New Voices: Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith on Joshua and The Biggest Fish

Nancy stands behind co-author & grandkid, Kaylee.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What an honor and joy it is to welcome debut children’s authors, Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith, who’re also citizens of Muscogee Nation!

Their picture book is Joshua and The Biggest Fish (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017). From the promotional copy:

The big fish are way out in the deepest part of the river. Will Joshua find a way to catch a really big fish? Maybe then, the men won’t see him as “cepane,” or little boy. 


A historical, coming-of-age story, based on true events.

You are a grandmother-granddaughter team. How and why did you two begin writing together? What has that been like?

KM: Growing up I was always interested in writing and my grandmother, who wrote her whole life, encouraged me to follow my talents. The older I got, the more I wanted to learn about my Muscogee (Creek) heritage.

My grandmother suggested co-authoring a book to learn about our rich past and provide a way to bring us closer in my teenage years.
The process was long, and a bit tedious at times, but that’s what comes with the territory of wanting our book to be historically accurate.

This involved many trips to the Muscogee tribal complex and talking to multiple people which lead to even meeting new family members.

NS: When my granddaughter, Kaylee, turned 16, she told me she wanted to learn more about her Muscogee Creek heritage. I was so happy to hear that.

So, we drove to the Muscogee tribal complex in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and met with Buddy Cox at the tribe’s Cultural Preservation office. He shared with us many ideas, but the subject that jumped out at us was “fish kills.”

Writing a children’s book about this part of our Muscogee Creek history and culture seemed like a wonderful project we could do together. Kaylee was in her last two years of high school, and then went away to college, so writing our book was a long journey, but so worth it.

What was the initial inspiration for Joshua and the Biggest Fish, illustrated by Dorothy Shaw (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017)?

KM: Initially, we both wanted to gain knowledge of our ancestors’ past. Although I have lived in Oklahoma my whole life, I knew very little about the Muscogee Nation and I feel that most Oklahomans are the same way. My little sister was about two at the time and a children’s book felt like a perfect way to teach her and many other children a little piece of Creek history.

NS: All young Creek Indian boys are nicknamed “cepane” (chee-BAH-nee), which in Creek language means “little boy.” Our book evolved as a coming-of-age story about a young Creek boy who longs to be accepted as one of the men, and who does not like being called “cepane.” The book is named after my Muscogee (Creek) grandfather, Joshua.

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

KM: The idea came about when I was sixteen, and after six years of research and writing it was published in 2017. During all of this I was graduating high school and moving to college, so this also slowed up the process along the way.

We first heard of fish kills from Buddy Cox and we both found them incredibly interesting. We decided to go with it, but literature on fish kills is very slim. My grandmother came up with some creative ways to research history on fish kills that made this book possible.

NS: Our book took a total of six years to complete. This was mostly because we wanted our book to be historically and culturally accurate.

After doing research at the Oklahoma Historical Society (Oklahoma City), I discovered historic photographs of Creek Indians taken at the fish kill in the 1920s. Finding these photos was so exciting, and some are featured in our book. By the second year, the Cultural Preservation office changed managers several times, so that was a hurdle. Finding a publisher was also a challenge.

What were the challenges (emotional, logistical, research, professional) in bringing the book to life?

KM: After finishing the writing portion of the book, I think the biggest struggle was finding a publisher. Being first-time authors in a niche market was hard to sell to publishers.

My grandmother promised me from the very beginning that we would get the book published and I never doubted her; although, it is vexing to be turned down multiple times on something you have worked so hard on.

My grandmother never gave up, even through tough times, to get this book published and I couldn’t have done it without her. I am grateful for her every day.

NS: We took at least 8 to 10 trips to the Creek Nation in Okmulgee to do research, and several trips to the Oklahoma Historical Society. You must be very interested in your project, and very dedicated to work for long periods of time toward completion. One thing that kept me going was wanting to complete the book with my granddaughter, Kaylee.

What do you hope that young readers take away from the story?

KM: I want readers to learn a part of history that few know about and to spark their interest in Indian culture. There are very few Creek Indian children’s books, and I hope this book inspires more to come.

NS: I hope young Muscogee (Creek) readers will feel pride in their culture from our book, and pride in being Creek citizens. I also hope all young readers will enjoy reading about our tribe’s past and learning about our language and culture.

What did Dorothy Shaw‘s art bring to your book?


With illustrator Dorothy Shaw

KM: The first time I saw Dorothy’s artwork for the book, I was blown away and thrilled that she brought our words to life. The story would not be the same without her craftsmanship.

NS: Dorothy Shaw brought our characters to life in a wonderful and colorful way. Her beautiful illustrations along with the historic photographs provided inspiring images to our readers.

How have you celebrated the book’s release and connected it to readers, especially in the Muscogee (Creek) and larger Native community?

With Principal Chief James Floyd & Second Chief Louis Hicks

KM: We have done several book signings and hope to start having school visits soon in the Tulsa County area. The tribe has ordered and even re-ordered the book which is very exciting.

Imagining Creek citizens reading our book is a bit mind-blowing and very encouraging. After reading your own words so many times you start to not even recognize them as words, so it comes to a point where you must stop editing and get it out there or you could spend your whole life on it.

NS: We donated seven books to our tribe’s Head Start schools, to share with their young students. Kaylee also presented our Chief and Second Chief with their own personal copies of our book. “Joshua and the Biggest Fish” is carried at our tribe’s gift shop, and we have also done several book signings. Our Tulsa City-County Library has our book at seven of their library branches. I have personally contacted over 20 outlets, bookstores, etc. to market Joshua and The Biggest Fish.

What can your readers expect from you next?

KM: I currently have something in the very beginning stages that I presume will take me a considerable amount of time to finish. It’s a different genre and different age group but something that has been in the back of my head for a while.

NS: I have started working on a middle-grade historical novel about my tribe, which I’m currently doing research on.

New Voice: Nora Carpenter on Yoga Frog

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

September is yoga month!

So as a former preschool teacher I was thrilled to interview Nora Carpenter about her fantastic new picture book Yoga Frog, illustrated by Mark Chambers (Running Press Kids, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Frog loves to practice yoga. And he will inspire kids to enjoy doing yoga, too. Follow Frog’s yoga flow, from warming up to cooling down. 


Start with the mountain and chair poses, then work into giraffe, cat-cow, downward-facing dog, butterfly, and bridge. 


End with the quieting happy baby and savasana poses to help your muscles relax before going to bed or starting your day. 


For fans of Yoga Bunny and I am Yoga, Yoga Frog‘s simple, meditative text is complemented by playful yet instructive illustrations by Mark Chambers to teach youngsters how to start their very own yoga practice—and to have fun while doing so, too.

I love this book because it’s perfect for teaching preschoolers yoga! What inspired you to write a picture book on yoga? 

Thank you! I’ve dreamed of publishing a kids yoga book for so long! About a year after college, I took a job teaching preschoolers. (Shout out to the JCC of Northern Virginia!) For the record, that job was one of the best experiences ever and ended up re-awakening my creative writing energy, which had been a bit stifled by academia. But that’s another story!)

Anyway, at the same time I was also becoming more and more engaged with yoga and yogic philosophy, and decided to further my own study through an intensive teacher training program.

I began teaching yoga to my preschoolers and found:

  1. They loved it.
  2. Due to their age and limited attention spans, I had to jazz the poses up a bit with imagination and fun.

I looked for resources, but at that time, the only things available were some flash card sets and a couple wordy books geared toward much older kids.

Fast forward a few years. While attending the MFA program at VCFA, I decided to write the book I wish I’d had for my preschool classes. To be clear, Yoga Frog is nothing like that first attempt, which emerged as poetry! But my teaching (both of pre-K kids and of yoga) is what inspired that initial attempt.

The selection of poses is perfect for the preschool crowd and the prose for each is clear yet poetic. How did you decide what poses to include, what to call them, and how did you go about writing the prose for each pose? 

Again, thank you! I chose the most popular poses from my classes that would both enable kids to release energy and also calm down/de-stress. During yoga teacher training, you’re taught to construct flows that warm up the body for “peak poses,” or the most challenging/intense pose in the flow, and then cool down/relax the muscles that were just worked.

You also learn which poses make good transitions to other poses so that you’re not having students bounce back and forth between seated and standing poses. I drew on that knowledge and my experience teaching lots of kids’ yoga classes to construct the flow of the book.

I did wrestle with what to call some of the poses. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include the proper Sanskrit names, but some of the English translations just aren’t very kid-friendly or engaging. For example, baddha konasana literally translates to “bound angle pose” and ardha matsyendrasana means “half lord of the fishes.” I never used those names in my kids classes.

My experience teaching kids yoga quickly showed me that kids have the most fun when there’s an imaginative element at play, and the most popular imaginative elements in my classes were pretending to be animals and other things relating to nature.

Nature names lend themselves so easily to interactivity. I mean, I have yet to meet a kid whose face doesn’t light up when “kabooming” during Volcano (malasana).

So I took some artistic license and included some of the English names I used in my classes, while still including the Sanskrit names underneath.

At the end of the day, the goal of kids’ yoga is for kids to have fun. If they do, they’ll want to practice yoga again. And again. And again. Before you know it, they’ve developed a healthy and incredibly beneficial self-care habit.

You recently sold your first novel—a contemporary YA titled, The Edge of Anything—which is slotted for spring 2020 publication. Can you give us a quick pitch? 

Sure! The Edge of Anything is the dual narrative of high school volleyball star, Sage, and Len, an outcast teen photographer with a guilty secret. The book explores the transformative power of friendship and how it can help you find yourself and the goodness in life, even when everything feels broken.

A novel is such a different beast from a picture book. How do you juggle working on such different kinds of projects simultaneously? Wait, do you work on them simultaneously, or do you write a novel, then a picture book, etc? 

You aren’t kidding about how different the forms are! I started my creative writing career focused on novels, so I’ve had a steep learning curve with the picture books. (I’m actually gearing up for a picture book intensive regional SCBWI conference, and I’m so excited for everything I’m going to learn!)

Anyway, I’ve heard people make comments about how picture book writing must be “easy” because the stories themselves are short. That could not be less true. A great picture book story has to achieve an incredible amount in a terribly short format, usually 400-600 words.

It really is like writing poetry, and the process works a very different part of my brain and challenges a different part of my creativity.

I’ve noticed, in fact, that after working on the picture book form for a while, my novel writing flows better and smoother. For that reason, yes, I have started writing picture books in the midst of drafting novels. Each serves as a good “break” or “switch” from the other.

Honestly, no matter what form or genre you prefer, I think writers should constantly be testing and challenging their skills. Believe me, I know how hard it can be, but forcing yourself out of your writing comfort zone almost always improves your work.

As I’ve matured as a writer, I try to do this more and more. For example, a while back I joined a picture book critique group with some of my agent-mates, even though I am by far the greenest picture book writer in the group.

But that’s okay. I’m learning a ton and it’s a safe space to ask questions and get valuable, constructive feedback. And that feedback improves my writing as a whole, not just my picture book skills.

Even if one (or a bunch) of projects don’t work out, the skills you’ve learned from those projects will enhance your writing in unexpected ways.

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?

Once you get a book contract, there are suddenly all of these other professional responsibilities you have to juggle along with the process of writing itself: social media presence, interviews, panels, readings and any other type of marketing/promotion you and/or your publisher might set up. It’s exciting, but it does take away from writing time, so if you’re also balancing another job, kids, time with a partner, etc., it can definitely get overwhelming.

In addition to the short-term bouts of promotion that go along with book releases, I do carve out time to keep my website updated with links to reviews, blog interviews, upcoming events, etc.

Otherwise, I try to focus on the actual craft of writing as much as possible. That’s what I find rewarding and fulfilling (and yeah, also crazy hard and maddening at times).

I will say, I do love events. I’m pretty extraverted, so I love meeting readers and other writers and talking about writing and books. But I’m always eager to dive back in to the actual writing and creating process.

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

 Keep writing. Write through the inevitable fear, the “what-if-it’s-not-good?” insecurity. And know that every writer has that angst, often with every book. All you can do is write through it.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Leigh Bardugo, who also happens to be one of my favorite authors. She says: “I think the hard work of writing is just how long a book is terrible before it’s good.”

You must embrace the terrible. Get the draft on the page. You cannot craft a good book without first writing down its messy insides. Revision, re-vision, and revision again make a book great.

 Also, find a supportive writing community, people who will boost your confidence when needed but also provide you with honest, constructive criticism. Go to author and writing events, readings at local bookstores. Even if you’re introverted, force yourself to talk to at least one person there. You will find people just like you, looking for the same thing.

Cynsational Notes


Nora Carpenter grew up in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. After college she lived in Washington, D.C., where she became a Certified Yoga Teacher, before settling into the mountains of North Carolina.

She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes picture books and young adult fiction.

When she’s not writing, she’s doing something outdoorsy or chasing her three rocket-fueled kids. Check out the book trailer for Yoga Frog:

New Voice: Traci Sorell on We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga

Traci & Frane in Tahlequah (Cherokee Nation Capital), June 2017

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Traci Sorell is the debut author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is a word that Cherokee people use to express gratitude. 


Beginning in the fall with the Cherokee New Year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences. 


…this nonfiction look at one group of Native Americans is appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah.

What first led you to begin writing for young readers?

I decided to start writing for children when my son was four. I had collected picture books since my undergraduate days, particularly those featuring Native Nations. Having cycled through my books and those at my local library, I had difficulty finding any trade-published contemporary picture books featuring Cherokee children to read to my young son.

My tribe, the Cherokee Nation, is the largest in the U.S. with over 350,000 enrolled citizens. How could I not find a picture book about our present-day life and culture? It made me think that other Cherokee parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents must be facing a similar problem.

I contacted a friend from graduate school who I knew had trade published books for children for advice. I attended my first SCBWI conference about writing for children in October 2013 and decided to work toward a full-time career as an author in 2015.

For me, the biggest challenge was making sure I understood the craft, so I could execute the writing. I’ve written in many different formats previously, but I’ll admit writing for children is more difficult than writing a legal brief or code.

Writing sparse, lyrical text for a picture book to capture and hold the attention of discriminating younger readers is a challenge. They will put down the book, walk away, and turn their attention elsewhere when the story starts to drag – either from the words or the art. They have no sense of “I should finish this, so I’ll trudge on through it.” If they aren’t interested, it’s over.

Knowing that invigorates me to write at a higher level, knowing every word has to be precise to evoke the emotion, convey the information or provoke the question that I want reader to experience, understand or ask.

Thankfully, I have wonderful people – fellow authors, my agent and editors – who keep me on track if I stray from that.

Please share with us the story of your literary apprenticeship. How did you master the craft of picture book writing?

I read a lot of picture books written in the last three years to learn what the market wanted. That helped me shape and edit my own voice to write sparse, lyrical texts that sell in the marketplace.

I benefitted from reading Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books (Writer’s Digest, 2009) and connecting with published authors in my local KS-MO chapter of SCBWI who provided solid critiques and guided to me beneficial workshops to further develop my voice and craft.

From there, I expanded my network to connecting with other authors via social media, including you!

Congratulations on the release of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018)! What was the timeline between your creative inspiration and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Traci & Charlesbridge editor Karen Boss

I wrote We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga in November 2015 because I won a free Skype critique for a nonfiction picture book from award-winning author Suzanne Slade through Picture Book Builders and had nothing to submit!

After revising based on her direction, I submitted the second draft with a few minor tweaks to some wording to ten publishers a month later. Then I sold it to Charlesbridge through the slush pile (unsolicited/unagented) in March 2016.

After Charlesbridge bought it, my editor Karen Boss did not have any substantial changes. She moved some text around based on the design layout that she wanted for the book, but otherwise the text was finalized quickly.

Karen asked if I had any illustrators in mind. I gave her a list of Native and non-Native illustrators. Frané was on that list. I was so overjoyed when she was selected.

The whole debut process has gone so smoothly, and I’m so thankful to work with such a wonderful team of people.

What did Frané Lessac’s art bring to your text? To what extent did you work together?

Her artwork takes the text to a different level. The detail, color, humor, and vivaciousness she creates in the book humbles me. I am in awe of what she envisioned and subsequently painted for all readers to enjoy.

Initially I sent her links to a variety of webpages and videos with information about the Cherokee Nation, its citizens, culture, and history to help her start her research.

Unless you’ve been to the Cherokee Nation (in the northeast corner of Oklahoma), you don’t have a feel for the people, landscape, flora and fauna. It’s not like anywhere else I’ve ever been in all my years of living, studying and traveling elsewhere on this continent and abroad.

Even though she didn’t receive the research travel grant she applied for, she traveled to the Cherokee Nation from Western Australia last summer anyway. So we actually got to meet and spend a few days together in late June 2017.

I introduced her to fellow Cherokee citizens who work in our cultural and museum programs. She shared her rough sketches and sought their input to make sure she had details correct.

We traveled with Will Chavez, the Assistant Editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, our tribal newspaper, where he showed her a number of historic sites, types of foliage and animals common in the area. He also provided photos from his extensive collection for her to consult later as she created the final artwork. My brother, a trained chef, prepared bean bread and hominy soup (both mentioned in the book) for her to sample.

So I like to think she enjoyed the hospitality that Cherokee people are known for, while also working to gather the information she needed to tell her part of the story.

Tell us more about how you decided to weave Cherokee words into the story and your approach on what to include in the back matter.

For me, this was integral. I was elated when Charlesbridge wanted the book because they had published the picture book, Itse Selu: Cherokee Harvest Festival (1994), featuring Cherokee words unitalicized throughout the text. It had served as an early model for me as a writer that including my tribe’s language would be welcome.

We decided to add the Cherokee syllabary next to the English phonetics at the bottom of each page where a Cherokee word appears because that’s how Cherokee people actually read and speak the language. They are not learning and speaking it from the English phonetics.

Regarding the back matter, I knew I needed to provide a little more context to some of the text and artwork. Given how little people know about contemporary Cherokee life, adding the Definitions section allowed me to amplify any reader’s understanding of what they read and saw on the page.

The Author’s Note explains my reasons for writing this nonfiction picture book.

Including the Cherokee syllabary as it is currently taught in the Cherokee Nation helps readers to know that this language continues to be spoken and is the foundation of our cultural identity as Cherokee people.

As a Native author, how does that identity element inform your writing and your role in the children’s-YA book community?

It’s the foundation of my voice and everything I write. I can’t separate it. My educational and professional backgrounds have also been focused on Native Nations, their citizens, culture, history, law and policies and how those have been impacted under the colonial regime of the United States.

When I research primary and secondary sources or read children’s literature for example, I notice what voices and experiences are included, who is left out and how that shapes the narrative and information the reader receives.

Right now, I feel like I have three main roles in the children’s-YA book community besides getting my writing out in the world.

First, I want to bring additional awareness to invisibility of Native people in the text as well as omissions of accuracy, so other writers recognize the importance of doing the work to get it right. We all are responsible for this.

Second, I want to recruit other Native creators – writers and artists – to create great works for children. You have been extremely supportive of me and other Native creators coming into the field, and I strive to emulate that. We have amazing storytellers in word and art in our Native Nations. I want children to know about and experience the stories those creators have to share. It’s imperative to recruit, educate and encourage others to make that happen.

Third, covering Native/First Nations authors, illustrators, and publishers for your Cynsations blog allows greater visibility for the craft of Native creators in the industry. I enjoy showcasing what their stories and artwork are offering for children and teens in this field. I appreciate you asking me to assist in this way.



What advice do you have for new Native or First Nations writers, starting out?

We Are Grateful poster

I believe it’s important to read broadly across the various genres of children’s literature and determine which one resonates most with your voice as a writer. I gravitated to writing picture books first because I have always loved poetry, sparse use of language, and beautiful artwork. Any writer new to this field needs to make that same determination for themselves.

Then, I recommend studying books published within the last three years within that chosen genre. You’ll be expected to know and state what are comparable titles when you submit your manuscript for consideration. So anticipate that and be prepared.

Next, try to find fellow writers in your genre at the level just above your skill set to read and critique your work. This will pay dividends because your writing will be elevated more quickly with trained eyes providing feedback.

It is extremely helpful if some of these writers are also Native creators. In my experience, finding fellow Native creators will be a huge boost of encouragement and support as you embark on this journey.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Since Charlesbridge bought We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, I’ve sold two other picture books, At The Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Fall 2019) and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Myles (Charlesbridge, Spring 2020). Both are fiction. I’m looking forward to those being out in the world alongside We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. I also have two picture book biographies, several other fictional picture books, a novel-in-verse and some poems in progress.

Publisher Interview: KitaabWorld Expands from Bookseller to Children’s Book Publisher

Guari Manglik

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Last spring, I interviewed Gauri Manglik about KitaabWorld, an online bookseller focusing on South Asian and diverse children’s titles.

Now Gauri and her co-founder, Sadaf Siddique have expanded the business by becoming an independent publisher.

Their first titles released earlier this year: Room in Your Heart by Kunzang Choden, illustrated by Pema Tshering, and Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why by Sowmya Rajendran, illustrated by Satwik Gade.

What prompted you to enter the world of independent publishing?

At Kitaabworld, we spend a lot of our time researching and curating our collection of South Asian and multicultural children’s literature.

We also put out book recommendations and do outreach to parents and educators. Through all of these processes, we have built up a deep knowledge base in terms of books available in the South Asian market as well as the kinds of books being published in the United States.

From our vantage point, we observe gaps in the types of stories being shared—what is the narrative, is there only one kind of story or idea about South Asia, what is being said, who these books represent, so all these questions and insights prompted us to think about what we can do to fill the gaps—independent publishing seemed like the perfect route!

Being a small, bootstrapped organization, we decided to take baby steps with these two books.

What drew you to these particular projects, Room In Your Heart and The Boy Who Asked Why? 

As we delved into the gaps, we observed and the kind of books we wanted to bring to North America, we knew it was important to focus on books that lend themselves to issues that children can connect to both locally and globally.

We brainstormed on these ideas and both these books came to mind because of their universal messages, and so we were very keen on them.

Room In Your Heart is set in Bhutan and is perfect for young children (or anyone really!) with its heartwarming message about making room in our hearts and homes.

See an interview with author Sowmya Rajendran and illustrator Satwik Gade

Its message of being open and inclusive also ties into the present-day conversations around immigration and refugees,

The Boy Who Asked Why is a story of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a well-known social justice advocate from India.

Ambedkar was India’s first law minister and he played a critical role in drafting of the Constitution of India. His inspiring story is one of questioning the status quo and overcoming obstacles he faced because of his status as an untouchable in India in the 1930s.

The book provides all children with parallels on issues of race and segregation in American history, and also broadens the discussions on South Asian leaders to include one of its key figures, Ambedkar.

Interior illustration from Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why, used with permission.

What was involved with the publishing process since these books were already published in India? (rights, translation, logistics, etc.) 

We thought finding the right books was the hard part and from then on it would be simple, but a lot was involved!

We had good relationships with the publishers, so they were very receptive when we approached them. We negotiated the terms for the rights such as advance, etc., and got the legalities out of the way. After that, we reviewed both the books and brainstormed with some educators on making these books easy to integrate into the classroom.

We edited the text, added a glossary and added additional details to help make them relevant and engaging for kids in the United States.

Interior illustration from Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why, used with permission.

For example, we added a timeline on Ambedkar’s life in the The Boy Who Asked Why and linked it to events in the Indian Independence movement occurring at the time.

In the Room In Your Heart, we included interesting facts about Bhutan to provide more information about this lesser-known country.

We are also working on a lesson plan and activity guide for both books to further help educators easily add these books into existing school curriculum. Of course, we also had to figure out the right printing setup, and get the books to print. Now, we are looking at spreading the word through reviews and feedback, and continuing to market the books.

Interior illustration from Room in Your Heart, used with permission.
Interior illustration from Room in Your Heart, used with permission.

What has the response been like? 

The books just got released but we’re seeing a lot of interest in both the titles. We’re cautiously optimistic that they’ll do well!

We’ve also personally done a few diverse story times with these books as well as had other teachers read them in their class. The children have had many interesting questions to ask about these stories, and it is clear that these books really provide a window into different worlds for them.

Do you have plans to publish more books in the future? 

As we mentioned, baby steps!

Being a small team juggling many hats as booksellers and publishers keeps us constantly on our toes, but we are excited about a couple of project ideas that we have for the the next few months.


Has Kitaab World expanded into any other areas? 

We have a strong educational and outreach component to our work.

Last January, we had launched our Counter Islamophobia Through Stories Campaign to challenge the narrative about Muslims, which you had featured on Cynsations as well (thank you!)

We presented it at the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference last June, and we just wrapped up our manuscript on that topic.

We’re excited to announce that the book will be published by ALA Editions this Fall, so stay tuned for more information on that soon!

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Transitions: Lunging Forward, Leaning Back

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am leaving my day job at an extraordinary early childhood center on June 30.

Plenty of people think I am “retiring.”

But if you’re reading this, you probably could guess that I’m not retiring at all. I’m beginning my full-time career as a writer.

At last.

I’ve written and taught about transitions much of my life as a clinical social worker and still struggle with how to convey these vulnerable, beautiful, painful yet joyful, times in our lives.

Because they are difficult.

We feel the need for different or new or next; we feel the need to take a turn on our personal or professional journeys (or both). We feel a yearning. A longing to move forward. An excitement and curiosity about what the new direction will offer us – or what we will make of it.

But we also feel the pull back towards that which we want, or are ready to leave, toward the comfort, familiarity, certainty of the place, the experience, the days we are almost leaving behind.

This is what I’m feeling as I leave a wonderful job at this early childhood center that hums and bubbles with small communities of little ones busy at work and where miracles of teaching and learning surprise and delight every day.

I love coming to work and being at work in a place that feels like a second home. I love the use of many skills and strengths I was pretty sure I owned, but had not had the opportunity to use. I love the children who have passed through my life with their extraordinary desire to explore their world and the powerful capacity to connect to others. I love my boss and friend; and I love the teachers who with seeming endless amounts of energy, create small communities of friends and classrooms of explorers, scientists, artists, technicians, builders, and more.

I took on my day job when I was in the process of winding down the career that ran parallel to my dreams of being a writer – that of a clinical social worker specializing in women’s and eating/body issues and building emotional resilience.

But it’s time for me to stop getting up at 4:30 in the morning to write for an hour and a half before getting reading. I also need time to exercise before I am exhausted from eight hours of a very busy, though wonderful, day. And I want to spend time with my husband when I am not falling asleep because I need to get up at 4:30 in the morning to write.

This beautiful place I’ve had the honor to work is integrally interwoven with my life as a children’s author.

I met the woman who has been my boss and friend for 24 years in the library of my son’s school. He had been coming home each week on the day his class visited the library, sharing the excitement of what they had done that day with “the best teacher in the world.”

I decided I wanted to meet this teacher, and went in on a Tuesday, when I had no clients in my private practice. A fabulous children’s library sprawled through the big open space (along with two floor-to-almost-ceiling robots and a marble-counting machine that counted the books each child read) and the welcoming teacher invited me to take home whatever books I wanted.

I dived into picture books and middle grade novels as though I’d been starving to read. My own middle-grade life was peppered with some wonderful classics like Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, but not anything like what I found to read now – Jerry Spinelli, Karen Cushman, Mildred Taylor, Sharon Creech, Richard Peck, Gail Carson Levine, and more and more and more…and more. 

I wanted to write this.

I began volunteering one day a week in the library, and kept on for eighteen years. When the K-5 school closed, and my private practice was winding down, I accepted an offer to be the office administrator at the early childhood center.

Every step of my journey as a children’s writer, I’ve had the encouragement and support of this master educator my son introduced me to so long ago.

During the days of volunteering, I often felt like Peter Pan sitting on the windowsill as I listened to her teaching, learned about extending the books into classroom discussions and projects, learned how to read a story to children.

I could say 30 or 40 more things about what the kind of encouragement I received means, but if you’re reading this, you’ll understand when I say that the foundation of her support and encouragement is the fact that she believed in my stories, and believed in me.

And that’s an extraordinary gift.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe hundreds of transitions during my time at this early childhood center, from children so ready to run into the classroom that a parent is left open-mouthed at the door, to those who struggle for days with “missing feelings” that are soothed by loving teachers.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I always have been, I guess. I wean myself gently.

I will miss every adult and every child at my “day job” terribly…and yet I can’t wait to explore my open days.

But of course, I’ll be back in September, volunteering to read stories to eager little listeners.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick writes poetry and picture books.

Her middle grade novel-in-verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” addresses body image issues for the younger audience, and won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition. It also was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award from Hunger Mountain.

Carol chronicles the writer’s inner journey with a focus on resilience for Cynsations and the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

See her previous posts: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education; Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety; “Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy;” Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.

Author Interview: Tim Tingle, Choctaw Storyteller & Author

Tim Tingle (right) with his son, Dr. Jacob Tingle,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

On April 7, 2018, author Tim Tingle received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Named in honor of an author who served as Oklahoma Center for the Book‘s first president, the award is presented annually  for a body of work contributing to Oklahoma’s literary heritage.

Congratulations, Tim! What a wonderful honor. Tell me what it was like getting that news. 

I have attended several Oklahoma Center for the Book Award ceremonies, as Crossing Bok Chitto (Cinco Puntos, 2006) won Best Children’s Book, and Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Punto, 2005) and House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Punto, 2014) were finalists in their categories.

I was there when a dear and admired friend of mine, Rilla Askew, received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

When I received the phone call letting me know I was selected as the 2018 recipient, my first response was disbelief. I had studied most of the previous American Indian recipients in lit courses
at grad school at the University of Oklahoma (OU). “I am so far from that level,” I thought to myself.

When I hung up the phone I decided that I still have maybe 15 years of writing ahead of me (I’ll be 70 years old in November), and I will dedicate the remainder of my life to earning this award—the award now hanging next to my fireplace in Canyon Lake, Texas.

I called my son first, Dr. Jacob Tingle of Trinity University. I had been asked to select someone to introduce me at the awards ceremony, and Jacob agreed.

Roadrunner Press, my publisher of the How I Became A Ghost series (2015-), purchased a table of eight for my family and friends. I invited Dr. Geary Hobson, a Cherokee poet and my lead professor during my OU days, and his wife, Dr. Barbara Hobson, former Chair of Native American Studies there.

My son told of riding with me one summer in the Maxwell House Coffee truck, as I repaired coffee machines at small town restaurants in the Texas Hill Country. He shared anecdotes I would never have remembered, and how my work ethic and respect for working people was evident in all that I did.

During my acceptance speech, I told of Dr. Hobson, and how without his encouragement I would never have written a single book. His wife later told me he sat at the table and cried.

The circle of friends that evening will always remain very special to me, and among them was Gene Burks of Dallas. He spotted Doc Moore and I telling stories at Six Flags Over Texas in 1994 and invited me to share Choctaw stories in the Garland school district, where he was on the school board. That was the beginning of my full-time storytelling career, and eventually lead to the publication of Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Puntos, 2005).

I closed my speech by singing “Shilombish Holitopama, Amazing Grace” in Choctaw, and George Nigh, a former governor of Oklahoma and the evening’s emcee, sang in English from his chair on the stage behind me.

Governor George Nigh with Tim at Oklahoma Book Awards,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.

Which came first? Your work as a storyteller or as a writer? What have you done to hone both crafts? 

I began writing when I was in the second grade at South Houston Elementary School. I had read several Hardy Boys books (1927-2005) and listened to my Uncle Kenneth tell backyard stories about my Choctaw Mawmaw’s tough life growing up in the racial quandary of 1890s Oklahoma.

My teacher, Mrs. Palmer, tapped her knuckles on the desk and said, “Everyone listen. Free time, so pull out your Big Chief tablets, your crayolas, and draw. I will be grading tests.”

Photo by Lisa Reed

I decided to go with “free time” rather than crayolas, and I began a screenplay for “Zorro” (1957-1959), my favorite television show. Mrs. Palmer spotted me, snatched the unfinished first page, and tossed it in the trash. “Never do that again, not in my class,” she said. So I didn’t.

For forty years, I kept my writing to myself and told oral stories. But before that, in my mid-twenties, I went from college basketball player to modern dance soloist with the Michael Sokoloff Ensemble, a touring group back when the National Endowment for the Arts was well-funded.

As I moved with the rhythm when I danced, I now write with my headset and music. For the past decade my soundtrack has been The Chieftains, an Irish folkish group.

Doc Moore and I co-wrote three Texas ghost story books, published by Texas Tech University Press, before I decided to focus on Choctaw history and stories, with fictional twists and turns.

Most of the stories in my first book, Walking the Choctaw Road, were originally oral stories, performed at festivals and schools throughout the United States, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and Mexico.

At the age of 50, I realized my oral stories would be buried with me someday, so I took a hiatus from performing and attended graduate school in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where I earned an M.A. degree and completed Walking The Choctaw Road.

I feel that the spoken word experience gives strength to the first person narrative, and use it often in my writing.

Tim at Sequoyah’s Cabin with Fort Smith high school teachers
who were teaching House of Purple Cedar in their classrooms. 

You have two more books out this year in the No Name young adult series, No More No Name (2017), A Name Earned (2018) and Trust Your Name (2018)(7th Generation). What gave rise to the character of Bobby Byington, a Choctaw basketball player? 

See Kirkus Reviews

When my editor called and said she very much enjoyed the premise to “No Name,” the original book in the series, but “the idea of a boy digging a hole in his backyard and living in it when his alcoholic father was home—that’s so unrealistic.”

I took a deep breath before answering.

“If my big brother were still alive, he could tell you. That’s how we survived. We dug a hole in the field behind our house and dragged an old junkyard door over it. My dad never found our hiding place.”

My brother played basketball for the University of Houston Cougars, along with Elvin Hayes and Clyde Drexler, and I played junior college basketball on a scholarship.

We were also warned by my grandmother never to tell any of our friends we were Choctaw, for fear of what might someday happen.

The racism and bullying in the No Name series were always just around the corner of my youth.

The long-awaited sequel to your award-winning middle grade novel, How I Became A Ghost, is finally here. Any pressure in writing When A Ghost Talks, Listen (Roadrunner, Aug. 7, 2018), knowing how well the first one was received? What challenged you the most in writing this second book? Will there be more books in this series? 

I so love the characters of this series that popping on my headset, flipping the music button, and entering the world of shape-shifting panthers, rattlesnakes and soaring ghosts was and is a joy.

Pre-order When a Ghost Talks, Listen 

I know rattlesnake Stella. She is based on an elderly Choctaw friend of mine, Stella Long, who gave me permission to use her name. I later told her she was on the cover of the book, and imagine her surprise when she saw her “rattlesnake-self” grinning back at her.

I have maybe eight shelves of Choctaw and Southeastern Indian books surrounding my writing desk, fiction and nonfiction both.

I spent a few years researching the facts behind book two, including two trips to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The questionable death of Chief and United States Army General Pushmataha was a strong inspiration in the writing process. I still feel him standing over me, watching, nodding, and wiping away a few tears.

I do plan on continuing the How I Became A Ghost series, with a World War I Choctaw Codetalker book (in book two, we learn that Choctaw ghosts can time-travel) and a book moving back and forth from the Trail of Tears to the Irish Famine in the future.

As I learned during a trip to Ireland a few years ago, “historical” accounts of the causes and death tolls related to the Famine are as false as most popular Trail of Tears narratives.

I hope to keep Isaac alive (as alive as a ghost can be) for at least another decade, accompanied by his bilingual dog, Jumper.

Tim speaking at the Smithsonian

Any writing for children and teens that we’ll see from you in 2019 or beyond that you’d like to share?

Yes, I’ll have two new book releases in 2019.

From Lee & Low comes Stone River Crossing, a 250-page middle grade novel based on my picture book, Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom (Cinco Puntos, 2008). The narrative follows the family of escapees from a pre-Civil War plantation. As they are rescued by nearby Choctaws, the battle ensues over “ownership.”

What the western world labels as magic realism, but what we Choctaws recognize as everyday life abounds.

Also, the first book in a series from Scholastic Press arrives in 2019, Timmy the Choctaw Detective and the Graveyard Treasure, a middle grade novel of a twelve-year-old youngster, our narrator, who sees himself as the best detective in town.

The lead detective of the local police force gives Timmy his first cell phone for his birthday, and they become partners in crime solving.

Timmy’s neighbor is Doc, an elderly man living by himself with advancing dementia, accompanied by acute observational skills.

Timmy discovers that Doc’s maid is also an aide at a nearby nursing home, and part of a gang that steals only from the elderly. And where does the gang bury their ill-begotten loot? In the centuries-old mausoleum of the town cemetery. And when does he make this discovery? After midnight, of course, with a gang member looking over his shoulder.

Wow, Tim, you’ve already got me looking forward to 2019 and these great books you’ve written. We appreciate the preview.

Cynsational Notes

Tim Tingle is an award-winning author, much sought-after storyteller, and an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

His great-great grandfather, John Carnes, walked the Trail of Tears in 1835 and passed-down memories of this family epic that fueled Tim’s early interest in writing and storytelling.

He has twice been honored with the American Indian Youth Literature Award, for How I Became a Ghost in 2014, and again in 2016 for House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Puntos, 2013).

He is represented by Andrea Cascardi of the Transatlantic Agency.

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.

Author Interview: Minh Lê on Drawn Together

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Minh Lê is the author of the upcoming Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat (Hyperion, June 5, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When a young boy visits his grandfather, their lack of a common language leads to confusion, frustration, and silence. 


But as they sit down to draw together, something magical happens – with a shared love of art and storytelling, the two form a bond that goes beyond words.

Minh, I have to admit that I was immediately taken with this story.

In my prior career, I worked with American Indian and Alaska elders, and intergenerational relationships are the foundation of Native Nations and families.

The experience of this boy visiting his grandfather reminded me of many elders who feel they don’t always understand the world their grandchildren or great-grandchildren are experiencing through traditional language loss, increased technology use, etc.

You dedicate the book to your grandparents. Did you all struggle to communicate and connect when you were younger?

Thank you for your kind words and thank you so much for having me on Cynsations, Traci!

Yes, Drawn Together is very much based on my experience with my grandparents, in particular my paternal grandfather.

Vietnamese was actually my first language (there is even home video somewhere to prove it), but I unfortunately let it slip away over the years.
This meant that my relationship with my grandparents was very much defined by what we could not say to each other.

Unlike the boy and his grandfather in the book, we unfortunately never managed to fully bridge that language gap before he passed away earlier this year… but in small but profound ways, we came to understand that despite everything we left unsaid, the bond between us was stronger than words. 

Minh at a school visit.

What do you hope a child reader will take away from Drawn Together? 

It takes work to truly see the person right in front of you, even those who we love the most. If our book can help inspire even one reader to discover an unexpected connection with a loved one, then my heart will be completely full.

Another quick but important point: while this book reveals the “world beyond words,” that is not meant to diminish the importance of language. If a reader is able to establish that non-verbal connection like the grandson and grandfather, my hope is that it leads to a rich relationship that also involves language. While I’ll never question the love between us, I’ll always wish that I could have had a deeper conversation with my grandfather in Vietnamese.

Dan Santat’s artwork captivated me from the front cover through the entire book. He brings another fabulous level of storytelling to this picture book with rich color and intricate drawings. Those illustrations in the middle of the book add so much impact to your words. What did you think when you first saw them? 


I’m so glad you were captivated by the artwork too, because oh my goodness: Dan’s artwork left me totally speechless.
My approach to writing is to try telling the story in as few words as possible, to basically create space for the illustrator to work their magic.

And with a story about building a “world beyond words” the success of the story absolutely hinged on the artwork. So much of the story happens through the illustrations and Dan took it to a level that absolutely blew my mind.

I am Vietnamese American, but am thrilled that Dan made this story his own by infusing it with his own experience and Thai heritage. You can tell how much of himself he poured into these pages and I will be forever grateful to him for bringing this story to life in such jaw-dropping fashion. (Note: If you haven’t seen this video about his process, you should definitely check it out.)

To what extent were you able or inclined to offer feedback while the art was in production? 

I try my best to keep a light touch on art notes, preferring to let the artist take the story and run with it.

I did have the opportunity to provide some feedback at different points along the way (always filtered through our brilliant editor, Rotem Moscovich), but it was mostly just minor observations sprinkled in with unfiltered gushing over the breathtaking artwork.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? What were the high points and stumbles along the way? What were your best decisions and those you might reconsider if you had to do it all again? 

For me, I’d say the biggest stumbling point was just getting out of my own way.

I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book, but then at the same time would laugh off that dream as “silly” and with a “but why me?” attitude.

Then one day my wife looked at me and said, “I love you… but if you’re not going to take yourself seriously, who will?” That was the wake up call I needed to stop being my own worst enemy. I was never going to get any traction if I couldn’t get past myself.

So if I were to reconsider anything or do something different… I probably wouldn’t have spent 10 years dedicated to self-sabotage before sending out my first book pitch.

That being said, I spent a lot of those 10 years blogging about/reviewing children’s books, so it wasn’t a waste of time. Immersing myself books was an invaluable education and really gave me a chance to see what was already out there and to develop and refine my own taste.

So when I finally did send out the idea for Let Me Finish! illustrated by Isabel Roxas (Hyperion, 2016)), I did so on solid ground that really helped speed things up.

From there, everything fell into place nicely, from landing my fantastic agent Stephen Barbara, getting the super-talented Isabel Roxas to collaborate with, and then of course, having the brilliant Rotem Moscovich at Hyperion acquire it. I couldn’t have asked for my path to unfold any better.

Now to follow it up with a collaboration with Dan Santat is, to put it mildly, a dream come true. So I’m just enjoying every step along the way and can hopefully keep it going!

What craft and career advice do you have for beginning writers? 

When asked for writing advice (particularly picture book writing), I always point to a quote from Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de St. Exupéry (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939), the author of The Little Prince (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1943).

In the book he talks about building airplanes during the early days of flight and has this beautiful line:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

I try to keep that quote in mind whenever I’m writing. Not that you have to go full Hemingway and write only in terse prose… but you should make sure that every word on the page serves a purpose.

Weigh yourself down with too many unnecessary words and there’s a good chance your story will never take flight.

What did your first book teach you that informed your second?


I think the most valuable thing I learned from making the first book was the importance of trusting the people you work with.

From the illustrator, to the editor, to the art director, and others, there are so many people who go into creating a book. While as an author it’s important to stay true to your vision, it’s just as (if not more) important to loosen your grip on the “ownership” over the idea and allow the book the space to breath and evolve.

The final version of Let Me Finish! was much stronger than what I originally had in mind because of all the different people helping to shape it along the way.

Which is also why I make it a point to always refer to it as “our book” and never “my book.” 

What do you have coming up next? 

I have some other projects with Hyperion, but nothing I can talk about yet (I always say the hardest part of publishing is all the secrets you have to keep).

Something exciting that I can talk about is that I’ll be writing a Green Lantern graphic novel for DC Comics’s new middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

I’m particularly excited because while Drawn Together is about my grandfather, this graphic novel is inspired in part by my grandmothers. It means the world to me that I get to pay tribute to them through these books and that soon they’ll have a spot on the bookshelf.

Wonderful! I look forward to the Green Lantern novel and hearing about these other new projects when you can share them. 

Cynsational Notes

Minh Lê is the author of Let Me Finish! (an NPR Best Book of 2016), illustrated by Isabel Roxas and the upcoming Drawn Together illustrated by Caldecott medalist Dan Santat, both published by Hyperion.

He is also writing Green Lantern: Legacy, a graphic novel for the new DC Comics middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

A member of the kidlit consortium The Niblings, Minh has written for a number of national publications, including the New York Times, HuffPost, and the Horn Book.

He is currently serving as a judge for the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards.

Outside of spending time with his beautiful wife and sons, his favorite place to be is in the middle of a good book.

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.

Guest Interview: Editor Emma Ledbetter & Writer Zoë Armstrong on Picture Books & SCBWI’s Bologna Manuscript Contest

By Elisabeth Norton
for SCBWI Bologna 2018 and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: This interview is part of a series focusing on the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. 

SCBWI Switzerland Regional Adviser Elisabeth Norton talks with the judge and winner of SCBWI‘s new Dueling Illustrators Manuscript Contest.

One event that always draws a crowd to the SCBWI booth at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the Dueling Illustrators.

In the duel, two illustrators each stand before a blank flip-chart, marker, charcoal or other drawing medium at the ready. A story is read aloud in ten segments, and after each one, the illustrators have just a couple of minutes to illustrate that portion of the story.

The tricky part?

They have never heard the story before so they have no idea what is going to happen next!

Paul O. Zelinsky and John Shelley, dueling illustrators

This year, SCBWI launched a new picture book manuscript contest in conjunction with this event, which is held daily at the SCBWI booth during the fair.

The 100 entry slots for the contest filled quickly, and then it was the job of Emma Ledbetter, senior editor at Atheneum, to winnow those entries down to the six finalists and to select the winner.

Paul O. Zelinsky and John Shelley, photo by Christopher Cheng

Today I’m talking with Emma and with Zoë Armstrong, author of the winning manuscript.

Welcome, Emma and Zoë!

Zoë, how long have you been writing for children?

I’ve been playing with verse since my seven-year-old daughter, Elodie, was very young. But a year ago, I enrolled on to the Picture Book Programme of the Golden Egg Academy here in the United Kingdom, and it has given me tremendous focus and a determination to make space for my writing.

I trained as a journalist so I’ve always written, but creative writing is something I was doing privately at home. I think it can take a while to find the confidence as a writer to actively pursue your creative ambitions. But if you hold your nerve, anything is possible!

Zoë with her daughter.

Can you tell us more about the writing that you do? Do you write exclusively picture books? 

I am a freelance copywriter, but my real love is children’s literature.
I love that picture books are so rich in possibility, and how playful you can be with language and rhythm and ideas.

So, yes, picture books are very much where my heart is.

I tend to write quirky, lyrical stories, and I’d like to work with incredible illustrators and editors who have similar leanings. I try to write every day –– there is still so much to learn! –– and this practice has really elevated my writing.

What prompted you to enter the Dueling Illustrator’s Manuscript Contest?

I’m at that stage in my picture book writing journey where I’m determined to create opportunities, and jump in whenever they show up.

One of the things I love about picture books is the interplay between text and illustrations, so the SCBWI Dueling Illustrator’s Manuscript Contest was a dream contest to enter!

Emma’s office

Emma, there were 100 entries to this inaugural Dueling Illustrators Manuscript contest. Can you tell us about your process for narrowing 100 entries down to the top six? 

For me, this process—just like my job as an editor—had a lot to do with the gut feeling I had as a reader in response to each manuscript.

As I read the 100 entries, I sifted and organized them; those that stood out to me for any reason I put into a special pile, which started at around 20-30 manuscripts. Then I reread that pile, and continued winnowing them down from there until I landed on my six favorites!

What stood out to you about the six finalists and the winning entry, “When the Huggalumph Hullabalooed”? 

As a judge and as a picture book editor, one of the most important things to me is the vision I have, when I first read a story, of what a finished book might look like: for example, what art style might work; what interesting or surprising visual possibilities are available; what freedom an artist might have to bring their own touch and perspective to the story.

Though the manuscripts I selected through this contest are quite different from each other, what they all had in common is that they were stories I’d be interested in seeing come to life on the page—and which I thought could come to life successfully.

Other important factors for a strong picture book manuscript include a premise that feels unique and distinct, and thoughtful writing that draws me in—for its humor, its lyricism, or its cleverness, for example. For me, the winners I chose had these elements, too.

Zoë’s office

Zoë, what was the inspiration for your winning story “When the Huggalumph Hullabalooed”? 

I often start by free writing before I begin to plot, and it was the rhythm and the mouth feel of the words that provided the initial inspiration.

I’m fascinated by the way that the musicality of a text can engage a young child, even if they don’t fully understand the precise meaning of each word. It doesn’t matter!

I read a lot with my daughter and I’m sure that must feed into what I write. But I also think that the poetry of our first picture books stays with us forever.

My own childhood was filled with Maurice Sendak, Edward Lear, Judith Kerr, Roald Dahl and so on… so it’s all in there, I think.

Also my daughter, Elodie, has one or two Huggalumph characteristics herself!

View from Zoë’s office

Can you tell us about finding out that your manuscript was the winning entry? 

It was incredible to discover that “When the Huggalumph Hullabalooed” had won.

I’d been following the SCBWI Bologna updates on Facebook, and I saw that my text was being illustrated by two superstar illustrators –– Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky and John Shelley, who was shortlisted for this year’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

That in itself was really exciting, and then to actually win!

It’s been an invaluable opportunity to receive feedback from an editor of the caliber of Emma. The report she has written is thoughtful and encouraging, and I can’t thank her and the SCBWI enough.

I’ve already reworked “The Huggalumph” with Emma’s comments in mind. I guess it’s time to look for a great literary agent!

Emma, the guidelines for the contest specified that manuscripts not be longer than 350 words. For several years now authors have been advised to keep their picture book manuscripts short – 500 words or less. Do you see this trend continuing? 

Three hundred and fifty words is definitely on the short end of the picture books we publish! Word counts can vary greatly depending on things like the age group they’re targeting, and whether they’re fiction or nonfiction.

But yes, in general, there has been a trend towards brevity in recent years. I see this not as brevity for brevity’s sake, but because often, a manuscript reads as “too long” because it would simply be a stronger story if it were shorter.

When I edit a picture book text, sometimes I’ll encourage an author to condense when I find that there’s excessive description; too many different plotlines going on at once; or too much information incorporated (this can be a particular issue with nonfiction).

Every word is important in a picture book, where space is precious and limited—so every story needs focus and intent.

Based on your experience as an editor, what is the one thing that you think picture book authors should keep in mind when crafting their stories? 

Especially for authors who are just beginning or are early in their careers, it’s important to remember that once your text leaves your hands and is paired with an illustrator, it’s just as much their book as it is yours.

This idea understandably can be difficult to come to terms with, but it’s a crucial mindset for producing the best book possible.

Though the author’s input is important to me (of course!), I want the artists I work with to have the freedom to bring their own vision to the story, too.

In those early stages, when an author is first crafting their story, they can keep this in mind by asking themselves questions about how certain text might come alive visually.

For example, “is it important to the story that I write that my character is wearing a green shirt; or can I let the artist make that choice?”

Not only will this make your manuscript more appealing for an illustrator, but it will help you improve your story, too, by bringing in the focus and intent that I mention above.

Thanks so much for talking with me today! Zoë, we wish you and the Huggalumph great success!

Emma, any last thoughts for our readers? 

Thanks for having me, Elisabeth! And thanks to all of you authors who submitted your work to this contest. Keep writing (and reading)!

Cynsational Notes

Emma Ledbetter, senior editor at Atheneum, joined Simon & Schuster in 2011 following internships with Little, Brown; Nickelodeon; and Nick Jr.

A graduate of Yale University with a B.A. in Art History, Emma has edited all kinds of books for kids. These include the picture book Ida, Always by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Atheneum, 2016), which The New York Times called “an example of children’s books at their best” as well as the ALA Notable middle grade novel Quicksand Pond by Newbery Honoree Janet Taylor Lisle (Atheneum, 2017).

She is especially fond of Edward Gorey, the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker, and the Frances the Badger series by Russell Hoban.

Check out the books she’s edited, as well as some of her favorite children’s literature, on Pintrest; bonus points if you can decipher her Frances-related Twitter handle, @brdnjamforemma.



Zoë Armstrong is a British writer. After graduating from City, University of London, she trained as a journalist, and has worked in public relations within the charitable sector and in education.

She spent her childhood reading Maurice Sendak and Judy Blume in Oxford and Paris.

Her love of children’s literature persisted, and Zoë is now a member of the respected Golden Egg Academy for children’s writers.

Zoë lives with her young daughter in Brighton, on the South Coast of England, and works as a freelance writer.
You can find Zoë on Twitter.

Elisabeth Norton grew up in Alaska, went to University in Tennessee, and lived for many years in Texas.

After a brief sojourn in England, she now lives with her family between the Alps and the Jura in Switzerland.

Elisabeth writes for a variety of ages and reading levels, including picture books, chapter books and middle grade books.

She serves as the regional advisor for the Swiss chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

When not writing, she can be found walking the dogs, playing board games, and spending time with family and friends.

New Voice: Sarah Lynne Reul on The Breaking News

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m always amazed by those creators who can both write and illustrate their stories. Okay, I’ll admit a little jealous too. My talents do not lend themselves to do both.

 So shining the Cynsations’ spotlight today on Sarah Lynne Reul is a treat.

She shares about how she creates her art and why she ultimately decided to become a children’s book author-illustrator instead of focusing solely on illustration. 

The Breaking News, by Sarah Lynne Reul (Roaring Brook, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When devastating news rattles a young girl’s community, her normally attentive parents and neighbors are suddenly exhausted and distracted. At school, her teacher tells the class to look for the helpers—the good people working to make things better in big and small ways. 


She wants more than anything to help in a big way, but maybe she can start with one small act of kindness instead . . . and then another, and another. Small things can compound, after all, to make a world of difference.

Welcome, Sarah! How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

I’ve come to the winding path of writing and illustration in sort of a roundabout way, as so many people do.

I didn’t really see art as a viable career when I was in college, so I only took a couple of drawing classes during my undergraduate years. I worked in retail, social ventures, nonprofits as well as science museum education, but there always seemed to be something missing.

Eventually, personal events propelled me into going back to school to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in 2D Animation from the online program at the Academy of Art University.

I had always loved the idea of making drawings come to life through animation, and I imagined a career working in one of the several studios located in the Boston area. Unfortunately, two out of three of these companies closed just before I finished my degree.

After a few months of unsuccessfully trying to find work in the field, I attended my first SCBWI conference and began to pivot towards kidlit, applying the drawings skills I’d gained in my MFA program to picture book illustration.

There are so many 2D animation principles that transfer to picture book illustration – design, staging, clear communication, exaggeration, appeal… and so much more. I taught a workshop on this subject at the 2018 New England SCBWI conference.

In traditional animation, there are usually 12-24 drawings per second to create the illusion of life.

For my two-and-a-half minute MFA thesis film, The Search for the Monster of Lake Quannapowitt, I created literally thousands of individual character drawings, not to mention countless reference sketches, designs, animation planning and background drawings.

The experience of drawing so much (as well as getting over the fear of redrawing things when necessary) has contributed greatly to my progress as a professional illustrator. Since I completed all of my traditional animation through a digital pipeline (hand-drawing each image on a Wacom Cintiq tablet attached to my desktop computer), it’s been a natural progression to create picture book illustrations by drawing in Photoshop.

My style is definitely still evolving (and I hope it always will!). So far, I’ve digitally produced all of my professional work.

However, I would love to explore some traditional media like gouache painting, collage, linocut and diorama-building. Personal, daily projects, like 100 Days of Drawing on Photos give me the space to explore new ideas.

I’ve been dreaming about building some models out of cardboard and drawing on the photos – I’m hoping to create some sample pieces in this style soon!

As an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa? 

I started out in this industry thinking that I’d mainly work as an illustrator. However, after starting to share my work through portfolio reviews and postcard mailings, I began to realize that publishing timeframes are a bit too long to wait for someone to come to me with a project.

So, I started to write my own stories, in order to give myself something to draw (as well as to create more things to submit to agents and editors).

I hadn’t studied writing as part of my MFA, so at first it was a little difficult to think of myself as a writer. Eventually, I realized that my favorite illustrations are a vehicle for communicating a story, so it wasn’t that far of a leap to creating the story from scratch.

In addition to the 100 Days of Drawing on Photos projects that I mentioned above, daily writing challenges have also been super useful to help keep me going and creating new ideas.

The story for The Breaking News came to me while participating in my first Storystorm, which is a challenge run by author Tara Lazar, to generate 30 picture book ideas in 30 days.

Creating daily, whether through writing, illustrating or animating, is key to thinking of myself as a person who creates – even when I’m not working on a professional project.

My process of writing and illustration goes back and forth quite a bit. I’ll often start with a rough draft of the words, will attempt to figure out the page breaks, and then will make super rough thumbnail sketches of how I’d like to communicate each spread.

Often I’ll find that I need to change some of the language, or shift the page breaks to heighten the impact of each scene. I’ll go back and forth, refining each side, and when I think it’s going somewhere, I’ll bring it to my two critique groups (one for writers and one for illustrators) for feedback.

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life? 

My debut picture book, The Breaking News, focuses on a girl who wants to make things better after she notices how negative news has impacted her family and her community.

Animated interior spread by Sarah Lynne Reul, used with permission

In creating the text and the images, there was a delicate balance of telling the truth about a difficult topic without saying too much. The actual news that we are exposed to regularly is often so awful – I didn’t want to go overboard with details, but I also didn’t want to gloss over the experience with false cheer.

I had feedback from some critique partners early on that a book like this wasn’t necessary or appropriate. Some people commented that they always made sure to shield their children from hearing the bad news. And I definitely agree that is an important thing to do, up to a certain point – there is only so much that is appropriate at each age, for each child.

However, I also know from my own experience that I can’t shield them from what they might hear out in the world, and I can’t shield them from noticing when the grownups in their lives have been deeply affected by the news, no matter how we might try to hide it.

If you read the book, you might notice that the little girl’s teacher paraphrases this quote by Fred Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

In my research for how to handle the issues in this book, I came across that quote and then the wonderful parent resources of the Fred Rogers Foundation. This article, which talks about about how to help young children when there are tragic events in the news, provided inspiration and grounding as I worked on the story. 

Throughout the process, I tried to say true to the legitimate feelings that I have seen our own family go through, that I have seen friends go through.

Of course, the wonderful feedback of critique partners, family, friends, as well as my agent Emily Mitchell and my Roaring Brook editor, Claire Dorsett, were all hugely instrumental in finding the right balance.

It was important to me that we never quite understand the nature of the actual news that is reported within the story. I wanted to leave it open ended, and to leave that question unanswered so that each reader could interpret, drawing from their own experiences.

The Breaking News is ultimately about our reactions to the worst things that we can’t control – and how we can’t give up hope just because there is so much fear, doubt and despair in the world.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described The Breaking News as “wise and timely.” Peek:

“Ruel doesn’t specify the nature of the event, but her astutely composed, wonderfully sympathetic cartoon-style drawings capture how kids are impacted by worried and distracted adults, and how it feels to be small in the face of something too big to grasp.”

Sarah Lynne Reul is an author, illustrator and award-winning animator who likes science, bright colors and figuring out how things work.

Originally from Brooklyn, she now lives near Boston with her family.

Her first three books will debut in 2018: The Breaking News (Roaring Brook/Macmillan), Pet All the Pets (Little Simon, August 14, 2018) and Allie All Along (Sterling, August 7, 2018).

You can find friendly monsters, colorful patterns and animated gifs at her website.

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.

In Memory: Alice Provensen

By Gayleen Rabukukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Alice Provensen, a Star in the Children’s-Book World, Dies at 99 by Neil Genzlinger from The New York Times. Peek:

Working with her husband, Martin, Alice Provensen created dozens of books for young readers. “The books they illustrated and wrote covered a wide range — educational, fictional, biographical, historical. They liked to travel to research them, and did so for the most acclaimed book they both wrote and illustrated, The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel With Louis Blériot July 25, 1909 (Viking, 1983)… It won them the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1984.”

According to the Publishers Weekly obituary by Shannon Maughan, both the Provensens were “fascinated by airplanes and airshows.”

In 2001 Alice talked with Leonard Marcus for A Collaborative Effort in Publishers Weekly, about sharing that lifelong fascination with young readers through Blériot’s story. Peek:

“A friend sent research materials from France…and an antique airplane museum and flying school called the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome had opened in a town not far from their farm. Alice and Martin enjoyed attending the weekend air shows…. Martin was also taking flying lessons there.”

The Provensens won a Caldecott Honor in 1982 for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, written by Nancy Williard (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982).

After Martin died in 1987, Alice wasn’t sure if she’d be able to keep working, but editor Linda Zuckerman encouraged her to keep creating. From Eureka! by Sally Lodge for Publishers Weekly in 2005. Peek:

“Working on this (Klondike Gold, Simon & Schuster, 2005) and other books, I’m not ever really alone. I always feel as though Martin is looking over my shoulder, telling me what I should do over—and letting me know what work is good.”

Zuckerman talked with Shannon Maughan for the Publishers Weekly obituary. Peek:

“I know Alice has always credited me for getting her back to work, but she couldn’t have known the enormous satisfaction I felt on seeing the bound books of The Buck Stops Here (HarperCollins, 1990/ Viking 2010) for the first time. I learned a lot from her and I will miss her.”

Her most recent book, Murphy in the City (Simon & Schuster, 2015) was published just three years ago, when Provensen was 96 years old. Kirkus Reviews wrote of the sequel to A Day in the Life of Murphy (Simon & Schuster, 2003),

“For children who love their dogs, hate long car rides, and fear the new and different (until they try it), much will be comforting in this unassuming, appealing tale.”

In addition to her contributions to children’s literature, Alice Provensen and her husband Martin also created an iconic advertising image, Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger (link includes Provensen’s 1952 drawings).

Illustrator Leif Peng details the Provensen’s work on the ad campaign in his 2009 post, The Provensens & Tony the Tiger, including a quote from their nephew, Erik Provensen. Peek:

“They invented Tony the Tiger, and Katie the Kangaroo for Kelloggs, I should know, I, and my little brother in the early 50s were part of a children’s group brought together to access which charters we liked best. Tony and Katie were the winners.”