Three Authors Receive Top Honors from NCTE

By NCTE
for Cynsations

ATLANTA– Authors Jason Reynolds, Melissa Sweet, and Marilyn Nelson were just announced winners of prestigious literacy awards from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Jason Reynolds won the 2017 Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children for his book Ghost (Atheneum). The Charlotte Huck award is given to books that promote and recognize fiction that has the potential to transform children’s lives.

Melissa Sweet won the 2017 Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children for her book Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

The NCTE Orbis Pictus Award, established in 1989, is the oldest children’s book award for nonfiction.

Marilyn Nelson won the 2017 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. The biannual award is given to a living American poet for his or her aggregate work for children ages 3–13.

Honor and Recommended book lists were also announced. All three authors will be invited to speak at next year’s NCTE Annual Convention in St. Louis, MO.

NCTE is the nation’s most comprehensive literacy organization, supporting teachers across the preK–college spectrum.

Through the expertise of its members, NCTE has served at the forefront of every major improvement in the teaching and learning of English and the language arts since 1911.

Author Interview: Debbie Levy on I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Happy Election Day! Go vote!

We welcome author Debbie Levy to talk about her new picture book biography. 

From the promotional copy of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016):

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent her lifetime disagreeing . . . with creaky old ideas. With unfairness. With inequality. She has disagreed. She has disapproved. She has objected and resisted. 

She has dissented!



Disagreeable? No. Determined? Yes! 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has changed her life, and ours, by voicing her disagreements and standing up for what’s right. This picture book about the first female Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court shows that disagreeing does not make you disagreeable and that important change can happen one disagreement at a time.

See also the Glorious RBG Blog (click to view 11 entries).

Welcome to Cynsations, Debbie! We’re both graduates of The University of Michigan Law School. Did you practice law or go straight to writing for young readers like I did (or rather like I did after clerking)?

I did practice law for several years after law school. But writing books for children is the only job I’ve held for more than six years. Lawyer at a big Washington, D.C. law firm: six years. Newspaper editor: six years. Then I took a class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, with the excellent Mary Quattlebaum. (Check out her books, and her reviewing work!)

Writing for children: This was a vocation with long-term potential.

Michigan Law School Reading Room

Hey, I have a newspaper background, too–so much in common! You write fiction and nonfiction across formats and age levels. Often I hear from new writers that they feel pressured to pick one focus. What has your range of pursuits done for you in terms of craft and career?

I think the writers you’re hearing from are telling a truth: There can be pressure to pick one focus or, to put it otherwise, to establish a “brand.”

I think I must have subconsciously scoffed at the notion that I could ever be a brand—ha, a Debbie Levy brand!—so, for better or worse, I’ve mostly followed my interests and allowed serendipity a role in choosing projects.

Also, one solution for writers who do want to be multi-focal is to have more than publisher. I realize that doesn’t solve a beginning writer’s problem, who may be looking for Publisher #1. But it is an option once you start getting published.

Congratulations on the release of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016)! What about Ruth Bader Ginsburg called to you as a writer?

Thank you! Like many people, I knew that the Glorious RBG was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and the first Jewish woman on the Court.

I knew that, before that, she was a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C., and, before that, one of leading lawyers in the field of equal rights for women and girls.

What I didn’t know, until I started researching more deeply about her, is that she has been disagreeing with unfairness and with things that are just plain wrong from the time she was a little girl.

I mean, she objected to being excluded from shop class in grade school, and being required to take cooking and sewing instead! When on a car trip with her parents, she disagreed with she saw a sign outside a hotel that read “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” Later, of course, she went on to disagree, resist, object, and dissent her way into big things.

And she’s been doing this for years with a voice that is not loud (people lean in to hear her words), in a manner that is not obnoxious (more benefit of the doubt than bashing, more insight than invective), and in service of justice.

So, I realized, the story of her life offers this inspiring lesson: Disagreeing does not make you disagreeable, and important change happens one disagreement at a time. Is it any wonder, then, that I thought she was a great person to introduce to young people in a picture book?

Agreed! Many of my favorite people disagree strongly with injustice. What were the challenges (research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the story to life?

I feel lucky to live in the Washington, D.C. area, because although Justice Ginsburg didnot find time for an interview with me last summer when I was working on this book, she did grant me access to her papers on deposit in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress (practically next door to the Supreme Court!).

I’ve gone through at least one Manuscript Division collection before, but none like this. So tidy! Meticulous! Her speeches typed on 4 x 6 cards: impeccable! Her handwritten notes on yellow legal sheets discussing and advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment that never got adopted!

Although I didn’t absolutely need to read piles of drafts of legal briefs and memoranda, I dived into this stuff with gusto; you do get a sense of a person from their papers.

Oh, wait. You asked for challenges. It is a challenge to write about someone, a living, active person, without having an interview. But there were many, many print and video interviews of RBG for me to consult. Many scholarly articles, by and about her.

And she did review the manuscript last October. She sent a nice little note, and wrote in some handwritten notes in the margins of my typescript. I took all her edits!

Since you’ve specifically mentioned “psychological challenges”—I lost my mother three years ago.

Debbie’s mother kayaking on the Wye River

She was a vibrant, ever-curious, outgoing woman, someone always interested in another person’s story, someone who as a girl dreamed of being a journalist (she ended up in the wholesale costume jewelry business instead), and she would have been over the moon to know that I was writing a book about RBG, to know that I was elbow-deep in RBG materials at the Library of Congress, to know that RBG looked over my manuscript pre-publication.

I’m answering your questions, Cyn, the morning after the book launch for I Disssent, which we held at D.C.’s great Politics & Prose Bookstore. Many friends who had known my mother attended.

I said there, “I cannot help but think that had my mother still been alive, she would have figured out a way to get me into RBG’s chambers for an interview—and she along with me!”

The room was filled with knowing smiles and laughter. Someone even called out my mother’s signature phrase: “Let me ask you a question”—her way of getting people to open up to her.

That helped with the pain of not having Mom there. (And, really, she would have snagged me an interview.)

Talk to us about disagreeing. It sounds like a negative focus for a children’s book. Is it? In either case, why do you think it’s important in the conversation of youth literature?

Yes, let’s talk about disagreeing! The theme of disagreeing is really what sold my editor at Simon & Schuster on this book.

From the very beginning, we were really excited about creating a book that said to all kids, and to girls in particular, that disagreeing does not make a person disagreeable, and that you can accomplish big things for yourself and for the world through dissent and by finding another way when the world says “no” to you.

It’s a positive message, but it’s also a message that says you don’t have to be positive—that is, you don’t have to sound or look positive, you don’t have to just say yes and smile and go along with things that you believe are wrong—to be a good person.

At the same time, simply disagreeing without more isn’t really enough if you want to change your life or anyone else’s. On the back of the book, we’ve put this RBG quote: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Seems simple, right? But it’s that second sentence that is so hard to pull off.

Many authors discover reoccurring themes in their work? Is this true of you? If so, could you tell us about it and how I Dissent fits in?

I seem to return to the theme of Outsiderness. My mother, protagonist of the nonfiction-in-verse The Year of Goodbyes (Hyperion, 2010), being an outsider as a girl in Nazi Germany in 1938. Danielle, protagonist of my young adult novel Imperfect Spiral (Bloomsbury, 2013), who finds an unexpected antidote to her feelings of being the outsider in an unlikely friendship with the six-year-old boy she babysits one summer.

The African American individuals and communities, outsiders in their own country, in my nonfiction picture book We Shall Overcome: The Story of A Song (Disney-Jump at the Sun, 2013).

Today we may look at RBG and see the ultimate insider—she’s a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, for heaven’s sake! But she overcame the outsiderness of being a Jew in a sometimes hostile Gentile world, of being a young woman in the (then) overwhelmingly male-dominated world of law school, of being a female lawyer in a (then) man’s profession, and of being an advocate for legal and social changes that went against the grain of society’s traditional norms. There’s my theme.

What do you love about your writing life?

Other writers. What good communities and friendships I’ve found!

What do you do when you’re not writing or out-and-about in your author hat?

Walk in the woods or along the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Kayak in the Chesapeake Bay area. Fish in the Chesapeake Bay area. Read.

Think about whoever my next dog will be.

Apologize to my cat for thinking about my next dog.

You know, the usual.

What can your readers look forward to next?

In February 2017, Soldier Song, A True Story of the Civil War (Disney-Hyperon). An 80-page picture book for older children about a remarkable event that occurred after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Illustrated by the excellent, creative Gilbert Ford, with lots of room for excerpts from soldier’s letters and diaries. I’m excited about this!

Don’t miss The Glorious RBG Blog!

New Voice & Giveaway: Donna Janell Bowman on Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Donna Janell Bowman is the first-time author of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A Horse that can read, write, and do math?

Ridiculous! 

That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. 

Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This question ties so perfectly into my belief that there’s a piece of us in everything we write.

In 2006, I read a book about Beautiful Jim Key, authored by Mim Eichler Rivas (William Morrow 2005/Harper Paperbacks 2006). It was a given that I would be drawn to a horse book. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where life revolved around raising, training, and showing horses, and caring for the myriad livestock and other animals. I have always been an animal lover, and I know firsthand how powerful the human-animal bond can be—how the combination of time, trust, and affection can create such synergy that you can practically read each other’s minds.

Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.

That kind of relationship bonded William “Doc” Key and his horse, Beautiful Jim Key. While the horse was what drew me to the story, I was immediately awed by Doc. His greatest historical contribution was an unmistakable message about kindness, in a time of extreme racial prejudice, and brutal treatment of animals.

How could I not love the story of a man who overcame so much to make a real difference in the world?

Thanks to Doc, “Jim,” the horse, became a sort of poster child for the emerging humane movement, while Doc overcame injustices, broke racial barriers, and helped change the way people thought about and treated animals. Doc was awarded a Service to Humanity Award, and Jim was awarded a “Living Example” award.

So, back to your question, Cyn, about what inspired me to write this story—it spoke to my heart. I dived into research with zeal.

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

There were a number of challenges to writing this story, but three that most stand out:

First, the research. It was claimed that Beautiful Jim Key could read, write, calculate math problems, compete in spelling bees, identify playing cards, operate a cash register, and more. I had to get to the bottom of how this could be possible.

I used the adult book as my jumping off point, but I wasn’t satisfied to rely solely on somebody else’s research.

This is a story that straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, so I read a great deal about the period, including slavery, the Reconstruction Era in the distinct regions of Tennessee, the history of the humane organizations; the related World’s Fairs, Doc’s business interests, etc.

Emotionally, the most difficult part was reading about how animals were treated in the 19th century, and, more importantly, how enslaved people were often treated with similar brutality. Only a tiny fraction of my research appears in the book’s back matter, but it all deeply affected my approach to the story.

I visited the Shelbyville (TN) Public Library and skimmed through their microfilm. Then I spent some time at the Tennessee State Archives, donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling scrapbooks from the BJK collection.

During that 2009 trip, I also visited the humble Beautiful Jim Key memorial in Shelbyville, TN, and Doc’s grave site at the Willow Mount Cemetery. (I might have shed a few sentimental tears.) We then tracked down what I think was Doc’s former property, though the house is long gone.

This kind of onsite research, along with old photos and local news accounts, allowed me to imagine the setting of Doc’s hometown. Back home, I collected binders-full of newspaper articles, playbills, and promotional booklets. Through these, I got a feel for how people thought about Doc and Jim.

And, most importantly, I found some of Doc’s explanations for how he taught the horse. What became clear was, though we may never know exactly how the horse was able to do so many remarkable things, the countless news reporters and professors who tried to prove trickery or a hoax, never found anything beyond “education.” Jim only rarely made mistakes.

Ultimately, what Doc and Jim did for the humane movement is even more significant than what the horse performed on stage.

Originally, I had planned the story for middle grade audiences until my agent (who wasn’t my agent yet) suggested that I try a picture book version. I already had half of the chapters written by this time, so I was aghast at the thought of starting over. And I didn’t know how to write a picture book biography. I spent the next two years analyzing and dissecting a couple hundred picture book biographies to figure out how they work.

I decided to blog about some of my craft observations, using the platform as a quasi-classroom for myself and anyone else who might happen upon my site.

Many, many, many drafts later, I had a manuscript that attracted the attention of a few editors. Lee and Low was the perfect home for Doc and Jim.

There was a built-in challenge in writing this story about a formerly-enslaved African American man. Because I don’t fit any of Doc’s descriptors, it was doubly important that I approach the subject with respect and sensitivity.

I couldn’t merely charge through with the mindset that I’m just the historian sharing documented facts.

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

It is so exciting to finally be crossing the threshold into this new role. The past nine years, which is how long I’ve had the story in my head and in my heart, have felt like the longest-ever pregnancy.

There’s a mixture of joy, relief, and fear during this delivery stage. Fortunately, so far, very nice starred reviews have praised the book, and each reviewer wisely sings the praises of Daniel Minter’s spectacular lino-cut acrylic art.

As I think ahead to marketing and promotion, I’m planning for the Oct. 15 release, the Oct. 23 launch party, and how the book might raise awareness of the need for more kindness in the world—not only toward animals but toward each other.

From my very first draft, nine years ago, I knew I’d revive the original Beautiful Jim Key Pledge—originally signed by two million people during Doc and Jim’s time.

I plan to incorporate the pledge into my author presentations, and it will be downloadable from my website soon. I also hope to align with some humane organizations to help them raise awareness.

I have two more books under contract, several others on submission or in revision, and a novel-in-progress.

In 2018, Peachtree Publishers will release En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, followed in 2019 by King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.

Such is the author’s life, right? We write, we rewrite, we revise, we sell, we wait, we celebrate, then we do it all over again. Because we can’t imagine not writing something that moves us. And we can’t imagine not writing for young people.

Cynsational Giveaway

Book Launch! Join Donna Janell Bowman at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at BookPeople in Austin. Donna will be speaking and signing.

Fundraiser: Step Right Up and Help The Rescued Horses of Bluebonnet Equine Human Society: “They are horses, donkeys, and ponies that are helpless and hopeless. And they are hurting. The lucky ones land at Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society. Under the loving care of professional staff and volunteers, the animals are medically and nutritionally rehabilitated, then placed with trainers to prepare them for re-homing/adoption.” See also Interview: Step Right Up Author Donna Janell Bowman by Terry Pierce from Emu’s Debuts.

Enter to win two author-signed copies of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guest Post: Jennifer Swanson on Nonfiction Picks Up STEAM!

By Jennifer Swanson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

If you’ve been to a bookstore lately, you may have noticed the STEAM-y new trend in nonfiction children’s books.

No, I’m not talking about romance novels, it’s STEAM—Science Technology Engineering Art and Math. From picture books to middle grade, to YA, STEAM topics are hot right now.

The STEAM books can include biographies and histories of scientists, artists, and engineers, but also topics that range from the simple:



Miranda Paul’s book Water is Water (Roaring Brook, 2015). It gives a beautiful and lyrical explanation of the water cycle for young readers.

To the complex:

Nancy Castaldo’s book, The Story of Seeds: From Mendel’s Garden to Your Plate, and How There’s More of Less to Eat Around the World on Seeds (Houghton Mifflin, 2016), talks about the genetics of plants.

And my own Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up (Charlesbridge, 2016) which introduces the reader to the cutting edge science through high performance sports.

So, how do you jump on board this STEAM-y trend?

Here are a few tips:

1. Ask questions like a kid.

Kids are naturally inquisitive. They are always asking how things work, why things happen, and where things come from.

Tap into your kid-side and find a topic that you’re curious about. Then dig deep and look for the cool aspects of it. Kids love trivia. See if you can find something that will make your reader say, “Hmmmm…. I didn’t know that.” Or “Wow! That’s so cool!”

For example: Your brain can store up to 2.5 petabytes of knowledge—That’s like 300 years of T.V. shows!

2. Think like a kid

Kids want to understand so when explaining things, break complex ideas into simple ones. The best way is to use kid-friendly examples, something that taps into the knowledge they have.

For instance, instead of saying something is 10meters tall, say it’s 3 stories high.

One hundred twenty yards becomes as big as a football field.

A nanoparticle is 100,000 times smaller than the edge of a piece of paper.

3. Talk like a kid

Use kid-friendly language. Activate your words! Use short sentences to amp up the excitement or tension. Use longer sentences for explanation to make sure your readers understand the concepts you want to get across. Then mix things up. Put short sentences after long sentences. Add endings like, “Now that’s tiny!” or “Bet you didn’t know that.” It makes your tone more exciting and conversational.

4. Be gross like a kid

Sometimes the best way to capture your reader with science is to gross them out. They are, after all, kids.

For example: Did you know that in one day, your feet can produce more than 1/4th of a gallon of sweat. (P- Ewww!)

5. Tap into a kid’s imagination

Children have very vivid imaginations. By using fun rhyming, rhythmic language, and amazing descriptions, you will grab their attention and get them to think. You can also fill your book with awesome illustrations and photographs to get your reader to visualize what is happening in the book.

Following these tips may help you to STEAM into nonfiction with your own books!

Cynsational Notes

Jennifer Swanson is a self-professed science geek and the author of over twenty-five nonfiction and fiction books for kids. She is the author of Brain Games (NGKids, 2015) and the forthcoming Super Gear. Her book How Hybrid Cars Work (The Child’s World) received a starred review from Booklist and also a Top 10 Books for Youth 2012 Award from Booklist Online.

Several of Jennifer’s other books have received “highly recommended” reviews from the National Science Teacher Association, as well as School Library Journal. Her favorite saying to her students is to “notice the science all around you.”

Interview: Author Carole Boston Weatherford & Illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford

By Carole Boston Weatherford
& Jeffrey Boston Weatherford

From Carole

Set during World War II, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (Atheneum, 2016) follows the training, trials and triumphs of the U.S. military’s first African American pilots.

The book pairs my poems with scratchboard illustrations by my son, Jeffrey Boston Weatherford.

The title is our first collaboration and Jeffery’s publication debut. The book, which includes a detailed timeline and links to primary sources, connects to both the language arts and social studies curricula.

You Can Fly had a long incubation period. The egg may have been laid during a family trip to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The earliest version of the text was for a picture book written in second person.

After I was unable to sell that manuscript, I sat on the egg for a few more years. Then I began re-envisioning and reshaping the manuscript as a poetry collection for middle grades-up. I switched the point of view to first person under the title “The Last Tuskegee Airmen Tells All.” Still not satisfied, I changed to third person. Finally, I settled on second person.

Around that time, Jeffery came on board. During a summer internship in children’s book illustration, he created digital art to accompany my poems. We sold the package, but just before the book was about to hatch, the flight got cancelled.

Carole & Jeffery in 2000

I began to wonder if the book would ever leave the nest. I continued to
revise the manuscript and to add poems. Jeffery and I decided to scrap
the digital art in favor of scratchboard illustrations.

Armed with a
revised manuscript and sample drawings, we sold the package to Atheneum.

In the subsequent year, Jeffery completed the illustrations and I added
a few new poems.

In mid-April, Jeffery and I received our comp copies.

Our first book together finally has wings.

Fly, little book, fly!

Author & Illustrator Interview

Jeffery and I recently interviewed each other about You Can Fly.

Jeffery: Why did you want to write this book?

Carole: The Tuskegee Airmen’s saga moved me personally. It is powerful—historically, politically and emotionally. I thought the story begged for a poetic treatment.

Carole: You were a serious gamer growing up. Did gaming influence how you illustrated the battle scenes?

Jeffery: Yes, absolutely. I had lots of residual visual references from battles across galaxies. I played everything from Halo to Call of Duty.

Jeffery: When did you first notice my artistic talent?

Carole: Your kindergarten teacher prodded you to finish coloring and work up to potential. By third grade, I was concerned that you were doodling planes, cars, weapons and anime characters in your notebook rather than paying attention.

Around middle school, I realized that your drawings were good. I put you in studio art classes, starting with cartooning. By high school, you were taking private art lessons with the assistant principal who became a mentor.

Carole: What is your favorite illustration from the book?

Jeffery: My favorite is of the boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. It’s a closeup scene from their historic rematch.

Jeffery: What’s yours?

Carole: The one where two planes on a mission have bombed an enemy aircraft. The explosion is so animated; like a comic book.

Jeffery: What is your favorite poem from the book?

Carole: It’s “Head to the Sky,” the first poem in the book and also the first that I wrote—early on when the project was envisioned as a picture book. “Head to the Sky” reflects the power of a dream fueled by self-determination.

Carole: Tell me about your first flight.

Jeffery: I had a window seat and was looking outside. As the plane sped down the runway, I said, “We’re blasting off!”

Carole: That was hilarious. Well, your career as a children’s book illustrator is off to a flying start. How did it feel when you first saw the printed book?

Jeffery: Like a child at Christmas.

From the promotional copy:



I WANT YOU! says the poster of Uncle Sam. But if you’re a young black man in 1940, he doesn’t want you in the cockpit of a war plane. Yet you are determined not to let that stop your dream of flying.



So when you hear of a civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute, you leap at the chance. Soon you are learning engineering and mechanics, how to communicate in code, how to read a map. At last the day you’ve longed for is here: you are flying!



From training days in Alabama to combat on the front lines in Europe, this is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the groundbreaking African-American pilots of World War II.

In Memory: James Cross Giblin

From Macmillan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Obituary: James Cross Giblin by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Publisher, editor, and award-winning children’s book author James Cross Giblin died on Sunday, April 10, following a long illness.”

James Cross Giblin, 82, Wide-Ranging Author of Books for Children, Dies by Margalit Fox from The New York Times. Peek: “…for many years also a prominent children’s-book editor and publisher, was known most recently for his biographies for middle-grade and older readers, among them The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler (2002), which won the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal from the American Library Association; Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth (2005); and The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy (2009).

Goodbye, Jim by Roger Sutton from Read Roger at The Horn Book. Peek: “Back before it was even a Thing, Jim was writing narrative nonfiction about the damnedest things–windows, milk–and had the gift for conveying his own enthusiasm for his topics to readers who never knew they could find, say, chairs, so interesting.”

Guest Post & Giveaway: Emma Dryden on Putting the Internal Editor in a Time-Out

By Emma Dryden
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

An Editor Tries on Her Writer Hat

I’ve been a children’s book editor for over thirty years. Editing’s in my blood. Little else brings me as much joy or satisfaction as coaxing, guiding, and encouraging authors and illustrators to dig deeply and express their truest passions and richest stories.

Over the course of my career, I’ve edited well over 1,000 books, which means I’ve played some small or large part in the creative process for well over 1,000 people.

Throughout the journey, I’ve been asked many times if I ever wanted to write. The long and short answer to that question is “Yes.” But that’s easier said than done.

Being a life-long editor for others comes with a significant downside: I have an aggressive, impatient editor living inside me. She’s tough.

So much so that when serendipitous events occurred and stars aligned for me to co-write a picture book last year, I had to have it out with my internal editor and it wasn’t pretty. I started out nicely, pleadingly, but soon began to rant and swear, begging her to shut up and leave me alone so I could just put down on the page whatever I wanted, without limitation, without question, without suggestion. It’s an understatement to say my internal editor had a hard time turning off. But finally, finally she did shut up and I could start to write.

Maybe it was the looming deadline and my co-author expecting to hear from me that boosted the confidence in the writer part of me to strap my internal editor into the time-out chair. Or maybe it was exhaustion and the writer part of me just didn’t care anymore what those first sentences looked or felt like, as long as there was something on the page. Or maybe it was my trust in the writing process (goodness knows I’ve told hundreds of writers over the years to trust the process!) that eventually forced my internal editor to just darn well wait her turn.

I suspect it was all of these combined that finally allowed me to write with creative adrenaline the words and phrases that would eventually become the score for What Does It Mean to Be An Entrepreneur? (Little Pickle, 2016).

Most artists are not professional editors, but artists are always contending with some sort of internal editor—that nagging, probing questioner; that voice saying something isn’t good enough; that self-doubter.

Writing is a courageous, delicate, and precious act. Creating art of any kind is a courageous, delicate, and precious act.

Editing, eventually, is critical to the process, but not during those early moments of creativity, when the words and the sketches are barely formed and just emerging from the craftsperson’s imagination.

Through the experience of quieting down my internal editor to write What Does It Mean to Be An Entrepreneur?, I received two great gifts. One was that I was reminded of the obligation I have as an editor: To be patient, supportive, and empathetic to the myriad of feelings (euphoria and despair and everything in between!) an author or illustrator is going to be feeling during their creative process.

And the second gift I received is seeing my name in the byline of a book that springs from my own experiences starting a company and of which I couldn’t be more proud. I was in a position not only to co-write the book, but to edit it and assist in design and art direction—it was the best of all possible worlds for me creatively and professionally.

And now I know, when it comes time for me to write some more, exactly where my internal editor’s time-out chair is waiting!

Cynsational Notes

Emma D. Dryden is the founder of drydenbks, a premier children’s editorial and publishing consultancy firm which she established after twenty-five years as a highly regarded children’s book editor and publisher. She works with authors, illustrators, start-ups, publishers, and app developers.

Emma has edited over a thousand books for children and young readers and during her tenure with Atheneum and McElderry Books, many of her titles hit bestseller lists in USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and other national publications, and have received numerous awards and medals, including the Newbery Medal, Newbery Honor, and Caldecott Honor. Emma’s on the Advisory Board of SCBWI and speaks around the world on craft, the digital landscape, and reinvention.

Her blog “Our Stories, Ourselves” explores the intertwined themes of life and writing. She can be followed online at Twitter @drydenbks, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three signed copies of What Does It Mean to Be An Entrepreneur? by Rana DiOrio and Emma D. Dryden, and illustrated by Ken Min (Little Pickle, 2016). Author sponsored. U.S. only.

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Cover Reveal: Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A horse that can read, write, spell, and do math? Ridiculous! 

That’s what people thought in the late 1800’s – until they met Beautiful Jim Key.


Born a weak and wobbly colt in 1889, Jim was cared for by William “Doc” Key, a formerly enslaved man and self-taught veterinarian who believed in treating animals with kindness, patience, and his own homemade remedies. 

Under Doc’s watchful eyes, Jim grew to be a healthy young stallion with a surprising talent – a knack for learning! For seven years, Doc and Jin worked together, perfecting Jim’s skills. Then it was time for them to go on the road, traveling throughout the United States and impressing audiences with Jim’s amazing performances. In the process, they broke racial barriers, and raised awareness for the humane treatment of animals.


Here’s a true story of an extraordinary horse and the remarkable man who nurtured the horse’s natural abilities. Together they asked the world to step right up and embrace their message of kindness toward animals.

Author Interview: Heather Lang on Fearless Flyer & Writing Strong Women

Visit Heather Lang’s official author site & @Hblang

By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Congratulations on your new picture book biography Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine (Calkins Creek, 2016) and the starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal! 

I was captivated by your account of Ruth Law’s record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City one hundred years ago, and Raúl Colón’s illustrations are magnificent.

You are creating a wonderful collection of books about strong women from our past. How do you choose the women you write about?

I love to read and write about lesser-known women, who dream big, pick themselves up when they fall, and stay persistent.

These women might face poverty, racial or gender discrimination, disability, or other hardships. They’re not afraid of failure. They inspire me to step outside my own comfort zone and be brave.

What drew you to this story about Ruth Law?

Sometimes I’m drawn to writing about topics I fear. With fear, there’s always fascination—like when you don’t want to watch a scary movie, but you can’t help yourself.

I’m a nervous flyer, so I’ve always been intrigued by those who dared to fly the flimsy biplanes made in the early 1900s. Ruth Law opened doors for women aviators like Amelia Earhart to enter this male-dominated field.

I loved how Ruth immersed herself fully in flying, even mastering the mechanics of her plane. She could tell what was wrong with her motor by the sound of it!

Her passion and personality came through in her words—she had a lovely voice. I wove her words into the text, so Ruth helps tell her own story.

It’s clear a lot of research went into Fearless Flyer. Can you talk a little about your process? 

Every book I write is a treasure hunt. I never know where a clue might take me. My initial research involved reading a lot of newspaper articles, and in one of those articles Ruth mentioned she kept a scrapbook. I tracked it down at the National Air and Space Museum archives.

Heather researching Ruth Law’s scrapbook

Her enormous scrapbook was stuffed with newspaper articles, mementos, photos, and her own handwriting. It was a goldmine.

While I was there I visited the early flight exhibit at the museum, educated myself about her biplane, and learned about the evolution of flight. A lot of questions popped up about her plane and how she operated it, so I found a retired Navy Commander who pilots and builds these old-style biplanes. He had incredible insights.

I also consulted with the folks at the Glen H. Curtiss Museum and the National Air and Space Museum.

I am always amazed how generous people are with their time and how eager they are to help.

What is one of your favorite things about writing for children?

Other than being able to wear sweat pants or pajamas all day, I’d have to say one of my favorite things about my job is the community. I can’t imagine a more supportive group of people than writers, teachers, and librarians. We all have the same primary goal—to have a positive impact on children, giving them books they can relate to and books that open them up to new people and places and dreams.

From Heather’s The Original Cowgirl, illustrated by Suzanne Beaky (Whitman)

I’m in two critique groups. We share the highs of clever endings, successful revisions, and accepted submissions. We share the struggles of faulty plots, poor reviews, and rejection. I rely on them tremendously for support.

What are you working on now?

with Alice Coachman

I’m launching a blog focusing on Girls With Grit and having a blast creating the content.

It will include real-life stories, psychology and science, classroom activities, interviews with authors, and of course children’s books with strong female characters.

I’m also adding supplemental materials to my website so readers can get to know even more about Ruth Law and her flying machine.

What do you have coming out next?

I’m really excited about my next picture book biography, Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, illustrated by Jordi Solano (Albert Whitman, 2016), about an amazing shark scientist AKA “The Shark Lady.”

Sadly, Genie (as she liked to be called) died last year at the age of 92. I had the thrill of interviewing her in person in 2014, and hearing about her remarkable adventures. Genie also reviewed the manuscript for me.

I look forward to sharing this amazing woman with kids everywhere.

Cynsational Notes

Helen’s muses

Helen Kampion is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College.
She writes both fiction and non-fiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies.

Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain (“Paddy Cats,” Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (“Francesca’s Funky Footwear,” Finalist, 2013).

When she’s not at her desk busy writing you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events, volunteering at the New England SCBWI conference, or teaching creative writing workshops for children. Helen also serves on the on the Board of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Find her on Twitter @helenkampion.

Author Interview: Deborah Hopkinson on Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What was your initial inspiration for writing Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, illustrated by Charlotte Voake (Schwartz & Wade, 2016)?

Actually, several years ago my agent, Steven Malk, mentioned that it might be fun to do a book about Beatrix Potter. After reading about her life (and enjoying the film “Miss Potter”), I became fascinated by her story, accomplishments, and legacy.

My first attempts at writing a nonfiction book about her failed, however. But when I went back to try again, I hit upon focusing on one incident from her journal that illustrates her love of animals and of art.

The promotional copy describes the story as “mostly true.” So this is historical fiction, yes? Where did you honor the Potter’s actual life and where did you creatively extrapolate?

It’s absolutely historical fiction! I do author visits at schools all over the country, and one of the first things students and I discuss is the distinction between nonfiction and historical fiction. I’ve been previewing the cover of Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, and have found that even young children recognize that it’s a made up story (and slightly silly to boot).

In fact, some details in the story are based on fact, including the part where Beatrix borrowed from her neighbor a guinea pig named “Queen Elizabeth,” which expired in the night from consuming a feast of paper, paste, and other scrumptious tidbits.

As I mention in the note, Beatrix was actually in her twenties when this occurred, but we have set the story when she was younger. The dialogue is invented also, although we do include several excerpts from her journal in the book.

I’ve included an author’s note of her life that also explains that the story is fictionalized.

What were other the challenges–research, craft, logistical and/or emotional–in bringing the story to life?

One of the aspects of Beatrix’s own creative process I wanted to emulate was the “picture letter.” She originally got the idea for The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) when writing a get well note to a young boy in the format of a letter that included spot art illustrations. I wanted to make this book a sort of picture letter itself.

Working with Charlotte Voake’s delightful illustrations, the amazing team editorial team of Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade (Schwartz & Wade) were able to capture that feeling for the book. For instance, even before you get to the title page, there is a spread that begins, “My Dear Reader…” which shows a hand penning the words. At the end, the story is signed by me and the author’s note is in the form of a postscript.

I’m always looking for ways that teachers and librarians can use books with students, and I think that, in addition to being an author and illustrator children enjoy, Beatrix Potter is a model for someone who began working on her craft as a child.

How did Charlotte Voake’s illustrations enhance your text?

Charlotte’s work is absolutely perfect for this story! I love her illustrations of Beatrix’s pets, which are filled with wry humor.

Charlotte is British, and we’re excited that her British publisher, Walker, will be publishing the book in Great Britain in July to coincide with the 150th anniversary celebration of Beatrix Potter’s birth.

(This anniversary is, as you can imagine, rather a big deal in England, and the Royal Mint is even issuing special commemorative coins.)


What other new releases should your readers be sure to check out in 2016?

As it happens, 2016 is also the 150th anniversary of the founding of the ASPCA in April 1866. And this April I’m excited that my new historical fiction middle grade novel, A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket, will be out from Knopf.

It’s set in New York City, and is narrated by a young Italian immigrant brought over to be a street musician. It also features appearances by actual historical figures involved with improving the rights of children and animals, including Jacob Riis and ASPCA founder Henry Bergh.

What advice do you have for fellow writers about historical research and blending facts with fiction?

In October 2016, I’ll be teaching a Highlights Foundation workshop (with Pamela Turner) on writing nonfiction for middle grade students. I taught this class last year, and one of our main discussion points was how to know when a project can — or should be — fiction or nonfiction.

I’ve always been a huge fan of both genres, and enjoy writing about the same historical periods in different ways. My first long work of nonfiction, Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York (Scholastic, 2003), came about because I had written a Dear America historical fiction book (Hear My Sorrow (Scholastic, 2004)) about the Triangle Waist Company fire. In A Bandit’s Tale, I am returning to the same setting but telling the story in a picaresque style.

I think the main point whether one is writing historical fiction or nonfiction is that the piece must work as a dramatic, compelling story. This sometimes means including less research than one might like – but, then, you never know when you might use it again.

Cynsational Notes

Deborah Hopkinson lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @deborahopkinson.