New Voice: Andrea Page on Sioux Code Talkers of World War II

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Andrea M. Page is the first-time author of Sioux Code Talkers of World War II (Pelican Publishing, 2017). From the promotional copy:

In World War II, code-making and code-breaking reached a feverish peak. The fabled Enigma Cipher had been broken, and all sides were looking for a secure, reliable means of communication.


Many have heard of the role of the Navajo Code Talkers, but less well-known are the Sioux Code Talkers using the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota dialects.

Told by the great-niece of John Bear King, who served in the First Cavalry in the Pacific Theatre as a Sioux Code Talker, this comprehensively informative title explores not only the importance of the indigenous peoples to the war, but also their culture and values. The Sioux Code Talkers of World War II follows seven Sioux who put aside a long history of prejudice against their people and joined the fight against Japan.


Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?


Great question. When I really set my mind to writing this story for publication, I enrolled in children’s writing courses at our local Writers and Books. I remember the first course was Writing Children’s Picture Books.

When starting out, I really thought the story would make a fine picture book. Very quickly, the instructor, Jennifer Meagher, gently informed me that the story was not a picture book and suggested a middle grade format. 
I tried fiction, then nonfiction, and over time, she helped me frame my book based on some mentor texts we located. Once I accepted the lengthier format, I knew what parts needed more research. 
In addition, I joined our local writing group, the Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators (RACWI) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

 I formed a critique group, then another, and a third one with Jamie Moran and Kathleen Blasi. We added a few more writers to the group. People came and went, leaving Kathleen, Elizabeth Falk, Keely Hutton, and me. 

During all this time, I devoured every craft book I could find. I attended SCBWI conferences, including the one in New York City. Then I landed on a novel idea- the online course. I took a non-fiction writing course from Laura Purdie Salas and began to look at myself as an author-in-training.

Eventually, I sent a round of query letters out and Pelican Publishing Company responded. After reading my manuscript, editor Nina Kooij explained they might be interested if I doubled my word count. 

I was excited, but at that time, I had no idea how to double my word count. I knew I put all my solid research in the manuscript, I didn’t know what to do. But, I was not going to give up.

I took a self-imposed sabbatical to study the craft of writing. 

I studied mentor texts, I joined online writing groups, and heard tips about other intriguing books on author’s craft. I read and I wrote. And then one day, I found the Call of the Writer’s Craft (Simon & Schuster, 2009) by Tom Bird. His technique opened the door for me. 
Basically, you access the right brain, write fast, and write a lot. I stopped editing lines and wrote about topics in my book in no particular order. I filled a huge, blank sketchbook. (I still write this way today) I found my voice while piecing together the chapters in my book. 
Mailing final version of manuscript
In a few months, I more than doubled my word count. Revisions were easier. I resubmitted to Pelican Publishing Company five years later. I had more tasks to complete before I received a contract. But my contract finally came!

I still take online courses, most recently from Joyce Sweeney and attend writing conferences with my critique partners. I’ve enjoyed writing retreats with other writing buddies like Sharon Lochman, Leah Henderson, Patricia Miller, Agatha Rodi, Janie Reinart, Kristin Gray, Jenna Grodzicki, and Julie Rand.

 One cannot do this job alone. Having lots of writing friends helps raise the bar, sets high expectations, and keeps me moving forward.

I’ve had many opportunities at RACWI meetings to meet and learn from established authors. Studying the craft under mentors like Carol Johmann, Vivian Vande Velde, Linda Sue Park, Marsha Hayles, Ellen Stoll Walsh, Robin Pulver, M.J. Auch, Peggy Thomas and many others has been quite a gift over the years.

It’s been quite a journey from novice to published author. I’ve been blessed with wonderful writing friends who stand by me, cheer me on, and encourage me to dedicate my life to the craft of writing because that is who we are- writers and readers.

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

I encountered many hurdles while writing this book.

While researching at first I couldn’t find any documentation about the Sioux Code Talkers. Back then and even today, people are well aware of the Navajo Code Talkers. (There are a few reasons for that, which I explain in my book.)

My uncle’s unit only had seven men used as code talkers and their orders were top secret, so they couldn’t talk about their service for many years. 

By the time the papers were declassified, several men had died. I had the opportunity to interview one several times, but I wasn’t asking the right questions and his memories were vivid but not detailed enough for me to follow a solid trail.

Once I had a path to follow, I ran into other obstacles. 

Service records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire years before, historical records for the unit were minimal since the 302nd Rcn Troop was an unusual unit. Most members never attended the Cavalry Associations reunions. I did manage to meet the commanding officer of the unit at one reunion. We became close and he started sharing copies of his documents.

Literary & Logistical Struggles

I mentioned my determination to become a better writer in the previous answer. One added hurdle was trying to figure out the best way to tell this story. I kept planning, organizing and revising. 

One revision meant that I pulled everything apart, reorganized and wrote again – 35 different ways over 20 years.

Psychological

There were many times over the course of 20 years that I had negative, internal thoughts: 


What if I’m not meant to do this? What if I get it wrong? I’m not a history person, I’ve never been in the military. So many people are expecting me to get this right. I’m a terrible writer. I’m too shy to put myself out there in the world. What if nobody likes my writing? I know I have no style or writing voice. I’m so tired- this is taking too long. 
This is where critique partners and a writing group are needed. They helped me re-frame these negative thoughts and keep moving forward. They are my biggest cheerleaders and I am theirs. 
We all know what we (writers) are going through with each low point as well as each highlight. We are connected to each other and share the highs and the lows together.

What would you have done differently?

I tried to stay organized by recording names, dates, all the citation information as best I could. 

Research bins
However, I wish I would’ve logged the details right from the beginning. 
When I was going through my final edits, I realized I couldn’t find one source for a quote. I looked through my nearly 10 bins of research, but couldn’t locate the quote’s documentation. I had to bail on that quote and find a similar one that could be cited in the bibliography. 
The second quote was adequate but not as powerful. So, I learned a valuable lesson as a nonfiction writer.

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

Watching historical movies became part of my research process. My teenage daughter sat down with me one night to watch, eventually asking, “Why aren’t we learning this stuff in school?”

I thought that was a great question. Our schools teach about historical events, but often times from the non-Native point of view. I hope my book opens the eyes of students and teachers to the two points of view. Both sides need to be studied. This is part of our history as a country.

Growing up in two worlds myself (Native and non-Native) as well as learning about different cultures (Lakota Sioux, German) made me knowledgeable and accepting of many differences and cultural viewpoints. 

Mary Monsees (Andrea’s mom), John “Teton Jack” Gibbons Langan & Andrea at Yellowstone. Jack was the first person to confirm the use of Lakota language in coded messages by the 302 Rcn Troop. As a member of the First Cavalry Division, he witnessed the use of the Code Talkers sending and receiving the top secret messages. He pushed Andrea to tell the story of the Sioux Code Talkers.  He died in 2002 and did not have the opportunity to see the finished book.
We were blessed with determined, hard-working parents who took us on many trips to South Dakota, Germany, and Australia to visit our family members. Many times, these experiences opened our eyes to the way people connected with each other, good and bad. We learned both sides and became stronger, more resilient people because of our experiences. This is my hope for my readers as well.
Code Talkers were awarded Congressional
Medals in November 2013
Lastly, I wanted to share a story about a Congressional hearing that took place in Washington D.C. Veterans provided testimony in support for the Code Talker Recognition Act. Some elders testified in their own language. 
Since the hearings are recorded, this may be the first time testimony was documented in Lakota. I heard the pride in the veterans’ voices when they explained this, and it made such an impression on me that I pursued trying to have some of the code messages translated. 
The incoming and outgoing messages are documented in the military files and I asked an elder who knew how to read and write the language if she would translate for me. Therese Martin worked tirelessly to complete this task for me. 
Once I typed the messages, I wanted to make sure that the language was authentic and readable from another source. I contacted another elder, Vernon Ashley, who verified the coded messages. I’m pleased and thrilled that these two elders supported the efforts to include the Lakota language in the book.
Mary Monsees, Andrea’s daughter Alana and Andrea with Law Honoring Code Talkers
Andrea and her mom, Mary Monsees with the Gold Medal honoring
John Bear King for his service in World War II.
Cynsations Notes
Andrea M. Page is a sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Her interest in her great-uncle’s story began in 1994 when a family member found a newspaper article about John Bear King, revealing his previously unknown World War II service. For 20 years, she gathered information on his story through interviews and research. 

She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, The Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators and the New York State United Teachers.
Kirkus Reviews said Sioux Code Talkers of World War II is “an engagingly written, deeply researched account of a little-known part of World War II” and “Page explores not only the importance of these soldiers to the war, but also their history, culture, and values.” 

Book Trailer

Author Interviews: Kate Hannigan & Janet Fox on Facts in Historical Fiction

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

My current work in progress is a middle grade historical fantasy set in 1903. 


Delving into the past has made me think about how history is presented in novels and the balance between real and imaginary. 


For more insight on that topic, I turned to the authors of two of my favorite recently published books, focusing on process.



Kate Hannigan’s The Detective’s Assistant (Little, Brown, 2015) is based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, America’s first female detective. It won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award in 2016.

Was there a particular item, fact or event that sparked the idea for The Detective’s Assistant?

KH: I was researching a story about camels in the American West in the 1850s when I came across a single nugget about Kate Warne. I read how she walked into Allan Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency in downtown Chicago, and he had assumed she was there for a secretary position. But she talked her way into a detective’s job, convincing Pinkerton she could “worm out” secrets from the wives and girlfriends of the city’s crooks and criminals.

Stumbling on this little gem, I was hooked! I dropped that camel story and ran with Kate Warne!



At what point did you start researching that? Did you start drafting a story first, or did you do research up front?

Kate’s model for her main character

KH: I’m kind of a nutter about gathering facts. My background is newspaper journalism, so maybe that’s to blame. But I wanted to know all I could about Kate Warne, Allan Pinkerton, and Abraham Lincoln during this part of American history.

The biggest research was around understanding the Baltimore Plot, which is the pivotal part of the story — the plot to assassinate Lincoln before he could be sworn in for his first term.

So the whole process was immersive. I dove in deep before writing a single word. Once I felt like I had the facts, then I began my story.

Did you continue doing research as you were writing?

KH: I’m still doing research! And the book published over a year ago! But I love this story so much, I can’t not learn more about it. I do school visits all the time, and I talk to students about it. So it’s very much in the front of my mind.

As I was writing, I would come across a question — my characters are walking down the street in 1860 Chicago, so what were they walking on? How comfortable would a train ride be in 1860? Would we ride on upholstered seats or hard wood? — and drop down another rabbit hole.

Research is never ending with historical writing!

Were you surprised by what you learned doing research? Did any unexpected finds end up becoming significant parts of the story?

KH: If you’re writing historical fiction, you’re probably a pretty huge history nerd. So digging up a juicy nugget can be a thrill! And I dug up so many!

I enjoyed researching and writing this story to a ridiculous degree!

My characters live in a boardinghouse, so getting that setting right was foremost in my mind. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) and Sister Carrie by Theodore Drieser (1900) (which was set a bit later but still illuminating nonetheless), just to get a sense of language of the times.

But I also plunged into nonfiction about the era, and I found a particular book about boardinghouses that was helpful. It described how incredibly cheap the managers — usually women — had to be to keep these places afloat. They were notorious for serving terrible food, which I thought could be played for a lot of humor in my book.

And this is what led to the chapter about Nell and the other residents eating a questionable meat for dinner, and Mrs. Wigginbottom getting shifty when there is talk about the orange tabby cat going missing.

Your book mixes well-known historical figures (Abraham Lincoln) with lesser-known, yet real individuals (Kate Warne) as well as completely fictional characters.



Tell us more about balancing the fact and the fiction – did you lean heavily on things the historical figures actually said? Were there some details you changed for the sake of the story? Were there some fixed points you felt couldn’t be altered?

KH: Fact and fiction! This balance kept me up at night! I agonized over being true to the players and what was on record as having happened. I visited Kate Warne’s grave site here in Chicago more than a few times, and I deeply desired to do right by this woman.

But I also worried about the reader, and I wanted to make sure that the story I was telling would hold the interest of a 21st-century American kid. So it was agony!

Pinkerton had written about the cases that involved Kate Warne, so of course I wanted to nod to those. But I took artistic license and shuffled their order, so that the culminating case is the saving of Lincoln’s life. I needed to put them in a different order to serve my story, and I had to come to terms with that decision. It took me a bit though.



Do you feel authors writing for middle grade readers have a greater obligation to present an accurate picture of a historical time period, than those writing YA or adult fiction?

KH: I very much believe authors for young readers have a greater responsibility to get historical fiction right. Because history is all new to this audience — this might be their first introduction to the Civil War, to Abraham Lincoln, to the Underground Railroad.

And if we make history engaging for them, we’re opening the doors to more exploration of our past, to creating more history lovers.

It’s a responsibility I take pretty seriously. Which is why I tend to research my books to death!

Have you gotten any feedback from history or social studies teachers? Or any school visits or other presentations aimed specifically at the history aspect?

KH: Yes! And it’s been so great! I’ve gotten tremendous feedback from teachers and librarians.

The Civil War hits with fifth-grade curriculum in many schools, so The Detective’s Assistant has been on reading lists around the country. I’ve done Skype visits as well as in-person school visits, and the response from young readers has been mind-blowing!

The New York Historical Society included it in their family book club, the Global Reading Challenge in Chicago listed it among their 2016 books, an entire fifth-grade in Dallas read the book as part of their Civil War history unit. It’s been wonderful to share the story with so many kids!

Was there anything you found while doing research for The Detective’s Assistant that will find it’s way into your next book?

KH: Answer: I’ve been bitten by the research bug, and specifically, research into amazing women and people of color forgotten by history. So my next book is focused on World War II women beyond Rosie the Riveter. I can’t say there’s any overlap with the Civil War era, but the passion I feel for dusting off these remarkable players from the past and sharing them with a whole new audience, that definitely has carried over. It’s kind of become my mission!

The Detective’s Assistant is realistic historical fiction, do things change when the story includes more fantasy elements? For that aspect, I asked Janet Fox, author of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle similar questions.

Was there a particular item, fact or event that sparked the idea for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle? (what was it?)

JF: Yes! I was mucking around on the internet when a friend posted a picture of an object the like of which I’d never noticed before. It was an 18th century German chatelaine. I thought it was peculiar, and I had to find out more about it, so I googled and discovered that this chatelaine was an offshoot of the more practical set of keys – to the chateau – worn at the waist.

I learned that chatelaines had evolved from keys to practical items, like scissors and coin purses, to charms. This chatelaine was all charms, and they were so odd that a story began forming in my mind almost right away.

At what point did you start researching that? (i.e. – did you start drafting a story first, or did you do research up front?) 

JF: Once I’d learned what a chatelaine was I began writing almost at once. Within a week of seeing the image, which is the same as the image that’s in the novel, I’d completed the first 40 pages of what would become the novel. That’s generally the way I work. I have to discover who my main character is and what her problem is before I can begin to flesh out the story, and research is part of that fleshing out.

Did you continue doing research as you were writing?

JF: Yes – once I have a handle on my protagonist and what the story is generally about I tend to blend research with writing. For example, as soon as I decided to set the novel in Scotland, I took a pause and did a bunch of research on Scotland. That’s almost always how I work – I write first to discover what I need to know more about. But it all starts with the character and her problem.

Were you surprised by what you learned doing research? Did any unexpected finds end up becoming significant parts of the story?

JF: Not really – at least, not in this story. But read on – there’s a relevant answer to this in your last question.

Your book mixes actual events and places completely fictional – and fantastical – events and characters. Tell us more about balancing the fact and the fiction? Were there any fixed points you felt couldn’t be altered? (why?)

JF: I felt it was very important to be true to any factual details. For example, I had to learn what I could about enigma machines, about the inner workings of clocks, about movements and activities in the North Sea during that part of World War II, and so on.

That’s where I really pay attention to accuracy – when I’m weaving facts into fantasy I want those facts to be right. In that way the reader more readily suspends disbelief for the fantasy elements.

Do the fantastical elements have a historical influence?

JF: In a way. My grandparents were Irish and English, and I heard many stories growing up about the fantastical beliefs they carried with them from home, things like the stories my grandfather told me about “the little people.” And Celtic and pagan practices have a basis in history and yet are mystical or fantastic in nature. To me, there’s always a kernel of truth in a fairy tale.

Do you feel authors writing for middle grade readers have a greater obligation to present an accurate picture of a historical time period, than those writing YA or adult fiction?

JF: I think any writer writing for any audience has an obligation to be accurate when it comes to historical detail. But I do think that the vulnerability of the younger reader requires a special adherence to accuracy. These are readers who will feel cheated if I give them information they later find to be false. They are also readers more likely to believe whatever you tell them, and I would hate to plant falsehoods in their minds.

Have you gotten any feedback from history or social studies teachers? (or any school visits or other presentations aimed specifically at the history aspect?) 

Dunrobin Castle, Janet’s inspiration, located in Scotland

JF: Not yet, although I would love to present something about the specific history aspects of the story.

I’m fascinated by World War II (and as we can see by the large number of middle grade novels out the past couple of years set during the war, so are others.)

The Blitz alone was a big deal, and I’ve given talks at bookstores at which adults have come forward after to tell me that they or their aunt or their father was sent out of London – and that’s why they’re in America today.

Was there anything you found while doing research for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle that will find it’s way into your next book?

JF: Since Kat is clever with clocks, I did a bit of clock research and uncovered a rare old timepiece called a “Death’s Head” watch. After further research I discovered that one of owners of one of the most bizarre of these was the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots. Well, that didn’t feel accidental. As you can imagine, that watch is the centerpiece of my sequel.

chatelaine

Cynsational Notes

Janet Fox on Blending History with Fantasy from Cynsations. Peek: “Whether writing historical fiction or fantasy, the objective of suspension of disbelief can only be accomplished if the world-building is sound. In historical fiction, that means lots of research to get interesting tidbits right. In fantasy, it means crafting an environment in which those interesting tidbits feel right.”

Gayleen Rabakukk holds a master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She co-moderates the middle grade book club for Austin SCBWI and loves making discoveries – both on and off the page.

Always eager to track down a story, she has worked as a newspaper
reporter, editor and freelance writer. Gayleen is married and has two
caring and outspoken daughters. Their Austin, Texas home is filled with
books and rescue dogs. You can find her online at  or on Twitter @gayleenrabakukk

Congratulations to Gayleen on recently signing with Andrea Cascardi at Transatlantic Agency!

New Voice: Christian McKay Heidicker on Cure for the Common Universe

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Christian McKay Heidicker is the first-time author of Cure for the Common Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Jaxon is being committed to video game rehab…ten minutes after he met a girl. A living, breathing girl named Serena, who not only laughed at his jokes but actually kinda sorta seemed excited when she agreed to go out with him.


Jaxon’s first date. Ever.


In rehab, he can’t blast his way through galaxies to reach her. He can’t slash through armies to kiss her sweet lips. Instead, he has just four days to earn one million points by learning real-life skills. And he’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal, even learn how to cross-stitch—in order to make it to his date.


If all else fails, Jaxon will have to bare his soul to the other teens in treatment, confront his mother’s absence, and maybe admit that it’s more than video games that stand in the way of a real connection.


Prepare to be cured.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

John Cusick

This all began when I told my agent, John Cusick, that I’d write a YA book about a kid committed to video game rehab. His excitement was infectious, and I got that fluttery feeling of embarking on a new adventure. Of darkness unlit. Of stones unturned. Of all the little surprises that come with blindly slashing out with my pen and hoping for the bloody best.

That fluttery feeling vanished when I realized I hadn’t played video games for years, let alone had any clue what it was like to be addicted to them.

In order to survive as a freelance writer, my entire life had become carefully structured to eliminate time-wasters. I worked all possible hours, filled my downtime with reading, exercising, eating healthily, and not buying expensive things like the next generation of PlayStation or Xbox. I had become completely unversed in the world of video games and unhealthy amounts of playing.

I realized if I tried to write a book about video games, I’d out myself as a fraud. I’d make out-of-date gaming references, the community would eat me for breakfast, and I’d become next on Gamergate’s death list. (Now that I know a thing or two, I can confidently say that many gaming references do not go out of fashion, and that being on Gamergate’s threat list is actually a good thing.)

Let’s face it. As novelists we’re all impostors. We don’t really remember what it’s like to have that first kiss. We’ve never reached to the back of the wardrobe and in place of fur felt pine needles. Our goal is to seem the least impostery as possible. To convince the reader that this stuff is legit.

Christian’s office & Lucifer Morningstar Birchaus (aka writer cat)

Still, the idea was good. Video game rehab? I’d never seen that before, and that’s a rare thing in any medium. So I needed a plan. My plan was this: get addicted to video games.*

So out with work!

Sod off, schedules!

Be gone, exercise routines!

Forget healthy eating and gluten intolerance. Forget that coffee turns me into an absolute monster and dairy turns my insides into the Bog of Eternal Stench!

I bought myself a month and turned my life into that of a sixteen-year-old video game addict on summer vacation. I drank coffee from noon (when I woke up) until three in the morning when I went to sleep. (My character drinks energy drinks, but one can only go so far, dear reader.) I slept too much. I didn’t exercise. Sometimes I put whiskey in my morning coffee. I only read gaming news, but only if I really felt like it and only if I had to wait for a game to download.

Mostly, I played video games. I played a lot of video games. I continued to play throughout the duration of writing the book, but in October 2012, I played so much it would have made the characters in my book quirk their eyebrows.

I was trying to get addicted. All of my dopamine release came from beating levels, leveling up characters, downloading DLCs. When I went to the bathroom, I brought my iPad with me and played Candy Crush. (Considering what my new and worsened diet was doing to my digestion, I played a lot of Candy Crush.)

I beat Dark Souls. I beat Sword & Sworcery. I played Starcraft and Hearthstone and Diablo III. I bought a Nintendo 3DS and played through all the Mario and Zelda games I’d missed out over all the years. (Definitely the highlight.) I got lost in world after world, and adulthood as I knew it became a faint haze around an ever-glowing screen.

And guess what? It was hard.

You’d think it would be easy doing as little as humanly possible, only filling one’s time with video games.

Video games are fun. Many are designed to keep you falling into them again and again, to captivate you enough to stick around for hours on end. But I had so carefully trained myself to not be that way so I could write.

During this indulgent month of October, I felt lazy. I felt sick. I felt jittery and uncomfortable in my skin and a little voice inside my head kept saying, “No, no, no. Stop doing nothing. You’re dying.”

I was disgusted with myself. I liked the games I was playing, but they didn’t bring the same satisfaction of selling a short story.

Like I said, it was really hard. But it was nothing compared to what I was going to embark on next.

I ended my month of terror with a bang. On Halloween night, at 11:56 p.m., I drank four shots of whiskey and became a vomiting sprinkler on my friends’ front lawn. (Apologies, Alan and Alan).

My girlfriend at the time drove me home and poured me into bed. I slept for thirteen hours. . . and when I awoke late afternoon on Nov. 1, I began something new.
I didn’t put on the coffee pot. I didn’t boot up the PlayStation to see if any system updates needed downloading. I didn’t bring the iPad to the bathroom.

Instead, I entered Phase 2 of my research.

The character in my book was going to rehab, where all creature comforts would be taken away from him. And so I spent the entirety of November without sugar, caffeine, music, phone, books*, internet*, or of course, video games.

I called it my no-nothing November.

(Er, no stimulants, at least. But that isn’t quite as catchy.)

After surviving a two-day hangover unaided by stimulants of any sort, I crawled out of bed . . . and I went out into the world. I ran in the morning. I talked to people at coffee shops while sipping herbal tea. I took ukulele lessons. I learned how to cross-stitch. I cleaned Alan’s and Alan’s puke-covered lawn (just kidding I didn’t; I just realized this would have been a nice thing to have done (sorry again, Alans)). I studied life without my nose buried in a book.*

And mostly, I wrote. I wrote about a kid who had all of his comforts taken away and was forced to earn points through a sort of gamified therapy.
I don’t know if any of this actually worked or not . . . I’m not sure if it really added anything to the book.

So, um, take that into consideration before flying off the rails for your own book.

*I use the term “addicted” lightly. Read Cure for the Common Universe for a full explanation.

**The most difficult, by far.

***I also didn’t surf the internet, save my email—for emergencies and so I wasn’t fired from my job.

****Ug, this is starting to sound like some sort of new age instruction manual, which I swear it is not; I just wanted to see what it would be like to be the character in my book.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

@cmheidicker on Twitter

Video games are the fastest growing medium in the world, so it’s pretty difficult to remain relevant when writing about current games. Fortunately, there’s a persistent spine in gaming (your Blizzards, your Nintendos, your Easter eggs). I tried to focus on those mainstays and accept the fact that no matter what I did I would probably piss off and please an equal number of gamers.

If I had attempted to copy the language of gamers verbatim, I would have set myself up for failure. (Although having a game-addicted roommate during the edits of this book definitely helped me sprinkle in some legit jargon.) That’s why I like to follow the Joss Whedon rule of leading the charge on language instead of attempting to copy it.

For the dialogue, I ended up stealing a lot of hilarious lines from my friends—truly iconic things that I lifted straight out of real-life conversations and put into the text. During a rousing game of racquetball, a friend aced me, stuck his racquet in my face, and screamed, “Nobody puts princess in a castle!” A barista once mentioned how stepping on a LEGO was a lot more rage inducing than playing Grand Theft Auto. And a previous student told me about a—ahem—particular sensory combination involving Nutella. I blushed . . . and then I stole it.

I stole all of these with everyone’s permission, of course.

Guest Post: E.M. Kokie on Hands-On Research & Getting Out of Your Character’s Way

By E.M. Kokie
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the flap copy of Radical by E.M. Kokie (Candlewick, 2016):

Preppers. Survivalists. Bex prefers to think of herself as a realist who plans to survive, but regardless of labels, they’re all sure of the same thing: a crisis is coming. 

And when it does, Bex will be ready. She’s planned exactly what to pack, she knows how to handle a gun, and she’ll drag her family to safety by force if necessary. 

When her older brother discovers Clearview, a group that takes survival just as seriously as she does, Bex is intrigued. While outsiders might think they’re a delusional doomsday group, she knows there’s nothing crazy about being prepared. But Bex isn’t prepared for Lucy, who is soft and beautiful and hates guns. 

As her brother’s involvement with some of the members of Clearview grows increasingly alarming and all the pieces of Bex’s life become more difficult to juggle, Bex has to figure out where her loyalties really lie. In a gripping new novel, E. M. Kokie questions our assumptions about family, trust, and what it really takes to survive.


Determined to survive the crisis she’s sure is imminent, Bex is at a loss when her world collapses in the one way she hasn’t planned for.

Before writing Radical, I had never touched a gun. I had never wanted to touch a gun.

But in the early drafts I was struggling to get to the heart of my main character Bex. Then I realized I hadn’t really thought about how Bex would feel about guns. It was a blind spot caused by my own discomfort with guns. Once I had that realization I could see all the ways I didn’t yet know Bex.

Bex wouldn’t just shoot or possess guns. She would have spent most of her life shooting them. They would be part of her family tradition, part of her social life, and part of her identity. She would love her guns. She would be proficient. She would be responsible in their care and maintenance.

In order to understand Bex, and to write her with any kind of accuracy and credibility, I needed to understand guns.

I started with online and print research — reading about different kinds of guns, popular makes and models, shooting ranges and training programs, and eventually gun laws and the tradition of gun ownership within families and communities.

Then I moved on to watching online videos about everything from training techniques and amateur shooting videos, to videos about comparing models, and cleaning and maintaining firearms. I was fascinated by the many videos of girls and women shooting guns, and handling knives, bows and arrows, and other weapons.

But reading and video research could only take me so far. I needed to understand the tactile and visceral details of how a gun felt in my hand, the heft, and texture, and kickback. The tang in the air after shooting. The smell and feel of cleaning different models. I needed to have a vocabulary and understanding that gave her character depth and provided context for the plot.

But I also needed to get inside of how she would feel, physically and emotionally, about her guns and while she was shooting.

For Bex, shooting guns would be about more than fun or competition or even defense. It is part of who she is.

I was lucky to connect with some people who let me shoot their guns on their property, in an outdoor setting with a dirt berm and a pond, much as I pictured Bex and her brother shooting in their woods.

We started with a small, light gun that even felt small in my hand, and then worked up to larger and more powerful firearms. Then I got a crash course in cleaning and maintenance, sitting on the side of a porch, much as Bex does in the book.

I left with all these sensory details, insights into how shooting could be fun and cause a sense of competition or accomplishment, and bruises in several places.

Even the ride out to the shooting site on a homemade cart attached to an ATV unexpectedly informed the setting and context for my story.

During the writing process, I also reached out to some firearms experts online to answer questions and to seek input for crafting certain plot elements and scenes. And once Radical was in the last stages of the editorial phase, my publisher hired one of those experts to perform a content read to make sure we got the details right.

The research didn’t change my mind about my own potential gun ownership, or how I would feel about having a gun in my home. But it did help me better understand Bex and her world, and, hopefully, helped me craft more organic and believable characters and scenes.

New Voice: Sonya Mukherjee on Gemini

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sonya Mukherjee
is the first-time author of Gemini (Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:

In a powerful and daring debut novel, Sonya Mukherjee shares the story of sisters Clara and Hailey, conjoined twins who are learning what it means to be truly extraordinary.

Seventeen-year-old conjoined twins, Clara and Hailey, have lived in the same small town their entire lives—no one stares at them anymore. But there are cracks in their quiet existence and they’re slowing becoming more apparent. 

Clara and Hailey are at a crossroads. Clara wants to stay close to home, avoid all attention, and study the night sky. Hailey wants to travel the world, learn from great artists, and dance with mysterious boys. 

As high school graduation approaches, each twin must untangle her dreams from her sister’s, and figure out what it means to be her own person.

Told in alternating perspectives, this unconventional coming-of-age tale shows how dreams can break your heart—but the love between sisters can mend it.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

This is cheating a bit, but my answer has to be Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (Random House, 2006). This is a book that I studied and contemplated until its ideas sank in, and it helped my writing more than anything else that I’ve read.

The basic idea is one that’s seeped into the culture in the last few years, but as far as I know, it all stems from Dweck’s work: Some people have a fixed mindset, in which they assume that their intelligence, talent, and personal qualities are mostly immutable, while others have a growth mindset—an assumption that all these qualities can be changed and meaningfully improved with effort. With the fixed mindset, you hear feedback as a reflection on your immutable qualities. With the growth mindset, you hear feedback simply as useful information. And the growth mindset is the one you want.

When I read this book, I realized that I’d always had a fixed mindset about writing. Whenever I received criticism or rejections, I worried that I wasn’t a good writer and never would be—which made it harder to get back to my writing, and harder to learn from the criticism. Whenever I received praise or other kudos, I became hopeful that maybe I had talent after all.

It was a roller coaster, and just like a real-life roller coaster, it made my stomach hurt and got me nowhere.

But Dweck makes it clear that just as you can grow your intelligence, grow your talent, and grow your compassion, you can also grow yourself a growth mindset. That’s the whole point: Believe you can change, and you really can.

Still, change wasn’t easy. For me, the hardest part, but also the most important, was when I realized that in order to be less hurt by criticism, I would also need to be less delighted by praise.

They were two sides of the same coin, and there was just no way to have one without the other. I needed to hear both positive and negative feedback as potentially helpful input that I could use to improve my work, and nothing more.

In short, I had to give up caring about whether I had talent.

This change in mindset allowed me to take in tougher feedback with much less discouragement, and it allowed me to become much more merciless in cutting and overhauling my manuscripts. It also meant less time wasted on feeling bad about criticism and rejections, so I could get back to work sooner.

I’m not claiming to be fully reformed, but I think I’ve come a long way, and I think it’s made a huge difference to the quality of my writing.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

The truth is, although I haven’t been a teenager for quite a while, I never really changed the way I talk.

When I’m at my most relaxed, I still use pretty much the same speech patterns, the same sarcasm, and the same words I used then. I was never one for the most faddish slang, so I didn’t say “rad” as a teen, and I don’t say “bae” now, but I’ve been overusing “awesome” and “cool” the entire time.

Gemini was originally all in Clara’s point of view, and her voice was the first thing that came to me and drove the book forward, so it wasn’t something I struggled to find. But it was basically just a relaxed, uncensored version of my own voice, mingling with some of the thoughts and perspectives and worries that I had as a teen.

Hailey’s voice was added much later in the process, and hers was a bit more challenging, because I wanted her to feel distinct from Clara. They have two different personalities, but because they’re twin sisters who have never been apart, they also have a lot of similarities.

Since Hailey has a harder, tougher edge than Clara, I decided that she would tend to speak in somewhat shorter sentences, with shorter words, and with some mild swearing that we don’t get from Clara. I made her less inclined toward metaphors and other writerly ways of saying things; she’s more direct and literal.

With both of them, though, there was an element that I think must resemble what Method actors do, in imagining themselves into a character. I just tried to be this person and see things through her eyes, and let the voice flow from there.

For writers whose natural voices are more formal or mature than mine, I would suggest that you still just lean into whatever voice comes naturally to you, and allow it to be what it is.

I doubt that trying to consciously imitate younger people’s speech patterns would ever work very well, and I don’t think it’s necessary. There are plenty of great books for young readers that don’t have an obviously teen or kid-sounding voice.

Read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (Hyperion, 2009) or The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown, 2008). These books have pretty formal-sounding narrative voices, and they’re fantastic, and young readers love them.

Granted, they’re in third person, but who says you have to write in first person?

And then again, if you want to write in first person and still give your narrator a more formal style, who says you can’t do that?

Kids and teens have all kinds of voices, and their slang doesn’t necessarily need to be on fleek. (Which MTV tells me is out anyway. “On fleek” was so 2015, apparently.)

Author Interview: Heather Lang on Fearless Flyer & Writing Strong Women

Visit Heather Lang’s official author site & @Hblang

By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Congratulations on your new picture book biography Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine (Calkins Creek, 2016) and the starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal! 

I was captivated by your account of Ruth Law’s record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City one hundred years ago, and Raúl Colón’s illustrations are magnificent.

You are creating a wonderful collection of books about strong women from our past. How do you choose the women you write about?

I love to read and write about lesser-known women, who dream big, pick themselves up when they fall, and stay persistent.

These women might face poverty, racial or gender discrimination, disability, or other hardships. They’re not afraid of failure. They inspire me to step outside my own comfort zone and be brave.

What drew you to this story about Ruth Law?

Sometimes I’m drawn to writing about topics I fear. With fear, there’s always fascination—like when you don’t want to watch a scary movie, but you can’t help yourself.

I’m a nervous flyer, so I’ve always been intrigued by those who dared to fly the flimsy biplanes made in the early 1900s. Ruth Law opened doors for women aviators like Amelia Earhart to enter this male-dominated field.

I loved how Ruth immersed herself fully in flying, even mastering the mechanics of her plane. She could tell what was wrong with her motor by the sound of it!

Her passion and personality came through in her words—she had a lovely voice. I wove her words into the text, so Ruth helps tell her own story.

It’s clear a lot of research went into Fearless Flyer. Can you talk a little about your process? 

Every book I write is a treasure hunt. I never know where a clue might take me. My initial research involved reading a lot of newspaper articles, and in one of those articles Ruth mentioned she kept a scrapbook. I tracked it down at the National Air and Space Museum archives.

Heather researching Ruth Law’s scrapbook

Her enormous scrapbook was stuffed with newspaper articles, mementos, photos, and her own handwriting. It was a goldmine.

While I was there I visited the early flight exhibit at the museum, educated myself about her biplane, and learned about the evolution of flight. A lot of questions popped up about her plane and how she operated it, so I found a retired Navy Commander who pilots and builds these old-style biplanes. He had incredible insights.

I also consulted with the folks at the Glen H. Curtiss Museum and the National Air and Space Museum.

I am always amazed how generous people are with their time and how eager they are to help.

What is one of your favorite things about writing for children?

Other than being able to wear sweat pants or pajamas all day, I’d have to say one of my favorite things about my job is the community. I can’t imagine a more supportive group of people than writers, teachers, and librarians. We all have the same primary goal—to have a positive impact on children, giving them books they can relate to and books that open them up to new people and places and dreams.

From Heather’s The Original Cowgirl, illustrated by Suzanne Beaky (Whitman)

I’m in two critique groups. We share the highs of clever endings, successful revisions, and accepted submissions. We share the struggles of faulty plots, poor reviews, and rejection. I rely on them tremendously for support.

What are you working on now?

with Alice Coachman

I’m launching a blog focusing on Girls With Grit and having a blast creating the content.

It will include real-life stories, psychology and science, classroom activities, interviews with authors, and of course children’s books with strong female characters.

I’m also adding supplemental materials to my website so readers can get to know even more about Ruth Law and her flying machine.

What do you have coming out next?

I’m really excited about my next picture book biography, Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, illustrated by Jordi Solano (Albert Whitman, 2016), about an amazing shark scientist AKA “The Shark Lady.”

Sadly, Genie (as she liked to be called) died last year at the age of 92. I had the thrill of interviewing her in person in 2014, and hearing about her remarkable adventures. Genie also reviewed the manuscript for me.

I look forward to sharing this amazing woman with kids everywhere.

Cynsational Notes

Helen’s muses

Helen Kampion is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College.
She writes both fiction and non-fiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies.

Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain (“Paddy Cats,” Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (“Francesca’s Funky Footwear,” Finalist, 2013).

When she’s not at her desk busy writing you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events, volunteering at the New England SCBWI conference, or teaching creative writing workshops for children. Helen also serves on the on the Board of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Find her on Twitter @helenkampion.

Guest Post: Shawn Stout on Historical Fiction: How Much Research Is Enough?

By Shawn K. Stout
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Several years ago I had a story idea swirling inside my head. It was about three sisters who try to clear their father’s name after he is accused of being a Nazi spy.

The story was based on the real-life experiences of my grandparents, whose restaurant in Maryland in 1939 was boycotted by the townspeople over my grandfather’s purported “secret back room” and rumors of espionage.

It was a story that was personal to me and to my mother and her two sisters, but I kept it safely locked away for a couple of reasons.

The first was that I had never written anything even close to historical fiction before, and the story ultimately would have elements of xenophobia, racism, and super-patriotism of that period—heavy themes that, when I thought of writing about them, gave me the willies. The other reason, and perhaps the bigger one, was that I didn’t know how to balance the knowledge of historical facts with telling a mostly fictional story.

Basically, I didn’t want to write a history book—one that was so bogged down in historical details that the characters were overshadowed by the time period.

When I finally got up enough gumption to give my idea a chance, I began by interviewing family members and others who worked at my grandparents’ restaurant. Then I dived into history books, newsreels, newspaper articles, old radio shows, spy movies, and World War II timelines. A lot was going on in 1939, apparently, and I spent months trying to learn it all.

Pretty quickly, though, I became overwhelmed. I had accumulated piles of folders, newspaper clippings, CDs of digital recordings, and at least a dozen notebooks labelled “Important Pieces of History.” And, unbelievable as it seemed, there was still more to know.

After spending nearly a year in 1939, I wondered, how would I know when I’d learned enough? How much “historical” did a person need to know to write historical fiction, anyway?

Enough turned out to be tricky to define. The truth was that I had already learned a great deal. I knew about the short-lived Studebaker Dictators, about Hitler’s advances in Europe, about the voyage of the St. Louis, about restaurant prices, and about widespread anti-German sentiment.

But was that enough?

Uma Krishnaswami
Shawn K. Stout

And then the incomparable Uma Krishnaswami gave me some wise advice, which was essentially this: You could go on researching forever, but at some point, whenever you think you have a sense of place and time and a feel for that world, you have to take what you’ve got and just start writing.

Just start writing.

You can always go back and do more research, if you need to, she told me, but let your story and characters dictate what else you need to know.

Uma, of course, was right. I did start writing, and as I began filling out the characters of the three sisters, the edges of their small town, with bits of historical detail, became more defined, and their world soon came into sharp focus.

I only ended up using a small fraction of the many historical details I found in my research, but in the end, for my characters and their story, it was enough.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Greg Leitich Smith on Time Travel & Tracking Dinosaurs

Borrowed Time launch party at BookPeople in Austin

By Greg Leitich Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There’s a line from the first “Jurassic Park” movie to the effect that the place has all the problems of a major theme park and a major zoo.

I sort of feel the same way about writing time travel fiction: You have all the major problems of historical fiction and all the major problems of science fiction/fantasy.

And in writing a dinosaur time travel novel, I found, to my surprise, that of the two, the more problematic one has been the historical – dinosaur — aspect.

We are seeing new discoveries and new interpretations of dinosaur behavior and evolution almost weekly. In publishing, of course, there can be up to a two-year lead time from a sale of a manuscript to its publication. A lot can happen in that time.

For example, there is a dinosaur called Tsintaosaurus – long thought to have had a single horn coming out of its head like a unicorn. In 2013, however, a study was published that concluded that the “horn” was placed in the wrong position and Tsintaosaurus didn’t resemble a unicorn at all. Any manuscript set for publication that featured the unicorn became instantly outdated.

Sometimes, though, the science is less settled, as in the case of Nanotyrannus. Nanotyrannus is a name that was assigned to a specimen of a dinosaur that resembles Tyrannosaurus rex but is somewhat smaller (Hence “nano”). Although some of the evidence is ambiguous, some recent analyses suggest that Nanotyrannus was just a juvenile T.rex.

(That said, there are new specimens that some paleontologists believe may prove the existence of Nanotyrannus that have yet to be fully examined).

So, what’s an author to do?

Do your research until it hurts. For me, this involves getting as many primary sources as possible. In the case of paleontology, this means journals such as PloS One, Cretaceous Research, and the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

I tend not to trust media reports of new discoveries but sometimes they link to or you can infer a link to the original article. Most articles on the new discoveries will have a recap of past thinking on an issue.

Know your point of view. Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012) and Borrowed Time (Clarion 2015) both feature a small tyrannosaur the point-of-view protagonist Max calls Nanotyrannus. Max does mention the ambiguity in the naming (because he’s slightly pedantic), but nevertheless continues to call it Nanotyrannus throughout.

Why? Well, first, “Nanotyrannus” is kind of a cool name and continually referring to the animal as “the juvenile T.rex” would’ve been clunky. Also, he didn’t have the wherewithal to perform an analysis of the creature to determine what species it actually was…

Don’t be afraid to make an informed judgment call – in fiction, at least, there’s room for poetic license. And, besides, the science might catch up to you. Both Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time feature a variety of dinosaurs of differing sizes in the dromaeosaur family (These are the “raptor” dinosaurs made familiar by “Jurassic Park”).

In the location and era the book is set, however, the bones of only small raptors have been recovered, although there are some ambiguous teeth believed to be from larger raptors. Consequently, in the books, I feature different-sized species of raptor. And recently, paleontologists announced the discovery of Dakotaraptor, a giant-sized “raptor” dinosaur – somewhat larger than the raptors from “Jurassic Park” — from the same era in which my books are set.

What’s a reader to do?

I tend to be the type of reader who gets annoyed by factual errors. They trip me up and make me less trusting of the author and less willing to suspend disbelief. So here’s my strategy:

Whenever I pick up a book for the first time, I always look at the first publication date (often the copyright date). I had assumed that everyone did this or learned to do this, and was surprised when I was informed this was not so.

But the original date of publication will give you a heads up on the mindset of the author, the era in which he is writing, and what facts are known (or should have been known) to him or her at the time.

For example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s portrayal of sluggish and scaly dinosaurs in The Lost World (published 1912) is very different from the active and intelligent predators in Michael Crichton’s Lost World (1995). But I’m willing to accept Conan Doyle’s portrayal because of the era in which he was writing. (I’m also willing to accept Crichton’s featherless raptors because his book was published prior to the discovery that raptors had feathers).

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win signed copies of Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time by Greg Leitich Smith (both Clarion). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guest Interview: Kate Hosford & Cynthia Levinson: Children’s Authors & Circus Fans (Part II)

By Kate Hosford
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynthia Levinson’s book Watch Out for Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community (Peachtree, 2015) is an in-depth look at the world of social circus —a movement that brings kids from different cultures together to perform.

Cynthia follows the story lines of nine kids in two circuses: Circus Harmony in St. Louis (comprised of suburban and inner-city kids) and Circus Galilee in Israel (comprised of Jews and Arabs).

As the kids evolve, they must overcome many physical, cultural and emotional obstacles.

Cynthia’s eye for detail, her ability to stay close to her characters, and her tenacity as a researcher makes her writing vivid, suspenseful and utterly compelling.

I couldn’t wait to see how life turned out for each one of these kids, and I’m in awe of her ability to keep all the balls in the air while researching and writing this book.

How did you conduct your research? What were some of your most memorable research experiences? What were some of the obstacles you encountered along the way when writing this book?

The research was a combination of exhilarating, onerous, and hilarious. Exhilarating because I got to spend hundreds of hours behind the scenes at circuses, seeing how kids learn to plant their feet next to their ears while lying on their stomachs, walk en pointe in toe shoes along a tight wire, and juggle clubs behind their backs.

Meghan and Hila, contortion

Also, I spent nine days living with Jewish and Arab families in the Galilee. If you’ve heard of Middle-Eastern hospitality, you’ll know what this means. The number of dishes at every meal! The multiple ways of cooking eggplant! The warm pita and fresh hummus! In addition, circus people all over the world pride themselves on welcoming everyone as family.

Circus Cynthia!

So, I moved in with the St. Louis troupe, too. All of these experiences were invaluable for immersing myself in the Middle East, the Midwest, and the universe of circus.

The research was also onerous, however, because only four of the nine kids featured in the book live in the United States. One of the Americans was in professional circus school in Canada, and the Israelis, of course, were in Israel. So, I was dealing with three time zones and two foreign languages.

Technology glitches also intervened. When I couldn’t talk with the kids face-to-face, we communicated by whichever means worked best for them—telephone, email, text, Skype or Facebook messaging and video—as long as the devices, the cell towers, and the internet connections worked. When one of those went down, so did the conversation.

Then, there was the fact that they and their coaches—who spoke, variously, Hebrew, Arabic, German, Mongolian or occasionally English—were practically my only sources of information. Unlike many nonfiction books, Flying Kids is not based on archival research.

Instead, it was a journalistic effort, with the events unfolding in recent and real time. The investigations that did not involve personal interviews and observations consisted of prowling the kids’ and the circuses’ Facebook pages and email exchanges and begging them for photos and videos.

(I did read some secondary works, which focused on the practice and history of circus, the history of the Middle East, and the growth of St. Louis.)

Frankly, the hardest factor of all was that the “main characters” were all teenagers with much better things to do than talk with me about their childhoods. I kept a log of the times that various ones of them “stood me up” (in my definition).

Cynthia practices circus tricks.

Not infrequently, what I thought was an appointment for an interview, complete with a hired translator, turned out to conflict with homework. Or rescinded cell-phone privileges. Or a mood swing. Or with an urgent need to go to the beach—the photos of which I simultaneously tracked on Facebook! I could hardly blame them.

But I gnashed my teeth. I sent so many messages to my editor explaining why I simply could not write this book that she sent me a copy of The Little Engine That Could!

The hilarious part happened when I was trying to figure out what kids aged 10-14 know about the Galilee. I asked writer friends, and one reported, “I asked my neighbor’s daughter, who is 13. Said she, ‘Isn’t that where Puff the Magic Dragon lived?’”

Actually, as amusing (and informative) as that was, the truly funny part came when I tried out circus tricks. My website has mortifying videos of me falling over a mini-tramp and rolling off of a globe.

One of the factors that makes this book so exciting is your close focus on the many story lines of performers in both circuses. Describe the challenges of building up many story lines simultaneously.

You’re right—that was very tricky. (Pun intended!) I needed a lot of “main characters” because there were two circuses (one in Israel and one in the U.S.), each with at least two major ethnic/racial groups, and a variety of skills to cover. Combining these factors led to a cast of nine kids.

In addition to the story line for each of them, I also wanted to convey a story arc for each circus, as a whole. I didn’t know when I started whether or not they had one because, as I said, the circuses were evolving as I was observing and writing about them. It turns out, fortunately, that story arcs happen in real life! Candidly, I worried that that was too many lines for readers to keep track of. But each is so distinct, I think it works.

On top of all that, not only are there multiple story lines but they also take place over a number of years. Although the book ostensibly covers 2005-2012, it actually reaches back farther than that because three of the Americans started earlier than the others. So, I was also dealing with layered timelines.

Iking flying toward T-Rock

How did your editor help with this process of making this book?

Manar and Lil

I’m thrilled to give a shout-out at every opportunity to my editor, Kathy Landwehr at Peachtree Publishers. Not only did she have faith in the project when I despaired, she guided it all the way through.

I suggested a picture book, but she sensed that it needed to be middle grade. Initially, she suggested that I write a fun book about “a year in the life of the circus,” covering just 2011-2012. That was the plan.

However, when I went to Israel in the fall of 2012 to do research, I discovered that the Lebanon War had started in 2006, first, in the Arab village where the Muslim kids in the circus live and then literally in the back yard of one of the Jewish kids. I immediately knew I had to start the story there. That made the book more historical and political.

And Kathy accepted all of that. She advised me to “write long,” which I did—and then helped me chop 25,000 words. I knew the original manuscript needed to be shortened but I didn’t know which 25,000 words to relinquish. Kathy is the behind-the-scenes heroine of this book. It would not exist or have the shape it does without her.

How did writing this book change you as a person?

I love this question! No one has asked me this before but our books do change us, don’t they?

My previous book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), gave me visceral insight into the gulfs between black and white people’s perspectives.

Watch Out for Flying Kids humbled me but also gave me more confidence. Humbled me because I really cannot do any of even the simplest tricks that the kids do.

Also, they are open to taking risks and to charging into new situations that I never had the nerve for at their age. Yet, producing this book with all of its complications gave me confidence as a writer. If I could do this one, I’m ready for more!

Speaking of which, in response to another of your questions, my next book, due out in January 2016, is a middle-grade biography called Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can. Two other books are scheduled for release in 2017.

New Voice: Laura Woollett on Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Laura A. Woollett is the first-time author of Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth (Chicago Review Press, 2015). From the promtional copy:

Big Top Burning investigates the 1944 Hartford circus fire and invites readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence


The fire broke out at 2:40 p.m. Thousands of men, women, and children were crowded under Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s big top watching the Flying Wallendas begin their death-defying high-wire act. Suddenly someone screamed “Fire!” and the panic began. 

By 2:50 the tent had burned to the ground. Not everyone had made it out alive.


With primary source documents and survivor interviews, Big Top Burning recounts the true story of the 1944 Hartford circus fire—one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. 

Its remarkable characters include Robert Segee, a 15-year-old circus roustabout and known pyromaniac, and the Cook children, Donald, Eleanor, and Edward, who were in the audience when the circus tent caught fire. 

Guiding readers through the investigations of the mysteries that make this moment in history so fascinating, this book asks: Was the unidentified body of a little girl nicknamed “Little Miss 1565” Eleanor Cook? Was the fire itself an act of arson—and did Robert Segee set it? 

Big Top Burning combines a gripping disaster story, an ongoing detective and forensics saga, and World War II–era American history, inviting middle-grades readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence and draw their own conclusions.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Laura at the circus

When I wrote the first draft of Big Top Burning, a nonfiction account of the 1944 Hartford circus fire, I had only dipped a toe into the giant pool of research that was to inform the final book.

I began the project in graduate school as an independent study in writing nonfiction for young people. That summer, I researched and wrote the entire first draft!

Of course, this was before I was married, before I owned a house, and before I had a child. My research consisted of reading the three (at the time) nonfiction books for adults on the subject, and reading every newspaper article on the fire from 1944 to date that I could find – mostly from the “Hartford Courant” and the now defunct “Hartford Times.”

The best thing I did was to interview a few survivors of the fire. They’d been children at the time and were so gracious in sharing the stories of their narrow escapes.

The interviews were gold. However, the newspaper articles, while primary sources, often held inaccurate information. The disaster happened quickly, and as reporters rushed to get information to the public, all sorts of false information found its way into their stories. And the adult books were secondary sources. I needed to form my own conclusions about the tragedy and the mysteries that surrounded it.

Then in 2009, I won the SCBWI Work In Progress grant for nonfiction, and that gave me the inspiration to keep going and to dig deeper. I used the money to travel to Hartford where I discovered the extensive circus fire archives at the Connecticut State Library. I spent several weekends at the library, diving into boxes of police records and witness statements, looking at crime scene photos, and even listening to a tape-recorded interview with the suspected arsonist, Robert Segee.

I’d be immersed for five hours at a time, and when I left I was exhausted, hungry (no food allowed in the archives area), and feeling victorious every time. I truly felt like a detective, collecting the clues to form a complete picture of the events that happened at the circus that day. Thank goodness for the librarians who collected and cataloged boxes and boxes of materials on the circus fire. It’s really due to them that authors like me are able to write such complete accounts of the tragedy.

As I continued to revise and send my manuscript to various agents and publishers, I interviewed more survivors. Interestingly, they seemed to appear wherever I went.

At the Boston Public Library, a gentleman who saw my research materials spread out on a table stopped to tell me his tale of survival. When my father was recovering from heart surgery at Hartford Hospital, he discovered his roommate was a survivor. My high school chemistry teacher (who always told us to keep our backpacks out of the aisles) shows up in one of the photos in my book. And I was able to interview my fifth grade teacher, who had been in the hospital having his tonsils out when they brought the first burn victims in.

I feel honored to be entrusted with their stories and proud to have written a book that will pass on the story of the Hartford circus fire to future generations.

Memorial to the Hartford circus fire victims, built on the former circus grounds. The bronze medallion indicates the location of the center pole of the big top tent.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

When I sent out my manuscript on submission, I had done my research. (I’m a member of SCBWI after all!) I began by querying agents who represented nonfiction authors, and I looked specifically at those who had worked with narrative nonfiction for older readers. I got some great feedback but no takers.

I turned to querying editors directly, trying all my contacts through writer friends and through SCBWI. Still lots of lovely rejections.

But I had my eyes open. I snoop in the backs of books to find out the names of the author’s agent and editors, which are often listed in the acknowledgements. I read quite a few blogs about writing and books for kids and always make note of agents or editors who publish work similar to mine, or work I think I’d like to write in the future.

It was on Cynsations that I found a New Voices post by editor Susan Signe Morrison, who with author Joan Wehlen Morrison, wrote Home Front Girl (Chicago Review Press, 2012), a diary of everyday life of an American girl growing up in the years leading up to WWII.

Because the book was for an older audience, nonfiction, and about the same era as mine, I thought I’d query her acquiring editor, Lisa Reardon at Chicago Review Press.

Two months after my query, Lisa sent me an offer letter.

After this experience I truly believe that if you write a good book, you will find a home for it—you just have to keep your eyes open and stay persistent. I wrote the first draft of Big Top Burning in the summer of 2005 and just a mere ten years later, I’m incredibly proud of its debut in 2015!

Cynsational Notes

For more information on the Hartford circus fire, visit circus fire historian, Mike Skidgell.