Profiles of Persistence: Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson on Committing Long-Term to Children’s Writing

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Part One: The Writer’s Heart

Many hard-working, committed, persistent, and resilient writers forge ahead with their writing journeys in spite of obstacles, disappointments, “almost-there” moments and plenty of what I call “Beautiful, buts.”

This two-part interview explores the experience of being a long-time, determined writer who has not yet had a book published.

Writers Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson hail from different parts of the United States, and have different personalities, habits, writing choices, and ways of shoring up resilience. But one thing they have in common is this: nothing will deter them from continuing to write and submit their stories.

Our writing journeys vary in results, but all of us, whether published or not-yet-published, know that the joy is in the journey.

As you reflect on your writer’s journey, what are the major “bumps” or obstacles you’ve encountered (internal as well as external), and how have you managed to handle them while still remaining committed? 

Meredith: The biggest, most persistent bump is what I’ve perceived as failure – failure to achieve goals, find an agent, get published by the time I was forty.

The fallacy in this thinking was that I based those goals on others’ achievements. Once I recognized what I was doing, I readjusted my success barometer.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I began to trust that I was on a path designed just for me, and all those things I wanted – the agent and the publishing contract and the awards will come at the right time.

I can’t force it, and don’t want to force it.
I continue moving forward, writing and editing and submitting. I count the bumps and hurdles of rejections as part of the journey that will make an even better story to tell in the end.

What’s a story without some tension? I remind myself that the journey is just as important as the destination.

Lisa Bierman

Lisa: I have had many time periods when I did very little writing, and [these periods] could last months.

The biggest internal barrier for me has always been the lack of an imposed deadline. 

External events – a lot of family health issues – have intervened over the years as well.
Having fellow writers I adore motivates me to keep returning to manuscripts.

Nothing beats the fun of having a character you begin to love or a string of rhyming stanzas that are really coming together.

Another factor that has helped me is that I often have new story ideas, and I enjoy brainstorming, but I’ve also learned that pursuing ideas that don’t have enough unique qualities can turn into unproductive time.

Jill: I started learning the craft of writing for children and teens in 1999 when I joined SCBWI. I found my writing soulmates and joined a critique group.

A few years in, one of my picture book manuscripts caught the eye of an editor at Random House and we went through several revisions. At that time, Random House merged with several other companies and my editor lost her job. The new editor did not do picture books, so my heart was broken. [A part of me felt like giving up, but instead] I began focusing on magazines and novels.

Not long after, my first article appeared in AppleSeeds.

Many of my other “bumps” have been external. Around that time, my family and I moved to Missouri for my husband’s job. Over the next six years, we moved three times, I continued to raise two active sons, complete my bachelor’s degree, and work full-time.

In 2011, we settled back home in Oklahoma, and I reconnected with old friends and my critique group and started taking my writing career seriously again. In 2015, a tornado damaged our house, and we were homeless for nine months.

In 2016, I faced a big emotional obstacle – the fear of losing my oldest son, who had joined the military and was deployed to war zones.

But I continued to volunteer for SCBWI throughout all of this time.

Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Team Jill Donaldson (regional advisor), Jerry Bennett (illustrator coordinator), Anna Myers (regional advisor emeritus), SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver and Helen Newton (former regional advisor).

I learned to channel frustration, fear, happiness, and peace into my stories, and that has given me the strength to persist in my passion of writing.

I am so happy that I have never given up or quit writing because I recently signed with Stephanie Hansen at Metamorphosis Literary Agency.

What are your top three pieces of advice for developing and maintaining the resilience necessary to persist in a difficult business? 

Lisa:

  1. Remember how many fine writers have a fat rejection file. Probably all of them.
  2. We are told that the publishing industry is highly competitive, and it is. But make peace with the fact that some published books will seem unworthy to you, and you might puzzle endlessly about why certain books “made the cut.” I suggest you focus on the books you are jealous of, that make you swoon. What can you learn from those lovely books? Probably a lot.
  3. Only write things that you really enjoy thinking about.

Jill:

  1. Connect and develop relationships with other kid lit writers and illustrators.
  2. Work at maintaining a balanced lifestyle, so your creativity is at its max when you sit down to write or illustrate.
  3. Keep your mind and heart open to learn and create in new ways. It is soul-satisfying when you have a breakthrough in your writing or illustrating.

Meredith:

  1. Keep reading. Great books continue to remind me why I’m writing and pursuing publication. I want to share stories and move others with my words the same way I’m moved by great writing.
  2. Keep learning. It’s part of the fun of being a writer. It’s exciting to try a new plotting technique or go to graduate school or attend a conference. I’m not just a writer so that I can have a published book. I’m a writer because I actually enjoy writing, and when I learn new things my writing improves. It’s like a woodworker using a new saw or a computer programmer learning a new language. Learning gives me tools to explore new ways of writing and keeps my process fresh.
  3. Keep nurturing relationships with other writers. The relationships I’ve made with other writers are life-giving. They encourage me and they inspire me. Other writers edit my work and they help me navigate the ups and downs of the writing life. They understand how hard it can be, so they can celebrate or commiserate authentically.

E.B. White writes of Charlotte,

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

These relationships are precious.

How do you handle questions about “what is out on submission” (from writing colleagues) or “what have you published?” (from non-writer acquaintances) 

Meredith’s writing community: Anne Bustard (seated),
Meredith, Betty X. Davis, Kathi Appelt and Jane Peddicord.

Meredith: For a long time I didn’t tell people outside my writing circle that I wrote children’s books, but it was hard to stay incognito. I wrote Christmas letters and blog posts and long emails.

People told me they liked my writing, and so I got brave. I began to admit that I wrote children’s books, too, and then came the inevitable question.

Sometimes it was the double whammy: “Where can I buy them?” They assumed not only that I was published, but that I was published many times. As if that is no big deal!

Sometimes I try to explain about publishing, how it’s hard, editors move, the market is fickle, and I’m an unknown. But when I see eyes begin to glaze, I realize a quick “I’m not published yet, but I’m working on it,” works just fine.

Usually whomever I’m talking to has already moved on to new topics of conversation. Non-writers don’t realize they’ve exposed our insecurities, but other writers understand how hard it is and don’t judge.

The children’s writers I’ve met are kind and generous and they’re often rooting for me. We are a friendly bunch, so I try not to be intimidated and keep Dorie’s mantra from “Finding Nemo” playing on repeat in my head: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

I move on, and, “Just keep writing, just keep
writing.”

Lisa: I give very brief answers. I’m honest. I’ll say that I’ve been beating my head
against the wall.

Jill: When I’m asked about submissions, I try to make it an opportunity to pitch my current work. Their reactions or lack thereof is helpful in knowing how I can be better.

When I’m asked about what I have published, I let them know what success I have had and then tell them that I don’t have any books published yet.

Part Two: Writing Craft


What are your favorite resources for improving your writing skills? 

Lisa’s favorite craft books.

Lisa: Reading books in my genre – that’s the most fun way to improve my own work. When I see a picture book that is clever and delights me, it can also help me think, “I have concepts that are as good as these…My voice is similar…,” and those are the times I get excited again and want to keep the fire going.

Jill: I try to attend as many kid lit related critique meetings, writing workshops, and webinars as possible.

Meredith: I love a good conference or workshop, when I am surrounded by creative people and inspired by either a lecture or a writing exercise, but perhaps the most helpful tool for me is a story well told. It can be a book, a movie, a podcast, even a grandma at the dinner table.

I love trying to figure out what makes a story work, and then trying it out in my own work. What builds tension? How to best set up a scene? How to paint a character so she seems real? My favorite books are all marked up and highlighted with notes for what works and what doesn’t.

What strategies (internal and external) do you use for improving your craft?

Meredith: My best “honing” happens during revision. One of the most important things I can do to revise well is to leave my manuscript alone for a while.

When it’s time for a big revision, I need some space to gain perspective and let go of some of the details I can’t seem to pry my fingers off of when it’s still close and present and on my mind daily.

Internally, this means filling up with someone else’s words, reading a book that’s so good it distracts me from my work.

Externally, it means going out and engaging in the real world for a while, meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. This makes no sense. How can I be working on my craft by ignoring it? It works because when I come back to it, I see it through new eyes.

Sometimes I’ll try laying a construct on it, like Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese, 2005) or the “snowflake method” or the “sticky-note method” or whatever fun plotting game has come across my radar.

I look at my story as a puzzle instead of precious words I’ve woven together. Honing implies detail work, and getting to the root of what makes a scene and an entire story work. This can only be done with an objective eye, and I’m most objective when my affections are no longer entirely focused on my manuscript.

Jill: I study recently published kid lit books, create an organized comfortable working space, and play wordless music.

Lisa: Getting feedback as often as I can afford to, money-wise and time-wise.

What craft advice would you give to beginning writers?

Lisa: It takes a very long time for most of us to develop to a truly professional level.

You must enjoy the actual writing, not just the idea of having a book to sell. Don’t stay wedded to an idea too long, especially if an editor tells you in a critique that they see a lot of similar stories. If you’re going to do a common book theme, like a bedtime book, ya gotta shoot for being better than Jane Yolen

Meredith: Light a candle. You can get really caught up with word count and how many pages you’ve written in a day, but the most important thing is making progress.

Meredith’s writing space with lit candle.

We kid ourselves if progress only means meeting a designated and arbitrary word count. Sometimes progress looks like staring out the window or scribbling ideas on notecards or even deleting a bunch of pages that no longer work but were necessary to write to figure out your story.

This is all progress, though it may feel unsatisfying without physical proof of a hard day’s work.

My advice is to put a candle on a plate and light it when you start paying attention to your manuscript.

Measure your progress by the puddle of wax that accumulates instead of word count. You’ll have a physical manifestation of the time you’ve spent with your work in progress.

When someone asks how your writing went that day, you can proudly (and cryptically) reply, “about the size of a salad plate.”

Jill: First, learn about the different kid-lit industry standards.

Second, learn about yourself. What are your writing strengths and weaknesses? Focus on improving your weakness. For example, if you don’t have a good grasp of grammar rules, then teach yourself with workbooks, online classes, and tutorials.

Third, train yourself to take and give constructive critique about your manuscript. Even the master writer, Jane Yolen said, “It’s never perfect when I write it down the first time, or the second time, or the fifth time. But it always gets better as I go over it and over it.”

Thanks to Lisa, Jill, and Meredith for sharing so much about your inner journeys and your thoughts about commitment to your craft! 


As short or as long as our journeys are, it’s so important to call ourselves by our name – Writer – and to stay focused on the work, challenge, and joy of telling the stories we hold in our hearts and minds as beautifully as we can.


Cynsational Breaking News & Notes

Meredith Davis has sold what will become her debut book, Chance Comes Once, co-authored by Rebeka Uwitonze, to Scholastic.

Meredith founded the Austin chapter of SCBWI in 1995, the same year her daughter was born. She birthed an additional two children in subsequent years, worked in an independent children’s bookstore, and earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes middle grade and picture books, fiction and narrative nonfiction, and looks forward to announcing her first book contract, a product of many puddles of wax. In the featured photo, she is shown with Betty X. DavisAnne BustardKathi Appelt, and Jane Peddicord.

Lisa Bierman spent 17 years as a marketing research analyst. Then she had two sons who, thankfully, did not want to hear the same picture books over and over.

Lisa was hooked on the beauty and possibilities in the world of kids’ books. She has written (and not published) many picture book and chapter book manuscripts. Her poetry has appeared in kids’ magazines.

Meanwhile, she has done freelance business writing, volunteered extensively for SCBWI-Illinois, for local public schools and for AYSO soccer.

Jillene Donaldson (Jill) creates stories for children and teens and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc.

She grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with three siblings, several dogs, and a cat that climbed walls. She’s had run-ins with a mean bull, an electric fence, monster dogs, toe-eating mice, and bullies who once double-dog dared her to eat a white grub, which she did.

Jill graduated as valedictorian; completed an AA in English Literature for which she won the Geraldine Burns Award for Excellence in English; and then earned a BA all while working full time and raising two awesome boys with her husband.

She loves putting frozen fruit in drinks and most anything with cheese or chocolate. She lives with her husband in Oklahoma City.

Carol Coven Grannick writes picture books, poetry and middle grade fiction. Her work has appeared in Cricket, Ladybug, Highlights and Hunger Mountain.

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

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

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

Cynsations Intern: Stephani Eaton on The Joy of Writing

Stephani Eaton, photo by Tanya Odom

By Stephani Eaton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I was in second grade, I wrote a poem about an impending storm that pleased my dad so much that he hung it in his office. It stayed there for years.

I recently asked if he remembered what it said and he rattled off: “This dark and rainy noon will soon pass the sunset of time.”

I had to laugh at the melodrama of my seven-year-old self. Laughed and said, “What on earth does that mean?”

He defended my first “serious” writing attempt as the start of my writing journey.

Second grade was a pivotal year, one in which words came alive for me. I remember bringing a story to Mrs. Giannone’s desk and in the middle of reading it she put her head on her desk and fell asleep!

Well, she didn’t really fall asleep, but I had used the word “nice” and she was showing me how boring that was for a reader. Her reaction amused me to no end. It lit up my brain and made me want to write, write, write.

Young Stephani at the keyboard

Yet, I learned later that too much pizazz in the writing just gets in the way of meaning. My dad would harp on me to “say what I mean” and not to embellish too much. In a book report on Ivanhoe, I had cooked up some flowery sentences. He asked what they meant and I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know. Finally, after much back and forth and lots of frustration, I told him that I was just trying to say that the book made me think.

“Say that!” he said.
He taught me not only the importance of clarity but precision. That’s what you get when your dad has a PhD in biochemistry but loves to read literature and history. The copy he gave me of Ernest Hemingway’s On Writing (Grafton Books, 1986) is still on my shelf.

In sixth grade, Mrs. Siltman told me I was good at reading and writing only after she told me I needed to stay in for recess because I talked too much. This is probably the year that I discovered Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabitha (Crowell, 1977) and Gilly Hopkins (Crowell, 1978). And it was one year before I met Anne of Green Gables (by L.M. Montgomery, L.C. Page & Co., 1908).

I wore those books out.
All the while I was writing, writing, writing at home. We had gotten a new Apple IIc computer and it had Print Shop software on it. I obsessively made newspapers filled with stories of our family life to send to my out-of-state-grandparents. Grandparents are the best audience. 

In high school, the boy who sat in front of me in AP English frustrated me to no end. He aced all the timed writings and our teacher frequently used his work as the model to which to aspire. I was a good student, but no standout.

The same was true of my undergrad experience. I earned a BA in English and secondary education with a journalism add-on, but not with stellar grades. After graduation, I taught middle school and loved it. I had a whole crop of kids to introduce to books and writing. An added bonus, I got to teach my beloved Gilly Hopkins.

I needed to get a Master’s to continue teaching, so I decided I would pursue my first love and what I felt I never had time for in undergrad: creative writing. I worked and worked on a manuscript. I had no idea what I was doing.

I was promptly rejected.
Several years and two babies later, I sat back down to write. It felt familiar. It felt right. But it was hard. I realized quickly that I needed and wanted to learn more. I wanted to take all those creative writing courses that I never took in undergrad, that I wanted to take in graduate school. So, I applied to four MFA writing programs.

I was promptly rejected.

It would have been wise for me to remember what I knew as a second grader, that: “this dark and rainy noon will soon pass the sunset of time.”

I boxed up my seventeen drafts that weren’t getting me into school.

And I started over.

I did what I could. I joined a critique group, went to some conferences, and listened to webinars. I read craft books such as A Sense of Wonder by Paterson (Plume Books, 1995) which fueled my purpose to write. I read blogs like this one (but few as good).

About eighteen months later, I had something that looked more like a story. A friend invited me to go with her to an SCBWI conference in New York.

By chance, we met some Vermont College of Fine Arts alumni, who were gracious when I confessed I had been rejected from their program. Later, one of them came to find me and introduced me to VCFA’s recruiter. They both sincerely encouraged me to apply again.

I texted my husband in a flurry of eagerness.

Seconds later he texted, “Do it!”

I did.

Even though I didn’t get in on the first try, when I did get to VCFA it provided me with everything my seven-year-old self could have dreamed of: encouraging mentors, a community of writers, a place to grow and experiment.

Katherine Patterson and Stephani in Oxford

I added to the champions in my corner a hundredfold. I even traveled for a week with, Katherine Paterson (the author of those books I wore out), during a VCFA writing residency in Bath.

But most importantly, VCFA gave me an excuse and a reason to don my favorite hoodie and sit down at the keyboard and write.

Stephani and family on a research trip
to the Bodie Island Lighthouse in North Carolina

Writing has become a family activity. My husband loves to write. My kids write. We share our writing with each other. We go on research trips together.

It has become part of the fabric of our family life.

The writing life is full of refusals, rejections, and revisions. No writer’s life is free of those storms, those “dark and rainy noons.” But those pass.

And even amidst those storms there is joy.

Joy in creation, joy in community, joy in those moments alone with the blank page and the promise of what’s possible.

Oh, and that boy who frustrated me to no end in AP English?

Reader, I married him.

Intern Insights: Highlights of SCBWI LA 2018

Lin Oliver interviews Lois Lowry at SCBWI L.A. Conference

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In August, I attended my very first SCBWI international summer conference. It was truly an amazing experience, but also a bit overwhelming with nearly 1,200 people in attendance.

Thankfully, we all share a love of children’s books, making it much easier to talk with people than typical social situations.

I came home with both inspirational and practical advice, and have a few highlights to share.

By far the most magical aspect of the conference was SCBWI Co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver’s lunchtime chat with Lois Lowry. She thoughtfully reflected on her 40-year career with humor and humility as she addressed questions many of us who create for children continually ask ourselves.

When The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) was published, some people thought the subject was too dark for a children’s book. One website even called her “the Antichrist.”

None of it changed Lowry’s philosophy about what topics should be covered in children’s literature: dark subjects exist in life and need to be dealt with and written about with sensitivity.

“I don’t think there’s anything that shouldn’t be written about,” she said. 

Lowry also talked about the book’s genesis. Her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease made her think deeply about memories and ask the question, “what if there were a way to manipulate human memory to forget pain?”

Like so many writers, Lowry admitted she wonders if she’ll have another good idea and also mentioned writing “a book that was unpublishable (but we won’t dwell on that.).” Even her casual asides are full of sage wisdom!

Her next book, On the Horizon, is due out in 2020. It addresses the familiar theme of human connections in a global way, exploring our relationships to each other around the world.

She gave an example of global connections, explaining how she discovered at a 1994 awards ceremony that she and author/illustrator Allen Say lived in the same Japanese town following World War II. They had seen one another, but never had a conversation or discovered the connection, until winning the Newbery and Caldecott awards in the same year.

An interesting thread I found in several of keynotes were references to music.

Daniel José Older used The Killers’ 2003 song Mr. Brightside to illustrate a number of writing insights:

  • the importance of a good beginning 
  • “good books are made of bad decisions” 
  • trust the reader 
  • earn your metaphors 
  • end the story when the story is over
  • “words are supposed to sound good when you put them together”
  • He urged everyone to read their work out loud before submitting it.

My volunteer duty at the conference was to assist authors Deborah Heiligman and Deborah Halverson during the autograph party. So much fun chatting with the Deborahs and those getting books signed!

Lynda Mullaly Hunt talked about vulnerability being a double-edged sword and how The Last Song, written by Bernie Taupin, performed by Elton John was the catalyst for her to open up to a fellow teacher who ended up becoming a mentor in several aspects of life and writing.

Brian Pinkney played the drums on stage and talked about how drumming and dreaming helped him discover the text for Max Found Two Sticks (Simon & Schuster, 1994). Napping as part of the creative process sounds too good to pass up!

Andrea Davis Pinkney starts each day by walking up and spending 30 minutes with her eyes closed thinking about things that make her happy. Then, because writers write every single day, she writes from 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. before exercising and heading off to her other job as editor at Scholastic.

Other creative advice came from Mike Curato: “Make things that make you smile” and eat cake, and ice cream. He went on to say, making a book is about discovering who we are.

During the agent panel, Jenny Bent offered a bit of advice in wake of recent events: request publishing contracts with split payments, so the publisher sends royalties to both creators and agents, rather than all funds going to the literary agency first.

In addition to the keynotes, I also met some fabulous people during the breakouts and social events.

Illustrators Manelle Oliphant and Gladys Jose, both new members of their SCBWI Regional Teams. Manelle is the illustrator coordinator in Utah/Southern Idaho, while Gladys is assistant regional advisor in Florida.

SCBWI co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver and SCBWI board member Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic.
I was very excited to meet Cynsations Reporters Angela Cerrito, (Europe) and Christopher Cheng
 (Asia, Australia & New Zeland). 

Guest Interview: Lin Oliver on the Global Future of Children’s Literature

By Tioka Tokedira
for SCBWI Bologna 2018 & Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: To wrap up Cynsations coverage of the 2018 Bologna Children’s Book Fair, Tioka Tokedira, Regional Adviser for SCBWI France, talks with SCBWI co-founder Lin Oliver about trends in publishing for children and young adults.




In today’s digital world, in what ways do you see the rights of authors and illustrators and readers expanding, becoming more global? Are there any words of caution that you’d offer? And what makes you optimistic? 

Years ago, there was concern that screens would replace books in children’s lives. This has not proved to be true. The book continues to thrive, even in a world when there is so much digital competition for children’s attention. There is no replacing the experience of a parent reading a book to a child, or of a child snuggling in bed with a book.

The digital world does provide us with tremendous opportunities to promote our books and help them be discovered by readers. As digital markets and formats expand, creators must make sure to arm themselves with knowledge of digital rights so that our intellectual property is always within our control.

You’ve met with authors and illustrators and publishing professionals all over the world. What have you come across that seems to be universal? 

Lin signing in the SCBWI booth at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

I believe that we all love our work. I have literally never met anyone involved in children’s publishing that doesn’t feel lucky to be in this profession.

It is obviously so important in shaping the ideas, values, hearts and minds of the next generation.

We don’t have to search for meaning, it is right there in our daily work.


What vision did you have for SCBWI when you and Steve (Mooser) started the association? What are some of the dreams that you have for its future? 

I don’t think we ever projected that SCBWI would become the world-wide force that it is today. A surprise, and very gratifying outcome, is the sense of community and friendship that exists among our members.

The SCBWI is much more than a professional organization, it is truly a very bonded community of friends, where people support each other personally and professionally. I could never have dreamed that the strength of these friendships would be so powerful.

For the future, I want our members to continue to feel those bonds, to know that they are in the midst of kindred spirits. And my hope, too, is that SCBWI will become a unified voice of children’s book creators, supporting a vision of our society that is peaceful, diverse and representative of all cultures.

There are so many issues that writers and illustrators are facing today. Is there one in particular that you’d like to address?

Lin and Kwame Alexander at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Diversity is on everyone’s mind, and for good reason.

As people, we are trying to build a world culture of acceptance, of appreciation of differences, of freedom of expression.

We want all children to see themselves reflected in literature. This is a big goal, but a crucial one. 

Each of us can contribute in our own way, by authentically expressing our own experiences and by supporting others who are doing the same thing.

A second issue we are all contending with is the effect of digital communication and social media on our ability to get and process information and feelings.

I think we are only now beginning to realize how the digital age is affecting our ability to gather information, to process what is true and what is false, and to interact with people and ideas in a personal and meaningful way.

We want to use technology to improve the human condition, and yet due to the pervasive and intrusive nature of social media, I believe we are now in danger of tampering with what is the essence of our humanity, the person-to-person interaction.

You’ve been immersed in the children’s literature world for a long time. Can you share a piece of wisdom that might help a writer or illustrator through their moments of doubt? 

Henry Winkler and Lin

Make sure your work comes from the heart.

If you try to write to a trend or to the marketplace, you will always be disappointed.

If you are creating something for children that reflects what you truly believe, and values that are central to you, your passion for that process will carry you through moments of doubt and frustration.

It’s inevitable that one generation creates the stories for the next. What do you think the books that we are creating today convey to young people? 

I hope that we are communicating the need to honor individual differences and choices, with an emphasis on celebrating rather than rejecting what is unique about each of us.

I hope our stories today honestly reflect the problems of our society, and explore ways we can be better.

Past eras have often tried to present to children a cleaned-up vision of the world, sweeping the problems and difficulties under the table in an effort to preserve children’s “innocence.”

But I think this generation of children’s book creators is more willing to call out problems where they see them, and provide hope that is tempered by reality.

I believe we are in a golden age right now, and that the books being written for children and young adults are outstanding examples of enduring literature.

Cynsational Notes

Lin Oliver is a prolific children’s book author. With Henry Winkler, she writes The New York Times bestselling book series, Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever (Grosset & Dunlap) Their chapter book series, Here’s Hank (Penguin Workshop), is also a New York Times bestseller.

Her two collections of poetry, both illustrated by Tomie dePaola, are the highly praised Little Poems for Tiny Ears (Nancy Paulsen), and the newly released Steppin’Out: Jaunty Rhymes for Playful Times (Nancy Paulsen).

Her newest work is a chapter book series, The Fantastic Frame (Grosset & Dunlap), five illustrated adventures set in the world’s great paintings.

Lin is the co-founder and Executive Director of SCBWI, a world-wide organization of over 25,000 writers and illustrators of children’s books. She is a recipient of the prestigious Christopher Award and the Eric Carle Mentor Award. Find Lin on Twitter or on Instagram.

Tioka Tokedira has been the SCBWI France Regional Advisor since 2007 and was one of the organizers for the first Europolitan Conference.

Tioka loves helping others tell their stories. She’s worked as a teacher, writing festival coordinator, literacy consultant for international governments, and documentary television producer.

When she’s not emailing the SCBWI France Board in the middle of the night about their next great event, she’s a YA acquisitions reader and trying her hand at writing series fiction for a book packager in London.

New Voices: Inside Scoop on Debut Author Groups with J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth & Deborah Schaumberg

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

After years of writing you finally have your very first book deal! Now what? How do you promote your debut novel? I talked to four Maryland debut authors from the Electric Eighteens to get the inside scoop on how debut groups for young adult and middle grade authors work.

Deborah Schaumberg, J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth
Let’s start with some basic introductions. Tells us about your book and your publishing journey.


J.H. Diehl: Tiny Infinities (Chronicle, 2018) is a contemporary novel for ages 10 and up. It’s about a competitive swimmer whose dedication to her sport, unlikely new friendships, and science experiments with fireflies all combine to help her navigate the tough summer she turns thirteen, when her parents split up and her mom suffers from depression.

I’ve published picture books, leveled readers and short fiction in literary journals. Tiny Infinities is the first novel for young readers. After many revisions, I’m grateful it found a perfect home with Chronicle Books.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The Battle of Junk Mountain (Running Press, 2018) is a middle grade contemporary novel that tells the story of a friendship in peril, a grandmother who’s a hoarder, and the danger of trying to hold on too hard to one’s past.

I was a documentary scriptwriter for about ten years before trying my hand at novel writing, and from there, it took another ten years before I got a book deal.

Jonathan Roth: I write and illustrate a humorous chapter book series, set in space school, called Beep and Bob (Aladdin, 2018). Books one and two released (Beep and Bob: Too Much Space! and Beep and Bob: Party Crashers) March 13, book three (Beep and Bob: Take Us To Your Sugar) releases in September.

I wrote many picture books and middle grade novels before discovering that the sweet spot for me seems to be the six-to-nine-year-olds right in the center.

Deborah Schaumberg: The Tombs (Harper Teen, 2018) is a young adult historical fantasy set in 1882 New York. It is about a young aura seer who must free her mother from the Tombs asylum where seers are being experimented on and used against their will.

My publishing journey began many years ago with a middle grade novel. After tons of rejections I started over, writing for young adults, and finally found an agent through a SCBWI conference.

Who are the Electric Eighteens?



Jonathan Roth: The Electric Eighteens are a merry band of international debut middle grade and YA (and some chapter book, like me) authors who support each other online and in person through the highs and lows of the publishing process, through networking, reading advance copies of each other’s books, attending launch events, and dozens of other large and small ways.

Unlike earlier debut groups, we do not have any specific marketing requirements. It is more about helping each other as we are each able.

Deborah Schaumberg: [It] is essentially a support group. It’s like holding hands to jump in the pool!

J.H. Diehl: The group is run by volunteers, who put up and maintain a website, a closed Facebook group, a complicated set of ARC tour spreadsheets and a wonderful series of weekly member interviews.

Smaller sub-groups have organized ‘pods’ on Instagram and meetups at conferences, festivals and launch events.

How did you find out about the Electric Eighteens?

Deborah Schaumberg: Word of mouth. I found out about the Electric Eighteens from someone in a new critique group that participated in the Sweet Sixteens when her book was published.

J.H. Diehl: In August 2017, when my book’s final edits were nearly done, and I allowed myself to think ‘this is really happening’, I did an online search for a 2018 YA/middle grade debut group. I’d seen prior year debut groups and thought it would be great to join one. I didn’t know just how great until I became part of the EEs.

Jonathan Roth: I was a member of the Swanky 17s (rebranded as the 2017 Debut Group) and like many from that group, had my release date bumped to 2018. So I promptly applied and jumped over.

Though having to wait six months longer for what already felt like an eternity was initially a bit of a downer, I find having two groups of new friends has turned out to be a real blessing. Don’t fear the bumper!

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Jonathan set up a monthly local SCBWI get-together, and it was there where I met him and Deborah and learned about the group.

Deborah invited me in and introduced me and instantly I had tons of people welcoming me, complimenting my book cover – it was an amazing feeling.

How have the Electric Eighteens helped you in promoting your book and how has it help you build a local community?


Lauren Abbey Greenberg: We follow and support each other, not only on Facebook, but on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

The ARC tour is extremely effective because often an EE member will post a picture of your cover with either a shout-out or a full review and you can share that across all your social media platforms for maximum exposure.

I do feel a kinship between us four local authors, all from the same county, and I enjoy seeing them face-to-face once a month.

Jonathan Roth: Beyond the typical online sharing, I have attended many ’17 and ’18 debut book events in the D.C. area, and was thrilled to have a number of debuts attend my launch.

Though I greatly appreciate being able to connect online with other 18s around the country and world, being able to sit around a table or chat at conferences with people is my preferred method of networking.

Also, I suspect most promotion is actually invisible (when I talk up books to fellow teachers and media specialists at the school where I teach, for example).

J.H. Diehl: Some EE members who are bloggers or librarians (or both!) have reached out to the group to offer opportunities to circulate advanced reader copies to teen reading groups or to participate in blog interviews. Likewise, some established book bloggers have reached out to the group to offer guest blog opportunities.

There have been some helpful threads in the Facebook group about book swag.

Thanks to the EEs I found a terrific designer for bookmarks and other items, YA author Kristen Rae, a member of a previous YA-middle grade debut group.

What have you learned about book promotion from being in the Electric Eighteens?

Jonathan Roth: Though we share all sorts of helpful tips with each other, my main take away about promotion is that no one actually knows the proven path, but we’re all stumbling down it together.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: I’ve learned about a whole community of librarians and teachers that are active on social media and willing to review and share ARCs. They are an awesome resource, especially for middle grade authors, because if they like your book they will shout it from the rooftops!

Deborah Schaumberg: I’ve learned so much from my fellow Electric Eighteens!

As someone that is not particularly tech-savvy, I can watch to see what other people do. As a result, I have created a book trailer, learned what a GIF is, and learned how to post on Instagram. We discuss what is working and what isn’t.

What surprised you about being in the Electric Eighteen group?


Deborah Schaumberg: How close I feel to many of the Electric Eighteens members.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor; we usually don’t have people around us when we write.

And as an introvert, I’ve been to events where I was too shy to talk to people I didn’t know.

At a recent conference I met another EE for the first time. I immediately hugged her hello because I felt like I knew her already from all the online sharing.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The flood of information surprised me. Your Facebook newsfeed becomes inundated with advice, questions, musings, good and bad news.

At first, it was overwhelming. I had to remind myself that I didn’t have to like or comment on every single post.

There’s also a tendency to fall into the comparison game. Why didn’t my book didn’t get a starred review? Why am I not booking as many events as so-and-so?

You have to pull back sometimes and remind yourself that each publishing journey is unique.

What advice would you pass on to future groups like the 2019s, 2020s, etc? 


Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Embrace this opportunity. Learn from each other. Share. Support. Cheerlead. It’s a special club, and I’m proud to be a member.

J.H. Diehl: Go into to it knowing you can participate as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, and get ready to be surprised and humbled by the support you’ll experience from the other debut authors in the group.

Go into it knowing it’s a great opportunity to give support to your fellow writers and also to experience tremendous gratitude.

Deborah Schaumberg: Also, the way the administrators of the Electric Eighteens structured the group works really well. I think past groups had lots of rules about how many advanced reader copies each member had to read and so on.

We are a support system only, all promotion is voluntary, and we are respectful and inclusive. I never feel pressured to do more than I can handle and I participate as much as I want.

Jonathan Roth: The groups grow to up to 200, so it’s pretty impossible (at least for me) to bond with everyone and/or read all their books. Like so much in life, you get out what you put in, but be selective and realistic. And most of all, be excellent to each other (and party on, debuts)!

Pura Belpré Award Winner & New Voice: Juana Martinez-Neal on Alma and How She Got Her Name

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Juana Martinez-Neal is a force of nature already this year.

Having won the 2018 Pura Belpré Award for her illustrations in La Princesa and the Pea, written by Susan Middleton Elya (Putnam, 2017), she now has her own debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name (Candlewick, 2018).

Candlewick acquired the story in a seven-publisher auction and is releasing it simultaneously in Spanish and English.

Publishers Weekly, Booklist and School Library Journal all gave the book starred reviews.

I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful picture book and caught up with Juana as she starts a busy season of appearances to talk about her craft and the origin of Alma’s story.

Tell me what first inspired you to illustrate for young readers? 

My father and grandfather were both fine artists in Peru and I grew up in a house surrounded by art materials, easels, art studio spaces and paintings – painted by people who I knew.

How amazing is that?

At 16, and while I was still in high school, I was working on some commercial illustration for toys. That was so much fun! I illustrated until I was 21 when I was accepted to Art School for Painting in Lima. Once in art school, my pieces felt more whimsical or younger than what other students were creating, so I decided to move to the United States in search of new things and answers.

Years later, and after the birth of our second son, I realized that I had to go back to illustration.

I was living in the United States where illustrating children’s books could be a career – that was not the case when I lived in Peru.

I met some local Arizona illustrators through SCBWI who pointed me in the right direction. With their guidance, I gave myself assignments, completed new pieces done, posted my work in online portfolios, and eventually got some magazine and educational work.

Then, I was hired by some small presses and authors who were self-publishing books.

While this was happening, my work was developing. Initially I worked with colored pencils, mainly because I had two boys under the age of three running around the house. As they grew older so did my wish to explore new media, and I started playing with materials and slowly developed the mixed media technique that I use now.

Juana’s workspace

In 2012, twenty-weeks pregnant with our daughter and with this new technique, I was awarded the Portfolio Grand Prize at the SCBWI Annual Conference. I also met my literary agent, Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

I then worked on a few book illustration opportunities, and little by little an idea I had grew into my author-illustrator debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name.

Although this is your debut picture book as an author-illustrator, you have illustrated books for other authors. Describe to me the emotions around getting the call that you had won the 2018 Pura Belpré Illustration Award for La Princesa and the Pea.


On Sunday evening, the whole family had tickets to go see “Hamilton.” My cell rang for the first time as the lights were dimming and the play was about to start.


My cell rang many, many more times. As it rang, I went from being frustrated with an unknown telemarketer to worrying that maybe something had happened to my parents or my brother.

Otherwise, why in the world would my phone ring so many times?

I had to wait until the intermission to call back.

“Hello. Someone is calling me from this number?” I said in an unusual calm and patient voice.
“Is this Juana Martinez-Neal?”
“Yes.”
“We are calling from the Pura Be…”

And that was enough to start ugly crying. I honestly don’t remember many of the details from the call.

Later, when we got home, I started doubting if or what I had won. It was a restless, long night. The best restless, long night I have had in a while.

The next morning, I watched the webcast to make sure! There were lots of emotions!

How did you come to write and illustrate Alma and How She Got Her Name?

The idea for my book and early drafts of the manuscript started with the story of how I was named by my parents in Peru.

I was born Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro. “Juana” was the name of my grandmother, my father’s mother. And “Carlota” was supposed to be “Carla” after my mom’s uncle Carlos, who she loved very much and passed when she was 20 and he was 33 years old. This is Esperanza’s son in the book.

My dad was in charge of filling out my birth certificate. Being the man he was, he wanted a stronger name than Carla and decided to change it to Carlota. He felt that Carlota was the strong name that I needed.

For the first twenty years of my life, I couldn’t disagree more. In Peru we also use two last names – both our mother’s and our father’s last names. So I was Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro, which is a long name and very Spanish name. Juana Carlota can sound very old-fashioned and harsh, and growing up people around me made me aware of that – especially my friends’ moms.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

I have a big family photo album which I put together many, many years ago with photos I collected from my parents, which they got from their parents, and that my grandparents got from their parents.

Every time I looked at the photo album, my head filled with many questions. Who were they? What did they love? What made them who they were?

One day, I began drawing these photographs and piecing together a story about a little girl with a really long name and how she learns about her family through those names.

The story of Alma and all her relatives began to take shape. All of Alma’s relatives in the book are based on relatives in my own extended family.

While I had been looking at my big family album for years and thinking about a story, I gave birth to my third child and first daughter in 2013, and thought about my name again and my daughter’s name.

I came back to the story and began to talk to my agent about it. Her son is named after his great grandfather and he is the fourth generation with his name. We began talking about our children’s names and how all children – really everyone – has a story behind their name. Then the story grew from there!

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

Artistically, since much of my inspiration came from my big old family photo album. I wanted the entire book to feel like an old photo album without being one.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

The first image I created was the one of José, my dad’s dad who was an artist. It was challenging to make the characters look and feel like the relatives or capture their spirit in creative ways. While I didn’t keep all of their exact names, the names embody the essence of those family members.

I used many details in the pieces to tell more of the stories of the family members and their past, such as Esperanza, whose name means “hope,” and she is shown filled with gifts and letters by her side to symbolize that she always hoped to travel but never left home. Yet through her son’s gifts, she got to “see” the world.

Esperanza’s son is my great uncle Carlos – after whom my mom named me. He went on a cruise and never came back. His body was never recovered. This story marked me in significant ways, and I always felt that my great-grandmother stayed in her home town hoping that one day Carlos would come back home. Needless to say, Esperanza’s story was the most challenging to tell. 

Psychologically, writing Alma was a big challenge. Even though the text is short, I had to dig deep to tell the stories of the life of each one of the relatives.

In this one book, there are many stories woven through from the past along with Alma’s story happening in the present. The story is framed by Alma talking with her daddy. I am also very close to my dad, and spent many hours talking with him and my mom about the stories of our family. It was a very intense time. While writing and revising, I could only take one story at a time before I was sobbing.

Funny enough, as I found myself crying, I started to realize that I had gotten to that place where I needed to be to tell my story.

Juana signing copies of Alma at Southern California Independent Booksellers Association
Celebrating the Kids’ IndieNext Top 10 Spring 2018

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

I am Peruvian, and I often see my people and culture underrepresented or shown in only one story often filled with stereotypes.

I’ll take advantage of this opportunity to share that not all Peruvians live in the mountains, wear chullos, and own llamas.

Alma and How She Got Her Name is all about being Peruvian—from showing the mix of traditional religion and Indigenous beliefs (that I absolutely believe), to living in a politically unstable country, to valuing or sadly not valuing our own Indigenous people.

There is a richness to Alma’s character as a Peruvian, and she is proud of herself and her family. I hope young readers see this and turn to discover pride in their own names, families, and heritage. Celebrate who they are!

Alma will be released in simultaneous English and Spanish hardcover editions.

As a native Spanish speaker, I wrote both the English and the original Spanish.

It is an honor to be able to share this story in both of my languages!

Cynsational Notes


In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described Alma and How She Got Her Name as “an origin story that envelops readers like a hug.”


The starred review from School Library Journal indicates Juana achieved her illustration goal.

“The round, stylized figure of the girl, dressed in pink striped pants and a white shirt, pops against the sepia pages (reminiscent of old, family photo albums).”

See teacher tips for using Alma in the classroom from Candlewick Press.

Juana Martinez-Neal is also the illustrator of La Madre Goose and La Princesa and the Pea, both written by Susan M. Elya and published by Putnam.

She was born in Lima, the capital of Peru, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband, two sons, daughter, puppy, and the soul of their late kitty.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to see her latest work.

She is represented by Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018.

The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Watch a video interview with Juana in English…

…or in Spanish.

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Daria Peoples-Riley on This Is It, Illustration & Diversity

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

To say that I’m thrilled to feature Daria Peoples-Riley, fellow Epic Eighteen member, today on Cynsations is an understatement.

This Is It (Greenwillow, 2018), her debut picture book as an author-illustrator, follows a young girl of color getting ready for a ballet audition. Although she loves to dance, she doubts herself as she approaches the studio.

I love Daria’s use of the girl’s shadow self to help her overcome her hesitation. The endpapers with the young ballerina demonstrating the ballet positions remind me of my own trepidation at performing during my few years taking lessons as a child.

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

For This Is It, I wrote the poem as a gift for my daughter to give to her on the day of her first ballet audition.

I didn’t intend for it to become a picture book, so I illustrated the poem after the manuscript was written, and the text really drove my ideas for the illustrations.

However, in other projects, I find that the story comes as text for some spreads and illustrations for others. Eventually, during the revision process, the pace of text and illustrations evolve organically.

Daria’s writing workspace

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

I began painting as a child, alongside my dad. In high school, I took the mandatory semester of art, and fell in love with drawing, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I really started practicing. The ability to draw and paint relies on a person’s ability to see. As your visual intelligence improves, your art will as well.

I remember Marla Frazee saying that in the journey from beginner to becoming publishable, you have to just practice until your art is good enough.

Every year, I put together a portfolio and took it to SCBWI conferences. Eventually, it was good enough.

There is no magic to making publishable art. There is truth to the 10,000 hours. Whether that is in art school or at home in your living room, 10,000 hours is 10,000 hours, and it took me three years of practicing before my portfolio was good enough.

Do you have any tips for putting together a portfolio?


I’m sure there are many more qualified people to answer this question, but I think anyone who wants to be an illustrator has to create from a place of love in order for their work to see the world.

You can check the boxes of having everything in your portfolio we learn to include at intensives and conferences, work that demonstrates our mastery of skill, but if we don’t love what we are making, the work won’t evoke the emotion of the viewer, or stand out to industry gatekeepers. Absolutely love everything you include.

If you don’t love it, if it doesn’t make you laugh, or tear, or smile to yourself, take it out, and make something else.

Daria’s illustration workspace

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

The best moment was when This Is It sold. After three years of developing it, I was on the verge of moving on. Waiting is hard, but I’m learning to wait better.

The worst moment? I haven’t had one yet, but it might be around the corner, and that will be okay. It’s all a part of the journey.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

I introduced myself to Matt de la Pena at a children’s book festival, and I knew he had a daughter, so I brought a copy of This Is It to give him. When he asked me to sign it for him, I froze. I’d never signed my book before.

He was very gracious, and taught me how to sign my book. I had to laugh about it afterwards, and I was a little embarrassed, but it was definitely memorable and funny for him, I’m sure.

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

The physical rendering of the heroine in This Is It is very intentional.

Like me, she checks a lot of racial and ethnic boxes, and not fitting into any one box informs her lack of belonging. She looks different, but because of her differences, she is extraordinary and special. She represents the underrepresented child’s uniqueness and desire to do something in an arena where she is often the only one present.

Brown ballet dancers are underrepresented at pre-professional ballet schools and companies all over the country. I hope this book whispers, “You can do it.”

Daria talking with students

The text is the rhythm and movement of my mother’s New Orleans’ roots. New Orleans’ women are resilient with deep-loving hearts.

I wanted to portray a character who overcomes her fears by using the greatest catalyst an under-represented youth could possibly use when she feels alone in the world—-the power of affirmations spoken from within herself.

Dancing through our fears is also a metaphor for how we can choose to approach life. Whatever challenges we face, let’s surrender to the journey.

I think the strength we discover along the way will be change the trajectory of our lives forever.

Cynsational Notes

Daria Peoples-Riley’s first job was at nine years old in the children’s section of her hometown library in Paso Robles, California. She worked a little, but she mostly read picture books.

Daria loved basketball, competing in oratorical contests, drawing, and painting. Her dad gave her art lessons in their garage on Rose Lane, and Daria’s mom rescued her first self-portrait from the kitchen trash can, and had it professionally framed the next day.

Today, it hangs in her parents’ living room as a reminder that our life’s purpose almost always introduces itself to us as a child.

Daria earned a B.A. in English from U.C. Santa Barbara, where she found herself shelving books in the library once again and reading the writings of many notable authors.

After earning a Masters in Education and 10 years of teaching, Daria became a full-time author and illustrator. A companion book to This Is It will follow in 2019. She is also the illustrator of What Gloria Heard by Jessica M. Rinker (Bloomsbury, 2019), a picture book biography about the life and work of Gloria Steinem.

Daria lives in Las Vegas with her family.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Enter to win a copy of This Is It:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on April 12, 2018 and 12:00 AM on April 26, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about April 26, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

New Voice: Jessie Janowitz on Finding a Literary Agent & The Doughnut Fix

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jessie Janowitz is the debut author of The Doughnut Fix (Sourcebooks, April 2018). From the promotional copy:

Tristan isn’t Gifted or Talented like his sister Jeanine, and he’s always been okay with that because he can make a perfect chocolate chip cookie and he lives in the greatest city in the world. 


But his life takes a turn for the worse when his parents decide to move to middle-of-nowhere Petersville–a town with one street and no restaurants. It’s like suddenly they’re supposed to be this other family, one that can survive without bagels and movie theaters. 


His suspicions about his new town are confirmed when he’s tricked into believing the local general store has life-changing, chocolate cream doughnuts, when in fact the owner hasn’t made them in years. 


And so begins the only thing that could make life in Petersville worth living: getting the recipe, making the doughnuts, and bringing them back to the town through his very own doughnut stand. 


But Tristan will soon discover that when starting a business, it helps to be both Gifted and Talented, and it’s possible he’s bitten off more than he can chew… 


As an admitted doughnut lover, I was very excited to interview Jessie about her writing journey and this delicious middle grade novel.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book? 

The Doughnut Fix was inspired by a sign. It’s in the window of a small market in a very small town I drive through all the time.

It always made me laugh and wonder what the story behind it might be. There was something about the store, one that had seen better days, that made me suspect that it didn’t actually have chocolate cream doughnuts, which made the sign so much better, not as a potential doughnut source, of course, but as story material.

A lying sign really got my imagination going. What kind of character would advertize selling something he or she didn’t have and why? What kind of character would would go gaga over chocolate cream doughnuts, and what would he or she do if it turned out there were none to be had?

I was off and running…



In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher? 

I joined SCBWI! I went to two winter and two summer conferences and participated in the Round Tables where I received feedback on first pages. I did manuscript and query critiques.

And finally, when I felt I had a fully revised, finished manuscript, I participated in the amazing Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (“RUCCL”) One-on-One Conference which pairs you with an agent, editor, or author for feedback on first pages, synopsis, and query letter.

Unlike SCBWI conferences, the sole purpose of the RUCCL conference is to help aspiring authors get published.

As a result, the application is fairly extensive (cover letter, excerpt, synopsis), and only ninety applicants are selected.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted on my first try and was paired with a junior agent from New Leaf Literary. The conference does not guarantee that your mentor will be looking for the kind of project you’ve submitted, and in my case, my mentor did not represent middle grade.

However, she did pass my query along to another agent at New Leaf who did, and she requested a full manuscript.
In November of 2015, after incorporating the feedback from the RUCCL conference, I began querying in earnest.

I’d send out five queries at a time and kept a spreadsheet cataloguing when the email was sent, the specific agent’s response policy, and the response I received. After receiving similar feedback from multiple agents, I revised both the manuscript and my query letter.

Two valuable tools in my search for an agent were Publishers Marketplace (“PM”) and the #MSWishlist.

#MSWishlist allowed me to identify agents who were looking for the kind of story I was writing. Ultimately, the agent who offered me representation was one I identified through PM.

Though you must pay to use PM, I would argue that it’s worth the subscription fee because you can see all the books than an agent has sold, so you really get a sense for the kinds of books and writers that interest him or her. You also have access to data on how actively an agent is selling, for example, how many books he or she has sold in the past twelve months, in what categories and genres, and to which editors.

In total, I sent queries to thirteen agents. I sent my initial query to my agent, Carrie Hannigan at Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency, in December of 2015 and received a reply with a request for a full manuscript on April 29, 2016!

I am not, by nature, a patient person. Querying taught me patience. Carrie offered me representation a week after I sent her the manuscript. We submitted it to editors in June and had an offer for The Doughnut Fix and a sequel in October.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

As a parent and aspiring middle grade writer, I was blown away by the timeless appeal of Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Dutton, 1972). I observed my kids and others read this book again and again, more than any other with the exception of Harry Potter. What is it about Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing?

To answer that, I read the book myself and listened to the audiobook along with my kids more times than I can count. There are so many marvelous things about the book, but for me, the element that really draws kids in is the voice.

The narrator Peter has a great sense of humor, but it’s not just that, it’s his humor combined with something else, something unexpected: vulnerability.

In only the second paragraph, Peter admits to the reader that he “felt bad” that he didn’t get a goldfish like the other kids at the party. It is this honest, confessional quality that makes kids feel like a friend is telling them deep, dark secrets. It’s the combination of humor and vulnerability that is the voice’s secret sauce.

In experimenting with humorous voices, I had learned that they can sometimes veer into sarcasm or snark, thereby alienating readers, but what I learned from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was that endowing a humorous voice with vulnerability allows the character to be more relatable.

I realized that if you could get that balance just right, the middle grade reader would follow your narrator anywhere.

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

I wrote an “apprentice novel.” It is very long and deeply flawed. It isn’t sure what genre it is, and not in an intentional how-cool-is-that, genre-bending way. It is simply confused, because I was.

There is magic in the story, but the rules of that magic are unclear. My characters are in their heads too much. The plot is predictable. The personal stakes feel manufactured.

One might argue that this project was an expensive “mistake,” writing multiple drafts of a three-hundred-page novel that simply sits on my hard drive. Couldn’t I have just read a craft book? Couldn’t I have taken classes and solicited feedback?

I did, and I do, but I could have read every craft book there is and had Pulitzer Prize-winning mentors, I was never going to learn to write a novel without just doing it. I cherish that unpublished book and all the mistakes in it for all they taught me.

What would you have done differently?

I think I could have improved (and could continue to improve!) my writing faster by doing less wordsmithing and more writing. Polishing is what I do when I’m chickening out on the hard stuff.


As an MFA in Writing student, how did that experience impact your literary journey? 

As a current MFA student in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I am grateful for a space that encourages me to take risks and try new things. I have found incredible mentors and peers who have pushed my writing to the next level and have offered invaluable guidance on both craft and career.

In addition, the program provides structure and community in a profession where those can be hard to come by. Writing can feel incredibly isolating, and when that writing is not going well, that isolation can be hard to bear.

VCFA is, and will remain long after I graduate, my antidote both to that isolation and to figuring out how to push through the rough patches.

Cynsational Notes


Photo of Jessie by Amanda Chung

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Tristan is a charmer; he’s earnest, loving, wistful, and practical, and he narrates his own tale without guile.”


Jessie Janowitz fell in love with the French language (and French pastry) in high school. When she went to Princeton, she majored in comparative literature because it allowed her to study French and all the other things she was interested in, including creative writing.

She has taught in a French public high school for cooking and restaurant service, worked with translations rights for a publishing house and studied law.

She is currently a student in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

New Voice: Laney Nielson on Peppermint Cocoa Crushes

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Laney Nielson is the debut author of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes (Skypony, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Sasha is so excited for her school’s Winter Variety Show! She and her best friends, twins Karly and Kevin, have been working on a song and dance routine for it, with super cute candy cane costumes. 


Sasha is sure they’ll be the best. And she’s even more confident that her secret plan — to tell Kevin about her crush on him — will go off without a hitch.

But Sasha is starting to realize that she’s overcommitted herself, between rehearsing for the show, regular dance class, after-school clubs and committees, and ever-increasing amounts of homework. 


When nothing ends up going as planned, can Sasha still step up and make the most of her moment in the spotlight?

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

When I began writing seriously (with the goal of publishing), I thought I knew more than I did. I loved children’s literature. I’d been a classroom teacher of the age group I wanted to write for. I’d taken creative writing courses and I’d participated in poetry workshops. Plus, I had a bunch of half-baked stories already on my computer. How hard could it be? Uh…I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

Joining SCBWI was a great first step. That year, I also went to my first Austin SCBWI conference.

I signed up for an intensive Lisa Yee’s taught on villains. (Side note: Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Scholastic, 2003) is one of my all time favorite middle grade novels.) By the end of the weekend, I realized this was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought. So I then moved into the phase where I will probably live forever: I know what I don’t know.

When I felt like I’d reached a plateau in my learning (and in an early manuscript), I attended the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop. There my fabulous faculty advisor, Tami Lewis Brown taught me how a character’s yearning can drive a story and how to raise questions for your reader.

Alan Gratz who was also on the faculty taught a session on structure and the hero’s journey that fundamentally changed the way I think about story. I buried (figuratively) a manuscript there but those days in Honesdale, PA were invaluable. I dream of returning!

Cynthia and the 2014 Writing Mentorship finalists. Laney is on far right.
Photo by Sam Bond.

In 2014, I again attended the Austin SCBWI conference, and that year I was awarded the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentorship.

It was a remarkable opportunity to learn from a writer I deeply admire.

On every level, Cynthia helped me grow—from rethinking word choice to turning a stereotype on its head to slimming down an overwritten first draft. She was thoughtful and generous, and I will be forever grateful for the wisdom she shared.


Along the way, I’ve read numerous craft books and shared countless first drafts with my smart and supportive critique group. The learning never ends. 
My current work in progress is very different in tone from Peppermint Cocoa Crushes and right now I’m studying Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). It’s a remarkable book and the perfect one to teach me how syntax and word choice create tone and build voice.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

There are so many wonderful firsts: holding an ARC, walking into a book store and spotting your book face out on the shelf, having a reader say your story resonates with them. 

Scenes from Laney’s book party

I’ve loved seeing the photos people have posted of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes on social media. Like all the Swirl novels, the cover is very photogenic especially with a cup of cocoa nearby!

But getting to those firsts was definitely filled with highs and lows. When I signed with a wonderful agent in 2015, I thought I’d made it. I assumed my manuscript would sell within a matter of months. 

It did not. But as hard as being on submission and collecting passes from editors was, I had an agent, a business partner.

If this one didn’t sell, the next story would. But then my agent moved back to the publishing side of the business and that meant I no longer had an agent. My partner was gone. I had a manuscript that had never sold and a second one that needed a lot of work. It felt like I was back at square one!

It was a great lesson. Okay, it did not feel like a great lesson at the time! But it taught me to focus on what I can control (my ideas, the quality of my writing) because the rest of it? I can’t control.

Fast forward a year (or so) and my former agent turned editor, approached me about writing a novel for Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers. Yay! And that was the start of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes. 


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

  • Immerse yourself in stories. 
Read! Find mentor texts for your current project. Think about what the writer does well and how they are doing it? Study the story on every level from word choice and syntax to the character arc and theme. If something doesn’t work for you as reader, figure out why not and think about what might’ve been more satisfying. 
When you watch a movie or a favorite show on Netflix, ask yourself why does a scene work? Where is the tension? How does it raise questions that keep you engaged? 
You may want to look at stories through the lens of the hero’s journey or plots points (Larry BrooksStory Engineering, Writer’s Digest, 2011) or beats (Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, Michael Wiese, 2005). Analyze. Discuss. Or write reviews. 
Stories in all mediums are of value, but at the end of the day, a writing life is a reading life. Oh, and read poetry! Nothing teaches you the importance of word choice or truth telling like poetry.
  • Spend time developing your ideas. 
Push and pull at the premise of your stories. Ask what if and who cares and so what. Imagine and re-imagine. Before you begin a project write one-paragraph pitch for your story. Would you buy that book? Be honest. Would a stranger?
  • Write! Write! Write!
And finish that first draft. The act of making your way through the beginning, middle and end of your first story is a huge milestone. Be proud. Give it a rest. And then when you’ve had some time apart, roll up your sleeves and see what you have to work with. Let the fun begin!
  • Be open to feedback. 
Find a critique group or a critique partner. Your local SCBWI is a great place to start. When you share your writing, remember you’re not looking for someone to tell you how good it is. You want to know what’s working and what’s not. Feedback is such a gift!

If you are able to go to a conference, sign up for a critique session with an agent, editor or published writer. Listen and learn. These are industry professionals who know what works and what sells. And along the way, your skin will grow thicker. I promise.

When I received the editorial letter for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, I felt like I’d made it onto the playing field. This was what I’d been training for!

  • Remember the why
For writers seeking a traditional publication path, you can’t control when you’ll be published or what that will look like or how it will all unfold. So remember why you are writing. As with the characters in our stories, the why is always the most important part! 
Cynsational Notes

See the discussion guide for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, and the other Swirl novels from Sky Pony Press.

A Booklist review called Peppermint Cocoa Crushes “full of humor and silly mishaps…A good choice for libraries looking to add some gentle romance to their middle-grade collection.”

Laney Nielson is a former classroom teacher with a master’s degree in education. 

She is a past recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her novel, Peppermint Cocoa Crushes is part of the Swirl series, Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers.

Registration is currently open for the 2018 Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference, set for April 28 and April 29.


SCBWI Books for Readers Increases Book Access

Omar Bah, director of the Refugee Dream Center
with Lin Oliver, SCBWI executive director

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Back in April I interviewed Lin Oliver, executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators about the organization’s new initiative: Books for Readers.

“In the U.S., many low-income communities have as few as 1 book per 300 children. We as an organization would like to help change this,” she said. “With our initiative, we can advance our organization’s mission as children’s book creators and literacy advocates, and help increase access to books for kids in desperate need of them. It’s a natural fit!”

Recently, the two organizations selected by a sub-committee of the SCBWI Board of Advisors received the first donation of new books: the Refugee Dream Center in Providence, Rhode Island and the Kinship House in Portland, Oregon.

At both celebrations, authors and illustrators took part in demonstrations, storytimes, crafts, refreshments and book distribution. Books were donated for each organization’s lending library and one book was given to every child to take home. 
“We hope that by giving books to these children we can help build their dreams,” Lin said. “Every child deserves books and dreams!”

Illustrator Jannie Ho assists at the illustration station.

The Refugee Dream Center is a post-resettlement refugee agency. It offers referrals, social level
assistance, and skills development such as English language education for adults, health promotion and cultural orientation, youth mentoring, and case management.

In addition, the Refugee Dream Center is a strong advocacy agency for the rights of refugees.

Books received by the Refugee Dream Center will outfit a classroom library for its ESL program and promote the center’s goal to help refugees work towards self-sufficiency and integration.

In addition, each child in attendance got their own book to take home.

“Unlike most book-to-reader relationships, these books will be the first books that our children will read in their new language, that will assist them with their English mastery, and that will help them become part of their new culture—and feel part of it, too!” said Kara Skaling, Program Coordinator of the Refugee Dream Center.

The Kinship House provides outpatient mental health services to foster and adopted children and their families. The books gave a boost to Kinship’s lending library and became the first books to keep for many of the children they serve.

“Many of our children have lived lives most of us can’t imagine. These books will bring light, restore a piece of their childhood, and offer them the joy many families take for granted!” said Melissa Smith-Hohnstein, LCSW and Clinical Director of Kinship House.

SCBWI members and staff gathered to celebrate the Books for Readers donation to the Refugee Dream Center.

The Books for Readers celebration also included dinner.