Author Interview: Eric Gansworth on Give Me Some Truth

Eric Gansworth signing Give Me Some Truth
at 2018 Texas Library Association conference.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Eric Gansworth is the YA author of Give Me Some Truth (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, May 29, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Carson Mastick is entering his senior year of high school and desperate to make his mark, on the reservation and off. 


A rock band — and winning the local Battle of the Bands, with its first prize of a trip to New York City — is his best shot. 


But things keep getting in the way. Small matters like the lack of an actual band, or the fact that his brother just got shot confronting the racist owner of a local restaurant. 


Maggi Bokoni has just moved back to the reservation from the city with her family. She’s dying to stop making the same traditional artwork her family sells to tourists (conceptual stuff is cooler), stop feeling out of place in her new (old) home, and stop being treated like a child. 


She might like to fall in love for the first time too. 


Carson and Maggi — along with their friend Lewis — will navigate loud protests, even louder music, and first love in this stirring novel about coming together in a world defined by difference. 

This novel drew me immediately into the world and characters Eric crafted. So I had to know more about how his writing process.

Eric, I want to start with the title, taken from a Beatles song. It seems to dovetail perfectly with your characters’ experiences in the book. Explain how you landed on that. 


Thanks! I am obsessed with overarching structure and continuity within my fiction.

That said, writing novels is for me a strange and mysterious activity. The move from blank page to completed page is always unexpected, like entering someone else’s house invisibly and seeing their lives behind closed curtains.

I’m a strong believer in allowing new things to influence work in progress–serendipity, if you want to be fancy about it.

I have a superstition, though, and whatever file folder I create for a new book, I leave the original title on that.

If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine, 2013) had a different, neutral title for most of its development before Paul McCartney became a central thematic force.

After that shift, it went through several possibilities. When the right title hit, I could never see another possibility.

I knew the second book would be Lennon themed, and initially it was called “We All Shine On.”

It had very different themes, as you might guess with that title. Lewis and Marie were the protagonists, it had different plot developments, etc.

After three years of writing the wrong book, enough of the correct book had seeped into the narrative that I knew I had to start from scratch. Considering the more confrontational personalities of Carson and Maggi, “Give Me Some Truth” was a better fit.

In some ways, that command became the novel’s driving force.

I’d love to delve deeper into your process for creating such rich characters. There isn’t one in the book whose back story or motivations felt unknown to me. 


Did you begin the first novel envisioning these characters and their adolescence on the rez would carry beyond one book? Might we see Maggi or any of the other characters in a future work? 

Thank you. I may have answered part of this above. I decided early in my writing career that all of my characters would exist in the same fictional universe. I have an imaginary version of the reservation where I was raised, and I’ve given homes to characters that remain consistent.

I’m often surprised in the early stages of development, to see where the characters live. Their grounding on that imaginary map anchors part of their lives early on.

Eliot Schrefer and Eric Gansworth at YALLWEST,
photo by YALLWEST, used with permission.

Growing up, I did not have much access to a car, so I walked the Rez a lot, and you get to know a place really well when you experience it on such an intimate level.

When this novel was going to be about Lewis and Marie, I had a good sense of them, because I’d lived with them for several years.

I have a novel for adults done (but that needs revision) that has Carson as a major character, and its plot involves a long span, maybe twenty years, so I knew a lot about him. I was surprised when he wound up intruding into Lewis’s story, and then even more so here, where he eventually hijacked this novel, becoming a protagonist.

Maggi was a little harder to get to know. When I recognized the other protagonist couldn’t be Marie, I had to figure out what Maggi’s story was going to be. At the beginning, I knew she had to be 15 and feel very displaced everywhere she turned. She needed to be both jaded and naïve.

At 15, I felt strongly that I was already an adult and was eager to make adult decisions. The truth is, of course, that I wasn’t an adult at all, and made my own series of poor, or uninformed choices. I can not remember why I felt she needed a twin brother, and even asked myself in the first revision if Marvin needed to exist.

As I read it with an eye toward making the book shorter, I was surprised at the complex role he played as a harmony voice in their household. Even giving myself the permission to yank him and give the character his own novel at some point, I couldn’t see a way for him not to be there. To lose him would cause irreparable damage.


You are a visual artist. Your paintings are included in both of these novels. When you submitted the novel for consideration, did you include your artwork with the text or was that discussed later as a design element? Do you create the paintings while you’re writing or do those come to you at a different time in the creative process?

My book images come organically during development. I trust there is some other process operating that I’m not aware of.

While working on If I Ever Get Out of Here, I had a clear idea of what the paintings would look like. They’re satires of iconic Beatles/McCartney album covers, using the novel’s characters and situations for anchors.

I only realized after the novel was deep in production that a minor subplot involved Wacky Packages, (satirical trading card stickers popular when I was a kid). It turned out those paintings were more or less Wacky Package versions of those albums.

In this case, I knew the paintings would similarly be drawn from Beatles/Lennon album covers, but Wacky Packages were not a part of this story. I needed a different anchor.

Maggi is an inventive beadworker, in a traditional arts family. I’ve always loved this tension and know many beadwork artists who play with reinventing ideas and themes from popular culture. I thought it would be neat to re-cast those iconic images as if rendered in traditional materials: beadwork, soapstone, cornhusk dolls, and the like.

In a few cases, I retitled a section, because I wanted to use the image, so it’s very much an organic process.

What craft and career advice would you offer for beginning Native writers of young adult fiction?



Three things, really, feel important to me.

  • First: remember what your experiences feel like and give yourself permission to write about events that are complex.

I keep an open informal document for every book I work on, where I just talk to myself, asking questions, noting memories, speculating about ramifications of ideas. I do not edit this document, but I do date entries so I can keep track of how ideas evolve.

It’s not an exact process and there are gaps, for sure, but it’s been very helpful during development for the last four novels. Not every idea makes it to the book, and this document allows me to keep those decisions straight, as I finish revising and get ready for a new project.

  • Second: Don’t worry about what people will like.


I grew up in a very specific Indigenous culture, and the details of our lives are not necessarily resonant with others, even other Indigenous readers. I write about those meaningful cultural details, even if they don’t meet the expectations of others about Indigenous fiction.

Have faith that readers are coming to your work to see what you have to share, so don’t agonize about what you think someone might or might not want to publish. You can’t possibly know so worrying seems pointless, and I suspect some wonderful ideas get set aside because of this concern.

  • Third: writing involves talent but it also involves craft, and a lot of hard work.

Editorial feedback is real and is about making your story more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with your kinds of experiences. Often, beginning writers find this part of the process alienating and threatening, and express concerns about editorial feedback “contaminating the work.”

Editors are not supervillains rubbing their hands together, trying to make your life miserable. I’ve had occasion over the last couple of years to revisit some of my work that had been published with a very light editorial hand. I wish I could pull that work back and start over. It definitely would have benefited from a more rigorous editorial philosophy, and now I’m stuck with it out there in perpetuity.

What do you have coming out next that we can look forward to reading?

I’m working on the third book with these characters. You can read an early chapter published as a short story this summer in the lovely We Need Diverse Books anthology, Fresh Ink, edited by Lamar Giles (Crown, Aug. 14, 2018).

I have some poems and paintings coming out in POETRY this summer, some other poems in Heid Erdrich’s anthology New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf, July 10, 2018), and a story in Kenyon Review this coming winter.

If you’re an audiobook sort, I recorded Carson’s half of the Give Me Some Truth audio, with Mohawk actress Brittany LeBorgne reading Maggi’s chapters, and I’ll be recording my story for the Fresh Ink audiobook too.

Well, Eric, I can say definitively that I’m eager to read the third book. And I’m happy to know that we’ll all get a preview this summer in the Fresh Ink anthology.



Cynsational Notes



Eric Gansworth Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ (enrolled Onondaga, Eel Clan), a writer and visual artist from Tuscarora Nation, works at Canisius College.

His books also include:

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.

Three Authors Receive Top Honors from NCTE

By NCTE
for Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Summer Awards Roundup

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Boston Globe-Hornbook Awards for Excellence in Children’s Literature: “Winners are selected in three categories: Picture Book, Fiction and Poetry, and Nonfiction. Two Honor Books may be named in each category.”

The National Book Awards Longlist: Young People’s Literature from The New Yorker. Peek: “…a novel in verse about a twelve-year-old soccer nut, an illustrated adventure story that draws on Chinese folklore, a work of nonfiction about a woman who survived the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. on Nagasaki, a surreal love story involving rumored witches, and a graphic novel about the civil-rights movement co-written by a sitting U.S. congressman.”

Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award: “This year’s winner is Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir written by Margarita Engle, published by Atheneum….”

Intellectual Freedom Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. Peek: “NCTE honors Matt de la Peña for his courage in standing up for intellectual freedom with the NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award, given for de la Peña’s efforts to fight censorship not only through his words but also through his actions.”

Willa Award Finalist

Willa Award Winner and Finalists from Women Writing the West. Peek: “Chosen by professional librarians, historians and university affiliated educators, the winning authors and their books will be honored at the 22st Annual WWW Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Oct. to Oct. 16…”

Carter G. Woodson Book Award and Honor Winners: “NCSS established the Carter G. Woodson Book Awards for the most distinguished books appropriate for young readers that depict ethnicity in the United States.”

Lammy Award from Lambda Literary. Peek: “Exciting news for Alex Gino and all of us who want this beautiful and important story of a transgender child in 4th grade to get into the hands of everyone who needs it.”

NCTE Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children: “…established in 2014 to promote and recognize excellence in the writing of fiction for children. This award recognizes fiction that has the potential to transform children’s lives by inviting compassion, imagination, and wonder.”

Parents Choice Book Awards: “Parents’ Choice Foundation, established in 1978 as a 501c3, is the nation’s oldest nonprofit guide to quality children’s media and toys.”

Finalists Announced for the 2016 Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards“The winners of the English-language awards will be announced at an invitation-only gala event at The Carlu in Toronto on November 17, 2016. The winners of the Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse will be announced at an invitation-only gala event at Le Windsor in Montreal on November 1, 2016. Overall, $135,000 in prize monies will be awarded.”

International Latino Award (Chap Book)

2016 International Latino Book Awards: “…now the largest Latino cultural Awards in the USA and with the 257 finalists this year, it has honored the greatness of 2,171 authors and publishers over the past two decades. These books are a great reflection that books by and about Latinos are in high demand. In 2016 Latinos will purchase over $675 million in books in English and Spanish.”

Writers’ League of Texas Book Award Winners, Finalists and Discovery Prize Winners: “With over 1,200 members statewide and growing, the Writers’ League of Texas is a vibrant community that serves to educate and uplift Texas writers, whatever stage they may be at in their writing careers. In addition, the WLT offers valuable service to communities across the state with free programming in libraries and local schools.”

Cynsational Notes

Submissions Guidelines Walter Dean Myers Book Award for YA Lit from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “A submission must be written by a diverse author and the submission must be a diverse work. If a work has co-authors, at least one of the authors must be diverse…” Deadline: Nov. 1.

Lee & Low New Visions Award: “Manuscripts should address the needs of children and teens of color by providing stories with which they can identify and relate, and which promote a greater understanding of one another. Themes relating to LGBTQ+ topics or disabilities may also be included.” Deadline: Oct. 31.

Author Interview: Louise Hawes on The Language of Stars

By Louise  Hawes
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the promotional copy of The Language of Stars by Louise Hawes (McElderry, 2016):


Sarah is forced to take a summer poetry class as penance for trashing the home of a famous poet in this fresh novel about finding your own voice.


Sarah’s had her happy ending: she’s at the party of the year with the most popular boy in school. But when that boy turns out to be a troublemaker who decided to throw a party at a cottage museum dedicated to renowned poet Rufus Baylor, everything changes. 

By the end of the party, the whole cottage is trashed—curtains up in flames, walls damaged, mementos smashed—and when the partygoers are caught, they’re all sentenced to take a summer class studying Rufus Baylor’s poetry…with Baylor as their teacher.



For Sarah, Baylor is a revelation. Unlike her mother, who is obsessed with keeping up appearances, and her estranged father, for whom she can’t do anything right, Rufus Baylor listens to what she has to say, and appreciates her ear for language. Through his classes, Sarah starts to see her relationships and the world in a new light—and finds that maybe her happy ending is really only part of a much more interesting beginning.



The Language of Stars is a gorgeous celebration of poetry, language, and love.

What was your initial inspiration for The Language of Stars?

In 2008, I stumbled on a newspaper article about a group of Vermont teenagers who’d been caught throwing a party in the historically preserved summer home of Robert Frost. They’d vandalized and set fire to the place, but few of them were over eighteen.

A resourceful judge, who couldn’t send them to jail, sentenced them to something some of them may have enjoyed even less—they had to take a course in Frost’s poetry!

As soon as I read this, my writer’s “what-if” machinery kicked in: what if, I asked myself, the poet in question weren’t Robert Frost, but an equally famous, Pulitzer-prize winning, world-renowned Southern poet, someone who made his home in North Carolina, where I live? What if, unlike Frost, who’d been dead for decades when the vandalism happened, my fictional southern bard was still alive when young party-goers destroyed his house? And what if he decided to teach those kids himself? What if one of those students was a young girl who showed a natural ear for poetry?

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

It was a long gestation period! First, I needed to find my narrator, who turned out to be sixteen-year old Sarah Wheeler, a character who came to me almost immediately, but whose voice and interior life took me months of free writing to uncover.

Next, I read all the biographies on Robert Frost and everything he ever wrote (including some pretty awful plays modeled on seventeenth-century court masques!). After that, free writes helped me hear the voice of Rufus Baylor, my book’s poet, who shares some life experiences, artistic convictions, and teaching approaches with Frost, but whose personality and poems are all his own.

Next, it was time to write a draft, submit it to my agent, Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown Ltd. in New York, and then tighten and re-think major aspects of the book. (No, great agents don’t line edit; but yes, they do ask crucial questions about readership and story!)

When it was time to submit, I found out the hard way that a YA novel in which an octogenarian is a major character is not an easy sell! I also learned to treasure the judgement and eye of the brilliant editor (Karen Wojtoyla at Margaret McElderry) who trusted my book enough to acquire it and to ask me to rewrite it. Again?!

Grand total?

Seven years from inspiration to completion! Which may be why, in comparison, the year between signing and publication seems to have flown by!

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

Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet

You’ve named the usual suspects, Cyn. Research and craft, as well as sustaining emotional and artistic investment through so many years, most of them without a contract—all of it was far from easy. But the thing I found most difficult and at the same time most rewarding, was combining the three formats I wanted the novel to include.

First, Stars is written mostly in prose; it’s not a novel in verse. Second, of course, it also features poetry. I mean, hello? Most of the major characters in the book have chosen to study poetry rather than do hard time!

Lastly, because my narrator, Sarah, is a wannabe actress whose role model is Sarah Bernhardt, and because she and her mentor, Rufus, hear the whole world talk, talk, talking to them, I’ve also included play scripts that feature an on-going dialogue between things and people.

In the vibrant and highly auditory place Rufus and Sarah inhabit, grills sputter, furniture squeaks, sand crabs burrow, seagulls squeal—not just as background noise, but as active, contributing participants. Fun? Yes. But challenging to write!

Talk to us about your audition to read the audio edition of the book for Brookstone.

I have a theater background, so I asked my agent to write an author audition into the audio contract for Stars. After all, I reasoned, I had been a national finalist in the National Academy of Dramatic Arts competition; I had endured NYC audition rounds, portfolio in hand; and colleagues and students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts had listened attentively to my readings from each draft of Stars. Who was better suited to bring the audio book to life?

A lot of people, it turns out! Blackstone Audio required a short five-minute sample—a cinch, right? It took me days to come up with that recording, but it took the company’s studio director exactly three hours to respond to my emailed mp3.

What he told me, kindly but firmly, was that audio listeners have well-developed tastes and high expectations, the least of which is that a teenage narrator’s voice will sound as if she’s between the ages of 14 and 20. To soften the blow, and because I did have prior recording experience, he asked if I would help him select our reader from among their final candidates.

Here’s the humble pie part: the part where I tell you that any one of their top ten voice actors were about 900 billion times better qualified to read my book than I was!! Yes, I got to make the final call: Katie Schorr is a full-time actor, an all-round stage talent, and gives one of the most nuanced, sensitive readings I’ve ever listened to on audio. I can hardly wait for everyone to hear it!

What’s new and next in your writing life?

A lot! Current works in progress include The Gospel of Salomé, YA historical fiction about the young woman the new testament credits with having danced off the head of John the Baptist; Love’s Labor, an adult novel about an aging playwright; and Big Rig, a brand new middle-grade novel.

In addition to working on my own projects, I’m also cooking up another Four Sisters Playshop with my three sisters—a painter, a musician, and a film-maker. We’ll be exploring a new theme in August 2017: Death, Cradle of Creativity. We hope to share writing, movement, music, sculpture and painting with participants, and in the process destroy a lot of stereotypes about death and aging!

Interview: Author Carole Boston Weatherford & Illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford

By Carole Boston Weatherford
& Jeffrey Boston Weatherford

From Carole

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carole & Jeffery in 2000

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

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

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

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

Our first book together finally has wings.

Fly, little book, fly!

Author & Illustrator Interview

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

Jeffery: Why did you want to write this book?

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

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

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

Jeffery: When did you first notice my artistic talent?

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

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

Carole: What is your favorite illustration from the book?

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

Jeffery: What’s yours?

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

Jeffery: What is your favorite poem from the book?

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

Carole: Tell me about your first flight.

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

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

Jeffery: Like a child at Christmas.

From the promotional copy:



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



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



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

Guest Post: Skila Brown on Having Fun With Writing

By Skila Brown
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Skila Brown is the author of verse novels Caminar and To Stay Alive, as well as the picture book Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks, all with Candlewick Press. 

She received an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee and now lives in Indiana where she writes books for readers of all ages.

We all reach a point when writing doesn’t feel very fun. Maybe because we’ve read too many rejection letters. Or maybe because we’ve revised so much we can’t recognize our story. Or maybe because we’re under a deadline and the pressure to finish takes away all the enjoyment.

October, 2016

But remember why we started doing this? It wasn’t because we wanted to get rich quick. (Ha!) Or because it was the only job we could do. Or because anyone was making us write. It was because it was fun.

The art of creating story was fun. We became writers because we like telling stories—we like making up details, researching history and narrating events. All of that was fun.

Six years ago, I got serious about becoming a writer and applied to an MFA program. When I got a call from the admissions office saying, “Hey – we’re doing this intensive picture book semester and we have room for one more student. Would you like to try it?”

I thought, That could be fun. And I soon found myself immersed.

Six months of reading almost nothing but picture books. Dozens of picture books. Hundreds of picture books. Rhyming ones, silly ones, concept books, fairy tales. Biographies, bedtime stories, wordless books and—poetry.

The thing about sitting down at the library and reading through a knee-high stack of poetry books is that after reading a dozen, two dozen, I started to see really fast what makes a certain one good. I really liked the ones that were centered around a theme, with varied types of poetry and bonus little nonfiction facts sprinkled on top.

 I should try to do that, I thought. Being enrolled in a class that expected me to produce many picture book drafts in a short period of time didn’t let me dwell on whether it was a good idea or not. It just demanded that I try it out. That I play with it.

And I did. It was fun to research shark breeds and learn about sharks I’d never heard of before. (Hello, cookie-cutter shark!)

I spent a lot of time on YouTube watching sharks swim and thinking about their rhythm and shape and how that would feed into a poem. It was fun to learn new stuff. And it was really fun to try my hand at writing all different types of poems.

To challenge myself to make sure the next one didn’t rhyme or the next one was a concrete poem or the next one was a haiku. Not all of the experimenting worked. But every bit of it was fun.

As writers we need to remember what drew us to this field to begin with and do whatever we can to find the fun again. Here are 4 quick ways you can find the fun in writing this week:

  1. Be a spy. Go outside and find an animal or a plant and just sit and watch it for 10 minutes, writing down whatever comes to mind. See if you can take that and shape it into a poem when the time is up. 
  2. Play a game. Find a Mad Libs. Caption a funny photo.  
  3. Have fun with first lines. Opening sentences can be really fun to make up. Write a list of ten of them and then send the list out to your critique group. Let them vote on one that you’ll turn into a short story. 
  4. Write something that is completely out of your comfort zone. If you normally write YA contemporary, try writing a scene of a middle grade historical novel. Write the end of a story. Write in second person. Do something new and fresh that shakes it up a little in your routine.

It’s worth it to take a break from the WIP and play a little. Remembering what’s fun about writing will improve your energy level on your current project.

But that’s not why you should do it. You should do it because it’s fun.

Cynsational Notes

Educator’s Guide

Skila’s new book, Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks, was illustrated by Bob Kolar (Candlewick, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Fourteen shark species, from the utterly terrifying to the surprisingly docile, glide through the pages of this vibrantly illustrated, poetic picture book.

These concrete poems about a selection of sharks will tickle the fins of many an aspiring marine biologist. —Booklist
All in all, it’s a book that ought to leave many readers fascinated—and perhaps a little unsettled—by the diversity of sharks that exist beneath the waves. —Publishers Weekly
An inviting format to spark shark discussions. —Kirkus Reviews

Guest Post: E. Kristin Anderson on Teens Need Verse

By E. Kristin Anderson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Young people love poetry.

At least they love writing it. When I ask teens whether they read much poetry, though, the answer is usually no.

I think I know why. Outside of my bona fide freaky obsession with Emily Dickinson from the age of six, this was pretty much my exposure to poetry outside of Shel Silverstein:

  1. That time I found a super old and moldy copy of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and read it cover to cover in 24 hours. (I’m totes still scared of the Jabberwocky.)
  2. Memorizing a Robert Frost poem in fourth grade, which I suspect is about average for anyone who grew up in New England in the 80s or 90s.
  3. Shakespeare in high school.
  4. More Shakespeare.
  5. Transcendentalism.
  6. Intravenous Shakespeare injections.

Are you seeing a pattern here? It’s something along the lines of “dead white guys” and “extra dead white guys.”

But I had a teacher by the name of Mrs. Graves.

Teenage Sonnet

Cynthia Graves taught us sonnets and Shakespeare, sure. But she had us write our own sonnets, instead of just memorizing Bill. And then she gave us Louise Glück.

Louise Glück changed everything for me. I realized that I could write a poem that didn’t rhyme. Or that spoke to me, with honesty. That poems didn’t have to be about love or tragedy (though they could be). That sometimes you could just enjoy a poem, and not have to think what it “means.” And maybe it wasn’t just Louise Glück that changed everything.

(Pause for a shout-out to my girl Louise, for winning a National Book Award in November!)

It was Cynthia Graves.

But not everyone gets to be in Mrs. Graves’ class. And, survey says, poetry in the classroom hasn’t changed a whole lot since I was in school. I’m guessing there’s a little less Robert Frost here in Texas and hopefully a lot more Naomi Shihab Nye. And while there aren’t many poetry collections published for the YA market, that doesn’t mean we can’t share grown-up poetry with teens. Frost was hardly writing YA!

Sure, I’m still obsessed with Emily Dickinson as an adult. I appreciate Shakespeare. But I also love reading literary magazines and discovering new voices. I love writing found poetry using YA novels and fashion magazines. I love writing poems about UFOs and jackalopes.

I love when a fellow writer gives me a prompt and I have to create something under whacky constraints. It’s wild! It’s joyful! It’s making stuff! It’s telling stories!

I want kids to know this love, to find that poetry is more than iambic pentameter and some crusty dude with a quill. I want kids to see that they can read Gwendolyn Brooks! Tracy K. Smith! Austin Kleon! Francesca Lia Block! Tomaž Šalamun! Joseph Bruchac! Christine Heppermann! Ada Límon!

There are so many contemporary poets writing brilliant work – do we really all have to read the same guys, over and over, for generations?

I want to see grown-ups making magazines like Cicada and The New Yorker and Bat City Review (this is U.T. Austin’s lit mag – insert your local college’s lit mag here) available in their classroom libraries. In their bathrooms. On their teens’ nightstands. On their own nightstands.

Teens will read poetry, I swear. Just give them a little more A little more variety to choose from. Let them enjoy the work, without always having to find the exact meaning. (Sometimes, I don’t even know everything about my poems’ meanings until a reader asks me a specific question!) Give them poets who look like them, who live like them, who speak to them. Who write poems that are weird, honest, awkward, fantastical.

You wouldn’t believe how many kids are purportedly “stealing” my poetry books from their parents because they’re full of ghosts and lake monsters. Or how teens love hearing about making new poetry out of old texts.

Young people are attracted to writing poetry for a reason. I’d love to see a generation that loves reading it, too.

Cynsational Notes

E. Kristin Anderson is a Pushcart-nominated poet and author who grew up in Westbrook, Maine and is a graduate of Connecticut College.

She has a fancy diploma that says “B.A. in Classics,” which makes her sound smart but has not helped her get any jobs in Ancient Rome.

Once upon a time she worked for the lovely folks at The New Yorker magazine, but she soon packed her bags and moved to Texas.

Currently living in Austin, Texas, Kristin is an online editor at Hunger Mountain and a contributing editor at Found Poetry Review. Kristin is the co-editor of the Dear Teen Me anthology (Zest Books, 2012), based on the website of the same name.

As a poet she has been published in many magazines including Post Road, the Cimarron Review, [PANK], Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Cicada and she has work forthcoming in Contemporary Verse 2 and NonBinary Review.

Kristin is the author of two chapbooks of poetry: “A Guide for the Practical Abductee” (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and “A Jab of Deep Urgency” (Finishing Line Press, 2014).

She hand-wrote her first trunk book at sixteen. It was about the band Hanson and may or may not still be in a notebook in her parents’ garage.

She blogs at EKristinAnderson.com and is currently working on a full-length collection of erasure poems from women’s and teen magazines.

Kristin’s recent reading at The Book Spot in Round Rock, Texas.

Author Interview: Tracie Vaughn Zimmer on Reaching for Sun

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer on Tracie Vaughn Zimmer: “Let’s see, I’m an identical twin. I’ve got two fabulous kids. Chocolate is a major food group for me. I collect refrigerator magnets and I write books for kids–mostly poetry. Since poetry barely buys shoes, I also use my teaching credentials to write discussion guides, book-club guides, and other school-related materials for all the major publishers. It is one sweet gig to be paid to read books I would be devouring anyway. I love visiting schools and sharing my love for poetry and children’s books and writing!”

Congratulations on the publication of Reaching for Sun (Bloomsbury, 2007)! Where did you get the initial idea for this book?

Since Sketches from a Spy Tree, illustrated by Andrew Glass (Clarion, 2005) was set in a whole neighborhood, I wondered if I could write a book set in a single yard. It ended up expanding in revisions though–in every direction and season.

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

I revised a dozen times over four years for different editors and houses who would eventually consider it “too” quiet, poetic, “too” something for publication. It finally found Melanie Cecka who started to turned it down but then called my agent back because she couldn’t get Josie and Gran out of her head. She gently pulled the rest of the story out of me…

Are you doing anything special to promote your new release?

A blog tour! No suitcase, no airports, and I never have to put on pantyhose. Hooray!

What do you love about the writing process and why?

Trying to find that perfect word or image that will bring a character or moment to life. Plot hides from me so I rely on my writing partners (uber-talented team Julia Durango (author interview) and Jessica Swaim) to help me unearth one.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

Nothing. I just won’t complain because it is such a dream come true to be an author. I still pinch myself sometimes.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

Meeting other kindred spirits in writers, librarians, teachers, publishing people and booksellers. Passionate and generous, all.

Abhor? Celebrity books. No explanation required, methinks.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read. Everyone says it but it’s true. Reread the books that haunt you and figure out why (and keep a journal or blog about what you learned). Carve out time to write until it is a habit then you won’t be. Able. To. Stop. (like me with Hershey’s Kisses).

How about those interested in poetry in particular, both in terms of the craft and the market?

Don’t give up on poetry!!! Yes, the market is tight but I’m a slush-pile survivor so you can be, too.

I’d like to be a Poetry Preacher–I truly believe it can transform children’s reading skills (fluency, vocabulary And comprehension) but even better than all that it grabs the hand of its reader and changes the way we see the world.

In addition to your own, what books in verse do you especially recommend for young readers and why?

All of Maria Testa, Karen Hesse, Helen Frost, Jennifer Roy, Sonya Sones, etc. Etc.!

Other poets: Kris George, Walter Dean Myers, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, Nikki Grimes, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Ralph Fletcher, etc!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Yes, actually: Tantalize Rocks!!

Author Interview: Janet Wong on The Dumpster Diver

Janet S. Wong is the author of eighteen books, including three titles published this year: Before It Wriggles Away, part of the Meet the Author Series (Richard C. Owen, 2007), Twist: Yoga Poems, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Margaret K. McElderry, 2007)(excerpt), and The Dumpster Diver, illustrated by David Roberts (Candlewick, 2007).

Janet S. Wong on Janet S. Wong:

I am a poet and a picture book author
because I can’t sit still for very long

I am an eater
always hungry for dim sum, sushi, gnocchi, noodles, potato
chips, blueberries, roast pork skin and stinky cheese

I am a West-coast woman living near Princeton, NJ (a trailing spouse)

I am an Alaska Airlines MVP Gold and nearly a United Premier

But first-most I am a mom
driving my son here and there (and there and there)
and doing a whole lot of waiting

What about the writing life first called to you?

I was in a tiny children’s bookstore looking for a gift for my young cousin. I had an armload of picture books, books that I wanted to buy for myself because I loved them so much. That’s when the idea hit me: people wrote these books. Why couldn’t I be one of them? What a different life that would be!

I was a lawyer then. I was making a ton of money, and I love spending money–but I was so miserable that the money wasn’t worth it. I wanted to do something important with my life, and I couldn’t think of anything more important than working with kids. I knew I couldn’t be a teacher; I had tried substitute teaching in a local elementary school while I was a student at Yale Law School, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had! I decided that writing books for kids would be fun and would also give me the feeling that I was helping to make a better world.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I decided to write picture books because that’s what I was attracted to. I’ve never been much of a novel-reader; it’s the problem I described above with sitting still. I loved the way the silly picture books made me happy, the way the serious picture books made me pause and think/feel/react beyond the book, the way you can get so much from a picture book in a five-minute reading.

Congratulations on the publication of The Dumpster Diver, illustrated by David Roberts (Candlewick, March 2007)(inside spread)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I was at an arts fair and saw a chair made from old wooden skis. I asked the artist, Kerry Wade, what gave him the idea to use skis. He said, “Oh, I’m just a Dumpster Diver!” About a third of the way through The Dumpster Diver, I made Steve and the kids build something out of old wooden skis. In the original draft, they transformed the skis into a chair (imitating real life), but my very keen editor Kara LaReau (also an author) suggested that I make the creation something a little more unusual. Several drafts later the skis became a “Paraskater!” (which kids love).

What did David Roberts’ art bring to your text?

I bow down to David for being a genius-inventor. For instance, look at what he created with nothing more than these words: “And an old table plus two banged-up skateboards plus a ripped crib mattress plus a hand-held shower plus thirty-two screws and a roll of duct tape can become…anything we want it to be.”

The hand-held shower isn’t used just as a prop. If I’d drawn it, it would’ve been a visual prop and nothing more. But David hooked it up to a very long hose, squirting at the other kids!

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

One thing I kept waffling over was whether to have Steve the Dumpster Diver get hurt. I didn’t want this book to be heavy-handed and preachy. Didacticism: the kiss of death in reviews! I didn’t want my book to discourage “respectable people” from Dumpster diving. I wanted this book to be a call-to-action to all of us to stop wasting so much stuff, and an inspiration to make new things from junk.

But I also didn’t want thousands of kids to start crawling into Dumpsters. Their parents would hate me. And how would I feel if some kids got hurt or sick? My solution was to have Steve get cut on broken glass and rusted metal when the Dumpster trash collapsed under him–and to have this inspire the kids to start collecting their Useful Junk in a different way. Kind of corny, I know, but as I said, I am first-most a mom–and I want my readers to stay out of trouble!

Are you doing any special promotions in conjunction with the release?

All for Kids Books in Seattle is working with me on The Dumpster Diver’s Junk Is Good contest. Kids and adults can enter by building something or imagining something built from junk, and there are categories for individual entries, team entries, and classroom entries. We’ve received some pretty neat feedback. Apparently there are a lot of people out there with a whole lot of junk in their closets, basements, attics, and garages!

You’re one of children’s literature’s most distinguished poets! How would you describe the current state of the children’s poetry market? What changes have you seen over the course of your career? What do you anticipate for the future?

When I started writing in 1991, it was easier to sell an unthemed collection of poems, poems about whatever. And because of this I was able to write a wide variety of poems (varied in tone and subject matter) in Good Luck Gold (Margaret K. McElderry, 1994) and A Suitcase of Seaweed (Margaret K. McElderry, 1996)(excerpt), including poems about racism and ethnic identity, a poem about cheating, and poems about illness and death–all alongside silly poems about food, celebratory poems about birthdays, and odes to friendship.

But things quickly became different, soon after I started. It became apparent (at least to me) that collections must have a theme, in order to sell. I’ve written themed-collections on mothers, driving, dreams, superstitions, and yoga. But I have a ton of poems that would be hard to fit into a themed book–and so, for now, those poems sit in my computer or on little scraps of paper scattered throughout the house.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Don’t give up.

Getting published is like winning the lottery; you can’t win if you don’t play. Write like crazy, snatching little bits of time and capturing ideas before they disappear. In Before It Wriggles Away, my Meet the Author book, photographer Anne Lindsay shows me writing at the dentist’s office, writing in the car, writing at my son’s fencing practice, writing late at night, writing at the lake–writing everywhere and anywhere, even if just for five minutes at a time. If you wait until you have a whole free day to start writing your story, you might never write it!

Once you’ve written a shoebox full of stories, send your best stuff out. If your books come back with rejection letters, send them out again. Rejection is part of the process.

In the meantime, while your stories are out circulating, revisit them with a critical eye. Write different drafts. Don’t try for better writing, just different writing. Experiment. See what you can do. If you were a basketball player, would you practice only lay-ups? No: you would challenge yourself, you would take risks in practice. Take risks with your writing. And have fun!

Jingle Dancer Named to Montessori Life’s Best Mulitcultural Books List

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) has been named among best Multicultural Books for Early Childhood Educators in the most current issue of Montessori Life, Volume 19, Number 1, 2007. See page 97. Thanks to Debbie Gonzales for letting me know about this honor.

In other news, Finding Wonderland: The WritingYA Weblog discusses my revision process as mentioned in my recent interview on Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) at Not Your Mother’s Book Club.

Thanks to A Fuse #8 Production for highlighting the YABC giveaway contest (20 copies of Tantalize) and Greg’s post “How Bleak Thou Art.” Thanks also to Stephanie Burgis for ordering Tantalize (enjoy!).

More News & Links

Poetry Friday: Yoga Poems. A recommendation of Twist: Yoga Poems by Janet Wong, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (McElderry, 2007). Source: Writing with a Broken Tusk by Uma Krishnaswami. Read an interview with Uma.