New Voice: Hena Khan on Amina’s Voice

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Hena Khan, a well-published picture book author makes her novelist debut with Amina’s Voice (Salaam Reads, March 2017). From the promotional copy:

A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community.

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. 

Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” 

Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I was working as a communications specialist for an international public health organization when I unexpectedly got the opportunity to first write for kids back in 2001. 
I had a very good friend who worked as an editor with Scholastic’s continuity department. She was editing a series called Spy University and, since we had worked together on our high school newspaper, asked if I could help out with the writing. 
It was perfect timing for me because I was looking to transition out of a full-time job that required international travel as a new mother. I thought it could be the perfect stay-at-home alternative and a great way to balance my consulting work.

I soon realized that writing for kids was far harder than I had imagined! 

I’d grown a bit tired of writing and editing jargon- and data-filled technical documents with the aim of making them more accessible to lay audiences. 
And I thought that writing for kids would be a welcome change, which it was, but it took hours of practice for me to finally nail the lighthearted tone and fun style of the series. 
I had to learn to write in an upbeat, pun-filled manner, and to present a serious theme (espionage) in a kid-friendly and appropriate way. 
It was challenging at times but it helped to have an amazing mentor.

In the end, I loved writing those initial children’s books, and went on to write for three other series before my first trade-published picture book, Night of the Moon came out in 2008 with Chronicle Books.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Amina’s Voice?

I first thought about and started writing Amina’s Voice more than four years ago. 

I had published two picture books about Muslims, and wanted to write something for a middle-grade audience. Since books spoke to me the most when I was a middle grader myself, I loved the idea of connecting with that age group.

Also, parents often asked me to recommend mirror books for their tweens and I struggled since so few of them existed.

I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was an “every girl” who happened to be an American Muslim. I hoped that readers of all backgrounds would be able to relate to her as much as I did to the characters I had grown up reading and loving—none of who had resembled me in any way. 

At the time, Islamophobia was growing in our country, and I was alarmed by reports of anti-Muslim campaigns, and an increasing number attacks on Islamic centers, bullying of Muslim kids, and hate-motivated crimes. 
I wanted to offer a Muslim friend to people who didn’t have one through storytelling, and a window into my often misunderstood and misrepresented faith and culture.

Amina is a girl that struggles with common challenges—friendship changes, family conflict, finding confidence. 

Yet the story also allows readers to get to know a Pakistani American family, gain access to an Islamic center and Muslim traditions, and to perhaps see how they’re not as different as they might have imagined. 
At the same time, the story introduces the idea that Muslims are not a monolith, and that there are variations in the way we approach our faith and integrate it into our daily lives, which is an important if subtle idea in the book.

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

The biggest challenge for me was trying to make sense of the various feedback I received from editors who initially passed on the book. 

Some said they loved the writing, connected with Amina and were emotionally moved by her story, but that it wasn’t the right fit for their list. Others said they didn’t connect with Amina’s voice enough or find her story compelling. Others said the book was too “quiet,” which was a term that was new to me, or—perhaps the hardest to hear—that they felt the book didn’t reflect the type of diversity that they were seeking. 
No one actually said what they recommended I do to “fix” the story or make it work better.

I was determined to tell the story I wanted to tell, even if it wasn’t likely going to be an extremely commercial book. 

After sitting with all the opinions for a while, and getting some helpful comments from my writers group, I finally realized what was missing in the story. 
We knew all the things Amina was afraid of or didn’t want, and not enough about what she did want. She was too much of a bystander in her own story. 
When I set about to change that, and give her more of a presence, I felt that she lost her sweet quality and had a personality change. So then I rewrote the book in the first person voice, which allowed me to really get into her head, see things from her perspective and get the voice right. 
I was also able to shed unnecessary details and edit out the 40-year old woman voice that had snuck in from time to time. But the story remained essentially the same.

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

As a child of Pakistani immigrants who was born and raised in America, and now as a mother to third generation American Muslims, I have a diverse background that also feels very common. 

I grew up witnessing my parents struggle to both assimilate and hold on to their culture, balancing two cultures myself, and reconciling my American identity with my Pakistani heritage and my faith. 
My children, who in many ways are much more grounded and comfortable with their identity that I was at their age, understand that they are as American as anyone else, no matter what they might hear. I like to think that growing up in a fairly diverse community, and having exposure to diverse books from a young age helped in that regard.

In a nutshell, what I essentially bring to my writing is an example of the amazing American immigrant experience, from a Pakistani American Muslim perspective. 

Pakistani Americans make up the largest percentage of immigrant Muslims in America, but the story I tell and the family I describe in Amina’s Voice is very familiar to people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and faiths. 
To me it was important to create a character who is unashamed of her culture or faith, who is unapologetically American and Muslim. It means a great deal to me for kids like mine, and all others, to be able to identify with, empathize with, and root for a character like Amina.

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal, Booklist and Kirkus Reviews all gave Amina’s Voice starred reviews.

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Khan deftly—and subtly—weaves aspects of Pakistani and Muslim culture into her story, allowing readers to unconsciously absorb details and develop understanding and compassion for another culture and faith. Amina’s middle school woes and the universal themes running through the book transcend culture, race, and religion.”

School Library Journal called it, “A universal story of self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. A welcome addition to any middle grade collection.”

Booklist wrote, “Khan gracefully balances portraying the unique features of Amina’s cultural and religious background with familiar themes of family, belonging, and friendship worries, which should resonate with a wide range of readers. Written as beautifully as Amina’s voice surely is, this compassionate, timely novel is highly recommended for all libraries.”

New Voice: Andrea Page on Sioux Code Talkers of World War II

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Andrea M. Page is the first-time author of Sioux Code Talkers of World War II (Pelican Publishing, 2017). From the promotional copy:

In World War II, code-making and code-breaking reached a feverish peak. The fabled Enigma Cipher had been broken, and all sides were looking for a secure, reliable means of communication.

Many have heard of the role of the Navajo Code Talkers, but less well-known are the Sioux Code Talkers using the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota dialects.

Told by the great-niece of John Bear King, who served in the First Cavalry in the Pacific Theatre as a Sioux Code Talker, this comprehensively informative title explores not only the importance of the indigenous peoples to the war, but also their culture and values. The Sioux Code Talkers of World War II follows seven Sioux who put aside a long history of prejudice against their people and joined the fight against Japan.

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

Great question. When I really set my mind to writing this story for publication, I enrolled in children’s writing courses at our local Writers and Books. I remember the first course was Writing Children’s Picture Books.

When starting out, I really thought the story would make a fine picture book. Very quickly, the instructor, Jennifer Meagher, gently informed me that the story was not a picture book and suggested a middle grade format. 
I tried fiction, then nonfiction, and over time, she helped me frame my book based on some mentor texts we located. Once I accepted the lengthier format, I knew what parts needed more research. 
In addition, I joined our local writing group, the Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators (RACWI) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

 I formed a critique group, then another, and a third one with Jamie Moran and Kathleen Blasi. We added a few more writers to the group. People came and went, leaving Kathleen, Elizabeth Falk, Keely Hutton, and me. 

During all this time, I devoured every craft book I could find. I attended SCBWI conferences, including the one in New York City. Then I landed on a novel idea- the online course. I took a non-fiction writing course from Laura Purdie Salas and began to look at myself as an author-in-training.

Eventually, I sent a round of query letters out and Pelican Publishing Company responded. After reading my manuscript, editor Nina Kooij explained they might be interested if I doubled my word count. 

I was excited, but at that time, I had no idea how to double my word count. I knew I put all my solid research in the manuscript, I didn’t know what to do. But, I was not going to give up.

I took a self-imposed sabbatical to study the craft of writing. 

I studied mentor texts, I joined online writing groups, and heard tips about other intriguing books on author’s craft. I read and I wrote. And then one day, I found the Call of the Writer’s Craft (Simon & Schuster, 2009) by Tom Bird. His technique opened the door for me. 
Basically, you access the right brain, write fast, and write a lot. I stopped editing lines and wrote about topics in my book in no particular order. I filled a huge, blank sketchbook. (I still write this way today) I found my voice while piecing together the chapters in my book. 
Mailing final version of manuscript
In a few months, I more than doubled my word count. Revisions were easier. I resubmitted to Pelican Publishing Company five years later. I had more tasks to complete before I received a contract. But my contract finally came!

I still take online courses, most recently from Joyce Sweeney and attend writing conferences with my critique partners. I’ve enjoyed writing retreats with other writing buddies like Sharon Lochman, Leah Henderson, Patricia Miller, Agatha Rodi, Janie Reinart, Kristin Gray, Jenna Grodzicki, and Julie Rand.

 One cannot do this job alone. Having lots of writing friends helps raise the bar, sets high expectations, and keeps me moving forward.

I’ve had many opportunities at RACWI meetings to meet and learn from established authors. Studying the craft under mentors like Carol Johmann, Vivian Vande Velde, Linda Sue Park, Marsha Hayles, Ellen Stoll Walsh, Robin Pulver, M.J. Auch, Peggy Thomas and many others has been quite a gift over the years.

It’s been quite a journey from novice to published author. I’ve been blessed with wonderful writing friends who stand by me, cheer me on, and encourage me to dedicate my life to the craft of writing because that is who we are- writers and readers.

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

I encountered many hurdles while writing this book.

While researching at first I couldn’t find any documentation about the Sioux Code Talkers. Back then and even today, people are well aware of the Navajo Code Talkers. (There are a few reasons for that, which I explain in my book.)

My uncle’s unit only had seven men used as code talkers and their orders were top secret, so they couldn’t talk about their service for many years. 

By the time the papers were declassified, several men had died. I had the opportunity to interview one several times, but I wasn’t asking the right questions and his memories were vivid but not detailed enough for me to follow a solid trail.

Once I had a path to follow, I ran into other obstacles. 

Service records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire years before, historical records for the unit were minimal since the 302nd Rcn Troop was an unusual unit. Most members never attended the Cavalry Associations reunions. I did manage to meet the commanding officer of the unit at one reunion. We became close and he started sharing copies of his documents.

Literary & Logistical Struggles

I mentioned my determination to become a better writer in the previous answer. One added hurdle was trying to figure out the best way to tell this story. I kept planning, organizing and revising. 

One revision meant that I pulled everything apart, reorganized and wrote again – 35 different ways over 20 years.


There were many times over the course of 20 years that I had negative, internal thoughts: 

What if I’m not meant to do this? What if I get it wrong? I’m not a history person, I’ve never been in the military. So many people are expecting me to get this right. I’m a terrible writer. I’m too shy to put myself out there in the world. What if nobody likes my writing? I know I have no style or writing voice. I’m so tired- this is taking too long. 
This is where critique partners and a writing group are needed. They helped me re-frame these negative thoughts and keep moving forward. They are my biggest cheerleaders and I am theirs. 
We all know what we (writers) are going through with each low point as well as each highlight. We are connected to each other and share the highs and the lows together.

What would you have done differently?

I tried to stay organized by recording names, dates, all the citation information as best I could. 

Research bins
However, I wish I would’ve logged the details right from the beginning. 
When I was going through my final edits, I realized I couldn’t find one source for a quote. I looked through my nearly 10 bins of research, but couldn’t locate the quote’s documentation. I had to bail on that quote and find a similar one that could be cited in the bibliography. 
The second quote was adequate but not as powerful. So, I learned a valuable lesson as a nonfiction writer.

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

Watching historical movies became part of my research process. My teenage daughter sat down with me one night to watch, eventually asking, “Why aren’t we learning this stuff in school?”

I thought that was a great question. Our schools teach about historical events, but often times from the non-Native point of view. I hope my book opens the eyes of students and teachers to the two points of view. Both sides need to be studied. This is part of our history as a country.

Growing up in two worlds myself (Native and non-Native) as well as learning about different cultures (Lakota Sioux, German) made me knowledgeable and accepting of many differences and cultural viewpoints. 

Mary Monsees (Andrea’s mom), John “Teton Jack” Gibbons Langan & Andrea at Yellowstone. Jack was the first person to confirm the use of Lakota language in coded messages by the 302 Rcn Troop. As a member of the First Cavalry Division, he witnessed the use of the Code Talkers sending and receiving the top secret messages. He pushed Andrea to tell the story of the Sioux Code Talkers.  He died in 2002 and did not have the opportunity to see the finished book.
We were blessed with determined, hard-working parents who took us on many trips to South Dakota, Germany, and Australia to visit our family members. Many times, these experiences opened our eyes to the way people connected with each other, good and bad. We learned both sides and became stronger, more resilient people because of our experiences. This is my hope for my readers as well.
Code Talkers were awarded Congressional
Medals in November 2013
Lastly, I wanted to share a story about a Congressional hearing that took place in Washington D.C. Veterans provided testimony in support for the Code Talker Recognition Act. Some elders testified in their own language. 
Since the hearings are recorded, this may be the first time testimony was documented in Lakota. I heard the pride in the veterans’ voices when they explained this, and it made such an impression on me that I pursued trying to have some of the code messages translated. 
The incoming and outgoing messages are documented in the military files and I asked an elder who knew how to read and write the language if she would translate for me. Therese Martin worked tirelessly to complete this task for me. 
Once I typed the messages, I wanted to make sure that the language was authentic and readable from another source. I contacted another elder, Vernon Ashley, who verified the coded messages. I’m pleased and thrilled that these two elders supported the efforts to include the Lakota language in the book.
Mary Monsees, Andrea’s daughter Alana and Andrea with Law Honoring Code Talkers
Andrea and her mom, Mary Monsees with the Gold Medal honoring
John Bear King for his service in World War II.
Cynsations Notes
Andrea M. Page is a sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Her interest in her great-uncle’s story began in 1994 when a family member found a newspaper article about John Bear King, revealing his previously unknown World War II service. For 20 years, she gathered information on his story through interviews and research. 

She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, The Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators and the New York State United Teachers.
Kirkus Reviews said Sioux Code Talkers of World War II is “an engagingly written, deeply researched account of a little-known part of World War II” and “Page explores not only the importance of these soldiers to the war, but also their history, culture, and values.” 

Book Trailer

New Voice: Michael Merschel on Revenge of the Star Survivors

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Michael Merschel is the first-time author of Revenge of the Star Survivors (Holiday House, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Middle school meets the Dark Side in this painfully funny survival story of social misfit Clark Sherman. 

When Clark crash-lands on the inhospitable planet of Festus Middle School, he soon learns the natives don’t take kindly to newcomers . . . particularly ones who practice Jedi mind tricks and follow nerdy TV shows like Star Survivors. 

As he faces a conspiring group of violent bullies, browbeaten teachers and a fiendish principal, Clark knows he’ll be lucky just to survive eighth grade.

Then, hope appears on the horizon: there is Les, the enigmatic boy who seems to disappear at will; Ricki, a fellow Star Survivors fan; and the independent-minded librarian, Ms. Beacon. 

When Clark and his newfound allies are imperiled, he gathers his courage and the consequences of his actions ripple through the galaxy in life-altering ways.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

To be honest, when I started, I didn’t know that I was writing for young readers. I had an idea for a story, and I decided I would try telling it, and see what happened. It was only after I submitted to an agent, and she said she’d be happy to represent my middle-grade novel, that I realized, “Oh. I’m a middle-grade novelist.”

I was fine with that, for a couple of reasons.

One of my intellectual heroes is Chuck Jones, who directed many of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. (This might give you an idea of exactly how much of an intellectual I am, but I digress.)

 I loved him as a kid — it’s because of him that I learned to pay attention to the opening credits on Saturday morning cartoons, because I figured out that if his name was listed, it was going to be a good one. And I love him as an adult, because anybody who can create art that’s still beautiful and funny 60 or 70 years on apparently knew what he was doing.

Anyhow, I remember hearing an interview with him where he said that he never created for children. He just created work that he and his colleagues enjoyed. I just found this quote from him — “You have no right to ‘write for children.’ You do the best thing that you can do. …. There’s only one test of a great children’s book, or a great children’s film, and that is this: if it can be read or viewed with pleasure by adults, then it has the chance to be a great children’s film, or a great children’s book. If it doesn’t, it has no chance.”

I feel the same way. A book is either good, or it’s not. Age doesn’t really enter into it.

Another intellectual godparent to this book would be Judy Blume. I loved her so much as a boy.

I heard her speak a few years ago, and I realized: People loved her because she told us the truth. I have done my best to emulate that spirit in my book.

One final thing that inspired me, once I realized what I was doing, is the memory of how I inhaled books when I was between third and eighth grades. I’d read my favorites eight, nine, ten times over a couple of years.

I think my nervous system was rewired around some of those books. It’s an honor, and a little scary, to realize than I’m now one of those authors. Though lightning may strike me if I dare compare myself to Judy Blume as anything more than a source of inspiration.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Mike in sixth grade,
wearing his favorite shirt 

Well, I suppose the initial inspiration was when my family moved when I was in seventh grade.

It was a real shock to me at the time, and I convinced myself, in the way that a lot of 13-year-olds do, that my experience had to have been the worst of all time. But as I grew up, I realized — lots of people feel awkward, and alienated, in their junior high years. Whether they moved or didn’t. Whether they were popular or not.

It’s just sort of a universal experience. By comparison to a lot of people, I had it really easy.

So I convinced myself — there’s nothing to write about there. It would be a terrible cliche.

But then, my oldest daughter entered seventh grade. I was up at her junior high for orientation. It looked about the same as my own junior high, which made me feel a little edgy.

I was probably extra edgy because we were standing by the gym, and to be honest, the main reason I have gone to church was so that I do not have to spend eternity in a place that looks like a junior high gym.

Anyhow, I’m standing there, and down the hall comes this gaggle of eighth-grade girls. They were dressed rather … aggressively, and they were headed straight toward me. And I literally jumped out of their way — pressed my back against the wall, tried to become invisible — because they scared me. Even though I was about 30 years older than they were.

I realized later that they had been part of some kind of skit intended to show how not to dress and behave, but the fearful feelings I had were so intense I decided, “Maybe there is something I could write about here.”

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

Finding the time. I have a full-time-plus job and had three kids and did not have an office with a door that could be closed.

I started off thinking, “I really need at least a few hours in a quiet room, with an inspirational view and the right mood music playing, to craft my art.”

By the end, I had learned that I could get a lot done at the kitchen table in the morning during the 25-minute gap between when the last kid left for school and before I had to race out the door for work. (I should note that I have an extremely supportive wife who did a lot of hard work on nights weekends when I was locked in my bedroom staring grumpily at the computer screen. Thanks, honey.)

Mike with C3PO and Anthony Daniels (photo by David Woo)

That has a direct connection to my subject matter, though. When I was searching for ideas for a
novel, I knew that I needed to choose a topic that would not need a lot of in-depth reporting. And nerdy, science-fiction-obsessed outcasts? I did not need to research that.

I did end up doing research to understand the characters, though. I read a bit about the psychology of bullying. I tried to absorb a lot of material on racism and microaggressions. And electronics.

I’m not an expert on any of those things. But I hope I learned enough to get it right.

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

I had a very clever plan for finding an agent. I’m fortunate that in my day job, editing book reviews for The Dallas Morning News, I get to work with a lot of people in the publishing world, and I asked a couple of them for advice. One was a client of Sarah Burnes’.

I spent a few days Google-stalking her, saw that we had some common nerdy interests — I knew I would need an agent who spoke fluent nerd — and our mutual friend agreed to forward my material along. And Sarah agreed to look it over.

Now, I honestly had no expectation that she would take me on as a client. She has some really amazing clients, and I knew my work was not yet at their level. But I thought — if a rock star agent like her can give me feedback as she rejects me, I can just use her advice, make revisions, and then find someone else willing to take me on.

Several months went by, and the long wait made me think — obviously, she’s got zero interest.

To compress the story, after about six months, I finally got her evaluation. It began with a critique of all the things that were wrong with my manuscript, and I thought, “Yep, just as I suspected — she’s rejecting me.” But she ended by saying that if I was willing to make changes, she’d be happy to take me on.

I told her — in my business, that’s what we call “Burying the lead.”

I would not be here right now without her. She’s a brilliant editor, a font of optimism and a clever guide who led me through two rounds of submissions and eventually connected me with an editor and publisher who have been very good to me, Kelly Loughman of Holiday House.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

I’m going to answer that by talking about two sets of writers who taught me much of what I know about writing.

The first was the set of features writers and editors I worked with when I edited the Sunday Living section of The Dallas Morning News.

They were gifted wordsmiths, and we had the luxury of talking about what makes a piece of writing work. And we had the time to go back and rework pieces until we got it right. Before I worked with those people, I thought that good writing was something that came off the top of your head. They taught me that it’s actually something that usually doesn’t show up until the fifth draft, if you are lucky.

In 2006, I started editing books coverage at the paper. Which meant I got to interview a lot of writers, and listen to even more at places such as the Texas Book Festival and the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

I probably stole some nugget of advice from every person I listened to. It was a real gift, something I highly recommend to any aspiring writer. Or accomplished one, for that matter.

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

There was a point, after the manuscript had been revised, submitted, rejected, re-revised, re-submitted and re-rejected that I had given up hope.

And while I prayed that I was wrong, I felt particularly awful not for me, but for my characters. I had put them through a lot. I didn’t want them to have suffered so much and consigned to being stuck in my brain.

Much later, late in the editing process, my editor started giving me enthusiastic feedback from other people who had read it.

I was confused — “How did this total stranger know anything about my story, which has been living in my head and shared with only a few people?” That’s when I started to realize — “Oh. This really is going to be a book.” It was a good feeling.

Young fans at the launch party, including Mike’s son on the left (photo by Amy Gutierrez)

Guests give the Star Survivor salute at the launch party

What would you have done differently?

Started sooner. I always had an excuse to not write. In retrospect, they were all terrible excuses. That’s not to say I was ready to start a novel when I was, say, 22. But I wasn’t ready at 42, either.

You learn by doing. I hope people have fun with what I came up with.

Cynsational Notes

(Photo by Christopher Wynn)

Michael Merschel is the books editor and assistant arts editor at the Dallas Morning News where he’s interviewed Norton Juster and William Shatner, just to name a few.

He lives in Texas with his wife and three kids, who tell him he is not all that funny, usually.

Publishers Weekly said, “Merschel uses Clark’s SF passions—from everything from ‘Star Wars’ to his favorite (fictional) show, ‘Star Survivors’—as a smart metaphor for coping with change, but the real heart of the story is in its complex characters, tongue-in-cheek tone, and emotional honesty.”

See also his recent essay from The Dallas Morning News on what he learned about writing fiction. 

New Voice: Author-Illustrator Suzanne Del Rizzo

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

While a well-published illustrator, Suzanne Del Rizzo celebrates her authorial debut with My Beautiful Birds, which she also illustrated (Pajama Press, March 2017). From the promotional copy:

Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbours in a long line, as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons—will they escape too? 

When they reach a refugee camp and are safe at last, everyone settles into the tent city. But though the children start to play and go to school again, Sami can’t join in. When he is given paper and paint, all he can do is smear his painting with black. He can’t forget his birds and what his family has left behind.

One day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp. They flutter around Sami and settle on his outstretched arms. For Sami it is one step in a long healing process at last.

What inspired you to write My Beautiful Birds?

The Syrian civil war has just entered its sixth year. My school-aged children had been asking about the conflict, so I went online to search up some child-friendly resources to share with them. 

Being an often scary and unsettling issue, I wanted to ensure I approached the topic from an age-appropriate and safe way such that my kids would be left feeling empathetic and reflective yet informed. 
Ontario Library Services book signing

I came across some good articles and information including a short article featuring a young boy who was raising a variety of wild birds in the Za’atari refugee camp. I thought to myself how important it was to have picture books that act as windows into the world, providing a safe opportunity for children to learn about other children’s circumstances and issues.

My Beautiful Birds was inspired by that little boy, his struggle with displacement and the universality I think all children have with their affinity to animals. 

Displacement is something many children face, from forest fire evacuation, to moving house, to fleeing war, and the struggles they encounter to reacclimate can be very hard. 
Likewise, all children, regardless of nationality, gender, or religion- they all love to play, learn and make new friends. It is my hope that these commonalities presented in My Beautiful Birds resonate with all children.

Once you wrote the story how did your writing group help you?

BAM! (Burlington Authors Mafia): Jennifer Mook-Sang,
Deborah Serravalle, Gisela Sherman, Jennifer Maruno, Sylvia McNicoll.
Seated: Suzanne and Rebecca Bender. Not pictured: Lana Button
Gillian Chan, Wendy Whittingham, Judith Robinson.

My writers group meets up about two times per month. They are a great group of talented ladies with diverse and extensive writing backgrounds and interests. 

We are all about providing a friendly, encouraging environment with honest, thoughtful feedback (and sometimes yummy treats), so we can feel comfortable sharing our first awkward drafts, and know every comment and critique comes from a good place. 
I read my first few drafts of this manuscript to my group (and two of my other writerly friends, Monica Kulling, and Lisa Dalrymple) and they critiqued it thoughtfully, pointing out niggle-y areas and offered great suggestions to help me strengthen my story.

What was the editorial process like?

Managing editor Erin Alladin and Suzanne

Ann Featherstone, senior editor at Pajama Press, was my editor for this project. She lives in British Columbia, so although weren’t able to meet in person we talked over the phone or via email to discuss the manuscript. 

We went through a few rounds of edits, to work out some areas that were initially a bit confusing. Ann was wonderful to work with as an editor. She was very open and helpful knowing this was my first time as an author-illustrator.

What are the similarities/differences in working with an editor versus an art director?

I found the experience to have more similarities than differences actually. 
Doing edits on a manuscript feels, to me at least, quite similar to making art changes based on art direction. With each you are fine tuning your creation to best suit the project, and maybe because I am such a visual thinker, the words I write are so intertwined with my images in my head, it is hard to totally separate them. 
I quite enjoy the collaborative approach with both editing/writing and art direction/illustrating as the brainstorming sessions of both leave me invigorated to create or tweak my writing/illustrations.
Editorial feedback or art direction really helps me to focus my ideas and it pushes me in unexpected directions that I might not have achieved on my own.

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?

I wanted this book to not only depict beautiful and thought-provoking illustrations but I wanted to ensure that the artwork accurately and respectfully portrayed the Syrian people living in refugee camps.

Work-in-progress photo of Syrian landscape – note research photo, upper right

 Although I didn’t have to opportunity to travel to a camp myself, I did my best to research as much as I could from as many sources as possible to ensure I was informed and educated before beginning my illustrations. 

Work-in-progress of family fleeing their village
My publishing team at Pajama Press and I were very deliberate in our decisions about how to depict the scarier moments, in the book. For example, in the pages depicting Sami escaping during the bombing of his village, we decided to put the village and plumes of smoke and fire in the background to give some visual separation from these images to ensure even the most sensitive of readers would feel safe and secure.

Artistically, because many aspects of the book speak to the main character’s connection with the sky and his birds, I chose to illustrate in a more painterly style to evoke this emotional connection on a subconscious level. 
My art director, Rebecca Bender also suggested I used a limited colour palette, which I think worked very well. I envisioned sweeping desert landscapes and windswept clouds in colorful sunset or sunrise skyscapes, so I chose various shades of purple, violet, pinks, grey, and beige. 
Work-in-progress illustrations – note Sami’s blue hoodie
I used blue specifically in only two places: Sami’s hoodie and in the dove and pigeon. 
Overall, I think the artwork compliments the text well, and together the interplay of the text and illustrations enhances the reader’s connection to the main character, his struggles, and his avian friends.

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from beginner level to publishable?

I suppose my illustration apprenticeship could be best described as unconventional and “immersive.” 

I did not actually attend art school but I have taken various art classes throughout my life and as electives during my time at university where I earned a B.Sc.H in Life Sciences. 
I have been creative and a “maker” since I was small. After leaving a job in medical science research to have my four children, I decided to make the switch to children’s book illustration. I had always loved sculpting and was particularity drawn to the books featuring dimensional illustrators like, Barbara Reid, Janette Canyon, Euginie and Kim Fernandes
I immersed myself in picture books, poured through the wealth of awesome online kidlit resources while my kiddos napped, and joined SCBWI and CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers). I worked away on my art until I felt I was ready to put together a portfolio and send out postcards to publishing houses.

I still can’t believe how the stars aligned…only a few months after sending out my first postcard mailers (with fun bookmarks), I received a call and eventual offer from publisher and children’s editor, Christie Harkin at Fitzhenry & Whiteside to illustrate my first picture book, Skink on the Brink, written by Lisa Dalrymple (Fitzhenry & Whiteside 2013).

How has your style evolved over time?

One thing that I greatly enjoy about each picture book project is exploring and finding just the right mix of mediums to best illustrate that particular project. 

Maybe I’m getting a bit braver in my approach, with each new book, I hope so. I just love the interplay of different materials and the visual textures that come about. 
Polymer clay colors
used in My Beautiful Birds

With Gerbil Uncurled, by Alison Hughes ( Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015) since the book centered around a family of gerbils, I used real wood chips and nibbled papers along with plasticine in my illustrations. 

In Sky Pig, by Jan Coates (Pajama Press, 2016), I incorporated actual watch gears, cogs, map papers and real milk-weed fluff into my illustrations- so fun! 
In My Beautiful Birds, as I mentioned previously, I wanted to use a more painterly approach, due to the subject matter.

I experimented with polymer clay, which looks pretty much like plasticine but has one major difference- it can be hardened by baking it.

Work-in-progress photo of rose finch

For this project I created my illustrations in polymer clay, baked them in the oven to harden them, then added paint or glaze treatments overtop to create depth, and simulate the dusty conditions of the Jordanian desert.

Close-up of rose finch feathers

Work-in-progress photo of children painting

I also incorporated hand-painted art from my children and their friends for the mural illustration near the end of the book. I set them up at the kitchen table with their art supplies and gave them the prompt: “how would you feel if you had to leave your home and all that you love?” 

Suzanne’s children painting the mural images 

These fabulous painting are also featured on the endpapers of the book. I scanned each painting then worked out the overall mural image in Photoshop, next I printed it out on t-shirt transfer paper, pressed it onto raw, thin sheet of polymer clay and baked the whole thing to transfer the image. 

This technique was also used for the kites and smaller children’s artwork throughout the book.

Cynsational Notes

Suzanne Del Rizzo began her career in picture books as the illustrator of Skink on the Brink, written by Lisa Dalrymple. It won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Canada and was shortlisted for the 2014 Rainforest of Reading Award.

My Beautiful Birds has been named a Junior Library Guild selection for 2017 and received a starred review from Quill and Quire.

The Horn Book said, “Del Rizzo uses polymer clay and acrylic paint to create vibrant pictures of Sami, his family, the refugee camp, and the swirling pink-and-purple sky. Most of all, she creates birds for which every feather and color looks real. Beauty and sorrow sit side by side in this compassionate and age-appropriate depiction of contemporary refugee life.”

Pajama Press has a complimentary teachers guide for My Beautiful Birds, along with additional resources for learning more about the Syrian crisis.

Suzanne lives with her four children and husband in Oakville, Ontario.

New Voices: Sarah Johnson on Crossings

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

Sarah Johnson is the first-time YA author of Crossings (Cedar Fort, 2017). From the promotional copy:
Eliinka has been able to hide her deepest secret…until now. Her only choice is to make a perilous crossing to a foreign land where she’ll discover the truth about a powerful legend and the hope for peace after centuries of conflict.

Immerse yourself in this enchanting fantasy world and take heart in Eliinka’s journey of sacrifice, romance and intrigue.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The two main characters woke me up one dark Finnish morning, around 4 a.m. They propelled me out of bed to the computer, and I wrote so I could find out what would happen.

How does your expat life influence your writing?

The most obvious influence is settings. For example, the setting in my book, Crossings, is influenced by my years living in Brazil and Finland. Another completed novel is set in Brazil. Some countries I’ve lived in, such as China, Nigeria, and Egypt, haven’t yet shown up in a story.

Real-life adventures and experiences don’t appear in my stories, as I write fiction. But my experiences as an expat emerge in the themes, deep questions, and struggles that my characters experience.

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

I came to writing in a surprising way, at least it surprised me. I always have loved reading and story, but never wrote much and becoming a writer was never something I had considered.

Then one day characters arrived in my mind, and a story emerged as I quickly wrote an exploratory draft. I expanded the skeleton scenes into my novel, Crossings. I had never planned to write a novel, yet the characters demanded that their story be written.

Sarah and Rose

As I looked at this first draft, I knew the story needed revision and the writing needed improvement. I read books on my shelves, looking at how sentences were crafted, how chapters were formed, and how stories were structured.

I met other writers on LiveJournal and traded manuscripts with a few of them, and from their feedback, I revised, and my writing continued to improve.

Rose Green is a writing friend who I’ve traded my stories with from that time. We’ve met a few times in person and when we meet we typically go hiking and, of course, we talk about writing and books.

After a couple years of writing, I stumbled across information about a conference that was scheduled when I would be in the States. At that conference I met Martine Leavitt and found out about Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), where she began teaching the following year.

Next, I attended VCFA and worked toward my MFA as I worked closely under the guidance of many amazing writers. Those couple years were huge in my growth as a writer. After graduation, I continued to work on my writing craft.

As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

When I think of my experience at VCFA, I think of creative energy. It was intense and exciting and fun to be with others who love writing stories, and the energy spilled over into my own writing.

The opportunity to interact with and learn from the community of writers in such a supportive atmosphere made my growth as a writer much more rapid than I could have imagined. During the program I took advantage of learning all that I could, and I wrote everything from picture books to short stories to nonfiction; a novel was my creative thesis.

VCFA has continued in my writing life after graduation, and I contribute to an official VCFA blog, the Launchpad. I stay in contact with friends I made while attending residencies.

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

Find a writing community where you can connect with other writers and nurture your craft. This could be a writing partner or a critique group. You can meet either in person or online.

There are many places to meet other writers such as classes, a conference, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) or other writing organizations.