New Voice: Nora Carpenter on Yoga Frog

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

September is yoga month!

So as a former preschool teacher I was thrilled to interview Nora Carpenter about her fantastic new picture book Yoga Frog, illustrated by Mark Chambers (Running Press Kids, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Frog loves to practice yoga. And he will inspire kids to enjoy doing yoga, too. Follow Frog’s yoga flow, from warming up to cooling down. 

Start with the mountain and chair poses, then work into giraffe, cat-cow, downward-facing dog, butterfly, and bridge. 

End with the quieting happy baby and savasana poses to help your muscles relax before going to bed or starting your day. 

For fans of Yoga Bunny and I am Yoga, Yoga Frog‘s simple, meditative text is complemented by playful yet instructive illustrations by Mark Chambers to teach youngsters how to start their very own yoga practice—and to have fun while doing so, too.

I love this book because it’s perfect for teaching preschoolers yoga! What inspired you to write a picture book on yoga? 

Thank you! I’ve dreamed of publishing a kids yoga book for so long! About a year after college, I took a job teaching preschoolers. (Shout out to the JCC of Northern Virginia!) For the record, that job was one of the best experiences ever and ended up re-awakening my creative writing energy, which had been a bit stifled by academia. But that’s another story!)

Anyway, at the same time I was also becoming more and more engaged with yoga and yogic philosophy, and decided to further my own study through an intensive teacher training program.

I began teaching yoga to my preschoolers and found:

  1. They loved it.
  2. Due to their age and limited attention spans, I had to jazz the poses up a bit with imagination and fun.

I looked for resources, but at that time, the only things available were some flash card sets and a couple wordy books geared toward much older kids.

Fast forward a few years. While attending the MFA program at VCFA, I decided to write the book I wish I’d had for my preschool classes. To be clear, Yoga Frog is nothing like that first attempt, which emerged as poetry! But my teaching (both of pre-K kids and of yoga) is what inspired that initial attempt.

The selection of poses is perfect for the preschool crowd and the prose for each is clear yet poetic. How did you decide what poses to include, what to call them, and how did you go about writing the prose for each pose? 

Again, thank you! I chose the most popular poses from my classes that would both enable kids to release energy and also calm down/de-stress. During yoga teacher training, you’re taught to construct flows that warm up the body for “peak poses,” or the most challenging/intense pose in the flow, and then cool down/relax the muscles that were just worked.

You also learn which poses make good transitions to other poses so that you’re not having students bounce back and forth between seated and standing poses. I drew on that knowledge and my experience teaching lots of kids’ yoga classes to construct the flow of the book.

I did wrestle with what to call some of the poses. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include the proper Sanskrit names, but some of the English translations just aren’t very kid-friendly or engaging. For example, baddha konasana literally translates to “bound angle pose” and ardha matsyendrasana means “half lord of the fishes.” I never used those names in my kids classes.

My experience teaching kids yoga quickly showed me that kids have the most fun when there’s an imaginative element at play, and the most popular imaginative elements in my classes were pretending to be animals and other things relating to nature.

Nature names lend themselves so easily to interactivity. I mean, I have yet to meet a kid whose face doesn’t light up when “kabooming” during Volcano (malasana).

So I took some artistic license and included some of the English names I used in my classes, while still including the Sanskrit names underneath.

At the end of the day, the goal of kids’ yoga is for kids to have fun. If they do, they’ll want to practice yoga again. And again. And again. Before you know it, they’ve developed a healthy and incredibly beneficial self-care habit.

You recently sold your first novel—a contemporary YA titled, The Edge of Anything—which is slotted for spring 2020 publication. Can you give us a quick pitch? 

Sure! The Edge of Anything is the dual narrative of high school volleyball star, Sage, and Len, an outcast teen photographer with a guilty secret. The book explores the transformative power of friendship and how it can help you find yourself and the goodness in life, even when everything feels broken.

A novel is such a different beast from a picture book. How do you juggle working on such different kinds of projects simultaneously? Wait, do you work on them simultaneously, or do you write a novel, then a picture book, etc? 

You aren’t kidding about how different the forms are! I started my creative writing career focused on novels, so I’ve had a steep learning curve with the picture books. (I’m actually gearing up for a picture book intensive regional SCBWI conference, and I’m so excited for everything I’m going to learn!)

Anyway, I’ve heard people make comments about how picture book writing must be “easy” because the stories themselves are short. That could not be less true. A great picture book story has to achieve an incredible amount in a terribly short format, usually 400-600 words.

It really is like writing poetry, and the process works a very different part of my brain and challenges a different part of my creativity.

I’ve noticed, in fact, that after working on the picture book form for a while, my novel writing flows better and smoother. For that reason, yes, I have started writing picture books in the midst of drafting novels. Each serves as a good “break” or “switch” from the other.

Honestly, no matter what form or genre you prefer, I think writers should constantly be testing and challenging their skills. Believe me, I know how hard it can be, but forcing yourself out of your writing comfort zone almost always improves your work.

As I’ve matured as a writer, I try to do this more and more. For example, a while back I joined a picture book critique group with some of my agent-mates, even though I am by far the greenest picture book writer in the group.

But that’s okay. I’m learning a ton and it’s a safe space to ask questions and get valuable, constructive feedback. And that feedback improves my writing as a whole, not just my picture book skills.

Even if one (or a bunch) of projects don’t work out, the skills you’ve learned from those projects will enhance your writing in unexpected ways.

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?

Once you get a book contract, there are suddenly all of these other professional responsibilities you have to juggle along with the process of writing itself: social media presence, interviews, panels, readings and any other type of marketing/promotion you and/or your publisher might set up. It’s exciting, but it does take away from writing time, so if you’re also balancing another job, kids, time with a partner, etc., it can definitely get overwhelming.

In addition to the short-term bouts of promotion that go along with book releases, I do carve out time to keep my website updated with links to reviews, blog interviews, upcoming events, etc.

Otherwise, I try to focus on the actual craft of writing as much as possible. That’s what I find rewarding and fulfilling (and yeah, also crazy hard and maddening at times).

I will say, I do love events. I’m pretty extraverted, so I love meeting readers and other writers and talking about writing and books. But I’m always eager to dive back in to the actual writing and creating process.

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

 Keep writing. Write through the inevitable fear, the “what-if-it’s-not-good?” insecurity. And know that every writer has that angst, often with every book. All you can do is write through it.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Leigh Bardugo, who also happens to be one of my favorite authors. She says: “I think the hard work of writing is just how long a book is terrible before it’s good.”

You must embrace the terrible. Get the draft on the page. You cannot craft a good book without first writing down its messy insides. Revision, re-vision, and revision again make a book great.

 Also, find a supportive writing community, people who will boost your confidence when needed but also provide you with honest, constructive criticism. Go to author and writing events, readings at local bookstores. Even if you’re introverted, force yourself to talk to at least one person there. You will find people just like you, looking for the same thing.

Cynsational Notes

Nora Carpenter grew up in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. After college she lived in Washington, D.C., where she became a Certified Yoga Teacher, before settling into the mountains of North Carolina.

She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes picture books and young adult fiction.

When she’s not writing, she’s doing something outdoorsy or chasing her three rocket-fueled kids. Check out the book trailer for Yoga Frog:

Survivors: M.T. Anderson on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about M.T. Anderson.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

My first book – Thirsty, a vampire novel (Candlewick) – came out in 1997. YA was a very different world then. It was an obscure, niche field within children’s trade publishing, which focused on the picture book.

Commercial success was basically impossible for YA books, except in the case of mass-market tween series, and even those series weren’t yet as profitable as they would become. YA wasn’t a place for the ambitious to go. It was really pursued for the love of the craft and out of love for the audience.

That really changed around the turn of the millennium, and I think my career rode on that wave of expansion. My first two novels were published in the somewhat quieter, more parochial world of YA as it had been … but by my third novel, the dystopian satire Feed (Candlewick, 2002), the industry had exploded into the public view. I was a beneficiary of that explosion.

The first bump I hit was after the 2008 crash. Suddenly, the market contracted. Several things assaulted the publishing industry simultaneously: as the economy went into deep recession, consumer spending dropped; library funding fell through the floor; and ebooks began decimating hardcover revenues. The income structure for books had really relied on hardcover sales, especially to libraries, and increasingly, libraries had less to spend on collection development.

At the same time, the number of titles published had gone through the roof, so each individual book was less likely to attract attention. At the corporate level, publishers and their parent companies were all staggering around like the wounded in a B horror-movie, tripping all over each other and, in fact, merging and disintegrating in new and bizarre combinations.

I had the same experience many people had during this period – and I want readers to know that even now, this experience is not unusual: the awful experience of watching books you love and have worked on with pride and pleasure slipping through the cracks.

In the midst of all the mergers, the firings, and the rapid staff turnover, many publishers’ marketing and publicity teams simply were not promoting a lot of the titles on their list. Communication between marketing and publicity departments – which are, somehow, separate at some companies – was nil. There were no thought-through strategies for promotion, and a lot of opportunities were missed.

One example: I had a publisher spend a lot of money to create some photo-ops for me – and then accidentally neglect to send the photos anywhere. I ended up feeling guilty because they’d wasted money paying for my travel. I hate self-promotion anyway, and wasting my publisher’s resources made my teeth hurt. But that kind of snafu was not unusual.

At the time, I was working on two lighter, younger teen series. In both cases, the first books had sold well. But after the crash, the sales plummeted. The same thing was happening to everyone around me, as we all clamored for attention from ever smaller marketing and publicity staffs.

You should know that everyone complains about that kind of neglect at some stage of their career. To some extent, it has become the new normal in a bloated and competitive industry.

That doesn’t make it any easier, emotionally and artistically. This is a book you crafted lovingly! You’ve lived with it for years, fostering its growth. Then it’s out in the world and can’t seem to get any traction. And worse, writers often blame themselves when a project doesn’t sell – though the mechanics of what makes a book take off are mysterious to everyone.

Please know that many of our industry’s most famous authors have stories in which projects they loved and believed in foundered and disappeared, never reaching their audience. You can’t take it to heart. It happens to everyone.

You just never notice those forgotten chapters in other people’s careers because, well, they’re forgotten – so the successful, in hindsight, seem as if they’ve always been successful.

Believe in yourself. Believe in your work. And love your work from day to day – because that’s what’s going to make it worth it, regardless of a book’s fortunes in the wider world.

One practical suggestion for avoiding self-pity and self-flagellation: In general, I recommend working on several things in alternation. It makes sense from several standpoints: You can put one project on a back burner for a couple of months while working up something else, and that absence is often key to gaining new insight on your own work.

A side-benefit of this is that when a book comes out, you’ve already left it behind. You’re working on something else and surging toward a different goal. You can afford to be more indifferent, therefore, to setbacks for a previous project.

Keep moving! Keep striving!

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

What a great moment for me to contradict my previous answer! One thing I was noted for, early in my career, was trying out very different genres – horror, rom-com, picture book biography, sci-fi, historical fiction, middle grade adventure, etc. I love challenges and confronting myself with a new task, a new mountain to climb.

When I was younger, I dove into each new project blithely. But I have discovered that variety also has a cost. Authors who work in the same mode or genre develop followings in a different way than those of us who hurl things out toward different audiences.

Would I do anything differently, though? I’m not sure I would. I loved each of the projects I worked on. While I was working on each one, it was my world. Each one engaged a different part of me, different skills. How could I want to give that up? That joy, and that sense of exploration and discovery? That’s part of what writing is about.

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

I talked about this a lot above, and I’d basically say that when literary historians look back at the early 21st century, they’ll see this period as a golden age for YA lit.

Sure, those of us in the thick of the industry might experience the present as something of a scramble – but now that the stakes (and, sometimes, the advances) are higher, we’ve attracted a lot of great talent to the field, people who otherwise wouldn’t have considered writing for teens.

I think that’s amazing – and if you’d asked me in 1995, when I was an editorial assistant, I would have said this extraordinary growth of the genre was pretty much impossible.

Oh, one industry factoid that young writers should know about: one of the reasons we became so profitable so quickly, as a sector – one of the reasons that corporate publishing licks their chops over our work – is that, believe it or not, our contracts dictate we receive proportionally smaller royalty cuts than writers for adults do.

That’s a hold-over from the days when YA publishing typically took a loss. So as YA sales exploded in the early 2000’s, and many more copies of YA books were being sold, publishers were making a few percent more on each book, too. (Money that, in the world of publishing for adults, would have gone to the authors themselves.) That meant giant profits, and YA came to seem even more delectable as a publishing investment.

All of this has contributed to making the genre so prominent in our national culture.

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

With co-author Eugene Yelchin

That is a tough one. The flip side of the field being rich with variety is that it is incredibly hard to break into it and to get noticed. I am a New Englander, and hate self-promotion. It makes my severe little Puritan soul shrivel. The only P.R. event I’m really comfortable with is sitting in a graveyard during a drizzle, reading to the slate stones.

I would say that social media helps some authors, but at this point, we’ve passed the apogee of that approach. We’re glutted with tweets.

What about joining these groups of people who travel together and promote together?

Readings when you’re a young author can be demoralizing, because only your friends come, and you’re a writer, so you don’t have many friends. But I know several young writers who have banded together and traveled together, creating their own little tour, taking advantage of personal connections instead of staying at hotels etc.

It’s more fun to travel as a group anyway – and then each of you is a draw for friends and relations, so you actually get respectable regional audiences. Thumbs up all around.

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

More wonderful books – and more books that break the mold and tell us about experiences we haven’t heard about yet.

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

Well, for one thing, I’m working on a book for adults at the moment, which is fascinating and challenging.

In looking to the past and the future, I’ve noticed one common theme in my career: I have miraculously found a way to anticipate trends by just enough that I completely miss capitalizing on them.

I published a vampire novel six years before the vampire craze, a dystopian novel four years before the dystopian craze, a steampunk series four years before the steampunk craze, and so on. Each one cleverly timed so that I never monetize the coincidence.

So if you’re a trend-watcher, here’s a word to the wise: I’m thinking that in a couple years, there might be a run on Russian espionage nonfiction.

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.

M. T. Anderson’s forthcoming novel, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, written with Eugene Yelchin, will be released in October 2018. It has been named to the 2018 National Book Awards Longlist in Young People’s Literature. M.T. was the 2006 award winner for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party (Candlewick.)


Cynsations Intern: Stephani Eaton on The Joy of Writing

Stephani Eaton, photo by Tanya Odom

By Stephani Eaton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Stephani at the keyboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was promptly rejected.

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

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

And I started over.

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

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

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

I texted my husband in a flurry of eagerness.

Seconds later he texted, “Do it!”

I did.

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

Katherine Patterson and Stephani in Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

And even amidst those storms there is joy.

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

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

Reader, I married him.

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

Learn more about Melissa Stewart.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

A piece of paper on the idea board above my desk says:

“Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.” 

Those six simple words are a constant reminder of a lesson I learned the hard way at the beginning of my writing career.

My first book, Life Without Light: A Journey to Earth’s Dark Ecosystems (Franklin Watts), was published in 1998—twenty years ago.

At the time, I was working as a science editor for Franklin Watts and Children’s Press, two nonfiction imprints that had been independent children’s publishing companies for decades, but had recently merged with encyclopedia giant Grolier Publishing Company.

(Today, Watts, CP, and Grolier are all owned by Scholastic.)

Book #1 

I continued to work at that job until 2000. By then, I had published two more nonfiction books, and I had six additional titles under contract with companies that published for the school and library market.

I was confident that I could support myself as a writer.

But (you knew it was coming, right?) two things I never could have predicted happened in 2001.

There was an economic recession, and Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. These events along with the rise of the internet, which made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available for free, spelled disaster for the school and library publishing market.

Some publishers went bankrupt.

Others adjusted their publication schedules, pushing books that were supposed to come out in 2001 to 2002, 2003, even 2004.

They stopped acquiring new titles for several years. There was no work. Period.

I was single and had bills to pay, so there was only one option: I had to reinvent myself.

I joined the SCBWI, found a critique group, and began learning about other areas of the children’s publishing market, especially the trade market. I wrote magazine articles for adults.

I taught writing at a local community college. I worked as a substitute teacher.

Most of all, I realized how foolish I’d been to put all my eggs into one publishing basket.

Book #186, Sept. 2018

I needed to diversify by writing for as many different markets as possible, and, going forward, I needed to pay close attention to how nonfiction writing for children changed over time. I needed to be flexible and adaptable.

I needed to always be on the lookout for new opportunities.

Since that time, nonfiction for children has continued to shift and change, and, luckily, I’ve been able to evolve along with it.

Sometimes I spotted opportunities and actively pursued them. And to be honest, sometimes opportunities fell into my lap, and all I had to do was say, “Yes.”

Some of the projects I’ve been involved with failed miserably. Early sales didn’t live up to publishers’ expectations, and books-in-progress were cancelled midstream. But enough of them worked out that my 186th book, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis (Peachtree, 2018), entered the world in September.

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

Like all writers, I’ve faced my share of obstacles and setbacks, but it’s hard to have regrets when you get to spend your life doing something you love.

Maybe I should have worried less, but even with twenty years of experience, I still worry.

Maybe I’ll never get a great book idea again.

If I do get a great idea, maybe I won’t be able to find the information I need to write it.

February, 2018

If I do find the information, maybe I won’t be able to write a manuscript that lives up to my vision.

If I do write a manuscript I’m happy with, maybe no one will acquire it.

If an editor does acquire it, maybe it will get terrible reviews and it won’t find its audience.

I’m constantly reminding myself that I need to relax and enjoy the ride, to savor the time I spend digging up fascinating facts and presenting them in a way that will delight as well as inform my young readers.

The creative process is what really matters, and time spent “in the flow” is a gift to be treasured.

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

When I began working as an editor in early 1990s, there was just one kind of nonfiction—what we now call traditional nonfiction. But since then, nonfiction has transformed in dramatic and exciting ways.

Today, there are five distinct categories of nonfiction, which I described in this recent article, Understanding and Teaching the Five Kids of Nonfiction (School Library Journal, April 2018).

The following visuals summarize the characteristics and publication opportunities for each category:

Not every nonfiction book fits snugly into one of these five categories. For example, some titles are a blend of narrative nonfiction and expository literature. Others are a mixture of traditional nonfiction and browsable books. But understanding these five basic categories can help book creators, educators, and young readers begin to understand the wide world of nonfiction.

Thanks to that piece of paper tacked to the idea board above my desk—you know, the one that says: “Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.”—I’ve written books in all five categories, and that diversification has allowed me to continue doing a job I love for twenty years.

Thanks to Common Core, nonfiction is finally having its moment in the sun.

Right now, today, is the golden age of nonfiction. And even though Common Core is on its way out, the state educational standards replacing are still emphasizing nonfiction reading and writing.

That’s good news for nonfiction creators.

Melissa’s Critique Group:
Top, l to r: Deborah Kops, Mary LaPointe-Malchik,  Steve Anderson, Betsy Uhrig, Joannie Duris, Heather Lang, Sam Kane;
Middle, l to r: Sharon Abra Hanen, Jeanne Bracken;
Bottom,  l to r: Melissa Stewart, Sarah Brannen.

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

Stop and celebrate! It’s not easy to publish a book, so don’t take your accomplishment for granted. Savor every moment of the journey and all the small successes along the way.

Celebrate the acquisition. Celebrate when the book heads off to the printer. Celebrate every review that doesn’t suck. And, of course, celebrate the launch.

But don’t stop there. If the book receives an honor or an award, celebrate some more. And if you’re lucky enough to get fan mail, celebrate that, too.

It means kids are connecting with your work, and that’s the best reason of all to celebrate.

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

Research in Hawaii.

Right now, educational leaders like Donalyn Miller, Lucy Calkins, Pernille Ripp, Teri Lesesne, John Schumacker, Colby Sharp, Jillian Heise, Susannah Richards, Alyson Beecher, and Frankie Sibberson are emphasizing the importance of using finely-crafted fiction and nonfiction children’s books in the classroom.

As read alouds. As mentor texts for writing instruction. As part of text sets for teaching science and social studies.

They’re also encouraging student choice in reading materials and recommending that educators develop large, robust classroom and school libraries with a range of titles that can meet all students’ needs.

My hope is that their voices will be heard, and schools will allocate the funds necessary to purchase plenty of high-quality books for their students. The kids will benefit, but so will book creators.

Publishers will be more willing to take risks, which means creators can be more innovative.

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

I hope that I can continue to stretch and grow as a writer and evolve with the market. And I hope that my writing continues to delight as well as inform young readers.

Cynsational Notes 

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

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

Learn more about Stephanie Greene.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

I sent my first manuscript to ten editors (the big houses were open to unsolicited submissions back in 1993), nine of whom rejected it. Fortunately for me, Dinah Stevenson at Clarion discovered it in the slush pile. (I don’t think publishers have those anymore.)

As I remember it, Dinah said she liked it very much but … so I went about revising it. I may have revised it twice before she accepted it.

I was extremely lucky in ending up with Dinah. She was, and still is, a tough, but brilliant, editor who asked the perfect questions that led me to the solutions to whatever areas she felt needed work. She rarely told me what to do or change; she merely asked questions and sometimes made comments.

Her attention to detail was meticulous. I’ll always remember her writing, “’Private’ is not a place” in the margin where I’d written “Can I talk to you in private?” I never forgot it. Or made the same mistake again.

So I started out having to live up to the best, and that’s been the way I’ve gone on. I’ve had good/tough editors who made me revise as many times as it took. They made me a better, tighter writer. I was extremely fortunate in being able to find ideas everywhere: newspapers, photographs, overheard conversations, things witnessed, paintings – you name it.

I also think I had a sort of innate sense about plot structure because I was a ravenous reader as a child and had absorbed the way plots are structured. At least, that’s the way it felt to me when I started to write.

The worst time in my career came shortly after my middle grade novel The Lucky Ones (Greenwillow) was published in the fall of 2008. It came out the same month as Lehman Brothers fell and the Great Recession began.

TLO, as we called it, was remaindered in six months, when HarperCollins was getting rid of inventory as fast as Wall Street was shedding stock brokers.

That one broke my heart for a while. It set me back. The book was important to me and it didn’t feel as if it had been given a fighting chance. (They also remaindered a Christmas book of mine after only one Christmas.)

I guess those books count as my bumps.

The road still isn’t necessarily smooth. Last year, my agent told me that a picture book biography I had written and re-written time and again still wasn’t good enough to send around, so I shelved it. That was discouraging.

At the same time, a nonfiction picture book my agent submitted to several editors without success was eventually turned down by an editor who I greatly admire. He gave me the classiest rejection I’ve ever received by saying, “While I like this enormously, I don’t love it enough to publish it.”

I had to respect that.

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

Interesting question. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently. I don’t think I could have. I wrote every day in a disciplined way and revised and revised, when needed.

I might have tried harder to develop a knack for writing from plot, however. I tend to write from character, and while that has worked well for me, I’m now trying to write a mystery, and that’s very plot-directed.

I’m heartened however, to have discovered in a new biography about Agatha Christie, the best of the best, the statement that “… plot, for Agatha, meant distillation of character. It did not exist in a vacuum. It was the people who interested her, always.”

It had always been the people who interested me, too.

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

The increase in the number of people trying to write for children has been astonishing. It led to the large publishing houses eventually closing their doors to un-agented material, for one thing, which, in turn, led to the proliferation of self-publishing.

More and more small presses have opened door for writers, which is great. Writers still have to run a publishing gauntlet to be accepted by them; having to survive that process makes for strong writers and better books.

Another change is the fact that editors have become so overwhelmed, they have less time to edit and expect to see manuscripts in near-publishable shape. More and more, agents, too, want their clients’ manuscripts to be near-perfect.

To my mind, this has led to an unfortunate economic inequality in the industry: writers who can afford to hire book doctors and whole novel critiques by freelance editors have a leg-up over those who can’t.

Overall, it seems to have become a more knee-jerk, reactionary industry than it was when I started. If a series or a novel is a hit, there are immediately dozens more like it. More and more writers I know are writing for hire. It’s a reality: publishers need them and writers need the income.

The most positive change is the call for books and authors from other cultures. I love the multi-faceted country we’ve become, and see so many children from different countries on school visits. I believe in the right of all children to see themselves in books.

Could you talk to us about how you choose each future project, what goes into your creativity- and career-building strategy?

I hate to admit it, but my career-building strategy over twenty-plus years has been pretty un-scientific. I started out writing the books I wanted to write.

The first book I sold was an Owen Foote book, which I sold to Clarion (1996-2004). I was so excited about the little boy I’d created that I immediately told Dinah Stevenson I had a second book about Owen.

In her measured way, she said, “Let’s wait and see how the first book does.”

Happily, it did well enough for her to ask for five more Own books. The lucky part for me was that the chapter book genre was new. As one review said, “A welcome addition to a much-needed genre.” I had no idea that what I’d written was a chapter book.

I was also working on other books during that time. (I have always worked on several projects at the same time.) I wrote four books for Marshall Cavendish about Moose & Hildy (2000-2006), a moose and his best friend, a pig. Those were light-hearted and fun. I had no idea what genre they’d slot into when I wrote them.

Throughout my career, I’ve written what came to me, without thought for genre. That’s the way things used to work. When it reached a time where everyone was talking about what genre they were writing and I asked Dinah Stevenson what genre my first Sophie Hartley book (2005-2013) would be considered, she said, “Why don’t we just call it a ‘book’?” (That four-book series was eventually deemed middle grade.)
I still love that statement.

Today, the genre requirements have become so varied and vague, I always advise writers whose work I’m critiquing to just write the book and figure out the genre after. Too many times, I’ve critiqued a manuscript the writer declares is an early chapter book, say, but in which the protagonist is ten or eleven. Or talks like a fifth grader when he’s in the second grade. Simple mistakes people make because they’re either not familiar with the genre, or they’re trying too hard to fit their book into a genre where it doesn’t belong.

As for career-building, I’ve been remiss in attending to that, too. It’s much more of a recent phenomenon than it was when I started writing in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Even my agent didn’t press me to plan my career. She said, if you write it, I can sell it. (Those were the days …)

Now, much more career-building goes on, and even the need for branding or creation of a platform before a writer has sold their first book. I consider myself fortunate to have led much of my career in simpler times. Knowing myself, having to pay attention to all of those other things would have proved a tremendous distraction from the act of actual writing.

I still believe that writers need to write their book first, do the best job they can with it, and then worry about the rest. But that goes against the contemporary grain, I know.

Stephanie’s bulletin board of ideas.

You’re the author of a number of successful series. For many writers, that’s a dream. How did you come to be a series writer? What advice do
you have for up-and-comers interested in doing the same?

I never set out to write a series, but having written four, I’ve learned something about doing that along the way.

My first bit of advice would be to write one good book. Don’t start out with the idea of writing a series. Devote your energies to writing the best book you can.

There are different kinds of series, of course. If you have a character in mind who you believe will appeal to enough kids that they can successfully carry a series, develop that character to the best of your ability in the first book.

Three of my series have been character-driven. I first created a character who I liked. In every case, it was my editor who asked for more.

(There are countless character-driven series; read as many of them as you can, especially in the genre in which you want to write. Study them. Figure out what makes the character appealing to children.)

Another approach is to come up with a unique concept around which a series can be developed. The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne (Random House, 1992-) are a prime example. Not only do a brother and sister get carried to a different time period or country in a really cool way in every book, but they – and the reader – learn something about history.

If you have a concept, develop it in one book and see what happens.

Another approach is to develop a “hook.” That’s a feature about the character that can be repeated in subsequent books. Many series employ this device. The trick is to make it an intricate part of the story and not a superficial tag-on.

I inadvertently created my Princess Posey (G. Putnam’s Sons, 2010-2018) series of early chapter books because I gave the character in the first story – what was meant to be a stand-alone book – a hook: Posey’s pink tutu makes her feel brave. It was my editor’s decision the tutu concept could carry a series.

If the book you create is series-worthy, your agent and/or editor will most likely recognize it.

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

I wish them the discipline needed to revise and revise and revise until their book is as good as it should be.

I wish that they really do read the 1,000 books that authors at conference after conference, and most books about writing, tell them they need to read before they write. And that they not only read the books, but study them for what makes them work, and how the author did what he/she did.

(Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (HarperCollins, 2006) is a great book for writers.)

I wish them an endless flow of ideas and great joy in doing what they do.

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

I wish that I get to experience that incredible, breathless yes! Feeling I get when I know I’ve hit it right; that I’ve placed exactly the right words, in precisely the needed position, to create the effect I wanted. Writers know what I mean. There’s nothing like 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.

New Voice: Adrienne Kisner on Dear Rachel Maddow

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Adrienne Kisner is a Vermont College of Fine Arts alum and a hilarious fellow classmate, so I jumped at the chance to interview her about her funny and heart-wrenching debut YA novel,  Dear Rachel Maddow (Feiwel & Friends, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Brynn Harper’s life has one steadying force—Rachel Maddow.
She watches her daily, and after writing to Rachel for a school project—and actually getting a response—Brynn starts drafting e-mails to Rachel but never sending them. 

Brynn tells Rachel about breaking up with her first serious girlfriend, about her brother Nick’s death, about her passive mother and even worse stepfather, about how she’s stuck in remedial courses at school and is considering dropping out. 

Then Brynn is confronted with a moral dilemma. One student representative will be allowed to have a voice among the administration in the selection of a new school superintendent. Brynn’s archnemesis, Adam, and ex-girlfriend, Sarah, believe only Honors students are worthy of the selection committee seat. Brynn feels all students deserve a voice. 

When she runs for the position, the knives are out. 

So she begins to ask herself: What Would Rachel Maddow Do?

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

I think the worst moments of my publishing journey were figuring out that the first manuscript (and second and third) I wrote wasn’t going to get an agent or probably ever see the light of day.

I’m not embarrassed by any of my earlier work. I spent years and countless hours on something that I hoped someone else would read, only to realize that no one will ever see it beyond a handful of friends who were too polite to refuse. That was rough. But it taught me that I can finish a manuscript and move on. That’s just what you have to do.

I have a spiritual advisor who says, “That’s the writing life. Isn’t that what you always wanted?”

And it’s true. I did. She’s always right and it’s annoying.

The best moment was probably when Rachel Maddow and Susan Mikula (her partner) sent me flowers. This is notable particularly because I’ve only received flowers about twice before in my life.

Dear Rachel Maddow won the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award, and somehow she got wind of it.

They weighed about ten pounds, but I carried them around my campus and forced everyone to admire them.

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

 You can start writing your book any time. You should write it, in fact. You can finish it, too.

You aren’t too old or too young. You have the time. We always have time, us writers. We say we don’t. The kids need this, the day job needs that, the house is on fire, the car just got sucked under inky black waves by writhing tentacles, blah blah blah. Whatever.

 It will always be something. But if you really want to write, have to write to survive, you will.

Do it in ten minute spurts every other Thursday. Those Thursdays add up.

Just write the damn book already.

As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another? 

I teach composition and creative writing. (I’m also a residence hall director, but that is another story…) I like putting up my editor and copyeditor’s notes on the PowerPoint to demonstrate how even after six drafts there are approximately forty-seven errors on every one of my pages.

Writing is a journey. Revision is a slog backwards through that journey. How can I really hold typos against a student? I cannot. I circle them in cheerful purple ink, mind you. But my own process has made me more humble.

 I also now pick books to teach that I can rant about, both good and bad. I’ve become a more informed ranter.

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

I think getting an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts made all the difference for me. I’ve read on advice blogs and in craft books that one does not need an MFA to write. Certainly I think that’s true.

But after a few years of writing, trying to find an agent, and getting nowhere, I was tired and ready to quit. I needed to be plugged into something bigger than myself, an instant community of writers and scholars around whom I could bask in the shared love of words.

I made amazing, supportive friends and had my butt kicked in terms of craft by brilliant mentors. VCFA flipped a switch in my head in terms of not only getting my ideas down, but taking a step back and revising the crap out of them. Many, many times.

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly said,

“Revealing Brynn to be an individual with realistic insecurities, biases, and complexities, Kisner playfully explores the very human manner in which a stranger like Maddow might come to feel like a friend and confident.”

Adrienne Kisner has lived her entire “adult” life in a college dormitory working in both Residence Life and college chaplaincy.

She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Dear Rachel Maddow was awarded a 2016 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award.

Guest Post: Karen Kane on Analyzing Feedback

By Karen Kane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

How you use feedback can make or break your story.

Which feedback do you follow?

Which feedback do you ignore?

Most importantly, how can you make sure the feedback you do use deepens your writing, and not derails it?

Here’s what I know about feedback: you are in charge.

You are the gatekeeper for your stories. But to be a discerning gatekeeper—to know what feedback to use and what feedback to discard—you need to know yourself.

For me, knowing myself meant recognizing I didn’t yet have what researchers Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett call a “mastery-oriented mindset.”

Dweck and Leggett studied how children handled putting together a difficult puzzle. Some children had a fixed mindset in regard to their abilities. Those children had pre-determined their skill level, and decided they were helpless to change that skill level and improve. But other children, also not good at solving the puzzle, were determined to become good at it.

Difficulties for mastery-oriented children were simply challenges to surmount; where as children with a fixed mindset “viewed their difficulties as failures, as indicative of low ability, and as insurmountable.”

I realized I had a fixed mindset about my writing skills.

When I received critical feedback, I often felt frustrated and helpless.

What was I supposed to do with feedback that wasn’t prescriptive? How was I supposed to make my story better with feedback if my writing skills were immutable?

Learn more about Charlie & Frog
(Hyperion, April 2018)

Learning about Dweck and Ellen’s research was a paradigm shift for me. I decided I could and would learn the craft skills needed to become a better writer. I would figure out what was working and what wasn’t working in my stories. I would have a mastery-oriented mindset.

Here’s something else I recognized in myself: I tended to abdicate my power to other people.

I wanted others to find what was wrong in my writing, and (most importantly) tell me how to fix it.

How you do anything is how you do everything—and I began to notice how this trait showed up in other areas of my life. It manifested in how I looked to other people to tell me the right way to parent or eat or decorate my home.

I didn’t believe I could make the right choices for myself. I didn’t trust myself to live my own life. Once I started thinking in terms of “mastery-oriented mindset” rather than a “fixed-mindset,” I began to feel empowered.

I saw that other people don’t have the “right” way—just their own way. And I, too, could figure out my own way, in my life and in my stories.

What do you need to know about yourself to figure out your own feedback process?

Start looking within yourself. You are the window into your writing.

Still, maybe you receive feedback and you aren’t sure if it’s right or wrong for your story. Or you don’t know (yet) how to change what’s not working.

Take that feedback you are not sure about and change it into questions about your writing. Similarly, if something isn’t working in your story, ask yourself why it isn’t working.

Write those questions on sticky notes. Keep them with you during the day as you do laundry, commute to work, eat lunch. Tell the universe you are listening. You are open for answers.

Sometimes I write down a plea—“Help me! I don’t know what to do about X.”

Then I wait. It’s hard to stay with the questions and not force answers. We are so programmed to know and to know Now.

But expectant waiting is part of the journey. Not knowing can be a good thing.

Listen to what poet Wislawa Szymborska says about people following their passion:

“Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’”

Sometimes the best stuff emerges when we say, “I don’t know,” and face this not knowing with an open and curious mind. What are we not seeing? What can help us see?

When needed, it’s imperative you are gentle with your writing and with yourself. Let your writing and yourself get stronger before you allow critical minds to delve in. Remind yourself that you have to write badly first into order to write well.

Telling myself that is the only way I can write. Otherwise I would be paralyzed.

Part of your job of gatekeeper is to only let in feedback that your story (and you) can handle at each stage.

Jane Kurtz,
photo by Jen Candor

Writer Jane Kurtz, when working on a new story, will sometimes say to a reader, “I only need to hear what’s working at this stage,” and “which parts would make you keep reading?”

Eventually, of course, the time must come for a writer to open herself up to what Peter Elbow calls that “cold critical eye . . . ruthlessly discarding or changing anything that is not right.”

But that’s when you will use your mastery-oriented mindset as you sift through this critical feedback: figuring out what to keep, what to discard, and changing comments into questions.

Now you are using feedback to find the true essence of your writing, the true essence of what you are trying to say.

Lev Vygotsky said, “Through others, we become ourselves.”

Through others, our stories can also become themselves—as long as we are attentive gatekeepers, allowing our stories to be deepened, and not derailed, by feedback.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews described Charlie & Frog (Hyperion, 2018)  as, “An enjoyable read that artfully mixes adventure, heart, and cultural competence.”

Karen Kane’s path to Charlie & Frog led her from a small village near Rochester, New York, to the bustle of Washington, D.C. The people she met along the way inspired her writing with their warmth and humor, especially those in the Deaf community.

Karen graduated from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

When she’s not writing, Karen spends her days as a sign language interpreter at Gallaudet University or lost in the stacks of her local library.

Charlie & Frog is her first novel.

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

Learn more about E. Lockhart AKA Emily Jenkins

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

I want to be honest about the biggest reason I have weathered tough times: I have some financial security.

I have published approximately 45 books in 21 years, and a huge factor in my remaining a working writer was a gift of money from my in-laws.

My spouse and I used it to purchase real estate. That purchase meant our overhead was (and remains) low. We could thus have a family in New York City without the vagaries of my income jeopardizing our housing. I don’t want to ever pretend my career has been all hard work and creativity. It has been hard work and creativity – but with the cushion of an apartment purchased with money I did not earn myself.

It has helped me to publish in multiple age categories. I write under two names and can have a couple of books a year. I co-author a series, and that helps too – we can write the series books while having other projects on the go.

I publish with multiple houses. Penguin Random has much of my backlist and my bigger books, but in 2017 I did books with Candlewick, Scholastic and Farrar, Straus & Giroux – and it’s pretty much always been like that. The publishers haven’t always been happy about the competition, but I’m employed.

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

I would write A Fine Dessert (Schwartz & Wade, 2015) differently.

On a practical note, I should not have been so wide-ranging at the start of my writing career. I published two picture books, a book of essays for adults, a novel for adults, and a middle grade. Then I couldn’t figure out why my career had no momentum.

Ha! Of course it didn’t. I hadn’t built a reputation in any one area, and I hadn’t sustained relationships with editors.

The smart thing would have been to focus tight at first and to build longer-term connections — and to find a community of writers. I didn’t have any writer friends, really, until nine years after my first book came out.

Now, those relationships are essential to the longevity of my creative life. I don’t know how I managed before.

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

I adore the emergence of LGBTQ+ YA stories into mainstream popular consciousness. On bestseller lists. Made into films! (As I’m answering these questions, “Everyday” and “Love, Simon” are in theaters.) There’s LGBTQ+ fantasy, adventure, dystopian, historical and science fiction as well as realistic contemporary. Makes me happy.

Queer YA has been around since 1969, of course. And there are still more people to include, more intersections to examine, more ways of feeling and living to be represented and more voices to be heard.

But things have changed and expanded hugely in the thirteen years I’ve been writing YA and so many of the books are spectacular.

I also adore the emergence of the graphic novel as a major and respected art form. There are MacArthur winners, National Book Award winners, and hilarious young middle grade books that grab the most reluctant readers.

I grew up reading comic books and the interplay of image and text was the subject of my dissertation. I feel lucky to be making books at such a fertile time for graphic stories.

Have you finished a draft of your next book?

The actual publication of a book doesn’t feel so great to me. Satisfaction must come from making things you are interested in and are proud to have made, from the exciting process of collaboration, from storytelling. You’ll keep your head straight if you’re thoroughly involved in that experience of creation when your book arrives in bookshops.

You’re also a writing teacher. What led you to join the Hamline MFA faculty, and how does teaching inform, influence and intersect with your writing life?

After getting my doctorate, I taught creative and scholarly writing for some years, adjuncting at NYU, Barnard and Columbia. I enjoyed the work, but those jobs didn’t provide me with colleagues or a department — I just showed up and did my courses, held my office hours, and went home.

At some point I began to want more: to be able to create new classes, to bring in visiting lecturers, to work with other teachers who stretched my understanding of my field, to contribute to the shape of a program and to be part of conversations about how best to teach fiction writing and literature.

I couldn’t do that as an adjunct, and I began to feel bored. I left those jobs and wrote full time.

Some years later, I saw an ad in The Horn Book looking for an experienced college teacher who wrote both picture books and YA. I thought, Oh, that’s me!

I applied, but during the resulting interview, I realized (to my embarrassment) that I had done so cavalierly. I had a small baby. I couldn’t leave her for 11-day residencies! What had I been thinking?

Up-front I told Mary Rockcastle, the program director, that I would be interested in working at Hamline if she wanted to come back to me in a couple of years — and she did. Then I was able to take the job.

Being there has been the formal fiction-writing education I never had. When I first arrived, I didn’t have any of the creative writing vocabulary used by my colleagues. Over the years I have had the chance to learn from some of the best people making books for children.

In particular I have returned to insights from lectures by Meg Medina, Matt de la Peña, Ron Koertge, Laurel Snyder and Nina LaCour.

In the lecture hall, am often struck by ideas for projects, or strategies for revision.

Another thing I love is getting to work intimately with students on long-form projects and in multiple drafts on picture books. I get to see my students grow and develop in hugely significant ways. And I feel useful. I love team-teaching workshop, too.

 I have run class with Laura Ruby, Anne Ursu, Marsha Qualey, Kelly Easton and Claire Rudolph-Murphy, and in each case I got so much out of seeing the way my co-teacher worked with a student text — total paradigm shifts from the way I might have approached it, sometimes. And wonderful.

Last, I have spent a huge amount of time working on the Required Reading List we assign at Hamline. Our List Committee tossed out our old list in late 2015 and re-imagined what we wanted our students to read and why, putting together a pedagogical mission, learning outcomes, all that — and a list of amazing books.

Then each year we have done small updates to that list, often with new Committee members circling in to keep the list fresh and evolving as our departmental needs evolve.

Sherri Smith is co-leading us this year and she is amazing. Serving on this crew means I read books that I might not have picked up, otherwise — and I get to discuss them with my colleagues, too. That reading has broadened my mind and my writing.

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

Emily with Paul O. Zelinksy

I hope our community can practice radically better inclusivity in publishing.

I’d like the editors, art directors and publicity teams to reflect the gorgeous range of people we publish books for.

I hope we will continue to support freedom of speech and of the press.

If we can make that big change and hold onto that central value, I think we’ll make beautiful, funny, touching, wonder-filled books.

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

I want to try new forms. I might take courses cartooning and see what that does to my thinking about image and text, both for picture books and graphic novels.

I like it when I don’t know how to do my job.

The best work bubbles up when I have no idea how to tackle this new thing that I want to write.

Cynsational Notes 

In the photo above, Emily and Paul are on a walking tour for All-of-a-Kind Family Hannukah (Schwartz & Wade, Sept. 2018).

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.

The Texas Library Association issued A Statement on Questions Over A Fine Dessert and tie-in resources, including those for teaching the related criticism and controversy.

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

Learn more about Kathi Appelt. Photo by Igor Kraguljak.

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, yes?

I would agree with that. Over these many years I’ve seen superstars come and go. And I do realize that some of that is just basic human nature—we all want to see who is the new best thing, right?

There are so many ways to interpret the old adage “chasing the dream.”

I feel fortunate because I’ve caught a few of those dreams, and in doing so, they remind me of how utterly grateful I am to be able to do this good work. But I also understand how ethereal it all is, how fleeting. And there are some days when I think that I’d be perfectly happy waiting tables again (although my back would probably resist).

It’s a conundrum in many ways. Those of us who have been around for a while know how difficult it is to stay in this world, but lately I’ve felt a real longing to slow it all down, do a little less chasing, and maybe at the same time, up the ante.

I still feel like my best work is yet to come. But that means—at least to me—less chasing and more contemplation. That would not have been possible even a few years ago when I was constantly on the road, teaching like crazy, trying to get my kids through college, working to make ends meet.

So, I’m able now to slow it down a bit, but at the same time I understand the crushing need to produce something that is relevant and worthy. At least I feel that need, especially in these super-charged times. It feels like the very soul of the world is at risk.

I’m constantly asking—what is my role here? How can my stories matter? What do I even have to say that can make a dent or a difference, especially because every morning since the election of 2016, I wake up wondering what major screw up awaits the new day? It’s paralyzing.

I’ve been telling people that my next book is going to be called “Things that Frolic,” and it will feature only leaping animals, like bunnies and baby deer and unicorns. It will have lots of rainbows and candy-apple trees.

Ish! Makes my teeth hurt, just thinking about it.

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

When the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, I had an existential crisis.

By then, I had published a whole bevy of picture books, plus a collection of middle grade poems, and I had several works in the pipeline. I had a terrific team that I worked with—three editors and my long-time agent. I was super cozy.

But then, my father passed away, followed by my sweet little grandmother, and shortly after that those towers fell, and everything I was doing came into question (kind of like now, actually).

And my beloved team! My agent, Marilyn Marlow, passed away after a long bout with cancer. A week later, my editor Meredith Charpentier, died unexpectedly. Another of my editors left to work as a freelancer. I was heartbroken. Bereft.

The very ground that I had been standing on shifted beneath my feet. I realized I was at a crossroads with my writing. There was that familiar cozy path that I knew so well, and that had supported me.

I could continue on that route. It was safe. I knew how to do it. There was a lot of reliability there, lots of encouragement. I could write rhyming picture books until the proverbial cows came home. I could write good-enough poetry, and even well-received nonfiction. I knew where my boundaries were, and how to exploit the territory within them.

But at the same time, I felt this kind of soul-ache. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the work I was doing or had done. I love all of my books. But at that moment, I felt like I needed to do something significant, even if it was only for me.

At that time, I met with my new agent, Holly McGhee, and she asked me, “Where do you want to take your writing?”

Even though it wasn’t a question I had ever been asked, I knew the answer. I needed to write a story that would crack open the heart, and the heart I needed to crack open the most was my own.

We always say, “write what you know.”

But we forget that eventually what we know can squeeze the life out of our work.

So, at first, I thought, okay, I’m going to write what I don’t know. And I realized that wasn’t exactly right either. What did that even mean? I don’t know anything about quantum physics, but I can guarantee you that I’m never going to write about them.

Serendipitously, I stumbled over Georgia Heard’s “heart maps.” So I got out a piece of paper and drew one, making all sorts of spaces on that map for the things that mattered to me. Then I drew another one, and another. They were so enlightening really. To actually see, in a visual way, the things that I loved. But with each one, I discovered that I had left a space that was unnamed.

Every time I drew a map, there was always an open, unlabeled space. I started calling that “the hole.” And for me, that hole was something I missed. Or someone I missed. Or some place or time that I missed.

It was, I discovered, where I needed to go. To dive into that place of missing, and find the story that was there. With The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008) I realized that I missed wild places, I missed my baby boys who were no longer babies, I missed the old dog that guarded me and my sisters when we were girls. So much missing. I confess that at times it was overwhelming.

Tobin with Martine Leavitt and Nancy Werlin

And then, on a particularly rough day, my friend Tobin (M.T.) Anderson called me out of the blue, and in our conversation, he said, “you should always write what you think you can’t.”

I’ll never forget that because in that short sentence is the absolute permission to fail.

After all, if you didn’t think you could do it in the first place, then what harm is there in trying? Right? If you fail, well, you didn’t think you could do it anyways.

There is so much liberation in allowing yourself to fail! Once I gave myself that permission, it was like I hit the go button and couldn’t stop.

When Tennessee Williams was working on his first important play, “Battle of Angels,” he noted in his journal that he was working with “seven wild-cats under [his] skin.”

I’ve learned to love that feeling, that furious itch to get the words down, to put all that missing, all that longing, all that failure onto the page. I’m no Tennessee Williams, but I understand that compulsion to dive into the hole.

With VCFA faculty Shelley Tanaka & Rita Williams-Garcia

Another thing that saved me was my work as a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Joining that esteemed group of writer/teachers gave me some grounding. They taught me so much.

Mostly, I learned that not everything was about me. My students forced me to be better, to be wiser, to be more circumspect and careful with our stories.

We are traders of stories. It’s what makes us fundamentally human—our stories. And so care has to be taken, both in the stories we write and the ones we read. The work was hard. But it was a necessary thing for me.

I know I’m a better writer because I’ve been a teacher. I might have been a more prolific writer if I hadn’t been a teacher, but I know I would not have been a better writer.

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

I would try to be less seat-of-the-pants opinionated. I believe that there are a lot of things I’ve missed because I saw (and continue to see) the world through my own set of privileged lenses.

As such, I recognize that there are so many things I’ve refused to see or hear, or actually that I couldn’t see or hear. Fortunately, I have people who love me and are patient. But is it their responsibility to rip off the blinders? I’m not sure.

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?

Obviously, there is still a resounding need for more stories by and about citizens of Indigenous Nations and people of color. One only needs to check the data to see that we are so far behind, especially when demographics are taken into consideration, and especially with Native/First Nations writers.

I am glad to see new, young and gifted, really genius authors claiming their place in the canon. It makes my heart happy.

And it scares me, too. In so many ways, it’s forced me to really examine the myriad ways that the “system” has failed all of us, that system that has created what Will Alexander calls “fallback norms,” in which we just assume that the nondescript hero is white. So, what challenges me is the necessary work of peeling off those layers that perpetuate the fallback norms, and finding a way past them.

I can’t help but wonder who I’m going to find underneath those layers—my racist Southern grandmother, my great-great grandfather who fought for the Union, my alcoholic father, my encouraging first grade teacher, my great-grandmother who died in childbirth at age 25, the wool rakers of my father’s family?

None of them were perfect, and neither am I. But I can’t deny their influence.

So this is my challenge, and I am so grateful to my inner circle of fellow authors who have been patient, who listen, who guide, who are working so hard to be sure that all of our children are represented in our books, and that all of them can see themselves as heroes, no matter their racial or ethnic make-up, their gender, their abilities….

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

One day, long ago, I was having breakfast with a woman who had just traveled across the country by hitchhiking. Over eggs and bacon, she told this rather hair-raising tale about it all, and my response was a very trite, cliché “I can’t even imagine it.”

Her reply: “Imagine it.”

She said it with such force that it opened up something in me. It was like a directive, and maybe the truer meaning was: “don’t be a wimp, Kathi, imagine it.”

Do it. Don’t just sit there, saying you can’t.

She wasn’t a writer. I can’t even remember her name. We were with a group of other people at the table and I had never met her before. Never saw her again.

But I learned that day that possibly the best phrase in our lexicon is “imagine it.”

So, I would say to do that, to imagine it. Imagine it all. Dream it up, and do it in a big way.

You are built for this, made for telling stories.

Imagine it.

llus. from The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, (c) 2008 by David Small. (2)All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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

With Cynthia Leitich Smith.

If I could wave my magic wand, I’d wish for starred reviews and movie deals and cafeterias full of children all sitting crisscross applesauce, waiting to hear you read your books to them.

I’d wish for long signing lines, and great copy editors, and first class air tickets, and great friends to share your highs and lows with.

I’d wish for good cats, and long walks, and plenty of music. You know, things that frolic.

I’d wish that they could each know, even at a small level, how much love plays a role in all of this.

It does.

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

A unicorn would be sweet.

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.

Tenth Anniversary Giveaway: Fifteen winners will receive an autographed paperback copy of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, 2008). In addition, one Grand Prize winner will win a classroom set of 20 copies of the book, plus a 30 to 40 minute Skype visit for their school, classroom, or library with Kathi Appelt. Enter here!


New Voice: Cate Berry on Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime!

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m so pleasured to feature my interview with Cate Berry, debut picture book author of Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Balzer + Bray, 2018).

Publishers Weekly described it as “…a buoyantly subversive antibedtime tale,” and I couldn’t agree more.

The witty repartee between Penguin and Tiny Shrimp, coupled with the digital artwork of Charles Santoso make this 2018 Junior Library Guild selection a fun and engaging read for little ones.

My visit with Cate yielded lots of helpful takeaways for those new to the field and some salient thoughts on when to ask for help.

Kate, what advice would you share with beginning children’s-YA writers? 

Personally, I urge my new students to read at least three hundred picture books before even beginning a manuscript (or at least while you begin drafting).

Picture books are like learning a new language. There is a rhythm, a vibe, and implicit rules are attached to the form. Taking a class or reading a craft book is great, but reading a heap of picture books is even better.

Cate’s students at The Writing Barn discuss picture books.

So reading more than you are writing is my advice, especially with picture books. You want the form to wash over you; the economy of words, the give-and-take with the illustrator, the brilliant idea, the strong beginning, the twist endings.

After you read a jillion of them, their residue is left behind and it’s easier to get out of the way and write something uniquely fresh and your own. I think every kid (and editor!) is looking for this in your next picture book.

Cate with VCFA faculty member A.S. King

I’d also say it’s very important to pay it forward. There are writers who have been so generous with their time and talent towards me over the years and continue to be so. I will never forget it.

I write a new mission statement for my writing each year and I always end it with “give back as much as I receive.” I hope I can encourage beginning writers to remember this unspoken tradition in our community and pay it forward as they move along in writing and publishing.

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

I love this question. You’ve made me think about it a lot. There is a lot of change right now. There are school visits, conferences, panels, social media and blog posts where there was once just writing time.
I’m not someone who believes in balance, which isn’t very on trend right now.

I don’t do yoga. I meditate until I have to stop and jot down “a very important note.” I like moving at full speed, falling into a project and not coming up for air until it’s done. I also like saying “yes” to everything. But all this isn’t very realistic.

So, I’ve incorporated two things into my life during this transition from writer to author. The first is asking for help from amazing women, in all fields, who are a step or two ahead of me.

I’ve watched successful men, including my dad, ask for assistance when they need it. Why shouldn’t I? A friend of mine in women’s marketing offered to be my project manager. She’s brilliant, helping me organize my new book/author commitments and not get overwhelmed with the process.

One of my students is helping me with the extra social media that comes along with launching a new book. And I’ve enlisted the help of another writer who is much farther along in publishing than myself to critique new manuscripts for me each month so my writing remains on the front burner.

And speaking of burners, I don’t want to burn out. That leads me to my second life change: making downtime a priority.

It was suggested I do this everyday and my first thought was, That’s nuts. There’s too much to do! I can’t stop until it’s done (see above paragraph)!

But, I want to be writing for many years. It’s a slow burn not a hot mess— this business of long-time book making. Taking twenty minutes a day to curl up with my cat isn’t going to slow me down at all.

In fact, I’m finding I’m more productive with less time on the days I keep this commitment of regular downtime.

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

A week after I was accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program, I signed with my agent.

Some writing friends were scratching their heads at my decision to attend because, yes, MFAs are expensive and demanding. And hey, you just got an agent. Do you need to do this? I also knew it would be hard on my family.

But my mentor at the time gave me great advice: getting an MFA will put you on a fast track with your writing and ultimately your career. At the time I thought, Great! I will gain a degree along with accruing a lot of publishable work.

Turns out, I misunderstood her completely. To be clear, I don’t believe you must gain an MFA to write or publish, many writers I admire don’t have one. But for me, it allowed me to claim my space as a writer.

Is it Hogwarts or Narnia or Wonderland or Brigadoon?
Vermont College of Fine Arts is a low residency MFA and comes with a grueling schedule of critical writing, creative writing and an enormous amount of reading every month. We all know life gets in the way when you try and write. Going to VCFA took away any excuse for not putting writing at the top of my To Do list. And now I feel that commitment is embedded in my DNA.

I think that’s what my mentor really meant. It was a fast track, for me, in that it cemented my writing process.
One thing that surprised me is that working towards an MFA at VCFA was not linear.

Looking back, it’s strange how much I learned without academic scaffolding holding everything in place (ex. detailed curriculum uniformly followed by all students). I had four completely different advisors throughout my two years in the program, and I gleaned four different skill sets under their wings.

One semester was spent entirely on picture books. I had experience writing in this genre so I was able to dive deep, annotating hundreds of picture books and writing three to five drafts each month as well as revising and working intimately with my advisor and five other students through an online forum.

I received a certificate at the end of that semester which felt a little like “The Wizard of Oz” ending. Ultimately, it’s just a piece of paper, and yet, it gives me strength and confidence when I glance at it (which I do often!) knowing the effort behind it.

I will admit I was intimidated and frustrated by all the critical writing at first. But after some guidance, I grew to love it. My critical thesis and lecture were based around humorous picture books. I made time to delve into humor theory and research, applying it to currently published picture books, which now informs my daily writing. More importantly, it sharpened my analytical skills.

Why is this important for creative writing? Well, how can you write a great novel or picture book without being able to pull apart the mechanics of the story and embed your heart into it at the same time?

In the end, the greatest gift from my master’s program was understanding and valuing the long game. Faculty member Cynthia Leitich Smith’s inspired series on longevity and publishing in children’s writing also highlights these sentiments.

Sometimes life happens no matter how much you plan for an uninterrupted writing day.

This past week my son had the flu—pfft —I lost four days. But you can always keep your finger in the creative pie.

Even on the crazy days, I’ll jot down a poem or a new picture book title. My advisors, whom (lucky me) are now some of my writing pals, taught me about attending my work with care and dedication because we are writers for life, not sprinters in a writing contest.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said of Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime!:

“Ironic counterpoint abounds in this humorous picture book, which sees the eponymous characters rejecting typical bedtime-book activities and accouterments through speech-balloon text, as all the while humorous, expressive, digital illustrations doggedly present them…. A definite do for bedtime.”

Cate Berry is a faculty member with the Writing Barn in Austin, Texas and an active member in the SCBWI and Writers’ League of Texas.

She also speaks at schools, libraries and conferences year round on such topics as “Gender Stereotyping and Poetic Devices” and “From Stand Up to Sit Down: Funneling Surprise and Stand-Up Comedy into Humorous Picture Books.”

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

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

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

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