New Voice: Patricia Valdez on Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

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

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

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

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

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

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

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

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

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes


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

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

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

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

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

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

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

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

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: Gwendolyn Hooks on Inspiration, the Writing Journey & Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Gwendolyn recently won the
NAACP Image Award for Tiny Stitches

When I saw Jimmy Kimmel’s recent monologue about his son’s surgery, I remembered Gwendolyn Hooks’ picture book biography, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Lee & Low, 2016).

I tweeted about the book, in hopes Kimmel might invite Gwendolyn to be a guest on his show.

Since I have a little more pull with the Cynsations blog, I interviewed Gwendolyn about the story behind the book, which is also pretty amazing.

How did you get the idea to write about Vivien Thomas?


One night in 2010, Anna Myers (author, regional advisor for SCBWI Oklahoma and friend of 20 years) texted me, “Are you up?” I told her I was, so she called me. 
Her voice had a quality that struck my heart – I worried she was about to tell me someone had died. 
Instead she said, “I just saw a movie about the man who saved Little Will’s life (Anna’s grandson), and Gwen, you’ve got to write a book about him.”
The movie was Something the Lord Made, about Vivien Thomas, the man who developed the surgical procedure to repair Tetralogy of Fallot, a four-part heart defect. Vivien focused on one defect. He found a solution to the heart pumping oxygen-poor blood throughout the body.

Anna & Gwendolyn

I thought, she’s just out of her mind. I can’t write well enough to tell that story.

Anna sent me the DVD and I watched it. I kept thinking, “How did I not know this story?”

Vivien Thomas is the perfect inspiration to show what you can do once you’ve made your mind up. His life is a beautiful story of setting goals and working to figure things out.

This seems like a very complex subject. Do you have a medical background?


I took biology in college, but that was years ago, and we didn’t learn much about medical science. Basically, I had to learn it all.

Vivien Thomas himself inspired me to tackle the project. He only had a high school education and he didn’t know anything about working in a medical research lab. When Dr. Blalock interviewed him for the job, he asked questions about all the equipment and how it was used. Dr. Blalock recognized his sharp inquisitive mind and hired him as his research assistant.

I was a teacher for many years, mostly I taught seventh grade math, which by the way was my most
difficult year as a student. My teacher was young and enthusiastic, but I didn’t understand much of what she told us. When I was teaching and a student would tell me they didn’t understand, I would take a step back and remember how I felt that year, then try to find a different way to explain it.

That happens a lot with writing too. Sometimes a story may not be working and we have to step back and think about it in a different way. I’m always looking for a different approach to write something so young readers will understand and enjoy reading it.

Tell us about your research and what you did to make sure you got the story right.


Vivien Thomas wrote an autobiography that included lots of details about his research. Dr. Blalock advised him to write everything down – every step of an experiment. He took that advice to heart, and that helped me a lot.

PBS did a documentary on the procedure and included Vivien Thomas’ work.

I contacted doctors and residents who worked with him and interviewed them. They all said he was a generous person who really took the time to explain things. If you didn’t understand the first time, he would find a different way to frame it to make sure it was clear.

I also talked to his nephew who is now an orthopedic doctor with a sports team in Florida. He didn’t know what his uncle did until he attended Johns Hopkins as a medical student and saw his uncle’s picture on the wall.

Whenever the nephew had visited Baltimore in the summers, Vivien just told the kids he worked with dogs. He was humble about his accomplishments.

Vivien did an interview in the 1980s, I listened to the recording, but the sound quality made it difficult to hear well. Fortunately there was a transcript.

I really wish I’d had the chance to interview him myself.

Vivien Thomas portrait
at John Hopkins

I also read journals and articles written during his lifetime to get a sense of the challenges he faced. Both Nashville and Baltimore were segregated cities at the time. I was doing a school visit recently and we talked about his hardships and how he didn’t get credit for his accomplishments. The students were very vocal about how unfair that was, so that was very good to hear.

I watched a YouTube video done by a doctor at the Mayo clinic explaining the procedure. It was a video he showed patients and families, so it was very understandable.

I included the video in the resource section and when I was checking to make sure the link worked, I discovered the doctor had left the Mayo Clinic – and moved to Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City.

I emailed him, not really expecting to hear back, but he responded and ended up reading the book to make sure the science was correct. I dedicated the book to him and sent him a copy. He said he was happy to share it with his kids so they would understand what he does at work.

Gwen with Will, who was saved by Vivien Thomas’ procedure

That’s a great bit of serendipity. Did you find that one bit of research led you to the next?


Sometimes the path led me astray. There were so many stories I wanted to include, but I knew I couldn’t include them all.

I really wanted it to be accessible to upper elementary/lower middle school students and wanted them to see his determination and his ability to follow through.

Tell me about shaping the story.

The manuscript was about 2,500 words to start with and it ended up being about 1,100. I did several rounds of revision with the editor to cut it down. It’s a challenge to eliminate words and still keep the heart of the story.

What advice do you have for other writers?

My advice is to read the books being published now in the genre you’re trying to write. A lot of times I get a manuscript from another writer and they tell me it’s a picture book or a chapter book, but then when I read it, it’s not that at all.

Were there model books that helped you?


Author Barbara Lowell sent me Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Henry Holt, 2013). It’s a different style, but it was interesting to see what information she included.

I read a lot of picture book biographies.

I lived at the library and read at least one or two every week (52 weeks x 5 years = 260 at least). Writing friends also loaned me books.

I didn’t limit myself to science books. I was reading them for writing techniques too.

Blizzard: The Storm That Changed America (Scholastic, 2006) by Jim Murphy. I love the way he can write nonfiction and make you feel like it’s fiction.

A couple of how-to books I found helpful were Yes! You Can Learn to Write Successful Children’s Books by Nancy I. Sanders (Createspace, 2013) and Anatomy of Nonfiction (Institute for Writers) by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas. (See Cynsations post about Anatomy of Nonfiction.)

Other picture book biographies I love (and this list doesn’t include the ones I checked out of the library!):

Cynsational Notes



Booklist gave Tiny Stitches a starred review. Peek:”(Vivien Thomas’) life and work are vivid in the pages of this picture book biography, in which Hooks details how his youthful work in fine carpentry, paired with his desire to become a doctor, propelled Thomas in his pursuit of his goals.”

A teacher’s guide is available from the publisher.

Gwendolyn Hudson Hooks was born in Savannah, Georgia. Her father was in the Air Force, so Gwen and her family moved a lot when she was a child. Her first stop in every new city was the local library where she got her new library card.

She is the author of 20 books for children, including the Pet Club Series from Capstone. Gwen now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and their three children.

Author Interview: Leda Schubert on Lyrics, a Music Legend & Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome Leda Schubert, author of Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing, illustrated by Raúl Colón (Roaring Brook Press, June 13, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Listen.
There was nobody like Pete Seeger.
Wherever he went, he got people singing. 
With his head thrown back
and his Adam’s apple bouncing,
picking his long-necked banjo
or strumming his twelve-string guitar,
Pete sang old songs,
new songs,
new words to old songs,
and songs he made up.


This tribute to legendary musician and activist Pete Seeger highlights major musical events in Mr. Seeger’s life as well important moments of his fight against social injustice. From singing sold-out concerts to courageously standing against the McCarthy-era finger-pointing, Pete Seeger’s life is celebrated in this bold book for young readers.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Listen?

I had no intention of writing about Pete–until that very sad morning when I found out he had died.

Nobody lives forever, but I hoped Pete would beat the odds. I couldn’t stop crying, and before I knew it, I had started a picture book about him. Writing as a way to understand and process sadness and loss? I should have known.

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


First, Pete lived such a long life. Second, he did enough to pack into 50 lifetimes. Third, was he really as flawless has he seemed? And more.

How could I find something fresh to say, deal with McCarthyism in a picture book, and craft it for a child audience? What compromises would I have to make, if any? What would I leave out? How can music be expressed in words?

Including the song titles is pretty brilliant. Was that how you envisioned it from the beginning, or did that evolve as you worked on the project?


Ha. I wanted to include the beginning two lines of 14 or 15 different songs. I very carefully chose
songs that would reflect each section.

For example, the text says “Pete and his good friend Woody Guthrie/…/they hopped freight trains…”

Here I wanted to include the lyrics to ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’: “Go to sleep you weary hobo/Let the towns drift slowly by.”

Or, another example: “Pete said, “I love my country very deeply,”/offered to sing a song,..”

Here I wanted to include the beginning of that song: “Wasn’t that a time, a time to try/The soul of man; wasn’t that a terrible time.”

I contacted the copyright holders early on, which began a year-long (!) discussion about getting the rights. Eventually, I received permission from the family, but then learned that the permissions would be prohibitively expensive.

Lesson: don’t try to incorporate song lyrics in your work. I realized we’d have to go with the song titles instead.

Also by Raúl Colón

From there, it was in the extremely capable hands of Neal Porter (the editor), Raúl Colón (the illustrator), and Jennifer Browne (the art director). They decided to use the blue font, which I think was a brilliant decision.

What sort of research did you do?


What sort didn’t I do?  I am a research addict, and I have become over time probably the world’s best researcher. I am a naturally modest if not completely self-effacing person, but I make this claim with confidence.

So the research I did was basically to read everything that had ever been written by or about Pete and to watch videos and listen to everything he sang (almost).

Fortunately, I already knew a whole lot about Pete’s life. The problem I have with research is stopping.

Did you ever meet Pete or see him perform in person?


I did not exactly meet him, but I did shake his hand on two occasions and tell him how much he meant to me. I mention this in the notes. I was also very fortunate to see him many, many times, in concert, at folk festivals, and on pickets lines and demonstrations.

What do you hope readers take away from Listen?


I hope young readers want to listen to Pete’s music, learn more about him, and change the world as Pete did. Or at least change where they live. Pete said, as I quote in the book, “If anybody asks you where in the world is the most important place,/ tell them, right where you are.”

And I hope knowing his story will lead readers to sing more, especially with others. There’s nothing like four part harmony rising to the rafters and drifting to the stars (apparently I now quote myself.).

Also, I hope that readers will go out and buy tons of copies of the book. Then everyone will know about Pete.


What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Leda reading with mentee at local school

In my journal from when I was 16, I had two wishes (other than falling in love, losing weight, having lots of dogs, etc.): to write for children and to live in Vermont.

I achieved the Vermont part in my early twenties, but it took me about thirty more years to get to the writing part. In between, I was lucky enough to always work in some way or other with children and books.

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


All the usual stuff: write, read, stay tuned in to the world.

Read your work aloud. Find a good writing group. Come to VCFA (Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children & Young Adults, low-residency MFA program).

But also this: read with children. Experiencing how children respond to your favorite books can be a mixed blessing, but worth it. And be a force for good in the universe!

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Listen a starred review. Peek: “Schubert and Colón capture with affection and respect Seeger’s remarkable lifetime of speaking truth to power through music and engaging the hearts of his audiences. A biographical timeline includes a charming selection from a boyhood letter, contemplating a banjo purchase; the generous resource list includes source notes and recommended recordings.”


School Library Journal said “Schubert’s offering is ideal for shared reading. Verdict: Buy this book and sing your heart out!”

Horn Book Magazine described the “focus not on dry facts but on helping child readers understand his essential spirit” and “the text captures the singer’s unmistakable speaking cadence.”

Leda Schubert is the author of 10 picture books including Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words, Gerard DuBois (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, 2012), which won the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction, and Ballet Of The Elephants, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Roaring Brook Press, 2006).

She has been a teacher, a school and public librarian, and a consultant for the Vermont Department of Education, and she holds an MFA from VCFA, where she was a core faculty member as well.

She lives in Plainfield, Vermont with her husband and two dogs, one of whom is a saint and the other a sinner.

Leda’s favorite Pete Seeger performance, with Bruce Springsteen, 
at President Obama’s “We Are One” pre-inauguration concert, Jan. 19, 2009. 

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.

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.

Interview: Lee & Low New Voices Award Winners

Roberto Penas

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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


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


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


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


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


Roberto recently shared more about the inspiration behind his manuscript.

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


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

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

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

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





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

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

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


How long have you been working on this story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Dayne Sislan

Are you part of a critique group?

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

Have you entered the New Voices contest before?

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

What are you working on now?

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

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

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

Gloria Amescua

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


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


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


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



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

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

Pamphlet from Ransom Center at UT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long have you been working on this story?

Bethany Hegedus

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

I spent about two years doing further research.

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

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

From intern Gayleen Rabakukk

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

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

Gary: Why a book about Pete?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also by Charlotte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Charlotte Riley-Webb from Strange Fruit

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

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

Illustration by Adam Gustavson from Stand Up and Sing!

Cynsational Notes

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

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