In Memory: David R. Davis

for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

David R. Davis died May 24 as Cynsations was beginning summer hiatus.

Author David Davis Was a Friend, wrote Glenn Dromgoole for The Eagle. Peek:

“I’m sad to report that David Davis, one of my favorite Texas children’s authors and a good friend, died May 24… 

“David had a wonderful sense of humor and often teamed up with fellow Fort Worth children’s author Jan Peck to put on delightful programs for schools, libraries and book festivals.”

From Jan Peck:

“My favorite story David told in schools was about how he hated math and got in trouble when he was a kid:

When Grandpaw heard about me not studying my math, he didn’t get mad at me. he just took me fishing at Cibolo Creek in San Antonio.We got out in the lake and Grandpaw said, ‘Dave, what’s this I hear about you not studying your math?’

I said, ‘Aww, Grandpaw, I don’t like math! I just like to draw.’

A school visit poster David created that includes Jan and David’s book titles.

‘Come over here, boy. I want you to feel my hands.’

I felt my grandpa’s hands, ‘They’re rough as a corn cob, ain’t they?’

‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘I’ve had to work like a rented mule my whole life because I didn’t get an education. I don’t want that for you, Dave. Listen, you study hard and learn all you can because a man that can read can teach himself anything else.’

And that’s what I did, I read everything. I read about drawing, and I taught myself to draw cartoons. I learned to write and got to do picture books and I learned my math.

Then David would turn to the kids and say, “You have this wonderful school with all these caring teachers and your good librarian. Use your library and read these books about things you’re interested in for at least five minutes a day. And by the time you grow up, you’ll be an expert in what you have learned.”

In addition to 16 picture books, David published pen and ink artwork, cartoons, poems, humor, and short stories.

His short story, “Black Diamond,” won the Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest.

He also self-published several humor books, including Travels With Grandpaw: A Texas Memoir (Amazon Digital, 2011), his venture into nonfiction writing for adults.

He was an active speaker and presenter at educational conferences and schools. He did programs from Pre-K all the way to graduating teachers at college level.

He presented at many book festivals and appeared on TV, radio, and as a featured author at the Texas Book Festival.

David was my partner in rhyme, my soul-brother and my friend, my writing/art/music soulmate, and my playmate (we were like kids).

We did millions of school visits together and even wrote together, The Green Mother Goose (illustrated by Carin Berger, Sterling, 2011).

He always makes me laugh, even through tears. I love him with all my heart forever! Rest in Peace, David!

From Alan Fearl Stacy:

“It is a fact that you never really get anywhere in life without close friendships. 

I met David Davis at an SCBWI conference through mutual friends. After looking at my art, he recommended I try to get book illustration work with Pelican Publishing.

A few books later with another publisher, David asked me if I would like to illustrate a book he was working on, Texas Zeke and the Longhorn (Pelican, 2006).

Before working on the illustrations, I asked David if there were any suggestions he had. He replied “no” and said that was entirely up to me. I showed him some color sketches of the character of Texas Zeke.

‘Is that me?’ he asked with a gleam in his eyes. I was a little embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t help see him as Texas Zeke. ‘Oh, that’s great! I can use that.’ He ran off with a grin like a kid who was given a Christmas present.

He had such a great wit that I dubbed him the Mark Twain of children’s literature.”

From Diane Roberts:

“As I’ve said a zillion times, laughter is the best medicine of all and when I was around David Davis I simply felt better just being with him.

He loved his work, his family, the kids he wrote for, and he was as happy as a duck in water with a pencil in his hands. He hit life head-on and didn’t dilly dally around wasting time. 

He read a million books and love to quote Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury

One afternoon as we all lingered at our 4 Star Critique Den, I asked him how could I overcome my writer’s block. I couldn’t believed I’d published two middle grade novels, (taking 50 years to get in print) and I was so stuck on my next book. 

He jumped right in with a solution and quoted Ray Bradbury: ‘Living at risk is like jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down,’ he told me.

He encouraged me to just dive in and write. ‘Take a risk,’ he’d say. ‘It’s worth it.’ 

It’s true. I have taken lots of risks, some work and some didn’t but at least I’ve done it. 

David was an honest-to-the-core author. He never met someone he couldn’t open up a conversation with. We all miss him but so blessed to have been in his circle of friends.”

From Mark Leeds:

“David Davis guided us all toward deep insights made simple. Minute to learn, lifetime to master insights like ‘cut it down and flesh it out.’

He taught me this 10 years ago in my first critique with him and I’m still trying to do this every time I write and re-write. What can I cut from this chapter that really isn’t necessary? What cannot be cut because there is something profound about it? How do I make that thing even better?

But more than anything he ever said about writing, David made us better writers by bringing his own writing to critique group.

We saw a lifetime of craftsmanship in whatever he brought and we were all the better for having heard it, the artistry of his storytelling inspiring us to come back the next week, better than we were the week before.

Author Interview: Samantha Mabry on Being Unique & All the Wind in the World

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Samantha Mabry is the author of All the Wind in the World (Algonguin Young Readers, 2017). It was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. From the promotional copy:

Sarah Jac Crow and James Holt have fallen in love working in the endless fields that span a near-future, bone-dry Southwest, a land that’s a little bit magical, deeply dangerous, and bursting with secrets. 


To protect themselves, they’ve learned to work hard and—above all—keep their love hidden from the people who might use it against them. Then, just when Sarah Jac and James have settled in and begun saving money for the home they dream of near the coast, a horrible accident sends them on the run. 


With no choice but to start over on a new, possibly cursed ranch, the delicate balance of their lives begins to give way—and they may have to pay a frighteningly high price for their love.


All The Wind In The World is so lush with atmosphere. Do you have a personal connection to the southwest settings in the novel?

I do! My husband and I both teach college, so we have summers off. For the last five years, we’ve spent a good chunk of those summers out in Marfa, Texas, which is about an eight-hour drive west from where we live in Dallas. I love it out there, but it’s hard to describe exactly why.

It’s very dry and quiet and windy. There are mountains in the distance, and trains that roll through (breaking the silence). I spend a lot time outside, on walks or reading in a hammock. I always knew I wanted to set a story there because I hoped to explore the layers beneath that quiet and seemingly simple landscape. 

You touch on complex social issues, like marginalized communities and the balance of power in societies and relationships. What drew you to those topics?

While A Fierce and Subtle Poison (Algonquin, 2016) was my book about culture, I wanted All the Wind in the World to be my book about class. 


And yeah, I wanted to explore power imbalances –from the way the ranch owner and higher-ups manipulate their workers to the way a young couple’s relationships starts to teeter and tilt. These power imbalances cause ranch life to unravel.

Natural phenomena meld with mutinies; people start to look for answers in the supernatural. There’s a lot to mine in a system and a setting that’s unfair.

I didn’t want to make this world too much of a dystopia, though. Even though it’s set in the future, I wanted to make it as reflective of working conditions in the past and present as I could.

I can’t really say what drew me to these topics. I studied Marxist theory all throughout college and graduate school, and thus have always been keen on viewing texts and stories in terms of what’s happening with power dynamics and economics and how those aspects affect everything else.

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


I just always try to look at people (and characters) as being full of complexities. 

My mother is Mexican American, and my dad is half-Puerto Rican and half-white. So, I’ve always generally been interested in (and will probably always be interested in) people who are of mixed heritage and how those people both shape and are shaped by their identities. 
In A Fierce and Subtle Poison, culture and identity were very front and center –the characters spoke often about their heritage. It was such a central part of that novel. 
In All the Wind in the World, the main character is often defined by others (she’s referred to as having “mixed blood” on a couple of occasions), but her bloodline is not something she thinks about often. She’s not reflective in that way.

I’ll probably always explore the shades of Latinidad and try to show that there are myriad authentic ways to be Latinx.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?


I didn’t become a writer until I was in my late twenties because I was intimidated and had no idea how to even start. It took me a long time to realize what kind of writer I wanted to be and how I fit in.

I try to encourage beginning writers to figure out where they fit in a tradition. Like, are they wanting to write thrillers like Author X or horror novels like Author Y? Or are they wanting to do some hybrid genre, inspired by both Author X and Author Y? 

Then, with their favorite, most inspirational authors as touchstones, I’d ask these beginning writers how they are going to be different. Like, how are they going to fit in with the tradition without being derivative or copycats? 
I’m a huge fan of honoring tradition and wearing my influences on my sleeve, but I also think an author needs to consider how their contribution is going to be unique and different, not just in terms of writing a different kind of story, but in approaching a genre with fresh eyes, a new point of view, and/or a new stylistic angle.
Cynsations Notes

Samantha by Laura Burlton Photography
Booklist gave All the Wind in the World a starred review and wrote, “In aching, luminous prose, Mabry crafts a story impossible to forget, infused with southwestern folklore and magical realism. The harsh desert is exquisitely, painfully rendered, and the characters are flawed and wholly real. A gripping, fablelike story of a love ferocious enough to destroy and a world prepared to burn…”
Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books. 
She credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off bad spirits. 
She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. 

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.

Guest Post: Brian Anderson Collaborating with His Daughter Amy on Space Dictionary for Kids

By Brian Anderson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Have you ever wondered why the spacecraft that carried the first U.S. astronaut into space in 1961 was named the Freedom 7? Was George Lucas already planning six prequels, or what?

When my daughter Amy turned 21 years old in July 2014, she was doing summer research in astrophysics at Baylor University. Her birthday coincided with a stargazing party at Meyer Observatory, so I offered to make a piñata and have the star party double as a birthday party.

I started making custom piñatas when Amy was five years old, and over the years her birthday party piñatas had grown increasingly elaborate.

“How about a black hole piñata,” I joked. I imagined one round balloon, decorated all black. She would never agree to that.

“That’d be fantastic!”

I knew right away something was wrong. I told her nothing escapes the gravity of a black hole, not even light. It’s just a black dot in space. That’s when she told me about accretion disks and X-ray emissions and Hawking radiation. Apparently, I had a lot to learn about black holes, and now I also had a challenging piñata to make.

The following summer my friend and fellow Austin children’s book author Christina Soontornvat told me that Prufrock Press was looking for an author to write an astronomy dictionary for kids.

Christina and I are both science educators as well as children’s book authors, and she thought I’d be perfect for the job. But after the way that black hole piñata joke backfired on me the summer before, I knew I didn’t know enough astronomy to write a book about it.

But I knew someone who did.

Brian & Amy–back in the day.

Amy had just graduated from college and was taking the summer off before starting graduate school in the fall.

When I suggested we write it together, her first question was the same as mine – isn’t there something like this already available online for free?

Her search turned up the same thing mine had: some highly technical glossaries that were clearly not intended for kids, and a scattered collection of incomplete and sometimes incorrect astronomy glossaries for students.

My nine-year-old self was screaming at me that space-loving kids needed this book. Amy felt the same way, and agreed to help write it. We have liftoff!

We compiled a word list of about 450 terms, grouped them into five subject areas, then dived into researching and writing.

The fact that Amy understood the science content much better than I did is part of the reason our collaboration on Space Dictionary for Kids (Sourcebooks, 2016) worked so well. She brought content mastery and I brought a learner’s perspective.

Together we were able to create an astronomy dictionary that’s both scientifically accurate and understandable to young readers.

Collaborating with my daughter will always be one of the highlights of my writing career, and Amy taught me a lot of astronomy along the way. I finally understand retrograde motion!

I already knew quasars were the brightest objects in the universe, brighter than an entire galaxy of stars, but until I started working with Amy I never knew exactly what a quasar was. And I also learned (a little too late) that I should have offered to make Amy a black dwarf piñata instead of a black hole piñata.

Cynsational Notes

To answer the opening question, each of the Project Mercury astronauts, known collectively as the Mercury 7, was allowed to name the ship that would carry him into space, and each ship’s name would end with the number 7. In addition to Freedom 7, the other Mercury spacecraft were Liberty Bell 7, Friendship 7, Aurora 7, Sigma 7, and Faith 7. If you’re keeping score, you probably noticed that that was only six. To find out what happened to the seventh Mercury astronaut, flip to page 144.

Guest Post: Carolyn Dee Flores on Achieving Deeper Color in Illustration Using Oil on Cardboard

By Carolyn Dee Flores
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Illustrators bear witness.

Nothing could be more important.

One hundred years from now, when someone wants to know what it was like to be a seven-year-old girl in New York City on her birthday – or what it was like to be a Mexican-American child growing up in Texas – they won’t go to a reference book and look it up. They will look at a picture.

Illustrators, we must:

See with our fingers.
See with our hands.
See with our pencils.
So much depends upon it.

The world “literally” depends upon it!

The process for the bilingual picture book – A Surprise for Teresita/Una Sorpresa Para Teresita, written by Virginia Sánchez-Korrol (Arte Publico, 2016) – I knew I needed to concentrate on community. I looked at 10, 000 photographs of New York City. I’ve been to New York City before – so I tried to remember it and “breathe” it in.
A Surprise for Teresita is about a little girl in a Nuyorican (Puerto-Rican/New York) neighborhood.

I loved the idea of the tropical Puerto Rican culture splashed against the New York City buildings and brownstones.

I got to work immediately.

I made models from foamboard.

I ordered a snow cone machine.

I studied the difference between “snow cones”, “raspas”, and “piraguas.” Delicious!

It became obvious to me that my color palette was going to be “snow cones.”

But … there was a dilemma.

How to capture the intense color I needed, using only the mediums of pencil and watercolor?

The answer: I couldn’t.

I needed oil paint – the brilliant color of oil paint!

So … encouraged by my mentors – Caldecott winner Denise Fleming and Caldecott winner E.B. Lewis – I set out to create a new illustration process.

And, thankfully, it worked!

Here is what I did:

The Problem:

1. Oil paint takes five months to a year and a half to dry.

2. Oil paint on a “raw” surface, such as untreated cloth or cardboard, tends to bleed and is very difficult to control.

The Solution:

1. Liquin medium. “One stroke” at a time. I squeeze each tube of oil paint separately onto my palette. I dip my brush into each color. Then I dip it into the Liquin. I mix the colors as I paint, directly on the cardboard.

2. After each application, I clean the brush, and start again.

3. Similar to “watercolor technique,” I use the “cardboard” as my “white.” In the close-up of Teresita (below) – the highlights in Teresita’s hair are cardboard showing through.

4. As I paint, the oil seeps deep into the cardboard.

5. The cardboard remains wet for weeks “on the inside” – but the “skin” of the painting dries within four and a half hours! It is ready to scan immediately!

This process enabled me to paint A Surprise for Teresita without bleed, quickly, and using the saturated colors that I desperately wanted! All the difference in the world!

New Voice & Giveaway: Donna Janell Bowman on Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Donna Janell Bowman is the first-time author of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A Horse that can read, write, and do math?

Ridiculous! 

That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. 

Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This question ties so perfectly into my belief that there’s a piece of us in everything we write.

In 2006, I read a book about Beautiful Jim Key, authored by Mim Eichler Rivas (William Morrow 2005/Harper Paperbacks 2006). It was a given that I would be drawn to a horse book. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where life revolved around raising, training, and showing horses, and caring for the myriad livestock and other animals. I have always been an animal lover, and I know firsthand how powerful the human-animal bond can be—how the combination of time, trust, and affection can create such synergy that you can practically read each other’s minds.

Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.

That kind of relationship bonded William “Doc” Key and his horse, Beautiful Jim Key. While the horse was what drew me to the story, I was immediately awed by Doc. His greatest historical contribution was an unmistakable message about kindness, in a time of extreme racial prejudice, and brutal treatment of animals.

How could I not love the story of a man who overcame so much to make a real difference in the world?

Thanks to Doc, “Jim,” the horse, became a sort of poster child for the emerging humane movement, while Doc overcame injustices, broke racial barriers, and helped change the way people thought about and treated animals. Doc was awarded a Service to Humanity Award, and Jim was awarded a “Living Example” award.

So, back to your question, Cyn, about what inspired me to write this story—it spoke to my heart. I dived into research with zeal.

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

There were a number of challenges to writing this story, but three that most stand out:

First, the research. It was claimed that Beautiful Jim Key could read, write, calculate math problems, compete in spelling bees, identify playing cards, operate a cash register, and more. I had to get to the bottom of how this could be possible.

I used the adult book as my jumping off point, but I wasn’t satisfied to rely solely on somebody else’s research.

This is a story that straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, so I read a great deal about the period, including slavery, the Reconstruction Era in the distinct regions of Tennessee, the history of the humane organizations; the related World’s Fairs, Doc’s business interests, etc.

Emotionally, the most difficult part was reading about how animals were treated in the 19th century, and, more importantly, how enslaved people were often treated with similar brutality. Only a tiny fraction of my research appears in the book’s back matter, but it all deeply affected my approach to the story.

I visited the Shelbyville (TN) Public Library and skimmed through their microfilm. Then I spent some time at the Tennessee State Archives, donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling scrapbooks from the BJK collection.

During that 2009 trip, I also visited the humble Beautiful Jim Key memorial in Shelbyville, TN, and Doc’s grave site at the Willow Mount Cemetery. (I might have shed a few sentimental tears.) We then tracked down what I think was Doc’s former property, though the house is long gone.

This kind of onsite research, along with old photos and local news accounts, allowed me to imagine the setting of Doc’s hometown. Back home, I collected binders-full of newspaper articles, playbills, and promotional booklets. Through these, I got a feel for how people thought about Doc and Jim.

And, most importantly, I found some of Doc’s explanations for how he taught the horse. What became clear was, though we may never know exactly how the horse was able to do so many remarkable things, the countless news reporters and professors who tried to prove trickery or a hoax, never found anything beyond “education.” Jim only rarely made mistakes.

Ultimately, what Doc and Jim did for the humane movement is even more significant than what the horse performed on stage.

Originally, I had planned the story for middle grade audiences until my agent (who wasn’t my agent yet) suggested that I try a picture book version. I already had half of the chapters written by this time, so I was aghast at the thought of starting over. And I didn’t know how to write a picture book biography. I spent the next two years analyzing and dissecting a couple hundred picture book biographies to figure out how they work.

I decided to blog about some of my craft observations, using the platform as a quasi-classroom for myself and anyone else who might happen upon my site.

Many, many, many drafts later, I had a manuscript that attracted the attention of a few editors. Lee and Low was the perfect home for Doc and Jim.

There was a built-in challenge in writing this story about a formerly-enslaved African American man. Because I don’t fit any of Doc’s descriptors, it was doubly important that I approach the subject with respect and sensitivity.

I couldn’t merely charge through with the mindset that I’m just the historian sharing documented facts.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

It is so exciting to finally be crossing the threshold into this new role. The past nine years, which is how long I’ve had the story in my head and in my heart, have felt like the longest-ever pregnancy.

There’s a mixture of joy, relief, and fear during this delivery stage. Fortunately, so far, very nice starred reviews have praised the book, and each reviewer wisely sings the praises of Daniel Minter’s spectacular lino-cut acrylic art.

As I think ahead to marketing and promotion, I’m planning for the Oct. 15 release, the Oct. 23 launch party, and how the book might raise awareness of the need for more kindness in the world—not only toward animals but toward each other.

From my very first draft, nine years ago, I knew I’d revive the original Beautiful Jim Key Pledge—originally signed by two million people during Doc and Jim’s time.

I plan to incorporate the pledge into my author presentations, and it will be downloadable from my website soon. I also hope to align with some humane organizations to help them raise awareness.

I have two more books under contract, several others on submission or in revision, and a novel-in-progress.

In 2018, Peachtree Publishers will release En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, followed in 2019 by King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.

Such is the author’s life, right? We write, we rewrite, we revise, we sell, we wait, we celebrate, then we do it all over again. Because we can’t imagine not writing something that moves us. And we can’t imagine not writing for young people.

Cynsational Giveaway

Book Launch! Join Donna Janell Bowman at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at BookPeople in Austin. Donna will be speaking and signing.

Fundraiser: Step Right Up and Help The Rescued Horses of Bluebonnet Equine Human Society: “They are horses, donkeys, and ponies that are helpless and hopeless. And they are hurting. The lucky ones land at Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society. Under the loving care of professional staff and volunteers, the animals are medically and nutritionally rehabilitated, then placed with trainers to prepare them for re-homing/adoption.” See also Interview: Step Right Up Author Donna Janell Bowman by Terry Pierce from Emu’s Debuts.

Enter to win two author-signed copies of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016).

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New Voices: Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer on The Season

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer are the first-time authors of The Season (Viking, 2016). From the promotional copy:


She can score a goal, do sixty box jumps in a row, bench press a hundred and fifty pounds…but can she learn to curtsy?



Megan McKnight is a soccer star with Olympic dreams, a history major, an expert at the three Rs of Texas (readin’, ridin’, and ropin’), but she’s not a girly girl. 

So when her Southern belle mother secretly enters her as a debutante for the 2016 deb season in their hometown of Dallas, she’s furious—and has no idea what she’s in for. 

When Megan’s attitude gets her on probation with the mother hen of the debs, she’s got a month to prove she can ballroom dance, display impeccable manners, and curtsey like a proper Texas lady or she’ll get the boot and disgrace her family. 

The perk of being a debutante, of course, is going to parties, and it’s at one of these lavish affairs where Megan gets swept off her feet by the debonair and down-to-earth Hank Waterhouse. 

If only she didn’t have to contend with a backstabbing blonde and her handsome but surly billionaire boyfriend, Megan thinks, being a deb might not be so bad after all. But that’s before she humiliates herself in front of a room full of ten-year-olds, becomes embroiled in a media-frenzy scandal, and gets punched in the face by another girl.


The season has officially begun…but the drama is just getting started.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

The Season is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen set in Texas in 2016 so our main character, Megan McKnight, is based on Elizabeth Bennet.

 We really examined that classic, well-loved character and asked ourselves: What traits make her who she is? What makes her the woman Mr. Darcy falls in love with? The woman we all fall in love with?

We literally made a list of important traits: Brash, forms strong opinions, speaks her mind, loves to read, more physically active than other women, witty, fiercely loyal, loves the outdoors, isn’t as interested in men as other young women her age, her singularity. Things like that. Then we tried to imagine what a modern young woman, who embodied all those traits, would be like.

We decided she’d be a history major and an athlete and we chose soccer as her sport. She’d be the kind of girl dedicated to practicing and playing even if it meant she was a little intimidating to guys and didn’t have much time for dating. She’d be more interested in fueling her body for athletics than in fitting into a size two. She’d throw her hair in a ponytail, put on some Chapstick and pull on track shorts rather than care about makeup and fashion. She’d be funny and snarky, but so much so that it would get her into trouble sometimes. She’d be more loyal to her sister and her teammates than to any guy.

And also, like Elizabeth Bennet, she’d have no idea how to be coy. While other girls (like her sister) might hide their feelings, she just wouldn’t be capable of keeping her opinions to herself.

As you can see, we had a really strong blueprint to build our main character from, which is a wonderful. But the kinds of questions we were focused on are no different when you’re creating a character from scratch.

I think the most helpful thing with any character is to know where you want them to end up. What lesson must they learn by the end? If the lesson, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet and our Megan McKnight, is to not form knee-jerk opinions about things, then you better start that character as far away from that point as realistically possible. You have to allow every character, not just your protagonist, room to grow, and change.

A book is not a journey for the reader if it’s not a journey for the characters.

And so, the same method applies to all our secondary characters as well. We found modern ways for them to embody the traditional Austen characters’ traits. Our Mrs. Bennet is a social climber trying to set he daughters up for success, our Jane Bennet is the embodiment of the perfect young woman, albeit a contemporary one, and our Mr. Darcy is proud and aloof.

Real people always play a role in characterizations, too. Sometimes we think of certain real people that we know or even famous people to help us envision a certain character. I’ve always found it easier to describe a setting if I’ve seen it, and the same holds true for people.

 Of course, you always add and take away from reality when you’re creating fiction, but you often end up with characters who are an amalgamation of people who really exist.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

Writing comedy is so hard. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and because of this, and perhaps more all other types of writing, it cannot be done in a vacuum.

Like most things having to do with writing, it starts with observation. You know what you think is funny to you and your friends. Start there. Make notes. Have little booklets full of funny conversations you’d had and witty things you’ve said. Research isn’t just dry reading about some place you’ve never been or some historical period. Research is about watching human behavior, listening to speech patterns, and being tuned in to what makes people laugh.

Stephen and I have the benefit of having each other. But we had already been together for seven years when we accidentally discovered that we were good writing partners.

I was an actress and was starting to do stand-up comedy in New York City. I was writing my stand-up material and would try things out on him at home in the evenings. He was my sounding board and was almost always able to build on what I had, and make it better.

We started working on all my material together, cracking each other up in the process. It’s a really good example of how having a someone to be your sounding board is so important with comedy.

Maybe that’s why sitcoms and “Saturday Night Live” fill hire six-to-fifteen writers who work together or why so many of the old screwball comedies were penned by a two-person writing team.

But even if you don’t use a partner to write comedy, you got to find that person or people to give you a gut-check.

To answer the most important question: Is this funny to anyone besides me?

So whether it’s your best friend, or an online writing group, or just one other writer who understands your genre, find those Beta Readers.

And if they are good, be good to them. If you can’t offer a quid pro quo of also reading their work, then small gifts are a really nice way of saying thank you and keeping them in your corner.

The other important factor in writing comedy is just to do it, and do it often. Your funny bone isn’t a bone at all, its a muscle!

Okay, it’s really a nerve but that doesn’t fit into my metaphor so just go with me. The point is, if you want it to be strong, you have to exercise it! The funnier you are, the funnier you will be. I have never been funnier than when I was doing stand-up because I was doing it every day. My mind was just set to that channel!

If you are writing a comedic piece, you need to immerse yourself in comedy. Hang out with your funny friends! Watch funny shows and movies. Go to a comedy club.

Basically, put yourself in a funny world so you have something to play/write off of.

Guest Post: Joy Preble on Life as an Author-Bookseller…or Bookseller-Author?

Joy’s first full day at Brazos Bookstore

By Joy Preble
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Last month, I became the new Children’s Specialist at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. I hadn’t planned on it, but when you stumble into your dream job, well, you take it!

It’s a balancing act: Selling books and buying books and merchandising and creating store events, while also writing and promoting my own novels. I’m not just an author anymore, but I’m not just a bookseller either, and this hybrid from means I’ve seen behind one curtain, and now I’m peeking behind another.

What have I learned in the past few weeks the job? Lots of things, and not so much that they are new but that I’m seeing them through a different prism.

And so the responsibility of hand-selling books I love by authors whose work I admire weighs heavy—and heavier because we are a small, highly curated independent store and space is a premium, especially so in the children’s area.

Our buyer’s philosophy is: “if two copies is good, then one is better.” If I order three copies or four, then I better not only adore this book, but have made it clear to my co-workers why I love it, made sure they’re reading advanced copies and come up with a plan to sell it big. If I put a book face out or make it part of a special display or grace it with a shelf-talker that choice is mine. Already, I’ve seen how store love and hand-selling can quickly turn a small book from a small press into a bestseller.

It makes me all the more appreciative for the booksellers and librarians who’ve supported my career and talked up my books and kept copies on hand. Because I know now what happens when I see that a book hasn’t sold any copies in a month or two. I purge all or most of the copies from the shelves and replace it with something new.

Booksellers channeling Dorothy Parker

Of course I knew this before… in theory. But while the author part of me—the part that knows what it takes to write a book and bring it into the world—struggles with the idea, the bookseller part of me either has to come up with a plan or put it on the return shelf.

We return a lot of books each week. Stacks and stacks of them. The author part of me will probably always feel sad about this. But that is how it works.

On the other hand, one of the grand things about working at an independent bookstore is that while we respect the Kirkus Reviews recs and the Indie Next List and all the rest of it, we are under no obligation to promote only the books that the reps have pushed when we take meetings.

Oh, we want to predict the big titles as much as the next guy, but we also revel in finding that hidden gem of a book and giving it its due. But I know now that this takes more than just keeping it on the shelf. It means moving it around the store, making it visible, putting it in customers’ hands, crowing about why we love and why they should read it.

My new job has revived and broadened my reading tastes because of this and colleagues who put translated Latin American novels in my hands or find themselves shocked that I had not read Kelly Link’s latest short story collection.

I could go on and on and tell you how our particular store is owned by a co-op or how the reps often bring pizza. Or how I still have a weird series of reactions each time I see my own books in the store. Should I write a shelf-talker? Put them face out? Force my colleagues to read the latest?

Am I author/bookseller? Or bookseller/author?

Ringing up your own book for a random customer is, well, strange.

But this is enough for now.

Cynsational Notes

Joy Preble is the author of several young adult novels including the Dreaming Anastasia series (Sourcebooks), the first book of which was named an ABC Best Book in 2009; the quirky/humorous Sweet Dead Life series (Soho Press); a contemporary road trip/family drama, Finding Paris (Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins), which School Library Journal called, “An intricate guessing game of sisterly devotion, romance, and quiet desperatio.”

Her latest release is It Wasn’t Always Like This (Soho Teen), which Kirkus Reviews called “a modern Tuck Everlasting with a thriller twist.”

Joy lives in Texas with her family, including a sweet but slightly unhinged basset/boxer. In between writing and working at Brazos Bookstore as bookseller/Children’s Specialist, she teaches and lectures widely on writing and literacy and is currently on faculty at Writespace Houston.

New Voice: Hannah West on Kingdom of Ash and Briars

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Hannah West is the first-time author of Kingdom of Ash and Briars (Holiday House, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen’s Emma and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Hannah West makes a spectacular and wholly original debut.


Bristal, a sixteen-year-old kitchen maid, lands in a fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she has elicromancer magic in her blood. Elicromancers are an ancient breed of immortal people, but only two remain in Nissera after a bloody civil war. 

Bristal joins the ranks of Brack and Tamarice without knowing that one of them has a dark secret . . . Tamarice is plotting a quest to overthrow the realm’s nobility and take charge herself. 

Together, Bristal and Brack must guard the three kingdoms of Nissera against Tamarice’s black elicromancy. There are cursed princesses to protect, royal alliances to forge and fierce monsters to battle—all with the hope of preserving peace.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Boy, am I the right person to ask about revisions. When I started querying, I was fresh out of college with no industry knowledge (I studied French) and had a manuscript so thick it could have knocked someone out, no hard cover needed.

Hannah West

After my not-yet agent, Sarah Burnes, initially showed interest, she gave me some revision advice and passed on the manuscript. I made the cuts that she suggested, and continued querying and receiving requests from other agents.

It didn’t occur to me until a few months later that Sarah might actually be open to seeing the revision even though she didn’t explicitly request an R&R.

I’m so glad I thought of that! We ended up signing with a plan to continue revising it pretty heavily (read: cut left and right). We did three rounds, I believe, and then I did a few more with my lovely editor after signing with Holiday House.

I think a huge amount of cutting can be a dangerous thing, as it can really throw off the pace – such a delicate thing to begin with. But I am so so pleased with the result of talented professionals putting me through the ringer. It’s so worth it. The story itself is essentially the same, which goes to show you how many unnecessary words were lurking in that initial submission.

For debut authors, I would say never be too protective of the draft that you submit. It’s actually really freeing to put yourself in the hands of professionals, and if you’re a gifted writer, you can work in their suggestions while still retaining your voice and the aspects you love about the story.

Never react to a hard critique on the spot. Take time to think about it, and you’ll usually find that you agree, or can at least envision a compromise that will improve your work.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

This brings me to the other Sarah in my life – the one who lives in rural Arkansas with nary a strong internet connection, eating ‘coons for supper (okay, maybe the last one only applies to her church potlucks).

Having a critique partner is a wonderful thing, but having a CP-best-friend is even better. Querying and revising and waiting was a hard phase for me.

I was fresh out of college with only a part-time job, living with my parents, so I had a lot riding on getting an agent and pressing onward (who doesn’t?).

In the hardest moments, Sarah was there, reading my revisions and offering encouragement even though we live in different states. (I hadn’t met her yet when I submitted my abominably large manuscript, so she’s off the hook).

Cynsational Notes

Hannah “lives in the Dallas area with her husband, Vince, and their rambunctious blue heeler, Robb. She proudly writes articles about sustainable living and home renovation for Modernize.com.”

Guest Post: Amy Bearce on World-Building Woes (& Wows)

By Amy Bearce
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Confession: I have a terrible time with world-building. So, naturally, I consistently write fantasy, where world-building is critical.

You gotta be kidding me! Credit: Pixabay, mintchipdesigns, CC0

In real life, I’m not very observant about the space around me. I notice people’s emotions, but not what they are eating or what they are wearing. But in writing, all those little details make a place come alive. And in a fantasy story, they are even more important because readers must trust you to be their guide through an unknown world.

Right this way, please. Credit: Pixabay, InspiredImages, CC0

My first book, Fairy Keeper (Curiosity Quills, 2016), and the sequels are set in the world of Aluvia, full of magical creatures and beasts. Through writing these books, I’ve learned a lot about how world-building works best for me.
When writing about a fantastical world, the phrase, “Write what you know” now has yet another meaning. One way to create new magical creatures is to extrapolate what you know from the real world and tweak it.

My fairies were inspired by bees and have a lot in common with them. My merfolk are bioluminescent like deep sea squid and jellyfish, and in book 3, dragons are awakening from a long hibernation like giant wild bears with wings (and flames.)

As a girl of the plains, I had to watch a lot of documentaries to get a better idea of what was in the deep ocean. As it turns out…pretty amazing stuff! Credit: Pixabay, emdash, CC0

Originally, I had only considered fairies. But as I wrote about my fairy keeper character, soon I had merfolk and dragons and fauns…and had to decide details about each of them. It became apparent that while my world had magic, it was pretty broken. My magical creatures were less magical than many of their traditional representations. But I didn’t start off knowing that.
Essentially, world-building sneaked up on me.

This stealthy kitty is hunting dragons, mermaids, and fairies. Credit:
Pixabay, rihaij, CC0

Others writers build an encyclopedia of knowledge first. Google
“World-Building Tips” and you will receive an avalanche of questions to
answer.

How do people live here? What foods do they eat? What is their religion? Have there been wars? What economic system is used?

Here’s my secret: I hate those questions worse than a pop quiz in math. They almost hurt to ponder.

My expression when trying to answer “world-building questions.” Credit: Gratisography, CC0

I don’t know most of the answers until they suddenly appear in my story. I’m not saying it’s the best way to do it. I do it because creating details about a new world does not come naturally to me. But when my character is walking from point A to B, as I’m writing, my mind fills things in, and it mostly works. Mostly.

There always comes the moment my husband reads it and says, “Hey, these parts don’t make sense.” And he’ll be right. So I change things.

The cost of this build-as-you-go approach means that I often end up with a draft full of contradictory information. There’s a lot of clean up involved. I’m sure it would be easier to build the world before writing anything. But for me, it’s exactly that little stuff that trips me up. Every. Single. Time.

World-building: My own personal banana peel. Credit: Pixabay, stevepb, CC0

The good news is that if I can create an imaginary world with consistent magic rules and an actual map inside the book, you can, too. Don’t let overwhelming questions stop you. Try writing some scenes and see where they take you.

 Be patient, keep writing, and don’t be afraid to change things if you need to. Turn your woes to wow! After all, you are the master of your universe! Own it! Write it! And have fun with it!

Sing it with me: “I’ve got the power!” Credit: Pixabay, Skitterphoto, CC0

Cynsational Notes

Amy Bearce writes stories for tweens and teens. She is a former reading teacher with a Masters in Library Science.

As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany, though they still call Texas home.

A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book. Her latest release is Mer-Charmer (Curiosity Quills, 2016).

From the promotional copy:

Fourteen-year-old Phoebe Quinn is surrounded by magic, but she can’t muster any of her own. Her sister is a fairy keeper. Her best friends are merfolk. And all she does is dishes and housework.

When Phoebe finds out a terrible sea creature is awakening that preys upon the gentle merfolk, she resolves to help them, even though it means risking her life deep in the ocean.

Beneath the waves, Phoebe learns she’s more like her sister than she realized. The merfolk are drawn to her, and she can sense the magic of the sea all around her. Magic is finally at her fingertips, but that’s precisely why the stirring dark power under the waters decides it wants her most of all.

Now she must not only help the peaceful merfolk escape this ancient enemy, she must master her out-of-control powers. If she fails, she will die, and darkness will rise to enslave the merfolk once more. But embracing her full power could cost her the very people she loves the most.