Survivors: Lois Lowry on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Lois Lowry.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

I was forty when my first book was published in 1977. Pretty old!

And it was a tough time in my life. I was leaving a 21-year marriage and leaving it—by choice—with nothing: no alimony, no house; just my car and my typewriter.

And I’d never had a real job, had no profession to fall back on: just the freelance magazine work I’d been doing as a photojournalist, and the one book which just by chance had been requested by an editor at Houghton Mifflin who had read something I’d published in a magazine. “You sound like someone who might be able to write for young people,” she told me, though what she’d read had been a story for adults.

No promise to publish what I wrote, but at least I had someone who was interested in seeing it—and who, in fact, did give me a contract. It meant that I could pay my rent.

I had not planned to be a writer for kids. Since college, where I’d majored in writing, I had planned, of course, on the great American novel. With four kids born in five years, though, I never got around to writing it.

Then by the time that first book, A Summer to Die, was published (it had no title when I sent it to the publisher. And I sent it by snail mail. Typed pages—I had a carbon copy at home. Remember carbon paper?) I was living in a rented apartment over a garage, trying to jump-start a new life.

The publisher kept sending me copies of reviews with excited notes: Another star! What did that even mean? I hadn’t a clue.

Phone calls came with news…this was 1977, long before email, of course…the paperback rights had been sold! The book had won the IRA Award! The California Young Readers Medal!

It was as if they were speaking a foreign language. But I was hearing something, an undertone of sorts, that was whispering: This. This is how you can make a living.

So I rolled a clean sheet of typing paper into the typewriter, set the margins, and began writing a second book for young people.

And there you have it: a pretty ignominious beginning. I wish I could say, as so many new writers do today, that I had a passion for children’s books, that I studied them carefully, that I took courses, went to seminars, formed a writers’ group, joined the SCBWI…etc..etc.

But few of those things were available then. And in retrospect, I think it served me well to feel my way into the field very tentatively and in total ignorance, without an agent, without expectations.

Bumps? What was Bette Davis said in “All About Eve” (“Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night…”)?

I’m not sure, in those early days, that I could have predicted “bumps”…or that such a prediction would have steered me away from this profession.

Of course there were some: mostly things I couldn’t have predicted. The famous writer who accused me of plagiarism (I hadn’t even read his book). The website that called me “The Antichrist.”  The things I labored over…and the editor didn’t like them.

The book that was published with mis-ordered chapters! Yikes; that one hurt.

The book I published under a pseudonym, and with a manufactured author bio…and then it won a big award, and the publishing representative had to accept on behalf of the author “who unfortunately can’t get here from her home in the Midwest….”

But on the whole I could have left my seatbelt unsecured. It has not been terribly bumpy for me. I’ve been lucky.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Well, I would have sent in my first manuscript with a title on it, for sure! But aside from that jokey comment, I’m not sure I would have done anything differently, given the circumstances.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

My first book, simply by chance and not design, was based on the death of my older sister when we were both young. It was a story I’d been telling myself for some years, the way we always go through tough personal things in our heads, trying to explain them to ourselves. The suggestion from an editor that I write a book meant that I found a place to set those thoughts down on paper.

But the timing was interesting. There had not yet been, to my knowledge, children’s books dealing realistically with the death of a young person (Beth, in Little Women (by Louisa May Alcott (1869))? Come on. Give me a break.)

And yet, my book was published in the same year as Katherine Paterson’s wonderful Bridge to Terabithia, which won the 1978 Newbery Medal (a medal, incidentally, that I was practically unaware of). Something must have been in the atmosphere which made the timing right for A Summer to Die.

And then I watched realistic novels become a little trendy, as things do. Eventually the trend led to some awful books, so called “problem novels.”

Pendulums, I guess, always swing too far. But their momentum dies; eventually realistic fiction about kids with problems settled in reliably for the long haul. Oddly, though I don’t think that I “caused” it in any way, I watched some others of my own books become trendsetters.

Number the Stars (1989) was an early one of countless Holocaust books (though it had been long preceded by Anne Frank’s diary (1947), deservedly a classic, and Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe (1968), among others).

Later, The Giver (1993) seemed to spawn an entire generation of so-called dystopian fiction; several editors confided jokingly to me that they dreaded seeing yet another futuristic manuscript.

And how on earth did it happen that in 2011, Richard Peck, Cynthia Voigt, and I all wrote books in which the characters were exclusively mice? But those are thematic and stylistic trends.

 The big changes I have observed over the years are more in terms of marketing. The book tours! (And then, as the internet took over, the fewer “real” book tours). The speaking engagements!

Goodness, if someone had told my introverted self back in 1977: If you become a writer of YA fiction, you will have to go and make speeches….I might have closed up my typewriter and looked for a real job.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

In The Barn

Ignore trends.

Learn how to “track changes”!

Practice saying no to people.

Save receipts for the tax guy.

Most importantly, take yourself seriously.

Carve out a sacrosanct space in which to work. I wrote my first book sitting at a little table in the corner of my husband’s study, with his big important desk looming behind me. I shouldn’t have settled for that.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

I wish that all of their wonderful books be translated into a zillion languages so that kids around the world will all be reading the same stories, laughing at the same jokes, weeping with shared sadnesses; and that somehow this will bring us all together in this world, and connect us in the ways that matter.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I just hope that in this last chapter of my life, my brain and imagination remain intact! That I can still maintain a relationship with young readers, and that I never lose the sense of joy that comes to me from putting words together on a page.

With actor Jeff Bridges; see the trailer for the film adaptation of “The Giver”

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Survivors: Sharon G. Flake on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Sharon G. FlakeHomewood Library, Pittsburgh

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I guess it makes sense that my career always felt a bit magical. For gosh sakes, I began as a Disney Hyperion author. Prior to the publication of The Skin I’m In (Hyperion, 1998), Disney flew several newly published authors and illustrators to New York where a small cast of “The Lion King” performed for us. There was champagne as I recall, a high-ranking Disney executive to welcome us—and Disney theme park trips to follow.

But this writing life ain’t all princess gowns and fairy tales.

Like it or not, bitter apples (let’s call them bumps in the road) appear now and again. But, it’s what you do with them that determines your staying power in the industry.

I was in the business ten years, before I hit a bump in the road. Seven books into my journey my editor left the business all together. Change was afoot I suppose, because the publisher left not long afterward—or did she go first?

I really liked those women. But life happens. And sometimes the bumps keep coming.

My new editor and I didn’t work out. I’ll just say this publicly, I apologize to her. My momma raised me better.

I was fortunate. I was able to choose my editors. So, in walks another editor of my choosing. I’d heard great things about her. She was also responsible for significantly increasing my advancements prior to becoming my editor. Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before I began to think she didn’t like my style; how I wrote. Perhaps it was her 12-page critique that led me to that conclusion.

Sharon at a book festival in Florida

At this time in my career, I had won many accolades and awards. Teachers cried when they spoke to me about the impact of my work. But for the first time in my career, I questioned my abilities and talent. I overthought things; tripled checked my work; wrote and rewrote until I couldn’t recognize my own story.

At some point, my editor was fairly satisfied with the 200-plus novel I turned in. But I was on a roll. For the next round of edits, I turned the manuscript into a 400-plus novel that I deemed perfection. My editor and agent thought otherwise. It took me a while to see the light. And boy, did it sting.

Not long afterward, my editor was offered a position with another house. She asked if I wanted to come with her.

Really? I thought. You serious? Nah.

Her invitation did, however, make me realize that she did indeed value me and my work. We just weren’t the best fit.

After my next editor left the publishing house, (I swear, they weren’t all running from me), my agent decided to take the book to another publisher.

My novel was ultimately published. It didn’t win awards, but it was named a Booklist Top Ten Book of the Year and earned three stars. Not bad for such a difficult birth.

Bumps in the road show up in everyone’s life. They can slow you down, stop you or help propel you forward. But who you choose to be along the way is what will help you stay the course.

I kept writing no matter what. I shifted. I discovered I have many gifts. I began to teach and mentor. I developed my work into stage plays; went from only writing realistic fiction to also writing picture books, historical fiction, and now books in verse.

That bump in the road did me a favor. It helped me expand inside and out. All along I held tight to my love of writing, and the young people I write for. Both have remained my North Star, my biggest reasons for doing what I do.

Writing at the dining room table.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I hadn’t realized I was on an island by myself, until I hit the proverbial bump in the road.

I was part of this incredible children’s writing community, but not part of it, you know? I knew authors and people in this business across the nation. They knew me. We liked and respected one another. But I hadn’t established many close, deep, I-got-your-back-you-got-mine, relationships.

When that bump trips you up, you realize things like that.

I wasn’t comfortable asking for advice or favors. I was used to helping others; lending a hand whenever I could. But there I was in new territory, in many ways, needing to reach out. But how? 

21 printings, almost a million copies in print

There’s this introvert in me that would rather not. Besides, I was raised to turn to family in times of need. But how could they help me? They weren’t in this business.

It was difficult, but I pushed past my insecurities and pride and reached out to folks in the writing community locally and nationally. I opened up and shared my truth: Struggling through that book for a number of years scarred me some; left me uncertain of myself as an author.

I went looking for connection with like-minded folks. I joined a critique group, which is so not like me.

No judgement, please. I sought feedback on my work in ways I hadn’t before. Formed deeper ties with my agent; established closer relationships with authors I already knew, and developed a very close relationship with one author in particular. To this day, we read one another’s work, give and take each other’s advice, laugh often.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Skin I’m In, I formed a committee, reached out to
author friends, editors and other folks in the business. Ten years ago, I would not have done any of that. Do it yourself or leave it alone, was a big part of my philosophy then.

That bump freed me up. Allowed me to be as vulnerable with adults, as I’d always been with my teen audiences in person and in the books I write. I’m grateful for that.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The biggest stand-out change has to be the industry’s efforts to be more diverse and inclusive. We Need Diverse Books played a huge role in pressuring them to right the ship when it comes to diversity and inclusion. But they did not do it alone.

Black Lives Matter; the browning of the nation; the murder of black people and the political climate for LGBT and cis communities; along with women’s rights issues, all helped give WNDB the wind they needed to sail into publishing houses, conventions, media outlets, etc., and demand, work for, and push for change in children’s publishing.

Our community still has a very long way to go. But when I see black and brown people with books on The New York Times Bestseller lists; earning top awards and prizes; heading imprints like Salaam Reads or Versify; breaking new ground with books like The Hate You Give (by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)), We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices (by Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson (Crown, 2018)), and Long Way Down (by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2017)), then I know we’re headed in the right direction.

But we can’t get comfortable. There are folks who want us to return to yesterday.

Here’s hoping none of us will let that happen.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Don’t worry, God’s got you.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

My hope is that they understand that new voices and new ways of seeing and being are necessary to the survival of any organization or group of people.

Change makes us all uncomfortable. But change we must, for it’s the only way progress happens.

Learn more about Sharon G. Flake.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Survivors: M.T. Anderson on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about M.T. Anderson.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success? (Mention the year your first book was published.)

My first book – Thirsty, a vampire novel (Candlewick) – came out in 1997. YA was a very different world then. It was an obscure, niche field within children’s trade publishing, which focused on the picture book.

Commercial success was basically impossible for YA books, except in the case of mass-market tween series, and even those series weren’t yet as profitable as they would become. YA wasn’t a place for the ambitious to go. It was really pursued for the love of the craft and out of love for the audience.

That really changed around the turn of the millennium, and I think my career rode on that wave of expansion. My first two novels were published in the somewhat quieter, more parochial world of YA as it had been … but by my third novel, the dystopian satire Feed (Candlewick, 2002), the industry had exploded into the public view. I was a beneficiary of that explosion.

The first bump I hit was after the 2008 crash. Suddenly, the market contracted. Several things assaulted the publishing industry simultaneously: as the economy went into deep recession, consumer spending dropped; library funding fell through the floor; and ebooks began decimating hardcover revenues. The income structure for books had really relied on hardcover sales, especially to libraries, and increasingly, libraries had less to spend on collection development.

At the same time, the number of titles published had gone through the roof, so each individual book was less likely to attract attention. At the corporate level, publishers and their parent companies were all staggering around like the wounded in a B horror-movie, tripping all over each other and, in fact, merging and disintegrating in new and bizarre combinations.

I had the same experience many people had during this period – and I want readers to know that even now, this experience is not unusual: the awful experience of watching books you love and have worked on with pride and pleasure slipping through the cracks.

In the midst of all the mergers, the firings, and the rapid staff turnover, many publishers’ marketing and publicity teams simply were not promoting a lot of the titles on their list. Communication between marketing and publicity departments – which are, somehow, separate at some companies – was nil. There were no thought-through strategies for promotion, and a lot of opportunities were missed.

One example: I had a publisher spend a lot of money to create some photo-ops for me – and then accidentally neglect to send the photos anywhere. I ended up feeling guilty because they’d wasted money paying for my travel. I hate self-promotion anyway, and wasting my publisher’s resources made my teeth hurt. But that kind of snafu was not unusual.

At the time, I was working on two lighter, younger teen series. In both cases, the first books had sold well. But after the crash, the sales plummeted. The same thing was happening to everyone around me, as we all clamored for attention from ever smaller marketing and publicity staffs.

You should know that everyone complains about that kind of neglect at some stage of their career. To some extent, it has become the new normal in a bloated and competitive industry.

That doesn’t make it any easier, emotionally and artistically. This is a book you crafted lovingly! You’ve lived with it for years, fostering its growth. Then it’s out in the world and can’t seem to get any traction. And worse, writers often blame themselves when a project doesn’t sell – though the mechanics of what makes a book take off are mysterious to everyone.

Please know that many of our industry’s most famous authors have stories in which projects they loved and believed in foundered and disappeared, never reaching their audience. You can’t take it to heart. It happens to everyone.

You just never notice those forgotten chapters in other people’s careers because, well, they’re forgotten – so the successful, in hindsight, seem as if they’ve always been successful.

Believe in yourself. Believe in your work. And love your work from day to day – because that’s what’s going to make it worth it, regardless of a book’s fortunes in the wider world.

One practical suggestion for avoiding self-pity and self-flagellation: In general, I recommend working on several things in alternation. It makes sense from several standpoints: You can put one project on a back burner for a couple of months while working up something else, and that absence is often key to gaining new insight on your own work.

A side-benefit of this is that when a book comes out, you’ve already left it behind. You’re working on something else and surging toward a different goal. You can afford to be more indifferent, therefore, to setbacks for a previous project.

Keep moving! Keep striving!

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

What a great moment for me to contradict my previous answer! One thing I was noted for, early in my career, was trying out very different genres – horror, rom-com, picture book biography, sci-fi, historical fiction, middle grade adventure, etc. I love challenges and confronting myself with a new task, a new mountain to climb.

When I was younger, I dove into each new project blithely. But I have discovered that variety also has a cost. Authors who work in the same mode or genre develop followings in a different way than those of us who hurl things out toward different audiences.

Would I do anything differently, though? I’m not sure I would. I loved each of the projects I worked on. While I was working on each one, it was my world. Each one engaged a different part of me, different skills. How could I want to give that up? That joy, and that sense of exploration and discovery? That’s part of what writing is about.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I talked about this a lot above, and I’d basically say that when literary historians look back at the early 21st century, they’ll see this period as a golden age for YA lit.

Sure, those of us in the thick of the industry might experience the present as something of a scramble – but now that the stakes (and, sometimes, the advances) are higher, we’ve attracted a lot of great talent to the field, people who otherwise wouldn’t have considered writing for teens.

I think that’s amazing – and if you’d asked me in 1995, when I was an editorial assistant, I would have said this extraordinary growth of the genre was pretty much impossible.

Oh, one industry factoid that young writers should know about: one of the reasons we became so profitable so quickly, as a sector – one of the reasons that corporate publishing licks their chops over our work – is that, believe it or not, our contracts dictate we receive proportionally smaller royalty cuts than writers for adults do.

That’s a hold-over from the days when YA publishing typically took a loss. So as YA sales exploded in the early 2000’s, and many more copies of YA books were being sold, publishers were making a few percent more on each book, too. (Money that, in the world of publishing for adults, would have gone to the authors themselves.) That meant giant profits, and YA came to seem even more delectable as a publishing investment.

All of this has contributed to making the genre so prominent in our national culture.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

With co-author Eugene Yelchin

That is a tough one. The flip side of the field being rich with variety is that it is incredibly hard to break into it and to get noticed. I am a New Englander, and hate self-promotion. It makes my severe little Puritan soul shrivel. The only P.R. event I’m really comfortable with is sitting in a graveyard during a drizzle, reading to the slate stones.

I would say that social media helps some authors, but at this point, we’ve passed the apogee of that approach. We’re glutted with tweets.

What about joining these groups of people who travel together and promote together?

Readings when you’re a young author can be demoralizing, because only your friends come, and you’re a writer, so you don’t have many friends. But I know several young writers who have banded together and traveled together, creating their own little tour, taking advantage of personal connections instead of staying at hotels etc.

It’s more fun to travel as a group anyway – and then each of you is a draw for friends and relations, so you actually get respectable regional audiences. Thumbs up all around.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

More wonderful books – and more books that break the mold and tell us about experiences we haven’t heard about yet.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Well, for one thing, I’m working on a book for adults at the moment, which is fascinating and challenging.

In looking to the past and the future, I’ve noticed one common theme in my career: I have miraculously found a way to anticipate trends by just enough that I completely miss capitalizing on them.

I published a vampire novel six years before the vampire craze, a dystopian novel four years before the dystopian craze, a steampunk series four years before the steampunk craze, and so on. Each one cleverly timed so that I never monetize the coincidence.

So if you’re a trend-watcher, here’s a word to the wise: I’m thinking that in a couple years, there might be a run on Russian espionage nonfiction.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

M. T. Anderson’s forthcoming novel, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, written with Eugene Yelchin, will be released in October 2018. It has been named to the 2018 National Book Awards Longlist in Young People’s Literature. M.T. was the 2006 award winner for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party (Candlewick.)


Survivors: Melissa Stewart on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Melissa Stewart.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

A piece of paper on the idea board above my desk says:

“Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.” 

Those six simple words are a constant reminder of a lesson I learned the hard way at the beginning of my writing career.

My first book, Life Without Light: A Journey to Earth’s Dark Ecosystems (Franklin Watts), was published in 1998—twenty years ago.

At the time, I was working as a science editor for Franklin Watts and Children’s Press, two nonfiction imprints that had been independent children’s publishing companies for decades, but had recently merged with encyclopedia giant Grolier Publishing Company.

(Today, Watts, CP, and Grolier are all owned by Scholastic.)

Book #1 

I continued to work at that job until 2000. By then, I had published two more nonfiction books, and I had six additional titles under contract with companies that published for the school and library market.

I was confident that I could support myself as a writer.

But (you knew it was coming, right?) two things I never could have predicted happened in 2001.

There was an economic recession, and Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. These events along with the rise of the internet, which made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available for free, spelled disaster for the school and library publishing market.

Some publishers went bankrupt.

Others adjusted their publication schedules, pushing books that were supposed to come out in 2001 to 2002, 2003, even 2004.

They stopped acquiring new titles for several years. There was no work. Period.

I was single and had bills to pay, so there was only one option: I had to reinvent myself.

I joined the SCBWI, found a critique group, and began learning about other areas of the children’s publishing market, especially the trade market. I wrote magazine articles for adults.

I taught writing at a local community college. I worked as a substitute teacher.

Most of all, I realized how foolish I’d been to put all my eggs into one publishing basket.

Book #186, Sept. 2018

I needed to diversify by writing for as many different markets as possible, and, going forward, I needed to pay close attention to how nonfiction writing for children changed over time. I needed to be flexible and adaptable.

I needed to always be on the lookout for new opportunities.

Since that time, nonfiction for children has continued to shift and change, and, luckily, I’ve been able to evolve along with it.

Sometimes I spotted opportunities and actively pursued them. And to be honest, sometimes opportunities fell into my lap, and all I had to do was say, “Yes.”

Some of the projects I’ve been involved with failed miserably. Early sales didn’t live up to publishers’ expectations, and books-in-progress were cancelled midstream. But enough of them worked out that my 186th book, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis (Peachtree, 2018), entered the world in September.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Like all writers, I’ve faced my share of obstacles and setbacks, but it’s hard to have regrets when you get to spend your life doing something you love.

Maybe I should have worried less, but even with twenty years of experience, I still worry.

Maybe I’ll never get a great book idea again.

If I do get a great idea, maybe I won’t be able to find the information I need to write it.

February, 2018

If I do find the information, maybe I won’t be able to write a manuscript that lives up to my vision.

If I do write a manuscript I’m happy with, maybe no one will acquire it.

If an editor does acquire it, maybe it will get terrible reviews and it won’t find its audience.

I’m constantly reminding myself that I need to relax and enjoy the ride, to savor the time I spend digging up fascinating facts and presenting them in a way that will delight as well as inform my young readers.

The creative process is what really matters, and time spent “in the flow” is a gift to be treasured.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

When I began working as an editor in early 1990s, there was just one kind of nonfiction—what we now call traditional nonfiction. But since then, nonfiction has transformed in dramatic and exciting ways.

Today, there are five distinct categories of nonfiction, which I described in this recent article, Understanding and Teaching the Five Kids of Nonfiction (School Library Journal, April 2018).

The following visuals summarize the characteristics and publication opportunities for each category:

Not every nonfiction book fits snugly into one of these five categories. For example, some titles are a blend of narrative nonfiction and expository literature. Others are a mixture of traditional nonfiction and browsable books. But understanding these five basic categories can help book creators, educators, and young readers begin to understand the wide world of nonfiction.

Thanks to that piece of paper tacked to the idea board above my desk—you know, the one that says: “Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.”—I’ve written books in all five categories, and that diversification has allowed me to continue doing a job I love for twenty years.

Thanks to Common Core, nonfiction is finally having its moment in the sun.

Right now, today, is the golden age of nonfiction. And even though Common Core is on its way out, the state educational standards replacing are still emphasizing nonfiction reading and writing.

That’s good news for nonfiction creators.

Melissa’s Critique Group:
Top, l to r: Deborah Kops, Mary LaPointe-Malchik,  Steve Anderson, Betsy Uhrig, Joannie Duris, Heather Lang, Sam Kane;
Middle, l to r: Sharon Abra Hanen, Jeanne Bracken;
Bottom,  l to r: Melissa Stewart, Sarah Brannen.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Stop and celebrate! It’s not easy to publish a book, so don’t take your accomplishment for granted. Savor every moment of the journey and all the small successes along the way.

Celebrate the acquisition. Celebrate when the book heads off to the printer. Celebrate every review that doesn’t suck. And, of course, celebrate the launch.

But don’t stop there. If the book receives an honor or an award, celebrate some more. And if you’re lucky enough to get fan mail, celebrate that, too.

It means kids are connecting with your work, and that’s the best reason of all to celebrate.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Research in Hawaii.

Right now, educational leaders like Donalyn Miller, Lucy Calkins, Pernille Ripp, Teri Lesesne, John Schumacker, Colby Sharp, Jillian Heise, Susannah Richards, Alyson Beecher, and Frankie Sibberson are emphasizing the importance of using finely-crafted fiction and nonfiction children’s books in the classroom.

As read alouds. As mentor texts for writing instruction. As part of text sets for teaching science and social studies.

They’re also encouraging student choice in reading materials and recommending that educators develop large, robust classroom and school libraries with a range of titles that can meet all students’ needs.

My hope is that their voices will be heard, and schools will allocate the funds necessary to purchase plenty of high-quality books for their students. The kids will benefit, but so will book creators.

Publishers will be more willing to take risks, which means creators can be more innovative.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I hope that I can continue to stretch and grow as a writer and evolve with the market. And I hope that my writing continues to delight as well as inform young readers.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Survivors: Stephanie Greene on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Stephanie Greene.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I sent my first manuscript to ten editors (the big houses were open to unsolicited submissions back in 1993), nine of whom rejected it. Fortunately for me, Dinah Stevenson at Clarion discovered it in the slush pile. (I don’t think publishers have those anymore.)

As I remember it, Dinah said she liked it very much but … so I went about revising it. I may have revised it twice before she accepted it.

I was extremely lucky in ending up with Dinah. She was, and still is, a tough, but brilliant, editor who asked the perfect questions that led me to the solutions to whatever areas she felt needed work. She rarely told me what to do or change; she merely asked questions and sometimes made comments.

Her attention to detail was meticulous. I’ll always remember her writing, “’Private’ is not a place” in the margin where I’d written “Can I talk to you in private?” I never forgot it. Or made the same mistake again.

So I started out having to live up to the best, and that’s been the way I’ve gone on. I’ve had good/tough editors who made me revise as many times as it took. They made me a better, tighter writer. I was extremely fortunate in being able to find ideas everywhere: newspapers, photographs, overheard conversations, things witnessed, paintings – you name it.

I also think I had a sort of innate sense about plot structure because I was a ravenous reader as a child and had absorbed the way plots are structured. At least, that’s the way it felt to me when I started to write.

The worst time in my career came shortly after my middle grade novel The Lucky Ones (Greenwillow) was published in the fall of 2008. It came out the same month as Lehman Brothers fell and the Great Recession began.

TLO, as we called it, was remaindered in six months, when HarperCollins was getting rid of inventory as fast as Wall Street was shedding stock brokers.

That one broke my heart for a while. It set me back. The book was important to me and it didn’t feel as if it had been given a fighting chance. (They also remaindered a Christmas book of mine after only one Christmas.)

I guess those books count as my bumps.

The road still isn’t necessarily smooth. Last year, my agent told me that a picture book biography I had written and re-written time and again still wasn’t good enough to send around, so I shelved it. That was discouraging.

At the same time, a nonfiction picture book my agent submitted to several editors without success was eventually turned down by an editor who I greatly admire. He gave me the classiest rejection I’ve ever received by saying, “While I like this enormously, I don’t love it enough to publish it.”

I had to respect that.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Interesting question. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently. I don’t think I could have. I wrote every day in a disciplined way and revised and revised, when needed.

I might have tried harder to develop a knack for writing from plot, however. I tend to write from character, and while that has worked well for me, I’m now trying to write a mystery, and that’s very plot-directed.

I’m heartened however, to have discovered in a new biography about Agatha Christie, the best of the best, the statement that “… plot, for Agatha, meant distillation of character. It did not exist in a vacuum. It was the people who interested her, always.”

It had always been the people who interested me, too.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The increase in the number of people trying to write for children has been astonishing. It led to the large publishing houses eventually closing their doors to un-agented material, for one thing, which, in turn, led to the proliferation of self-publishing.

More and more small presses have opened door for writers, which is great. Writers still have to run a publishing gauntlet to be accepted by them; having to survive that process makes for strong writers and better books.

Another change is the fact that editors have become so overwhelmed, they have less time to edit and expect to see manuscripts in near-publishable shape. More and more, agents, too, want their clients’ manuscripts to be near-perfect.

To my mind, this has led to an unfortunate economic inequality in the industry: writers who can afford to hire book doctors and whole novel critiques by freelance editors have a leg-up over those who can’t.

Overall, it seems to have become a more knee-jerk, reactionary industry than it was when I started. If a series or a novel is a hit, there are immediately dozens more like it. More and more writers I know are writing for hire. It’s a reality: publishers need them and writers need the income.

The most positive change is the call for books and authors from other cultures. I love the multi-faceted country we’ve become, and see so many children from different countries on school visits. I believe in the right of all children to see themselves in books.

Could you talk to us about how you choose each future project, what goes into your creativity- and career-building strategy?

I hate to admit it, but my career-building strategy over twenty-plus years has been pretty un-scientific. I started out writing the books I wanted to write.

The first book I sold was an Owen Foote book, which I sold to Clarion (1996-2004). I was so excited about the little boy I’d created that I immediately told Dinah Stevenson I had a second book about Owen.

In her measured way, she said, “Let’s wait and see how the first book does.”

Happily, it did well enough for her to ask for five more Own books. The lucky part for me was that the chapter book genre was new. As one review said, “A welcome addition to a much-needed genre.” I had no idea that what I’d written was a chapter book.

I was also working on other books during that time. (I have always worked on several projects at the same time.) I wrote four books for Marshall Cavendish about Moose & Hildy (2000-2006), a moose and his best friend, a pig. Those were light-hearted and fun. I had no idea what genre they’d slot into when I wrote them.

Throughout my career, I’ve written what came to me, without thought for genre. That’s the way things used to work. When it reached a time where everyone was talking about what genre they were writing and I asked Dinah Stevenson what genre my first Sophie Hartley book (2005-2013) would be considered, she said, “Why don’t we just call it a ‘book’?” (That four-book series was eventually deemed middle grade.)
I still love that statement.

Today, the genre requirements have become so varied and vague, I always advise writers whose work I’m critiquing to just write the book and figure out the genre after. Too many times, I’ve critiqued a manuscript the writer declares is an early chapter book, say, but in which the protagonist is ten or eleven. Or talks like a fifth grader when he’s in the second grade. Simple mistakes people make because they’re either not familiar with the genre, or they’re trying too hard to fit their book into a genre where it doesn’t belong.

As for career-building, I’ve been remiss in attending to that, too. It’s much more of a recent phenomenon than it was when I started writing in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Even my agent didn’t press me to plan my career. She said, if you write it, I can sell it. (Those were the days …)

Now, much more career-building goes on, and even the need for branding or creation of a platform before a writer has sold their first book. I consider myself fortunate to have led much of my career in simpler times. Knowing myself, having to pay attention to all of those other things would have proved a tremendous distraction from the act of actual writing.

I still believe that writers need to write their book first, do the best job they can with it, and then worry about the rest. But that goes against the contemporary grain, I know.

Stephanie’s bulletin board of ideas.

You’re the author of a number of successful series. For many writers, that’s a dream. How did you come to be a series writer? What advice do
you have for up-and-comers interested in doing the same?

I never set out to write a series, but having written four, I’ve learned something about doing that along the way.

My first bit of advice would be to write one good book. Don’t start out with the idea of writing a series. Devote your energies to writing the best book you can.

There are different kinds of series, of course. If you have a character in mind who you believe will appeal to enough kids that they can successfully carry a series, develop that character to the best of your ability in the first book.

Three of my series have been character-driven. I first created a character who I liked. In every case, it was my editor who asked for more.

(There are countless character-driven series; read as many of them as you can, especially in the genre in which you want to write. Study them. Figure out what makes the character appealing to children.)

Another approach is to come up with a unique concept around which a series can be developed. The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne (Random House, 1992-) are a prime example. Not only do a brother and sister get carried to a different time period or country in a really cool way in every book, but they – and the reader – learn something about history.

If you have a concept, develop it in one book and see what happens.

Another approach is to develop a “hook.” That’s a feature about the character that can be repeated in subsequent books. Many series employ this device. The trick is to make it an intricate part of the story and not a superficial tag-on.

I inadvertently created my Princess Posey (G. Putnam’s Sons, 2010-2018) series of early chapter books because I gave the character in the first story – what was meant to be a stand-alone book – a hook: Posey’s pink tutu makes her feel brave. It was my editor’s decision the tutu concept could carry a series.

If the book you create is series-worthy, your agent and/or editor will most likely recognize it.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

I wish them the discipline needed to revise and revise and revise until their book is as good as it should be.

I wish that they really do read the 1,000 books that authors at conference after conference, and most books about writing, tell them they need to read before they write. And that they not only read the books, but study them for what makes them work, and how the author did what he/she did.

(Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (HarperCollins, 2006) is a great book for writers.)

I wish them an endless flow of ideas and great joy in doing what they do.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I wish that I get to experience that incredible, breathless yes! Feeling I get when I know I’ve hit it right; that I’ve placed exactly the right words, in precisely the needed position, to create the effect I wanted. Writers know what I mean. There’s nothing like it.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Cynsations Return & Author Update: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing, New Releases, Native Voices & Allies

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As an New York Times bestselling author and the creator of Cynsations blog, Cynthia is well known to many. But after reading her upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9), this summer, I believe readers gain more insight into her earlier years.

The novel draws in part on her experience as a Muscogee (Creek) teen growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City and as a reporter and, later, editor-in-chief on her high school newspaper.

The fictional, contemporary story follows Louise, a senior forced to reconcile how bigotry and racism are coming to a head in her community through her various roles as a tribal citizen, sister, student, reporter, friend and, most definitely, girlfriend.

Cynthia, I welcome you to Cynsations, your own wonderful creation!

From the promotional copy:

When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off immediately and dumps him. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time on her family and friends and working on the school newspaper.

The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting “The Wizard of Oz” has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town.

From the newly formed “Parents Against Revisionist Theater” to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students—especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man.

As tensions heighten at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey—but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?

Pre-order a signed copy from BookPeople or order at your local store & request a signed bookplate & goodies!

Let’s start with the genre – you’ve crafted a contemporary, realistic young adult novel whereas your more recent novels have been YA fantasy. What prompted the return to a novel with a contemporary Native American teen and her family as the focus? 

I have this theory that where there are secrets, lies or regrets, there are stories. Think about it, in each case, there are stakes, there is nuance and competing interests. Conflict and reversals.

Hearts Unbroken began with a regret, as a novel-length apology to a high school boyfriend. I was an awkward teen (hey, I’m an awkward adult!). When I’m nervous or exhausted, I still babble a bit even though I can absolutely rock a podium with proper preparation.

Bottom line, I said the wrong thing, and I was sorry for decades. There’s a story in that and it’s not all in the book, which is only loosely inspired by what really happened.

How would you describe the story?

It’s a love story wrapped around a school-journalism story, written in an Indigenous style and sensibility. Or at least a hybrid style with strong Indigenous elements.

Enter to win 1 of 10 hardcovers!

The novel is thematically about speech, nodding to journalistic speech, religious speech, political speech, interpersonal speech, hate speech and microaggressions.

Or, put another way, it’s about speech, its blessings and its costs.

Early Native readers have mentioned to me that they see it as about empowering cultural voice, especially given the inclusion of Indigenous language in a daily-life reclamation context.

Big picture, the plot is infuriating and funny and representative and romantic. It’s also a little geeky. All of my stories are at least a little geeky. There’s also terrific kissing.

The narrative goes all in, fully submerging the reader in a Native teen perspective and suburban experience. The depiction of the family relationships is central. Meanwhile, the subplot, centered on the protagonist’s brother, (hopefully) offers more mainstream appeal.

Why did you decide to focus your protagonist on high-school journalism?

Again, personal experience. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and went on to major in news/editorial at the White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. As a student at The University of Michigan Law School, the First Amendment was a major focus of my studies. In my third and final year, I did an independent study on the right to speak (and the right not to) with Professor Lee C. Bollinger, who’s now the president of Columbia University in New York.

No, I didn’t set out to write Hearts Unbroken because news journalists are unfairly under attack right now, but I’m glad it’ll be out there for teens today. I hope it encourages at least a few readers to consider a career in reporting, editing, photo and/or videography.

You are always encouraging Native writers entering the industry. What craft and career advice do you have for those just starting out on this journey?

Get in touch with Native children’s-YA authors who’re agented and/or actively publishing. Read what’s already out there by members of our intertribal community. You’ll be able to gain an up-to-date, in-depth overview at Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Native authors at Kweli, 2016

Visit your local SCBWI regional chapter – attend a conference or workshop or both. They vary from place to place. Hopefully, it’ll be a fit. If not, look for another one that’s driveable.

Make an effort to attend Kweli: The Color of Children’s Literature Conference.

Embrace the study of craft. Seriously, commit. Enroll in workshops – there are a variety on and offline at various price points. Find a solid critique group or partner.

If you want to get an MFA in writing for young readers, write me and we’ll discuss whether it’s the right choice for you. See also my writer resources.

For those who’re allies, how can they support Native voices?

Foremost, be respectful of Native people and cultures in working with young readers. Assume that there are Native kids in your classrooms and communities. They’re everywhere, and so are their peers, who interact with them based on what they learn from the larger society, from you.

Set aside everything you picked up from Hollywood. Treat the political noise out of Washington, D.C. with a hefty amount of suspicion. Forget those construction-paper headdresses you made in first grade for Thanksgiving.

Chris Evans, Hemsworth & Pratt 

Are you used to thinking of yourself as the hero of the story? We routinely see the underrepresentation of some folks but also the overrepresentation of others.

Three of the Marvel superheroes in the last Avengers movie were played by white dudes named Chris. Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor.* And, hey, I enjoyed all of their performances. But no way around it, that’s seriously hefty representation.

Meanwhile, can you name any three on-screen Native girl or women characters from your entire history as a moviegoer? (Bonus points if they’re not animated.)

All of which is to say, when it comes to Native people, you may need to gut check your instinct to cast yourself as the savior.

Understand that you don’t know the history and are probably underestimating the complexity, not only regarding Native cultures but also Indigenous governmental structures and literary forms. The oral tradition is vital, but we have our own relationship to the written word, too.

What else? We’re a growing but small creative community with precious few gatekeepers of our own. Give us a chance to speak and not only about Native and diverse literature, though when we do talk about all that, listen carefully and reflect deeply.

Signal boost our new and existing releases. Advocate for our inclusion throughout the curriculum and book-events circuit, and integrate our titles not only in your Native Heritage Month celebrations but all year long.

Have you ever read a YA novel by a Native woman? Check out Apple in the Middle by debut author Dawn Quigley (North Dakota State University Press, 2018). In no particular order, also be sure to read books by Joseph Bruchac, Tim Tingle, Traci Sorell, Carole Lindstrom, Art Coulson, David A. Robertson, Cheryl Savageau, Lisa Charleyboy, Lee FrancisMonique Gray Smith, Erika T. Wurth, Jenny Kay Dupuis, Richard Van Camp, Arigon StarrKate Hart, Eric Gansworth, Louise ErdrichCherie Dimaline, Daniel Vandever…. I could go on and on, and there are more writers and illustrators on the horizon. See my teacher and librarian resources.

* Just to geek out: Chris Evans also played The Human Torch. Additional white guys named Chris who played superheroes include: Christopher Reeve as Superman; Christian Bale as Batman; Chris O’Donnell as Robin; and I’m giving partial credit to Chris Pine, as Captain Kirk because he also played Steve Trevor in “Wonder Woman” and appeared in “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Is there anything you’d like to say more broadly to writers from any underrepresented group?

In Memory: Nancy Garden

Offer private and public support to one another, especially those of you who’re bigger, more established names or members of groups with a stronger presence.

Years ago, I wrote a Horn Book article about Native humor and storytelling, and Nancy Garden sent in a letter to the editor in support. She was a very early, important voice in the LGBTQ writimg community and understood what it’s like when your numbers are small.

The fact that she took the time and made the effort? It meant the world to me. Still does.

You’ve been a leader in the conversation around diversity during both its ebbs and flows. What aren’t we talking about that we should be? 

From a writing craft perspective, we should focus more on secondary characters and intersecting subject matter. Every single writer must write across identity elements in those contexts. It’s not all about protagonists and the nonfiction focal topics.

More broadly, those of us in children’s-YA writing need to wrap our minds around the fact that we’ve been defaulting to the same white and male storytelling constructs for generations. More than that, those of us who’re writing teachers have been largely insisting upon them. Meanwhile, content-wise, let’s not settle for bite-sized nuggets of representation, tailored to mainstream comfort and expectations. Let’s embrace diversity for real.

This fall marks the paperback release of Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2015, 2018). Could you tell us a little about that story?

Sure! It’s the cap to the Feral trilogy and crosses over its heroes with those from the Tantalize series, which is set in the same universe.

The governor of Texas has been kidnapped by demon snakes and furry hominids (kind of like Bigfoot) and the scoundrels have blamed our heroes, who’re shapeshifters, for the crime.

This is a fantastical construct in which shapeshifters battle bigotry and oppression parallel to what marginalized groups experience in our real world. So, yes, it’s funny and romantic and action-packed and super geeky, but it also speaks through metaphor to ongoing real-world dynamics.

Why did you first launch Cynsations, and how has it evolved over the years?

As I mentioned above, I’m a recovering journalist, and I always wanted to cover good news.

Pre-order Feral Pride in paperback.

(When writers are thinking about where their voice fits into the conversation of books, it’s worthwhile to consider what they enjoy doing and where their strengths lie.)

I entered the field at a time of low morale in the creative community. Publishers weren’t taking many chances on new voices. Celebrity books were all the rage. Madonna said on late-night television that she wrote a children’s book because there weren’t any good ones.

Meanwhile, I was trying to raise awareness of contemporary Native children’s books in a society that had decided Native people were all extinct. (I’m told that’s the answer Texas school children are supposed to provide on standardized tests to any questions asked about Native people: Extinct.)

So, I figured I’d get really 21rst century with it. Show by example that Native people have a present and future.

So, I fired up Cynsations to illuminate new voices, mid-career authors, living legends. Writing by authors and illustrators from underrepresented communities. The business of publishing. The writing life. Craft. The idea was to reach out to writers in a more-than-a-guidebook kind of way, in an encouraging and ongoing conversation.

What do you have coming up next?

My immediate focus is on middle grade projects. I’m especially excited about an anthology of stories by new and established Native voices, set around a contemporary powwow. As for my current novel writing, we’re talking middle grade speculative fiction. I also have another middle-grade realistic short story coming out in another anthology and a couple of poems that will be featured in picture books. Meanwhile, I’m putting thought into what my next project for teens might be.

Beyond that, I’m committed to supporting and signal boosting other voices – underrepresented and/or new and/or reinventing and/or long-established voices, too.

So, write on, Cynsational readers! I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes

Look for Cynthia’s upcoming YA release, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9). If you’d like a signed copy, you can pre-order it from her local independent bookstore, BookPeople, of Austin, Texas. Or, if you’ve already pre-ordered, request a signed bookplate and goodies. The paperback of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral trilogy)(Candlewick, Oct. 2) is available for pre-order, too.

Giveaways! Are you a high school teacher, YA librarian or Native teen group leader? Check out this classroom-set ARC giveaway of Hearts Unbroken on Twitter! Are you a YA reader? Enter to win one of 10 hardcover copies of Hearts Unbroken from YA and Kids! Book Central.

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.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) is her first nonfiction picture book and a 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection. The story, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, 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.

See also an interview with Traci from Picture Book Builders. Peek: “First, it needed to be colorful because it’s a four seasons book—so bright and not muted was what I pictured in mind. Second, the illustrations must be culturally accurate. I got my two criteria met and so much more!”

Cynsational Return

From Cynthia Leitich Smith

Sunset at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Welcome back to Cynsations! We hope you had a wonderful summer. My highlights included teaching at the residency of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier and speaking at the annual convention of the American Library Association in New Orleans. Right now, I’m at LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat in Cook, Minnesota.

Here on the blog, we’ll once again be hosting insights from writers at every stage of their creative journey. We’ll look at books that cross borders, publishing as an industry and new releases. We’ll consider various aspects of a writing life.

This semester, we’re moving to more flexibility between four- and five-day posting weeks. But we’re sure you’ll still find plenty to read and reflect on.

Thank you to Cynterns Gayleen Rabakukk and Robin Galbraith for their ongoing efforts.

Thanks to all for returning to Cynsations. We hope you’ll find fruitful inspiration and information in the posts to come.

Survivors: E. Lockhart on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about E. Lockhart AKA Emily Jenkins

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. 

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I want to be honest about the biggest reason I have weathered tough times: I have some financial security.

I have published approximately 45 books in 21 years, and a huge factor in my remaining a working writer was a gift of money from my in-laws.

My spouse and I used it to purchase real estate. That purchase meant our overhead was (and remains) low. We could thus have a family in New York City without the vagaries of my income jeopardizing our housing. I don’t want to ever pretend my career has been all hard work and creativity. It has been hard work and creativity – but with the cushion of an apartment purchased with money I did not earn myself.

It has helped me to publish in multiple age categories. I write under two names and can have a couple of books a year. I co-author a series, and that helps too – we can write the series books while having other projects on the go.

I publish with multiple houses. Penguin Random has much of my backlist and my bigger books, but in 2017 I did books with Candlewick, Scholastic and Farrar, Straus & Giroux – and it’s pretty much always been like that. The publishers haven’t always been happy about the competition, but I’m employed.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently?

I would write A Fine Dessert (Schwartz & Wade, 2015) differently.

On a practical note, I should not have been so wide-ranging at the start of my writing career. I published two picture books, a book of essays for adults, a novel for adults, and a middle grade. Then I couldn’t figure out why my career had no momentum.

Ha! Of course it didn’t. I hadn’t built a reputation in any one area, and I hadn’t sustained relationships with editors.

The smart thing would have been to focus tight at first and to build longer-term connections — and to find a community of writers. I didn’t have any writer friends, really, until nine years after my first book came out.

Now, those relationships are essential to the longevity of my creative life. I don’t know how I managed before.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I adore the emergence of LGBTQ+ YA stories into mainstream popular consciousness. On bestseller lists. Made into films! (As I’m answering these questions, “Everyday” and “Love, Simon” are in theaters.) There’s LGBTQ+ fantasy, adventure, dystopian, historical and science fiction as well as realistic contemporary. Makes me happy.

Queer YA has been around since 1969, of course. And there are still more people to include, more intersections to examine, more ways of feeling and living to be represented and more voices to be heard.

But things have changed and expanded hugely in the thirteen years I’ve been writing YA and so many of the books are spectacular.

I also adore the emergence of the graphic novel as a major and respected art form. There are MacArthur winners, National Book Award winners, and hilarious young middle grade books that grab the most reluctant readers.

I grew up reading comic books and the interplay of image and text was the subject of my dissertation. I feel lucky to be making books at such a fertile time for graphic stories.

Have you finished a draft of your next book?

The actual publication of a book doesn’t feel so great to me. Satisfaction must come from making things you are interested in and are proud to have made, from the exciting process of collaboration, from storytelling. You’ll keep your head straight if you’re thoroughly involved in that experience of creation when your book arrives in bookshops.

You’re also a writing teacher. What led you to join the Hamline MFA faculty, and how does teaching inform, influence and intersect with your writing life?

After getting my doctorate, I taught creative and scholarly writing for some years, adjuncting at NYU, Barnard and Columbia. I enjoyed the work, but those jobs didn’t provide me with colleagues or a department — I just showed up and did my courses, held my office hours, and went home.

At some point I began to want more: to be able to create new classes, to bring in visiting lecturers, to work with other teachers who stretched my understanding of my field, to contribute to the shape of a program and to be part of conversations about how best to teach fiction writing and literature.

I couldn’t do that as an adjunct, and I began to feel bored. I left those jobs and wrote full time.

Some years later, I saw an ad in The Horn Book looking for an experienced college teacher who wrote both picture books and YA. I thought, Oh, that’s me!

I applied, but during the resulting interview, I realized (to my embarrassment) that I had done so cavalierly. I had a small baby. I couldn’t leave her for 11-day residencies! What had I been thinking?

Up-front I told Mary Rockcastle, the program director, that I would be interested in working at Hamline if she wanted to come back to me in a couple of years — and she did. Then I was able to take the job.

Being there has been the formal fiction-writing education I never had. When I first arrived, I didn’t have any of the creative writing vocabulary used by my colleagues. Over the years I have had the chance to learn from some of the best people making books for children.

In particular I have returned to insights from lectures by Meg Medina, Matt de la Peña, Ron Koertge, Laurel Snyder and Nina LaCour.

In the lecture hall, am often struck by ideas for projects, or strategies for revision.

Another thing I love is getting to work intimately with students on long-form projects and in multiple drafts on picture books. I get to see my students grow and develop in hugely significant ways. And I feel useful. I love team-teaching workshop, too.

 I have run class with Laura Ruby, Anne Ursu, Marsha Qualey, Kelly Easton and Claire Rudolph-Murphy, and in each case I got so much out of seeing the way my co-teacher worked with a student text — total paradigm shifts from the way I might have approached it, sometimes. And wonderful.

Last, I have spent a huge amount of time working on the Required Reading List we assign at Hamline. Our List Committee tossed out our old list in late 2015 and re-imagined what we wanted our students to read and why, putting together a pedagogical mission, learning outcomes, all that — and a list of amazing books.

Then each year we have done small updates to that list, often with new Committee members circling in to keep the list fresh and evolving as our departmental needs evolve.

Sherri Smith is co-leading us this year and she is amazing. Serving on this crew means I read books that I might not have picked up, otherwise — and I get to discuss them with my colleagues, too. That reading has broadened my mind and my writing.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Emily with Paul O. Zelinksy

I hope our community can practice radically better inclusivity in publishing.

I’d like the editors, art directors and publicity teams to reflect the gorgeous range of people we publish books for.

I hope we will continue to support freedom of speech and of the press.

If we can make that big change and hold onto that central value, I think we’ll make beautiful, funny, touching, wonder-filled books.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I want to try new forms. I might take courses cartooning and see what that does to my thinking about image and text, both for picture books and graphic novels.

I like it when I don’t know how to do my job.

The best work bubbles up when I have no idea how to tackle this new thing that I want to write.

Cynsational Notes 

In the photo above, Emily and Paul are on a walking tour for All-of-a-Kind Family Hannukah (Schwartz & Wade, Sept. 2018).

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

The Texas Library Association issued A Statement on Questions Over A Fine Dessert and tie-in resources, including those for teaching the related criticism and controversy.

Survivors: Kathi Appelt on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Kathi Appelt. Photo by Igor Kraguljak.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field, yes?

I would agree with that. Over these many years I’ve seen superstars come and go. And I do realize that some of that is just basic human nature—we all want to see who is the new best thing, right?

There are so many ways to interpret the old adage “chasing the dream.”

I feel fortunate because I’ve caught a few of those dreams, and in doing so, they remind me of how utterly grateful I am to be able to do this good work. But I also understand how ethereal it all is, how fleeting. And there are some days when I think that I’d be perfectly happy waiting tables again (although my back would probably resist).

It’s a conundrum in many ways. Those of us who have been around for a while know how difficult it is to stay in this world, but lately I’ve felt a real longing to slow it all down, do a little less chasing, and maybe at the same time, up the ante.

I still feel like my best work is yet to come. But that means—at least to me—less chasing and more contemplation. That would not have been possible even a few years ago when I was constantly on the road, teaching like crazy, trying to get my kids through college, working to make ends meet.

So, I’m able now to slow it down a bit, but at the same time I understand the crushing need to produce something that is relevant and worthy. At least I feel that need, especially in these super-charged times. It feels like the very soul of the world is at risk.

I’m constantly asking—what is my role here? How can my stories matter? What do I even have to say that can make a dent or a difference, especially because every morning since the election of 2016, I wake up wondering what major screw up awaits the new day? It’s paralyzing.

I’ve been telling people that my next book is going to be called “Things that Frolic,” and it will feature only leaping animals, like bunnies and baby deer and unicorns. It will have lots of rainbows and candy-apple trees.

Ish! Makes my teeth hurt, just thinking about it.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

When the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, I had an existential crisis.

By then, I had published a whole bevy of picture books, plus a collection of middle grade poems, and I had several works in the pipeline. I had a terrific team that I worked with—three editors and my long-time agent. I was super cozy.

But then, my father passed away, followed by my sweet little grandmother, and shortly after that those towers fell, and everything I was doing came into question (kind of like now, actually).

And my beloved team! My agent, Marilyn Marlow, passed away after a long bout with cancer. A week later, my editor Meredith Charpentier, died unexpectedly. Another of my editors left to work as a freelancer. I was heartbroken. Bereft.

The very ground that I had been standing on shifted beneath my feet. I realized I was at a crossroads with my writing. There was that familiar cozy path that I knew so well, and that had supported me.

I could continue on that route. It was safe. I knew how to do it. There was a lot of reliability there, lots of encouragement. I could write rhyming picture books until the proverbial cows came home. I could write good-enough poetry, and even well-received nonfiction. I knew where my boundaries were, and how to exploit the territory within them.

But at the same time, I felt this kind of soul-ache. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the work I was doing or had done. I love all of my books. But at that moment, I felt like I needed to do something significant, even if it was only for me.

At that time, I met with my new agent, Holly McGhee, and she asked me, “Where do you want to take your writing?”

Even though it wasn’t a question I had ever been asked, I knew the answer. I needed to write a story that would crack open the heart, and the heart I needed to crack open the most was my own.

We always say, “write what you know.”

But we forget that eventually what we know can squeeze the life out of our work.

So, at first, I thought, okay, I’m going to write what I don’t know. And I realized that wasn’t exactly right either. What did that even mean? I don’t know anything about quantum physics, but I can guarantee you that I’m never going to write about them.

Serendipitously, I stumbled over Georgia Heard’s “heart maps.” So I got out a piece of paper and drew one, making all sorts of spaces on that map for the things that mattered to me. Then I drew another one, and another. They were so enlightening really. To actually see, in a visual way, the things that I loved. But with each one, I discovered that I had left a space that was unnamed.

Every time I drew a map, there was always an open, unlabeled space. I started calling that “the hole.” And for me, that hole was something I missed. Or someone I missed. Or some place or time that I missed.

It was, I discovered, where I needed to go. To dive into that place of missing, and find the story that was there. With The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008) I realized that I missed wild places, I missed my baby boys who were no longer babies, I missed the old dog that guarded me and my sisters when we were girls. So much missing. I confess that at times it was overwhelming.

Tobin with Martine Leavitt and Nancy Werlin

And then, on a particularly rough day, my friend Tobin (M.T.) Anderson called me out of the blue, and in our conversation, he said, “you should always write what you think you can’t.”

I’ll never forget that because in that short sentence is the absolute permission to fail.

After all, if you didn’t think you could do it in the first place, then what harm is there in trying? Right? If you fail, well, you didn’t think you could do it anyways.

There is so much liberation in allowing yourself to fail! Once I gave myself that permission, it was like I hit the go button and couldn’t stop.

When Tennessee Williams was working on his first important play, “Battle of Angels,” he noted in his journal that he was working with “seven wild-cats under [his] skin.”

I’ve learned to love that feeling, that furious itch to get the words down, to put all that missing, all that longing, all that failure onto the page. I’m no Tennessee Williams, but I understand that compulsion to dive into the hole.

With VCFA faculty Shelley Tanaka & Rita Williams-Garcia

Another thing that saved me was my work as a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Joining that esteemed group of writer/teachers gave me some grounding. They taught me so much.

Mostly, I learned that not everything was about me. My students forced me to be better, to be wiser, to be more circumspect and careful with our stories.

We are traders of stories. It’s what makes us fundamentally human—our stories. And so care has to be taken, both in the stories we write and the ones we read. The work was hard. But it was a necessary thing for me.

I know I’m a better writer because I’ve been a teacher. I might have been a more prolific writer if I hadn’t been a teacher, but I know I would not have been a better writer.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I would try to be less seat-of-the-pants opinionated. I believe that there are a lot of things I’ve missed because I saw (and continue to see) the world through my own set of privileged lenses.

As such, I recognize that there are so many things I’ve refused to see or hear, or actually that I couldn’t see or hear. Fortunately, I have people who love me and are patient. But is it their responsibility to rip off the blinders? I’m not sure.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

Obviously, there is still a resounding need for more stories by and about citizens of Indigenous Nations and people of color. One only needs to check the data to see that we are so far behind, especially when demographics are taken into consideration, and especially with Native/First Nations writers.

I am glad to see new, young and gifted, really genius authors claiming their place in the canon. It makes my heart happy.

And it scares me, too. In so many ways, it’s forced me to really examine the myriad ways that the “system” has failed all of us, that system that has created what Will Alexander calls “fallback norms,” in which we just assume that the nondescript hero is white. So, what challenges me is the necessary work of peeling off those layers that perpetuate the fallback norms, and finding a way past them.

I can’t help but wonder who I’m going to find underneath those layers—my racist Southern grandmother, my great-great grandfather who fought for the Union, my alcoholic father, my encouraging first grade teacher, my great-grandmother who died in childbirth at age 25, the wool rakers of my father’s family?

None of them were perfect, and neither am I. But I can’t deny their influence.

So this is my challenge, and I am so grateful to my inner circle of fellow authors who have been patient, who listen, who guide, who are working so hard to be sure that all of our children are represented in our books, and that all of them can see themselves as heroes, no matter their racial or ethnic make-up, their gender, their abilities….

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

One day, long ago, I was having breakfast with a woman who had just traveled across the country by hitchhiking. Over eggs and bacon, she told this rather hair-raising tale about it all, and my response was a very trite, cliché “I can’t even imagine it.”

Her reply: “Imagine it.”

She said it with such force that it opened up something in me. It was like a directive, and maybe the truer meaning was: “don’t be a wimp, Kathi, imagine it.”

Do it. Don’t just sit there, saying you can’t.

She wasn’t a writer. I can’t even remember her name. We were with a group of other people at the table and I had never met her before. Never saw her again.

But I learned that day that possibly the best phrase in our lexicon is “imagine it.”

So, I would say to do that, to imagine it. Imagine it all. Dream it up, and do it in a big way.

You are built for this, made for telling stories.

Imagine it.

llus. from The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, (c) 2008 by David Small. (2)All rights reserved. Used by permission.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

With Cynthia Leitich Smith.

If I could wave my magic wand, I’d wish for starred reviews and movie deals and cafeterias full of children all sitting crisscross applesauce, waiting to hear you read your books to them.

I’d wish for long signing lines, and great copy editors, and first class air tickets, and great friends to share your highs and lows with.

I’d wish for good cats, and long walks, and plenty of music. You know, things that frolic.

I’d wish that they could each know, even at a small level, how much love plays a role in all of this.

It does.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

A unicorn would be sweet.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Tenth Anniversary Giveaway: Fifteen winners will receive an autographed paperback copy of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, 2008). In addition, one Grand Prize winner will win a classroom set of 20 copies of the book, plus a 30 to 40 minute Skype visit for their school, classroom, or library with Kathi Appelt. Enter here!


Survivors: Marion Dane Bauer on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Marion Dane Bauer.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

My first response to that question was . . . how can I talk about bumps? I have been so darned lucky! In 1976, the first novel I ever attempted to write was published, and in the more than forty years that have followed I’ve seen 100 more books into the light.

And yet, of course, there have been bumps.

I’ll talk about just one, though, the one I’ve found most important to overcome in order to “defy the odds.” That bump is isolation. Complete and utter isolation.

When I made the decision to take this writing habit seriously, to attempt actually to produce something publishable, I was a young mother and clergy wife living in Hannibal, Missouri.

In our society in that period—the 60s and 70s, a time of stay-at-home moms almost completely without support systems—motherhood was profoundly isolating.

Being a clergy wife then, when clergy wives were seen as their more important husband’s unpaid assistants, deepened the isolation and gave it a fish-bowl quality.

And living in Hannibal . . . well. I’ll say only that during the years I lived there I was aware of a Mark Twain roofing company and had tried Mark Twain fried chicken, but I knew no one else who was attempting to do the writing thing Mark Twain had made the town famous for. For that matter, I knew no other adult who had the smallest interest in children’s books.

What did I do with that isolation?

First, I found the Hannibal Public Library. I went back and forth and back and forth bringing home armloads of books. My children were young, so I was already filled to the brim with the picture books of the time, but I knew nothing of contemporary novels for young people. The novels of my own youth had come from my mother’s childhood home, most of them written in the nineteenth century.

At the library I encountered a shelf labeled Newbery. The Newbery Award had been around for a long time, of course, but I had never heard of it. The elementary school I attended didn’t even have a library of its own, and, of course, the English professors at the colleges where I studied never spoke of children’s literature. But I figured somebody liked these books, so I took some home . . . and I fell in love.

Not with the award—I still didn’t know what the Newbery Medal meant—but with the books those award committees had chosen.

I fell in love with what a children’s book can be, with the deep honesty those books demonstrated. I needed that kind of honesty to tell my stories, and I needed to know such honesty could be received before I could put my first words down on paper.

The second thing I did with that isolation was eventually to move to a larger, more literary community, Minneapolis/St. Paul. (Actually, my husband was called to a church there, and the children and I were part of the package, so that was another piece of luck.)

There I actually began to meet other writers, and equally important, I found opportunities to teach writing. I set out to teach other aspiring writers even though I had yet to be published myself except in the most minor ways.

Teaching broke through my isolation. At last writing wasn’t just some odd activity I did in a hidden corner of my house; it was something I could talk about with other adults. Teaching legitimized my own writing by bringing in family income, too. Money made my efforts serious, real, especially—and this is what mattered most—in my own mind.

Defining, again and again, what makes a manuscript work, explaining point of view and voice and story trajectory, examining the field I was entering and bringing my findings back to my students, I taught myself to write. I taught myself to write by writing, of course, but my process was energized, amplified, augmented by my teaching. In defining for others what makes a manuscript work, I learned how to make my own manuscripts work.

My teaching was part time—I have always been a writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes—and after fifteen years of intense work on the writing side of the equation, I had published five novels. 

Combining my teaching and writing income I had in all those years never come close to earning an income that would support me, but I left my marriage anyway, desperate to keep my writing front and center. I left with $2,000 in my pocket and not a clue where the next penny was coming from.

It was a bit like leaping out of the fourteenth floor of a burning building.

That was also the moment, completely coincidentally, that my novel On My Honor (Clarion, 1986) received the Newbery Honor award. (Both the timing and the fact of that award represent another enormous piece of luck.)

Receiving a Newbery Honor brought increased writing income for a time and also more opportunities to earn money by lecturing around the country. But always I continued to teach, because I needed the connection to other writers that teaching brought me.

I taught in many different adult-education venues in the Twin Cities, including the University of Minnesota and The Loft Literary Center, and spent my final teaching years in the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts as one of the founders and the first Faculty Chair of their Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

The teaching saved me. It made my career possible. It brought me out of my isolation. It gave me soulmates.

Few of the people close to me have ever understood or appreciated this compulsion that is writing, even after that writing began to show results. I empathize with them. It must be hard for non-writers to live with us.

My partner will sometimes say to me with just a touch of exasperation in her voice when we are riding in the car or sitting outside on the deck, “Are you writing?” But my students and my fellow teachers share my world without explanation or apology.

Of course, teaching isn’t something that comes naturally to every writer. I taught literature and composition both in college and high school before I turned to teaching writing to adults. But learning comes naturally to all of us, and in front of the class or in it, much the same is accomplished.

A chance to discover others who are on the same journey, to analyze the process, to evaluate others’ work and carry that evaluation back to our own. It’s the best way I know out of the isolation in which all writers exist while still serving our writing. Isolation is a part of our journey. Few of us could produce without it. But when the isolation grows too deep, it’s difficult to keep our bearings.

Marion speaks with students at LoonSong.

I’ve retired from formal teaching through VCFA, but these days I have a once-a-year opportunity to return to the company of other writers and to the stimulation of teaching. It’s a writers’ retreat called LoonSong that meets on the shore of a pristine lake in the wilderness of northern Minnesota. 

The retreat was created by National Book Award finalist and VCFA graduate, Debby Dahl Edwardson, and joining it each September is part of what keeps me “defying the odds.” LoonSong keeps me fresh and energized and connected.

My advice, find your own LoonSong or try ours or seek out an MFA program or a writers’ group or teach a class yourself. Isolation is a writer’s greatest hazard.

 Bumps are less bumpy when navigated in company.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

One thing. I would have found an agent, the right agent, and stayed with him or her.

In these days when most writers work through an agent because access is difficult if not impossible without one, the emphasis is not on agent-or-no-agent but rather on what makes the right agent.

I started out with an agent, a woman so long established in the field that I never met anyone who remembered a time before she was a fixture. She placed my early novels with a publisher who remained my publisher for many years and did little more for me.

I left her after two incidents. One, my editor said to me one day, “You know, Marion, A. has never done anything for you.”

Curious, I talked to an unagented writer publishing with the same house and discovered that she had been offered an escalation clause and I had not. Presumably my editor expected an agent to ask. Mine hadn’t.

The second, while I was still with that agent, I spent a couple of years working on an adult novel. She presented it to an editor at Random House who expressed interest but wasn’t yet ready to make an offer.

The editor had suggestions, though, and I revised. When we presented the novel again, however, the editor said, “Frankly, I liked the first version better.”

I lost faith, told my agent I was going back to children’s books, and did.

Later, too much later for me to be able to resurrect my energy for the adult novel, my agent made a comment to a friend who reported it to me. She said, “It’s too bad Marion put that novel aside. It would have been an important book.”

But she never said it to me!

I want two things from an agent: knowledge of what a reasonable contract should cover and complete and unflinching honesty.

I worked without an agent for many years after that. In fact, when discussions came up at Vermont College of  Fine Arts, about agent or no agent, I always argued on the no-agent side. It’s hard enough to earn a living writing without having 15% skimmed off the top.

I have, in fact, over the years encouraged some of my friends to leave their agents, not because I didn’t think they should have one but because they complained so often about their agents’ failure to communicate.

And that is my third and perhaps my greatest requirement for an agent, communication.

I refuse to share my royalties with someone who pretends in between royalty checks that I don’t exist.

Marion with authors Gary Schmidt & Candace Fleming

Why then did I decide, more than thirty years and many book sales later, that I needed an agent? And why do I regret not finding him or someone like him sooner?

The first and most obvious and probably least important reason is that my brain goes soft when I read contracts. Especially when the elements of contracts surrounding e-books were in flux I got overwhelmed. And I wanted not to have to think about it.

But there were more important factors, and these are the reasons for my regret.

In my early publishing years, things were pretty simple. You began with a certain house, and that was your publisher. Your first editor pretty much owned you and decided what kind of work you could publish. If you took a manuscript to another house, you were a whore.

My first editor told me, “Marion, you are not a picture book writer,” and therefore through those early years I could not be a picture book writer.

Eventually, rules changed, though, and I found access on my own to different publishers, large and small, and I began to sell different kinds of work. Board books, picture books, fiction and non-fiction early readers, non-fiction books on writing, novels. I found many open doors.

Why an agent, then?

Candlewick, Sept. 11, 2018; more @ Elizabeth Bird

Because one day I walked through one of those doors to an editor I had a good working relationship with and handed her a manuscript I loved. It was a serious literary story, a story about mortality, in fact. It was the first thing I wrote after my son’s death.

This editor’s list, however, was not meant to be serious and literary, and the book came out titled and jacketed to look light, even frivolous. Not only did the book miss its mark, but I received furious letters from teachers and librarians who had used the book as a read aloud, presuming it was just something fun. I knew they had a right to their fury (though I wondered at their not reading the book themselves before deciding to read it to their kids). I also knew I was not serving my work well.

Once I did sign on with an agent again, I discovered not only that having an objective eye on decisions about where a manuscript should go is a good thing but that there are a great many editors out there I had never met, a great many doors I wouldn’t have found on my own.

Had I had a good agent throughout my career, some things would have been different. Maybe they would have been important things, maybe just a better decision here or there. But I am grateful these days to have another mind, another perspective to support my own.

My agent, by the way, is Rubin Pfeffer and he is a dream. He spent many years on the editorial and administrative side of publishing. He knows the field and the people in it inside out and is known and respected in return.

He is always honest.

And he communicates!

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand- out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The most obvious change is that publishing has finally opened its doors to diversity, and long may that door stand open. The changes have been too slow to come, but now that they are coming I can’t imagine publishers/book sellers/writers/teachers ever backtracking on our commitment to producing and supporting books for the world as it is, not the world we once chose to acknowledge.

White writers are inevitably feeling the squeeze of that shift. We’re accustomed to the dance floor being ours alone. But while the transition is sometimes a difficult one for everyone, we are heading toward a good place. No, a great place.

I feel blessed to have been in this field long enough to witness such a profound awakening!

There is another shift, though, one that impacts all of us, though I seldom hear it mentioned. The number of books being published every year has grown exponentially.

In 1976, my first novel, Shelter from the Wind (Clarion), was published along with 2,209 other books meant for children and young adults. (Or what was being called YA in that time, then meaning books for eleven to thirteen-year-olds.)

In 2015, 15,032 children’s and YA books were published. That breaks down, now that young adult is truly young adult and more legitimately its own publishing category, to 12,988 children’s books and 4,338 YA.

Even if we eliminate all of today’s YA books as a category that didn’t quite exist in 1976, those numbers represent nearly a six-fold increase over the numbers published forty years ago.

And that doesn’t count all the self-published books indistinguishable from traditionally published books on sites such as Nor, of course, does it consider the thousands of books available in publishers’ backlists.

All seeking buyers.

In this market, fine books emerge every day only to slip into oblivion. With so many more books being published, I presume it is growing easier to bring our books into the light of day, but it is definitely getting more difficult to get them noticed once they are out there.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Marion Dane Bauer.

Ah . . . advice to the self. I wonder if I would have taken it.

Relax more. Don’t quit working, but take more breaks.

Laugh more. Truth can sometimes be told better with laughter.

Exercise a whole lot more. Don’t take your strength and mobility for granted. (This from someone about to enter her ninth decade.)

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Just more wonderful, thoughtful, funny, entertaining, sad, truthful books. Write them. Read them. Love them. Share them.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Every now and then I read an obit in the Authors Guild Bulletin that says, “He was writing a few hours before he died.”

That’s the way I want to go. Writing and reading every single day until it’s time to say good bye!

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Marion Dane Bauer is a co-founder of LoonSong.

LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat is scheduled for Sept. 6 to Sept. 10 at Elbow Lake Lodge in Cook, Minnesota.

Faculty include children’s-YA authors Nikki Grimes, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Bruce Coville, Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Buchanan, Sarah Aronson, and Debby Dahl Edwardson as well as agent Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary and editorial director and publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. Note: author Susan Cooper, who was previously listed on the site, will not be able to make the event.

See more on the faculty. Peek:

“We offer a smorgasbord of activities for writers to pick from: stimulating lectures and panel discussions, writing prompts and workshops, readings and one-on-one marketing, agent, and editorial consultations. 

“An agent and editor will be present at all readings. Our presenters include seasoned writers, an agent, and an editor who will help you grow your career, develop new approaches to craft, and think deeply about the writing life.”

See video.

LoonSong Turtle Island is scheduled from Sept. 11 to Sept. 14 at the same location. Faculty include authors Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee (Creek)), Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), author-editor-publisher Arthur A. Levine of Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic and editorial director and associate publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. See more on the faculty.

“…a writing retreat for Native American writers only, a place where writers can come together with a talented faculty of published Native writers and industry professionals to share their writing, spark their imaginations, and make the kinds of connections that help set a career on course.”

Please note that a few publisher-sponsored scholarships are available (thank you, Candlewick and Charlesbridge).

Survivors: Louise Hawes on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Louise Hawes.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. 

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I’d say the first and most severe “bump” in my writing life was…success!

Because I met with one version of “fame and fortune” early in my career, I nearly lost sight of my own convictions about what it means to be a truly successful writer.

When I joined the stable (yes, we were legion!) of authors creating the bestselling Sweet Valley Twins books (Batam/Random House) under the pen name, Jamie Suzanne, I had published only two novels for middle graders—humorous, literary books whose sales figures hardly made a dent in my single-mom budget.

But the Sweet Valley books? Their royalties were staggering; enough, at only a few percent, to put my son and daughter through college! And as to fame?

If I happened to let slip—at a conference, in a cab, during casual conversation—that I was partly responsible for the adventures of identical twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, I achieved instant rock-star status, complete with worshipful jaw-dropping, pledges of undying love for the books that had been passed from bunk to bunk at summer camp, and requests for autographs.

What was wrong with this picture?

Unfortunately, I didn’t stop to ask myself that question until I’d begun to lose what little artistic freedom and integrity I’d acquired via the normal route—submitting, being rejected, persisting.

Instead, I fell into the insidious habit of writing formula fluff (sorry, beloved fans of Jessica and Elizabeth, but if the shoe fits, I can’t call it by another name); of consulting a “cast bible” to find out how characters would react in any given situation; of perpetuating a white-bread world where pimples on prom day were as bad as it gets; and yes, of letting the checks roll in.

But no, I haven’t enjoyed “continued success,” at least not the kind that’s measured via sales figures or income. And it’s my students who taught me the way out of Sweet Valley.

You see, once I started working with new writers, beginners who modeled courage and risk-taking, I couldn’t very well stay stuck in that fictional California town, where it never rains and happiness is a new sundress with spaghetti straps.

I’ve heard folks in academia complain that reading student work drains their creative spirit. All I can say is that, so far as the students I’ve been privileged to work with at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, it’s been life-giving. And story-saving.

Because now what motivates my writing is what sparked it in the first place—the need to fuel fiction with my own pain and joy, to transmute them into something larger and more redemptive through the alchemy that is art.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

When we look back over the years, most of us can usually see the way our mistakes, like black stars, have lit the way to who we are.

So while I’m not sure I’d untie any of those tangles, I wish I’d valued myself and my writing a lot more. I wish I’d been strong enough to realize that almost no advance is worth signing away your own voice.

That would have saved me seven years of struggling to reclaim it.

(Once you settle repeatedly for clichés and stereotypes, it gets harder and harder to remember the sound of your unique truth.)

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

Margaret K. McElderry, 2017

In a career that’s spanned twenty years, I’ve seen a lot of changes, but two stand out. One is, perhaps, inevitable: it’s gotten rough out there!

In terms of the sheer volume of submissions to publishers, a new writer today is facing much more difficult odds than I did when I began. Which makes it much less likely that new work will find a publishing home without an agent.

(I worked for decades without agency representation, using a literary attorney to vet contracts, but relying on connections, dumb luck, and the work itself for all the rest. Today? I wouldn’t think of jumping into the fray without my agent’s contacts and publishing savvy behind me.)

The second change isn’t really new; it’s Sweet Valley redux.

“High concept” has become increasingly important to many publishers and agents, and with this emphasis, characterization sometimes takes a back seat to premise.

As publishers continue to buy each other out, the audience each serves grows exponentially, and the temptation to make one book fit all grows.

So while I see the increased competition and the rise of agents as an historical imperative, I sure hope publishing can make more room to accommodate “quiet” books and stories written without one eye on the market.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Above all? Take the time to actually enjoy this year.

Have you noticed the way debut authors are forming internet sites and going on tour together? Join with some writer friends, so you can share advice and appearances (and parties!) Your first galleys to proof, your first author’s copies, your first bookstore signing, your first school or conference gig—these won’t ever come again.

Vertigo, 2013

First reviews? If you’re strong of stomach and sure of who you are, you may be able to read them. If not, ask your agent or publisher to filter and summarize!

But above all….

Slow down.


Have fun.

Oh, and give thanks.

You’ve achieved what thousands of writers are still wishing, hoping, and sweating bullets for!

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

I wish children’s writers increasing respect for one of the most important jobs in the world. YA has gained a kind of grudging acknowledgment from the rest of publishing, as its sales figures have risen.

My hope, though, is that the talent, imagination, and courage of authors for children also get recognized; that their impact on young readers is accepted for what it is: life-changing and future-shaping.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more at home with saying, “I don’t know!” Coupled with, “but I’d like to find out,” this limitation has actually proved to be a freedom.

It’s opened doors to new ways of being a writer in the world.

Louise with fellow author David Almond.

Collaboration among arts and artists, for example, is something I find more and more exciting and invigorating.

Which may be why in the last few years, I’ve written my first graphic novel (a collaboration with four other authors for DC Comics); published a novel in prose, poetry, and play scripts; made electric blues an integral part of my most recent book launch; given a creativity workshop with my three sisters (a painter, a musician, and a film animator); and done my last poetry reading with backup singers.

What do I wish ahead?

More books, of course. And more juicy, cooperative mixed-media adventures!

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.