Survivors: M.T. Anderson on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about M.T. Anderson.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.



Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success? (Mention the year your first book was published.)

My first book – Thirsty, a vampire novel (Candlewick) – came out in 1997. YA was a very different world then. It was an obscure, niche field within children’s trade publishing, which focused on the picture book.

Commercial success was basically impossible for YA books, except in the case of mass-market tween series, and even those series weren’t yet as profitable as they would become. YA wasn’t a place for the ambitious to go. It was really pursued for the love of the craft and out of love for the audience.

That really changed around the turn of the millennium, and I think my career rode on that wave of expansion. My first two novels were published in the somewhat quieter, more parochial world of YA as it had been … but by my third novel, the dystopian satire Feed (Candlewick, 2002), the industry had exploded into the public view. I was a beneficiary of that explosion.

The first bump I hit was after the 2008 crash. Suddenly, the market contracted. Several things assaulted the publishing industry simultaneously: as the economy went into deep recession, consumer spending dropped; library funding fell through the floor; and ebooks began decimating hardcover revenues. The income structure for books had really relied on hardcover sales, especially to libraries, and increasingly, libraries had less to spend on collection development.

At the same time, the number of titles published had gone through the roof, so each individual book was less likely to attract attention. At the corporate level, publishers and their parent companies were all staggering around like the wounded in a B horror-movie, tripping all over each other and, in fact, merging and disintegrating in new and bizarre combinations.

I had the same experience many people had during this period – and I want readers to know that even now, this experience is not unusual: the awful experience of watching books you love and have worked on with pride and pleasure slipping through the cracks.

In the midst of all the mergers, the firings, and the rapid staff turnover, many publishers’ marketing and publicity teams simply were not promoting a lot of the titles on their list. Communication between marketing and publicity departments – which are, somehow, separate at some companies – was nil. There were no thought-through strategies for promotion, and a lot of opportunities were missed.

One example: I had a publisher spend a lot of money to create some photo-ops for me – and then accidentally neglect to send the photos anywhere. I ended up feeling guilty because they’d wasted money paying for my travel. I hate self-promotion anyway, and wasting my publisher’s resources made my teeth hurt. But that kind of snafu was not unusual.

At the time, I was working on two lighter, younger teen series. In both cases, the first books had sold well. But after the crash, the sales plummeted. The same thing was happening to everyone around me, as we all clamored for attention from ever smaller marketing and publicity staffs.

You should know that everyone complains about that kind of neglect at some stage of their career. To some extent, it has become the new normal in a bloated and competitive industry.

That doesn’t make it any easier, emotionally and artistically. This is a book you crafted lovingly! You’ve lived with it for years, fostering its growth. Then it’s out in the world and can’t seem to get any traction. And worse, writers often blame themselves when a project doesn’t sell – though the mechanics of what makes a book take off are mysterious to everyone.

Please know that many of our industry’s most famous authors have stories in which projects they loved and believed in foundered and disappeared, never reaching their audience. You can’t take it to heart. It happens to everyone.

You just never notice those forgotten chapters in other people’s careers because, well, they’re forgotten – so the successful, in hindsight, seem as if they’ve always been successful.

Believe in yourself. Believe in your work. And love your work from day to day – because that’s what’s going to make it worth it, regardless of a book’s fortunes in the wider world.

One practical suggestion for avoiding self-pity and self-flagellation: In general, I recommend working on several things in alternation. It makes sense from several standpoints: You can put one project on a back burner for a couple of months while working up something else, and that absence is often key to gaining new insight on your own work.

A side-benefit of this is that when a book comes out, you’ve already left it behind. You’re working on something else and surging toward a different goal. You can afford to be more indifferent, therefore, to setbacks for a previous project.

Keep moving! Keep striving!

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

What a great moment for me to contradict my previous answer! One thing I was noted for, early in my career, was trying out very different genres – horror, rom-com, picture book biography, sci-fi, historical fiction, middle grade adventure, etc. I love challenges and confronting myself with a new task, a new mountain to climb.

When I was younger, I dove into each new project blithely. But I have discovered that variety also has a cost. Authors who work in the same mode or genre develop followings in a different way than those of us who hurl things out toward different audiences.

Would I do anything differently, though? I’m not sure I would. I loved each of the projects I worked on. While I was working on each one, it was my world. Each one engaged a different part of me, different skills. How could I want to give that up? That joy, and that sense of exploration and discovery? That’s part of what writing is about.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I talked about this a lot above, and I’d basically say that when literary historians look back at the early 21st century, they’ll see this period as a golden age for YA lit.

Sure, those of us in the thick of the industry might experience the present as something of a scramble – but now that the stakes (and, sometimes, the advances) are higher, we’ve attracted a lot of great talent to the field, people who otherwise wouldn’t have considered writing for teens.

I think that’s amazing – and if you’d asked me in 1995, when I was an editorial assistant, I would have said this extraordinary growth of the genre was pretty much impossible.

Oh, one industry factoid that young writers should know about: one of the reasons we became so profitable so quickly, as a sector – one of the reasons that corporate publishing licks their chops over our work – is that, believe it or not, our contracts dictate we receive proportionally smaller royalty cuts than writers for adults do.

That’s a hold-over from the days when YA publishing typically took a loss. So as YA sales exploded in the early 2000’s, and many more copies of YA books were being sold, publishers were making a few percent more on each book, too. (Money that, in the world of publishing for adults, would have gone to the authors themselves.) That meant giant profits, and YA came to seem even more delectable as a publishing investment.

All of this has contributed to making the genre so prominent in our national culture.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

With co-author Eugene Yelchin

That is a tough one. The flip side of the field being rich with variety is that it is incredibly hard to break into it and to get noticed. I am a New Englander, and hate self-promotion. It makes my severe little Puritan soul shrivel. The only P.R. event I’m really comfortable with is sitting in a graveyard during a drizzle, reading to the slate stones.

I would say that social media helps some authors, but at this point, we’ve passed the apogee of that approach. We’re glutted with tweets.

What about joining these groups of people who travel together and promote together?

Readings when you’re a young author can be demoralizing, because only your friends come, and you’re a writer, so you don’t have many friends. But I know several young writers who have banded together and traveled together, creating their own little tour, taking advantage of personal connections instead of staying at hotels etc.

It’s more fun to travel as a group anyway – and then each of you is a draw for friends and relations, so you actually get respectable regional audiences. Thumbs up all around.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

More wonderful books – and more books that break the mold and tell us about experiences we haven’t heard about yet.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Well, for one thing, I’m working on a book for adults at the moment, which is fascinating and challenging.

In looking to the past and the future, I’ve noticed one common theme in my career: I have miraculously found a way to anticipate trends by just enough that I completely miss capitalizing on them.

I published a vampire novel six years before the vampire craze, a dystopian novel four years before the dystopian craze, a steampunk series four years before the steampunk craze, and so on. Each one cleverly timed so that I never monetize the coincidence.

So if you’re a trend-watcher, here’s a word to the wise: I’m thinking that in a couple years, there might be a run on Russian espionage nonfiction.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

M. T. Anderson’s forthcoming novel, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, written with Eugene Yelchin, will be released in October 2018. It has been named to the 2018 National Book Awards Longlist in Young People’s Literature. M.T. was the 2006 award winner for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party (Candlewick.)

 

Survivors: Melissa Stewart on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Melissa Stewart.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.



Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

A piece of paper on the idea board above my desk says:

“Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.” 

Those six simple words are a constant reminder of a lesson I learned the hard way at the beginning of my writing career.

My first book, Life Without Light: A Journey to Earth’s Dark Ecosystems (Franklin Watts), was published in 1998—twenty years ago.

At the time, I was working as a science editor for Franklin Watts and Children’s Press, two nonfiction imprints that had been independent children’s publishing companies for decades, but had recently merged with encyclopedia giant Grolier Publishing Company.

(Today, Watts, CP, and Grolier are all owned by Scholastic.)

Book #1 

I continued to work at that job until 2000. By then, I had published two more nonfiction books, and I had six additional titles under contract with companies that published for the school and library market.

I was confident that I could support myself as a writer.

But (you knew it was coming, right?) two things I never could have predicted happened in 2001.

There was an economic recession, and Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. These events along with the rise of the internet, which made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available for free, spelled disaster for the school and library publishing market.

Some publishers went bankrupt.

Others adjusted their publication schedules, pushing books that were supposed to come out in 2001 to 2002, 2003, even 2004.

They stopped acquiring new titles for several years. There was no work. Period.

I was single and had bills to pay, so there was only one option: I had to reinvent myself.

I joined the SCBWI, found a critique group, and began learning about other areas of the children’s publishing market, especially the trade market. I wrote magazine articles for adults.

I taught writing at a local community college. I worked as a substitute teacher.

Most of all, I realized how foolish I’d been to put all my eggs into one publishing basket.

Book #186, Sept. 2018

I needed to diversify by writing for as many different markets as possible, and, going forward, I needed to pay close attention to how nonfiction writing for children changed over time. I needed to be flexible and adaptable.

I needed to always be on the lookout for new opportunities.

Since that time, nonfiction for children has continued to shift and change, and, luckily, I’ve been able to evolve along with it.

Sometimes I spotted opportunities and actively pursued them. And to be honest, sometimes opportunities fell into my lap, and all I had to do was say, “Yes.”

Some of the projects I’ve been involved with failed miserably. Early sales didn’t live up to publishers’ expectations, and books-in-progress were cancelled midstream. But enough of them worked out that my 186th book, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis (Peachtree, 2018), entered the world in September.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Like all writers, I’ve faced my share of obstacles and setbacks, but it’s hard to have regrets when you get to spend your life doing something you love.

Maybe I should have worried less, but even with twenty years of experience, I still worry.

Maybe I’ll never get a great book idea again.

If I do get a great idea, maybe I won’t be able to find the information I need to write it.

February, 2018

If I do find the information, maybe I won’t be able to write a manuscript that lives up to my vision.

If I do write a manuscript I’m happy with, maybe no one will acquire it.

If an editor does acquire it, maybe it will get terrible reviews and it won’t find its audience.

I’m constantly reminding myself that I need to relax and enjoy the ride, to savor the time I spend digging up fascinating facts and presenting them in a way that will delight as well as inform my young readers.

The creative process is what really matters, and time spent “in the flow” is a gift to be treasured.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

When I began working as an editor in early 1990s, there was just one kind of nonfiction—what we now call traditional nonfiction. But since then, nonfiction has transformed in dramatic and exciting ways.

Today, there are five distinct categories of nonfiction, which I described in this recent article, Understanding and Teaching the Five Kids of Nonfiction (School Library Journal, April 2018).

The following visuals summarize the characteristics and publication opportunities for each category:

Not every nonfiction book fits snugly into one of these five categories. For example, some titles are a blend of narrative nonfiction and expository literature. Others are a mixture of traditional nonfiction and browsable books. But understanding these five basic categories can help book creators, educators, and young readers begin to understand the wide world of nonfiction.

Thanks to that piece of paper tacked to the idea board above my desk—you know, the one that says: “Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.”—I’ve written books in all five categories, and that diversification has allowed me to continue doing a job I love for twenty years.

Thanks to Common Core, nonfiction is finally having its moment in the sun.

Right now, today, is the golden age of nonfiction. And even though Common Core is on its way out, the state educational standards replacing are still emphasizing nonfiction reading and writing.

That’s good news for nonfiction creators.

Melissa’s Critique Group:
Top, l to r: Deborah Kops, Mary LaPointe-Malchik,  Steve Anderson, Betsy Uhrig, Joannie Duris, Heather Lang, Sam Kane;
Middle, l to r: Sharon Abra Hanen, Jeanne Bracken;
Bottom,  l to r: Melissa Stewart, Sarah Brannen.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Stop and celebrate! It’s not easy to publish a book, so don’t take your accomplishment for granted. Savor every moment of the journey and all the small successes along the way.

Celebrate the acquisition. Celebrate when the book heads off to the printer. Celebrate every review that doesn’t suck. And, of course, celebrate the launch.

But don’t stop there. If the book receives an honor or an award, celebrate some more. And if you’re lucky enough to get fan mail, celebrate that, too.

It means kids are connecting with your work, and that’s the best reason of all to celebrate.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Research in Hawaii.

Right now, educational leaders like Donalyn Miller, Lucy Calkins, Pernille Ripp, Teri Lesesne, John Schumacker, Colby Sharp, Jillian Heise, Susannah Richards, Alyson Beecher, and Frankie Sibberson are emphasizing the importance of using finely-crafted fiction and nonfiction children’s books in the classroom.

As read alouds. As mentor texts for writing instruction. As part of text sets for teaching science and social studies.

They’re also encouraging student choice in reading materials and recommending that educators develop large, robust classroom and school libraries with a range of titles that can meet all students’ needs.

My hope is that their voices will be heard, and schools will allocate the funds necessary to purchase plenty of high-quality books for their students. The kids will benefit, but so will book creators.

Publishers will be more willing to take risks, which means creators can be more innovative.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I hope that I can continue to stretch and grow as a writer and evolve with the market. And I hope that my writing continues to delight as well as inform young readers.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

In Memory: Russell Freedman

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Russell Freedman, 88, Writer of History for Young Readers, Dies by Neil Genzlinger from The New York Times. Peek:

Russell Freedman, who brought readable, relatable history to young readers in dozens of well-researched, generously illustrated books, died on March 16 in Manhattan.”

“The prolific nonfiction author — winner of the 1988 Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion, 1987) — wrote over sixty books,” reported the Horn Book in Russell Freedman (1929-2018).

His children’s literature career spanned more than 50 years and he wrote about the evolution of nonfiction standards in a 2014 essay for the Horn Book, Changing Times. Peek:

“Back in the 1950s, the popular Landmark books had no illustrations. None. And while skillfully written by notable authors, those books had no bibliographies, and, heaven forbid, no chapter notes! Today’s nonfiction for kids, abundantly illustrated, meticulously documented, is, I believe, more inviting than ever before, and more authoritative.”

After earning an English degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1951, Freedman served in U.S. counter intelligence during the Korean War.

Afterward, he returned to San Francisco and became a reporter and editor for the Associated Press before moving to New York to work in advertising.

His first book, Teenagers Who Made History (Holiday House, 1961), was inspired by an article he read in The New York Times about a 16-year-old who invented a Braille typewriter, according to Shannon Maughan’s Obituary: Russell Freedman in Publishers Weekly.

He went on to write more than 60 additional nonfiction books, earning him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1998 and the National Humanities Medal in 2007.

In a 2007 interview with Daniel Scheuerman for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Freedman said he considered In Defense of Liberty (Holiday House, 2003) his greatest personal success.

“’What is more important than the Bill of Rights to America?’ he asks. ‘Nothing! And I got to try to convey this information to a new generation.’” 

He also called the book one of his biggest challenges.

“’You’re dealing with legalisms, to some extent, and abstractions, and you have to put them into human terms.’”

In Russell Freedman Brought History to Life For Kids from School Library Journal, Kara Yorio said:

“Freedman’s books continue to be topical and are often found on recommended reading lists. We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement that Defied Hitler (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), and Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) all discuss important people and movements that readers can connect to current events.”

A memorial service is planned for Oct. 11 in New York City on what would have been his 89th birthday.

Cynsational Notes


Gayleen: It’s impossible to know how many young readers Russell Freedman inspired during his half-century career, but I know for certain I was one of those readers.

During elementary school I read an old copy of Jules Verne: Portrait of a Prophet (Holiday House, 1965) and remember finding his descriptions of Verne’s adventure stories much more exciting (and accessible) than the actual Verne books.

Though as a fourth grader, I never made the connection that the biographer who led me to the creator of Around the World in 80 Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth was also an author himself.

My conscious appreciation for Russell Freedman began during my first semester at Vermont College when my advisor Jane Kurtz suggested his work as a model for nonfiction.

Since then I’ve read many of his books and continue to be awed by his attention to detail and ability to transport the reader into historic events.

Guest Post: Sarah Albee on Brain Training: How Writers Must Learn to Shift Gears

By Sarah Albee
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

If you write for kids, chances are you are working on several things at the same time.

 Most writers of books for kids don’t have the luxury of working on one project for years and years. We are short-order cooks, juggling multiple tasks at multiple stages.

So how do we shift gears between projects?

To answer this question, I thought I’d start by giving you a tour of what’s on my own highly-organized and tidy desk today:

My laptop, which includes:

  • a first draft of a book for first graders about gorillas (just completed and sent to my editor—Boo-yah! That’s now off my desk.) 
  • A proposal for a new book that I’m readying for my agent 
On my actual desk:
  • Several books about female pirates (research for a new project). 
  • Copies of sketches for the Level Two I Can Read (History) book I wrote about Alexander Hamilton (Harper Collins, 2018). Fun fact: Unlike fiction picture book authors, who are usually not involved in the art phase of their books, we nonfiction authors get to review sketches for “historical accuracy.” 
  • My latest book, Poison (Crown Books for Young Readers), which came out Sept. 5. 
  • A hard copy of a manuscript I wrote about the California Gold Rush, just back from my editor. It’s covered with supportive and admiring editorial notes. I mean, I haven’t yet read her notes, but I’m sure she’ll tell me it’s practically perfect—and that I just need to sprinkle a little fairy dust on it. #sendfairydust 
  • “Third pages” for my book, Dog Days of History, coming out next March with National Geographic. I’ve looked at these images about 27 times by this point, as have platoons of people over at Nat Geo. And yet I just noticed “an issue” with the prehistoric cave painting on page 8. It shows hunters with their dogs, but it turns out those large stick-like things protruding from the hunters’ midsections are not swords. #heartfailure #pictureswap 
  • A folder entitled “Fall School Visits,” containing letters, contracts, and book order forms that I’m arranging with all the schools I’ll be visiting soon. 
  • A box that was just delivered, containing sixty pairs of spectacles and a large stuffed green beetle. Props for my fall school visits. 

So how do we shift gears from reviewing sketches, to writing proposals, to promoting our books, to visiting schools, to hopping on Twitter, to coming up with ideas, to entering that Deep Thinking Zone where we actually get our writing done? Let alone juggling family responsibilities and basic life-maintenance?

It happened for me only after years of training my brain. I’ve learned not to wait for environmental conditions to be perfect. If I did, I’d never get a thing written.

I’ve trained myself to enter the Deep Thinking Zone no matter where I am. I’ve written in bleacher seats. I’ve written in parking lots. I’ve written in airports.

Which is not to say I don’t get sidetracked. Heaven knows I do. But that’s the beauty of our job. Distractions can turn into books.

I usually get my best ideas for new books while I’m immersed in research for a different book. I’ll stumble over some cool fact or event that pulls me away from whatever I was researching. I’ve taught myself to harness those ideas, to write them down for later.

For instance, as I was researching my book, Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up (Bloomsbury, 2010), I was struck by the fact that so many so-called “filth diseases” were vectored by insects: malaria, typhus, yellow fever, bubonic plague, etc.

And I thought, “I should write a book about how insects changed human history.”

Which led to my next book, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, illustrated by Robert Leighton (Bloomsbury, 2014). And while I was researching that one, I discovered the fascinating history of cochineal scale insects, which were the source of the color red, a color that made Spain a world power in the seventeenth century.

And I thought, “I should write a book about the historical conditions that led people to dress the way they did.”

Which led to a book about the history behind what people wore, Why’d They Wear That? (National Geographic Books, 2015)

As for my latest book? Poison has been a lifelong fascination for me. There’s poison in practically all of my books. My challenge was deciding what poison tales to include in the book and which ones had to get cut. Luckily, there are great editors in the world. Also, I turned those extra stories into videos, like this one:

Oh, hey guess what. My email just plinked. It’s from my editor, and the subject line says: “re: first draft gorillas.” He wants revisions. It’s back on my desk.

Off to go look for that fairy dust.

Cynsations Notes


Watch the book trailer for Poison:

Booklist gave Poison a starred review and said, “While there are shocking and disgusting facts aplenty, Albee also discusses the rise of toxicology and forensic science, and the much-needed emergence of food and drug regulation. Her light tone makes this morbid, well-researched study a sinister indulgence.”

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 100 books for kids, ranging from preschool through middle grade. Recent nonfiction titles have been Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections, Notable Social Studies Trade Books, and winners of Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Awards. These days she writes primarily nonfiction, and especially loves writing about topics where history and science connect.

Prior to being a full-time writer, Sarah worked at Children’s Television Workshop (producers of “Sesame Street”) for nine years. She played basketball in college, and then a year of semi-professional women’s basketball in Cairo, Egypt.
She lives in Connecticut with her husband, who is a high school history teacher and administrator, their three kids, and their dog, Rosie.

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on Fault Lines in the Constitution

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution.

Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced—then they offer possible solutions. 


Think Electoral College, gerrymandering, even the Senate. 

Many of us take these features in our system for granted. But they came about through haggling in an overheated room in 1787, and we’re still experiencing the ramifications.

Each chapter in this timely and thoughtful exploration of the Constitution’s creation begins with a story—all but one of them true—that connects directly back to a section of the document that forms the basis of our society and government. 

Most middle grade nonfiction is either biography or focuses on a particular event. Here you’re examining the structure of our government and highlights of United States history since 1787. What inspired you to take on this monumental task?

The short answer to your question is that my editor, Kathy Landwehr, at Peachtree Publishers “inspired” us to write it by asking my husband, Sandy, a legal scholar, and me if we would. She had given her father a copy of one of Sandy’s previous books that critiques the Constitution—he writes for law students and faculty as well as adult readers in general—which he had found interesting. In talking about it, Kathy realized that there is no book like it for kids.

In a bigger sense, this question is really interesting because, even though I’ve published five nonfiction books (and written many more!), I’ve never thought about this distinction between biography, on the one hand, and event, on the other, as a way to organize nonfiction. It generally works, though it leaves out some science books. 

Melissa on Building Nonfiction Manuscripts

Melissa Stewart, an amazing author, researcher, and presenter on science topics, proposes another way to categorize the genre: narrative and expository. 

Your question has made me realize that Fault Lines in the Constitution contains some of all of these—biographies, events, narrative stories, and exposition of facts.

In that way, it does sound monumental! But, actually, because of the way the book is organized, it didn’t seem monumental while writing it (well, for the most part it didn’t). And we hope it doesn’t come across that way to readers.

You’re right that the scope might appear huge because we drop in on events in American history from the Revolution through this past summer. There probably aren’t many books that mention both the Continental Congress convening in a tavern in New Jersey and the fate of undocumented aliens under President Trump. 

Yet, Fault Lines is not a textbook. We don’t march through either American history or the Constitution. Every story and every event is closely tied to and illustrates a problem—or, fault line—in the Constitution.

You co-authored Fault Lines In The Constitution with your husband. Tell us about the collaboration process and how the book came together.

Fault Lines was very much a collaborative process. It is definitely ours, not his or hers. 

We had already joined forces in writing an article together for Cobblestone Magazine titled “Calling the Constitution’s Bluff,” in which we had ticked off three of the fault lines.

So, when we started on the book, I naively thought that I could re-read Sandy’s previous works—especially, Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) (Oxford University Press, 2006)—mine them for ideas, issues, and stories, and then summarize them. Done! Ha!

Though they’re persuasive in laying out his concerns about the Constitution, these books don’t tell the kinds of stories that draw in young readers. 

Also, Sandy’s writing style is, um, fluid and, because he’s so knowledgeable, digressive. Consistent structure and short blocks of text broken up by sidebars and illustrations are not his forte. (Nor, given his usual audience, do they need to be.) 
Furthermore, even though I had often heard him urge people to “follow the dots” from problems in the Constitution to political dilemmas today, I felt that the dots in his books needed clearer highlighting. Suddenly, I could see why our daughters, both of whom had written journal articles with him, asked me if I was really sure I wanted to take on this job!

For our middle-grade audience, I realized we had to start from scratch, and I laid out ground rules for the sections he would draft:

• No sentences longer than three lines or with more than one dependent clause.
• No extraneous words or vague phrases, like “indeed” or “in the grand scheme of things.”
• No adverbs.
• No parentheticals.

None of these ground rules was met! Here’s one brief example from an early draft of Chapter 4, which is about the filibuster:

Fortunately, as Sandy says, he has no pride of authorship. He does not mind being edited. You can see us working together in the photo. Note that I’m the one holding the red pen!

As a result, we managed to write the book in one voice. There is one exception, though: In writing the last chapter, we disagree and openly debate each other.

I’m also curious about the timeline – how long did it take to write, what was the editorial process was like?


I never know how to answer the question about how long it took me to write a book, partly because I work on several things at different stages simultaneously and partly because there are the inevitable lulls. 
In this case, the lull lasted a full year. We started sometime in 2013, and Fault Lines was supposed to come out in September 2016. But I had to postpone it when I was asked me to write a biography, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016), which had an obvious deadline. That delay turned out to be fortuitous, as the book evolved after the election of President Trump.

Kathy Landwehr, my editor at Peachtree Publishers for We’ve Got a Job (2012) and Watch Out for Flying Kids (2015) did her usual exemplary, thoughtful, and indefatigable job. 

She did not hesitate to take out her red pen, too! In fact, we wrote three entire stories for the book, including a moving one about a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns, all of which got axed for various necessary reasons. We recycled the story about Burns into a blog post.

One of the aspects I found most fascinating is that each chapter opens with a contemporary anecdote – the college student who successfully changed the Michigan constitution regarding public university admission seems particularly relevant to students. How did you find those stories? And, how did you decide which ones to use in the book?

Sandy knew about many of the events, including the opening one about the lynching of a black man named Richard Puckett in South Carolina in 1913. This tragic act leads to a discussion of the first fault line, bicameralism—the need for both houses of Congress to pass a bill before it can become a law. 

Through my experience writing for kids, I was able to turn historical artifacts into gripping stories. And, with additional research, I added moving details, including the fact that Puckett’s niece attended the ceremony in 2005 when 80 (but not all 100) senators apologized for the Senate’s inability to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Other stories popped up in the news. The situation you mention is a recent legal case related to direct democracy, which some state constitutions—but not the U.S. Constitution—allow. Another uses the jailing of a nurse who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa in 2014 to show that our Constitution is out of date. 

Cynthia and Gayleen at TLA conference

The ARC I received at the Texas Library Association conference in the spring had a sticker on the cover noting the date the text was approved, “but this is a book inherently influenced by current events.” 


Less than a week later, the Senate voted to change the filibuster rules. You and your publisher have a blog dedicated to posting updates to the book. 


Is the United States government changing faster now than it has in the past?

I doubt that the government is changing faster now than in the past. Conservatives who want a smaller role for government and lower taxes would argue that it changed vastly during President Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office when he pushed 15 major bills through Congress.

That perspective is a large part of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act, passed under President Obama. It is true, though, that the Trump administration is undoing this so-called “deep state” very rapidly.

Publishers Weekly called Fault Lines “exceptionally topical.” To keep up with the times and to show how much the Constitution influences current events, we blog every two weeks.

So far, as you can see in the picture, we’ve written about gerrymandering, Texas Boys State (which voted to secede!), the shooting of Republican Congressmen and problems with continuity in government, and the under-funding of the 2020 Census, among other topics.

We invite readers to join the conversation!

Given current events, I’m guessing this book has a lot of crossover appeal for adults. Have you noticed that with the events you’ve had so far?

Everyone tells us that! We’ve been invited to almost two-dozen radio interviews and talk-shows, and grown-ups are as engaged in our presentations as kids. School Library Connection even said, “While written for students, the book is a worthwhile read for adults as well.”

Cynsations Notes


Cynthia Levinson
photo by Sam Bond Photography

A discussion guide for Fault Lines in the Constitution is available from the publisher. The book has earned four starred reviews, from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.

Cynthia Levinson holds degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University and also attended the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she is the author of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), along with Watch Out for Flying Kids (Peachtree, 2015), Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and The Youngest Marcher, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

She has also published articles in Appleseeds, Calliope, Cobblestone, Dig, Faces, and Odyssey

Event Report & Videos: Don Tate Launches Strong as Sandow: How Eugene Sandow Became The Strongest Man on Earth

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Author-illustrator Don Tate hosted a tremendous, successful book launch for Strong as Sandow: How Eugene Sandow Became The Strongest Man on Earth (Charlesbridge, 2017) Sept. 9 at BookPeople in Austin. From the promotional copy:

Friedrich Müller was born sickly and weak, yet he longed to be athletic and strong, like ancient Greek and Roman gladiators. Little Friedrich Müller exercised and exercised but to no avail.

As a young man, Müller found himself under the tutelage of a professional body builder. He learned to work out harder. He lifted heavier weights. Over time, he got bigger and stronger. Then he changed his name to Eugen Sandow.

After defeating the strongest of all strongmen in Europe, Eugen Sandow became a super star. Eventually, he become known as “The Strongest Man on Earth.” Everyone wanted to become “as strong as Sandow.”

Inspired by his own experiences in the sport of body-building, Don Tate tells the story of how Eugen Sandow changed the way people think about exercise and physical fitness.

Backmatter includes more information about Sandow, with suggestions for exercise. An author’s note and extensive bibliography are included.

Fans wore fake mustaches in honor of Sandow’s.

 About the Event

Don’s wife, Tamera Diggs-Tate, welcomed the crowd, introduced him and explained his personal connection to the book’s subject matter–a history of competitive body building. Then Don took the podium, offering the stories behind the stories. From there, the event featured strong-man lifts, a push-ups and popcorn eating competition for kids and a jaw-dropping tie-in cake by Akiko White.

A celebration of conditioning, strength, and grace. 

Book & Cake Videos

Author Interview: Laurie Wallmark on Clarifying Complex Topics & Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome Laurie Wallmark to discuss her new picture book, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, illustrated by Katy Wu (Sterling Books, May 16, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Who was Grace Hopper? A software tester, workplace jester, cherished mentor, ace inventor, avid reader, naval leader—and rule breaker, chance taker, and troublemaker. 


Grace Hopper coined the term “computer bug” and taught computers to “speak English.” Throughout her life, Hopper succeeded in doing what no one had ever done before. 


Delighting in difficult ideas and in defying expectations, the insatiably curious Hopper truly was “Amazing Grace” . . . and a role model for science- and math-minded girls and boys. 

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?


I think it’s important to write about our passions, and I love STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).

I’m also passionate about making sure that all children, regardless of race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, etc., realize that they can become scientists and mathematicians. By highlighting the achievements of woman in these fields, I’m showing both girls and boys, that you don’t have to be male to be a computer scientist like Grace Hopper.

What aspect of the subject surprised you most? 


I knew about Grace Hopper and her many accomplishments, but never realized how personable and funny she was. While researching the book, I watched many videos of her, and she always made me laugh.

Illustrations by Katy Wu. Here, a moth caught in the relay caused a malfunction.
“Ever since then, because of Grace’s sense of humor, computer glitches have been called ‘bugs.'”

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


The standard advice for those starting out is to read extensively the types of books you want to write. But, as Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) taught us, it takes more than a surface reading to understand what goes into making a good book.

You have to study and practice the craft techniques before you’re able to include them in your own writing.

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


Although I teach at the college level, my day job helps hone my ability to make sure my audience truly comprehends what I’m teaching. The instant feedback of a classroom setting lets you know when you’re on the right track.

If I’m not clear in my writing, I hear that imaginary student, now a seven-year-old, saying, “I don’t get it.” In STEM nonfiction books at the picture book level, you need to make unfamiliar and difficult ideas understandable to an elementary-school child.

My critical thesis for my MFA was on how to explain complex STEM topics in picture books. In my studies, I discovered many possible techniques to use.

In Grace Hopper, I chose to describe how a compiler works rather than use the technical term. “(Her program) translated MULTIPLY and the other commands into instructions the computer could understand.”

In Ada Lovelace and the ThinkingMachine (illustrated by April Chu, Creston Books, 2015), I gave a technical word and immediately defined it. “Ada decided to create an algorithm, a set of mathematical instructions.”

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


I workshopped this book twice while I was at VCFA. The first time, it was written in verse. Doing this allowed me to include much more detail than is usual in a picture book.

That was the positive. The negative? It just wasn’t working. I rewrote the story in prose and brought it back for another workshop. The comments of faculty and my fellow students helped me find my way to the final book.

I’m pleased that one of my poems remained as part of the published book.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews gave Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code a starred review. Peek: “Wallmark’s tone is admiring, even awestruck, describing Hopper’s skill, inventiveness, and strength of character in straightforward, accessible language, introducing a neglected heroine to a new generation of readers. Wu’s strong, bright digital illustrations perfectly complement the text…”


Laurie Wallmark has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. When not writing, she teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College.

Her debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, 2015), received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal). It also won several national awards, including Outstanding Science Trade Book and the Eureka! Award from the California Reading Association. It is a Cook Prize Honor Book.


Discussion and curriculum guides are available for both of Laurie’s books.

In Memory: Patricia C. McKissack

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Patricia C. McKissack, honored children’s author from Chesterfield, dies at 72 by Jane Henderson
from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Peek: “…’I think my mother died of a broken heart.’ Fredrick McKissack Jr. said his mother and father were ‘best friends and partners.’”

Before becoming an author, Patricia earned a master’s degree from Webster’s University and taught English at a junior high school in Kirkwood, Missouri.

In a 1998 story by Renee Stovsky from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Patricia said frustration over lack of information on poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to share with her students fueled her drive to write children’s books. Peek: “I realized then that if someone didn’t start preserving these stories, an extremely important part of our heritage could be lost forever.”

Not surprisingly, Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Poet to Remember (Children’s Press, 1984) was one of her first published books. Dozens more quickly followed.

Before long, Fredrick left his civil engineering job to work on books with Patricia. Together, the McKissacks published more than 120 children’s books on a wide range of topics from African history and customs to supernatural stories.

In For the McKissacks, Black is Boundless, Barbara Bader wrote for the Horn Book about the couple’s prolific list. Peek: “The McKissacks do think big. ‘We’re Kennedy products,’ Pat McKissack has said — idealists and optimists.”

In 2014, Frederick and Patricia McKissack received the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Library Association.

Patricia’s The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Random House, 1992) won the Coretta Scott King Award in 1993 and was also a Newbery Honor Book. The same year, Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman (Scholastic, 1992) co-authored by Frederick and Patricia also received the Coretta Scott King Honor Award.

Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman also received the Boston Globe-Horn Book award for nonfiction. The McKissacks delivered the acceptance speech together. From Patricia: “Like most children of my generation, I was not introduced to African-American heroes through textbooks. History in the 1950s didn’t contain much information about African-American contributions….but we got our history in other ways.” She explained how her Sunday school teachers combined spirituals and Bible truths. “We decided to use that format and begin each section of our book with a spiritual…”

Her Horn Book essay with Fredrick, You Can Be President, explores the magical things that can happen at family dinner.

In A Literary Love Story’s Final Chapter, Kenya Vaughn from the St. Louis American wrote,”the couple decided that little black boys and girls deserved positive images of themselves and a broad scope of their people’s rich history as they turned the pages of books. The McKissacks knew that these words would be critical in shaping what they think, feel and know about who they are…”

In Rocco Stanio‘s article from School Library Journal, Jacqueline Woodson said of Patrica, “She was lovely and groundbreaking and doing the work that set so many of us in motion.”

Patricia McKissack, Prolific Author Who Championed Black Heroes, Dies at 72 by Sam Roberts from the New York Times. Peek: “Ms. McKissack, who grew up in the segregated South and was the only black student in her sixth-grade class, wove the back-porch fables she remembered from childhood together with her own personal anecdotes (including a false accusation of thievery and a dinner at a whites-only restaurant) in fictional narratives.”

Remembering the Life and Writing of Famed St. Louis Children’s Author Patricia McKissack aired on St. Louis Public Radio. St. Louis librarian Jennifer Ilardi talked about Patricia’s impact on her life. “…I’m biracial and finding other books that represented my father’s side of the family was tricky. Books are windows, mirrors, and doors….I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t have access to these type of books and her books when I was a child.”

In reviewing Patricia’s most recent book, Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Random House, January 2017), Roger Sutton from the Horn Book called her “children’s book royalty and storyteller supreme” and described the book as “a rich compilation.”

The Horn Book called Patricia’s death “a huge loss to the children’s literature community.”

Edith Campbell had a moving tribute to Patricia on Crazy QuiltEdi. Peek: “I’ve learned that we are all libraries, each carrying in us the stories that make us unique. And yet, there are those who are more than that; they’re the people who create the stories that express our shared identities, that inspire us to be more than we’ve planned for ourselves and who question.”

Author Interview: Michelle Markel Explores the Birth of Children’s Literature

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Each January the kidlit community celebrates the Newbery Medal and Honor Books awarded by the Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. Some even have gatherings to watch the webcast of the awards presentation, but do we know about the man the award was named for?

Michelle Markel offers insight in her new picture book: Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, (Chronicle, April 2017). She recently shared more about Newbery and her research and writing process.

Why were you drawn to the story of John Newbery?

He wanted to spread knowledge, encourage reading, and offer kids informative and delightful books. Me too!

Newbery’s first publication for children, A Little Pretty Pocket Book, had letters from Jack the Giant Killer, and was sold with a ball or pincushion. A book and a toy- in 1744! That was forward thinking.

In those days, children’s literature consisted mostly of fables and grim texts on manners or religion (think: New England Primer, “While youth do cheer, death may be near”).

Interior illustration by Nancy Carpenter

Can you tell us about your research?

The highlight was checking out Newbery’s antique little books at UCLA’s Special Collections Library. It was like holding the crown jewels!

From UCLA
Special Collections

For details about the setting, and printing presses in particular, I looked at 18th century paintings and illustrations. I read novels, primers, books of manners, and collections of street cries- this gave me a feeling for the language of that era.

An exhibit on Samuel Johnson (one of Newbery’s acquaintances) at the Huntington Library was helpful too.

Was there anything you learned that surprised you?

Newbery was a clever advertiser. Some of his publications for children cross reference each other. So Woglog the Giant, who is a villain in Lilliputian Magazine, later changes his ways and shows up in Fables in Verse, where he visits a bookshop to read some of Newbery’s little books.

Product placement. Metafiction!

I was also surprised by the kid appeal in The History of Little Goody Two Shoes. One of my favorite characters is Ralph the Raven, who is rescued by Little Goody, then taught to speak and spell. He perches on the heroine’s arm and recites poems.

Do you typically visualize the illustrations for your picture books? What about this one?

I may have a general notion about the style, but the editors and art directors are far more talented at choosing illustrators than I am (my writing students are appalled when I tell them this).

For Balderdash- I envisioned old timey artwork, and I think Nancy Carpenter nailed it. Her pen and ink artwork captures the playfulness of the text, and adds lots of treats for the kids to discover.

Interior illustration by Nancy Carpenter

What might readers take away from the book?

They might get a sense of how culture changes over time, and how trailblazers like Newbery and one of his influences- John Locke- advance new ideas.

I hope young readers will understand how much books were loved and treasured in the 18th century- and I hope that’s contagious.

Michelle’s writing buddy

Do you have any tips for nonfiction writers?

1. At some point the research can become overwhelming- you can’t see the forest for the trees. There are so many delicious facts- how to decide which to include?

That’s when it helps to revisit a clean, concisely written nonfiction book (one of my favorites is Diego by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).

2. Remember the age of your audience.

Pick a subject you deeply believe in- and that young people can relate to. Then blow their minds. Pour some love into the story – No holding back!

Cynsations Notes

Michelle Markel is the author of many books for young readers, including Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Balzer & Bray, 2013), an Orbis Pictus Honor Book for 2014 that also received the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Nonfiction from Bank Street.

Balderdash! is a Junior Library Guild selection for 2017.

It also received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Peek: “…Markel’s enthusiastic narration pays its own homage to Newbery’s belief that children should have ‘delightful books of their own.’

A teacher’s guide for Balderdash! is available from Chronicle Books.

Michelle lives in West Hills, California and is a founding member of The Children’s Authors Network. She teaches classes in writing for young people through the UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program.

Guest Post: Brian Anderson Collaborating with His Daughter Amy on Space Dictionary for Kids

By Brian Anderson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Have you ever wondered why the spacecraft that carried the first U.S. astronaut into space in 1961 was named the Freedom 7? Was George Lucas already planning six prequels, or what?

When my daughter Amy turned 21 years old in July 2014, she was doing summer research in astrophysics at Baylor University. Her birthday coincided with a stargazing party at Meyer Observatory, so I offered to make a piñata and have the star party double as a birthday party.

I started making custom piñatas when Amy was five years old, and over the years her birthday party piñatas had grown increasingly elaborate.

“How about a black hole piñata,” I joked. I imagined one round balloon, decorated all black. She would never agree to that.

“That’d be fantastic!”

I knew right away something was wrong. I told her nothing escapes the gravity of a black hole, not even light. It’s just a black dot in space. That’s when she told me about accretion disks and X-ray emissions and Hawking radiation. Apparently, I had a lot to learn about black holes, and now I also had a challenging piñata to make.

The following summer my friend and fellow Austin children’s book author Christina Soontornvat told me that Prufrock Press was looking for an author to write an astronomy dictionary for kids.

Christina and I are both science educators as well as children’s book authors, and she thought I’d be perfect for the job. But after the way that black hole piñata joke backfired on me the summer before, I knew I didn’t know enough astronomy to write a book about it.

But I knew someone who did.

Brian & Amy–back in the day.

Amy had just graduated from college and was taking the summer off before starting graduate school in the fall.

When I suggested we write it together, her first question was the same as mine – isn’t there something like this already available online for free?

Her search turned up the same thing mine had: some highly technical glossaries that were clearly not intended for kids, and a scattered collection of incomplete and sometimes incorrect astronomy glossaries for students.

My nine-year-old self was screaming at me that space-loving kids needed this book. Amy felt the same way, and agreed to help write it. We have liftoff!

We compiled a word list of about 450 terms, grouped them into five subject areas, then dived into researching and writing.

The fact that Amy understood the science content much better than I did is part of the reason our collaboration on Space Dictionary for Kids (Sourcebooks, 2016) worked so well. She brought content mastery and I brought a learner’s perspective.

Together we were able to create an astronomy dictionary that’s both scientifically accurate and understandable to young readers.

Collaborating with my daughter will always be one of the highlights of my writing career, and Amy taught me a lot of astronomy along the way. I finally understand retrograde motion!

I already knew quasars were the brightest objects in the universe, brighter than an entire galaxy of stars, but until I started working with Amy I never knew exactly what a quasar was. And I also learned (a little too late) that I should have offered to make Amy a black dwarf piñata instead of a black hole piñata.

Cynsational Notes

To answer the opening question, each of the Project Mercury astronauts, known collectively as the Mercury 7, was allowed to name the ship that would carry him into space, and each ship’s name would end with the number 7. In addition to Freedom 7, the other Mercury spacecraft were Liberty Bell 7, Friendship 7, Aurora 7, Sigma 7, and Faith 7. If you’re keeping score, you probably noticed that that was only six. To find out what happened to the seventh Mercury astronaut, flip to page 144.