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.

Psychological

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

Interview: Lee & Low New Voices Award Winners

Roberto Penas

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lee & Low Books recently announced Roberto Penas of Olathe, Kansas won the 17th annual New Voices Award.


His manuscript, “Pedro Flores: The Toymaker,” is a biography of the inventor of the modern yo-yo.


In the early 1900s, Flores emigrated from the Philippines to the United States, where he pursued an education and his entrepreneurial ambitions. He redesigned the toy and named it “yo-yo” (Tagalog for “come back.”)


Roberto Penas has a master’s degree in Philippine history and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI.)


He is a second-generation Filipino-American, and became interested in the story after learning Flores was also Filipino. Roberto admired the way Flores valued education and became a successful entrepreneur during a time when many immigrants worked as agricultural laborers. Roberto will receive a $1,000 prize and a publication contract.


Roberto recently shared more about the inspiration behind his manuscript.

Tell us about how you discovered Pedro Flores and what about him made you want to share his story?


I don’t recall exactly how I stumbled upon his name, but I know it was accidental, for he is sadly not included in most lists of notable Filipino-Americans.

What I found inspiring is how his example dispels the usual story of Ilocano immigrants laboring in fields for the sake of their descendants. While it is true, for a Filipino to become a financially independent entrepreneur in the early 1900’s is inconceivable – and it happened!

Keep in mind, America back then was reacting against foreigners, making immigration more restrictive (targeting Eastern Europeans and Asians). And there were the infamous Stockton riots against Filipinos in California, too.

What sort of research did you do to learn more about him?





I
t was difficult, for there is little about Flores, he is practically obscure. There are no books about him but I gained valuable information indirectly through books concerning his invention (and of course, the inventor).

Fortunately, the Yo-Yo remains a highly popular toy to this day. I also used the Internet but one has to be careful – what I learned as a historian is that credible sources are everything.

So I double-check, triple-check all data: newspapers, archived articles, (there was a Washington Post rebuttal correcting an article in the New York Times), obituaries, university and industry sites, associations, blogs.


How long have you been working on this story?

On and off for a couple years. I started writing August 2014, didn’t do anything for a while, then came back to it the following spring and summer where I worked up three versions.

I even have a Word document called “Lee and Low version D” for September 2015 but I didn’t think it was ready, so the project lay fallow again. Then when I heard about the New Vision contest in 2016, I decided it was a now-or-never moment and got serious, submitting the manuscript a couple weeks before the deadline.

Were there particular classes or workshops you’ve taken that have helped you hone your craft?

I have been a member of the SCBWI for five years and classes in their conferences have been useful.

I also have books on writing but with picture books, articles on the Internet helped me more, especially when agents, editors and authors share their own tips.

The best education however is reading picture books. Personally, I love them for their gorgeous artwork – when you compare them to any other book in the store, the level of creativity and talent is simply outstanding.

But what probably helped me most was a short story group I belonged to eight years ago, where our stories couldn’t exceed 1,500 words. When you have a 1000-2000 word count in picture books, every word really counts – a chapter in middle grade would be only two pages in a picture book. Maximum.

Illustration by Dayne Sislan

Are you part of a critique group?

I was in a critique group via SCBWI, though currently the group is reorganizing. I found the group indispensable; unless you get feedback, you can’t objectively know how you’re doing. By submitting work – and critiquing that of others – over the years, (usually a chapter at a time, though we allowed for an entire picture book since it’s short), I have grown in my writing.

Have you entered the New Voices contest before?

No, this was my first time, through I was aware about it before. I actually had my sights set on the New Visions award for middle grade. But in the end, I felt what I had wasn’t ready.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a middle-grade novel, the one I got cold feet submitting for the New Visions Award last year.

Similar to Pedro Flores, I feel there is a dearth of Filipino-American characters – in fact, I can’t think of any except a good book that came out last year by Erin Entrada Kelly.

So my work features a Filipino-American girl trying to find her place in the American heartland, where I live, flyover country. It’s got loads of fantasy, adventure and humor and I’m having fun doing it – I want it to be totally magical for the reader.

Gloria Amescua

Gloria Amescua of Austin,Texas, received the honor award. Her manuscript, Luz Jiménez, No Ordinary Girl, is a story in verse about a Nahua educator and art muse in Mexico.


As a young girl Luz dreamed of becoming a teacher, but the Mexican Revolution left Luz’s family struggling to survive. Luz supported her family by working for various artists, sharing stories about her experiences and inspiring important works of art.


She went on to become a teacher and served as a living link to the Aztecs, preserving her Nahua culture and language.


Gloria is a poet and a member of SCBWI’s Austin chapter. She was inspired to write Luz’s story after reading about Luz and the obstacles she overcame. Gloria admires the message in Luz’s story: dreams may come true in ways that are unexpected. She will receive a prize of $500.



Gloria recently shared more about her writing journey and how she discovered Luz Jiménez.

Tell us about how you discovered Luz Jiménez and what about her made you want to share her story?

Pamphlet from Ransom Center at UT

Several years ago while visiting the University of Texas Ransom Center, I found a pamphlet entitled Luz Jiménez: Symbol of a Millennial People.

The symposium described in the pamphlet had actually taken place several years before, so I’m not sure why it was still available. I’m lucky it was.

As I read about this incredible woman, I knew I had to write about her, but I wasn’t sure how until I took some picture book courses a couple of years later.

I was greatly affected by Luz Jiménez’s story because of the many obstacles she overcame, including the shaming of her native language when she was a child, as has happened in this and other countries.

It was important to me to tell the story of this Nahua (Aztec) girl who, despite the difficulties in her life, achieved her dream of becoming a teacher by honoring her culture.

What sort of research did you do to learn more about her?

I searched online and ordered two books based on Luz’s Nahua stories.

The most important find was a dissertation published online, part of which was about Luz Jiménez. I contacted the professor at the University of Texas who offered to lend me two relevant DVDs and who put me in contact with Luz’s grandson in Mexico.

Her grandson also connected me with a professor of Nahuatl in Mexico who specializes in the same dialect that Luz spoke. I greatly appreciate their time and helpfulness.

How long have you been working on this story?

Bethany Hegedus

I first wrote a draft for a Picture Book II course at the Writing Barn in Austin.

I spent about two years doing further research.

Then I signed up for Bethany Hegedus’s Nonfiction Picture Book course last summer, which helped me get through many, many revisions. The instruction and feedback from teachers and participants was invaluable.

I noticed it is a “story in verse” – tell us about your poetry background and how that influences your writing.

I have been writing poetry since I was a child and throughout my life while I was an English teacher and in other positions in education.

In the 1990s, I became more active in the poetry community: meeting regularly with other poets, attending and giving workshops, participating in readings and getting work published.

In poetry, each word counts as it does in picture books. My love of metaphor and sensory details also influences the emotional impact of my current writing.

Cynsational Notes

Established in 2000, Lee & Low’s New Voices Award encourages writers of color to submit their work to a publisher that takes pride in nurturing authors who are new to the world of children’s book publishing. Submission period for the award takes place each summer.

Past winners include It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, winner of the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award Honor, Bird by Zetta Elliott, an ALA Notable Book, and, most recently, Juna’s Jar by Jane Bahk, a Spring 2015 Junior Library Guild selection.

Guest Post: Susanna Reich & Gary Golio on Social Justice, Music & Picture Book Biographies

Susanna Reich and Gary Golio, photo by Laura Golio
By Susanna Reich and Gary Golio
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From intern Gayleen Rabakukk

The power of music to inspire action is explored in two non-fiction picture books out this month: Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Bloomsbury, March 2017) and Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb (Millbrook Press, March 2017).

Husband and wife authors Susanna Reich and Gary Golio interviewed each other about the songs and inspiration behind their new books. 

Gary: Why a book about Pete?

Susanna: Pete Seeger had long been on my list of possible subjects when my agent connected me with Mary Kate Castellani, an editor at Bloomsbury. Her enthusiasm for Pete fired me up, and soon I was burning through every book I could find by and about him.

The fun of researching a musician, of course, lies in the perfect excuse it gives you to watch music videos on YouTube when you’re supposedly “working.”

Susanna: Where did you get the idea to write about the song “Strange Fruit”?

Gary: In this case, I was fascinated by the story of how three people–the songwriter (Abel Meeropol), the singer (Billie Holiday), and the club owner (Barney Josephson)–each played their part in bringing a unique work of art–the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”–to the world.

Collaboration is often overlooked in the process of artmaking, yet the debut of this remarkable song depended completely on a combination of talents and resources.

Gary: Reading your book, it’s clear that you felt a strong personal connection to Pete, his music, and the work he did. Did you ever see or hear him in person?

Susanna: If you grew up in the Hudson Valley in the mid-20th century, it would have been hard not to hear Pete sing. He was constantly performing at local libraries, summer camps, waterfront festivals and political rallies.

I always knew that he and I had in common a love of the Hudson River, and that we both came from musical families with left-leaning politics.

As I did my research, my appreciation for him really grew. He was fierce and uncompromising in his dedication to the causes he believed in and had an amazing gift for bringing people together and lifting them up with music.

Susanna: So what’s your personal connection to Billie, Abel, Barney, and the song they brought into the world? By way of collaboration: how do you find a balance as an author between expressing your own vision and working with an illustrator and editor to make a picture book?

Also by Charlotte

Gary: Fortunately for me, the process of creating a book thwarts my natural If I Were King impulse, and the books are all the better for it. You have to become part of an orchestra.

Fortunately, I’ve also had great editors (like Carol Hinz) and illustrators (like Charlotte Riley-Webb), who aren’t afraid of bold subjects.

As for my connection with Abel, Billie, and Barney, I’ve always considered myself an outsider, and there’s nothing that irks me more than injustice directed against a group of innocent people. The good news is that something like a song can address injustice, and even catalyze social change.

Gary: So Pete was a pretty self-effacing guy – what do you think he’d make of your book, and being the heroic subject of a bio for kids?

Susanna: I think he would’ve been okay with it, since the point of the book isn’t to turn him into a hero but to show how he used music in pursuit of social justice.

He played a role in the great social movements of the 20th century–speaking out for unions and civil rights, opposing McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, advocating for the environment and an end to nuclear arms. This is history that kids need to know, and understanding how he combined art and politics is important and timely.

Susanna: Your book shows the intersection of art and politics too. What do you hope kids will take away from it?

Gary: That people need each other to make something bigger than themselves.

Look at Charlotte Riley-Webb’s images for the book–I truly believe that Billie would be immensely gratified to see a woman artist promoting the message of “Strange Fruit” with brushes and paint. Art is storytelling, and Charlotte’s work speaks to our time, both as Art and Politics.

Illustration by Charlotte Riley-Webb from Strange Fruit

Susanna: Speaking of art, I especially appreciate illustrator Adam Gustavson’s attention to period detail in Stand Up and Sing!, and his brilliant idea to create a background texture reminiscent of a calfskin banjo head.

His exquisite paintings really enhance the emotional impact of the text and make a beautiful music all their own.

Illustration by Adam Gustavson from Stand Up and Sing!

Cynsational Notes

Susanna Reich has been writing books for children since 1994. Her first book, Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso (Clarion, 1999) won an Orbis Pictus Honor, was an ALA Notable and Best Book for Young Adults and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. She’s also written biographies of dancer Jose Limon, artist George Catlin and the Beatles, as well as two MG novels. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012) was named a CCBC Choices Best Book of the Year and received critical acclaim. Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice has been named a Junior Library Guild selection.

Gary Golio gravitates to musical subjects for his picture book biographies. His first book, Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe (Clarion, 2010) became a New York Times Bestseller and was named to the Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books for the Year. His other titles include When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan, illustrated by Marc Burckhardt (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011), Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (Clarion, 2012) and Bird and Diz: Two Friends Create Bebop, illustrated by Ed Young (Candlewick, 2015), named an ALA Notable book and Junior Library Guild Selection. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song received a starred review from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Authors, Editor & Illustrator Interview: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (Fighting for Justice)

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi are the co-authors of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, illustrated by Yukata Houlette (Heyday, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. 


But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. 


This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up.

Inspired by the award-winning book for adults Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California by Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi (Heyday, 2009), the Fighting for Justice series introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. 


The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice.


Today we welcome the co-authors, editor and illustrator to share with Cynsations readers a glimpse into the creative process behind the book.

Stan, can you talk about the inspiration behind the book and series?

Fred Korematsu

I wish I could claim credit for initiating the book and series, but they are the brainchildren of Heyday’s founder and retired publisher, Malcolm Margolin.

He thought a children’s version of Wherever There’s a Fight, the book I co-wrote with Elaine Elinson about the history of civil rights in California, would inspire kids.

That initial idea morphed into a plan for a series of books about civil liberties heroes and heroines.

Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. So I’m delighted that the series is launching with his story.

He stood virtually alone against a powerful government he knew was violating the rights of Japanese Americans. His fight for justice was difficult. But he ultimately prevailed.

He dedicated the final decades of his life to ensuring that others would not suffer the same unfair discrimination Japanese Americans endured during World War II.

His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice.

Laura, white headband, seated far end of line, blockading
Lawrence Livermore Lab. She was arrested soon after. 

Laura, what inspired you to work on this project?

I was delighted to be asked to come on board!

Molly, our editor at Heyday, approached me and asked if I could get involved as a person with children’s book experience, to help Stan create a story pitched at our middle grade readership. It was a dream project for me.

I love that the book, and the series, focus on people who have fought for social justice and civil liberties in California history.

I grew up as the child of activist parents, and got involved in activism myself in middle school and high school, including getting arrested as part of anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid protests.

I learned from my family and from my peers, that my own happiness and well-being is connected to other people’s, and that when we fight for everyone’s rights, we make the whole world better.

I am so excited that we were able to create a book that will hopefully inspire young people today to feel like they can have a voice, and the power to speak up when they see something unfair.

We are in a time when basic civil liberties are being threatened and undermined.

I hope that our story will help kids to understand more about what happened to Fred Korematsu, and how 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were put in jail during WWII just for looking like the enemy.

This can help them to reflect on issues today — a potential registry of Muslim Americans along with the travel ban for people from predominently Muslim countries, anti-immigrant attitudes, and other forms of discrimination — and consider how they can have the power, and the ability, to speak up themselves.

Molly, how did the editorial process for this book work? Was it similar to other books you’d worked on or different?

I feel very fortunate to have been part of this project, working with a group of such thoughtful and caring creative people to share Fred Korematsu’s story.

As we built the book from the ground up, the editorial process was more collaborative than that of any other project I’ve worked on.

We spent many afternoons together talking about Fred’s experiences and how to best convey them to young readers, and it was nice that we all lived in the Bay Area and could brainstorm in person.

Stan and Laura did amazing work collaborating on the writing front, melding their different strengths, and Yutaka thought about illustrations that would complement the themes of each chapter, then beautifully realized them.

Meanwhile, we gathered photos, art works, news headlines, and other documents to help extend Fred’s story.

On a basic level, the challenge was helping readers understand and relate to Fred’s story, which
involves a complicated legal fight.

There was a constant balancing act of keeping things simple enough for our audience while presenting the complexity of topics accurately. Our conversations ranged from discussing how to talk about racism with this age group to how to present the fact that the U.S. government lied during Fred’s trial.

Through the lens of his story, we talked about many important and difficult subjects that are increasingly relevant today.

From the text to the visuals, our process involved discussing possibilities, trying out ideas and approaches, and gathering input.

We were grateful to have had the help and guidance of Fred’s children Karen and Ken Korematsu, local teachers and librarians, a focus group of fourth-grade students, and staff at several nonprofits and historical societies.

Slowly, the book began to take shape, coalescing more and more until it “came into its own” as the book it is today, a book that feels, to me, like a real community project, and one that will continue to expand beyond its covers as kids start to read and interact with it.

I hope readers are moved to have the same kinds of important conversations that we had while making the book, and that Fred’s example moves all of us to act when we see others treated unfairly.


Yutaka, what was your process for thinking about and creating the artwork?

I had never worked on a narrative project that involved so many drawings before, and honestly, I was a bit overwhelmed at first.

To try to make the project less daunting, I tried to plan as much as I could before diving too deep into any one drawing. Planning involved things like creating a color-palette, gathering reference images and trying to work out the compositions for as many of the rough sketches as I could.

The color-palette was inspired by kamishibai illustrations from the 40s and 50s.

Kamishibai, or ‘paper-theater’ was a popular Japanese form of storytelling for kids that took place outdoors. The illustrations for ‘kamishibai’ were intended to be eye-catching even from afar, so the colors often have a bright, pop-art feel to them. But many of the remaining ‘kamishibai’ from the 40s and 50s are a faded and worn out from heavy use in the outdoors. I was hoping this mix of bright and faded colors would subtly evoke an older time without feeling musty.

Because the story takes place in specific times and places, there were many reference images to find, like Fred’s old high school, barbershops from the 40s, and Tanforan. 

Molly and Diane from Heyday helped out a lot by giving me some reference books about life in the
internment camps. I was also inspired by the artworks of Miné Okubo and Chiura Obata, who were both imprisoned at Topaz.

I think that in any art-form, once you introduce more than one element, the relationship between the elements becomes impossible not to think about.

So it was important for me that the drawings worked well individually but also in relation to each other. When creating rough sketches, I tried to vary the compositions from one drawing to the next to try to make them flow together but also to not be too redundant.

Once most of the planning was done, I started work on the final drawings, which is the most fun. I used a drawing tablet for the line work and a combination of watercolors, color-pencil and Photoshop for coloring.


Cynsational Notes

Yutaka, Laura, Molly and Stan

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up received a starred review from Kirkus. “Written in free verse, Fred’s story engages in powerful bursts and shows how speaking out brings complex consequences. Enhanced with pictures and archival materials, well-researched and approachable historical essays interspersed throughout Fred’s account offer context, while Houlette’s reverent illustrations give humanity to Fred’s plight.”

Laura Atkins is an author, teacher and independent children’s book editor with more than 20 years editorial experience. She recently completed an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and also holds an MA in children’s literature from Roehampton University.

Stan Yogi managed development programs for the ACLU of Northern California for 14 years. In addition to Wherever There’s a Fight, he also coedited two literary anthologies. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, MELUS, Los Angeles Daily Journal and several anthologies.

Yutaka Houlette is a Japanese-American illustrator and front-end engineer based in Oakland, California. He designs and builds user interfaces for CommitChange, a fundraising platform for nonprofits and social good companies. His illustrations have also appeared in Smithsonian Magazine and Orion Magazine.

Molly Woodward is a freelance editor and the former children’s acquisitions editor at Heyday, an independent, nonprofit publisher. Heyday promotes widespread awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas.

Insets in the book provide broader historical context, timelines, definitions
and questions for readers to reflect on their own contexts.

Guest Post: Crossing the Bar: Or a YA Fiction Writer Tries Out Adult Non-Fiction

By Marianne Monson

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations


Up until the publication of my most recent book, Frontier Grit: The Untold True Stories of Pioneer Women (Shadow Mountain, 2016), I’ve primarily considered myself a young adult fiction writer.

When my editor asked me to take on this project, I protested that I wasn’t a historian, but she insisted that she wanted the book to have a strong narrative voice. The concept she proposed was a collection of pioneer biographies with particular relevance to contemporary society. I accepted the project with the caveat that I be able to define a “pioneer” as a historical woman who explored beyond the boundaries of her own culture, thereby allowing the inclusion of Native American and Mexican American perspectives, which don’t often appear in a genre dominated by westward expansionism.

Though I have always been fascinated by pioneer history and had written two historical fiction novels set in the time period, the transition from YA novel to adult non-fiction required adjustment. Surprisingly, one of the least painful aspects was being required to document my sources. I’ve long wished for an uncluttered way to do exactly that in a young adult novel, so the ability to use a footnote without interrupting the text offered great relief.

Donaldina Cameron House, built in 1874
as the Presbyterian Mission Home 

Inevitable gaps in research proved more problematic, however. In a novel when I come across something research can’t resolve, I invent an informed, likely detail to suit the story’s needs; this practice is not so encouraged in adult non-fiction, of course. Faced with occasional contradictory sources, I took refuge in explanatory footnotes where I simply explained the varying points of views.

One challenge I didn’t expect was that writing about real women left me with a daunting awareness that I was presenting a person’s life. Though I tried my best to be true to the facts, I also wanted to stay true to the values that each woman herself found most important. For example, as I struggled to fit the lengthy, incredible life of Donaldina Cameron (a woman who fought the sex trafficking of Chinese girls in San Francisco for forty years) into one chapter, I initially included a fair amount about her love life (because, hey, for both YA and adult readers, romance is fun). But as I worked my way through revisions, I found myself paring back the romance, and then paring it back once more.

Bricks twisted by fire

With additional room in the chapter, I was able to include the story of an abduction of one of Donaldina’s girls by a criminal ring aided and abetted by local officials instead. Though I have no proof, I believe Donaldina would have been pleased with my revision. After all, in her older years she loved to tease, “I am glad I did not settle for matrimony. If I had my life to live over again, I’d do it the same way. Only I’d be better prepared.”

I also wrestled with trying to understand how the voice of the book would be different targeting adult readers, rather than young adults. During the course of researching Donaldina’s chapter, while considering this question, I visited the building where she lived and worked for forty years. The bricks of the building’s façade are warped and twisted, charred remnants of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906—a fire Donaldina braved twice—once to bring her girls to safety, and once, later, when she returned to rescue their records.

Some buildings are haunted by the presence of the lives they once housed, as if portions of their being has seeped into the very walls. The Cameron Home is such a place. Walking across scratched hardwood floors; marveling at the secret cupboards where girls were hidden for their protection; walking the length of the stage where young actors once performed plays for Theodore and Eleanor Roosevelt—all of it was like spending an afternoon in Donaldina’s presence.

As I strived to listen to the silent spaces between the walls, in order to tell her story with greater truth, I grew aware of the myriad ages who had lived within that space, and the concern over the lines between young adult, fiction, and non-fiction at last dissolved. Left behind was simply an awareness of story and the storyteller’s duty to reveal it—a reminder to tell each tale in a way that the intended audience, no matter the age, is beckoned close to the fire.

Cynsational Notes

Marianne Monson is the author of nine books, including a picture book about fairies, a YA novel, a chapter book series, and the recently released: Frontier Grit: The Untold True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women. She teaches Creative Writing at Portland Community College.

Author Interview & Giveaway: Sebastian Robertson on Writing His Father’s Rock and Roll Biography

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

My love of music outweighs my love of the written word. So, I am delighted when I find children’s
book biographies written about any of my favorite musicians. I rush to devour them and learn more about the creative geniuses whose beautiful lyrics and magical melodies have lifted my spirit or given me comfort throughout my life.

I am honored to shine Cynsations’ spotlight today on Sebastian Robertson (Mohawk/Cayuga), a children’s book author, musician and composer doing that work.

Sebastian has written about rock and roll legends – including his father, Robbie Robertson, the award-winning lead guitarist and primary songwriter for The Band. In Rock and Roll Highway (Henry Holt, 2014),

Sebastian chronicles his father’s musical path as a child playing guitar with his First Nations relatives in Canada to playing on the road professionally by age fifteen. The picture book biography also talks about Buddy Holly’s advice for Robbie, recording and touring with Bob Dylan, and having The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, filmed by Martin Scorsese.  

Sebastian graciously agreed to share thoughts about his work and give away two signed copies of Rock & Rock Highway to Cynsations’ readers.

What excites you about writing children’s literature? 


As a teenager I taught Mommy and Me classes and felt a really strong connection with the kids. It wasn’t just a job it was a passion of mine for many, many years. In fact, it was through my experience teaching that the idea for Legends, Icons and Rebels was birthed.

Monitoring how the children reacted to and engaged with the music that we would play during class time was a lot of fun, especially when I could get them grooving to some James Brown or Aretha. Tapping into a mind that isn’t jaded or isn’t already made up is probably the most exciting aspect of writing for children.

Which do you enjoy writing the most – fiction, nonfiction, picture books, novels or something else? 


At this point, my three works consist of non-fiction with a focus on music and history. It’s just where I’ve ended up. I didn’t strive for this specific type of storytelling but it’s most certainly a good fit for me. I do have a couple fiction ideas up my sleeve that I’m pretty excited about, though.

What was it like writing about your father’s life in Rock and Roll Highway? 


It was a blast. It kind of took me back to a more child-like place as if I were doing a book report on my dad. We would meet for lunch and I would ask him all kinds of questions.

When I was near completing the book I realized how important this interviewing process was so I asked the publisher if I could include a short Q&A in the back of the book. They agreed, and if I could convey any message through that book, it would be for children to interview their parents.

As parents we sometimes forget relatable details that I found extremely interesting. Little things, like who was your best friend, what was your favorite thing to eat and how much homework did you have?

Tell me about the relationship between writing books and music in your life? 


The relationship has become that I’m always looking for a musical angle to tell kids about in my books. It’s what I do and it’s what I know so coming from a place of that much passion feels very intuitive.

What is your writing process?


I try not to think too much. My truth is that more often than not, my first idea is the best one. For instance, in Rock And Roll Highway, my first thought was to mirror The Last Waltz and begin the book at the end of the story. It felt right, I got a charge from it so away I went, full steam ahead. That and a lot of staring at a blinking cursor.

What has been the most challenging part of being a writer?

The balance between my music career and my writing career can make things difficult. Time management! I wish I was more disciplined.

An indigenous writer? 


Being indigenous has provided more opportunities for me at this point. It has opened up the world of possibilities creatively. After collaborating with my dad on Hiawatha And The Peacemaker (Abrams, 2015), I am now looking at writing more books based on my heritage.

The importance of indigenous culture is not a priority in our country, which is a travesty. Without sounding grandiose, if I can contribute on any level to bringing this culture more to the forefront it will be an incredible success for me.

Have you seen your writing evolve over the years? 


Most definitely, I’m not as terrible as I used to be.

What are you writing now? 


I have two books I’m currently developing but I’ve gotta’ keep ‘em on the down low. One is a non-fiction inspired by my First Nations background and one is a fiction idea that is based in music. Who would’ve guessed?

Sebastian Robertson,
photo by David Jordan Williams

Cynsational Notes

Before Rock and Roll Highway, Sebastian Robertson co-authored Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World (Tundra Books, 2013), with his father, Jim Guerinot, and Jared Levine. It introduces young readers to 27 pioneering musicians and singers across several genres of music and includes two CDs with a classic track from each artist with the hardcover version.

When he’s not writing children’s books, Sebastian works as a composer and songwriter. He has written music for many major television series, ads, video games and films. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.

Although Traci Sorell had heard many of Robbie Robertson’s iconic songs with The Band, she did not know of him until she bought his 1994 third solo album, Music for the Native Americans, which is still one of her favorites. Since then, she has enjoyed sharing his music and Sebastian’s books with her family and friends.

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Author Interview: Ann Bausum on Our Country’s First Ladies

Ann Bausum writes about U.S. history for young people from her home in Beloit, Wisconsin. Her books often examine social justice themes, including the voting rights of women (With Courage and Cloth (National Geographic, 2004)), the struggle to integrate interstate buses during 1961 (Freedom Riders (National Geographic, 2006)), and the power of free speech (Muckrakers (National Geographic, 2007)).

Her books consistently earn awards and recognition, including Sibert Honor designation for Freedom Riders and a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for With Courage and Cloth. Both titles were designated notable books by the American Library Association (ALA), too, and gained recognition on many other lists of commended books. In addition, Booklist named Freedom Riders “Top of the List” as the best youth nonfiction book of 2006.

Ann graduated from Beloit College in 1979. She and her husband have two teenage sons.

What about the writing life first called to you?

A love of books and reading–from the earliest ages–led directly to my writing life. Even as a kid I wrote picture books, memorized history, and organized neighborhood play productions. I don’t think I could not be a writer. That’s what I’m wired–and inspired–to do.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

After graduating from college, I used my writing skills and interests in very practical ways through public relations work. For ten years I wrote and edited news releases, catalog copy, and magazine stories.

Then I stopped working to stay home with my two young sons. My boys helped reintroduce me to children’s literature during weekly visits to the public library and the reading of hundreds, even thousands, of books for young readers.

Finally I had the dangerous thought: “I could write one of these!” And I was off.

Could you fill us in on your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Thinking I could write a children’s book was one thing; it took me years to figure out exactly how to do it. (And I’m still learning!) Eventually I focused on one topic and learned about the business through that project.

It took me about five years to go from the idea of writing a book about the explorer Roy Chapman Andrews to holding a finished copy of Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs (National Geographic, 2000) in my hands.

Along the way I found the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (a tremendous resource for new authors), developed an understanding of how to write about history, and met my publisher, the National Geographic Society. My children were still pretty young then, so I learned how to work with short blocks of time, background chaos, and interruptions, too.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight your backlist as you see fit?

Sure. Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs (National Geographic, 2000) tells the story of an adventurous explorer from the turn of the last century who helped find the first nests of dinosaur eggs. Roy Chapman Andrews made his discoveries during the first motorized expeditions to the Gobi of Mongolia. Camels carried in supplies–including thousands of gallons of gasoline–and hauled away fossils and other finds.

Our Country’s Presidents (National Geographic, 2001, 2005 2nd edition) is just what it sounds like, an introduction to the 42 men who have served our country as chief executive. (Fact: George W. Bush is our 43rd President, but only 42 men have been President. Grover Cleveland is counted twice because his two terms were interrupted by the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison; thus Cleveland counts as #22 and #24). This book is packed with facts, trivia, and details that help to put a human/personal face on our national leaders.

With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote (National Geographic, 2004) grew out of my passion for this subject–and childhood memories of meeting one of the suffragists featured in the book, Alice Paul. I wanted young people to know that women worked and sweated and schemed and dreamed and suffered and persevered for 72 years to gain a right that is too easily taken for granted.

Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement (National Geographic, 2006) tells two stories–the story of segregated life in the 1940s and ’50s, and the story of how people crossed racial and geographic divides to end the practice of segregated travel in the South. During this struggle Freedom Riders exhibited tremendous courage and a deep commitment to act nonviolently.

See below for more about Our Country’s First Ladies (National Geographic, 2007), a companion book to Our Country’s Presidents, and my upcoming book Muckrakers (National Geographic, September, 2007).

Congratulations on the publication of Our Country’s First Ladies (National Geographic, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for this book?

National Geographic proposed the idea for Our Country’s Presidents, and Our Country’s First Ladies is a natural extension of that book. A Wisconsin bookseller (from Harry Schwartz Books) first suggested doing a companion book about the President’s wives, and I thought it sounded like a great idea. The same thought bubbled up through National Geographic staff members, too. I loved the notion of giving equal time to the women who partnered with our Presidents.

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

Actually we produced this book twice, once in 2005 as a 64-page supplement to a special edition of Our Country’s Presidents, and again two years later as a stand-alone edition. We knew from the beginning that the supplement might turn into its own book, so I collected sources and notes during the first production that would enhance an expanded edition. It took about six months to reinvent the book into its new 128-page layout.

One highlight during my second round of research was attending a conference about the First Ladies at a new museum in Ohio, the National First Ladies’ Library, that is devoted to all aspects of First Lady history. Not only did I meet and hear presentations by a number of First Lady historians, but I participated in behind-the-scenes peeks at the library’s collection of photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, and clothing that had been worn by the First Ladies.

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

Number one challenge: Space. The design for this book designates a specific amount of space for each profile. I always try to “write tight” but a project like this requires constant reliance on that Strunk and White (The Elements of Style (Longman, 2000, 4th edition)) mantra of “omit needless words.” I shoe-horned favorite stories and trivia into fact boxes, photo captions, even the blank spaces on the last lines of paragraphs.

Number two challenge: Logistics. A project like this requires a tremendous focus on detail. Are we being consistent in our presentation of facts in fact boxes? Have we duplicated information between section, e.g. in the case where a point of trivia that was shared by multiple First Ladies? (I try not to duplicate the same facts within a book.) Is any text running over the allotted space? (Text overages are easy to miss during proofing unless you systematically compare new and old versions.) Keeping consistent within our own parameters–such as how to list family members or earlier marriages–requires a lot of double-checking, too.

Number three challenge: What are the facts? You would think that a fact is a fact is a fact, but facts are subject to all sorts of interpretation–and error. I consult many respected sources when I write, but even the best books can contain mistakes. About two-thirds of the way through the production process on this book I discovered a series of math errors in my source for the ages at which women had become First Ladies. I went back through and recalculated every age myself–as well as all the other ages I had taken from this book, like age at marriage and age at death. Children rely on a book like mine for school report writing, so I work hard to make sure it presents accurate information.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I encourage young people to do three things.

First, read: Read a lot, read for variety, read for fun–just read! Readers soak up the way our language works without even realizing it. Reading builds vocabulary, too.

Second, learn the mechanics: All those spelling lists and grammar drills make a difference. Do them! You can’t play a game if you don’t know the rules.

Third, practice: Keep a journal, find a pen pal, write your grandmother. Writing is like music, or sports, or any other skill–you get better with practice.

One final bit of advice: Step outside your comfort zone. By reading the book you think you won’t like, trying that food that looks suspicious, and visiting the place you never thought you’d want to see (as three examples), you’ll learn and grow in ways that enrich your ability to think and write well.

How about those interested in non-fiction specifically?

Read about your area of interest–discover the facts, interpretations, and opinions others have about it. Ask a librarian to teach you how to find a variety of sources of information. Don’t just rely on the Internet. Learn how to tell a reputable source from an unreliable one. Pay attention when teachers explain how to take notes (I still use note cards, just like I did in high school), plan an outline, and organize your thoughts.

Most of all, keep your passion for the subject. When all the stacks of reference books, note cards, and outlines are swept away, your love of a topic should remain.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I guess I just touched on part of the answer in my response to the previous question: passion. My connection to a topic fuels my work. A lot of what a writer does is tedious, repetitive, time-consuming, even painful. Typing up all my note cards (which is faster than writing them by hand) isn’t much fun, but I love collecting facts. Sitting all day at a photo archive is uncomfortable, but I’m thrilled to see glimpses of the past. Revising a manuscript is hard work, but I find satisfaction in seeing the text grow stronger and more engaging. My commitment to a topic turns the steps in the process of writing into a pleasure instead of work. If I can share some of my passion with the reader, that’s the best reward of all.

What about the writing process do you wish you could skip and why?

I love doing photo research–finding the images that illustrate my books–and I’ve done that work for all but the presidential titles. I could do without the paperwork, though, that comes with securing permission to reproduce an image. That’s probably my least favorite part of the job. Or cleaning up my office at the completion of a project. I’d rather get going on the next book!

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

I love working with my editor at National Geographic, Jennifer Emmett, who pulled my first book out of the mail pile of unsolicited manuscripts and has collaborated with me on every project since. Jennifer makes making books a joy. I love the production phase of a book–it’s fun to feel part of a team after working solo on a project for so long.

What do I abhor? I hate how hard it is for good writers to break into the business of publishing. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to see my books reach print. Too many other talented writers and illustrators wait too long for that same accomplishment–or never achieve the recognition they deserve.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I’m busy with my family, gardening, hiking, cross-country skiing, traveling, cooking, or…reading. I like to read adult nonfiction U.S. history books–surprise!

What can your fans look forward to next?

There’s no need to wait long; my next book will be out later this year. It’s called: Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism (National Geographic, September, 2007). This book grew out of a devotion to the power of news writing that dates back to my childhood. I came of age reading news reports about assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. This book examines an earlier period of in-depth reporting (from the turn of the last century) and places the tradition of investigative journalism into its historical context.

One of my favorite parts of any book is the back matter, that stuff that follows the “end” of the story. Of my own books, I think Muckrakers has my favorite back matter yet. We interspersed a lengthy chronology of significant investigative news stories with profiles of my favorite muckraker journalists. The book designer did a great job making this section–and the rest of the book–come alive. I hope readers can have their own sense of investigation and research as they explore the ending of this book (not to mention the rest of it!). Enjoy!