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

Learn more about Uma Krishnaswami.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

I was a writer before I knew it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

I’d be bolder. I’d speak up more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish for clarity of vision.

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


Cynsational Notes

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

Author Interview: Clete Barrett Smith on Writing Challenging Stories & Mr. 60%

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Clete Barrett Smith, discussing his new novel, Mr. 60% (Penguin Random House, 2017). 


I heard Clete read the opening chapter several years ago for his graduate reading at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It gave me chills, and I’m so happy the book is now out in the world.

From the promotional copy:

Matt Nolan is the high school drug dealer, deadbeat, and soon-to-be dropout according to everyone at his school. His vice principal is counting down the days until Mr. 60% (aka Matt) finally flunks out and is no longer his problem. 


What no one knows is the only reason Matt sells drugs is to take care of his uncle Jack, who is dying of cancer. 

Meet Amanda. The overly cheerful social outcast whose optimism makes Matt want to hurl. Stuck as partners during an after-school club (mandatory for Matt), it’s only a matter of time until Amanda discovers Matt’s secret. 


But Amanda is used to dealing with heartbreak, and she’s determined to help Matt find a way to give life 100 percent.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I took a leave of absence from my teaching duties to enroll at the Vermont College of Fine Arts to pursue my dream of writing for young readers. 

Shortly after that, my then-wife’s uncle got in touch to let us know that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and had been given six months to live. We invited him to come and live with us.

This was a man who I adored; he was a talented, funny, friendly, charismatic mess of a guy. And I did not have much previous experience with the process of dying—especially not up close—and as I was at home instead of at work, I became one of his primary caregivers.

College Hall at Vermont College of Fine Arts

The experience fundamentally changed me. My relationship with death had mostly been through stories, where people offer pearls of wisdom on their deathbed and stoically accept their fate.

This is not what I was seeing. This man was furious that he had cancer. He was not “ready” to die and he did not feel like giving anybody any pearls of wisdom. It was messy and scary and heartbreaking.

And when it was over I knew that I had to tell this story, for one reason because it was the book that I wanted to see on the shelves and had not found, and also because writing it helped me find some closure.

At the same time I had been kicking around an idea about a YA book told from the perspective of a high school drug dealer.

I knew some of these kids from my teaching career—they flew under the radar and would never cause any problems with teachers, because getting in trouble would raise red flags and limit access to their teenage clients. I got to know a few of these kids (as much as they would let a teacher get close, anyway) and couldn’t stop wondering about what their lives were like when they left school at the end of the day. I ended up combining the two ideas for Mr. 60%.

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

The challenges were mostly psychological. 

Many of the difficult scenes that happen in Mr. 60% are basically exactly what happened when I was caring for this man. Some of the dialogue is verbatim from real life. 
So when I would sit down at my writing desk for the day I knew that I would be reliving some very painful memories in very vivid detail.

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

I don’t think this book would exist without my experiences in the MFA program at VCFA. 

Uma Krishnaswami & Clete

First off, everyone there was encouraging people to “write the book that scares you.”

Well, the idea of this book certainly scared me.

I was used to writing funny, lighthearted middle grade stuff, and even thinking about this book took me way out of my comfort zone.

I was lucky to have a wonderful advisor in my second semester. When I initially met with Uma Krishnaswami, she asked what I would be working on. 

It was the first time that I had admitted out loud that I would be tackling this project, and as soon as I opened my mouth I just started bawling. Uma came around the desk, put her arms around me, and told me it was going to be all right. She was so helpful and supportive, not just with the writing, but with the emotional toll of writing the book.

I remember early in the process, I was going to give up and go back to writing lighthearted stuff. It was just too painful to dredge up all of these memories, and I felt very alone at my writing desk. 

Well, on the day I was going to give up, Uma called me up. It was rare for advisors to call students, at least for me—this is the only time I can remember it happening in my two years in the program—and she was calling to say that she had found a song that reminded her of the character in my book who had terminal cancer, and she sent me a link to the song.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the song, as I didn’t really connect with it in the same way. 

But that phone call made all of the difference. I didn’t feel so alone when I sat down at my writing desk anymore, and I swear I could feel Uma’s arms around me again during the really tough parts of the writing process.

After that, I have never written a book so fast. The bulk of what became the final manuscript was written over three “packets” (which is three months in real time).

With Uma’s support and encouragement, it just sort of came pouring out of me.

How was your approach to writing this book different than your previous work?

My first three novels were for middle grade and they had a first-person POV narrator who was lighthearted and fairly open about discussing the struggles he was facing as he moved from boy to teenager.

So for this one I thought it would be an interesting challenge—and fitting for this particular character—to have a main character that told the reader nothing at all about himself. This is an extension of the fact that he tells the other characters in the book nothing about himself—he has built his walls tall and sturdy.

So I really wanted to use a spare, minimalist approach, where the reader has to infer everything through words and actions.

It’s also a very emotional story, though, although nothing is explained for the reader. I am hoping that the result is emotionally resonant.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said Mr. 60% “is well-structured, moving quickly between beats but not rushing” and calls Matt “a compelling central character.”

Clete Barrett Smith is the author of the middle-grade Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast series (Disney) (Aliens on Vacation, Alien on a Rampage and Aliens in Disguise), as well as Magic Delivery (Disney, 2014). 

A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, Smith taught English, drama, and speech at the high school level while continuing to write. 

Author Interview: Kate Hosford on Theme, Re-imagined Colonialism & How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Kate Hosford to chat about How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea,
illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (Carolrhoda Books, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Each day when the Queen wakes up, three maids dress her, two more style her hair, and her butler James makes her tea. But when she grows dissatisfied with her brew, the Queen and James set out in search of the perfect cup. 


With each stop on their hot-air balloon journey, the Queen encounters new friends who expand her horizons—in the kitchen and beyond.


Can you tell me about your new release? Was it inspired by something in particular?

I started working on it in 2009 when getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I worked on picture books there with the extraordinary author and teacher Uma Krishnaswami.

The book was probably partly inspired by my aversion to cooking. (Both the Queen and I approach the kitchen with a certain amount of trepidation.) Aside from that, I just knew that I wanted to write about a pampered and lonely queen who yells at her butler when her tea tastes horrible, and then makes him take her around the world in a hot air balloon, searching for the perfect cup of tea.

Illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska, used with permission

I knew she would meet children along the way, and that the tea would start to taste better once she became more self-sufficient, and made some friends. However, in the early drafts, the children were still somewhat deferential, treating the Queen like royalty and giving her special gifts.

Uma really encouraged me to turn colonialism on its ear. Once I did, the story not only made more sense, but also became funnier, because the unimpressed children force the Queen to try all sorts of things that she normally wouldn’t do, like snuggle a kitty, play soccer, dance at a birthday party, and of course, make tea.

The Queen is like a toddler in some ways, experiencing a huge range of emotions in a small amount of time. Each time she visits a new land and is forced to try new things, she goes through a whole cycle of emotions: condescending, perplexed, startled, happy, proud, etc.

Gabi Swiatkowska did a wonderful job expressing all of these emotions in her incredible illustrations. She even used reference from baby faces for some of the Queen’s expressions!

Since Gabi also illustrated Infinity and Me, did the two of you end up communicating about How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea more?

Gabi & Kate

Gabi is an old friend, so we communicated a lot on both of the books. Infinity and Me (Carolrhoda, 2012) was done in a very different style with a number of different non-oil based paints.

For How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea, Gabi told me that she was going to use colored pencil and expressive line, and then occasional full page spreads just in colored pencil, which I thought was great combination for this humorous book.

I loved seeing sketches transform into finished artwork.

I’ve noticed sometimes beginning writers think picture books should have a moral or teach a lesson. How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea illustrates self-sufficiency, but this is very subtle, almost a subtext. Can you talk about this difference and how a theme emerges in a picture book?
Thank you! I hope the message about self-sufficiency is subtle and integrated into the story.

I think themes can naturally emerge from picture books when the intention behind the writing is to explore the growth of a character rather than to teach a lesson.

In this case, I tried very hard to focus on the Queen’s character. At the beginning she is lonely and impotent, even though she is a Queen.

I wanted her learning curve for making tea to be so slow that it would be funny. In Japan she can only turn on the faucet, and in India she is able to turn on the faucet and add water to the teapot. By the time she gets to Turkey, she can even boil water!

The Queen approaches each culinary task like an explorer who has discovered an intriguing but dangerous new land. I hope that after this slow build-up, her discovery of the perfect cup of tea feels earned.

When and where do you write? Why does the time and space work for you?

I live in Brooklyn, and have a writing studio next door to my house.

When I look out the window,  I can see squirrels running up and down the trees in the back yard, and can sometimes hear a trumpet player practicing, and pigeons chatting.

I try to start writing at about 11:00 am after exercising and doing other household duties, and get home by 4:00 for my boys. Honestly, that means the writing day is too short, so sometimes I try to work more from home while they are doing homework.

After dinner, I’m too tired to do anything productive.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a poetry collection about the brilliant and mysterious octopus. I would also like to do a non-fiction picture book on either a classical musician, or perhaps an ornithologist.

I have a picture book coming out with Abrams next spring called Mama’s Belly, which will be beautifully illustrated by Abigail Halpin. I’m really excited about it, and can’t wait for it to come out!

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly described Gabi Swiatkowska’s illustrations as “delicious, old-world pastels render
each character as a distinct individual…the details give Hosford’s round-the-world tale offbeat charm, and readers will smile as they watch the Queen shed her haughtiness and embrace her own capabilities.”

A curriculum guide and tea recipes from each of the countries the Queen visits are available online.

Kate Hosford graduated from Amherst College in 1988 with a degree in English and Philosophy. Before becoming an author, she worked as an elementary school teacher, a social worker, and an illustrator. In 2011 she received her MFA in Writing for children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Her other titles include Big Bouffant, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2011), Big Birthday, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2012) Infinity and Me, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (2012),  Feeding the Flying Fanellis and Other Poems from a Circus Chef, illustrated by Cosei Kawa (2015). All of these are published by Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing.

Author Interview: Uma Krishnaswami on the Creative Life, Teaching Writing & Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Uma Krishnaswami to discuss her new MG historical novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh (Lee & Low, May 2017). From the promotional copy:

Nine-year-old Maria Singh longs to play softball in the first-ever girls’ team forming in Yuba City, California. It’s the spring of 1945, and World War II is dragging on. Miss Newman, Maria’s teacher, is inspired by Babe Ruth and the All-American Girls’ League to start a girls’ softball team at their school.


Meanwhile, Maria’s parents—Papi from India and Mamá from Mexico—can no longer protect their children from prejudice and from the discriminatory laws of the land. When the family is on the brink of losing their farm, Maria must decide if she has what it takes to step up and find her voice in an unfair world.


What inspired you to write Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh?

The history itself. I can’t help myself—little-known historical nuggets of information are irresistible to me.

About 15 years ago, I came across a documentary called Roots in the Sand by filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart about this community of families in California in the 20s and beyond, in which the men were from India and the women from Mexico.

They were brought together by a perfect intersection of discriminatory laws that forbade Asians to own land, forbade people of different races to marry, and denied citizenship to people from India. And from all these incredible challenges they made a world of hope and optimism and survival. It’s a peculiarly American story. 

Once immigration from India opened up, the descendants mostly blended back into the Mexican American communities of California, but many retained a nostalgic memory of those fathers and grandfathers from India. I was totally hooked but it took me many, many tries before I could figure out how I should write this history in a way that made sense to kids.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?


I don’t think of myself as an author. That title, after all, depends on whether someone else thinks what I write has potential or marketability or whatever. 

But writing. That’s different. I am a writer. I love having an idea zing into my mind. I love the energy of a first draft, even when I know that at some point I’m going to be beating my head against it, trying to shape it into something that a reader could care about. 
I love how I can become enthralled by a story enough to keep returning to it, sometimes for years. And the thing I love best is when a work falls into place, especially after several revisions when it has felt opaque and I have felt dense and inept. Then suddenly, often overnight—as if dreaming has helped this happen—it’s all there and I can’t wait to do the work that has been revealed to me.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?



I have an office room looking out into my back yard, with a forest beyond the fence, so when I need a visual break I can see green trees. 

I can step out and walk there if I want to. But just so I don’t do that too often, I have a treadmill desk. I set it on slow when I’m writing and it keeps me on track. 
I used to write early in the morning but now I break it up—a couple of hours in the morning, a couple more in the afternoon. About four hours a day when I’m working on a project. During teaching weeks, I don’t do any of my own writing.

How does teaching inform your own writing?

It keeps me honest. I often find myself pointing out things in students’ work, then returning to my own and seeing those very problems staring me in the face. 

Why is it I couldn’t see them before? I think the way it works is this. Story (for me anyway) can often begin as something static—a snapshot, a little description, a place, a lone character, or a single idea. But the words I use to try and get at that story become prisms. They can reveal unexpected flashes of light and color. They can sparkle and create rainbows. But I can’t see that when I first use them. 
In a draft, I’m still chasing a mirage. Before I began teaching I’d often get stuck at that stage, and I left a lot of half-finished projects scattered behind me. 
Teaching forces me to put my own work away. Then when I return to that draft and hold it up at different angles, the light begins to burst through.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently juggling two nonfiction picture books with science themes and a middle grade historical nonfiction book. 

I think every book teaches you how to write that book and no other, so I feel like I’m learning all over again. 
Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews called Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, “A loving look at a slice of American life new to children’s books” and “filled with heart, this tale brings to life outspoken and determined Maria, her love for baseball, and her multicultural community and their challenges and triumphs.”  
Uma Krishnaswami is the author of more than twenty books for young readers, including Book Uncle and Me, illustrated by Julianna Swaney (Groundwood Books, 2016) selected as one of the best children’s books of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews, NPR Book Concierge’s Guide and USBBY Outstanding International Books List.

She teaches in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New Delhi, India, Uma now lives and writes in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But was that enough?

Uma Krishnaswami
Shawn K. Stout

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

Just start writing.

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

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

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

Jingle Dancer Named to Montessori Life’s Best Mulitcultural Books List

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) has been named among best Multicultural Books for Early Childhood Educators in the most current issue of Montessori Life, Volume 19, Number 1, 2007. See page 97. Thanks to Debbie Gonzales for letting me know about this honor.

In other news, Finding Wonderland: The WritingYA Weblog discusses my revision process as mentioned in my recent interview on Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) at Not Your Mother’s Book Club.

Thanks to A Fuse #8 Production for highlighting the YABC giveaway contest (20 copies of Tantalize) and Greg’s post “How Bleak Thou Art.” Thanks also to Stephanie Burgis for ordering Tantalize (enjoy!).

More News & Links

Poetry Friday: Yoga Poems. A recommendation of Twist: Yoga Poems by Janet Wong, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (McElderry, 2007). Source: Writing with a Broken Tusk by Uma Krishnaswami. Read an interview with Uma.