New Voice: Nora Carpenter on Yoga Frog

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

September is yoga month!

So as a former preschool teacher I was thrilled to interview Nora Carpenter about her fantastic new picture book Yoga Frog, illustrated by Mark Chambers (Running Press Kids, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Frog loves to practice yoga. And he will inspire kids to enjoy doing yoga, too. Follow Frog’s yoga flow, from warming up to cooling down. 


Start with the mountain and chair poses, then work into giraffe, cat-cow, downward-facing dog, butterfly, and bridge. 


End with the quieting happy baby and savasana poses to help your muscles relax before going to bed or starting your day. 


For fans of Yoga Bunny and I am Yoga, Yoga Frog‘s simple, meditative text is complemented by playful yet instructive illustrations by Mark Chambers to teach youngsters how to start their very own yoga practice—and to have fun while doing so, too.

I love this book because it’s perfect for teaching preschoolers yoga! What inspired you to write a picture book on yoga? 

Thank you! I’ve dreamed of publishing a kids yoga book for so long! About a year after college, I took a job teaching preschoolers. (Shout out to the JCC of Northern Virginia!) For the record, that job was one of the best experiences ever and ended up re-awakening my creative writing energy, which had been a bit stifled by academia. But that’s another story!)

Anyway, at the same time I was also becoming more and more engaged with yoga and yogic philosophy, and decided to further my own study through an intensive teacher training program.

I began teaching yoga to my preschoolers and found:

  1. They loved it.
  2. Due to their age and limited attention spans, I had to jazz the poses up a bit with imagination and fun.

I looked for resources, but at that time, the only things available were some flash card sets and a couple wordy books geared toward much older kids.

Fast forward a few years. While attending the MFA program at VCFA, I decided to write the book I wish I’d had for my preschool classes. To be clear, Yoga Frog is nothing like that first attempt, which emerged as poetry! But my teaching (both of pre-K kids and of yoga) is what inspired that initial attempt.

The selection of poses is perfect for the preschool crowd and the prose for each is clear yet poetic. How did you decide what poses to include, what to call them, and how did you go about writing the prose for each pose? 

Again, thank you! I chose the most popular poses from my classes that would both enable kids to release energy and also calm down/de-stress. During yoga teacher training, you’re taught to construct flows that warm up the body for “peak poses,” or the most challenging/intense pose in the flow, and then cool down/relax the muscles that were just worked.

You also learn which poses make good transitions to other poses so that you’re not having students bounce back and forth between seated and standing poses. I drew on that knowledge and my experience teaching lots of kids’ yoga classes to construct the flow of the book.

I did wrestle with what to call some of the poses. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include the proper Sanskrit names, but some of the English translations just aren’t very kid-friendly or engaging. For example, baddha konasana literally translates to “bound angle pose” and ardha matsyendrasana means “half lord of the fishes.” I never used those names in my kids classes.

My experience teaching kids yoga quickly showed me that kids have the most fun when there’s an imaginative element at play, and the most popular imaginative elements in my classes were pretending to be animals and other things relating to nature.

Nature names lend themselves so easily to interactivity. I mean, I have yet to meet a kid whose face doesn’t light up when “kabooming” during Volcano (malasana).

So I took some artistic license and included some of the English names I used in my classes, while still including the Sanskrit names underneath.

At the end of the day, the goal of kids’ yoga is for kids to have fun. If they do, they’ll want to practice yoga again. And again. And again. Before you know it, they’ve developed a healthy and incredibly beneficial self-care habit.

You recently sold your first novel—a contemporary YA titled, The Edge of Anything—which is slotted for spring 2020 publication. Can you give us a quick pitch? 

Sure! The Edge of Anything is the dual narrative of high school volleyball star, Sage, and Len, an outcast teen photographer with a guilty secret. The book explores the transformative power of friendship and how it can help you find yourself and the goodness in life, even when everything feels broken.

A novel is such a different beast from a picture book. How do you juggle working on such different kinds of projects simultaneously? Wait, do you work on them simultaneously, or do you write a novel, then a picture book, etc? 

You aren’t kidding about how different the forms are! I started my creative writing career focused on novels, so I’ve had a steep learning curve with the picture books. (I’m actually gearing up for a picture book intensive regional SCBWI conference, and I’m so excited for everything I’m going to learn!)

Anyway, I’ve heard people make comments about how picture book writing must be “easy” because the stories themselves are short. That could not be less true. A great picture book story has to achieve an incredible amount in a terribly short format, usually 400-600 words.

It really is like writing poetry, and the process works a very different part of my brain and challenges a different part of my creativity.

I’ve noticed, in fact, that after working on the picture book form for a while, my novel writing flows better and smoother. For that reason, yes, I have started writing picture books in the midst of drafting novels. Each serves as a good “break” or “switch” from the other.

Honestly, no matter what form or genre you prefer, I think writers should constantly be testing and challenging their skills. Believe me, I know how hard it can be, but forcing yourself out of your writing comfort zone almost always improves your work.

As I’ve matured as a writer, I try to do this more and more. For example, a while back I joined a picture book critique group with some of my agent-mates, even though I am by far the greenest picture book writer in the group.

But that’s okay. I’m learning a ton and it’s a safe space to ask questions and get valuable, constructive feedback. And that feedback improves my writing as a whole, not just my picture book skills.

Even if one (or a bunch) of projects don’t work out, the skills you’ve learned from those projects will enhance your writing in unexpected ways.

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?

Once you get a book contract, there are suddenly all of these other professional responsibilities you have to juggle along with the process of writing itself: social media presence, interviews, panels, readings and any other type of marketing/promotion you and/or your publisher might set up. It’s exciting, but it does take away from writing time, so if you’re also balancing another job, kids, time with a partner, etc., it can definitely get overwhelming.

In addition to the short-term bouts of promotion that go along with book releases, I do carve out time to keep my website updated with links to reviews, blog interviews, upcoming events, etc.

Otherwise, I try to focus on the actual craft of writing as much as possible. That’s what I find rewarding and fulfilling (and yeah, also crazy hard and maddening at times).

I will say, I do love events. I’m pretty extraverted, so I love meeting readers and other writers and talking about writing and books. But I’m always eager to dive back in to the actual writing and creating process.

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

 Keep writing. Write through the inevitable fear, the “what-if-it’s-not-good?” insecurity. And know that every writer has that angst, often with every book. All you can do is write through it.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Leigh Bardugo, who also happens to be one of my favorite authors. She says: “I think the hard work of writing is just how long a book is terrible before it’s good.”

You must embrace the terrible. Get the draft on the page. You cannot craft a good book without first writing down its messy insides. Revision, re-vision, and revision again make a book great.

 Also, find a supportive writing community, people who will boost your confidence when needed but also provide you with honest, constructive criticism. Go to author and writing events, readings at local bookstores. Even if you’re introverted, force yourself to talk to at least one person there. You will find people just like you, looking for the same thing.

Cynsational Notes


Nora Carpenter grew up in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. After college she lived in Washington, D.C., where she became a Certified Yoga Teacher, before settling into the mountains of North Carolina.

She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes picture books and young adult fiction.

When she’s not writing, she’s doing something outdoorsy or chasing her three rocket-fueled kids. Check out the book trailer for Yoga Frog:

New Voice: Dawn Quigley on Apple in the Middle

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This is a watershed year for the release of Native young adult novels.

From Eric Gansworth’s Give Me Some Truth (Scholastic, 2018), the followup to his If I Ever Get Out of Here (Scholastic, 2013), and Tim Tingle’s Trust Your Name (7th Generation, September 2018), the fourth in his No Name series, to the upcoming Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, October 2018), I’m pleased to feature a newcomer to the age market, Dawn Quigley.

Her debut novel, Apple in the Middle (North Dakota State University Press, 2018), features Apple, a teen whose mother, from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, died due to complications from her birth.

Raised by her white physician father and stepmother in an affluent suburb of the Twin Cities, Apple has never had contact with her mother’s family.

The story focuses on Apple’s experience during an extended summer visit with these unknown relatives on the tribe’s reservation located near the Canadian border in what is now north central North Dakota.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

As I was writing some poetry I found myself sharing my frustrations of how many non-Native authors were creating books which were stereotypically shedding negative light onto Native culture. Here was my inspiration, my poem, and my call for the Native world to not let others tell our stories for us:

Arise 

I am tired of seeing Indians portrayed as victims in literature.
I am tired of how Natives are dripping with alcoholism in your books.
And I am tired of images of
sexually deranged,
violently abused and
educationally-lacking characters. 

Native people, arise!
We have, and are still, climbing the mountain of injustice;
Carrying our history on our back as we tread to the top to see the vision our ancestors told us of.
But, instead of glimpsing at the majestic vista,
Too often we must listen as writers plunge our People back to the desolate valleys again.
But you only show the darkness, shutting out the light of hope, and resilience; condemning the beacon of a better tomorrow to melt away.
We Natives have lived in nightfall, but revel in the sunrise of tomorrow.
We, at times, hibernate for a season, but awake in springtime of life. 

Native people, arise!
Our stories, like of old, must reflect the balance between darkness and light; between the highs and the lows; and between this world and the next.
Our history has been one of
genocide,
tear-wrenching tragedy,
and historical trauma.
This must be remembered. This should be told.
But we also know the beauty of our culture; the history which we hold tight; and the values we pass down seven generations. 

So why, when we only have our imaginations to limit us, do we as Native writers and storytellers allow them to present only our darkness to the world?
Why do continually let
them tell our tales? 

Native people, arise!
Where are the heroic characters in our modern Native fiction?
There are too few Indigenous writers who shine the light on our culture.
But I am greedy. I want more.
Why don’t we write about our success –
Not success as the world may see it, but in our Indian way?
Tell us about your grandmother’s quilts.
Tell us why your sister worked two jobs and went to night school for her college degree.
Tell us the time when your grandfather’s teaching touched your life.
Tell us.
Tell us.
Just tell us.

Honoring author Joseph Bruchac during the Native YA Today: Contemporary Indigenous Voices & Heroes for the 21st Century panel at the American Library Association conference. Author Cynthia Leitich Smith, moderator Alia Jones, Joseph Bruchac and Dawn Quigley.


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

My greatest challenge was that I had no idea how to write a book!

In teaching middle school English and reading for most of my 18 years, I spent countless hours reading YA books for my students to select read-aloud and classroom novels.

I fell in love with reading books that could transform my students.
I began writing letters to the editors of our local newspapers, then wrote full commentary essays. I gained a lot of confidence each time something was published.

Next I branched out to poetry.
But to write a book, this was the challenge. I took a few courses at a local writer’s loft on how to sell and promote books, but not on the actual task of writing.

I did read only one book on it: Stephen King’s On Writing (Scribner, 2000). That book, and reading up to 10 books a month, were my teachers.

I would use favorite sections of a book to learn how the author crafted dialogue, the climatic parts, etc. Then I wrote roughly two pages a day for some time until I had a finished book! I didn’t outline my story at all, and this is something I will do in the future: begin with a rough frame.

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

The best moment was when I actually finished the book! I felt like a five-year-old wanting to run out and say, “Look, Ma, I wrote a book!”

Then the down side was trying to learn how to pitch and query editors and agents for my Apple in the Middle. I got many “bites” and asks for partials and fulls and also rejects, but it was one editor from North Dakota State University Press who made my writing career when the first line in her letter back to me was: “I love Apple. I love everything about her world.”

Suzzanne Kelly loved my Native coming-of-age book, and this, so far, has been another great moment.
My book has just come out, so I’m doing readings, signings, et cetera. I know I’m only beginning!

Rolling hills of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.

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

Turtle Mountain rose

I taught in K-12 grades for over 18 years, and it was challenging at times to find books and materials that reflected Native people respectfully.

As a Native teacher, I wanted to show the positive aspects of our culture. I knew that I have lived and seen these beautiful Native aspects and began to educate myself and my peers that there are books out there, but we all need to put in the effort to find, read and evaluate them.

I began this book because of a beckoning voice I kept hearing: Tell them the stories.

My first instinct was to push it away. How could I write a book? Who was I? But I felt this book was to be a legacy for my children to hear about my Turtle Mountain grandparents and what they taught me-and are still teaching me today even though their footprints are no longer on this Earth, but in my soul. And like many Native people who are storytellers, I knew that the best way to share history and life lesson is through the telling of tales.

As I was in the middle of the book, I started to wonder if this was meant to be more than just a family tale, but instead a way to let non-Native people peer through the keyhole to get a glimpse into our world. A world that is a beautiful one, but also a world that is many times misunderstood.

Cynsational Notes

Dawn Quigley, enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, North Dakota, is an assistant professor in the Education Department at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Her website offers support for educators in finding, evaluating and implementing Native American curriculum content from an indigenous perspective.

In addition to her coming-of-age Young Adult novel, Apple in the Middle, Dawn has over 25 published articles and poems, in mainstream magazines, academic journals and newspapers, including American Indian Quarterly, Yellow Medicine Review: A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art and Thought, Indian Country Today, Hollywood and Vine magazine, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

She was awarded the St. Catherine University Denny Prize Award for Distinction in Writing and has been a finalist in both the Minnesota Loft Literary Center‘s Emerging Writer award and its Mentor Series.
Dawn lives in the metro area in Minnesota with her husband and two girls.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) 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.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

New Voice: Traci Sorell on We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga

Traci & Frane in Tahlequah (Cherokee Nation Capital), June 2017

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Traci Sorell is the debut author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is a word that Cherokee people use to express gratitude. 


Beginning in the fall with the Cherokee New Year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences. 


…this nonfiction look at one group of Native Americans is appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah.

What first led you to begin writing for young readers?

I decided to start writing for children when my son was four. I had collected picture books since my undergraduate days, particularly those featuring Native Nations. Having cycled through my books and those at my local library, I had difficulty finding any trade-published contemporary picture books featuring Cherokee children to read to my young son.

My tribe, the Cherokee Nation, is the largest in the U.S. with over 350,000 enrolled citizens. How could I not find a picture book about our present-day life and culture? It made me think that other Cherokee parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents must be facing a similar problem.

I contacted a friend from graduate school who I knew had trade published books for children for advice. I attended my first SCBWI conference about writing for children in October 2013 and decided to work toward a full-time career as an author in 2015.

For me, the biggest challenge was making sure I understood the craft, so I could execute the writing. I’ve written in many different formats previously, but I’ll admit writing for children is more difficult than writing a legal brief or code.

Writing sparse, lyrical text for a picture book to capture and hold the attention of discriminating younger readers is a challenge. They will put down the book, walk away, and turn their attention elsewhere when the story starts to drag – either from the words or the art. They have no sense of “I should finish this, so I’ll trudge on through it.” If they aren’t interested, it’s over.

Knowing that invigorates me to write at a higher level, knowing every word has to be precise to evoke the emotion, convey the information or provoke the question that I want reader to experience, understand or ask.

Thankfully, I have wonderful people – fellow authors, my agent and editors – who keep me on track if I stray from that.

Please share with us the story of your literary apprenticeship. How did you master the craft of picture book writing?

I read a lot of picture books written in the last three years to learn what the market wanted. That helped me shape and edit my own voice to write sparse, lyrical texts that sell in the marketplace.

I benefitted from reading Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books (Writer’s Digest, 2009) and connecting with published authors in my local KS-MO chapter of SCBWI who provided solid critiques and guided to me beneficial workshops to further develop my voice and craft.

From there, I expanded my network to connecting with other authors via social media, including you!

Congratulations on the release of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018)! What was the timeline between your creative inspiration and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Traci & Charlesbridge editor Karen Boss

I wrote We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga in November 2015 because I won a free Skype critique for a nonfiction picture book from award-winning author Suzanne Slade through Picture Book Builders and had nothing to submit!

After revising based on her direction, I submitted the second draft with a few minor tweaks to some wording to ten publishers a month later. Then I sold it to Charlesbridge through the slush pile (unsolicited/unagented) in March 2016.

After Charlesbridge bought it, my editor Karen Boss did not have any substantial changes. She moved some text around based on the design layout that she wanted for the book, but otherwise the text was finalized quickly.

Karen asked if I had any illustrators in mind. I gave her a list of Native and non-Native illustrators. Frané was on that list. I was so overjoyed when she was selected.

The whole debut process has gone so smoothly, and I’m so thankful to work with such a wonderful team of people.

What did Frané Lessac’s art bring to your text? To what extent did you work together?

Her artwork takes the text to a different level. The detail, color, humor, and vivaciousness she creates in the book humbles me. I am in awe of what she envisioned and subsequently painted for all readers to enjoy.

Initially I sent her links to a variety of webpages and videos with information about the Cherokee Nation, its citizens, culture, and history to help her start her research.

Unless you’ve been to the Cherokee Nation (in the northeast corner of Oklahoma), you don’t have a feel for the people, landscape, flora and fauna. It’s not like anywhere else I’ve ever been in all my years of living, studying and traveling elsewhere on this continent and abroad.

Even though she didn’t receive the research travel grant she applied for, she traveled to the Cherokee Nation from Western Australia last summer anyway. So we actually got to meet and spend a few days together in late June 2017.

I introduced her to fellow Cherokee citizens who work in our cultural and museum programs. She shared her rough sketches and sought their input to make sure she had details correct.

We traveled with Will Chavez, the Assistant Editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, our tribal newspaper, where he showed her a number of historic sites, types of foliage and animals common in the area. He also provided photos from his extensive collection for her to consult later as she created the final artwork. My brother, a trained chef, prepared bean bread and hominy soup (both mentioned in the book) for her to sample.

So I like to think she enjoyed the hospitality that Cherokee people are known for, while also working to gather the information she needed to tell her part of the story.

Tell us more about how you decided to weave Cherokee words into the story and your approach on what to include in the back matter.

For me, this was integral. I was elated when Charlesbridge wanted the book because they had published the picture book, Itse Selu: Cherokee Harvest Festival (1994), featuring Cherokee words unitalicized throughout the text. It had served as an early model for me as a writer that including my tribe’s language would be welcome.

We decided to add the Cherokee syllabary next to the English phonetics at the bottom of each page where a Cherokee word appears because that’s how Cherokee people actually read and speak the language. They are not learning and speaking it from the English phonetics.

Regarding the back matter, I knew I needed to provide a little more context to some of the text and artwork. Given how little people know about contemporary Cherokee life, adding the Definitions section allowed me to amplify any reader’s understanding of what they read and saw on the page.

The Author’s Note explains my reasons for writing this nonfiction picture book.

Including the Cherokee syllabary as it is currently taught in the Cherokee Nation helps readers to know that this language continues to be spoken and is the foundation of our cultural identity as Cherokee people.

As a Native author, how does that identity element inform your writing and your role in the children’s-YA book community?

It’s the foundation of my voice and everything I write. I can’t separate it. My educational and professional backgrounds have also been focused on Native Nations, their citizens, culture, history, law and policies and how those have been impacted under the colonial regime of the United States.

When I research primary and secondary sources or read children’s literature for example, I notice what voices and experiences are included, who is left out and how that shapes the narrative and information the reader receives.

Right now, I feel like I have three main roles in the children’s-YA book community besides getting my writing out in the world.

First, I want to bring additional awareness to invisibility of Native people in the text as well as omissions of accuracy, so other writers recognize the importance of doing the work to get it right. We all are responsible for this.

Second, I want to recruit other Native creators – writers and artists – to create great works for children. You have been extremely supportive of me and other Native creators coming into the field, and I strive to emulate that. We have amazing storytellers in word and art in our Native Nations. I want children to know about and experience the stories those creators have to share. It’s imperative to recruit, educate and encourage others to make that happen.

Third, covering Native/First Nations authors, illustrators, and publishers for your Cynsations blog allows greater visibility for the craft of Native creators in the industry. I enjoy showcasing what their stories and artwork are offering for children and teens in this field. I appreciate you asking me to assist in this way.



What advice do you have for new Native or First Nations writers, starting out?

We Are Grateful poster

I believe it’s important to read broadly across the various genres of children’s literature and determine which one resonates most with your voice as a writer. I gravitated to writing picture books first because I have always loved poetry, sparse use of language, and beautiful artwork. Any writer new to this field needs to make that same determination for themselves.

Then, I recommend studying books published within the last three years within that chosen genre. You’ll be expected to know and state what are comparable titles when you submit your manuscript for consideration. So anticipate that and be prepared.

Next, try to find fellow writers in your genre at the level just above your skill set to read and critique your work. This will pay dividends because your writing will be elevated more quickly with trained eyes providing feedback.

It is extremely helpful if some of these writers are also Native creators. In my experience, finding fellow Native creators will be a huge boost of encouragement and support as you embark on this journey.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Since Charlesbridge bought We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, I’ve sold two other picture books, At The Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Fall 2019) and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Myles (Charlesbridge, Spring 2020). Both are fiction. I’m looking forward to those being out in the world alongside We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. I also have two picture book biographies, several other fictional picture books, a novel-in-verse and some poems in progress.

New Voice: Adrienne Kisner on Dear Rachel Maddow

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Adrienne Kisner is a Vermont College of Fine Arts alum and a hilarious fellow classmate, so I jumped at the chance to interview her about her funny and heart-wrenching debut YA novel,  Dear Rachel Maddow (Feiwel & Friends, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Brynn Harper’s life has one steadying force—Rachel Maddow.
She watches her daily, and after writing to Rachel for a school project—and actually getting a response—Brynn starts drafting e-mails to Rachel but never sending them. 



Brynn tells Rachel about breaking up with her first serious girlfriend, about her brother Nick’s death, about her passive mother and even worse stepfather, about how she’s stuck in remedial courses at school and is considering dropping out. 


Then Brynn is confronted with a moral dilemma. One student representative will be allowed to have a voice among the administration in the selection of a new school superintendent. Brynn’s archnemesis, Adam, and ex-girlfriend, Sarah, believe only Honors students are worthy of the selection committee seat. Brynn feels all students deserve a voice. 


When she runs for the position, the knives are out. 


So she begins to ask herself: What Would Rachel Maddow Do?

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

I think the worst moments of my publishing journey were figuring out that the first manuscript (and second and third) I wrote wasn’t going to get an agent or probably ever see the light of day.


I’m not embarrassed by any of my earlier work. I spent years and countless hours on something that I hoped someone else would read, only to realize that no one will ever see it beyond a handful of friends who were too polite to refuse. That was rough. But it taught me that I can finish a manuscript and move on. That’s just what you have to do.

I have a spiritual advisor who says, “That’s the writing life. Isn’t that what you always wanted?”

And it’s true. I did. She’s always right and it’s annoying.

The best moment was probably when Rachel Maddow and Susan Mikula (her partner) sent me flowers. This is notable particularly because I’ve only received flowers about twice before in my life.

Dear Rachel Maddow won the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award, and somehow she got wind of it.

They weighed about ten pounds, but I carried them around my campus and forced everyone to admire them.

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

 You can start writing your book any time. You should write it, in fact. You can finish it, too.

You aren’t too old or too young. You have the time. We always have time, us writers. We say we don’t. The kids need this, the day job needs that, the house is on fire, the car just got sucked under inky black waves by writhing tentacles, blah blah blah. Whatever.

 It will always be something. But if you really want to write, have to write to survive, you will.

Do it in ten minute spurts every other Thursday. Those Thursdays add up.

Just write the damn book already.

As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another? 

I teach composition and creative writing. (I’m also a residence hall director, but that is another story…) I like putting up my editor and copyeditor’s notes on the PowerPoint to demonstrate how even after six drafts there are approximately forty-seven errors on every one of my pages.

Writing is a journey. Revision is a slog backwards through that journey. How can I really hold typos against a student? I cannot. I circle them in cheerful purple ink, mind you. But my own process has made me more humble.

 I also now pick books to teach that I can rant about, both good and bad. I’ve become a more informed ranter.

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

I think getting an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts made all the difference for me. I’ve read on advice blogs and in craft books that one does not need an MFA to write. Certainly I think that’s true.

But after a few years of writing, trying to find an agent, and getting nowhere, I was tired and ready to quit. I needed to be plugged into something bigger than myself, an instant community of writers and scholars around whom I could bask in the shared love of words.

I made amazing, supportive friends and had my butt kicked in terms of craft by brilliant mentors. VCFA flipped a switch in my head in terms of not only getting my ideas down, but taking a step back and revising the crap out of them. Many, many times.

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly said,

“Revealing Brynn to be an individual with realistic insecurities, biases, and complexities, Kisner playfully explores the very human manner in which a stranger like Maddow might come to feel like a friend and confident.”

Adrienne Kisner has lived her entire “adult” life in a college dormitory working in both Residence Life and college chaplaincy.

She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Dear Rachel Maddow was awarded a 2016 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award.

Guest Post: Karen Kane on Analyzing Feedback

By Karen Kane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

How you use feedback can make or break your story.

Which feedback do you follow?

Which feedback do you ignore?

Most importantly, how can you make sure the feedback you do use deepens your writing, and not derails it?

Here’s what I know about feedback: you are in charge.

You are the gatekeeper for your stories. But to be a discerning gatekeeper—to know what feedback to use and what feedback to discard—you need to know yourself.

For me, knowing myself meant recognizing I didn’t yet have what researchers Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett call a “mastery-oriented mindset.”

Dweck and Leggett studied how children handled putting together a difficult puzzle. Some children had a fixed mindset in regard to their abilities. Those children had pre-determined their skill level, and decided they were helpless to change that skill level and improve. But other children, also not good at solving the puzzle, were determined to become good at it.

Difficulties for mastery-oriented children were simply challenges to surmount; where as children with a fixed mindset “viewed their difficulties as failures, as indicative of low ability, and as insurmountable.”

I realized I had a fixed mindset about my writing skills.

When I received critical feedback, I often felt frustrated and helpless.

What was I supposed to do with feedback that wasn’t prescriptive? How was I supposed to make my story better with feedback if my writing skills were immutable?

Learn more about Charlie & Frog
(Hyperion, April 2018)

Learning about Dweck and Ellen’s research was a paradigm shift for me. I decided I could and would learn the craft skills needed to become a better writer. I would figure out what was working and what wasn’t working in my stories. I would have a mastery-oriented mindset.

Here’s something else I recognized in myself: I tended to abdicate my power to other people.

I wanted others to find what was wrong in my writing, and (most importantly) tell me how to fix it.

How you do anything is how you do everything—and I began to notice how this trait showed up in other areas of my life. It manifested in how I looked to other people to tell me the right way to parent or eat or decorate my home.

I didn’t believe I could make the right choices for myself. I didn’t trust myself to live my own life. Once I started thinking in terms of “mastery-oriented mindset” rather than a “fixed-mindset,” I began to feel empowered.

I saw that other people don’t have the “right” way—just their own way. And I, too, could figure out my own way, in my life and in my stories.

What do you need to know about yourself to figure out your own feedback process?

Start looking within yourself. You are the window into your writing.

Still, maybe you receive feedback and you aren’t sure if it’s right or wrong for your story. Or you don’t know (yet) how to change what’s not working.

Take that feedback you are not sure about and change it into questions about your writing. Similarly, if something isn’t working in your story, ask yourself why it isn’t working.

Write those questions on sticky notes. Keep them with you during the day as you do laundry, commute to work, eat lunch. Tell the universe you are listening. You are open for answers.

Sometimes I write down a plea—“Help me! I don’t know what to do about X.”

Then I wait. It’s hard to stay with the questions and not force answers. We are so programmed to know and to know Now.

But expectant waiting is part of the journey. Not knowing can be a good thing.

Listen to what poet Wislawa Szymborska says about people following their passion:

“Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’”

Sometimes the best stuff emerges when we say, “I don’t know,” and face this not knowing with an open and curious mind. What are we not seeing? What can help us see?

When needed, it’s imperative you are gentle with your writing and with yourself. Let your writing and yourself get stronger before you allow critical minds to delve in. Remind yourself that you have to write badly first into order to write well.

Telling myself that is the only way I can write. Otherwise I would be paralyzed.

Part of your job of gatekeeper is to only let in feedback that your story (and you) can handle at each stage.

Jane Kurtz,
photo by Jen Candor

Writer Jane Kurtz, when working on a new story, will sometimes say to a reader, “I only need to hear what’s working at this stage,” and “which parts would make you keep reading?”

Eventually, of course, the time must come for a writer to open herself up to what Peter Elbow calls that “cold critical eye . . . ruthlessly discarding or changing anything that is not right.”

But that’s when you will use your mastery-oriented mindset as you sift through this critical feedback: figuring out what to keep, what to discard, and changing comments into questions.

Now you are using feedback to find the true essence of your writing, the true essence of what you are trying to say.

Lev Vygotsky said, “Through others, we become ourselves.”

Through others, our stories can also become themselves—as long as we are attentive gatekeepers, allowing our stories to be deepened, and not derailed, by feedback.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews described Charlie & Frog (Hyperion, 2018)  as, “An enjoyable read that artfully mixes adventure, heart, and cultural competence.”


Karen Kane’s path to Charlie & Frog led her from a small village near Rochester, New York, to the bustle of Washington, D.C. The people she met along the way inspired her writing with their warmth and humor, especially those in the Deaf community.

Karen graduated from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

When she’s not writing, Karen spends her days as a sign language interpreter at Gallaudet University or lost in the stacks of her local library.

Charlie & Frog is her first novel.

New Voices: Inside Scoop on Debut Author Groups with J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth & Deborah Schaumberg

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

After years of writing you finally have your very first book deal! Now what? How do you promote your debut novel? I talked to four Maryland debut authors from the Electric Eighteens to get the inside scoop on how debut groups for young adult and middle grade authors work.

Deborah Schaumberg, J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth
Let’s start with some basic introductions. Tells us about your book and your publishing journey.


J.H. Diehl: Tiny Infinities (Chronicle, 2018) is a contemporary novel for ages 10 and up. It’s about a competitive swimmer whose dedication to her sport, unlikely new friendships, and science experiments with fireflies all combine to help her navigate the tough summer she turns thirteen, when her parents split up and her mom suffers from depression.

I’ve published picture books, leveled readers and short fiction in literary journals. Tiny Infinities is the first novel for young readers. After many revisions, I’m grateful it found a perfect home with Chronicle Books.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The Battle of Junk Mountain (Running Press, 2018) is a middle grade contemporary novel that tells the story of a friendship in peril, a grandmother who’s a hoarder, and the danger of trying to hold on too hard to one’s past.

I was a documentary scriptwriter for about ten years before trying my hand at novel writing, and from there, it took another ten years before I got a book deal.

Jonathan Roth: I write and illustrate a humorous chapter book series, set in space school, called Beep and Bob (Aladdin, 2018). Books one and two released (Beep and Bob: Too Much Space! and Beep and Bob: Party Crashers) March 13, book three (Beep and Bob: Take Us To Your Sugar) releases in September.

I wrote many picture books and middle grade novels before discovering that the sweet spot for me seems to be the six-to-nine-year-olds right in the center.

Deborah Schaumberg: The Tombs (Harper Teen, 2018) is a young adult historical fantasy set in 1882 New York. It is about a young aura seer who must free her mother from the Tombs asylum where seers are being experimented on and used against their will.

My publishing journey began many years ago with a middle grade novel. After tons of rejections I started over, writing for young adults, and finally found an agent through a SCBWI conference.

Who are the Electric Eighteens?



Jonathan Roth: The Electric Eighteens are a merry band of international debut middle grade and YA (and some chapter book, like me) authors who support each other online and in person through the highs and lows of the publishing process, through networking, reading advance copies of each other’s books, attending launch events, and dozens of other large and small ways.

Unlike earlier debut groups, we do not have any specific marketing requirements. It is more about helping each other as we are each able.

Deborah Schaumberg: [It] is essentially a support group. It’s like holding hands to jump in the pool!

J.H. Diehl: The group is run by volunteers, who put up and maintain a website, a closed Facebook group, a complicated set of ARC tour spreadsheets and a wonderful series of weekly member interviews.

Smaller sub-groups have organized ‘pods’ on Instagram and meetups at conferences, festivals and launch events.

How did you find out about the Electric Eighteens?

Deborah Schaumberg: Word of mouth. I found out about the Electric Eighteens from someone in a new critique group that participated in the Sweet Sixteens when her book was published.

J.H. Diehl: In August 2017, when my book’s final edits were nearly done, and I allowed myself to think ‘this is really happening’, I did an online search for a 2018 YA/middle grade debut group. I’d seen prior year debut groups and thought it would be great to join one. I didn’t know just how great until I became part of the EEs.

Jonathan Roth: I was a member of the Swanky 17s (rebranded as the 2017 Debut Group) and like many from that group, had my release date bumped to 2018. So I promptly applied and jumped over.

Though having to wait six months longer for what already felt like an eternity was initially a bit of a downer, I find having two groups of new friends has turned out to be a real blessing. Don’t fear the bumper!

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Jonathan set up a monthly local SCBWI get-together, and it was there where I met him and Deborah and learned about the group.

Deborah invited me in and introduced me and instantly I had tons of people welcoming me, complimenting my book cover – it was an amazing feeling.

How have the Electric Eighteens helped you in promoting your book and how has it help you build a local community?


Lauren Abbey Greenberg: We follow and support each other, not only on Facebook, but on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

The ARC tour is extremely effective because often an EE member will post a picture of your cover with either a shout-out or a full review and you can share that across all your social media platforms for maximum exposure.

I do feel a kinship between us four local authors, all from the same county, and I enjoy seeing them face-to-face once a month.

Jonathan Roth: Beyond the typical online sharing, I have attended many ’17 and ’18 debut book events in the D.C. area, and was thrilled to have a number of debuts attend my launch.

Though I greatly appreciate being able to connect online with other 18s around the country and world, being able to sit around a table or chat at conferences with people is my preferred method of networking.

Also, I suspect most promotion is actually invisible (when I talk up books to fellow teachers and media specialists at the school where I teach, for example).

J.H. Diehl: Some EE members who are bloggers or librarians (or both!) have reached out to the group to offer opportunities to circulate advanced reader copies to teen reading groups or to participate in blog interviews. Likewise, some established book bloggers have reached out to the group to offer guest blog opportunities.

There have been some helpful threads in the Facebook group about book swag.

Thanks to the EEs I found a terrific designer for bookmarks and other items, YA author Kristen Rae, a member of a previous YA-middle grade debut group.

What have you learned about book promotion from being in the Electric Eighteens?

Jonathan Roth: Though we share all sorts of helpful tips with each other, my main take away about promotion is that no one actually knows the proven path, but we’re all stumbling down it together.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: I’ve learned about a whole community of librarians and teachers that are active on social media and willing to review and share ARCs. They are an awesome resource, especially for middle grade authors, because if they like your book they will shout it from the rooftops!

Deborah Schaumberg: I’ve learned so much from my fellow Electric Eighteens!

As someone that is not particularly tech-savvy, I can watch to see what other people do. As a result, I have created a book trailer, learned what a GIF is, and learned how to post on Instagram. We discuss what is working and what isn’t.

What surprised you about being in the Electric Eighteen group?


Deborah Schaumberg: How close I feel to many of the Electric Eighteens members.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor; we usually don’t have people around us when we write.

And as an introvert, I’ve been to events where I was too shy to talk to people I didn’t know.

At a recent conference I met another EE for the first time. I immediately hugged her hello because I felt like I knew her already from all the online sharing.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The flood of information surprised me. Your Facebook newsfeed becomes inundated with advice, questions, musings, good and bad news.

At first, it was overwhelming. I had to remind myself that I didn’t have to like or comment on every single post.

There’s also a tendency to fall into the comparison game. Why didn’t my book didn’t get a starred review? Why am I not booking as many events as so-and-so?

You have to pull back sometimes and remind yourself that each publishing journey is unique.

What advice would you pass on to future groups like the 2019s, 2020s, etc? 


Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Embrace this opportunity. Learn from each other. Share. Support. Cheerlead. It’s a special club, and I’m proud to be a member.

J.H. Diehl: Go into to it knowing you can participate as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, and get ready to be surprised and humbled by the support you’ll experience from the other debut authors in the group.

Go into it knowing it’s a great opportunity to give support to your fellow writers and also to experience tremendous gratitude.

Deborah Schaumberg: Also, the way the administrators of the Electric Eighteens structured the group works really well. I think past groups had lots of rules about how many advanced reader copies each member had to read and so on.

We are a support system only, all promotion is voluntary, and we are respectful and inclusive. I never feel pressured to do more than I can handle and I participate as much as I want.

Jonathan Roth: The groups grow to up to 200, so it’s pretty impossible (at least for me) to bond with everyone and/or read all their books. Like so much in life, you get out what you put in, but be selective and realistic. And most of all, be excellent to each other (and party on, debuts)!

Pura Belpré Award Winner & New Voice: Juana Martinez-Neal on Alma and How She Got Her Name

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Juana Martinez-Neal is a force of nature already this year.

Having won the 2018 Pura Belpré Award for her illustrations in La Princesa and the Pea, written by Susan Middleton Elya (Putnam, 2017), she now has her own debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name (Candlewick, 2018).

Candlewick acquired the story in a seven-publisher auction and is releasing it simultaneously in Spanish and English.

Publishers Weekly, Booklist and School Library Journal all gave the book starred reviews.

I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful picture book and caught up with Juana as she starts a busy season of appearances to talk about her craft and the origin of Alma’s story.

Tell me what first inspired you to illustrate for young readers? 

My father and grandfather were both fine artists in Peru and I grew up in a house surrounded by art materials, easels, art studio spaces and paintings – painted by people who I knew.

How amazing is that?

At 16, and while I was still in high school, I was working on some commercial illustration for toys. That was so much fun! I illustrated until I was 21 when I was accepted to Art School for Painting in Lima. Once in art school, my pieces felt more whimsical or younger than what other students were creating, so I decided to move to the United States in search of new things and answers.

Years later, and after the birth of our second son, I realized that I had to go back to illustration.

I was living in the United States where illustrating children’s books could be a career – that was not the case when I lived in Peru.

I met some local Arizona illustrators through SCBWI who pointed me in the right direction. With their guidance, I gave myself assignments, completed new pieces done, posted my work in online portfolios, and eventually got some magazine and educational work.

Then, I was hired by some small presses and authors who were self-publishing books.

While this was happening, my work was developing. Initially I worked with colored pencils, mainly because I had two boys under the age of three running around the house. As they grew older so did my wish to explore new media, and I started playing with materials and slowly developed the mixed media technique that I use now.

Juana’s workspace

In 2012, twenty-weeks pregnant with our daughter and with this new technique, I was awarded the Portfolio Grand Prize at the SCBWI Annual Conference. I also met my literary agent, Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

I then worked on a few book illustration opportunities, and little by little an idea I had grew into my author-illustrator debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name.

Although this is your debut picture book as an author-illustrator, you have illustrated books for other authors. Describe to me the emotions around getting the call that you had won the 2018 Pura Belpré Illustration Award for La Princesa and the Pea.


On Sunday evening, the whole family had tickets to go see “Hamilton.” My cell rang for the first time as the lights were dimming and the play was about to start.


My cell rang many, many more times. As it rang, I went from being frustrated with an unknown telemarketer to worrying that maybe something had happened to my parents or my brother.

Otherwise, why in the world would my phone ring so many times?

I had to wait until the intermission to call back.

“Hello. Someone is calling me from this number?” I said in an unusual calm and patient voice.
“Is this Juana Martinez-Neal?”
“Yes.”
“We are calling from the Pura Be…”

And that was enough to start ugly crying. I honestly don’t remember many of the details from the call.

Later, when we got home, I started doubting if or what I had won. It was a restless, long night. The best restless, long night I have had in a while.

The next morning, I watched the webcast to make sure! There were lots of emotions!

How did you come to write and illustrate Alma and How She Got Her Name?

The idea for my book and early drafts of the manuscript started with the story of how I was named by my parents in Peru.

I was born Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro. “Juana” was the name of my grandmother, my father’s mother. And “Carlota” was supposed to be “Carla” after my mom’s uncle Carlos, who she loved very much and passed when she was 20 and he was 33 years old. This is Esperanza’s son in the book.

My dad was in charge of filling out my birth certificate. Being the man he was, he wanted a stronger name than Carla and decided to change it to Carlota. He felt that Carlota was the strong name that I needed.

For the first twenty years of my life, I couldn’t disagree more. In Peru we also use two last names – both our mother’s and our father’s last names. So I was Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro, which is a long name and very Spanish name. Juana Carlota can sound very old-fashioned and harsh, and growing up people around me made me aware of that – especially my friends’ moms.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

I have a big family photo album which I put together many, many years ago with photos I collected from my parents, which they got from their parents, and that my grandparents got from their parents.

Every time I looked at the photo album, my head filled with many questions. Who were they? What did they love? What made them who they were?

One day, I began drawing these photographs and piecing together a story about a little girl with a really long name and how she learns about her family through those names.

The story of Alma and all her relatives began to take shape. All of Alma’s relatives in the book are based on relatives in my own extended family.

While I had been looking at my big family album for years and thinking about a story, I gave birth to my third child and first daughter in 2013, and thought about my name again and my daughter’s name.

I came back to the story and began to talk to my agent about it. Her son is named after his great grandfather and he is the fourth generation with his name. We began talking about our children’s names and how all children – really everyone – has a story behind their name. Then the story grew from there!

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

Artistically, since much of my inspiration came from my big old family photo album. I wanted the entire book to feel like an old photo album without being one.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

The first image I created was the one of José, my dad’s dad who was an artist. It was challenging to make the characters look and feel like the relatives or capture their spirit in creative ways. While I didn’t keep all of their exact names, the names embody the essence of those family members.

I used many details in the pieces to tell more of the stories of the family members and their past, such as Esperanza, whose name means “hope,” and she is shown filled with gifts and letters by her side to symbolize that she always hoped to travel but never left home. Yet through her son’s gifts, she got to “see” the world.

Esperanza’s son is my great uncle Carlos – after whom my mom named me. He went on a cruise and never came back. His body was never recovered. This story marked me in significant ways, and I always felt that my great-grandmother stayed in her home town hoping that one day Carlos would come back home. Needless to say, Esperanza’s story was the most challenging to tell. 

Psychologically, writing Alma was a big challenge. Even though the text is short, I had to dig deep to tell the stories of the life of each one of the relatives.

In this one book, there are many stories woven through from the past along with Alma’s story happening in the present. The story is framed by Alma talking with her daddy. I am also very close to my dad, and spent many hours talking with him and my mom about the stories of our family. It was a very intense time. While writing and revising, I could only take one story at a time before I was sobbing.

Funny enough, as I found myself crying, I started to realize that I had gotten to that place where I needed to be to tell my story.

Juana signing copies of Alma at Southern California Independent Booksellers Association
Celebrating the Kids’ IndieNext Top 10 Spring 2018

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

I am Peruvian, and I often see my people and culture underrepresented or shown in only one story often filled with stereotypes.

I’ll take advantage of this opportunity to share that not all Peruvians live in the mountains, wear chullos, and own llamas.

Alma and How She Got Her Name is all about being Peruvian—from showing the mix of traditional religion and Indigenous beliefs (that I absolutely believe), to living in a politically unstable country, to valuing or sadly not valuing our own Indigenous people.

There is a richness to Alma’s character as a Peruvian, and she is proud of herself and her family. I hope young readers see this and turn to discover pride in their own names, families, and heritage. Celebrate who they are!

Alma will be released in simultaneous English and Spanish hardcover editions.

As a native Spanish speaker, I wrote both the English and the original Spanish.

It is an honor to be able to share this story in both of my languages!

Cynsational Notes


In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described Alma and How She Got Her Name as “an origin story that envelops readers like a hug.”


The starred review from School Library Journal indicates Juana achieved her illustration goal.

“The round, stylized figure of the girl, dressed in pink striped pants and a white shirt, pops against the sepia pages (reminiscent of old, family photo albums).”

See teacher tips for using Alma in the classroom from Candlewick Press.

Juana Martinez-Neal is also the illustrator of La Madre Goose and La Princesa and the Pea, both written by Susan M. Elya and published by Putnam.

She was born in Lima, the capital of Peru, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband, two sons, daughter, puppy, and the soul of their late kitty.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to see her latest work.

She is represented by Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 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.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Watch a video interview with Juana in English…

…or in Spanish.

New Voice: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow on Mommy’s Khimar

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m delighted to share my interview with Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, a fellow Epic Eighteen debut author of Mommy’s Khimar, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (Salaam Reads, 2018)).

This cheerful and empowering story which centers on a young Muslim, African American girl who loves wearing her mommy’s khimar (headscarf) received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

I know children will gravitate to the uplifting text and illustrations and fall in love with the little girl and story as I did. From the promotional copy:

A khimar is a flowing scarf that my mommy wears.
Before she walks out the door each day, she wraps one around her head. 

 A young girl plays dress up with her mother’s headscarves, feeling her mother’s love with every one she tries on. Charming and vibrant illustrations showcase the beauty of the diverse and welcoming community in this portrait of a young Muslim American girl’s life.



Jamilah, share with our readers your initial inspiration for writing this book. 

I wanted to write books about Muslim children and I couldn’t get the idea of doing a story about the Islamic headscarf out of my head. It felt like a necessary story but also one that could turn into a preachy, dull, or even polarizing book–none of which are good for a picture book.

Still, I couldn’t get past this idea so I tried to have fun with it.

I thought back to how I saw this religious garb as a child. As a five-year-old, I wasn’t expounding upon the merits of headscarves, but I was tying them around my neck and dashing around the room in them. That seemed like a story children could enjoy.

Khimar Wardrobe

As an author and teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?

I worked as a middle and high school English teacher for over a decade and now, in my role as a program director for a nonprofit called Mighty Writers, I help develop and teach writing workshops for youth ages 2 to 18.

I can honestly say that becoming an author has made me a better writing teacher. I can articulate the process with authenticity and empathy and I teach with an awareness that students can write for bigger audiences than the people in our workshop. Publication is possible for them because it is possible for me.

Conversely, I think being a teacher made it easier for me to become a writer. I’ve spent much of my career teaching kids how to dissect and emulate mentor texts.

When I wanted to learn how to write children’s literature, I immediately identified the mentor texts I needed and went at them in a very methodical way so I could learn the craft of them.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Although I know the prevailing wisdom is to use contemporary books as models, I am obsessed with classics. The most useful book for me in terms of craft in general has been Swimmy by Leo Lionni  (Knopf, 1963).

When I first started learning picture book craft, I would return to this book and dissect it again and again. I love how Lionni incorporated a sense of wonder, beautiful language, a character with heart, and an engaging plot in less than three hundred words.

For language and pacing in Mommy’s Khimar, I looked to quiet books like Stars by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane, 2011).

I saw my main character as very similar to the main character in Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch (Dial, 1991). To a certain extent, I tried to create a younger, Muslim version of the same character.

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

The best moment was absolutely getting the offer for Mommy’s Khimar. I cried tears of joy for an hour. All of the firsts since then have been emotional thrills: the first sketches, the cover, the F&G, and then holding the final copy. There’s nothing like it.

The worst? It’s hard to say and maybe, it’s because I haven’t been in the business long enough. I have had a number of rejections.

Strangely, they haven’t felt all that bad. I compartmentalize them. The worst is probably sending work I think is a perfect fit for an editor or an agent and getting a form rejection or no response at all.

Cynsational Notes


In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews wrote:

“The words are often lyrical, and the story artfully includes many cultural details that will delight readers who share the cheerful protagonist’s culture and enlighten readers who don’t.”

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is the debut author of Mommy’s Khimar (Salaam Reads, 2018).

She is a former English teacher and now helps kids learn how to write outside of the classroom in her nonprofit work.

She resides with her family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 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.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

New Voice: Brenda Maier on Making Picture Books Do Double Duty & The Little Red Fort

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m overjoyed to feature The Little Red Fort by author Brenda Maier and illustrator Sonia Sánchez (Scholastic, 2018) here on Cynsations.

This new picture book is a contemporary retelling of The Little Red Hen, featuring spunky Ruby and her three brothers who are not interested in helping her build a fort.

I love how Ruby takes matters into her own hands and figures out what needs to be done with a little help from her mother and grandmother.

School Library Journal selected the book for its February 2018 Popular Picks. Scholastic distributed it through its Book Fairs prior to the official March 27 publication date.

I agree with reviewers that it is a great read aloud and the contemporary and lively mixed media illustrations pulled me right into the action. The examples of forts kids can build in the back matter transported me right back to my own childhood.

Let’s hear from Brenda now!

What sparked the idea to write this book?

I have five children (now ages 10-18), and the inspiration for The Little Red Fort came from them. My youngest child was in a Little Red Hen phase, so every day we read that classic folktale before his nap. The Little Red Hen was just lingering in my brain.

One day during this period, I tucked him in and went to check on the other kids in the back yard. They had requisitioned some boards and lattice and worked together to construct a structure they called their ‘fort.’

Those two ideas—the classic tale and my kids’ fort endeavor—converged to become an idea: What if the hen was a girl who wanted to build a fort? The story started there.

Brenda and Traci at 2017 SCBWI L.A. Summer Conference

As an author-teacher/librarian/agent/publicist/editor, how do your various roles inform one another? 

I’m a debut author, but I’m also a teacher and a mother of five. Not surprisingly, both parenting and teaching are essential to my writing. Specifically, I hear and see things that could trigger a story idea.

As a parent, I have always looked for books that have the ability to reinforce the things I value as a parent. Would this one be good for a snuggly bedtime story? Would this one help reinforce the idea that we should be kind and generous? Does this book show that all people are important?

Some of these parent must-haves overlap with my day job, but there are differences.

Tracy Mack from Scholastic summarizes The Little Red Fort

Teachers have to be very efficient with their time, so if I can hit upon something they need to teach or address anyway, that’s a huge bonus.

What connections does this story have to the curriculum? Can I use it to kill two birds with one stone? The Little Red Fort is perfect for comparing and contrasting to the classic folktale, The Little Red Hen.

As a teacher, I know this can be done with a Venn Diagram, a paragraph, or even an essay. There is also a literacy link to multiple STEM options, including inviting the kids to collaborate, design, and build their own scale model forts.

This means this story has value for me as a teacher, because I can use it to launch a writing assignment or an interdisciplinary fort-building challenge. I try to ensure that all of my stories have something that will be important to the parent side of me and the teacher side of me.

Oklahoma SCBWI authors Kim Ventrella, Brenda Maier and Tammi Sauer

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

The single best piece of advice I can give aspiring authors is to read.

  • Read widely in the genre you write. 
  • Join in the writing community. Write manuscripts and join critique groups with the goal of improving your manuscripts. 
  • Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attend craft workshops and conferences. 
  • Always be on the lookout for story ideas, and write them down immediately. These efforts are not optional. 
  • Be not only willing, but eager to put in the work and time that will be required.
Brenda at Kansas-Missouri SCBWI Conference with Sue Gallion, Jess Townes and Tara Luebbe

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

Children’s publishing is such an emotional roller coaster. There are plenty of ‘downs.’ For me, the worst moments are when a manuscript I see a real need for gets rejected.

It’s been good for me to learn how to focus that energy on the next project instead of dwelling too much on things I may not be able to control. With each new submission, the anticipation builds again, and I’m on another one of the ‘up’ moments.

The best moments have been whenever readers expresses how important this book is to them. That’s mind blowing. I have also noticed that as I’m in the maelstrom of interviews and book events with readers—things I’ve dreamt of doing—it can be very easy to forget to stop and savor the moment.

I saw a posted photo of a firefighter in Connecticut reading The Little Red Fort aloud to a group of kids and I thought, “Wow. Somewhere far away there is a real life hero talking about how much the kids liked a book that I wrote.”

The ability to make a connection with people you’ve never met is definitely an ‘up’ moment.

Cynsational Notes


Publishers Weekly said, “Maier keeps her prose spare and preserves the rhythms and taglines of the original…. Ruby’s satisfaction is palpable, and readers won’t fail to grasp the message of self-sufficiency.”

As a young child, Brenda Maier had a grand total of six books; consequently, she spent her summers walking to the local library to get more.

Now she spends her summers driving her own children to the local library, where you may find her in a corner with a stack of picture books. If she’s not there, she’s probably at a bookstore, adding to her much-larger-than-six-books collection.

Brenda lives in Oklahoma with her husband and their five children, who provide endless inspiration for more stories.

She also works with gifted children at a large, local school district.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 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.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

New Voice: Patricia Valdez on Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I love a good picture book biography and read so many in elementary school, especially those featuring women.

So when I learned Patricia Valdez’s debut picture book would feature the work of Joan Proctor, a zoologist researching amphibians in the early twentieth century, I knew there’d be a great story there.

Others think so too because the book has received starred reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.

I’m thrilled to feature Patricia’s Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Knopf, 2018) today on Cynsations.

Patricia, what first inspired you to write for young readers?

I’m an Immunologist, and my children always love to hear stories about the tiny armies inside their bodies.

I started out writing stories about germs invading cuts and the immune cells that came to destroy them. My kids got a kick out those stories, but they were nowhere near publication-ready.

As a woman scientist, it was always clear to me that there were not enough stories about us. The stories we did have were not particularly inspiring to me. Not that I don’t love Marie Curie, but the thought of spending my whole life in a laboratory handling lethal doses of radium was not appealing.

I decided I would find those interesting women that history forgot, and that is what started my writing journey in earnest.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This story came to me by way of a Komodo dragon.

My family loves to visit the Komodo dragon at the National Zoo. His name is Murphy and he’s so majestic. Thanks to the helpful zoo facts posted on the enclosure, I learned they were the largest lizard on the planet.

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

I was curious to learn more, so searched online. As I scrolled through an article about Komodo dragons, one sentence jumped out at me. It said something along the lines of “Joan Beauchamp Procter was the first person to describe Komodo dragons in captivity in the 1920s.”

I immediately needed to know more about this woman scientist. And it turns out, she was as interesting as I thought she might be!

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

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

Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor is a picture book biography about Joan Beauchamp Procter, a British herpetologist who lived in the early 1900s and designed the London Zoo’s Reptile House, which is still in use today.

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

I was drawn to her story because it was rare to find women scientists working at that time. Women barely had the right to vote and universities didn’t allow women to earn full degrees. In a sense, Procter was a fish out of water working in a male-dominated field.

I related to her story because although my graduate school class had an equal number of women as men, I was the only Latinx out of 50 students. Like Procter, I stayed focused and succeeded.

I’m happy to report that I see so many more diverse faces in my former department’s most recent class pictures, but we still have a long way to go. I hope Procter’s story might inspire all children to pursue their passion, whether that includes the sciences, the arts, or both.

Cynsational Notes


Booklist gave Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor a starred review and wrote, “Whimsical artwork and an empowering story make this biography of a lesser-known woman scientist truly charming.”

In addition to being an author, Patricia Valdez is a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Originally from Texas, Patricia now resides in Maryland with her husband, two children, and three cats. You can find her on Twitter @Patricia_Writer.

Patricia is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 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.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.