Author-Illustrator Interview: Il Sung Na on The Opposite Zoo

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations on the release of The Opposite Zoo (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016). What was the initial spark for this picture book?

Thank you! I am so excited about this book.

Even though the concept of opposites has been on my wish list for a long time, I did not know where to begin. I started writing down my favorite things to draw, which are animals. Then I thought about a place where we can see many animals at once. So I ended up with a zoo.

Why monkey as a framing character?

He is a tricky character indeed. I thought, a monkey is like a child. They act and behave like children sometimes. Well, I could say both monkeys and children are unpredictable and have curious eyes in a way.

In this book, we needed a character who is not trouble-maker, but someone who can have an explorer-mind.

Idea Sketches

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

I normally spend months picking an idea, developing it into a story and drawing. But this one did not take that long! From the idea until I pitched it to my editor, it took three weeks.

I struggled the first week to get it right, but once I figured it out, everything came at once. This was really a unique experience that I never had before since I started my career. Of course there were many things to be discussed and revised, like adding the monkey character to lead the whole story.

Although it took more than a year until the book actually published, I really enjoyed the whole process and I felt everything went so quickly.

In a process, polishing the “opposite” idea
First thumbnail sketches for the dummy
First thumbnail sketches for the dummy
First revised sketch
Second revised sketch

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

During my research, I realized that there were so many “opposite” books already out there, and it was my challenge to make a new “opposite” story. I also always have a hard time making good endings for most of my ideas. That’s why I still have many ideas in my folder, which I think are interesting concepts, but I have not been able to solve how to end those stories.

But this one was different. When I figured how to start and end the story, that was the moment that my brain clicked. The middle parts followed naturally. I carefully selected opposite words.

The book is for younger readers, thus the vocabulary needed to be simple. And I skipped my regular process of revising the story, revising thumbnail sketches several times, shifting the whole layout back and forth. I jumped straight into color illustrations once the idea was polished.

What artistic approach and risks did you embrace?

I wanted to illustrate this book in a different way, not in the same way I have done so far. The risk I had was how to approach this story in a fresh manner. I tried mono-print, watercolor, ink and color pencils. I spent the first week developing the idea and story, and I spent second week making color samples. I wanted more free-form lines and shapes in contrast to my previous illustrations.

So using ink-my long time favorite materials-was a risk: the effects had the potential to go astray with this new method.

Color Sample – Mono Print
Color Sample – Ink and Color Pencils
Final Illustration

What advice to do you have for children’s book creators working on concept books specifically?

Don’t worry about writing skills, if you think you don’t have them. It’s ideas that count. It’s not how you well write a perfect story, but it’s what strong idea you have and how you tell it in your own way.

So be brave, be bold, be creative and most importantly enjoy.

Guest Post: Lori Mortensen on Hooking Readers

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

After judging nearly a thousand entries for recent writing contests, I’m reminded once again of the importance and power of effective opening hooks.

Start out swinging, and readers can’t wait to read more. Meander around and readers will quickly lose interest.

The truth is, authors have mere seconds to capture an editor’s heart.

So what makes an effective opening hook?

Start with originality. As I read hundreds of manuscripts, I was amazed at the number of people who wrote about nature’s beauty, but barely skimmed the surface by settling on general ideas about flowers, trees, mountains, rivers, etc.

Nature can be a grand subject, but to rise above the piles of other manuscripts out there, your voice and unique point of view needs to shine from the beginning. So dig deeper and look inside. What unique conclusions have you drawn about something that could be shaped into an original theme?

If you want to capture an editor’s heart, don’t send them macaroni and cheese. Send them Banana Foster Flambé.

My upcoming picture book Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt 2016) is a good example of a story with an effective opening hook.

Instead of opening the story with any old chicken that lived on a farm, I created a unique character with distinctive characteristics.

Chicken Lily was a lot of things . . .
a careful colorer,
a patient puzzler,
and the quietest hide-and-seeker.
She never made a peep.
But Lily was also something else . . .

Because the opening is fresh, focused, and unique, readers want to keep reading to find out more.

 In this instance, Chicken Lily is . . . chicken! Raise her hand in class? Forget it! Eat something new for lunch? No way! Chicken Lily is a fun, unique character in the barnyard of children’s literature.

Next, tighten your story so it fits together like a puzzle. This is especially important for the opening hook. Authors that settle for easy, obvious rhymes, or use multiple paragraphs to say what they could have said in one paragraph, will quickly lose readers’ interest. Let your drafts run wild, but when you’re ready to submit, your opening hook should reflect a fresh and focused manuscript.

My upcoming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2016) is a good example of a strong, rhyming opening hook.

Cowpoke Clyde poked at an ad.
“Looky, Dawg, at this here fad.
It says that when my chores are done,
I’m s’posed to ride a bike fer fun.”

In four short lines, the reader meets a unique character, Clyde, a cowpoke who is going to learn to ride a newfangled bicycle. Each line makes sense, each word has a reason to be there, and the rhyme reads effortlessly.

(How to create fresh, effortless rhymes is another story, but if you want a successful manuscript, don’t settle for less.)

So if you’re scratching your head over a manuscript, take a look at your opening hook. Does it make you want to keep reading or, wonder what’s in the fridge?

Hmm . . . macaroni and cheese? Or Banana Foster Flambé?

Cynsational Notes

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Upcoming titles include Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury) and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

Other titles include Cindy Moo, illustrated by Jeff Mack (HarperCollins), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault, illustrated by Raúl Allén (Random House), a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, 2010, and In the Trees Honey Bees! illustrated by Cris Arbo (Dawn), a 2010 NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Book K-12 Winner.

When she’s not removing her cat from her keyboard, she follows her literary nose wherever it leads and works on all sorts of projects that delight her writing soul. Lori lives with her family in Northern California. 

2016 SCBWI Bologna Illustrator Interview: Ying Hui Tan

By Angela Cerrito
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Ying Hui Tan is a Malaysian Chinese illustrator. Born in a small town, Teluk Intan, she graduated with a degree in 3D Animation at the University of Hertfordshire and currently living in Reading, U.K. She spent the first few years working as a concept artist for games and cartoon series then she decided to become a children’s book illustrator. 

She loves storytelling and giving ideas while working with talented people. Her favourite parts of creating her artwork are mixing colours and experimenting different lighting setup for her scenes. 

Tan’s dream as a children’s book illustrator is to spread positive energy, thoughts and happiness to another because she believes everyone is born kindhearted and have a choice to forgive and help another. 

Tan spent her free time traveling with her husband and camera, eating local food, taking good photographs and meeting local people or just staying at home watching classic old films, listening to oldies and cooking new dishes. Tan loves animals especially whales, dogs, dragon like reptile and dinosaur, she wanted to adopt a dog someday.

Congratulations on having your illustration Dreamer Whale selected for SCBWI’s Bologna Illustrators’ Gallery. Dreamer Whale will be displayed by SCBWI at the prestigious Bologna Children’s Book Fair. What inspired Dreamer Whale?

Thank you, I am thankful for being selected as a finalist and taking part of this interview. I always fond of whales, especially blue whale. They are the biggest living thing yet they are so gentle and elegant, they can sing too! I don’t know how to swim but I always imagine myself swimming closely with them just like a kid having a dream.

Your career as an artist has included many fascinating achievements from working as a concept artist for games and cartoon series to 3D animation and now children’s books. 

How do these experiences influence your current projects?

Those experiences help me see my art differently, making a children’s book is like building a 3D world for me, everything has to start from scratches and find the connection between them. Since I left the games and animation industry, I always start from a story before I creating a character or a scene. I don’t like to paint without my soul and feelings, so having a background story really helps me to stay excited of making the scene looking right to tell the story.

Being a children’s book artist is really fun because I can be a director and photographer at the same time, the biggest challenge is using limited frames to tell a story and make each page / frame counts.

As a woman from a small town in Malaysia who now lives and works in Reading, U.K., do these experience inspire your art?

I have been living in the U.K. for more than five years without my family and friends. I never felt this loneliness and emptiness before. What I could do to help myself is creating and imagining happy and beautiful things to keep me going.

You mention on your website that it was your love for Japanese anime that got you started drawing. 

Did you first draw your favorite characters? Or did you create your own stories?

I drew my favourite characters at first because I didn’t know I can draw, then soon I started creating my own stories, it was more fun to create my own.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new book called JoyN’TheVoid, a book to help children opening their mind and feelings towards happiness and helping another.

What advice do you have for artists just starting out in the field of children’s book illustration?

Good things will come eventually after loads of hard work, always have faith in yourself and keep trying!

Cynsational Notes

Angela Cerrito is a pediatric physical therapist by day and a writer by night. She thinks she has the two best jobs in the world.

Her latest novel, The Safest Lie
(Holiday House), was named a finalist for the 2015 Jewish Book Award, a
Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Readers and a Notable Social
Studies Book for Young People.

Angela Coordinates the SCBWI Bologna Interview series, volunteers as SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and is a Cynsational reporter in Europe and beyond.

2016 SCBWI Bologna Author-Illustrator Interview: Nicola L. Robinson

By Elisabeth Norton
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Nicola L Robinson is an illustrator based in Nottingham U.K. Her children’s illustration work includes cover art, pop-up books, pen and ink illustrations, hand lettering, illustrations for children’s poetry and illustrations for prints and greeting cards. She particularly loves drawing monsters, dragons, animals and architecture, often with a slightly creepy edge.


She is the author and illustrator of The Monster Machine, a monster picture book published by Pavilion Children’s books. The Monster Machine was shortlisted for the Cambridge Children’s book awards 2013 and selected as part of the Summer Reading Challenge by The Reading Agency.


Nicola won the Silver award in the self-promotional category at Images 36. Last year, she exhibited in London in the HAI Illustration 100 exhibition and also in multiple locations as part of the SCBWI BI showcase exhibitions. Nicola also owns and runs Teeth and Claws, her personal brand of prints and cards featuring her illustrations, predominantly dragons, dinosaurs and cats as well as other beasts too. Follow her blog and via Twitter @NLRobinsonart.

Congratulations on being awarded Honorable Mention in SCBWI’s Bologna Illustration Gallery for your illustration of The Billy Goats Gruff. I still have my copy of the Three Billy Goats Gruff book from my childhood, and I love your take on this classic tale! Was this piece part of a larger project such as a picture book, or was it a stand-alone piece?

Thank you very much! I’m pleased you like my version. The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff has always been a favourite story of mine since being a small child.

I’m particularly drawn to fairy tales featuring animals and monsters so had been meaning to illustrate this for a while. It is a standalone illustration, done purely for myself- I wanted to capture an overview of the whole story with it, with a focus on the troll.

How long have you been an illustrator? What path led you to pursuing a career in illustration?

I’ve been drawing and creating all my life, so a career in art was a natural progression for me. I have always loved drawing particularly from my imagination.

I did art at school and went on to University where I did my degree in Fine Art, specialising in Painting. It was during my Fine Art studies that I found I really love making art with a narrative, something which tells a story be it from text or on its own and I realised Illustration was where my passion lay. I started freelancing and taking commissions when I was still a student.

I graduated in 2005 from Cardiff School of Art and Design and have been illustrating ever since. Although it is only in more recent years that I have been illustrating for children’s publishing.

You are also an author. Is there a creative difference for you as an illustrator, when you are illustrating your own work, versus illustrating someone else’s work?

I had a lot of fun writing and illustrating my picture book. I found being both author and illustrator and so able to work on both text and image simultaneously was really useful- particularly when designing the layout of image and fitting the text on the spread. Being both author and illustrator gave me a lot of control over the finished look. Although as ever deciding which story elements to be shown in the artwork and what to tell in the text was a bit of a balancing act.

When illustrating other people’s work I’ve usually have less control as there are more people’s inputs to be considered. Most of my other commissioned children’s book work has been for cover art and classic books which have a different set of requirements to work within than the larger canvas of a picture book. I usually work with art directors who are commissioning something very specific. I do enjoy illustrating other people’s work though, and I try to bring something new to any text or cover I work on.



Do you have a favorite medium for your illustrations?

I love working in pen and ink, particularly old dip pens and nibs as well as finicky technical pens too. I love the lines which come out of them. I also love watercolours, coloured inks acrylic paint and digital techniques too. I have used a lot of different materials over the years depending on the project and subject to depict.

Is this the medium you used when creating your piece that was selected for the Bologna Illustration Gallery?

Yes. It is a combination of pen and ink drawing, watercolour, coloured ink, acrylic paint and a touch of digital fine tuning too.

Could you describe your creative process?

This varies depending on the particular demands of each project and how the end product is going to be printed, or presented. Although I always start every project with some kind of thumbnail scribbles to get a feel for the overall composition. I do a lot of research if the subject is not familiar, and often visit the library in order to read up on the topic and get a strong mental image of the subjects to be illustrated.

I then do lots of drawings, and rough sketches often going over the same ones tweaking the composition and making edits as necessary. When I’m happy with the rough sketch (or if I’m working with a client once they are happy) I’ll transfer my sketch to paper to start inking and if I’m going to be working in colour I’ll stretch the paper beforehand too so it dries nice and flat.

Once painted in a combination of watercolour and coloured inks I scan the artwork before moving to Photoshop for any final editing and to prepare the artwork for delivery. I often work in layers to allow for maximum flexibility, so elements can be repositioned or used elsewhere in a project. This is particularly useful for popup books and covers requiring movable elements of text or other details or vignette illustrations requiring totally clean transparent backgrounds for clean printing.

Not everything goes through this process, sometimes it is nice to just work in a sketchbook and let the ideas simmer in there for a while until they are ready to be developed. Sometimes that is where they stay.

Can you tell us about your work space?

My work space is a bedroom at the front of my house, I’ve only recently moved in so it is still a work in progress! It is the place that I work, and drink copious amounts of tea, and also the place where I think and read too. I also use the room for sewing and other crafty things as well as packing orders for my Teeth and Claws shop.

Moving house took ages and as a result I did not having a fully functioning work space for some time last year, working out of boxes and not knowing quite when moving was going to happen was disruptive to my work, so I am very appreciative of my new workspace now I’m here. I love it, but I will be stripping that wallpaper…

Sometimes it is nice to have a change of scenery, so I do work outside weather permitting, and I’ve always enjoyed working on the floor (less prone to tea/coffee spillages here too) sitting cross legged with my wooden drawing board on my lap.

What is a typical creative session like for you?

If it isn’t part of a project for a client which obviously requires a solid block of work I tend to create when inspiration strikes. So my creative sessions can vary from waking up in the middle of the night with an idea from something I’ve been dreaming and trying to scrawl it down on paper, to whole evenings and weekends in my studio just content in my own universe.

I do stop for regular tea breaks though although I have been known to forget to make lunch if I’m particularly absorbed in my work. I hate distractions so I work best alone with no phone calls or emails to interrupt!

I like to listen to music while I work, it often helps get a rhythm going particularly when inking something with a lot of texture or detail like a city with lots of roof tiles and tiny windows or a big scaly dragon.

Thank you so much for spending time with us today! I look forward to seeing more of your illustrations in the future.

Cynsational Notes

Elisabeth Norton grew up
in Alaska, lived for many years and Texas, and after a brief sojourn in
England, now lives with her family between the Alps and the Jura in
Switzerland.

She writes for middle grade readers and serves as the regional advisor for the Swiss chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

When not writing, she can be found walking the dogs, playing board
games, and spending time with family and friends. Find her on Twitter @fictionforge.

The Bologna 2016 Interview series is coordinated by Angela Cerrito, SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and a Cynsational Reporter in Europe and beyond.

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

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

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


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

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


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

Guest Post: Henry Herz on The Advantages of Independent Publishers

By Henry L. Herz
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Let’s first distinguish between the terms “independent” and “small” publishers.

“Independent publishers” (IPs) are publishers that are not part of a larger corporation (e.g., the Big Five).

“Small publishers” are defined in the 2007 Writer’s Market as those that average fewer than ten titles per year. So, while all small publishers are independent, not all independent publishers are small.

Pelican Publishing, home of my first three picture books (Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes, When You Give an Imp a Penny and Little Red Cuttlefish), puts out about 60 titles a year. It’s an independent publisher, but not a small publisher.

Having a book put out by a large publishing house, without question, offers some powerful advantages, including greater market reach, publishing industry relationships, more staff, and bigger budgets (and advances), than are often the case for smaller publishers. That said, there are significant benefits to working with independent publishers.

1. Access – Arguably the most important advantage of independent publishers is their relative ease of access. While most of the large publishers can only be queried via a literary agent, that restriction is rarely present with independent publishers. This makes independent publishers particularly appealing to newer writers who aren’t represented by agents.

2. Relationships – independent publishers’ smaller size tends to promote a closer relationship between the author and the independent publisher than may be possible with a large publisher. I feel comfortable contacting my editor and publicist at Pelican whenever it’s necessary. This ease of interaction promotes a more pleasant working relationship.

3. Influence – By virtue, at least in part, of the closer relationship, authors may also have more influence with independent publishers than with large publishers. Independent publishers may be more likely to solicit and consider author feedback on cover design, artwork, font choice, etc. That said, trust your independent publisher to know its business.

4. Author’s Efforts More Visible – This is the big fish in a small pond phenomenon. An individual author’s promotional efforts and resulting sales are more visible and account for a larger percentage of sales at an independent publishers than at a large publisher.

5. More Flexible – Independent publishers, by their nature, and more flexible than large publishers. This can enable them to focus on niche or regional markets, and offer a home to a book that would not be considered by a large publisher. Independent publishers don’t invest as much on a single book, and can thus more easily take calculated risks on innovative or unusual manuscripts.

6. Longer-Term Perspective – The philosophy of independent publishers is more aligned with a marathoner than with a sprinter. Slow and steady wins the race. Pelican keeps its books in print indefinitely.

7. Speed – Independent publishers can use their smaller size and greater flexibility to produce books faster than a large publisher. This was particularly true for my experience with Pelican, since I had complete artwork accompany my manuscripts (note: that is neither typical nor recommended for non-author-illustrators).

8. Stepping Stone – Independent publishers are quite capable of producing top notch books. A well-written and commercially successful book put out by an independent publisher may offer an effective stepping stone for authors’ careers, including gaining access to literary agents and, with their help, larger opportunities.

Cynsational Notes

Henry L. Herz‘s latest picture book is When You Give an Imp a Penny (Pelican, 2016).

Before you lend an imp a penny, there’s something you should know—such a simple act of generosity could set off a side-splitting chain of events!


A colorful picture book full of mythology, mischief, and magic, When You Give an Imp a Penny shows us just what happens when an accident-prone—but well-intentioned—imp comes along asking for favors! 

The same writer/illustrator duo that brought you Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes brings to life a comedy of fabled proportions.

Find Henry at Facebook and @Nimpentoad at Twitter.

Guest Interview: Author Eric Pinder on Writing Picture Books & How to Share With a Bear

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Eric Pinder is the author of four picture books and four adult nonfiction books. His most recent release is How to Share With a Bear, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015). From the promotional copy:

The perfect thing to do on a chilly day is to make a cave. But comfy caves never stay empty for long….


What can you do when a bear takes over your cave? Try to distract him with a trail of blueberries? Some honey? A nice, long back scratch? 

How to Share With a Bear is a story about how although it’s not always easy, sharing with a sibling can be the most fun!

Congratulations on How to Share With a Bear! Tell me about the inspiration for this story.

Being a kid should automatically count as credit toward getting a degree in architecture, because we’ve all made blanket forts and blanket caves as kids. What’s more fun? I think every uncle, aunt, parent, and babysitter has had to master the architecture of a blanket cave at some point, too. Often it’s a collaborative effort, in the same way that reading a picture book is a shared experience.

For How to Share with a Bear, I had the blanket cave setting in mind from the start. The word “cave” got me thinking about real caves, and what you might find in one. That led naturally to a bear.

How or when did you make that leap in your imagination from bears being scary creatures that could eat you to being a cuddly companion?

William Faulkner’s “The Bear” was an early influence, even before I started writing for children. And no one gets through high school without seeing Shakespeare’s bear chase characters right off the stage. So we have this perception of bears as big and scary, but in childhood we’re also familiar with Fozzy Bear, Yogi Bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, and our own teddy bears.

Hear the word “bear” and you don’t know at first which you’re going to get: the terrifying grizzly or the funny, cuddly kind of bear. The very word “bear” creates uncertainty, all on its own.

Uncertainty creates tension and suspense. And suspense makes readers keep turning the pages. We have these two dueling, conflicting perceptions of bears lodged in our minds from an early age, and I think the subtle tension that evokes is what makes bears so great for storytelling.

Cat in the Clouds, If All the Animals Came Inside, Share with a Bear… I’m sensing a theme with animals and nature.

One of my earliest favorite memories is camping with my dad in Baxter State Park on a rainy afternoon when suddenly a moose stuck its head right into our leanto to say hi. I didn’t have that day in mind when writing If All the Animals Came Inside, but now that I think about it, that memory must have been an influence all along.

I know you spend a lot of time outdoors and have even written some books for grownups on that subject. Can you tell me what prompted you to write for children and what has been the biggest challenge in crafting stories for young readers?

One day a strange thing happened: Everyone in my circle of friends started having kids. Their houses were suddenly full of books by Seuss and Boynton and Silverstein. I’ve always liked poetry, and writing picture books is similar; they’re both read aloud—performed—so the sound and rhythm of each word and syllable matters. It’s almost like writing a song. Reading those old favorite books on friends’ shelves and hearing them performed out loud reminded me of how much fun they are. I had to start writing some of my own.

Writing for any age group is challenging. The biggest challenge with picture books is appealing to two different audiences at the same time: the grownup reading the book, and the child listening to them read. Re-watching Sesame Street recently made me appreciate how well they often write on two levels like that. One Sesame Street skit features a bear who is a writer. The bear’s name is Flo. It took me a second to connect the dots: Flo Bear, i.e. Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary. Clever joke! That second level of understanding flew completely over my head when I saw skits like that as a toddler, but it didn’t confuse or distract me, either. Watching it as a grownup, it made me chuckle.

What’s your process like? Do your stories simmer in your head for a long time before you sit down at the computer?

I leave a plate of cookies next to my laptop overnight and hope that elves will write the story for me. Then I get up the next morning, eat one of the stale cookies, mutter about elves, and start typing away on my own. To force myself to make time to write, I’ll put background music on the CD player and make a rule: no checking email or playing Scrabble or anything else but writing until the music stops. Usually the first half-hour is agonizing, but then I’ll get momentum.

Sometimes a single sentence or an opening scene will simmers for months before the rest of the story appears. At other times, like a gift from the Muses, a whole first draft will appear on the page in one sudden creative burst. But that’s rare. I should probably bake more cookies for the Muses.


You also teach creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Does that also feed your creativity?

The best way to describe teaching is “exhausting but rewarding.” Lesson prep and commenting on student stories is time-consuming, but it’s worth it. Sometimes a student’s story or poem will be so good that it makes me grin the whole time I’m reading it. Just being part of a community where everyone loves books, talks about books, and asks smart questions about books on a weekly basis sparks creativity.

Of course, there are times when I wish I’d assigned less homework. (Right now, my students are probably saying, “Yeah, us too.”) It takes energy and time to critically read and edit dozens of pages of stories by others between classes, and that does leave less time and energy for your own creative work. It makes sticking to a regular writing schedule, even if it’s only an hour a day, extra important.

For most teachers the summer—blissful, leisurely summer—is the most productive season for our own writing. But the books we read and the classroom conversations we have during the rest of the year definitely fuel new writing projects.


I frequently see Facebook posts of you selling books at Farmers Markets. Tell me more about this unique venue choice.

A middle-schooler at an author event said, “Hey, my mom runs the farmers’ market. You should sell your books there.”

That’s not a venue that would ever have occurred to me, but, being a starving writer in need of money, I filed the idea away and gave it a try.

The first day I sold $200 worth of books. People like getting signed copies. Even on rainy days when I sell nothing, it’s still fun to meet and talk to people. You can tell who the teachers and school librarians are.

The best part is seeing kids who really love books. A beginning reader at one market slowly read If All the Animals Came Inside aloud to his grandma, pausing every now and then to say, “Did you write this page and this page?” and “What the heck’s a yak!?” It was like listening to a funny DVD commentary for my own book. Halfway through, he told me, “You’re actually doing a really good job writing this. So far.” Kids are the bluntest and best of literary critics.

At some markets I’m the only writer there, sandwiched between vegetable stands, maple syrup, and corn on the cob. Other towns combine farmers’ markets with craft fairs, so there are painters, wood-carvers, and photographers there, too.

One tip for doing book-signings at venues like this is that it helps to have at least three or four different books on your table. People like to see a selection and be able to browse. I’ve seen authors with only a single title at their table, and they’ve struggled. The more covers you have on display, the more eye-catching your table will be.

What’s coming up next?

Another picture book with Stephanie Graegin, How to Build a Snow Bear, is coming in 2016, and The Perfect Pillow, illustrated by Chris Sheban, in 2017. The latter has animals but surprisingly no bears, which may be a first for me.

I also just finished a big revision of a creative nonfiction manuscript about adventures in teaching. That one does have bears, and wolves, and even a camel. So I guess I’m not done writing about animals just yet.


I read about the bats being cut from How to Share With a Bear – any plans for bat inclusion in future books? Or do you have something against bats?

I love bats! They eat mosquitoes and have sonar as a superpower. Sometimes a scene, like the one with the bats, is good on its own, but the story as a whole is stronger without it.

I save deleted scenes and pruned sentences in a folder called “Scraps.” Sometimes they’ll get used or adapted later in a different story.

Cynsational Notes

Both Eric and Gayleen are alums of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program and graduated in the Winter 2011 class known as the Bat Poets.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Sarah Frances Hardy on Writing a Companion Picture Book

By Sarah Frances Hardy
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

My third picture book Dress Me! (Sky Pony, 2015) is a companion book to last year’s release Paint Me! (Sky Pony, 2014).

When I was thinking about what my next submission to Sky Pony would be, I sifted through my pile of finished, sort-of finished, and not-at-all finished manuscripts.

I had a longer manuscript for a dress up book that was giving me trouble, but I liked the concept of a girl trying on different outfits and personalities, so I talked through it with my agent.

She suggested that I keep the “me!” theme going and write a companion book to Paint Me! using some of the elements from my longer (and quite honestly, not working) dress up book.

Brilliant!

But it was tricky to do …

My first attempts too closely mirrored Paint Me!. The rhythm and structures of the stories were almost identical, and my main character, although different looking, struck many of the same poses as my main character in Dress Me!. The two stories were just too much alike. I had to figure out how to echo my original story while making a fresh and new narrative.

And that was the biggest challenge … making it the same but somehow different! It wasn’t enough to give the main character different words and a different color hair. She had to be a unique person with her own problems and interests.

And the ultimate conflict of the story had to be completely different, but structurally it I wanted it to happen at a similar place in both narratives.

In Paint Me!, a little girl begins the day painting a portrait of her dog and gets a little out of hand. As she skips through the book trying different colors, she calls out the name of each color … “Yellow me! Red me! … etc.” The conflict happens when the main character spills paint everywhere and falls down in a giant messy pile yelling “Mom–meeee!”.

As easy as it would have been to have my main character in my companion book fall down in a pile of clothes and yell “Mom-meee!”, I couldn’t do that. It would’ve been lazy and unimaginative–pretty much the exact same book done over again. And who wants to read that?

So … in Dress Me! my main character tries on lots of different outfits, careers, and (yes) a mustache …

before trying out the ultimate Diva garb complete with a pink boa and tiara.

“So NOT me!” she yells. The structure and language of both books are the same, but the conflict and character tell a different story.

Different … but the same.

Plus, I managed to get in a bit of a feminist message, making my book a little different from most of the stereotypical “girl” dress up books out there. My main character in Dress Me! explores who she can be instead of how pretty she can be.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Dress Me! by Sarah Frances Hardy (Sky Pony, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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New Voice: Reem Faruqi on Lailah’s Lunchbox

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Reem Faruqi is the first-time author of Lailah’s Lunchbox, illustrated by Lea Lyon (Tilbury House, 2015). From the promotional copy:


Lailah is in a new school in a new country, thousands of miles from her old home, and missing her old friends. 

When Ramadan begins, she is excited that she is finally old enough to participate in the fasting but worried that her classmates won’t understand why she doesn’t join them in the lunchroom. 

Lailah solves her problem with help from the school librarian and her teacher and in doing so learns that she can make new friends who respect her beliefs. 

This gentle, moving story from first-time author Reem Faruqi comes to life in Lea Lyon’s vibrant illustrations. Lyon uses decorative arabesque borders on intermittent spreads to contrast the ordered patterns of Islamic observances with the unbounded rhythms of American school days.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Trying to write and mothering young children can be very tricky! I have a two-year-old and four-year-old and have learned that you get better at working through interruptions. When I’m writing, I’m usually receiving interruptions from my children to take them to the bathroom, for another snack … the list goes on!

When my four-year-old is at school, I have my interruptions cut in half with just my two-year-old’s needs. That’s when I feel I get the most writing done.

I do try to write sometimes at night when the children are asleep and find it semi-successful. I find I work best during daylight. I love natural light and find it conducive to working and getting my ideas flowing.

At night, it is easy to feel tired after a busy day!

When I quit teaching to stay home with my children, I wrote a lot of children’s manuscripts when my first child was a baby. She slept a lot during the day so I enjoyed getting that time to write.

Those stories didn’t make it in the publishing world, but through them I now found a stronger voice that works for me.

“Writing” her name with Webdings

I do think it’s important though to rest when your children are resting as that time is precious and when your mind is rested, it is easier to write. Sometimes whole stories will pop in my head when I am doing something random like getting my children ready for bed. It’s as if I can visualize the story, the words, the illustrations, but sometimes when I sit down at the computer, it is frustrating when that story disappears! But if it’s a good story, I believe it will resurface.

The title for my story, Lailah’s Lunchbox, popped into my head when I was cooking: I thought it would be fun to write a Ramadan story about a child who “forgot” their lunchbox every day during Ramadan. I wrote the title on a sticky note and put it away for some time before coming back to it.

For those trying to write and raise children, I would tell them there is no such thing as having it all! You may have a great manuscript you’re working on but you will be eating left-overs for dinner for the third day in a row and children that need a bath! Or you may be itching to write a story, but find yourself caught up in bathing children, cooking food, laundry, dropping and picking up children from school, etc!

Something has got to give way when you write. Sometimes I may be caught up in a story and look around at my house and children and think What Happened?!

This happened when I was writing once!

 At those times, find reassurance in your words that you have just worked on and know that because of entropy, your house will continue to keep getting dirty. Putting your words out there takes work and in due time your work will pay off!

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

I got a flurry of emails until the “Yes” email!

I made a list of six agents and six publishers to send Lailah’s Lunchbox to. I mailed the manuscripts on May 30 and tried to distract myself with other things. On June 16, I received an email with the subject ‘Your Manuscript’ in my inbox. That was enough to make my insides leap!

The email was from Fran Hodgkins, the Director of Editorial Design at Tilbury House, saying I had sent my manuscript to their old mailing address and that it had been re-routed to their new address.

This is the wrong address for Tilbury House!

Fran said she enjoyed reading it and was sharing it with the co-publishers, Jon Eaton and Tris Coburn, as well as Audrey Maynard, the editor. She went on to say my story was a unique take on Ramadan and she was glad I thought of it. She wanted to know if I had received a response from any other publishers as yet.

I wrote back saying I hadn’t heard a response yet and then went on to forward the email to my aunt who was the person who had encouraged me to send in Lailah’s Lunchbox. She was just as excited as I was!

I checked my email a lot that week but no response. A week later I followed up with Fran asking if she had any response from her co-publishers to which she responded that they were meeting the next day to discuss my story.

I didn’t hear anything from them the next two days. Then on June 24, Tilbury House Publishers followed me on Twitter (@ReemFaruqi). At this point, I started to get more hopeful.

I couldn’t wait anymore so emailed Fran to see if there was any updated to which I got the yes email on June 26:

I was going to wait and have our children’s book editor call you, but I’ll take this opportunity to say that we really like your manuscript and would like to publish it.


I’m CCing Audrey on this email, as she is the one who’ll be working with you closely and our publisher, Tris Coburn, will be in touch to talk terms.


If that all sounds good to you, let me know….

I then took the next 20 minutes to celebrate. I couldn’t believe that I finally got a Yes!

My two-year-old had just gone down for a nap so I couldn’t tell her and I had to celebrate semi-quietly. My husband was teaching so couldn’t phone him up to tell him. My four-year-old was at school so couldn’t tell her either.

So I just jumped around for a minute before calling my aunt who was just as excited as I was, and then my mother who knew when I told her to “Guess What?” that I’d gotten a book deal offer!
I wanted to email Fran back with a hundred exclamation marks saying:

THIS SOUNDS AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But once I’d composed myself, I wrote:

Hi Fran,


Thanks for the quick reply. I couldn’t wait long enough for the editor to call me. Yes, this sounds amazing and I so excited!


Looking forward to talking with Tris Coburn.


Reem

Within the next few days, I spoke with the publisher Mr. Tris Coburn and Ms. Audrey Maynard, the children’s book editor. It felt surreal to be talking to people whose names I had admired.

That night I went over to my mother’s house and we had a cozy family dinner to celebrate!

Editing time!

Interview: Author Allison Estes & Illustrator Tracy Dockray on Izzy & Oscar

By Allison Estes & Tracy Dockray
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the promotion copy of Izzy & Oscar (Jabberwocky/Sourcebooks, 2015):


Have you ever taught an octopus to roll over? It’s harder than it looks. 

Discover why octopuses make the best pets in this charming picture book about friendship and embracing individuality!


Izzy has always wanted a pet. So when an adventurous octopus squiggles into town, Izzy decides to keep him. After all, a real pirate captain has to have a mascot. Oscar is not very good at going for walks or playing fetch. (Although he is amazing at hide and seek). And he’s definitely not like other pets…


But he is just right for Izzy.


Readers will be tickled by Izzy’s attempts to teach Oscar to behave like a dog, a parrot, a pony-and gratified by Izzy’s realization that in the end we love others for who they are…eight arms and all!

Visit Sourcebooks’ Izzy & Oscar Pinterest page!

Allison Interviews Tracy

AE: To get to be a published author, I had to read a lot and write a lot of course. But I didn’t study it in college, I just sort of went out and did it. 

My first published book was a ghostwriting job I got through a friend who recommended me. I had to write a few sample chapters, but the editor approved and I got the job. It was for a YA action/adventure series called Adventurers, Inc. by Mallory Tarcher (Kensington, 1994). 

So, my question for you is, how did you get your first illustrating job and what was the title?

Tracy Dockray

TD: I was living in the Lower East Side of New York, making puppets and painting murals when I decided that I really wanted to illustrate children’s books. I created what I thought a portfolio should be and my boyfriend pretended he was my agent and showed it to publishers.

A wonderful young editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux saw my portfolio and hired me to do a nonfiction book titled MicroAliens. I said “yes!” and was beside myself with joy… even though I had no idea what a microalien was.

AE: Some books are harder to write than others, and in different ways, and no matter what, I love the process of writing. It’s also a wonderful moment when you hear that a book has been accepted for publication. But the best thing is when I finish a book: I get elated, and full of energy. 

What’s your hardest/best thing in the illustration process?

TD: I run around the brownstone doing the Snoopy happy dance every single time I’m told I have another book I get to do. I guess, the best thing about the illustration process is that I get to do what I love to do for a living! Wow!

It’s not all sun and roses because sometimes an editor or writer has a definite idea of what your illustrations should be. And we are all good at some things and not as perfect at others.

AE: When I am writing, I tune out everything, enter another realm of consciousness, am irritable if interrupted, and feel dreamy and satisfied when I finally emerge. I have heard it called the “flow state.” What is your illustrating state-of-mind?

TD: I love the feeling that happens when doing something enjoyable with concentration. Flow state sounds a little groovy but for lack of a better word we’ll use it.

Whether it’s cooking, illustrating, writing or even hammering nails into wood, it’s moving and thinking and concentrating on accomplishing something. Usually, my kids bring me back to earth a lot quicker. Shocking sometimes, but what’re you going to do…?

AE: Right now, what is your favorite book that you have ever illustrated?

TD: My favorite book that I’ve illustrated, so far, is my Lost and Found Pony (Feiwel & Friends, 2011). I absolutely love drawing horses. So much so that I had to write a book about them so I could draw even more of them.

Allison, I know that you’ve written lots of horse books, funny that you and I got together to illustrate one about…. An octopus!?

But I really enjoyed that challenge. Octopi are so much more than I thought they were. It’s been so exciting illustrating your “Izzy and Oscar” although, making sure to get Oscars tentacles just right in the illustrations would mess with my groovy flow… in a big way.

Tracy Interviews Allison

TD: Neil Gaiman wrote, “People who wrote the rules know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not, the rules of what is possible and impossible in art are made by those people who have not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them.” 

Sometimes, I think that not knowing how hard it is to break into the world our craft gave us the courage to try it. In your question to me, you mentioned that you didn’t study writing in school and that you applied yourself after school learning your craft. This is interesting because that is the way I approached illustrating too. 

So, what did you study in school? Have you used it in your work now?

Allison Estes

AE: I loved acting when I was a teenager, and when I went to college I studied Theatre and English. I also competed on the forensics team (which doesn’t have anything to do with crime scene investigation—it’s speech and debate) in the speech and interp events. And somewhere in there I took a broadcast journalism class that I really loved, where I had to write and produce ads for radio.

The performance aspect of the theatre degree has stood me in good stead when I do author appearances, especially for large audiences: I learned how to use physical gestures to help portray characters and how to project!

On the forensics team, I learned to cut a longer piece of literature into a short excerpt, and several tricks that help you be really good at reading aloud—it’s a bit like acting with a book in your hand.

And writing 30-second radio ads is a lot like the way you have to think when you’re writing picture books: short and to the point, but still with some conflict, characters you care about, and emotional interest, so you have to choose your words very carefully!

And I think all the things that fascinate us throughout our lives, all the things we throw ourselves into for the sheer love of it, end up coming through us to shape our craft.

TD: There are always the upsides and down to everything. You’d said you were always so excited to get another writing project to do. So, on the flip side, what was your worst book experience: was it the making of the book, a very difficult time that you were working through while writing, or was it a review that made your feelers droopy?

AE: I wrote a lot of books for series, that I really poured my literary soul into because it was the writing I had to do at the time.

And series by nature are more likely to go out of print, because there are just so many titles and so many series that can fit on the shelves, and your reading audience outgrows them after a while.

So I think when The Short Stirrup Club went out of print was a big downer in my writing career.

TD: They often say that writers are sponges absorbing their experiences and then using them in their writing. Are you that type of writer? Can you cite an example?

AE: I think that’s true, but I don’t think I go around consciously noting things and storing them away to write about later.

It’s more like the stuff soaks in, and then when you go to write something, there it is: the analogy you want, or the idea for a character, or the late afternoon light shining through icy tree limbs…you can’t help but be a sponge, and you can’t help writing about what you’ve absorbed.


TD: As a writer yourself, I was interested in who were your favorite writers to read?

AE: I think I have read thousands of books: truly.

As soon as I learned to read, I was always with a book. My first favorite was Little Black, a Pony, by Walter Farley (Random House, 1961). The second was a little grocery store book called Fawn Baby by Gladys Baker Bond (Whitman, 1966).

As I got older, I read all the Newbery award winners (and I still do), and, really I read anything, everything: magazines, whatever was on my parents’ book shelves, whatever was at the school library…the library in our town had one wall of children’s books, and I’m pretty sure I had signed my name on the check-out card of almost all of them.

Now I still read every night before I fall asleep. For a few years I’ve been trying to catch up on classics I never got around to: I think Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813), David Copperfield (1849), and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862) are some of the most sublime literary inventions ever.

Austen, Dickens, Hugo: no one can write like that anymore. No one.

I’m also a great fan of Kipling and have read nearly everything he wrote. I love Steinbeck. I love short stories; Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall (Scribner, 2010) is one of my favorite collections.

I could go on and on…but I’ll wrap it up with this: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (I’m on the fifth) and I keep a copy of James Stephens’ Irish Fairy Tales by my bed and never get tired of reading it: it’s some of the most beautiful prose ever written.

TD: I really related to you when I read about your never getting your gray kitten. I always wanted Sea Monkeys. They always looked so amazing in the comic book ads. I never got them as a child but for my 18th birthday my mom finally got me Sea Monkeys! She said she didn’t want me to feel like I’d been denied my dream. Ha! 

When I got them, I was dismayed to discover that they were really just brine shrimp. 

You have a lot of animals in your life now, what is a memorable pet moment for you, happy or sad? Do you regret not having an octopus as a pet?

AE: Well, finally getting a gray kitten was a biggy, of course. Once Santa brought me a hamster. I was thrilled! It was the best Christmas ever! My first pony…my first dog…my first horse…But, happy and sad? Actually, this pet moment will always stay with me:

Last October, the same day my folks left town on vacation, our sweet old lab Stella commenced to dying. Sad as it was, she was ancient—about 105 in human years—and came naturally to the end of a long, happy life.

It is a long, hard, sweaty job to dig a hole in the hard-packed Mississippi dirt big enough to bury an 80-pound dog. No one was around to help except my 11-year-old son, Lucas. And help he did. Together we hacked and chipped and dug through the hard, red clay until we got Stella’s grave dug, and together we laid her down on her favorite old bed and covered her up.

It is no easy thing to look at death. Lucas never faltered. That day my old dog left this world, I saw the little man in my son.

Cynsational Notes

Allison Estes has written more than a dozen books. Izzy & Oscar is her first picture book, and was really different and fun to write!

Some of her other books are The Short Stirrup Club series (ten titles) for middle-grade readers, four titles in the Thoroughbred series (fun because she got to start over in #24 with all new characters), and Paw & Order: Dramatic Investigations by an Animal Cop on the Beat, which is an adult book but fine for animal lovers of all ages and full of happy endings.

After 29 years in New York City, Allison recently moved back to her home town, Oxford, Mississippi. She lives in the country with her son, two grandparents, two dogs, and two horses.

Right now, when she isn’t busy cooking supper, taking care of dogs and horses, teaching writing workshops and driving to soccer, she is working on another picture book, another adult book, and more happy endings.

Tracy Dockray grew up on the plains of West Texas with a love of books and innumerable pets. She moved to New York where she studied fine art and acquired several old motorcycles.

Her career veered from sculpture to puppet making to murals and finally to children’s books. She is ecstatic to have illustrated 30 books including two that she wrote herself.

Tracy now lives in a creaky, cavernous brownstone in Greenwich Village, with a hairless cat, two fuzzy dogs, two children and a very tolerant husband.

She is thrilled to have been able to illustrate Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series and The Mouse and the Motorcycle series since she has a soft spot for them both.

Although Tracy studied Fine Arts in school, she has come to the happy conclusion that drawing pictures for children’s books is the finest art she knows.

Find Tracy at Facebook.