New Voice: LaTisha Redding on Calling the Water Drum

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

LaTisha Redding is the debut author of Calling the Water Drum, illustrated by Aaron Boyd (Lee & Low, 2016) From the promotional copy:



Henri and his parents leave their homeland, Haiti, after they receive an invitation from an uncle to come to New York City. 


Only able to afford a small, rickety boat, the family sets out in the middle of the night in search of a better life. Out at sea, Henri dreams of what life will be like “across the great waters.”

Then the small boat overturns, and Henri is placed on top of the boat as his parents drift further out at sea. 


Overcome with grief, Henri retreats into himself and is no longer able to speak once he reaches land. Encouraged by his uncle and neighbor, Henri takes a bucket and plays on it like a drum. The drumming becomes a link to his past and a conduit for his emotions. 


Slowly, through his drumming and the kindness of his uncle and friend, Henri learns to navigate this new and foreign world without his parents.

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

more from illustrator Aaron Boyd

I keep a notebook with me almost all of the time. But I didn’t write down the idea for this story right away. It stewed in the back of my mind for several months. When I finally stilled myself to write it, I let the story pour out onto the page without editing.

As I wrote, the first challenge was capturing Henri’s voice. Henri narrates the story and it took me a few revision rounds to discover how much dialogue he would have. I’m not a poet or a musician, but Henri’s voice had formed a certain cadence when I read the draft out loud.

Then I immediately tucked the story away. After that, I researched details of the Haitian language, which is Kreyol, and the culture; it was important that I presented it properly. I also researched drumming, the origins, and its ceremonial use within the African diaspora.

When I returned to the story months later, I shaped it with those elements, chose more precise words and tightened the structure. Later, when I worked with my editor Jessica, she helped me revise it further by adding the day-to-day details of life in Haiti, which required more research. That added another layer to Henri’s story.

For the psychological aspects of the story, I knew from the onset that Henri was dealing with great loss, which was balanced with hope. But I never considered the themes in Calling the Water Drum too heavy for a child to understand.

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

The advice that I have, is what’s been given before and it’s advice that I followed, and still practice. Read a lot and write a lot. That’s the bedrock of being a writer. I have yet to personally meet another writer that didn’t begin as a voracious reader. The reading comes easily. The writing can be the hard part. Over the years, I’ve discovered that just because I’m compelled to write and I enjoy telling stories doesn’t mean it’s not hard.

LaTisha at a classroom visit

One piece of advice that I always found interesting was the adage to “write what you know.” I like to modify that: write what you want to know more about. I write what intrigues me or gets under my skin. And centering a child as the protagonist in a story gives me the chance to explore with wonder. Kids are curious about the world and, as a writer, so am I.

When it comes to actually learning how to write, I view it as a skill, like anything else. You read something, a poem, a short-story, a picture book, a novel and then you apprentice the story–you take it apart to see how the author put it together. Of course the “recipe” of read a lot, write a lot has to be seasoned with patience. Life gets so busy sometimes and it gets difficult to make time for writing.

It helps to set realistic reading and writing goals. I read the classics and read what’s on the market. I decide how many stories to write and complete in a month or three-month time frame if a year feels too lengthy. And completing the story is key. It’s better to complete two short-stories or one novel than have a hard-drive worth of half-finished stories.

What would you have done differently? 

I’ve been a storyteller since I was a child. But, I’m not one of those writers who have been writing since I was a kid or wrote for my high school newspaper or took creative writing classes in college. I had graduated from college and worked for several years before I took a writing class.

If I could do it differently, I would’ve taken creative writing classes in college and started to learn the craft earlier. I also would’ve sought out other writers and writing organizations sooner.

The community has been invaluable. It’s important for me to gather with other writers; but it was critical for me in the beginning stage to be around other writers and experience that camaraderie. I’ve learned that writing in isolation doesn’t benefit me at all.

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?

More from illustrator Aaron Boyd

Being an author is still very new to me. It’s true that having a book published is a delicious feeling. I’m still amazed. But I keep my focus on getting my butt-in-the-chair and writing. I have more stories to tell. And since I want to get more of my stories out into the world then I need to write more.

The pragmatic side of me has approached marketing and promotion with the understanding that it’s part of the book publishing process. It’s a business, after all. So I setup a website and I’m on Twitter joining the conversations about writing or the writing life, which is fun. I’ve been steeped in the writing world for years, but publishing is a whole other beast.

In terms of my self-image, it’s pretty much the same, again, because I’ve been a storyteller since I was little. So for me, at the end of the day, it’s all about story.

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

I’m African-American and the story is from the vantage point of a Haitian boy named Henri. But there’s another child named Karrine in the story, who is African-American.

Now, I didn’t write a Haitian story or the Haitian experience. There are Haitian writers who can express that from a place of vision that I never could. But, I wrote this story entwining two children from different cultures and that was intriguing to me.

Since I grew up in New York City, I’m familiar with being immersed in my culture while living parallel to many other cultures. I definitely wanted to give life to that experience and I did.

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Calling the Water Drum a starred review, calling it “a powerful story of loss and survival, human connection and hope… Redding’s distinguished text sensitively portrays the tragedies young Henri and Karrine have faced…”

A teacher’s guide is available from the publisher.

LaTisha Redding is a 2010 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and busy working on a middle grade novel. She lives in Florida and when she’s not wilting from the humidity,  she writes!

Author-Illustrator Video: Daniel W. Vandever on Fall In Line, Holden!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out this author-illustrator interview video with Daniel W. Vandever on Fall In Line, Holden! by Tyler Mitchell from Salina Bookshelf. From the promotional copy:

Fall in Line, Holden! follows Holden, a young Navajo boy, through his day at boarding school.


Although Holden is required to conform to a rigid schedule and strict standards of behavior, his internal life is led with imagination and wonder. 


Whether he is in art class, the computer lab, or walking the hall to lunch, Holden’s vivid imagination transforms his commonplace surroundings into a world of discovery and delight.


Explore the world through Holden’s eyes. Join him for the day, and celebrate the strong spirit of a boy who rises above the rules surrounding him.

Guest Post: Linda Joy Singleton on Novels to Picture Books, the Long & Short of Writing for Children

By Linda Joy Singleton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I joined SCBWI, my biggest dream was to sell a middle-grade novel. I attended as many workshops as I could and was excited when there were speakers who wrote MG or YA.

But often I had to sit through talks on writing picture books.

It seemed like writers all around me were in love with the picture book genre. I enjoyed reading picture books to my kids, but I was writing for the kid in me and preferred thrilling middle-grade mysteries.

My most exciting day ever was when I got The Call. Yay!

My middle-grade novel Almost Twins sold to a small publisher. More sales followed, mostly YA and MG paperback series.

I was living my writing dream!

All along, I kept going to SCBWI conferences and learning everything I could about the industry— which usually included many, many workshops on picture books.

I learned so much that I could give a talk on writing picture books. Still, writing short seemed like a magical talent I lacked. So, I happily continued writing longer books.

And then it happened—I got the itch to write a picture book.

My picture book friends encouraged me and critiqued my first attempts. I rewrote and cut and rewrote then submitted.

The rejections rolled in, smothering me in disappointment. While my friends thought my picture books were great, editors were not impressed.

Years passed, and while the ups and downs of writing MG and YA series often frustrated me, I kept selling novels.

I’d made nearly 40 book sales, when a photograph changed my career course.

My writing friend Verla Kay, came to visit and I tagged along to her school talk. She gave a power point presentation, starting off with photo of herself as a child. The photograph showed two girls building a snow dog. This photo stuck in my head—and words followed:

“More than anything, Ally wanted a dog, but dogs made her ACHOO.”

The next day, I was driving to a writing conference when more words danced in my head. I couldn’t ignore them.

When we stopped for lunch, I grabbed a pen and scribbled the first draft of Snow Dog, Sand Dog, illustrated by Jess Golden (Albert Whitman, 2014) on a napkin.

Now I’d love to say this book sold immediately, but it went through many rewrites and two agents before it was published five years later by Albert Whitman.

Still I thought it was a fluke.

“I’m not really a picture book author,” I’d say because writing picture books was so challenging and I was in awe of talented picture book author friends.

Delighted with the sale, I considered myself very lucky. And soon I was working on my 7th series for older kids, Curious Cat Spy Club (Albert Whitman, 2015).

Then a money game I created for my grandson, inspired me to write another picture book, Cash Kat, illustrated by Christina Wald (2016) which I sold to Arbordale. And a year later, A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin (June 13, 2017) sold to Little Bee.

I started thinking maybe I did have some picture book skills, especially when my agent sold two more of my picture books: Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and Crane And Crane (2019).

Now I consider myself a novelist and a picture book author.

These genres seem opposite with word counts around 50,000 words for novels and usually under 200 words for picture books. But the genres complement each other, too.

Here are some thoughts on being a multi-genre author:

  • Writing short can be more difficult since every word counts. But to be honest, I spend about six months of daily writing on a novel and probably only a few weeks on a picture book. The challenge for me with a picture book is coming up with a good idea.
  • Inspiration is a big difference in genres. If I waited for inspiration for a novel, I’d never finish the book. Instead, I have a routine of writing most mornings until the novel is done. But with picture books, inspiration is elusive. If I force a picture book idea, it’s rarely any good. I like to tease that I’ve averaged one good picture book idea a year. So, when that idea strikes, you can bet I stop everything to write it down.
  • Word play is part of the fun with picture books. Sometimes I find myself playing with words in my novel writing, too. Smash, crash, boom! I can’t resist using fun sound words, poetic rhythm and even alliteration in longer fiction. 
  • Fun fact: My longest novel, Memory Girl (CBAY Books, 2016), was nearly 100,000 words. My shortest picture book, Crane & Crane (2019), sold with just 19 words.
  • Don’t limit your creativity. Genres are just boxes that shape the story. For a long time, I told myself I wasn’t a picture book author, but then I became one. Make a routine of writing, and say “yes” when inspiration strikes. And you can become the writer you want to be.

Cynsational Notes

Linda Joy Singleton wrote her first story when she was eight about a mischievous kitten.

Two decades later, she pursued a career in writing and joined SCBWI. She’s sold over 45 books, including series: Curious Cat Spy Club, The Seer (Llewellyn/Flux), Regeneration (Berkley Books) and Dead Girl trilogy (North Star Editions).

Two new picture books come out in 2017: A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin  (Little Bee Books, June 13, 2017) and Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, December 2017.)

Author Interview: Kate Hosford on Theme, Re-imagined Colonialism & How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Kate Hosford to chat about How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea,
illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (Carolrhoda Books, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Each day when the Queen wakes up, three maids dress her, two more style her hair, and her butler James makes her tea. But when she grows dissatisfied with her brew, the Queen and James set out in search of the perfect cup. 


With each stop on their hot-air balloon journey, the Queen encounters new friends who expand her horizons—in the kitchen and beyond.


Can you tell me about your new release? Was it inspired by something in particular?

I started working on it in 2009 when getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I worked on picture books there with the extraordinary author and teacher Uma Krishnaswami.

The book was probably partly inspired by my aversion to cooking. (Both the Queen and I approach the kitchen with a certain amount of trepidation.) Aside from that, I just knew that I wanted to write about a pampered and lonely queen who yells at her butler when her tea tastes horrible, and then makes him take her around the world in a hot air balloon, searching for the perfect cup of tea.

Illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska, used with permission

I knew she would meet children along the way, and that the tea would start to taste better once she became more self-sufficient, and made some friends. However, in the early drafts, the children were still somewhat deferential, treating the Queen like royalty and giving her special gifts.

Uma really encouraged me to turn colonialism on its ear. Once I did, the story not only made more sense, but also became funnier, because the unimpressed children force the Queen to try all sorts of things that she normally wouldn’t do, like snuggle a kitty, play soccer, dance at a birthday party, and of course, make tea.

The Queen is like a toddler in some ways, experiencing a huge range of emotions in a small amount of time. Each time she visits a new land and is forced to try new things, she goes through a whole cycle of emotions: condescending, perplexed, startled, happy, proud, etc.

Gabi Swiatkowska did a wonderful job expressing all of these emotions in her incredible illustrations. She even used reference from baby faces for some of the Queen’s expressions!

Since Gabi also illustrated Infinity and Me, did the two of you end up communicating about How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea more?

Gabi & Kate

Gabi is an old friend, so we communicated a lot on both of the books. Infinity and Me (Carolrhoda, 2012) was done in a very different style with a number of different non-oil based paints.

For How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea, Gabi told me that she was going to use colored pencil and expressive line, and then occasional full page spreads just in colored pencil, which I thought was great combination for this humorous book.

I loved seeing sketches transform into finished artwork.

I’ve noticed sometimes beginning writers think picture books should have a moral or teach a lesson. How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea illustrates self-sufficiency, but this is very subtle, almost a subtext. Can you talk about this difference and how a theme emerges in a picture book?
Thank you! I hope the message about self-sufficiency is subtle and integrated into the story.

I think themes can naturally emerge from picture books when the intention behind the writing is to explore the growth of a character rather than to teach a lesson.

In this case, I tried very hard to focus on the Queen’s character. At the beginning she is lonely and impotent, even though she is a Queen.

I wanted her learning curve for making tea to be so slow that it would be funny. In Japan she can only turn on the faucet, and in India she is able to turn on the faucet and add water to the teapot. By the time she gets to Turkey, she can even boil water!

The Queen approaches each culinary task like an explorer who has discovered an intriguing but dangerous new land. I hope that after this slow build-up, her discovery of the perfect cup of tea feels earned.

When and where do you write? Why does the time and space work for you?

I live in Brooklyn, and have a writing studio next door to my house.

When I look out the window,  I can see squirrels running up and down the trees in the back yard, and can sometimes hear a trumpet player practicing, and pigeons chatting.

I try to start writing at about 11:00 am after exercising and doing other household duties, and get home by 4:00 for my boys. Honestly, that means the writing day is too short, so sometimes I try to work more from home while they are doing homework.

After dinner, I’m too tired to do anything productive.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a poetry collection about the brilliant and mysterious octopus. I would also like to do a non-fiction picture book on either a classical musician, or perhaps an ornithologist.

I have a picture book coming out with Abrams next spring called Mama’s Belly, which will be beautifully illustrated by Abigail Halpin. I’m really excited about it, and can’t wait for it to come out!

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly described Gabi Swiatkowska’s illustrations as “delicious, old-world pastels render
each character as a distinct individual…the details give Hosford’s round-the-world tale offbeat charm, and readers will smile as they watch the Queen shed her haughtiness and embrace her own capabilities.”

A curriculum guide and tea recipes from each of the countries the Queen visits are available online.

Kate Hosford graduated from Amherst College in 1988 with a degree in English and Philosophy. Before becoming an author, she worked as an elementary school teacher, a social worker, and an illustrator. In 2011 she received her MFA in Writing for children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Her other titles include Big Bouffant, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2011), Big Birthday, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2012) Infinity and Me, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (2012),  Feeding the Flying Fanellis and Other Poems from a Circus Chef, illustrated by Cosei Kawa (2015). All of these are published by Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing.

Author Interview: Anne Marie Pace on Writing Gothic Picture Books & Vampirina on TV

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Today we welcome Anne Marie Pace to discuss her latest picture book, Vampirina At The Beach, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Disney-Hyperion, April 2017) and it’s forthcoming animated series on Disney Junior. From the promotional copy:
When the summer moon is full, a beach trip is an epic way to spend the night.
With her signature poise, Vampirina gears up for a festive time at the beach. 

Keeping her ballet lessons in mind, Vampirina demi-plies on a surfboard, leaps for a volleyball, and finishes each competition with style, even if she doesn’t always come out on top.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

More than anything else, writing is like solving a puzzle for me, finding the right words to snap into the right place to communicate what I want to say in the right way. 

You know how when you’re working a jigsaw puzzle, there’s this huge jumble of pieces waiting for you to build the outer edge and then fill in the middle section by section? At first it feels overwhelming but the more you do, the faster you can move, and it becomes really satisfying to begin to see the art. 
With writing, the pieces are words, and you aren’t limited to 500 or 1000—you’ve got tens of thousands, and you get to design the outer edge and you get to create the picture. I find picture books very rewarding because every word—every piece—matters so much.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I don’t have a set schedule the way some authors do. I heard Eileen Spinelli say at Chautauqua years ago that she taught herself to “write in the cracks” of the day, and that’s something I’ve worked on being able to do. 

I can see the appeal of setting aside a block of time daily in which you devote yourself to your writing, but with four kids (even though they’re pretty big now), I’ve never been able to count on that time, so it’s better that I simply write when I can, rather than assuming that a particular time of day when I must work will be available to me. 

I’m not saying there are never days when I sit and write for hours, because there are, but it’s not a regular thing for me the way it is for some writers.

And I mostly write these days on my green sofa. There’s room for my two cats and two dogs to sit with me, and it’s rather peaceful. They are with me as I type this.


Could you tell us about your new release?


Vampirina At The Beach is the third in the Vampirina Ballerina series. 
Vampirina and her family hit the surf in what I’ve referred to from the beginning as “Monster Mash meets Beach Blanket Bingo.” I even watched a lot of Annette Funicello videos on YouTube to get in the beach party mood while I was writing. 
LeUyen Pham’s illustrations are phenomenal in this book. The pages are chock-full of surprises for kids to find. And our first editor, Kevin Lewis, whom we dedicated the book to, is honored in the illustrations as Vampirina’s new friend, so it feels special in that way, too. I’m so tickled Uyen thought of that. 
Then again, I’m always tickled at the wonderful elements she brings to each book in the series.
What appeals to you about writing gothic picture books?


I’ve thought a lot about this because I’m not really a fan of vampire movies or books, or in fact, any kind of scary element (although my TV viewing does include a couple of police procedural dramas, so maybe real life is scary enough for me). 
So why vampires? Five of the six birthdays in my family fall in the autumn months, so as a mom,
October was always a very stressful month, with several birthday parties (even though I throw pretty casual, at-home parties) and four Halloween costumes to create for my kids. So I think Vampirina Ballerina has been a way for me to enjoy the Halloween season that I never enjoyed when my kids were little!

Anne Marie’s kids and few of their friends from a long-ago Halloween

Of course, now I’m getting to know Vampirina outside of her Halloween-y self, and that’s even more fun.


What are the craft challenges of writing a series like this?


There are a few craft challenges that come to mind. 
Of course, you want each book to be as inviting to children as the first. Subsequent books need to carry a sense of the familiar without being a complete retread. 
Uyen suggested early on that Vampirina grow not only in the course of a story, but over the course of the series, so the theme of making friends has carried throughout. 
In the first book, she feels like an outsider; in the second, she learns that she can trust her friends to love her for who she is; and in the third, she befriends someone who fears being seen as an outsider. 
The biggest challenge for me with the text is that a lot of the humor comes from puns and words with multiple meanings and I don’t want to be repetitive with either vampire/monster words or ballet terms. Especially with the vampire terminology, I need to be very careful not to cross the line into anything scary. But I want the language in each book to stay fresh.
Image from Disney Junior
Tell us about the Disney series. When will it be broadcast? How involved are you?

The Disney Junior series debuts this fall. I don’t know an exact date, but I follow Chris Nee, the executive producer, on Twitter, and at one point, she said it would be before Halloween. 

Actually, almost everything I know, I know from Twitter. I am not involved at all in creating the show—Uyen and I do our thing, Disney Junior folks do theirs—so I am watching it unfold like a fan. 
I know Chris said there is a “dream cast” so I’m anxious to know whose voices we will hear in October. A lot of the creative people involved have also worked on the award-winning Doc McStuffins, so I feel confident that the property is in the best of hands.
Cynsational Notes
Anne Marie Pace is the author of Vampirina Ballerina (Disney-Hyperion, 2012) and Vampirina Hosts a Sleepover (Disney-Hyperion, 2013), both illustrated by LeUyen Pham.

Publishers Weekly gave Vampirina Ballerina a starred review. Peek: “The underlying messages are familiar: there are no shortcuts to achieving an ambitious dream, and persistence and a sunny outlook (even when one is a creature of the night) pay off. But seldom have these lessons been expounded with so much charm.”

Anne Marie’s other books include Pigloo, illustrated by Lorna Hussey (Henry Holt, 2016) and A Teacher for Bear, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka (Scholastic, 2011). Forthcoming is Groundhug Day, illustrated by Christopher Denise (Disney-Hyperion, December 2017) and Busy-Eyed Day, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon (Simon & Schuster, 2018).

She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband and four teenagers. 

Guest Post: Varsha Bajaj on Finding Your Book at Target

By Varsha Bajaj 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

On November 9, 2016, I was at my local Target store.

I had bought milk, eggs, bananas and dog treats and I wandered into the books section because that’s where I am known to stray when I need comforting.

Right there beside Dr. Seuss and under Eric Carle was This is Our Baby, Born Today (by Varsha Bajaj, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2016).

I pulled out my phone and clicked a picture, as if I needed proof for my friends and family, in case it was a huge mistake and they pulled the copies off the shelves the next day.

Then, I lurked around the aisle trying to collect my errant thoughts.

This book was born in January 2012 during my son’s senior year when the school requested that I send pictures of him between the ages of 0-5. I sat surrounded by hundreds of pictures with the impossible task of selecting five. Babies were now on my brain and in my words.

After months of writing and many failed versions and drafts, I realized the heart of my story.

While the baby is the mother’s alone in the womb, the circle of love gradually expands after birth and includes at first the family and then the world. The arrival of a baby is cause for celebration.

Around the same time, I read about the plight of elephants and their dwindling numbers.

My connection to elephants goes way back. I remembered the wooden elephant from my childhood home in India who was the hero of some of my earliest stories.

It struck me that if we celebrated the birth of every elephant, they would not be endangered today. The baby in the story became an elephant and the rest of the words followed.

This manuscript found the right editor thanks to my agent, Jill Corcoran.

The words found the perfect illustrator, Eliza Wheeler, thanks to my extraordinary editor, Nancy Paulsen.

I’ve been lucky to see my books grace the shelves of bookstores before.

But this was different.

While I wish everyone visited a bookstore, I realize and mourn the fact that only a small section of people frequent and support their local indie or Barnes and Noble.

Target manages to reach a much wider base.

I hope that the readers of this book will be sympathetic toward elephants and realize that these gentle giants need our help.

I hope that these young readers will wander into a bookstore or their local indie as teens or adults.

I hope there are people who will wander to the book section after buying their milk, eggs, bananas and dog treats and pick up a copy of This is Our Baby, Born Today.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus called This is Our Baby, Born Today a gentle rhyming story and said it “works on two levels: the playfulness of the young elephant and its friends ensure that young children will be able to see themselves in the story, and given the depiction of the natural scenes, at least some young readers will become fascinated with the lives of elephants as well.”

Varsha Bajaj came to the United States as a graduate student in 1986. She earned her master’s degree in counseling from Southern Illinois University and worked as a Licensed Professional Counselor in St. Louis. This is Our Baby, Born Today is her third picture book, and she is also the author of the novel Abby Spencer goes to Bollywood (Albert Whitman, 2014). Her next book, Our Earth, Our Home, illustrated by Simona Mulazzani will be published by Nancy Paulsen Books in 2018.

Varsha with Kathi Appelt at the This is Our Baby, Born Today launch party.

New Voice: Sue Lowell Gallion on Pug Meets Pig

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Sue Lowell Gallion is the debut author of Pug Meets Pig (Beach Lane, 2016), illustrated by Joyce Wan. From the promotional copy:

Meet Pug. Pug is one happy pup. He has his own yard, his own bowl, and his own cozy bed. That is, until Pig moves in! Pig eats from Pug’s bowl, interrupts Pug’s work, and, worst of all, sleeps in Pug’s bed. Will Pug and Pig ever learn to live together as friends? 


With adorable illustrations from Joyce Wan, this sweet and silly story about a darling duo shares the timeless themes of embracing change, being kind to others, and finding friends in unlikely places.

What first inspired you to write for kids? Could you tell us about your path to publication?

I was one of those kids who read when I was supposed to be practicing the piano. I’d play the left hand part and prop a book up on the music stand. I was always surprised when my mom figured it out.

My path wound through a journalism degree from Southern Methodist University, writing for hospitals and energy companies, a bunch of moves, two kids, and finally, about 10 years ago, a class in children’s literature at a local community college. Our final assignment was writing an ABC book. I was hooked.

Congratulations on the release of Pug Meets Pig, illustrated by Joyce Wan (Beach Lane, 2016). Such a cute idea! What was your initial spark of inspiration?

A friend told me about the rescue pig adopted by her daughter’s family. Unfortunately, the new pig addition was not welcomed by the family pug, whose name was Charlotte. The family eventually found a different home for the pig, who they had named Wilbur (of course!)

Literary destiny, perhaps?

What was the timeline between spark and publication and what were the major events along the way?

I started writing the story as an early reader in 2011. I sent it out in various versions (early reader and picture book) and it collected a variety of rejections. In 2013, I attended the SCBWI LA and purchased a manuscript critique. Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books critiqued Pug Meets Pig, and we had an encouraging editorial conversation. I revised the manuscript, and it sold to Beach Lane two months later. Joyce Wan agreed to illustrate it the next month. It’s still unbelievable to me.

I see there’s already a sequel in the works, Pug & Pig Trick or Treat (Summer 2017). Huzzah! Picture book sequels are rare, especially if they’re under contract prior to the release of the book. How did this come to be?

In October 2014, the little terrier mix that lived next door appeared outside in a skintight glow-in-the-dark Halloween costume. The immediate reaction of my dog (a black lab mix) was that the terrier in costume was an embarrassment to all of dog-dom. Watching the two of them got me thinking about how Pug and Pig would react to wearing costumes.

I wrote the manuscript, shared it with my critique partners, and my agent sent it on to Andrea Welch at Beach Lane, even though we knew that the chances of selling a seasonal book featuring Pug and Pig at that time were really remote. Surprise – they bought it right away!

What did Joyce Wan’s art bring to your text?

Joyce Wan brought Pug and Pig to life with such warmth and expression. I think the world she created for them truly helps kids relate to the characters and their changing feelings. I am so fortunate to be partners with her and Beach Lane Books in the Pug and Pig books.

You’ve been the SCBWI Kansas Regional Advisor for several years. Tell us about your region. What Kansas/Missouri-authored or –illustrated books should we seek out?

The Kansas and Missouri SCBWI regions just merged at the beginning of 2017, so we stretch from the Colorado border to the Mississippi River now. We’re excited about the expanded opportunities for our writers and illustrators.

It’s impossible to pick out just a few books, but there are some great combinations of Kansas/Missouri author and illustrator members, like Bridget Heos and Jennifer PlecasI, Fly (Henry Holt), and the upcoming The Twelve Days Of Christmas In Missouri (Sterling 2017) written by Ann Ingalls and illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith. Daniel MiyaresBring Me A Rock! (Simon & Schuster, 2016), is one of our members, and he spoke at our 2016 Middle of the Map conference in Kansas City. He’s illustrating a book by another Kansas/Missouri member, Jody Jensen Shaffer, A Chip Off The Old Block (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin), releasing in 2018.

Tucker

What’s it like, being RA? What are your responsibilities? What are the challenges, and what do you love about it?

The best part about being an RA? Helping to build the community of children’s book creators, and offering opportunities for people to advance their craft. Being a creative person can be lonely. We need other creative people to encourage us to be brave, to share our work, and to keep striving to make it better.

This winter I’ve been reading Danielle Krysa’s Your Inner Critic Is A Big Jerk and Other Truths About Being Creative (Chronicle 2016). In her chapter titled Creating in a Vacuum Sucks (isn’t that a great title?), she says, “Creativity requires warmth and nurturing from trusted sources in order to flourish. . . The quest to find your people may seem daunting, but it delivers a huge reward.”
Exactly! I step down as RA in April, but I’ll continue to be involved with SCBWI.

What do you do outside of your writing life?

Tucker sits by my desk while I work and begs for walks, so we do a lot of that. My 15-month-old grandson lives nearby, aren’t I blessed? Watching him grow and change is a wonder.

And I believe in baking therapy. There’s nothing like the smell of molasses crinkles fresh from
the oven.

Cynsational Notes:

Pug Meets Pig received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Gallion wisely lets the reward of selflessness speak for itself, while Wan’s pert, roly-poly characters look like something lifted out of reader’s own toy boxes.”

Additional resources include an activity kit, a Common Core/state standards aligned discussion and activity guide and coloring sheets.

New Voice: David A. Robertson on When We Were Alone

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

David A. Robertson is the first-time children’s author of When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett (Portage & Main Press, Jan. 6, 2017)(available for pre-order). From the promotional copy:

When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things about her grandmother that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long braided hair and wear beautifully coloured clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family?


As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where everything was taken away.


When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history and, ultimately, a story of empowerment and strength.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

So much of my writing is aimed at creating social change, especially in the area of relations between First Nations people and non-First Nations people.

I believe that change comes through education; what we learn from history, and its impact on contemporary society. In Canada, we have a long history of mistreatment concerning the First Nations people. As Canadians, we need to learn about this history. So, my work tries to educate in this way.

In terms of young readers, I believe that change comes from our youth. These are the people who shape our tomorrows, and they need to walk into tomorrow informed on the important issues and histories. If they do, we’ll be in a pretty good place.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

graphic novelist-writer of Irish-Scottish-English-Cree heritage

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada looked at the history of the residential school system, and its impact, and from that research, including residential school survivor testimony and documentation, it came up with a list of recommendations.

One of those recommendations was that the residential school system’s history needed to be taught in school as early as kindergarten.

When I saw this, I recognized that there weren’t many resources for teachers (i.e. books) that addressed the residential school system for younger learners.

So, I set out to write one, and that’s how When We Were Alone came about.

I wanted kids at that young age to learn about the system in a way that they could understand and engage with.

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

For me the challenges mostly involved sensitivity and appropriateness. This is a difficult history to tell, especially to younger learners. So, I needed to tell the story in a good way.

It took a lot of research and consultation, it took finding the right rhythm in the passages to connect with readers, and we needed to find the right illustrator, too, which we did in Julie Flett.

Of course, writing these stories always has a psychological effect on you as the writer, too. Understanding that the kids you are writing about really went through these things is tough. But knowing that kids will be learning and growing and sharing makes it worth it.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Also illustrated by Julie Flett

I have the benefit of having five children. So, I’ve read my share of children’s books. This helped in terms of finding a good structure for When We Were Alone, and rhythm.

These two things are very important, and there are certainly some commonalities in books that really work in terms of how they are told, not just what is told in them.

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

Read a lot of children’s books, or YA books. Figure out styles, structures, approaches from the best. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be ready to write a good story that really connects with your reader.

It always comes down to reading first, and then hard work and a bit of skill.

New Voice & Giveaway: Maria Gianferrari on Penny & Jelly

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maria Gianferrari writes both fiction and nonfiction picture books from her
sunny, book-lined study in northern Virginia, with her dog Becca as her
muse.

Maria’s debut picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder (2015) led to Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars (2016)(both HMH Books). 

Maria
has seven picture books forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press, Aladdin
Books for Young Readers, GP Putnam’s Sons and Boyds Mills Press in the
coming years.

Could you tell us about your writing community–your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional, craft and/or professional support?

In the spirit of my main character, Penny, an avid list maker, here are my top five answers:

1. Ammi-Joan Paquette:

I am so grateful for my amazing agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette!

Where do I begin? I owe my writing career to Joan, for taking a chance on and believing in me. She has been sage guide, a cheerleader and champion of my writing from the get go.

She’s made my writing dream come true!!

2. Crumpled Paper Critique (CP):

I would not be where I am today without my trusted writing friends and critique partners: Lisa Robinson, Lois Sepahban, Andrea Wang, Abigail Calkins Aguirre and Sheri Dillard. They have been such a wonderful source of support over the years, in good times, and in bad.

Yes—it’s kind of like a marriage—that’s how dedicated we are to each other’s work! They’re smart, thoughtful, insightful, well read, hard-working and the best critique partners one could hope for!

We have a private website where we share not only our manuscripts, but our opinions on books, ideas, writing inspiration and doubts. I treasure them and wish we lived closer to one another to be able to meet regularly in person. Hugs, CPers!

3. Emu’s Debuts:

Like many other writers, I’m quite a shy and introverted person. If you’ve seen that classic hamster ball cartoon about introverts, that’s me! Having a book debut is extremely intimidating.

I was so lucky to have joined the ranks of Emu’s Debuts, so named for clients and debut authors affiliated with Erin Murphy Literary Agency (EMLA).

The Emu’s Debuts blog is a place for sharing thoughts on the craft of writing and illustrating, being debuts, and most importantly, helping launch our books into the world. I have since fledged, but it was so helpful, reassuring and fun to be a part of this community of very talented, kind and generous people. Check out the current flock of Emus.

4. Tara Lazar:

Picture book author extraordinaire, and founder of PiBoIdMo (picture book idea month), Tara has also been a generous supporter, not just of me, but for all the pre and published picture book authors and illustrators out there. Thousands of writers participate and are inspired by guest posts during PiBoIdMo, November’s picture book idea challenge. She shares insights on craft, the field of publishing, new books, interviews, giveaways, etc. on her popular blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them), throughout the year.

When the news of the Penny & Jelly sale broke, Tara kindly offered to host me of her blog. Later, she invited to be a contributor for PiBoIdMo, and last year she also participated in my blog tour for Penny & Jelly.

5. Kirsten Cappy of Curious City:

Kirsten’s a kidlit marketing guru and owner of Curious City. She was invaluable in sorting through the mire that is promotion.

Kirsten’s clever and creative and had so many wonderful ideas for promoting Penny & Jelly in ways that would be most comfortable for an introvert like me. She designed a Jelly banner with original art from illustrator Thyra Heder for use as a photo booth so kids could “be” Penny and pose with Jelly, as well as gorgeous postcards and business cards.

I especially love the talent show kit for library and classroom use that Kirsten designed. Please feel free to share and use it.

As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?

1. Write What You Love:

Write what you’re obsessed with. This will help you not only endure the inevitable rejections along the way, but also the winding road of revision.

My debut nonfiction book, Coyote Moon, was released this July. It initially began as an article on suburban coyotes for “Highlights.”

Well, “Highlights” rejected it, but I wasn’t ready to let go of my manuscript.

The coyotes kept howling in my head, so it morphed into a poetic picture book.

Several revisions later, it won a Letter of Commendation for a Barbara Karlin grant from SCBWI; many more revisions later, it was acquired by Emily Feinberg at Roaring Brook Press. And I am so in love Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations. They are absolutely stunning!

2. Read. Read. Read:

Then read some more. I once read that before attempting to write one picture book, we should first read 1,000. But don’t just read them, see them as teachers, as mentor texts for your own work.

One of the most helpful exercises is to hand-write or type the words of my favorite picture book texts, to feel the rhythm of the and pulse of the story in my fingers, to get under the story’s skin—see its bones or structure and the way the muscles and sinews, rhythm, refrain and repetition, are bound together. Doing this helps us find a story’s heart, its elusive soul and helps us understand our own work.

Consider joining founder Carrie Charley Brown’s ReFoReMo, where picture books are studied as mentor texts. Get ready to dig deep!

3. Don’t Give Up!

Persevere! Keep swimming! Rejection is at the heart of this journey and it’s not usually a linear journey, it’s more circuitous, with ups and downs along the way.

Take it one day, one moment at a time, and celebrate all of your successes, both big and small.

And remember, keep improving your craft, and building your connections, you will get there!

(See #1 again)

4. Play and Experiment:

To find your writing voice, play with different points of view. Change genres. Try out different structural techniques like letters, or a diary format or lists, like I did with Penny & Jelly.

Think about the shape of your story. Is it circular? Could it be a journey? Would a question and answer format enhance it? Does it have a refrain?

I’m not an illustrator, but you can do the same kinds of things to find your visual voice—switch sketching for sewing, or painting for clay. And most of all, embrace your inner kid and have fun!

5. Reach Out:

Connect with your local and online writing community—there are so many valuable resources out there. You’re reading Cynsations, so that’s a great start! If you haven’t already joined SCBWI and found a critique group, that’s a must. As I mentioned above, join Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo challenge in November, or Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee to write a picture book a day, which takes place in May.

There’s a plethora of writing groups on Facebook. One I highly recommend is Kidlit411, co-run by Elaine Kieley Kearns and Sylvia Liu. It’s such a wealth of information for authors and illustrators on writing/illustrating craft, on promotion, on submissions for agents and editors, revision—all kinds of things. And to borrow Jane Yolen’s title, above all, Take Joy!

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Penny & Jelly: The School Show and Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars. Eligibility: U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

This young and funny picture book introduces the soon-to-be star of her school talent show: Penny. Despite her desire to knock everyone’s socks off, Penny’s having a tough time deciding on what talent she might have. With a little help from her dog, Jelly, Penny tries out various talents—from dancing to unicycling, fashion designing to snake charming—with disastrous results. That is, until she realizes that she and Jelly have a talent to share that’s unlike any other.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Hallmark Great Stories Award

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Hallmark Great Stories Award will recognize and celebrate the power of storytelling by honoring new children’s picture books that celebrate family, friendship and community and that exhibit excellence in both writing and illustration.

Annual nominations will be reviewed by a multi-disciplinary panel of esteemed judges. For the inaugural year, judges include Betsy Bird, Alfredo Lujan, Alan Bailey and Cheri Sterman.

Eligible books include those published by publishers in the United States between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2016 and must be entered into the competition by the publisher. The inaugural winner will be announced in March 2017.

The winning picture book’s author and illustrator each will receive a special award medal and $5,000. If the author and illustrator is the same individual, the cash prize is $10,000. In addition to traditional distribution, the winning book will be available in Hallmark Gold Crown stores nationwide.