Guest Post: P.J. Hoover on The Awesomeness of School Visits

By P.J. Hoover
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

OMG an author visit! It’s a huge, exciting time for students, teachers, and the author. We, the authors, are honored to be visiting your school.

Aside from the fact that it gives us an opportunity to get out of the house (and change out of our pajamas), there is nothing better than connecting with our target audience about a subject we love: books.

About the Visit

I like to start my school visits off with a story from Greek mythology. It’s a great way to not only engage the audience right from the beginning, but it provides a nice framework for the entire presentation.

And my story . . . it’s filled with adventure. It’s filled with suspense. It’s short. It’s sweet. And it concludes with a satisfying ending. But disguised underneath it, it talks about the Hero’s Journey.

The hero in the story sets out with one goal in mind. One thing he must accomplish. It’s the thing that drives him forward and keeps him from giving up, even when faced with unspeakable perils.

It’s a lot like life.

With author Cory Putnam Oakes

I’ve learned a ton in the last decade or so, in my transition from electrical engineer to author, much like the hero in my story learns as he travels from one end of his adventure to the other. But the big difference between my hero and me is that he reaches his destination. His perils are left in the past, and he reaches his goal.

My perils? They continue on, day after day after day.

Perils as an author? Sure, I face a ton of them, but lucky for me, everything I’ve learned so far on my hero’s journey has helped me deal with these perils.

It’s made me better, stronger, faster. And I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than being able to share my journey with today’s kids.

School visits are a tricky business. There’s this very fine line that we, as authors, must walk. We need to entertain the kids, to keep them hanging on our every word, while also making the educators in the audience happy. We want the teachers to shake our hand afterward and tell us how they can’t wait to use what we’ve shared in the classroom. And the kids . . . we want them asking for our Instagram usernames so they can follow us and continue the connection.

Because that’s what it all comes down to: the connection.

Take this. I adore playing video games. From the time I got my very first computer (hello, Commodore 64) to my brand new table-top Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga gaming machine (complete with 410 retro arcade games), video games are a great way to relax, spend time with my kids, and—hey, look at that—they’re also a great way to connect with kids during school visits.

I’ll talk about Fallout 4 and Minecraft after the presentation with the kids for hours. But underneath, talking about video games isn’t enough. It needs to relate to books, to writing, and to my hero’ journey. And you know what? It does.

When I was younger, I would have much rather played video games than spent time writing. I didn’t love writing, mostly because I thought it was very subjective and that you were either born a writer or you were not. While some of my author friends spent their youth writing stories, I learned to program in BASIC. I wrote video games on my computer. And I went on to become an electrical engineer.

Now, I love writing, too, and I’ve learned that there is a beautiful cross section between books and the world of technology (including Scratch, Minecraft, and other fun STEM related ideas). It’s this cross section that kids don’t expect. And it’s this cross section that I believe it is important for kids to see.

The same thing goes for “Star Wars.” Kids laugh when I tell them that when I was little, I wanted to be a Jedi. You know why? Because they wanted to be Jedis, too. (They probably still do. I do; that’s for sure.) And the thing is that though my dreams of being a Jedi didn’t work out (yet), it’s totally played a part in my life and getting me to where I am today.

The thing about Jedis is that they don’t give up. They don’t walk away from fear. And we, as authors, can’t either.

When I have the kids guess how many rejections I’ve received, they at first say really high numbers because they think it will be funny and get a laugh out of their friends. And then, when I tell them that they’re right, they’re floored.

But, as I tell them, if I don’t face these rejections, day after day, I will never publish another book. It’s a way to show them—yes, show, not tell—that we all face failure. And we all fail. And that’s okay. But it’s what we do after that failure that makes the difference.

If I had to list five (covert) messages I try to get across in school visits, they’d be: 

  1. You don’t have to be born an author to be an author when you grow up. (You can, in fact, be an electrical engineer, just like me.) 
  2. Many things in life are a lot harder to do than you think they’ll be (like, hey, writing a book! I thought it would be easy).
  3. Never give up (even though lots and lots of times you may want to).
  4. Face your fears and do it anyway (this is also a fun time to mention that I’m a third degree black belt in kung fu)
    And perhaps the most important . . . .
  5. It’s going to be a long journey while you work toward whatever it is you want in life, so you better learn to enjoy it.

Prepare (but don’t stress) about the Visit:

My dream author visit is this. I drive up to the school. My name is on the marquee out front. There is a parking spot reserved for me (and bonus points if it has streamers and balloons). The office staff greets me by name when I walk through the front door, because guess what?

They’ve been expecting me! They know I am coming. They sign me in and have a student escort me to the library. Other students point as I walk to the library and whisper things like, “There’s the author!” or “It’s really her!” I feel kind of like a superstar at this point.

Outside the library is a huge banner with my name. A display of my books sits in a glass case along with fan art created by the students.

Inside the library waits a Starbucks for me (venti Americano, no room). The librarian warmly tells me how the students can’t wait for my visit. She lets me know that every student has read my book.

Things are going great. The technology works without a hitch. There is water. A microphone. Lots and lots of pre-orders.

Like I said, it’s a dream author visit, but we don’t live in this dream world, and I completely realize that this is not always the way author visits go.

As much as I would love every student to have read my book ahead of time, I get that this is not realistic. But there are some simple ways to get the kids excited about an upcoming author visit. Things that can go a long way.

  1. Booktalk the author’s books ahead of time. Display them in the library, print out covers, talk about them during library time. 
  2. Enlist the help of your Language Arts teachers. If budget permits, consider purchasing a copy for each classroom, and encourage them to read a chapter aloud. 
  3. Have students visit the author’s website. For schools hosting me, have the students complete my Author Scavenger Hunt ahead of time. If possible, reward the completion with extra credit. 
  4. Publicize the upcoming author visit during the morning announcements. Announcements are also a great place to remind students about pre-order book deadlines.
    And finally . . . 
  5. Think about back to the connection. Do you have a kid that can solve the Rubik’s Cube? I’m happy to do a challenge. Someone who can beat box? I’ll rap Alphabet Aerobics. Ask me to sing The Element Song. Challenge me in a kung fu sparring match! (okay, maybe not this, but I do love showing my kung fu video). Whatever it is, make the kids feel like they are a part of it. That this event is special for them.

Continuing the Connection

I admit I got tears in my eye when I read this email I received after an author visit.

“After that talk about your journey to being an author you have inspired me . . . I thought that I couldn’t do military, become an engineer, and become a successful author, but now you’ve changed that. You have shown me that you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t give up and keep striving towards your dream.

“My parents always say never give up because you might achieve your goal, but I always thought that was something that parents said because it was a requirement for being a good parent or something. Then I heard about your stories and how you achieved all you goals and dreams using perseverance, patience, and persistence.

“You are one of my heroes and inspirations to chase after my goals . . . You are an inspiration to me showing that nothing is impossible no matter how hard . . . Thank you so much for presenting to us and inspiring me.”

This.
This is what it all comes down to.

Everyone should (and can) benefit from an author visit. I want each kid to walk out of there with something. Some little tidbit that they’ll think on, that they will use in their life. I want them to believe that anything is possible. That they can accomplish their dreams and goals, even when those dreams seem impossible.

And most of all, I want them to enjoy their journey in life.

Cynsational Notes

For information on author visits with P. J. Hoover, contact Carmen Oliver at The Booking Biz.

P. J. (Tricia) Hoover wanted to be a Jedi, but when that didn’t work out, she became an electrical engineer instead. After a fifteen year bout designing computer chips for a living, P. J. decided to start creating worlds of her own. She’s the author of Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life and the forthcoming Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World (Feb. 2017), featuring a fourteen-year-old King Tut who’s stuck in middle school, and Solstice, a super-hot twist on the Hades/Persephone myth.

When not writing, P. J. spends time with her husband and two kids and enjoys practicing kung fu, solving Rubik’s cubes, watching “Star Trek,” and playing too many video games.

Guest Post: Janet S. Fox on Blending History With Fantasy

By Janet S. Fox
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Some of my favorite books ever are the books of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. The fantasy of leaving home and entering a land where a child can experience talking animals, mythological creatures, desperate (and deadly) battles – where a child can be perceived as making real, respected choices – where good deeds are rewarded by kindness and love and bad deeds are punished, but only by “just desserts” – I read these books (and still read them) over and over.

They articulated lessons without didacticism. Included in those lessons were reflections of the real world of the characters, World War II era England, and an interesting Arthurian tilt to the Pevensie children’s experiences of Narnia.

So for me, the young reader, reading these books in America during the post-war years, they had the taste of something “historical” and of course foreign.

And then there were the myths and fairy tales I devoured. The Red Fairy Book, the Anderson and Grimms’s tales, Greek and Roman myths and legends – I read these over and over, too. In my mind history became inextricably linked with the fantastic.

And why shouldn’t it? The truth is that we are all shaped by perception, and even history is subject to personal interpretation. (If you don’t believe me, check out the new hit musical “Hamilton”.)

My first three novels are historical YA romances. When I wrote Faithful (Speak/Penguin, 2010), set in 1904 Yellowstone, I sought to capture the natural magic inherent in that environment of spouting geysers and colorful hot springs.

In my second YA, Forgiven (Speak/Penguin, 2011), I tried to capture the dark magic of the terrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake. By the time I wrote my third YA, Sirens (Speak/Penguin, 2012), set in 1925, I added full-on fantastical elements, including a ghost, an approach I felt was consistent with the 1920s obsession with spiritualism and magic.

I realized that as a writer I was drawing closer and closer to crafting books like the ones that so captivated me as a kid. It has become my goal, now, to try and evoke the same wonder in my readers as I felt when I was young.

Yes, fantasy is my aim, but having written history, I became game to try a blend of the two genres. My newest book, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle (Viking, 2016), is that blend.

It’s set in World War II; the children are sent out of London during the Blitz; there are enigma machines and short-wave radios and even spies. But…there are also ghosts, and magicians, and a ghastly monster, and only magic can save the day (while itself being a double-edged sword.)

Whether writing historical fiction or fantasy, the objective of suspension of disbelief can only be accomplished if the world-building is sound. In historical fiction, that means lots of research to get interesting tidbits right. In fantasy, it means crafting an environment in which those interesting tidbits feel right.

I loved writing The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. I loved being able to play with a world that is both real and fantastical, where terrible and beautiful things did happen, and could happen. I can’t wait to try it again.

Book Trailer & Giveaway: Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin

Discussion Guide (PDF)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin (Razorbill, 2015, 2016)–now available in paperback. From the promotional copy:

Peter Stone is a quiet boy in a family full of extroverts, musicians, and yellers. The louder they are, the more silent Peter is . . . until he practically embodies his last name.


When his family moves to the Texas Hill Country, though, Peter finds a peaceful, mysterious valley where he can, at last, hear himself think. There, he meets a girl his age, Annie Blythe, a spirited artist who tells Peter she’s a “wish girl.” 

But Annie isn’t just any wish girl: she’s a “Make-A-Wish Girl.” And in two weeks she has to undergo a dangerous treatment to try to stop her cancer from spreading. Left alone, the disease will kill her. But the treatment could cause serious brain damage and take away her ability to make art.


Together, Annie and Peter escape into the valley, which they begin to think is magical. But the pair soon discovers that the valley—and life—may have other plans for them. Sometimes wishes come true in the most unexpected ways.

Trailer: “Wish Girl” by Nikki Loftin from Dave Wilson on Vimeo.

Cynsational Giveaway

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New Voice & Giveaway: Paige Britt on The Lost Track of Time

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Paige Britt
is the first-time author of The Lost Track of Time, illustrated by Lee White
(Scholastic, 2015). From the promotional copy:


A magical fantasy, an allegorical cautionary tale, a feast of language, a celebration of creativity–this dazzling debut novel is poised to become a story for the ages.


Penelope is running out of time.


She dreams of being a writer, but how can she pursue her passion when her mother schedules every minute of her life? And how will she ever prove that writing is worthwhile if her mother keeps telling her to “get busy ” and “be more productive”?


Then one day, Penelope discovers a hole in her schedule–an entire day completely unplanned –and she mysteriously falls into it. 

What follows is a mesmerizing journey through the Realm of Possibility where Penelope sets out to find and free the Great Moodler, the one person who may have the answers she seeks. Along the way, she must face an army of Clockworkers, battle the evil Chronos, take a daring Flight of Fancy, and save herself from the grip of time.


Brimming with clever language and masterful wordplay, The Lost Track of Time is a high-stakes adventure that will take you to a place where nothing is impossible and every minute doesn’t count–people do.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

Jill Santopolo

I absolutely do have a most memorable workshop! It was actually one you gave in 2008 with Jill Santopolo, author and editor at Philomel Books. Even though it was over seven years ago, I’ve never forgotten it.

The workshop was organized by the Austin SCBWI and hosted by Debbie Gonzales, who was regional advisor at the time.

To register, you had to submit three pages of a work-in-progress. A few weeks before the event, everyone received a packet with copies of all the three-page submissions. Then during the workshop, you and Jill went through each submission and discussed it with the entire group.

You were both kind and encouraging, but also very honest. Jill told us that editors were looking for a reason to say “no” when they read a manuscript. Together you discussed each submission and pointed out the potential “no’s.” Meandering openings, overly long backstory, and hazy plot lines were the most common mistakes.

Even though what you had to say was tough, it was clear you were invested in everyone’s success. You wanted to turn those no’s into yes’s.

Here’s the funny thing. I didn’t even submit my three pages. I registered too late to be a part of the critique, but I went to the workshop anyway. And I’m so glad I did! After the workshop I went home, re-read my three pages, and guess what? They were meandering, “explain-y,” and vague. But because of your input, I could see it. And if I could see it, I could fix it.

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Debbie Gonzales

The Lost Track of Time opens with an alarm clock going off, “Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.” It’s 6 a.m. and even though it’s summer vacation, the main character, Penelope, has to get up and get busy. Right from the start, you know that the central conflict in the story is time.

I did that because of what I learned from you and Jill.

After I fixed my first chapter, I submitted it to two conferences and had sit-down conversations with agents at both. The first agent asked for thirty more pages and the second one, Marietta B. Zacker, signed me. There is absolutely no way that would have happened if I hadn’t gone to that workshop. I’ve always wanted to tell you and Jill how much you helped me!

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

From the beginning, I knew The Lost Track of Time was intimately connected to real-world issues. When I started writing it, I was working for an internet startup. I was constantly on the clock, from morning until night and over the weekends, trying to make the company a success. Everyone was fighting for more time—but no matter what we did, there was never enough. And what time we did have, had to be spent Constantly! Achieving! Results!

Not surprisingly, The Lost Track of Time is about a girl who likes to do nothing. Doing nothing seemed to me like a radical and counter-cultural act. I’m not talking about the nothing where you lie around flipping through TV channels because you’re too exhausted to engage in life.

I’m talking about moodling.

I learned about moodling from Brenda Ueland in her book, If You Want to Write. She writes:

“The imagination needs moodling–long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” 

I agree. When you moodle, you’re quiet, still, and (horrors!) unproductive. You let your mind wander until it becomes calm and curious and open. It’s a space of quiet contemplation and intense creativity.

During this busy time in my life, I had no time for quiet contemplation. But when I discovered Brenda Ueland’s words, I suddenly felt I had permission to sit, stare out the window, and moodle. Not only did I have permission, it was imperative that I do so if I wanted to let my own ideas and stories to “develop and gently shine.”

Ueland’s encouragement that everyone moodle touched me so deeply that she inspired a character in my book. She’s the Great Moodler and Penelope fights the tyranny of Chronos and his Clockworkers to save her from banishment in the Realm of Possibility.

As Penelope faces each trial with both imagination and courage, she moves from being an insecure, apologetic daydreamer to a great moodler in her own right.

Paige Britt

Research shows a marked decline in U.S. children’s creativity, due to a lack of unstructured free time to play and, I would say, to moodle.

This is terrible news! Not just because creativity is wonderful and life-giving, but because it’s the best predictor we have of a child’s future success, not just in the realms of art and literature, but in the world of business, science, and technology, too.

I’m not sure if you can teach creativity, but I do think you can encourage it. And that’s what I wanted to do in The Lost Track of Time.

I wanted to hold up moodlers as heroes.

Not because they can wield a sword, but because they dare, like Penelope, to enter the Realm of Possibility—to live in the present, to be creative and contemplative, and to believe anything is possible.

Paige’s desk

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two signed copies of The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt, illustrated by Lee White
(Scholastic, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligible territory: U.S. 

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Guest Post: Cory Putnam Oakes on The Seven Deadly Sins of Sequels

By Cory Putnam Oakes
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I sold my first middle grade novel, I was super excited when my publisher asked me if I would also write a sequel.

A sequel! Squee! 

Because two books were obviously twice as awesome as one book and now I’d get to spend more time writing in the world I had painstakingly constructed for Book #1.

I was ecstatic and I floated around on a cloud of overwhelming happiness—right up until the moment I sat down to write Book #2.

Then, panic set in.

The sequel, which had sounded so good in theory, was downright terrifying in actual fact. I had no idea where to start and I was sure I was going to totally screw it up.

I had never experienced a sequel as a writer before. My writer-self had nothing but a big giant blank to draw on in that area.

I realized, however, that I had experienced quite a few sequels as a reader. And my reader-self had some very definite opinions about sequels, so I decided to let my reader-self educate my writer-self on how to proceed.

Turns out, my reader-self had some useful things to say which really helped me during the (eventual) writing process.

So in the interest of helping other writers who currently find themselves (or may one day find themselves) staring down the barrel of a sequel, here are my Seven Deadly Sins of Sequels:

Deadly Sin #1: Skipping Stuff

Perhaps one of my biggest peeves when it comes to sequels is when major changes happen between Book #1 and Book #2 and we learn about those changes in a recap at the beginning of Book #2 instead of actually seeing them happen.

If you’re going to kill off a character, end a major relationship, have somebody move away, or basically put any character in a fundamentally different position than the one they were in at the end of Book #1, don’t do it in a recap! That’s cheating.

Your reader is picking up Book #2 because they loved the story and the characters from Book #1—don’t bamboozle us by letting major things happen behind our backs! We will feel like we missed a step. (Which, in fact, we did!)

Deadly Sin #2: Jumping the Tracks

No one likes a plot they can see coming a mile away, but it’s also no fun to feel like the story-train you climbed aboard in Book #1 has literally jumped off of its tracks in Book #2 and is headed in a new direction, one for which you didn’t buy a ticket.

That doesn’t mean that the plot of Book #2 should be yawningly predictable for the sake of comfort, but there should be some hint of what is coming next built into Book #1 so your reader doesn’t feel completely blind-sided.

(Note: don’t panic if you’ve already completed Book #1 and you don’t think you did this—go back and read Book #1 again. I promise you planted more seeds than you remember.)

Deadly Sin #3: Book 1? Was There a Book #1?

You don’t want Book #2 to only make sense to people who were really, really paying attention to Book #1. But on the flip side, your sequel should not be a complete stand alone: Don’t act like Book #1 never happened. If, for example, your main character overcame a major obstacle in Book #1, it’s weird if that obstacle, and his/her struggle, is never referred to in Book #2.

You don’t have to go overboard reminiscing and info-dumping about all the stuff that happened in Book #1 (“Hey guys! Remember that time that we . . . “), but Book #1 is now part of the mythos, the shared understanding, of both books. It’s a common language between you and your reader. Use it as such. Make sure that you are building up your characters in Book #2 on top of a foundation that you constructed in Book #1.

Deadly Sin #4: When Book #2 is Basically Just Book #1 On Steroids

EXAMPLE:

In Book #1, the main character learns how to deal with a bully.

In Book #2, the main character learns how to deal with an even bigger, nastier, scarier bully.

No. Your main character has already fought this battle. They need a new battle for Book #2 or we’re just watching them go on the exact same journey they’ve already taken. Even if we really, really enjoyed the journey the first time around, we don’t want to see it again.

The question your sequel audience is asking is: Where does this character go from here? Not: Can they do it again even though it’s slightly harder this time?

Deadly Sin #5: When Book #2 Is Nothing But a Bridge to Book #3

This is a well-documented problem, specific to trilogies, when an author sacrifices Book #2 in order to set up the amazing, wonderful, mind-blowing idea they have for Book #3.

Okay, fine, I’ll use a specific example here: “The Empire Strikes Back.” I love “Star Wars,” I do. But even I’m forced to admit that Empire was really just a big set-up for “Return of the Jedi.” We can excuse this because of all the battles with Imperial Walkers and people cutting open tauntauns, being frozen in carbonite, and almost getting eaten by meteor-caves-that-are-really-giant-monsters. “Star Wars” can get away with this. But you and I can’t.

We need to move our plots along because people are not going to be as forgiving about our books as they are about “Star Wars” because, well, our books are not “Star Wars.”

Trilogies are tough because in a three book series, Book #1 is going to be the beginning, Book #2 the middle, and Book #3 the end. The tricky part is that each individual book in the series (including Book #2) also needs a beginning, middle, and an end of their very own.

How can you tell if you’re sacrificing Book #2? If the only stuff that happens in Book #2 is bad and there is no resolution to any of it, this is big, red, flashing warning sign. If Book #2 is when everything breaks, and Book #3 is where everything is fixed, this means you’re stopping your characters in mid-arc in Book #2. This is very unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong: You can leave your characters in dire straits at the end of Book #2. But make sure they accomplished something while getting there. There needs to be some kind of resolution to Book #2 problems—in Book #2.

Deadly Sin #6: Major Reveals That Should Have Happened Earlier

You know when you’ve been friends with somebody for years and then you learn a very important thing about them that you can’t believe you didn’t know? It feels rotten, right? Like maybe you never really knew them like you thought you did, or that maybe you’re a bad friend for not realizing this very important thing sooner?

Don’t make your reader feel like that. I’m not saying you can’t reveal new, surprising, very important things about your characters in Book #2—you can, and you should. But there needs to be a very good reason why we didn’t hear about this very important thing in Book #1. Don’t make your reader feel like a bad friend.

Deadly Sin #7: When Characters Morph Into Strangers

As readers, we fall in love with characters. Sometimes to unreasonable degrees. We will tolerate (and even encourage) them when they change and grow in reaction to things that happen to them, but we will not accept them drifting away from their core, defining characteristics.

Nobody would be okay with it if Indiana Jones suddenly decided to just “get over” his fear of snakes and adopted one as a pet. Nobody would be on board with Harry Potter dropping out of Gryffindor, joining Slytherin, and giving Ron Weasley wedgies in the hallway. It’s just not them.

Your characters need to grow and change in Book #2. But they need to stay themselves. Don’t mess with the core of who they are, or you risk the wrath of your readers who love them.

So those are the sins that I tried to avoid while writing my sequel. What did I miss? What else can we add to this list, to help guide the future sequel-writers of the world on their perilous journey?

Note: As you add to this list, please speak generally, as opposed to using specific books and authors as negative examples. Everyone who has ever tackled a sequel deserves a hug, a high-five, and at least a gallon of chocolate ice cream—not criticism. Let’s keep it positive, encouraging, and helpful!

Cynsational Notes

Cory Putnam Oakes is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Dinosaur Boy Saves Mars, the sequel that inspired this post, came out in February, 2016 from Sourcebooks.

She is also the author of Dinosaur Boy (Sourcebooks, 2015); The Veil (Octane Press, 2011); and Witchtown (coming from Houghton Mifflin, 2017).

She wishes it to be known that she feels really, really badly about disparaging “The Empire Strikes Back” in the above post. But she is certain that her overwhelming love for “Star Wars” in general will excuse this teeny, tiny bit of loving criticism.

Cynthia Leitich Smith agrees with Cory about the perils of “bridge” books in trilogies, but nevertheless believes that “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of the “Star Wars” movies. Cynthia also selected “The Karate Kid II” to illustrate Cory’s fourth point, even though it’s her favorite of that series, too. She apparently feels conflicted about the whole dynamic.

Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover of The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat (Jabberwocky/Sourcebooks, 2016). From the promotional copy:

All Izzy wants is for something interesting to happen in her sleepy little town. But her wish becomes all too real when an enchanting song floats through the woods and lures her little sister Hen into the forest…where she vanishes. 

A frantic search leads to a strange hole in the ground that Izzy enters. But on the other side she discovers that the hole was not a hole, this place is not Earth, and Hen is not lost. She’s been stolen away to the land of Faerie, and it’s up to Izzy to bring her home.


But inside Faerie, trouble is brewing-and Izzy is in way over her head. A ragtag group of outlaw Changelings offers to help, and she must decide whether a boulder that comes to life, a girl that’s not quite solid, and a boy who is also a stag can help her save Hen before it’s too late.

Tell us more about your cover. How did it feel to see it for the first time?

It was a total thrill! When I opened the box of galleys that my publisher sent me, it seemed like the books were absolutely glowing. The cover art makes me want to dive in and see what is behind that door. I hope kids will feel the same way.

The girl on the cover is the main character, Izzy, who journeys into Faerie to find her little sister and bring her home. The three animals are the Changeling children who help her.

The Changelings are shape shifters who can make themselves look like almost anything for a short while. But they can only truly “Change” into a handful of forms – like the stoat, butterfly, and badger on the cover.

The little flying fairies are Pollenings. They play a very tiny, but important, part in the story. (And they make honey that goes great with pancakes!)

What was it like to see your characters depicted on the cover?

I actually didn’t think the cover would feature the characters at all, so it was such a wonderful surprise to see them in the first draft! When I got my first look at Izzy, I thought the artist captured her perfectly. She looks curious and thoughtful, and is having a very human reaction to all the magic around her – a mix of awe and nervousness! I’m sure most of us would feel the same way if we stumbled into Faerie.

I think it was a very wise decision on Sourcebooks’ part to have Izzy be the only human face we see on the cover. The artist could have drawn all the Changelings in their child forms, but I think that would have taken some of the fun away from readers being able to imagine them for themselves.

Tell us more about the cover design process. Where you involved?

The artwork and design were done completely without me – thank goodness! But my editor and art director did ask me for input on the characters, and we went back and forth several times to make sure the details were right and the cover was being true to them.

I am really lucky to have been involved as much as I was. I know that’s not always the case for authors!

I learned so much about covers during this process and the heavy lifting they have to do. The cover has to draw a reader in, give them a feeling for the writing and the story, but without giving too much away. Everything, from the font to the color palette, to the way the art wraps around to the back, contributes to that sense of wonder you want readers to have – before they even start reading.

The cover for The Changelings doesn’t depict an exact scene in the book, but I think it does everything you want a cover to do!

Oh, and there is a secret hidden in the cover as well. But you will have to read the book to figure it out!

Cynsational Notes

Christina Soontornvat spent her childhood in small Texas towns, eagerly waiting for the fairies to come and kidnap her. They never came, but she still believes magic things can happen to ordinary people. When not writing, Christina hangs out in science museums and takes care of her own little goblins-ahem- children. She lives in Austin, Texas. The Changelings is her first novel.

In Memory: Andrea Cheng

Learn more from Lee & Low.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Obituary: Andrea Cheng by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly.

“Children’s book author and educator Andrea Cheng, whose books often focused on intercultural and intergenerational relationships, died on Dec. 26, 2015 following a long illness. She was 58.

“Cheng was born in El Paso, Tex. in 1957, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. The family soon moved to Cincinnati where Cheng and her two siblings grew up in an extended family, which she described on her website as ‘three generations under one roof.’”

From The Cincinnati Enquirer:

“In lieu of flowers or food, donations may be made to either the Andrea Cheng English as a Second Language Scholarship at Cincinnati State (online or checks to Attn: Cincinnati State Foundation, Cincinnati State Technical & Community College, ATLC, Room 352, 3520 Central Parkway, Cincinnati OH, 45223), or to the Cincinnati Public Library (online or checks to 800 Vine St. Cincinnati, OH 45202). Please note that the gift is in memory of Andrea Cheng.”

Giveaway: The Radiant Road by Katherine Catmull

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a signed, (optionally) personalized copy of The Radiant Road by Katherine Catmull (Dutton, 2016). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America only.

From the promotional copy:

And sometimes the Strange came to visit Clare, and dreams walked through her waking life.

Clare Macleod and her father are returning to Ireland to the house where she was born: a house under a green hill, with a tree inside it.


Inside the tree, she finds long-forgotten companions of her childhood: a world made of living lights, and a boy named Finn.


But unless Clare and Finn can defeat an ancient, furious foe, their two worlds will be ripped apart, severing the human world from art and dreams forever.


An adventure story about finding the courage to make—to write, draw, invent, dream–and the courage to throw yourself on what you fear and let it bear you up, the way the wind bears up the birds.


There is no safety, and so we must touch and be touched, and we must fall and fly.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Book Trailer: Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies by Carmen Oliver, illustrated by Jean Claude

By Carmen Oliver
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

In 2012, I was working on a nonfiction picture book project about white and black spirit bears in Canada and the boy Simon Jackson who was trying to save them from extinction.

At the same time, my daughter was in fifth grade and was given the awesome task of being a reading buddy to an incoming kindergartner.

And I thought to myself wouldn’t it be funny if the teacher assigned reading buddies to a class of students but one student piped up and exclaimed she didn’t need one because she already had one, a real live bear.

That was the inspiration behind the beginning of my forthcoming picture book Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies, illustrated by Jean Claude (Capstone Young Readers, March 1, 2016).

I’m beyond thrilled that my debut picture book speaks to the importance of literacy but I didn’t intend to write a book with a message. I’m just a reader at heart who loves to get lost in stories. Reading transforms.

One of my favorite quotes is by American philosopher Allan Bloom, “If you touch the heart with one book, it can transform a life.”

My intentions are to entertain and I hope that readers find humor and share a few laughs with Mrs. Fitz-Pea, Bear, and Adelaide. But if in the process they find themselves falling in love with reading, then I say, “Welcome to the club – it’s a great place to be.”

I hope you enjoy the book trailer for Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies. If you do—stand on your hind legs and ROOAAARRRR!

Pre-ordering is now available through Amazon.

Cynsational Notes

Carmen Oliver is the author of picture books Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies (Capstone/Curious Fox, March 2016) and The Favio Chavez Story (Eerdmans, TBD). She’s also the founder of the Booking Biz, a boutique style agency that bring award-winning children’s authors and illustrators to schools, libraries, and special events. Born in Canada, she now lives just outside of Austin, Texas.

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

By Kate Hosford
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meghan and Hila, contortion

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

Circus Cynthia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia practices circus tricks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iking flying toward T-Rock

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

Manar and Lil

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

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

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

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

How did writing this book change you as a person?

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

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

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

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

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