Survivors: Tim Wynne-Jones on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Tim Wynne-Jones.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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



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

Yes, that first magical published book. And then the struggle to get the next one out – the terrible twos! Followed by all that jockeying in mid-career. When, exactly, is the career of writing ever easy?

And then – suddenly – you’re old. The question is: How old? Are you ever not six; are you ever not sixteen? Childhood is a renewable resource.

C. S. Lewis said something to the effect that you don’t leave childhood behind the way a train leaves a station. I guess the big problem with age is not so much from staying on track but running out of it.



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

There is an inevitably to walls. You’re going to hit one. Maybe a bunch. I don’t really believe in writer’s block; if you’ve got nothing to say, chances are that you won’t be able to say it and that’s probably a good thing.

So when I hit the wall, it wasn’t that I stopped writing; it’s just that nothing I wrote was any good. Two whole novels finished. Finished and… well, rubbish. Soundly rejected. And this was after many books — awards, even – some real success. I thought my innings were over. I’d had a good at-bat and I needed to let go.

Hey, I could teach. I do know some stuff. The letting go was critical — the best thing that could have happened, giving myself the time for the well to fill up. Giving myself the time to realize there were things I cared deeply about and needed to say.

That was eight or nine books ago.

Stephen Sondheim said something like this: I know how to write a perfect song and that’s the problem. There’s no arrogance to that statement; to my mind, it’s an admission of the reality that knowing how to do something well, knowing the craft, the tricks of the trade, does not guarantee you much. The deal is always being renegotiated. Your vows have to be renewed. It has to matter.



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

On the republishing of his first novel, The Man Within (1929), Graham Greene was asked if he wanted to make any editorial changes, since they would have to typeset the book, again. He read it and, if I’m remembering rightly, wasn’t very impressed. Actually, I think he cringed but that might be me projecting. So it became for Greene a question of not changing a single word or rewriting the whole thing. He opted for the former, more honest decision.

I’d have to say much the same thing about my career. Could I have done a better job of it? I’m sure. But who knew it was actually going to be a career?

Every book was just that – one book, the only book I ever wanted to write, at that particular moment in time. So you live with the decisions you make. No regrets.

The one thing I’m sure about is that disappointment is as inevitable as rain and unless you want to live in an arid place, get used to it.

On a more practical note, I should probably be more of a self-promoter or hire someone to do it for me. But that wasn’t the norm when I came into publishing. I got used to publishers who actually went out and sold the book. The changing face of the industry has left me in the dust, to some extent. I’m not very sellable as an author, anymore; maybe when I get to be a hundred.

My big hope is that I’m still sellable as a writer.



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



I’ve watched issues come and go: literacy, appropriateness of themes and language, diversity, etcetera. And each of these issues is important and worth contemplating and doing something about. And each of these issues is, finally, something other than writing

.

That is not meant to diminish the importance of these matters but only to mitigate the potential of such things to distract you from the job at hand: writing honestly about what you feel you must write about. Writing diligently and conscientiously.

Listen to what people have to say. Yes. Now, what is your role in Change if change is called for?

The politics of writing is not writing. It is important; we each must do what we feel we can do. Decry what must be decried. Celebrate what must be celebrated. Write what must be written.

It’s that latter thing that can trip you up. No one can tell you what must be written. That’s your job.

The amount of your involvement with the wider world of literature is a personal decision, but I think it’s important to ask yourself this: does this involvement inspire me to write or does it keep me from writing?


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

Good luck, dear friend. Keep your dreams flush, you’re going to need them. Find a good and supportive writing community. I took way too long to do that. It only happened for me late in my career, when I came to Vermont College of Fine Arts, and it has meant the world to me.

As much as you hate the business of writing, just do it. Engage. Spending a morning, now and then, promoting your work or setting up gigs is work that needs to be done. And yes, I know you hate work, but do it, anyway. Just don’t confuse it with actually writing.


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



Good luck, dear friend. Mourn your losses, but not for too long; celebrate your successes, big or small as they may be.

On a northern lake, researching The Starlight Claim (Candlewick, 2020)

A single letter from a kid who wasn’t forced to write it by his teacher is worth twenty reviews.

Don’t read your reviews, even the good ones, but if you can’t stop yourself, don’t take them too seriously. Don’t be diminished by opinion; at the same time, don’t work too hard on that protective shell. After all, a writer must stay open.

When someone, in person, genuinely praises your work, try to let them do so without being too self-conscious. As much as we long for praise, it’s somehow mortifying to get it. Get over yourself!

Keep the faith: There is something books do that no other medium can, engaging the reader in an active role of finishing what you, as the writer, only began.



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

I hope to keep writing, but I hope I’ll know when to stop. And this is a conundrum. I’ve been one of the fortunate ones who has made a career in this field, I love so much. Which means I never had a full-time job. Which means I have no pension. So I must continue to write in order to live.

But then I kind of think that was always true.

Cynsational Notes

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

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

Learn more about Monica Brown.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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



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

I think the bumps I’ve encountered have come both from within and without. The publishing industry is constantly in flux and there are so many things that have to happen to bring a book into the world.

I’ve had difficulty getting certain manuscripts published, but I’ve been stubborn enough (and had enough self-belief) not to give up, to wait for the connection, to seek out, with the help of my agent, Stefanie Von Borstel, visionary editors and publishers, like Adriana Dominguez, Nikki Garcia, Alvina Ling, Jason Low, Louise May, and Reka Simonsen.

One of the biggest challenges as a writer is knowing when to hold tight to your vision and when to allow others to help you shape a story. A great editor will make your writing better, but there are some situations when you need to stand firm.

When I’ve made editorial changes I haven’t felt good about (which has been rare) I have indeed regretted it. Conversely, when I have stuck to my vision, my perseverance has paid off.

Now available from NorthSouth, 2017!

Another challenge has been managing not the writing, but everything else. Few people realize how much non-writing work goes into a successful writing career.

I’ve made sacrifices of sleep, family time, and balance to accomplish what I have as a writer and professor.

Writing is a creative process that, if we are so lucky, yields delight—stories, art, inspiration, connection, change, celebration, affirmation—of our young readers and in our own lives.

Publishing is also business, that requires negotiation, compromise, marketing, social media, appearances, interviews, tweets, taxes, Facebook posts, website updates, talks, school visits, conferences, and book festivals.

 There are many delights in the latter list—like connection with readers and comraderie with other writers—but one thing is sure, while you are doing the latter, you won’t be doing the former—the actual writing and researching.

And then there’s the whole world—I am a teacher and an activist and a mom and a partner and a sister and a tía and a friend. Try to enjoy it!



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

The only thing I would do differently is take better care of the body my brain is housed in.

I feel like I’ve put my heart, soul, and time into my craft and making sure my books get into the hands of children, so I have no professional regrets.

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

This is an impossible question, because it does seem that, in terms of diversity in children’s literature, we take one step forward and two steps back.

I feel part of some positive changes in children’s publishing, by introducing my mixed-race, multicultural protagonists—Marisol McDonald of Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combinaMariso McDonald and the Clash Bash/y el fiest sin igual, and Marisol McDonald and the Monster/el monstruo (all Children’s Book Press); and my beloved Lola Levine, the star of my chapter book series depicted a multiracial girl with a mixed religious background from Little, Brown, edited by Nikki Garcia.

Not only did Angela Dominguez and I publish one of the first Latina-authored and edited chapter book series, but in books like Lola Levine and the Vacation Dream (Little, Brown, 2017), we have an exploration, in a chapter book, about Indigenous identity in the Americas and colonization. That feels slightly revolutionary and was an amazing experience to write.

In this series in particular I feel like I’ve been able to create a world not unlike my own—politically aware, whole multicultural families, children that aren’t described in fractions, and strong, ambitious, athletic girls who are allowed to be, well, loud! And live out loud.

I’ve also, through my biographies, been able to share models of activism and art and music and the creative process. I’ve been luckily able to work with presses like Lee and Low and Children’s Book Press and Arté Público, alongside presses like HarperCollins, North South, and Little, Brown & Co. And I’ve noticed that in publishing, big, small, or medium, it’s the people who shape the vision.

For this reason, we need to make sure that the doors to publishing are open to all—not just the writers, but the editors and marketing and publicity folks too.

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

Sleep and exercise more, worry less. Becoming a published author is really, really, hard. It’s supposed to be. There aren’t really any short cuts—read, write, revise, repeat.

Network, join SCBWI, and find mentors. Find your people in publishing. They are there, and this is especially important for writers of color. You can come find me. I sought out advocates like Cynthia Leitich Smith for early support of my books.

And if the idea of finding a mentor is intimidating, just make friends. I don’t know what I would have done as a young writer without Malín Alegría, René Colato Láinez, Reyna Grande, Rafael Lopez, John Parra, and also Adriana Dominguez and Stefanie Von Borstel and Meg Medina to name only a few.

I’m mentioning these names because we’ve all known each other almost from our very first books around a decade ago, and that is something.

 If we can do it, you can too!

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

Success, satisfaction, and art that is in service of a more socially just world.

 Art that makes children’s hearts sing, or gives them an escape from pain. Art that gives them glimpses into a future and helps them choose and imagine their lives.

That’s what books did for me as a teenager.

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

Hmmmm. This is a fun one for me. I want to keep telling and writing stories and I’d like to spend more time by the ocean while writing them. I want to become a better writer and finally write what I am scared of, which is project for an adult audience.

 And though I’m only 48, I’m going to go ahead and say that I’d like to live long enough to read my stories to the next generation, and hopefully, my future grandchildren.

My daughters will cringe when they read this.



Cynsational Notes

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

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

Learn more about Shutta Crum.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

Well, the first big bump was wasting approximately eighteen years before I really buckled down and educated myself as to the process of breaking into print. (This was well before the ease of self-publishing that we have today.)

What happened was that I had been a children’s librarian for more than a decade and loved the books I worked with. So one day, prompted by a wonderful poem I’d read, as well as Cynthia Rylant’s great book When I Was Young In the Mountains (Puffin, 1982), I thought Dang! They’ve written my history. Mine! 

So to make a long story short, I wrote My Mountain Song (Clarion, 2003) and sent it out. It got one nicely handwritten rejection from Paula Morrow. (Little did I realize that hand-written notes were not the norm.)

I thought, okay . . . so maybe I just wasn’t meant to be a children’s book author. I put that manuscript in a drawer and did not pull it out for almost eighteen years!

(It was eventually published by Clarion and it became my fourth book.)

When I began to look forward to retirement from the library, I thought what do I want to do for the rest of my life? Write, of course.

So I began researching how one goes about getting a book published. At approximately the same time I came across a comment by Jane Yolen online. She’d posted that she’d just had seven rejections. Seven rejections! And she had over 200 books out at that time. (Many more today.)

Suddenly, it hit me . . . I’d put my manuscript away because I’d gotten one rejection. One. And here was Jane getting rejections almost every week!

Who the heck am I to get all bent out of shape about one rejection?

I learned that authors are rejected all the time—and, abracadabra, it wasn’t personal any more. I decided then and there that I’d join SCBWI, go to conferences and damn the rejections. I wouldn’t care how many I got. I got a lot! I ended up with over 300 rejections on a number of manuscripts before I got my first acceptance. Whew!

I still get rejections—all the time. But I try to look below the surface of those rejections, evaluate what the editor says and either revise, or move on. For one of my books I kept getting rejections that said something like this is a perfectly nice bedtime story, but how will it stand out among the thousands of other bedtime stories available?

I gathered all the rejections, studied them, and then reset my story in Canada under the northern lights. When I sent it to a Canadian publisher it was bought right away! It’s important to remember that often rejections can be learning opportunities.

Being stubborn is a good trait for an author (there are famous family stories about my stubbornness), and it certainly contributed to my now having sixteen books out in sixteen years. (Some years with none, some years with several being published.) However, I also owe a great deal to my supportive husband, family and writing colleagues.

 I think it’s essential to surround yourself with folks who want to see you succeed. It’s so hard to weather rejection from the publishing world. One has to have a sunnier, hopeful world to be in the rest of the time. I’d say this is essential to a writing career.

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

First of all, I wouldn’t have wasted 18 years before I educated myself about this new career I wanted. After all, I worked in a library. I could have started this journey earlier.

But then, what have I got to complain about? It’s been a wonderful ride thus far.

Perhaps, the one thing I have to remind myself of is that I do know the field, the books that are coming out, the writers kids love.

And I do know how to write. I need to trust my gut and not second guess myself so much when I’m dithering about something.

Should this be in first person point of view or third? Does this novel need a prologue? Is this picture book rhythm/plot overly complicated?

It seems to me that I spend a lot of time arguing with myself . . . but maybe it’s no more than any other writer. In the end, it’s all good.

If nothing else, I’m educating myself about myself and how my writing makes it to the page. (Though that tends to change with each book. Ha!)

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

The big change, of course, has been the electronic revolution in publishing; eBooks, PODs, self and independent publishing, all that. Wow!

I sold my first book at the tail end of 1998. At that time you could self-publish, but the cost was high, you had to do massive print runs and you had to warehouse your own books. And, of course, you had to do your own advertising and soliciting of reviews, etc. Too much to deal with!

I told myself that my books had to be published by a traditional publisher or no one. However, since all this new technology has evolved, I’ve changed my mind about a few things.

I do see that there might be a reason for me to independently publish—for example, a book that had its day in the limelight but is now out of print. Out-of-print books have been vetted by an editor, etc., and the prices to self-publish have come down drastically.

 Also, I’ve seen big changes in YA and in picture books, as well as the advent of the category “New Adult.” YA or teen books seem to ride popular waves these days—more so than when I was a working librarian. (I retired from the library in 2004.)

We always considered YA novels as “problem novels,” full of angst. Well, there’s still angst and conflicts, but these are delivered through more layering of genres. These titles are no longer simply contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, or mystery. They can be dystopian vampire comedy mysteries!

Sometimes it makes my head spin—perhaps this is why I don’t write a lot of what I would consider true YA. I do have one novel for sixth through ninth grade readers, but it only inches upon the whole varied world of YA. And I do like the occasional use of New Adult as a term for those readers in their early twenties, late teens—crossover readers.

In picture books I’ve seen so much creativity lately! There’re plots upon plots, metafictional books for little ones, breaking of the fouth wall, and physical interaction with books beyond pop-ups. This is just to name a few of the wonderful techniques being applied to picture book stories these days.

Have you seen Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? (Little, Brown, 2016)? It’s a doozie that thoughtfully deepens the dreaded road trip with a child into a real experience by manipulating the book to tell the story. And Press Here by Hervé Tullet (Chronicle, 2011) was such a fun winner of a book. So simple, yet so creative!

I love all this experimenting that is going on in the world of picture books. And the illustrators! OMG!

There’s so much experimentation going on there. I adore Shaun Tan’s surrealistic illustrations. I could go on and on.

It’s a wonderful era for picture books—though it may make it more difficult for the newbie to break in. What they are up against is formidable.

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

I’d certainly join SCBWI as soon as I could! And I’d make sure I had a critique group who cared for me and my goals, so that they feel comfortable being honest with me when critiquing. A good crit group requires trust . . . and sometimes that takes a while to build up.

I’d tell myself—over and over—these long waiting periods are par for the course. I’d remind myself to enjoy the scenery every time I got lost in the rough.

Simply putt, I’d allow myself to worry less, and play through.

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

I’d wish for a whole lot of things for writers in the future!

Oh, things like better advances and royalties (writers can rarely live solely on their earnings), more money for the publishers, lots of publicity backed by publishing houses, easier routes to recognition, and a whole slew of kiddies with their arms and hearts open ready to hold you and your books.

In addition to all that, how about attentiveness? I’d wish that on all writers.

Folks who want to write for kids—at any level—really need to do their homework and read, read, read!
(Not just the books, but the criticism of them.)

And they need to be attentive to the world around them and recognize movements like We Need Diverse Books, and #MeToo. (I’m waiting for a YA to come out with that title.)

Books are born into a cultural context—just like we are—not a vacuum.

For readers I’d hope that the concern for diverse books doesn’t die out. We need the proverbial mirrors and windows so that all kids can find themselves while losing themselves in books.

Also, I’ve just read about a new Navajo dictionary that’s being created. Wonderful!

So many languages have fallen along the wayside . . . and so many more are endangered. I love words! We need words! There is room in this world for all.

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

Can I have all those goodies I listed in my answer to the question above?

Plus more venues to spread the good word. (I do speaking gigs, folks!)

I also want more wonderfully inventive picture books that I can read aloud and laugh over—or cry over. I want novels that invite me in and then surprise me while leaving footprints on my heart.

And I want even more writing buddies! Children’s book writers and illustrators are the best! I want to continue celebrating the successes of my colleagues and good books everywhere.

(Okay…now I’ll put down my cheerleader’s bullhorn. But not my purple pomp pomps. You can’t make me. No…back off….)

Cynsational Notes

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

Survivors: Nancy Werlin on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Nancy Werlin.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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



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

I apologize in advance, because this is a big question and I have a lot to say. This isn’t a topic that can be reduced to a few pithy lines—at least, not yet, and not by me.

I don’t know that I have advice, exactly. I have experience to share, though.

I published my first YA novel in 1994. I just now in 2017 published my tenth novel, and I feel like I’m halfway through the career I plan and hope to have. Yes, I want a 50 year career.

During the first half, I’ve watched many other writers’ careers grow and change. I’ve also watched many writers’ careers disappear. The disappeared are usually good writers and sometimes their books were great. Some were lauded and won prizes. Some were on bestseller lists. Some got startlingly large advances. Some had publishers who were ecstatic about them; sent them on tours; poured marketing money upon them. But none of those “wins” were necessarily predictive of a long career.

With shocking, terrifying speed, one year’s darling could become “Who?”

This was true even when a writer’s craft got better and better over time . . . sometimes the audience simply would not follow; sometimes the publisher found newer fish to fry. Whatever.

Often there was no rational explanation. Things change.

That’s life.

There’s a computer programming class I took in college, in a bizarre coding language called APL that required you to think in multiple dimensions.

The professor said to us, “Look to your left. Now look to your right. Only one of the three of you will still be here by the end of this course.” (I wasn’t, by the way. I didn’t care enough about APL to fight, to learn.)

My point is that being a writer with a long career requires you to develop multi-dimensional thinking and planning and—both inside your soul and outside in the world—to fight for it.

When I look at the writers who are still here, those with a ten-year career or better, I find them to be determined and adaptive and persistent and lucky—by which I mean both that they’ve had some genuine random luck, but also that they have figured out how to make their own luck when things didn’t go their way.

(An aside about genuine random luck—I believe that if you stick with it, some luck with find you. It probably won’t be the luck you expected and it won’t arrive when you expected or for the book you expected—but it’ll show up. Sometime. Eventually.)

Moving on to discuss what I mean by fighting.

Nancy at her day job.

I believe you need to have a good financial plan for living. Different people come up with different solutions. I’ve kept a day job this whole time (as a technical writer at a software company), which gives me financial flexibility and choice; it means that money from publishing does not rule me or constrain my choices.

(My corporate overlord does rule me, but that is the choice I have made and I did it with my eyes open. Some people couldn’t stand to do this. For me, it’s easy.)

I do not see many successful long-term writers who aren’t pragmatic about money. If they didn’t start out that way, they become that way, simply because multiple years at it either teaches you to adapt, or wears you out. “Do what you love, and the money will follow” turns out to be—at best—incomplete advice. Long-term writers figure out–sometimes kicking and screaming and unhappy about it—how to make it work financially.

I have found that the only stable thing in the writer’s life is your desire to tell stories. Beyond that, you have to take responsibility for yourself and for your choices if you are to survive.

Often, you have to make choices when you’re blind to their ultimate impact, because you will be affected later by random and uncontrollable factors that change the results of your choices.

Your publisher fails or is acquired. Your editor leaves to have a baby and never comes back. Your husband loses his steady job with the health insurance. You have to get a new agent. Family illness means you can’t write for a while. The list of things you can’t foresee goes on and on. Among them are delightful things too, by the way. Life, again.

But even though there’s a lot you can’t foresee, but there are yet some things you can take action on—and you need to be in charge of those things.

Mostly, your control is about your own self. I believe that a writer has to face the facts about who she is—about the kind of work she does, about her process, about her reception in the world, about the ways in which she grows her craft, about what makes her happy in life, about her financial reality, about her family situation, about what she’s willing to stand up for and fight for, and about what is not worth fighting about.

She must understand the structure of her own self and work with it—similarly to the way you’d work to write a sonnet within the limitations of its defined form. You cannot be who you are not. You must make the very best of who you are.

My husband Jim McCoy, who’s a life coach, calls this “Playing the You game.”

Who am I, creatively? I write one book at a time, slowly, sometimes painfully, and only with regard to what story is pulling at me—which is usually something that is thematically personal.

I always struggle to find time (yes, my day job cuts me here), mental space, and faith to write and revise, over the three-to-four years that each book takes. A salesperson at my publisher told me recently that she liked that I “never borrowed from myself” from one book to the next. I had never thought of this before, and while I think it’s true, I must add that I see there has been a cost to this approach, in an industry where many publishers and readers are eager to see a new book from an author in a few months, not a few years.

But still, this is who I am. My creative rhythm isn’t in synch with the market, and neither is my compulsion to write individual rather than series books.

(I just mentioned that my day job cuts me in terms of time. But it saves me, too, because I don’t have to finish a book too soon in order to receive a check.)

In terms of managing a bumpy career, I have to say: What long-term career is not bumpy? None.

That said, in mine, I have had an extraordinarily spectacular piece of luck: my editor, Lauri Hornik. She was an assistant editor at Houghton Mifflin when she bought my first novel. She has published every book since, and she is now President and Publisher at Dial.

Lauri is creative, smart, and sane; I trust her taste and her heart and her advice and her leadership. She kept me over the years, and I have kept her. This means that her presence has softened the bumps. Sometimes my books have sold well for her, and sometimes they have not. Sometimes my books have gotten raves from the critics; sometimes they have gotten pans.

I haven’t had to walk this path alone.

I don’t know what the future holds. I have seen many good writers be “let go” by their publishers, and many good editors lose their jobs, and many other things happen in our industry, so I can’t take my partnership with Lauri for granted.

What I do know is that I will fight for it.

Ginger Knowlton

What does that mean? It means that I work to keep our lines of communication open; I will take an active role in discussing business matters directly with Lauri rather than stepping back to let my agent handle it, especially when the topic is sensitive (yes, money).

To further manage the bumps, I try to divide my creative soul from my business soul.

For that, another long-term relationship has been vital, with my agent, Ginger Knowlton. But I need my agent to handle business, not creative issues—and as I said below, I still keep my hand in on business issues. I am a person who needs whatever control I can get. I honor that need.

All of this makes me suddenly realize something: That my long-term career has been full of long-term relationships, period. This also means my long-term friendships with other writers who are on this same path of sustaining a writing life through the downs and ups. I work hard to keep up these relationships and to keep friendships alive.

Being a good friend and having good friends is important to me.

Lastly—and I’ve gone on a while, eh?—you asked about bumps to the heart. My heart is a road full of potholes and cement patches. But I work to remember the good things that have happened, the readers who have appreciated my stories and my own delight in them.

But I need to be careful. I have learned to keep my head down when I’m writing a book and also after I’ve published it, and to obey this rule above all: to love my book and to honor who I am and what I have achieved.

This means that I do not compare myself to others. For example—being truthful—I used to almost enjoy beating myself up with the specter of Laurie Halse Anderson. I would say to myself: “Laurie works harder than you! Laurie is more gifted than you! Etc.”

A few years ago, I confided in Laurie that I did this. She was horrified, and having that conversation helped heal me. I suddenly saw how wrong it was to use the avatar of another writer as a way to punish myself for my perceived shortcomings. Wrong and unfair, to me and to her. Her heart is as pockmarked as mine. She is not on some pedestal of achievement. She is a real person.

Everyone is.

But as I think about my heart, what I come back to is how much I love creating stories, and how important I think stories are. Lots and lots of different stories.

There’s a sort of fable I tell myself. I imagine that a single reader has picked up one of my books for free at the city dump. The book has lost its cover and front matter, so that there’s no sign of my name anywhere. The reader reads the book. The reader loves the book—for a while, it’s her favorite and her friend. She never knows who I am, and I never know about her. And let’s suppose further that this is the only reader there ever is, for that book. Let’s say that nobody else ever liked it. But for this one reader, for whatever reason, this was the book.

In terms of my purpose in the world, this has to be enough.

And in terms of my inner creative life, the joy I get from persisting on my storytelling path, and my knowledge that I am honing my craft, has to be enough, too.

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

It’s not that I think I have made no mistakes. I believe I have. But I can’t see very clearly down any other paths I might have taken. Sometimes I do wonder about what would have happened if I’d quit my job and thrown myself emotionally at the job of making a living from writing, without a regular paycheck. Would I have found a way to write faster? Would I have taken on work-for-hire projects that would have surprised me by being delightful to work on? Would I have decided to be a teacher?

But when I think about that Nancy, she isn’t me. I say of myself, “I can’t let go of the side of the pool.” I am a conservative manager of my life. I have been playing the Nancy game as best I can.

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

Many, many, many more books are published in the YA field now than previously. It used to be that perhaps there were twenty debut authors a season, tops. Now, there are dozens.

This means that in the world of traditional publishing, there are even more bodies by the side of the road than there used to be. There’s more competition. This means publishers expect more failures—they account for it upfront, and in most cases, they don’t care too much if it’s you. They move on.

But there is also more opportunity. One change I absolutely love is the rise of indie publishing. It’s wonderful to have the option of complete control over your work. I used to say: Nobody can ever stop me from writing. Now I can add: Nobody can ever stop me from publishing.

Even though traditional publishing works for me now, it gives me enormous pleasure to see the freedom that is possible if you are an indie writer. I notice especially how empowering this has been for romance writers.

The other big changes are how visible and accessible both writers and readers are today, with social media. Social media pressure can have huge impact on a writer’s career, for good and for ill.

Honestly, I don’t know how to judge this. I don’t have time in my life to participate in social media, and I don’t even know how to follow a conversation on Twitter. I see things I love happen out there sometimes, and I see things that make me quail. I don’t have any wise analysis about it, though. I just don’t know enough. Someone else will have much better analysis on this big issue.

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

I’m going back (predictably) to money. Work to get your financial house in order so that you can have a long career. Don’t indulge in magical thinking. Don’t decide that being an artist means you can be irresponsible about money.

Take care of yourself.

Use both sides of your brain.

Make lots of friends! And Nancy?

Get a little more exercise.

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

New suspense-thriller–now available!

I wish for a publishing environment that gives writers less stress and less fear.

I wish for all to have sufficient time to write each book the way they want to write it, without feeling as rushed and as scared as I sense writers feel in the current climate.

 But even as I write that wish, I suspect I’m thinking back to a time that never really was . . . that writers have always felt rushed and anxious. And that we always will.

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

To write each book slowly and carefully, until I am fully satisfied with it.

To grow my craft with each one, trying new things, loving the work.

To have Lauri publish them and have Ginger do the contracts.

To turn then to the next story.

To go on working alongside my writer friends, both the old ones like you, and the new ones that come into my life and delight me.

To always find the time and space somehow to write, even as the world outside does what it does, and even as my life changes as it does.

My home is where I am.

Cynsational Notes

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

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

Joy Preble, Heather Demetrios & Renee Watson at Texas Book Festival.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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



Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Ha! Oh the bumps. So many bumps. Some have been the things that no author can control, such as an editor leaving in the middle of a project.

With the Dreaming Anastasia series (Sourcebooks, 2009-2012), I had four different editors over a three-book series. As you can imagine, this kind of turnover is no one’s friend, and not only because subsequent editors have to work with a series they didn’t acquire and that probably isn’t a good match for their tastes.

It also meant that the only true continuity editor for the three-book saga was me. The first book had been an unplanned breakout–this extremely miraculous event that came from a combination of timing, luck, and an in-house publicist who happened to like me and decided to work very, very hard and savvy with me and on my behalf.

Thus, book one sold very well and is still the book for which I’m best known.

The initial plans for book two were focused and big. But when the publicist left just as book two was coming out, all those plans basically fell apart or didn’t materialize, and so I had to figure out how to keep promoting the series in the ways I felt would be best.

With Jenny Moss & Jennifer Ziegler at the Texas Library Association con.

I realized that I could either moan about it all or try to do something. Make my own luck, my own connections. It wasn’t perfect, but it kept me in the game.

We all know the truth. It’s tough to make any book a success without consistent and substantive publisher support.

So much of what gets books noticed starts happening a year or more before publication and continues its game plan right up to publication.

All those conference and book festival pitches, all that print promo, those personal notes to booksellers, the ads and the media whatevers, they add up.

Without that support, it’s a trickier thing.

Trickier being a euphemism for “good luck to you.”

So I built my own support system with authors and librarians and booksellers. Because I might not be able to get that broader publicity, but I could still get my name and my books out there.

This took many forms. I pitched panels and workshops to the numerous regional school librarian conferences around Texas, both individually and with fellow authors. I attended and networked at SCBWI conferences not only in Houston but also in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and more.

I went to TLA each year, sometimes paid for by publishers, sometimes paid for by me.

I supported other authors and independent bookstores because this business is about community, about supporting the art and the stories, about being part of the conversation.

I contacted all the Houston YA authors I knew– some debuts, some mid-listers like me, some NYTimes bestsellers and created a loosely structure author co-op we call the YAHOUs (YA Houston), designed to help us signal boost and support and pool our various opportunities.

I said “yes” to as much as I could. I kept at it.

I put my name out there.

I pitched for school visits and did more librarian networking and developed programs to present.

I kept up — and still do–with many of the authors in my 2009 debut class.

I also found my own niche–the things that work for me and my books and my skill set: Presenting workshops on craft and the writer life. School visits that are writing workshops or some hybrid that also includes talking about never giving up and tenacity. Keynote speeches when I get them. Author panels both as participant and moderator.

I have come to grudging terms with the fact that some of the big-name festivals might never be offered to me for a variety of reasons. But many, many are.

Lasting in this business means understanding when to reinvent yourself, when to stick to your brand, and when–to paraphrase that song from “Frozen”–just let something go.

We can’t all be all things, so:

  • Keep your eyes on your paper. 
  • Find your villages. 
  • Be kind. 
  • Be aware of the opportunities that do come your way.

Mostly, I keep writing. That’s been its own bump. After seven books in seven and a half years and a few manuscripts that didn’t sell, I hit a wall with the book I’m finally getting right.

I started over more than once. Gave up the notion that it would be the option book for one of my publishers. Wrote it again. And now I’m writing it one more time.

It’s the book it should be. But it means there will be a gap. I’m trying to be good with that.

Joy on a panel with Mari Mancusi, Jessica Lee Anderson & Madeline Smoot at Brazos Bookstore.

Having a new job at an independent bookstore is helping. I’ve learned much about the industry from this side of things. I’ve been reminded about all the amazing small books by small publishers that are simply brilliant, and it’s an honor to hand-sell these books that otherwise would have little or no noise around them. The push to persist has ultimate always been the same: I can’t imagine my life without writing. I have stories to tell.

And that Dreaming Anastasia series that went through all those editors and all those bumps?

It’s still selling, still being reviewed by readers and amazingly, being referenced in numerous scholarly papers about retellings of Russian fairy tales! They’re still the books I’m best known for. In fact, there’s been talk about repackaging the series. So you just never know.

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


For sure, I would have persisted earlier, as far back as college when I started writing what would have been a YA novel but didn’t ever finish it.

I would have treated writing as a business earlier, although I will say that it was harder to do that in the pre-Internet days, which may or may not be a valid excuse.

I would have sometimes pushed harder to make sure Marketing was defining my books as I wanted them to be defined.

Beyond that, I honestly have no regrets. This journey has been in many ways a miracle. And if that’s overstating things, let me rephrase.

My character Leo in Finding Paris (Balzer + Bray, 2015) says something at the end of the novel that I truly believe– that she understands not everyone gets the life they want.

Of course Leo hopes this won’t be true for her, hopes she can move forward now that she has finally told her devastating truth.

I know I’m lucky to have gotten a chance at the artist’s life I probably should have been living long before I finally realized that’s what I was supposed to do.

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

Children’s-YA publishing feels much more big deal/dollar driven than it did back when I first signed with an agent and sold my first novel in 2006-2007. Not that money wasn’t a focus.

Publishing is, of course, a business.

But the competition is greater, the desire for debut authors who will break out and make it big with that first book rather than a slower build of a career is much more intense–and it certainly does drive the promotional aspect of things.

In YA literature, there seems to be a large push for signing authors who can be promoted as sort of analogues for their books and I’m not always sure what I think about that. It makes promotion easier. But I worry that it shoehorns certain authors into writing only that one thing and I do believe that at some point, this becomes, at best, formulaic and, at worst, detrimental to their growth as writers.

That being said, I am heartened by the focus on #ownvoices, heartened that in kidlit we are committed to making sure that representation of marginalized groups is done authentically and with the proper nuance and awareness of potential, even if unintended, bias. I am glad for sensitivity readers.

Joy launches The Sweet Dead Life at Blue Willow Bookshop.

In my previous life as a high school English teacher, I was frequently disheartened at curriculum choices that limited, for example, African-American characters to a study of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and Jewish characters to Night by Elie Wiesel (1956) or Diary of Anne Frank (1947).

“But we’ve got this great unit,” teachers would say. “The students love it.”

And I would have to say, “Yeah. Okay. But listen. If the only books students read about Jews and People of Color focus on those people as victims then what subliminal lesson are we teaching?”

Often I’d be met with blank looks.

So I’m glad to see us collectively working to the write the books that need to be written.

I am glad we are being tough on each other.

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

Have faith in yourself.

Tune out the noise.

Write the stories you need to write. Don’t follow the trends.

Make sure you have critique partners who challenge you and who are the right ones to help you raise the bar.

Remember that once a book is out in the world, it’s no longer yours. Which means that Goodreads is for readers, not for you. Peer at it at your own peril. Remember that sometimes readers will read the book they think it is, not the one you’ve written. Learn what you can from this, but don’t fret.

Keep writing.

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

I will borrow from Cynthia’s own answer to the question: I want Story to be the main focus of books. The focus needs to be on telling the stories you are best able to tell.

Identity needs to be organic to the story and when it’s not, there’s sometimes a fill-in-the-blanks feel that diminishes the power of the story. This is a tough job, that balance.

I’m writing a Jewish character, for example, and I’m Jewish so you’d think easy, right?

But it’s not always easy because that identity is not just about surface things like holidays or food but all the nuances of how this specific Jewish character sees the world.

So how do we make sure editors see all that and then readers? How much should we worry about? And I think at the end of the day, it comes back to making sure we focus on Story first.

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

Most immediately, I want to finish the book I’m working on and move it toward publication. Hopefully that will have happened by the time you read this!

I think that’s enough of a goal for now!


Cynsational Notes

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

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

Learn more about G. Neri.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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


Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

This November marks a month of many momentous events in my life: It was ten years ago in November 2007, that my first book, Chess Rumble, was published by Lee and Low. This November, my tenth book in ten years comes out: Tru & Nelle: A Christmas Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). And also this November, I will be in the middle of the biggest and most exciting research trip of my writing career: to the bottom of the world, in Antarctica!

That’s a lot of big milestones for someone who never planned on being an author.

Twenty years ago, not only did I not think it possible, it wasn’t even a speck of a notion in my brain that this was something I would do or could do. So extreme of an idea was it that if I was able talk to myself from 20 years ago and show him (me) the books I’d written and the places I’d traveled because of it, I’m pretty sure he would think I was high!

I am an accidental writer in every respect and I have an unexpected career because of it.

How have I survived this long? My training was in filmmaking, which taught me storytelling and endurance. I was part of an innovative entrepreneurial program in college, which taught me the art of branding, pitching and raising money. I was head of production for two internet design agencies which taught me budgets and schedules, and planning for success. My time in animation taught me that story production was all about momentum and energy.

And I’m stubborn as hell and won’t give up.

I have had many ups and downs in this unexpected journey into writing.

While I have ten books in the can and several projects I am working on in different capacities, I also have a good four novels with drafts that I had to abandon for reasons I don’t have time to go into.

I have lost several editors I loved due to layoffs or babies. I’ve had a couple publishing experiences turn ugly to the point I almost quit.

I’ve had many doubts as to my worth as a writer, knowing full well that my refusal to write only one kind of book keeps me away from the bestseller list.

On the plus side, nobody has ever told me what to write, I have an agent who sells whatever I give him, and I get to explore different genres between novels, graphic novels and picture books for audiences of different ages, classes and races.

I may not ever get rich from it, but I am a working writer with a fairly steady income and a continuing source of travel around the U.S. to speak at schools, libraries and conferences.

But the thing that really keeps me going is the readers. Those kids, teachers and librarians that I meet along the way, that’s where the magic happens. It keeps my heart pure, sparks my imagination and beats down the cynicism.

From the beginning, because my books spoke to urban kids, reluctant readers, non-readers, and especially boys, I started getting invited to come speak at schools. It reached a tipping point early on where I didn’t have to do anything but say yes– which seemed crazy to me since I wasn’t, like, famous or anything.

But I was able to connect with my niche and I’ve traveled all over the country (and sometimes to other countries) to tell my story and the stories of others that inspire my books. It’s is a direct and deep connection.

The people and places I visit and the real life stories I stumble across feed my inspiration and motivation. They take me to the most unexpected places in writing. I follow my heart, not the money.

Anytime I ever tried to follow the money didn’t end well. I can only do what my gut tells me. It won’t make me rich but I’ll stand behind every book on my list because of it.

My choices constantly surprise people all the time (He did that?) but all my books are connected: my protagonists are outsiders and my stories spring from real life.

It is the only way my brain seems to work.

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

So, what has changed in ten years? It feels like the industry is getting smaller. Borders is gone…. And yet–people still read.

Books survived e-books. Physical books are still being sold, sometimes more than ever. Indies are surviving and doing well. Conferences seem full, schools still buy books and invite me out.

Writers come and go. Some I started with are going strong. Others have slowly disappeared from the landscape or just take longer between books.

Me, I just try to stay fluid. Do as many different kinds of books and hope they will find homes. Because my career started as an accident, I feel lucky to get this far and stay in the game.

The fact that I have more books in the works than ever is astounding but there it is. Have I improved over the ten years (well, more if you count the buildup)?

I can write a novel much faster. I still feel like I have no idea what I am doing when I start one, but I let go and the pages tend to turn up. I stopped trying to predict the future of both publishing and myself. I always think– this is it, the end of publishing is here! But somehow, it still happens.

One thing I’ve seen and always gives me hope is that everyone’s path is different. There is no one way to break in and no one way to survive or be successful. There is only your way. Your vision, along with your guts and refusal to give in are yours.

I heard recently, with all the technological advances slowly taking over jobs, creativity is the one thing that cannot be truly replicated by artificial means.

That magic you hold inside you has real power and you should brandish it like a sword.

It is your weapon for good.

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

In reflecting back, I don’t regret anything. Yes, mistakes were made, things didn’t always work out, but nothing is ever lost.

Experience matters. It makes you deeper and stronger and you’d be the lesser without it.

So no, I wouldn’t change anything if I could–even if I wanted to in the moment.

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

If I were starting today?

God I don’t know. Sometimes I feel “if only I’d published five years earlier…” but hey, every year if different, everything’s always in flux and you just gotta roll with it.

In Canada, where I’m living at the moment, there are loads of bookstores still and tons of graphic novels, which may be why I have two in the works and a third that is some kind of hybrid.

I try not to hold onto the past and I don’t try to predict the future.

I try to stay present, let the stories tell me how they want to be told. Try to make them unique enough where they might stand out as different and fresh. And keep moving ahead, one step at a time.

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

If you keep moving forward, you will end up someplace new.

Where will my journey take me in the next ten years? Who knows. But the unknown is part of the terror…and the fun.

What I wish for everyone is this: may your travels take you to new and unexpected places in your life. You never know what you’ll find there.


Cynsational Notes

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

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

Learn more about Uma Krishnaswami.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

I was a writer before I knew it.

When I was a child growing up in India, I read just about all the time and in between books, I’d dash off stories and poems and little fragments of stuff that came right out of my solemn little heart.

Fast-forward twenty years from those early masterpieces to a graduate degree, a husband, a home in suburban Washington D.C., a new baby, and a renewed yearning to write.

My first effort at a children’s book was swiftly accepted, and then quickly orphaned when the acquiring editor left the publishing house. So that was a bump right away.

Then the publication of that first book was followed by a year or so of rejections, which felt bumpy but, in retrospect, constituted a kind of schooling. I started getting better and better at reading those letters, at decoding what they seemed to be saying to me. I learned to be grateful for the personal rejections in my burgeoning collection.

In fact, I became something of a curatorial expert at rejection letters. I even wrote one of my own. (See For Writers and scroll to the bottom of the page.)

And I kept on writing. I took a class here and there.

I wrote magazine stories and pretty soon some of them began to get published.

Then the wonderful Diantha Thorpe at Linnet Books/The Shoe String Press in Connecticut accepted my traditional story collection, The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha (1996, re-released by August House, 2006).

Diantha was a woman of tact and skill and an amazing editor. She was wise and knowledgeable and so very kind. I learned so much from her!

At the same time, I came to treat the traditional retold tale as an apprenticeship in plot. And most of all, I kept on writing.



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

One thing for sure. I’d let go my precious intentions for my work faster than I did.

I’d be bolder. I’d speak up more.

I used to attend children’s book events and feel quite intimidated by the giants in the field, I think especially because, for many years, I wasn’t seeing any writers of color among them.

In all, I’d probably do more or less what I did, but I’d be more courageous about it. I’d trust my own instincts more than I did. I had to learn to do that, and sometimes it was a steep learning curve.

For one thing, everyone kept telling me about the so-called “universal story,” the structure that our brains are supposedly wired to recognize. Study the Joseph Campbell model, they said.

I did, quite earnestly, but something always felt wrong to me. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to express that discomfort in a way that anyone else might have understood.

Only later, when I read folklorists’ critiques of Campbell, did I understand my own gut reactions. If I could do it over, I’d want to speed up the understanding and deepen the confidence.

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

One huge change that I see is a long process that has culminated in the present furious public conversation about diversity, especially in YA. It’s fierce and impassioned and, like so much else in the online world, it can wear you down.

Sometimes I get impatient with it, but in all I think it’s good, because it has forced publishers and reviewers to take notice.

It’s a groundswell movement (take We Need Diverse Books as an example), and it’s made the corporate world pay attention. How often does that happen?

At another level, it’s been amazing to see the growth and tenacity of independent publishers like Lee & Low Books, Cinco Puntos Press, Enchanted Lion, and others who have pushed the conversation in terms of diverse books as well as international and translated books.

It’s a challenging time to be a writer, but it’s also an exciting time.

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

I would tell myself to steel my nerve. I’d tell myself to keep the faith, let each book go into the world free from my anxiety about its worth.

I’d want my beginner self to know that I have many stories in me, that the well is not going to run dry.

“You will reinvent yourself many times over as a writer,” I’d tell myself.  

“You will write in many forms; you will push yourself to try new ways of seeing and feeling. Some will fit you and others won’t, but you will become capable of transforming your work again and again into something new. 

“Each time you shift what you write, you will become a better writer.”

Oh, and I might say what I tell students. That publication is good. It is the point of it all, but it is not the source of joy. That comes from the work itself.

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


I wish for books of all kinds for all kinds of readers.

I wish for books that make young people think, see the truth, and reach for their own better selves. And laughter. I wish us laughter.

I wish us all, and our readers, a world that is capable of getting beyond the fractiousness and hatreds of today.

I wish for a healed planet, because I think that in the end we’re not just saving ourselves with story, or our readers.

I wish us all the ability to save the world with story.

It may be the only weapon we have left, but I trust in its power with all my heart.

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

I wish for clarity of vision.

I wish to keep doing what I do and keep finding joy in it.


Cynsational Notes

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

Survivors: Alex Flinn on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Alex Flinn.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

My first five books were realistic “problem” fiction. This was very much in vogue when my first two were published, but it became less “hot” as my career went on.

I feel like, in the early years of YA, it was assumed that YA fiction would mostly be sold to schools. But, as time went on, there were these books that sold in bookstores, and it wasn’t good enough just to sell to school and library.

They were not genres I wrote. They were mostly two genres, chick lit and fantasy. I have no real ability in chick lit, and I’m not a high fantasy person either, though I like light fantasy, the type of books that take place in the real world, but something magical happens.

At one point, I asked my publisher why my books weren’t being promoted, and they said they only promoted chick lit and fantasy to bookstores because they were the types of books that sold in bookstores. I was frustrated, but when I had an impulsive idea for a fantasy book (a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in modern times, from the Beast’s point of view), I embraced it.

Thus, Beastly (HarperCollins, 2007) was born.

I feel that this is what kept me going. Most of my fellow authors who strictly stuck to one genre aren’t publishing anymore. It was sort of scary to make this switch, because I had a following in realistic, and my editor was really surprised, but I feel like I would not still be published, had I not switched at that point. I think it is important to have a “brand,” like don’t write one mystery and one romance and one little kid book, etc., but once you have a few, you can branch out.

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

I would not worry so much about individual reviews of my books. I used to obsess over them. I would know that, if you write something provocative, not everyone is going to like it. It’s sort of like comedy — you have to be willing to offend someone.

My first review of my first book, Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001), was really awful. The standout line was, “Teens may overlook its major flaws.”

I was devastated. But, know what? They did overlook those flaws. That book did really, really well. It was embraced by teachers and librarians and even bookstores. It is still published and assigned in schools almost seventeen years later, and I still get mail about it. Hundreds of young women have left their abusive boyfriends because of Breathing Underwater, so yes, Anonymous Reviewer Whom I May Not Even Realize I’ve Met, they did overlook those “major flaws.”

I love getting reviewed, love that people care enough to review my books — thank goodness! But I think sometimes, a reviewer just won’t be the right reader for your book. They won’t get you.

Like, maybe that reviewer didn’t know what to make of me because I was writing about dating violence from the abuser’s viewpoint.

As an author becomes more established, I think publications know, “Hey, this reviewer loves Alex Flinn’s books, so we will give it to her,” which is why more established authors are more likely to get a good review. But, even then, that reviewer may get upset if the author writes something different (such as switching genres, which I did).

As long as the book gets reviewed and isn’t all bad, you’re probably okay. I’ve had books that got so-so reviews and did well or got great reviews and did so-so.

In any case, it is something beyond my control, so if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t sweat it. Sometimes, what makes someone dislike a book is what makes another person like it.

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

Learn mroe about Beastly — the novel & film.

Well, as I said, the shift from realistic, “edgy” fiction to more fantasy and science fiction (especially vampire novels and dystopian triologies), then back to realistic fiction but maybe not as issue-oriented as it used to be.

Also, school and library has become less all-encompassing, not so much because those institutions are buying fewer books but because teens are buying more in bookstores, too.

I think it is all good because there is definitely the potential to sell more books overall than there was when I was starting. I feel like YA is more important, as a genre, than it used to be. But it is important to be aware of those changes and, if not anticipate them, at least try not to be blindsided by them.

I know several authors who were not able to budge at all on the type of books they wrote, whereas authors like Nancy Werlin keep going because they have changed.

My current books have a lot of the same “realistic” issues that my earlier books had. For example, my most recent book, Beheld (a collection of linked stories based upon fairy tales), had a teen pregnancy, peer pressure, body issues, parental drug use, etc., but just in a more historical fantasy context instead of being a problem novel.

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

Advice I already took: Follow your heart, but be willing to reinvent yourself.

Read and be aware of your surroundings.

Maybe be realistic about your capabilities.

One of my great inspirations as a writer is Richard Peck, who was a huge YA writer when I was a kid, and is a big children’s book writer still.

I had the good fortune to be able to meet him when I was pre-published, and he is someone who has always really known the market. When he was younger, he wrote mostly realistic “issue” YA fiction, suicide, peer pressure, rape.

He may not have invented the “problem” novel, but he was probably its biggest contributor (I do not consider the term “problem novel” to be pejorative at all).

As the world has changed, and so has he, he switched to younger kids’ books, but he has still managed to include issues about which he feels passionate, such as gay marriage in his latest novel, The Best Man (Dial, 2016).

Richard is 83 and has been a published author since 1972, with his latest book coming out in 2016. He has published a book just about every year of that time, and I think it was that mid-career switch that allowed that to happen.

I can see where he has done as I said and wrote something that was maybe just an impulse (a book about mice or a zombie novel, for example). Those impulse novels can keep you going.

This is a career I really admire, and I aspire to have. He has won every major award, Newbery, National Book Award finalist, ALAN Award, Edgar, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award, which is given for a body of young adult work.

There are other authors where I also see their ability to genre-jump and admire that. E. Lockhart and David Lubar are two I really admire. I feel like the abilities to be flexible and work hard are very important. Also, as Nemo said in the movie, “Just keep swimming.”

It is important to continue to publish, as it shores up the older books. I guess sometimes, it is necessary to take five years between books, but it would be bette r not to.

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

I hope the market will continue to grow.

I hope there will still be brick and mortar bookstores. I love indies, and we are fortunate to have a great indie in Miami, Books & Books, but I also pray for Barnes and Noble because not every town does have a great indie (I grew up near mostly crummy mall bookstores that were nowhere near as good as either BN or Books and Books), and those big bookstores carry a lot of books and have a lot to offer readers as well.

Books and Books, whose flagship store coexists maybe a block from one of the three remaining BNs in Miami, sort of shows that it is possible for these stores to fill different needs for different (or even the same) readers, but I think brick and mortar stores are important.

I did a great event this past weekend at a Barnes and Noble in Kendall. It wasn’t well-attended because it was shortly after Hurricane Irma and, therefore, people had other things going on, but the teens who showed up were really excited about reading and books.

It was inspiring really!

I just hope for more opportunities to get books to readers, and I hope schools will have money to do that as well.

Oh, and libraries. I hope that politicians will stop assuming no one uses libraries just because they, personally, do all their reading online.

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

At the “Beastly” premier.

Keep being published, keep being relevant, keep connecting with readers and getting letters from them.

I got a letter last week from a girl who says she wouldn’t have survived middle school without Beastly, and that is always great.

I’ve been that kid, and I’ve raised that kid too, so that’s the dream.

I’ll admit a secret ambition to win the Margaret A. Edwards Award someday. I don’t know if any single book of mine is necessarily going to be the standout book of its year, but I hope that, over time, my books will continue to illuminate young adults’ lives.

I’m also hoping Breathing Underwater makes it twenty years because I am really proud of that book and the influence it has had on young people, especially young women.

So, basically, just keep swimming.

Alex Flinn, Marjetta Geerling & Debbie Reed Fischer at an SCBWI conference

Cynsational Notes

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

Survivors: Margaret Peterson Haddix on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Margaret Peterson Haddix.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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



Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Oh, I did so many things wrong!

A lot of my struggles in the beginning were just about having the confidence to think that it was possible to be published.

And I was so green and stupid and ignorant, starting out. I think I expected everything to be easier after that—because then I would know what I was doing. And I certainly do know more than I did back then, but every book is like starting over, with its own challenges and struggles. And its own opportunities.

I think one thing that helped me was that I had worked as a newspaper reporter and copy editor before writing my first book. That forced me to learn how to write (and edit) consistently and on deadline, and to have a thicker skin about people criticizing my work. (I’m not sure I ever developed a thick enough skin for journalism, but it gave me some perspective and definitely helped in the kinder world of children’s publishing.)

I was also very, very fortunate in many ways with things that weren’t exactly under my control. I worked hard (counting books that aren’t out yet, I’ve written 43 books in 26 years) but it was what I wanted to do. Some people want to be writers so they can say they’ve written a book, and some people want to be writers because they like to write, and I was lucky/blessed that it’s almost always been the writing itself that I’ve enjoyed most.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been plenty of days when I think all my ideas are stupid and I delete more than I write and I question whether I even know English and I wonder why I didn’t go into an easier field, or at least one where I could know for sure if I was doing things right, instead of endlessly flipping back and forth between multiple choices. (Should it be “and” here, or “but”? Or maybe “so”? Arrrgggghhhh!)

But overall, I am still just having fun. And I was lucky that my books (overall—not every single one) did well enough that I could just keep writing.

I was lucky that the agents and editors who pushed my career along were a lot savvier than I ever was about a lot of publishing issues. (The credit here goes mostly to Tracey Adams at Adams Literary and David Gale at Simon & Schuster, both of whom I’ve worked with the longest.)

Beyond that, I have been lucky with a lot of issues that affect a writing career in less obvious ways. I was lucky that I had health insurance through my husband. I was lucky that the emergencies/crises/day-to-day problems in my family and personal life were the type that could be handled alongside a writing career, instead of supplanting it.

 I was lucky that I’d grown up on a farm, and seen my father manage being self-employed with all its ups and downs and everything that’s good and bad about being your own boss, and so I had a good role model for that. (That farm background was also good because, no matter how much I can tie my brain into knots agonizing over some writing problem, this is still a much, much easier and more pleasant job than shoveling manure or many of the other chores I did as a kid.)

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

It’s tempting to say yes, of course if I could go back, I would learn from my mistakes and do better the second time around. But there’s that lesson of time travel (which I’ve thought about a lot, having written an eight-book time-travel series): if you eliminate a problem, you might also eliminate all the good results.

I’d like to say that I would be less stressed and obsessive, but I’m not sure I can stop being that way going forward with my career, let alone going back. I think it’s a basic personality trait for me, and being stressed and anxious and slightly obsessive pushed me through the difficult parts of just about every single one of my books. There were a few years that were crazy because I’d over-committed and agreed to too many tight book deadlines, along with too much book-related travel, and it would have been wise not to have done that. But I’m not sure which book I would want to have not written.

I do wish I had not been so intimidated and shy the first, oh, let’s say ten to fifteen years of my writing career. I think I missed out on the opportunity to get to know a lot of interesting, thoughtful people in the publishing world back then, as well as a lot of wonderful educators, librarians, booksellers, and other authors.

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

The biggest changes are because of the internet and social media, and now the ever-presence of smartphones. Like most technological advances, those are all mixed blessings.

In the early years, even when I was writing a book under contract, most of the time it felt like I was just playing around with my ideas on my own, in total isolation. And then I would go to a school or library or bookstore or conference, and it was always a little stunning to me: Wait, these people know my characters, too? And… they like them? Amazing!

In many ways it is wonderful now to be able to interact with readers (and others in the publishing world) over social media, and to get feedback on a regular basis. It’s not so wonderful when the feedback is negative or outright vitriolic (or abusive). I’ve read articles about how damaging it is to kids and teens to have so much of their self-esteem tied to an online world and the Pavlovian effect of seeking likes on social media. Adults should be able to keep perspective better, but I’m not sure it’s healthy for any of us.

If nothing else, social media and constant connectedness take a lot of time and energy. And among my other worries about society and the future, I worry that we’re all going to be reduced to having the attention spans of gnats, which of course would be terrible for the future of books.

The other big change recently is the emphasis on diversity in children’s books and the children’s book world, and I applaud the opportunity for everyone to learn more about one another, and for kids from a variety of backgrounds to see themselves more in books. And for authors who would have been automatically discriminated against in the past to get more attention.

 I know we are a long, long way from an ideal situation, but I want to believe we are making progress. I am trying to listen and learn and read more widely myself.

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

That’s a little mind-blowing to contemplate. I think, though, that I’d give the same advice for a first book or a fortieth, or for any career in general. Do your best with what you can control, and let go of what you can’t.

Of course you want your book to succeed, but understand that timing and luck can play a huge role; sometimes good books fail, and sometimes mediocre books succeed.

If your book is a success, of course rejoice and be happy, but remember that that success doesn’t actually define your worth as a person. And if your book fails (or just doesn’t live up to expectations), then of course mourn for that book and the impact you wanted it to have, but even more than with a success, don’t let that failure define your worth as a person.

Be glad if you have friends and family members who don’t know or care anything about your book, except for knowing and caring about you.

And have I managed to follow all that advice myself? Sometimes. Not always.

I could do better. I have managed to follow another part of the advice I’d give, which is to then focus on writing the next book.

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

This is a selfish wish, because I am a reader, too: I wish to see a lot more great books from other writers! And beyond that, I would wish for every kid to find at least one book (and hopefully many, many, many books) that speaks directly to him or her.

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

I am still figuring that out!

Cynsational Notes

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

Survivors: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Shelley Ann Jackson, Chris Barton, Jennifer Ziegler, Cyn & P.J. Hoover

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Writers put so much emphasis on that first children’s-YA book sale, the debut launch—but maintaining an active publishing career is arguably a much bigger challenge than breaking into the business.

So, let’s talk about career endurance as authors of books for young readers.

I’ve invited numerous, well (and enduringly) published friends and colleagues to share their thoughts in future posts as part of this ongoing series.

You can look forward to their wisdom in the days and months to come.

Meanwhile, it’s my pleasure today to begin this conversation.

My first picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, was published in 2000, and my first novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, followed in 2001 (both from HarperCollins).

Of late I’m looking forward to the release of my upcoming realistic YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, from Candlewick in January 2019. It’ll be my fifteenth book in a career that’s included both the Tantalize series and the Feral trilogy (Candlewick 2007-2015) as well as additional picture books, a chapter book, numerous short stories, creative nonfiction essays and, most recently, poetry.

As a forty-something author, I have no plans to retire anytime soon—if ever. But of late, I’ve noticed that I’m now the longest-published author at most book festivals. Even at mega-slate conferences, it’s easy for me to quickly tick off those who were active in my early days.

Why? Why–in just under two decades–would the field turn over to such an extreme degree?

Demographics and industry culture played a role.

When I started out, publishers seemed reluctant to take chances on new voices. And in the pre-Potter industry, there wasn’t the widespread idea that writing for young readers was a viable and attainable career path (or at least one with the potential to generate a livable income).

Consequently, fewer younger people were pursuing it.

As a GenXer, I also entered the field as a shockingly young writer by the standards of the day.

I knew only a couple of published authors (and only online) who were around my age. The overwhelming majority were at least fifteen years older.

Most were a full generation older.

Now, the pendulum has swung hard the other way.

Both new and young voices are plentiful, but too many fade from the stage after one or two books, including authors who’re much buzzed and—at least at first—seem to have real momentum.

What does that mean for those of us still in the game?

How about for new and up-and-coming voices?

All of this begs the question: What does it take to survive and thrive?

A couple of years ago, children’s-YA author Janni Lee Simner offered her excellent Writing for the Long Haul series.

This is an extension of that conversation, centered more on the rapid and ongoing changes in the publishing industry and how they affect us all.

Please indulge me as I answer the questions that I passed on to other established voices who’re soon to chime in.

Reflecting on your personal author’s journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Early on, the biggest challenge was that I was writing contemporary Native fiction, rooted in Story rather than as an exercise in thinly veiled social studies.

I was writing with the assumption that #ownvoices readers—young Native readers—would be in the audience. And I cared about them, too. In fact, given a content-sensibility choice, I prioritized them over other readers. Including non-Indian editors and gatekeepers.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Native literary voices were few, and the wider world wasn’t really interested in changing that. I had a librarian tell me without blinking, “We don’t need you. We already have Joseph Bruchac.”

Joe, who is Abenaki, is a treasure–talented, knowledgeable, dedicated and remarkably prolific. But one Native voice was enough? (At the time, Joe himself was working to empower more Native voices and get their work out into the world, and he’s still a tireless advocate.)

Yes, there were a few more Native voices out there—like Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Lakota) and Michael Lacapa (Apache-Tewa-Hopi), and while they were rightly celebrated, The Powers That Be weren’t paying nearly enough attention to them either. Put mildly, it was frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. My early Native books didn’t fare badly. They were critically acclaimed. They’re all still in print today.

For Rain Is Not My Indian Name, I was named a writer of the year in (children’s-YA) from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Illustrators.

But a lot of non-Indian people didn’t seem to know what to make of those titles. They weren’t historicals. They weren’t designed to teach white kids and that’s it. They dared to feature diversity within Indian Country, including urban Indians and Black Indians.

Post publication, it was easier to sell a powwow picture book than a novel set in an intertribal community and, in turn, that was easier to sell than a chapter book set in the city. Most retail buyers and gatekeepers preferred their Native characters in feathers. My initial sales figures declined from book to book. Meanwhile, the so-called multicultural boom of the late 1990s had gone bust. A major trade house marketing pro said to me, “Multiculturalism is dead. We tried it and it didn’t work.”

I also was feeling pigeon-holed. I wanted to write Native fiction—then and forever—but I had other stories to tell, too. And so, I did.

I’m a huge speculative fiction geek. Consequently, I shifted gears and began writing Gothic fantasy, right before the boom in paranormal fiction hit. I was accidentally on trend. There was a crossover audience from there to my Tantalize series, and then I shifted to fantasy-adventure for the Feral trilogy that spun off it.

The books still featured diverse characters, gender empowerment and social justice themes, but they were more commercial. The cast included some Native secondary characters and content because it was set in (sort of) this world and we are still here.

Basically, I embraced my wider interests and reinvented.

(Something I’ve noticed in my peers who’ve endured—many of them have reinvented themselves, too.)

Along the way, I contributed to numerous anthologies. I wrote short stories, creative nonfiction and poetry.

That forced me to stretch artistically and introduced my writing to a wider audience. It was a continuing education in craft. It also positioned my byline alongside fellow contributors and steadily raised my profile. It kept my name out there in the in-between-books years.

Now, I have persevered long enough to return to Native contemporary fiction in my next YA novel.

Though progress is still needed and uneven, Children’s-YA publishing is finally starting to become a little more diversity friendly and inclusive. I’m more hopeful now. When it comes to the diversity conversation, this isn’t my first rodeo. But it feels different this time.

It’s heartening, more fraught with emotion. The pushback from detractors is so much harder and more fierce, I think, because the stakes are high and the gains are real.

What did I do right along the way?

I decided to:

  • Commit to my ongoing education in the craft of writing.
  • Teach others. The necessity of repeatedly articulating various concepts, considerations and techniques allows me to better access and apply them myself.
  • Keep reading. A working writer’s knowledge of the field should be refreshed on a regular basis.
  • Commit to community. Friends offer support and perspective that I pay back and forward. They also bolster the positive reinforcement for my writing life.
  • Stay flexible. Especially if I’m pushing the creative envelope, I need to keep in mind that “not now” isn’t the same as “never.” And I can help faciliate positive change. In the meantime, write something else, something that heightens my skillset to be ready for whatever comes next.
  • Appreciate and work with the home team(s). For me, that translates to Austin SCBWI, the Writers’ League of Texas, Curtis Brown Ltd. and VCFA.

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

I’ve alluded to the changes in author demographics, the ebb and flow of enthusiasm for diversity and inclusion. What else stands out? In the post-Potter world, children’s-YA publishing is a much bigger business. There’s a feeling that there’s money to be made in it, and a lot has flowed from that.

When I started out, I could name the few children’s-YA literary agents on my fingers. Authors were still debating whether representation was necessary at all. Now, I’m always hearing of new agents—some of whom don’t last long—and editors occasionally move into that role and back again.

I’ve worked with independent publicists—with my publishers’ blessings—to supplement their efforts and mine (I recommend Blue Slip Media). I’m blessed to be represented by a top-notch events agent, Carmen Oliver at The Booking Biz.

Compare that to my early days, wherein a well-established author said to me, “All you have to do—or can do—is school visits, but it’s really easy to stay in print that way.”

Fellow VCFA faculty at Sarducci’s in Montpelier, Vt.

In terms of craft, we have more MFA programs in writing for young readers and other opportunities for serious study.

I’m a faculty member on the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

We were the first fully dedicated graduate program on the scene. Now, there are over a dozen.

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

Beginning Writer, Cyn! Celebrate!

Embrace the experience and, along the way, continue to prioritize the writing itself. I mentioned stretching across age markets, genres and formats. Continue to learn, grow and take on new writing styles. Your art and career will both benefit from it.

It’s a huge adjustment, going from apprentice to published author-ambassador. Your creative time, heart, and goals may evolve, but writing should stay firmly at (or at least near) the top of your list. That doesn’t mean you must write every day or you must finish a certain number of words or pages. It means that of all the hats you wear, make sure you stay steadfastly in the habit of reaching for the one labeled “Writer.”

Be your own best cheerleader and fold into your heart the voices that lift you up. If you can learn from a critical remark, by all means, gratefully embrace that opportunity. But realize that positivity is ultimately what will fuel your forward journey. Nobody but you has the power to force you out of this field. Be affirmatively flexible. Too many writers talk themselves out of success.

News flash: All writing counts as writing. If you’re writing a speech or an article or answering interview questions, you’re still writing. Don’t count only the books and short creative pieces published, as though you’re above truly valuing or being fulfilled by anything else. Those audiences matter, too.

Supporting my local indie bookstore, BookPeople in Austin!

And, by the way, a lot of perfectly fine writers build their careers on that sort of thing. A lot of them who’re better at the craft than you are.

So, no whining about the day-job writing this career requires. It is a priviledge and opportunity to share and grow that way, too.

That said, you can do more than write. You can mentor and advocate. If you’re worried about, say, the dearth of Native voices or the lack of attention to them, make the effort to help facilitate change. And do so consistently.*

Beyond that, speak your truth to others with kindness and stand up for yourself and your friends when necessary. But forgive readily and work through whatever conflicts, if you can. Yes, there are hard-fought moments at the children’s-YA lit dinner table. But we are all still a family. A community.

We share a commitment to quality books for young readers, even if we don’t always agree on how to get there. Yes, sadly, there are people who  may not be worth your time and effort, who won’t change for the better. So what. They don’t define who you are. Call me an optimist, but I believe in our potential for excellent youth literature across the board. I believe in the kids. I believe in us.

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



I wish that we would let Story guide marketing rather than vice versa. Enough with the exhausting overwriting in middle grade and YA. Yes, more avid readers buy books than reluctant ones. But our duty is to kids—all kids—more than to the quick formula to a buck.

New release! Honored to have contributed!

If we don’t write lean, we’ll lose all but the most committed readers and give up on converts entirely.

On the flip side, brevity in a picture book can be genius or—if forced—feel like we’re simply sneezing product.

The book needs to be as long as it needs to be.

I wish that beginning “diverse” writers—defined broadly—
will be welcomed at every stage, that they won’t have to navigate so many micro (and macro) aggressions along the way. I would love for a whole month to pass without a Native writer or writer of color telling me they don’t feel safe sharing in their own critique groups.

I wish that we were all more appreciative of the global conversation of books, both within our own countries and around the planet. Embracing diversity from region to region and across borders of all kinds.

I wish that we’ll all gain an appreciation of the voices who came before us, where our own work fits into the larger conversation of youth literature, and the need to nurture future generations of writers—the kids who’re reading our books now.

And by the way, I wish everyone has terrific mental and physical health and health insurance and more financial security. Because, at the risk of stating the obvious, the first condition of surviving as an active publishing writer is surviving–period.

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

I hope that I’ll always be at least as courageous as I am today.

Cynsational Notes

* I’m thrilled by the increase of Native and First Nations voices–newcomers like Traci Sorell (Cherokee), Daniel Vandever (Navajo), Eric Gansworth (Onondaga), ever-rising stars like Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Richard Van Camp (Dogrib), and luminaries like Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mounain Band of Chippewa) and Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)–among many more.

I’m also  honored to participate on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books.

At BookPeople in Austin, Texas.

Cynsational Notes

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