary school library.

Read children’s/YA books! Haunt your local library, make friends with the children’s librarian, ask what everyone is reading, but don’t forget to read the classics as well.

Learn about the publishing business. One excellent way is to join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They have a lot of information online, they hold great conferences, and they can hook you up with local chapters and writers groups.

Find what works for you in the way of writing. You can read everyone else’s tried and true methods, but in the end, you have to figure out which way is best for you.

For example, I cannot wake up at 4 a.m. and write! I work full-time at the moment, so I take notes and glean ideas during the week and carve out Sundays for writing. And I work hard on stories in the summer when I’m not teaching. It is not easy. When I had small children, I wrote nonfiction picture books partly because I could do the research whenever I could find the odd moment of free time.

Write about what grabs you and you’re passionate about–not, I repeat not, what you think will sell and make you a million dollars. Your heart won’t be in it. Don’t get hung up on “brands” and “platforms.” Keep it real.

Lastly, when you are ready to plunge into your first draft, learn to banish the critics sitting on your shoulders (they keep coming back, so keep shooing them away), take a deep breath and enjoy making a mess!

You have the freedom to write whatever you want…and it in no way has to be perfect!

Keep an image of a mud puddle in mind.

Later, you can make everything pretty.

In the beginning, it is time for delight, freedom, creativity, humor and the joy of being subversive. Readers come later. In the beginning, you’re writing just for you. Go for it!

Ruth Freeman
(photo by Molly Haley)

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal called One Good Thing About America “highly recommended for libraries seeking timely stories about the immigrant experience.”

An educator’s guide is available from the publisher.

Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English Language Learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She’s worked with students from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. She has also authored several nonfiction picture books on subjects ranging from hairstyles to the history of chocolate.

New Voice: LaTisha Redding on Calling the Water Drum

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

LaTisha Redding is the debut author of Calling the Water Drum, illustrated by Aaron Boyd (Lee & Low, 2016) From the promotional copy:



Henri and his parents leave their homeland, Haiti, after they receive an invitation from an uncle to come to New York City. 


Only able to afford a small, rickety boat, the family sets out in the middle of the night in search of a better life. Out at sea, Henri dreams of what life will be like “across the great waters.”

Then the small boat overturns, and Henri is placed on top of the boat as his parents drift further out at sea. 


Overcome with grief, Henri retreats into himself and is no longer able to speak once he reaches land. Encouraged by his uncle and neighbor, Henri takes a bucket and plays on it like a drum. The drumming becomes a link to his past and a conduit for his emotions. 


Slowly, through his drumming and the kindness of his uncle and friend, Henri learns to navigate this new and foreign world without his parents.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life? 

more from illustrator Aaron Boyd

I keep a notebook with me almost all of the time. But I didn’t write down the idea for this story right away. It stewed in the back of my mind for several months. When I finally stilled myself to write it, I let the story pour out onto the page without editing.

As I wrote, the first challenge was capturing Henri’s voice. Henri narrates the story and it took me a few revision rounds to discover how much dialogue he would have. I’m not a poet or a musician, but Henri’s voice had formed a certain cadence when I read the draft out loud.

Then I immediately tucked the story away. After that, I researched details of the Haitian language, which is Kreyol, and the culture; it was important that I presented it properly. I also researched drumming, the origins, and its ceremonial use within the African diaspora.

When I returned to the story months later, I shaped it with those elements, chose more precise words and tightened the structure. Later, when I worked with my editor Jessica, she helped me revise it further by adding the day-to-day details of life in Haiti, which required more research. That added another layer to Henri’s story.

For the psychological aspects of the story, I knew from the onset that Henri was dealing with great loss, which was balanced with hope. But I never considered the themes in Calling the Water Drum too heavy for a child to understand.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers? 

The advice that I have, is what’s been given before and it’s advice that I followed, and still practice. Read a lot and write a lot. That’s the bedrock of being a writer. I have yet to personally meet another writer that didn’t begin as a voracious reader. The reading comes easily. The writing can be the hard part. Over the years, I’ve discovered that just because I’m compelled to write and I enjoy telling stories doesn’t mean it’s not hard.

LaTisha at a classroom visit

One piece of advice that I always found interesting was the adage to “write what you know.” I like to modify that: write what you want to know more about. I write what intrigues me or gets under my skin. And centering a child as the protagonist in a story gives me the chance to explore with wonder. Kids are curious about the world and, as a writer, so am I.

When it comes to actually learning how to write, I view it as a skill, like anything else. You read something, a poem, a short-story, a picture book, a novel and then you apprentice the story–you take it apart to see how the author put it together. Of course the “recipe” of read a lot, write a lot has to be seasoned with patience. Life gets so busy sometimes and it gets difficult to make time for writing.

It helps to set realistic reading and writing goals. I read the classics and read what’s on the market. I decide how many stories to write and complete in a month or three-month time frame if a year feels too lengthy. And completing the story is key. It’s better to complete two short-stories or one novel than have a hard-drive worth of half-finished stories.

What would you have done differently? 

I’ve been a storyteller since I was a child. But, I’m not one of those writers who have been writing since I was a kid or wrote for my high school newspaper or took creative writing classes in college. I had graduated from college and worked for several years before I took a writing class.

If I could do it differently, I would’ve taken creative writing classes in college and started to learn the craft earlier. I also would’ve sought out other writers and writing organizations sooner.

The community has been invaluable. It’s important for me to gather with other writers; but it was critical for me in the beginning stage to be around other writers and experience that camaraderie. I’ve learned that writing in isolation doesn’t benefit me at all.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

More from illustrator Aaron Boyd

Being an author is still very new to me. It’s true that having a book published is a delicious feeling. I’m still amazed. But I keep my focus on getting my butt-in-the-chair and writing. I have more stories to tell. And since I want to get more of my stories out into the world then I need to write more.

The pragmatic side of me has approached marketing and promotion with the understanding that it’s part of the book publishing process. It’s a business, after all. So I setup a website and I’m on Twitter joining the conversations about writing or the writing life, which is fun. I’ve been steeped in the writing world for years, but publishing is a whole other beast.

In terms of my self-image, it’s pretty much the same, again, because I’ve been a storyteller since I was little. So for me, at the end of the day, it’s all about story.

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

I’m African-American and the story is from the vantage point of a Haitian boy named Henri. But there’s another child named Karrine in the story, who is African-American.

Now, I didn’t write a Haitian story or the Haitian experience. There are Haitian writers who can express that from a place of vision that I never could. But, I wrote this story entwining two children from different cultures and that was intriguing to me.

Since I grew up in New York City, I’m familiar with being immersed in my culture while living parallel to many other cultures. I definitely wanted to give life to that experience and I did.

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Calling the Water Drum a starred review, calling it “a powerful story of loss and survival, human connection and hope… Redding’s distinguished text sensitively portrays the tragedies young Henri and Karrine have faced…”

A teacher’s guide is available from the publisher.

LaTisha Redding is a 2010 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and busy working on a middle grade novel. She lives in Florida and when she’s not wilting from the humidity,  she writes!

New Voice: Bonnie Pipkin on Aftercare Instructions

By Gayleen Rabakukk
For Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Bonnie Pipkin is the debut author of Aftercare Instructions (Flatiron Books, 2017). From the promotional copy:

“Troubled.” That’s seventeen-year-old Genesis according to her small New Jersey town. She finds refuge and stability in her relationship with her boyfriend, Peter—until he abandons her at a Planned Parenthood clinic during their appointment to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The betrayal causes Gen to question everything.


As Gen pushes herself forward to find her new identity without Peter, she must also confront her most painful memories. Through the lens of an ongoing four act play within the novel, the fantasy of their undying love unravels line by line, scene by scene. 


Digging deeper into her past while exploring the underground theater world of New York City, she rediscovers a long forgotten dream. But it’s when Gen lets go of her history, the one she thinks she knows, that she’s finally able to embrace the complicated, chaotic true story of her life, and take center stage.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

What came to me first was a vision of the opening scene: A girl named Genesis would have an abortion, walk out into the waiting room, and find her boyfriend gone. From there, I had no idea where the story would go, but I always knew this was where it started.

It went many different directions in the drafting process—the first round even had a traveling ghost theater troupe!—but that scene was the anchor. Beyond that, I knew I wanted to write about abortion but I never wanted the journey to the choice to be part of the story. We were going to enter the world with the choice made.

I also wanted to tackle the subject without shame. These were the bits and pieces. Then I just had to get to know Genesis in order for the rest to come out.


What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

The worst moment of my publishing journey came while I was revising the novel with my agent. I was full of momentum after finishing my MFA program and signing with an agent right out of the gate, ready to finish the manuscript and put it out into the world.

I read the opening scene for my graduate reading to a tremendous response, and was full of confidence about how edgy and boundary pushing I was going to be. Opening the book with a minute-by-minute abortion scene was going to Blow. People’s. Minds. I told myself this.

Bonnie with her VCFA diploma

Then one day, I received feedback from my agent that she thought we should cut that opening scene and start the story somewhere else. That maybe opening with that scene was a bit too intense for the people sitting around acquisitions tables. That maybe it was a little too much like staring at a car crash. After all, this is one of the most divisive subject matters in this country.

I was shattered by this suggestion. I have a punk rock spirit, and have always thought I should never think about stuff like that when making art. To me, agreeing to cut this scene felt like the first time that I had to make a business decision over an artistic one.

But I see now how I was still in this cloud of overconfidence. I didn’t write for two months after this suggestion. I didn’t know what this book was without that opening scene. My agent assured me that after I made that cut, if the book didn’t feel authentically me, then we could always go back. But I really didn’t know how to do it. I felt like I had come so far and maybe the story wouldn’t actually go anywhere now.

After killing the biggest darling of my life, and basically skinning myself alive, I had to grieve and then I had to heal a bit. But then something amazing happened. Without my dependency on the impact of the opening scene, I had to make the whole damn book live up to that kind of weight. It pushed me to think about the rest of the book and what it needed.

That opening scene was my anchor, but that was also drowning me. I don’t know how my wizard agent, Emily van Beek, saw that, but I’m so grateful she pushed me that way. I revised this manuscript with her for nearly two years before it went on sub (minus the two months I was paralyzed by my own ego. Okay, it might have been three. Or four.).

In an intellectual way, I always knew that I agreed with the notion of killing your darlings. But until I felt this so closely, I didn’t really get it. It’s deep. And it hurts. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, they say.

Launch party for Aftercare Instructions at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?


I recently traveled to Ireland, and upon landing had to fill out a card for immigration. When it asked for my occupation, it was the first time that I allowed myself to put “author” instead of all the million other occupations I’ve identified with and as. But when I handed it to the border agent, I felt a momentary panic that maybe he would tell me I wasn’t really an author. That’s the irrational self-doubting part of my brain on overdrive right there. Like I would have to prove to him that I really was an author or I wouldn’t be allowed entry!

But those moments of uncertainty aside, I’m slowly acclimating to the beast of marketing. Marketing and promotion and social media and all kinds of administrative work that I didn’t anticipate can easily fill up my days. At first, my thinking was, I will take care of all that business in the morning, then have the afternoon free and clear for writing. However, free and clear never really comes once you start the other stuff. I realized that if I don’t do my creative work in the morning, then I can never fully focus on it. The other stuff creeps in. I think I’ll probably always have to strategize to maintain this balance, but for now that seems to work. If anything is going to creep into my afternoon, I would much rather have it be the new story I’m working on!

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly described Aftercare Instructions as a “sensitive and big-hearted debut” and Kirkus Reviews wrote: “leads readers on a journey through grief to hope again.”

Bonnie Pipkin believes in prose, performances, puppet shows, and public displays of affection. Originally from California, Bonnie now lives in Brooklyn.

She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaches literature courses at Kean University, officiates weddings, and looks after a very cute cat.