Profiles of Persistence: Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson on Committing Long-Term to Children’s Writing

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Part One: The Writer’s Heart

Many hard-working, committed, persistent, and resilient writers forge ahead with their writing journeys in spite of obstacles, disappointments, “almost-there” moments and plenty of what I call “Beautiful, buts.”

This two-part interview explores the experience of being a long-time, determined writer who has not yet had a book published.

Writers Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson hail from different parts of the United States, and have different personalities, habits, writing choices, and ways of shoring up resilience. But one thing they have in common is this: nothing will deter them from continuing to write and submit their stories.

Our writing journeys vary in results, but all of us, whether published or not-yet-published, know that the joy is in the journey.

As you reflect on your writer’s journey, what are the major “bumps” or obstacles you’ve encountered (internal as well as external), and how have you managed to handle them while still remaining committed? 

Meredith: The biggest, most persistent bump is what I’ve perceived as failure – failure to achieve goals, find an agent, get published by the time I was forty.

The fallacy in this thinking was that I based those goals on others’ achievements. Once I recognized what I was doing, I readjusted my success barometer.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I began to trust that I was on a path designed just for me, and all those things I wanted – the agent and the publishing contract and the awards will come at the right time.

I can’t force it, and don’t want to force it.
I continue moving forward, writing and editing and submitting. I count the bumps and hurdles of rejections as part of the journey that will make an even better story to tell in the end.

What’s a story without some tension? I remind myself that the journey is just as important as the destination.

Lisa Bierman

Lisa: I have had many time periods when I did very little writing, and [these periods] could last months.

The biggest internal barrier for me has always been the lack of an imposed deadline. 

External events – a lot of family health issues – have intervened over the years as well.
Having fellow writers I adore motivates me to keep returning to manuscripts.

Nothing beats the fun of having a character you begin to love or a string of rhyming stanzas that are really coming together.

Another factor that has helped me is that I often have new story ideas, and I enjoy brainstorming, but I’ve also learned that pursuing ideas that don’t have enough unique qualities can turn into unproductive time.

Jill: I started learning the craft of writing for children and teens in 1999 when I joined SCBWI. I found my writing soulmates and joined a critique group.

A few years in, one of my picture book manuscripts caught the eye of an editor at Random House and we went through several revisions. At that time, Random House merged with several other companies and my editor lost her job. The new editor did not do picture books, so my heart was broken. [A part of me felt like giving up, but instead] I began focusing on magazines and novels.

Not long after, my first article appeared in AppleSeeds.

Many of my other “bumps” have been external. Around that time, my family and I moved to Missouri for my husband’s job. Over the next six years, we moved three times, I continued to raise two active sons, complete my bachelor’s degree, and work full-time.

In 2011, we settled back home in Oklahoma, and I reconnected with old friends and my critique group and started taking my writing career seriously again. In 2015, a tornado damaged our house, and we were homeless for nine months.

In 2016, I faced a big emotional obstacle – the fear of losing my oldest son, who had joined the military and was deployed to war zones.

But I continued to volunteer for SCBWI throughout all of this time.

Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Team Jill Donaldson (regional advisor), Jerry Bennett (illustrator coordinator), Anna Myers (regional advisor emeritus), SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver and Helen Newton (former regional advisor).

I learned to channel frustration, fear, happiness, and peace into my stories, and that has given me the strength to persist in my passion of writing.

I am so happy that I have never given up or quit writing because I recently signed with Stephanie Hansen at Metamorphosis Literary Agency.

What are your top three pieces of advice for developing and maintaining the resilience necessary to persist in a difficult business? 

Lisa:

  1. Remember how many fine writers have a fat rejection file. Probably all of them.
  2. We are told that the publishing industry is highly competitive, and it is. But make peace with the fact that some published books will seem unworthy to you, and you might puzzle endlessly about why certain books “made the cut.” I suggest you focus on the books you are jealous of, that make you swoon. What can you learn from those lovely books? Probably a lot.
  3. Only write things that you really enjoy thinking about.

Jill:

  1. Connect and develop relationships with other kid lit writers and illustrators.
  2. Work at maintaining a balanced lifestyle, so your creativity is at its max when you sit down to write or illustrate.
  3. Keep your mind and heart open to learn and create in new ways. It is soul-satisfying when you have a breakthrough in your writing or illustrating.

Meredith:

  1. Keep reading. Great books continue to remind me why I’m writing and pursuing publication. I want to share stories and move others with my words the same way I’m moved by great writing.
  2. Keep learning. It’s part of the fun of being a writer. It’s exciting to try a new plotting technique or go to graduate school or attend a conference. I’m not just a writer so that I can have a published book. I’m a writer because I actually enjoy writing, and when I learn new things my writing improves. It’s like a woodworker using a new saw or a computer programmer learning a new language. Learning gives me tools to explore new ways of writing and keeps my process fresh.
  3. Keep nurturing relationships with other writers. The relationships I’ve made with other writers are life-giving. They encourage me and they inspire me. Other writers edit my work and they help me navigate the ups and downs of the writing life. They understand how hard it can be, so they can celebrate or commiserate authentically.

E.B. White writes of Charlotte,

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

These relationships are precious.

How do you handle questions about “what is out on submission” (from writing colleagues) or “what have you published?” (from non-writer acquaintances) 

Meredith’s writing community: Anne Bustard (seated),
Meredith, Betty X. Davis, Kathi Appelt and Jane Peddicord.

Meredith: For a long time I didn’t tell people outside my writing circle that I wrote children’s books, but it was hard to stay incognito. I wrote Christmas letters and blog posts and long emails.

People told me they liked my writing, and so I got brave. I began to admit that I wrote children’s books, too, and then came the inevitable question.

Sometimes it was the double whammy: “Where can I buy them?” They assumed not only that I was published, but that I was published many times. As if that is no big deal!

Sometimes I try to explain about publishing, how it’s hard, editors move, the market is fickle, and I’m an unknown. But when I see eyes begin to glaze, I realize a quick “I’m not published yet, but I’m working on it,” works just fine.

Usually whomever I’m talking to has already moved on to new topics of conversation. Non-writers don’t realize they’ve exposed our insecurities, but other writers understand how hard it is and don’t judge.

The children’s writers I’ve met are kind and generous and they’re often rooting for me. We are a friendly bunch, so I try not to be intimidated and keep Dorie’s mantra from “Finding Nemo” playing on repeat in my head: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

I move on, and, “Just keep writing, just keep
writing.”

Lisa: I give very brief answers. I’m honest. I’ll say that I’ve been beating my head
against the wall.

Jill: When I’m asked about submissions, I try to make it an opportunity to pitch my current work. Their reactions or lack thereof is helpful in knowing how I can be better.

When I’m asked about what I have published, I let them know what success I have had and then tell them that I don’t have any books published yet.

Part Two: Writing Craft


What are your favorite resources for improving your writing skills? 

Lisa’s favorite craft books.

Lisa: Reading books in my genre – that’s the most fun way to improve my own work. When I see a picture book that is clever and delights me, it can also help me think, “I have concepts that are as good as these…My voice is similar…,” and those are the times I get excited again and want to keep the fire going.

Jill: I try to attend as many kid lit related critique meetings, writing workshops, and webinars as possible.

Meredith: I love a good conference or workshop, when I am surrounded by creative people and inspired by either a lecture or a writing exercise, but perhaps the most helpful tool for me is a story well told. It can be a book, a movie, a podcast, even a grandma at the dinner table.

I love trying to figure out what makes a story work, and then trying it out in my own work. What builds tension? How to best set up a scene? How to paint a character so she seems real? My favorite books are all marked up and highlighted with notes for what works and what doesn’t.

What strategies (internal and external) do you use for improving your craft?

Meredith: My best “honing” happens during revision. One of the most important things I can do to revise well is to leave my manuscript alone for a while.

When it’s time for a big revision, I need some space to gain perspective and let go of some of the details I can’t seem to pry my fingers off of when it’s still close and present and on my mind daily.

Internally, this means filling up with someone else’s words, reading a book that’s so good it distracts me from my work.

Externally, it means going out and engaging in the real world for a while, meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. This makes no sense. How can I be working on my craft by ignoring it? It works because when I come back to it, I see it through new eyes.

Sometimes I’ll try laying a construct on it, like Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese, 2005) or the “snowflake method” or the “sticky-note method” or whatever fun plotting game has come across my radar.

I look at my story as a puzzle instead of precious words I’ve woven together. Honing implies detail work, and getting to the root of what makes a scene and an entire story work. This can only be done with an objective eye, and I’m most objective when my affections are no longer entirely focused on my manuscript.

Jill: I study recently published kid lit books, create an organized comfortable working space, and play wordless music.

Lisa: Getting feedback as often as I can afford to, money-wise and time-wise.

What craft advice would you give to beginning writers?

Lisa: It takes a very long time for most of us to develop to a truly professional level.

You must enjoy the actual writing, not just the idea of having a book to sell. Don’t stay wedded to an idea too long, especially if an editor tells you in a critique that they see a lot of similar stories. If you’re going to do a common book theme, like a bedtime book, ya gotta shoot for being better than Jane Yolen

Meredith: Light a candle. You can get really caught up with word count and how many pages you’ve written in a day, but the most important thing is making progress.

Meredith’s writing space with lit candle.

We kid ourselves if progress only means meeting a designated and arbitrary word count. Sometimes progress looks like staring out the window or scribbling ideas on notecards or even deleting a bunch of pages that no longer work but were necessary to write to figure out your story.

This is all progress, though it may feel unsatisfying without physical proof of a hard day’s work.

My advice is to put a candle on a plate and light it when you start paying attention to your manuscript.

Measure your progress by the puddle of wax that accumulates instead of word count. You’ll have a physical manifestation of the time you’ve spent with your work in progress.

When someone asks how your writing went that day, you can proudly (and cryptically) reply, “about the size of a salad plate.”

Jill: First, learn about the different kid-lit industry standards.

Second, learn about yourself. What are your writing strengths and weaknesses? Focus on improving your weakness. For example, if you don’t have a good grasp of grammar rules, then teach yourself with workbooks, online classes, and tutorials.

Third, train yourself to take and give constructive critique about your manuscript. Even the master writer, Jane Yolen said, “It’s never perfect when I write it down the first time, or the second time, or the fifth time. But it always gets better as I go over it and over it.”

Thanks to Lisa, Jill, and Meredith for sharing so much about your inner journeys and your thoughts about commitment to your craft! 


As short or as long as our journeys are, it’s so important to call ourselves by our name – Writer – and to stay focused on the work, challenge, and joy of telling the stories we hold in our hearts and minds as beautifully as we can.


Cynsational Breaking News & Notes

Meredith Davis has sold what will become her debut book, Chance Comes Once, co-authored by Rebeka Uwitonze, to Scholastic.

Meredith founded the Austin chapter of SCBWI in 1995, the same year her daughter was born. She birthed an additional two children in subsequent years, worked in an independent children’s bookstore, and earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes middle grade and picture books, fiction and narrative nonfiction, and looks forward to announcing her first book contract, a product of many puddles of wax. In the featured photo, she is shown with Betty X. DavisAnne BustardKathi Appelt, and Jane Peddicord.

Lisa Bierman spent 17 years as a marketing research analyst. Then she had two sons who, thankfully, did not want to hear the same picture books over and over.

Lisa was hooked on the beauty and possibilities in the world of kids’ books. She has written (and not published) many picture book and chapter book manuscripts. Her poetry has appeared in kids’ magazines.

Meanwhile, she has done freelance business writing, volunteered extensively for SCBWI-Illinois, for local public schools and for AYSO soccer.

Jillene Donaldson (Jill) creates stories for children and teens and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc.

She grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with three siblings, several dogs, and a cat that climbed walls. She’s had run-ins with a mean bull, an electric fence, monster dogs, toe-eating mice, and bullies who once double-dog dared her to eat a white grub, which she did.

Jill graduated as valedictorian; completed an AA in English Literature for which she won the Geraldine Burns Award for Excellence in English; and then earned a BA all while working full time and raising two awesome boys with her husband.

She loves putting frozen fruit in drinks and most anything with cheese or chocolate. She lives with her husband in Oklahoma City.

Carol Coven Grannick writes picture books, poetry and middle grade fiction. Her work has appeared in Cricket, Ladybug, Highlights and Hunger Mountain.

Her middle grade novel-in-verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” addresses body image-issues for the younger audience, and won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition. It also was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award from Hunger Mountain.

Carol chronicles the writer’s inner journey with a focus on resilience for Cynsations and the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

See her previous posts: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education; Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety; Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy; and Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.

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

Learn more about Lois Lowry.

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 was forty when my first book was published in 1977. Pretty old!

And it was a tough time in my life. I was leaving a 21-year marriage and leaving it—by choice—with nothing: no alimony, no house; just my car and my typewriter.

And I’d never had a real job, had no profession to fall back on: just the freelance magazine work I’d been doing as a photojournalist, and the one book which just by chance had been requested by an editor at Houghton Mifflin who had read something I’d published in a magazine. “You sound like someone who might be able to write for young people,” she told me, though what she’d read had been a story for adults.

No promise to publish what I wrote, but at least I had someone who was interested in seeing it—and who, in fact, did give me a contract. It meant that I could pay my rent.

I had not planned to be a writer for kids. Since college, where I’d majored in writing, I had planned, of course, on the great American novel. With four kids born in five years, though, I never got around to writing it.

Then by the time that first book, A Summer to Die, was published (it had no title when I sent it to the publisher. And I sent it by snail mail. Typed pages—I had a carbon copy at home. Remember carbon paper?) I was living in a rented apartment over a garage, trying to jump-start a new life.

The publisher kept sending me copies of reviews with excited notes: Another star! What did that even mean? I hadn’t a clue.

Phone calls came with news…this was 1977, long before email, of course…the paperback rights had been sold! The book had won the IRA Award! The California Young Readers Medal!

It was as if they were speaking a foreign language. But I was hearing something, an undertone of sorts, that was whispering: This. This is how you can make a living.

So I rolled a clean sheet of typing paper into the typewriter, set the margins, and began writing a second book for young people.

And there you have it: a pretty ignominious beginning. I wish I could say, as so many new writers do today, that I had a passion for children’s books, that I studied them carefully, that I took courses, went to seminars, formed a writers’ group, joined the SCBWI…etc..etc.

But few of those things were available then. And in retrospect, I think it served me well to feel my way into the field very tentatively and in total ignorance, without an agent, without expectations.

Bumps? What was Bette Davis said in “All About Eve” (“Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night…”)?

I’m not sure, in those early days, that I could have predicted “bumps”…or that such a prediction would have steered me away from this profession.

Of course there were some: mostly things I couldn’t have predicted. The famous writer who accused me of plagiarism (I hadn’t even read his book). The website that called me “The Antichrist.”  The things I labored over…and the editor didn’t like them.

The book that was published with mis-ordered chapters! Yikes; that one hurt.

The book I published under a pseudonym, and with a manufactured author bio…and then it won a big award, and the publishing representative had to accept on behalf of the author “who unfortunately can’t get here from her home in the Midwest….”

But on the whole I could have left my seatbelt unsecured. It has not been terribly bumpy for me. I’ve been lucky.

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

Well, I would have sent in my first manuscript with a title on it, for sure! But aside from that jokey comment, I’m not sure I would have done anything differently, given the circumstances.

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?

My first book, simply by chance and not design, was based on the death of my older sister when we were both young. It was a story I’d been telling myself for some years, the way we always go through tough personal things in our heads, trying to explain them to ourselves. The suggestion from an editor that I write a book meant that I found a place to set those thoughts down on paper.

But the timing was interesting. There had not yet been, to my knowledge, children’s books dealing realistically with the death of a young person (Beth, in Little Women (by Louisa May Alcott (1869))? Come on. Give me a break.)

And yet, my book was published in the same year as Katherine Paterson’s wonderful Bridge to Terabithia, which won the 1978 Newbery Medal (a medal, incidentally, that I was practically unaware of). Something must have been in the atmosphere which made the timing right for A Summer to Die.

And then I watched realistic novels become a little trendy, as things do. Eventually the trend led to some awful books, so called “problem novels.”

Pendulums, I guess, always swing too far. But their momentum dies; eventually realistic fiction about kids with problems settled in reliably for the long haul. Oddly, though I don’t think that I “caused” it in any way, I watched some others of my own books become trendsetters.

Number the Stars (1989) was an early one of countless Holocaust books (though it had been long preceded by Anne Frank’s diary (1947), deservedly a classic, and Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe (1968), among others).

Later, The Giver (1993) seemed to spawn an entire generation of so-called dystopian fiction; several editors confided jokingly to me that they dreaded seeing yet another futuristic manuscript.

And how on earth did it happen that in 2011, Richard Peck, Cynthia Voigt, and I all wrote books in which the characters were exclusively mice? But those are thematic and stylistic trends.

 The big changes I have observed over the years are more in terms of marketing. The book tours! (And then, as the internet took over, the fewer “real” book tours). The speaking engagements!

Goodness, if someone had told my introverted self back in 1977: If you become a writer of YA fiction, you will have to go and make speeches….I might have closed up my typewriter and looked for a real job.

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

In The Barn

Ignore trends.

Learn how to “track changes”!

Practice saying no to people.

Save receipts for the tax guy.

Most importantly, take yourself seriously.

Carve out a sacrosanct space in which to work. I wrote my first book sitting at a little table in the corner of my husband’s study, with his big important desk looming behind me. I shouldn’t have settled for that.

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

I wish that all of their wonderful books be translated into a zillion languages so that kids around the world will all be reading the same stories, laughing at the same jokes, weeping with shared sadnesses; and that somehow this will bring us all together in this world, and connect us in the ways that matter.

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

I just hope that in this last chapter of my life, my brain and imagination remain intact! That I can still maintain a relationship with young readers, and that I never lose the sense of joy that comes to me from putting words together on a page.

With actor Jeff Bridges; see the trailer for the film adaptation of “The Giver”

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

Sharon G. FlakeHomewood Library, Pittsburgh

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 guess it makes sense that my career always felt a bit magical. For gosh sakes, I began as a Disney Hyperion author. Prior to the publication of The Skin I’m In (Hyperion, 1998), Disney flew several newly published authors and illustrators to New York where a small cast of “The Lion King” performed for us. There was champagne as I recall, a high-ranking Disney executive to welcome us—and Disney theme park trips to follow.

But this writing life ain’t all princess gowns and fairy tales.

Like it or not, bitter apples (let’s call them bumps in the road) appear now and again. But, it’s what you do with them that determines your staying power in the industry.

I was in the business ten years, before I hit a bump in the road. Seven books into my journey my editor left the business all together. Change was afoot I suppose, because the publisher left not long afterward—or did she go first?

I really liked those women. But life happens. And sometimes the bumps keep coming.

My new editor and I didn’t work out. I’ll just say this publicly, I apologize to her. My momma raised me better.

I was fortunate. I was able to choose my editors. So, in walks another editor of my choosing. I’d heard great things about her. She was also responsible for significantly increasing my advancements prior to becoming my editor. Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before I began to think she didn’t like my style; how I wrote. Perhaps it was her 12-page critique that led me to that conclusion.

Sharon at a book festival in Florida

At this time in my career, I had won many accolades and awards. Teachers cried when they spoke to me about the impact of my work. But for the first time in my career, I questioned my abilities and talent. I overthought things; tripled checked my work; wrote and rewrote until I couldn’t recognize my own story.

At some point, my editor was fairly satisfied with the 200-plus novel I turned in. But I was on a roll. For the next round of edits, I turned the manuscript into a 400-plus novel that I deemed perfection. My editor and agent thought otherwise. It took me a while to see the light. And boy, did it sting.

Not long afterward, my editor was offered a position with another house. She asked if I wanted to come with her.

Really? I thought. You serious? Nah.

Her invitation did, however, make me realize that she did indeed value me and my work. We just weren’t the best fit.

After my next editor left the publishing house, (I swear, they weren’t all running from me), my agent decided to take the book to another publisher.

My novel was ultimately published. It didn’t win awards, but it was named a Booklist Top Ten Book of the Year and earned three stars. Not bad for such a difficult birth.

Bumps in the road show up in everyone’s life. They can slow you down, stop you or help propel you forward. But who you choose to be along the way is what will help you stay the course.

I kept writing no matter what. I shifted. I discovered I have many gifts. I began to teach and mentor. I developed my work into stage plays; went from only writing realistic fiction to also writing picture books, historical fiction, and now books in verse.

That bump in the road did me a favor. It helped me expand inside and out. All along I held tight to my love of writing, and the young people I write for. Both have remained my North Star, my biggest reasons for doing what I do.

Writing at the dining room table.

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

I hadn’t realized I was on an island by myself, until I hit the proverbial bump in the road.

I was part of this incredible children’s writing community, but not part of it, you know? I knew authors and people in this business across the nation. They knew me. We liked and respected one another. But I hadn’t established many close, deep, I-got-your-back-you-got-mine, relationships.

When that bump trips you up, you realize things like that.

I wasn’t comfortable asking for advice or favors. I was used to helping others; lending a hand whenever I could. But there I was in new territory, in many ways, needing to reach out. But how? 

21 printings, almost a million copies in print

There’s this introvert in me that would rather not. Besides, I was raised to turn to family in times of need. But how could they help me? They weren’t in this business.

It was difficult, but I pushed past my insecurities and pride and reached out to folks in the writing community locally and nationally. I opened up and shared my truth: Struggling through that book for a number of years scarred me some; left me uncertain of myself as an author.

I went looking for connection with like-minded folks. I joined a critique group, which is so not like me.

No judgement, please. I sought feedback on my work in ways I hadn’t before. Formed deeper ties with my agent; established closer relationships with authors I already knew, and developed a very close relationship with one author in particular. To this day, we read one another’s work, give and take each other’s advice, laugh often.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Skin I’m In, I formed a committee, reached out to
author friends, editors and other folks in the business. Ten years ago, I would not have done any of that. Do it yourself or leave it alone, was a big part of my philosophy then.

That bump freed me up. Allowed me to be as vulnerable with adults, as I’d always been with my teen audiences in person and in the books I write. I’m grateful for that.

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

The biggest stand-out change has to be the industry’s efforts to be more diverse and inclusive. We Need Diverse Books played a huge role in pressuring them to right the ship when it comes to diversity and inclusion. But they did not do it alone.

Black Lives Matter; the browning of the nation; the murder of black people and the political climate for LGBT and cis communities; along with women’s rights issues, all helped give WNDB the wind they needed to sail into publishing houses, conventions, media outlets, etc., and demand, work for, and push for change in children’s publishing.

Our community still has a very long way to go. But when I see black and brown people with books on The New York Times Bestseller lists; earning top awards and prizes; heading imprints like Salaam Reads or Versify; breaking new ground with books like The Hate You Give (by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)), We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices (by Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson (Crown, 2018)), and Long Way Down (by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2017)), then I know we’re headed in the right direction.

But we can’t get comfortable. There are folks who want us to return to yesterday.

Here’s hoping none of us will let that happen.

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

Don’t worry, God’s got you.

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

My hope is that they understand that new voices and new ways of seeing and being are necessary to the survival of any organization or group of people.

Change makes us all uncomfortable. But change we must, for it’s the only way progress happens.

Learn more about Sharon G. Flake.

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: 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: Carol Coven Grannick on Transitions: Lunging Forward, Leaning Back

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am leaving my day job at an extraordinary early childhood center on June 30.

Plenty of people think I am “retiring.”

But if you’re reading this, you probably could guess that I’m not retiring at all. I’m beginning my full-time career as a writer.

At last.

I’ve written and taught about transitions much of my life as a clinical social worker and still struggle with how to convey these vulnerable, beautiful, painful yet joyful, times in our lives.

Because they are difficult.

We feel the need for different or new or next; we feel the need to take a turn on our personal or professional journeys (or both). We feel a yearning. A longing to move forward. An excitement and curiosity about what the new direction will offer us – or what we will make of it.

But we also feel the pull back towards that which we want, or are ready to leave, toward the comfort, familiarity, certainty of the place, the experience, the days we are almost leaving behind.

This is what I’m feeling as I leave a wonderful job at this early childhood center that hums and bubbles with small communities of little ones busy at work and where miracles of teaching and learning surprise and delight every day.

I love coming to work and being at work in a place that feels like a second home. I love the use of many skills and strengths I was pretty sure I owned, but had not had the opportunity to use. I love the children who have passed through my life with their extraordinary desire to explore their world and the powerful capacity to connect to others. I love my boss and friend; and I love the teachers who with seeming endless amounts of energy, create small communities of friends and classrooms of explorers, scientists, artists, technicians, builders, and more.

I took on my day job when I was in the process of winding down the career that ran parallel to my dreams of being a writer – that of a clinical social worker specializing in women’s and eating/body issues and building emotional resilience.

But it’s time for me to stop getting up at 4:30 in the morning to write for an hour and a half before getting reading. I also need time to exercise before I am exhausted from eight hours of a very busy, though wonderful, day. And I want to spend time with my husband when I am not falling asleep because I need to get up at 4:30 in the morning to write.

This beautiful place I’ve had the honor to work is integrally interwoven with my life as a children’s author.

I met the woman who has been my boss and friend for 24 years in the library of my son’s school. He had been coming home each week on the day his class visited the library, sharing the excitement of what they had done that day with “the best teacher in the world.”

I decided I wanted to meet this teacher, and went in on a Tuesday, when I had no clients in my private practice. A fabulous children’s library sprawled through the big open space (along with two floor-to-almost-ceiling robots and a marble-counting machine that counted the books each child read) and the welcoming teacher invited me to take home whatever books I wanted.

I dived into picture books and middle grade novels as though I’d been starving to read. My own middle-grade life was peppered with some wonderful classics like Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, but not anything like what I found to read now – Jerry Spinelli, Karen Cushman, Mildred Taylor, Sharon Creech, Richard Peck, Gail Carson Levine, and more and more and more…and more. 

I wanted to write this.

I began volunteering one day a week in the library, and kept on for eighteen years. When the K-5 school closed, and my private practice was winding down, I accepted an offer to be the office administrator at the early childhood center.

Every step of my journey as a children’s writer, I’ve had the encouragement and support of this master educator my son introduced me to so long ago.

During the days of volunteering, I often felt like Peter Pan sitting on the windowsill as I listened to her teaching, learned about extending the books into classroom discussions and projects, learned how to read a story to children.

I could say 30 or 40 more things about what the kind of encouragement I received means, but if you’re reading this, you’ll understand when I say that the foundation of her support and encouragement is the fact that she believed in my stories, and believed in me.

And that’s an extraordinary gift.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe hundreds of transitions during my time at this early childhood center, from children so ready to run into the classroom that a parent is left open-mouthed at the door, to those who struggle for days with “missing feelings” that are soothed by loving teachers.

I’m somewhere in the middle. I always have been, I guess. I wean myself gently.

I will miss every adult and every child at my “day job” terribly…and yet I can’t wait to explore my open days.

But of course, I’ll be back in September, volunteering to read stories to eager little listeners.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick writes poetry and picture books.

Her middle grade novel-in-verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” addresses body image issues for the younger audience, and won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition. It also was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award from Hunger Mountain.

Carol chronicles the writer’s inner journey with a focus on resilience for Cynsations and the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

See her previous posts: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education; Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety; “Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy;” Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.

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.