Author Interview: Eric Gansworth on Give Me Some Truth

Eric Gansworth signing Give Me Some Truth
at 2018 Texas Library Association conference.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Eric Gansworth is the YA author of Give Me Some Truth (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, May 29, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Carson Mastick is entering his senior year of high school and desperate to make his mark, on the reservation and off. 


A rock band — and winning the local Battle of the Bands, with its first prize of a trip to New York City — is his best shot. 


But things keep getting in the way. Small matters like the lack of an actual band, or the fact that his brother just got shot confronting the racist owner of a local restaurant. 


Maggi Bokoni has just moved back to the reservation from the city with her family. She’s dying to stop making the same traditional artwork her family sells to tourists (conceptual stuff is cooler), stop feeling out of place in her new (old) home, and stop being treated like a child. 


She might like to fall in love for the first time too. 


Carson and Maggi — along with their friend Lewis — will navigate loud protests, even louder music, and first love in this stirring novel about coming together in a world defined by difference. 

This novel drew me immediately into the world and characters Eric crafted. So I had to know more about how his writing process.

Eric, I want to start with the title, taken from a Beatles song. It seems to dovetail perfectly with your characters’ experiences in the book. Explain how you landed on that. 


Thanks! I am obsessed with overarching structure and continuity within my fiction.

That said, writing novels is for me a strange and mysterious activity. The move from blank page to completed page is always unexpected, like entering someone else’s house invisibly and seeing their lives behind closed curtains.

I’m a strong believer in allowing new things to influence work in progress–serendipity, if you want to be fancy about it.

I have a superstition, though, and whatever file folder I create for a new book, I leave the original title on that.

If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine, 2013) had a different, neutral title for most of its development before Paul McCartney became a central thematic force.

After that shift, it went through several possibilities. When the right title hit, I could never see another possibility.

I knew the second book would be Lennon themed, and initially it was called “We All Shine On.”

It had very different themes, as you might guess with that title. Lewis and Marie were the protagonists, it had different plot developments, etc.

After three years of writing the wrong book, enough of the correct book had seeped into the narrative that I knew I had to start from scratch. Considering the more confrontational personalities of Carson and Maggi, “Give Me Some Truth” was a better fit.

In some ways, that command became the novel’s driving force.

I’d love to delve deeper into your process for creating such rich characters. There isn’t one in the book whose back story or motivations felt unknown to me. 


Did you begin the first novel envisioning these characters and their adolescence on the rez would carry beyond one book? Might we see Maggi or any of the other characters in a future work? 

Thank you. I may have answered part of this above. I decided early in my writing career that all of my characters would exist in the same fictional universe. I have an imaginary version of the reservation where I was raised, and I’ve given homes to characters that remain consistent.

I’m often surprised in the early stages of development, to see where the characters live. Their grounding on that imaginary map anchors part of their lives early on.

Eliot Schrefer and Eric Gansworth at YALLWEST,
photo by YALLWEST, used with permission.

Growing up, I did not have much access to a car, so I walked the Rez a lot, and you get to know a place really well when you experience it on such an intimate level.

When this novel was going to be about Lewis and Marie, I had a good sense of them, because I’d lived with them for several years.

I have a novel for adults done (but that needs revision) that has Carson as a major character, and its plot involves a long span, maybe twenty years, so I knew a lot about him. I was surprised when he wound up intruding into Lewis’s story, and then even more so here, where he eventually hijacked this novel, becoming a protagonist.

Maggi was a little harder to get to know. When I recognized the other protagonist couldn’t be Marie, I had to figure out what Maggi’s story was going to be. At the beginning, I knew she had to be 15 and feel very displaced everywhere she turned. She needed to be both jaded and naïve.

At 15, I felt strongly that I was already an adult and was eager to make adult decisions. The truth is, of course, that I wasn’t an adult at all, and made my own series of poor, or uninformed choices. I can not remember why I felt she needed a twin brother, and even asked myself in the first revision if Marvin needed to exist.

As I read it with an eye toward making the book shorter, I was surprised at the complex role he played as a harmony voice in their household. Even giving myself the permission to yank him and give the character his own novel at some point, I couldn’t see a way for him not to be there. To lose him would cause irreparable damage.


You are a visual artist. Your paintings are included in both of these novels. When you submitted the novel for consideration, did you include your artwork with the text or was that discussed later as a design element? Do you create the paintings while you’re writing or do those come to you at a different time in the creative process?

My book images come organically during development. I trust there is some other process operating that I’m not aware of.

While working on If I Ever Get Out of Here, I had a clear idea of what the paintings would look like. They’re satires of iconic Beatles/McCartney album covers, using the novel’s characters and situations for anchors.

I only realized after the novel was deep in production that a minor subplot involved Wacky Packages, (satirical trading card stickers popular when I was a kid). It turned out those paintings were more or less Wacky Package versions of those albums.

In this case, I knew the paintings would similarly be drawn from Beatles/Lennon album covers, but Wacky Packages were not a part of this story. I needed a different anchor.

Maggi is an inventive beadworker, in a traditional arts family. I’ve always loved this tension and know many beadwork artists who play with reinventing ideas and themes from popular culture. I thought it would be neat to re-cast those iconic images as if rendered in traditional materials: beadwork, soapstone, cornhusk dolls, and the like.

In a few cases, I retitled a section, because I wanted to use the image, so it’s very much an organic process.

What craft and career advice would you offer for beginning Native writers of young adult fiction?



Three things, really, feel important to me.

  • First: remember what your experiences feel like and give yourself permission to write about events that are complex.

I keep an open informal document for every book I work on, where I just talk to myself, asking questions, noting memories, speculating about ramifications of ideas. I do not edit this document, but I do date entries so I can keep track of how ideas evolve.

It’s not an exact process and there are gaps, for sure, but it’s been very helpful during development for the last four novels. Not every idea makes it to the book, and this document allows me to keep those decisions straight, as I finish revising and get ready for a new project.

  • Second: Don’t worry about what people will like.


I grew up in a very specific Indigenous culture, and the details of our lives are not necessarily resonant with others, even other Indigenous readers. I write about those meaningful cultural details, even if they don’t meet the expectations of others about Indigenous fiction.

Have faith that readers are coming to your work to see what you have to share, so don’t agonize about what you think someone might or might not want to publish. You can’t possibly know so worrying seems pointless, and I suspect some wonderful ideas get set aside because of this concern.

  • Third: writing involves talent but it also involves craft, and a lot of hard work.

Editorial feedback is real and is about making your story more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with your kinds of experiences. Often, beginning writers find this part of the process alienating and threatening, and express concerns about editorial feedback “contaminating the work.”

Editors are not supervillains rubbing their hands together, trying to make your life miserable. I’ve had occasion over the last couple of years to revisit some of my work that had been published with a very light editorial hand. I wish I could pull that work back and start over. It definitely would have benefited from a more rigorous editorial philosophy, and now I’m stuck with it out there in perpetuity.

What do you have coming out next that we can look forward to reading?

I’m working on the third book with these characters. You can read an early chapter published as a short story this summer in the lovely We Need Diverse Books anthology, Fresh Ink, edited by Lamar Giles (Crown, Aug. 14, 2018).

I have some poems and paintings coming out in POETRY this summer, some other poems in Heid Erdrich’s anthology New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf, July 10, 2018), and a story in Kenyon Review this coming winter.

If you’re an audiobook sort, I recorded Carson’s half of the Give Me Some Truth audio, with Mohawk actress Brittany LeBorgne reading Maggi’s chapters, and I’ll be recording my story for the Fresh Ink audiobook too.

Well, Eric, I can say definitively that I’m eager to read the third book. And I’m happy to know that we’ll all get a preview this summer in the Fresh Ink anthology.



Cynsational Notes



Eric Gansworth Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ (enrolled Onondaga, Eel Clan), a writer and visual artist from Tuscarora Nation, works at Canisius College.

His books also include:

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.

Guest Post: Lori Mortensen on Writing Story Endings & If Wendell Had a Walrus

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Story beginnings are so important, it’s no wonder they get a lot of attention.

Writers not only have to come up with a fresh idea, they have to nail an opening hook that sets up the main character, grounds the reader in a specific setting, and gets a compelling story problem rolling. It’s a big bite of the story-writing apple.

However, story endings are just as important as story beginnings. After readers devour each page, they’re expecting a satisfying ending that’s often described as “unexpected, yet inevitable.”  A conclusion that fulfills the story’s promise in a surprising, yet emotionally fulfilling way.

Readers want to read that last page and say, Ahhhh…

When stories miss the mark, it’s like running a race, only to find that there’s no finish line. Whaat? Or, coming to the end of a scrumptious meal, only to find a stale graham cracker for dessert. You can taste the disappointment.

So what makes a satisfying ending?

At first, simply solving the story problem might seem like the obvious answer. For example, if Sally wants a pet, she gets a pet. If Sam wants to be a superhero, he becomes a superhero.

In my rhyming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2013) Clyde wants to catch his dog for a bath.

The obvious ending would be Clyde catching his ol’ dirty dawg and giving him a bath, right? But that ending doesn’t feel satisfying. There has to be more than Clyde just getting his way.

Instead, I showed Clyde trying to catch his dog, each attempt more comical and disastrous than the last. Clyde would get so frustrated he would ….

What would he do? I wondered.

I was delighted when I instantly realized things would get so bad, Cowpoke Clyde would scrap the whole idea.

Oh, no! I thought gleefully.


How was Clyde going to scrub his dog now? I was just as eager to find out what would happen as I hoped future readers would be. Moments later, I knew what my satisfying ending would be.

Clyde would not only scrap the idea of catching Dirty Dawg, he would decide to take the bath himself.

Whoa! I didn’t see that coming, but it felt absolutely perfect. As Cowpoke Clyde scrubbed and crooned in the tub, Dirty Dawg joined him with a tremendous splash!  At this point, I realized the story wasn’t about Clyde checking off a laundry list of chores.

It was about them. Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg.

Once Clyde stopped trying to finagle his dog into the tub, the duo discovered that taking a bath was something they both enjoyed. I avoided a didactic ending where Cowpoke Clyde showed Dawg who was boss and turned it into a satisfying friendship story that drew Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg together. 

In my original counting picture book story Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury, 2016) mice arrive at a ball in ascending numbers from one to 10.

At the climax, a cat shows up and scares them away in descending order back to one.

A fun idea, but after several rejections, I knew it needed a more satisfying ending. But what?

I decided the solution rested with the cat.

Instead of arriving as a threat, the cat shows up only wanting to dance. This unexpected twist gave the story a new meaning and level of satisfaction.

It wasn’t simply a book that counted mice up and down. It became a story about friendship and inclusion.

On April 17, my picture book If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Henry Holt) will hit the bookshelves. In this story, a boy named Wendell wants a walrus.

The obvious ending? Wendell getting a walrus.

However, as I wrote along, a different ending came to mind. As soon as I wrote it, I knew it was perfect.

  • Unexpected. 
  • Inevitable.
  • Satisfying.

Would Wendell get a walrus?

What do you think?

Illustration by Matt Phelan, used with permission.

So once you’ve got that all-important story beginning under your belt, remember that endings are just as important as beginnings.

Don’t be satisfied with the first idea that comes to mind. Play around a little and come up with something unexpected.

You’ll not only have more fun writing it, readers will have more fun reading it. And when they finally come to the last tantalizing page, they’ll sit back and say …

Ahhhhh.


Cynsational Notes


Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Other recent releases include Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt), and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life.

For more information about her books, teacher activities, critique service, events, and upcoming releases, visit her website.

Intern Insights: Kate Pentecost on Four Writing Tips from My Boy Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)

by Kate Pentecost 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro has been My Boy for a long time, way before his monster romance The Shape of Water took home Best Picture and Best Director at the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony and was nominated for scores of others.

He’s My Boy in that way that some musicians are Your Boy (or Girl, or otherwise.)

I vibe with what he makes, for the most part, and immediately buy and love pretty much anything he puts out.

I love Guillermo del Toro.

My husband and I even cosplayed as characters from his recent kaiju movie, Pacific Rim.

Kate and husband cosplay Pacific Rim characters.

But Guillermo del Toro is a lot of people’s Boy. His films are beloved worldwide. They resonate with people all over the world, and as he has risen in prestige, he has proven, time and again, that “genre” films can be just as emotionally resonant and human as the most heart-tugging realistic biopic. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from him, no matter whether we write “genre” or realism.

1. Know your roots (to break with tradition in a meaningful way)

If Guillermo del Toro is one thing, it is well read in his field. Famously so.

He has spent a long time reading and appreciating important pieces of literature and watching important films in the genres in which he creates.
Because of his extensive study (notice I said “study” not “reading”) in fairy tales and fantasy, he was able to create his groundbreaking film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a fairy tale interconnected with the Spanish Civil War.

He created a story which follows the structure of a Grimm or Perrault-style fairy tale flawlessly. But because of his study and expertise, he also successfully broke with tradition and created something really unique.

This comes with the other half of the film, which centers on the protagonist’s struggles in real-world Spanish Civil War era Spain. The story in the real world runs parallel to the story in the fairy tale world that Ofelia, the protagonist, wishes she could escape to. This blend of the classic and the new lends several more layers of meaning and a beautiful raw ambiguity to the ending.

Moral of the story: know the roots of your genre. Become an expert on the rules of whatever genre you’re working in, so you can understand when and how to break or amend them.

2. Craft monsters carefully, even human ones.

Guillermo del Toro is extremely well-known for his creature design. Just look at any of his designs from “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Pacific Rim,” or “The Shape of Water.” But his designs aren’t just pretty. They mean something.

For example, in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (yes, I’m coming back to that for a moment) one of the most terrifying creatures is the Pale Man. Would you believe that this monster is meant to portray something larger than itself?

These are del Toro’s own words on the matter:

 “The Pale Man represents all institutional evil feeding on the helpless.
It’s not accidental that he is A) pale B) a man. He is thriving now.”
– Guillermo del Toro via Twitter. @realGDT

The Pale Man
(image from Pan’s Labyrinth media kit)

And it makes sense. He is a pale, vicious, mute creature who refuses to let anything be taken from a table heaping with more food than he could possibly enjoy.

He is a character who attacks and consumes those weaker than him whom he believes pose a threat to his table of plenty. And is that not the story of Western imperialism?

But it’s not only del Toro’s villainous monsters that we can take notes on.

“The Shape of Water” is a passion project of Guillermo del Toro’s, stemming from a love for the titular creature from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

In his creation of Amphibian Man, del Toro was able to successfully turn expectations on their heads, taking this character from monster to hero and romantic interest.
And design (or for us, description) is how he pulled it off.

Though the character is inhuman, the design focuses on expression and humanity. The character has vibrant colors and pleasing lines rather than murky, gross colors and intimidating angles. He has an expressive face and large, inquisitive eyes. (He also has a scaly six-pack, but, hey, it’s a romance.)

We are easily able to see the humanity within this creature, especially when he’s contrasted with the villain, Richard Strickland.

Strickland’s design is all hard lines and angles, all black and white (mirroring his mentality.) He is toxic masculinity personified. And what better to make that understood than to present him as a tall, classically attractive man in a suit?

This design paired with his actions (cruelty, savagery, being so afraid being seen as weak that he tries to force his severed fingers back onto his body even as they decay) helps us understand the meaning of this monster: that he is afraid of disability, afraid of change, afraid of the world being anything other than how he, a white man in a suit, demands of it.

Michael Shannon as Strickland
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)

All monsters mean something. Be sure you understand what you’re really saying with monsters and villains, and that their description and actions enhance their meaning.

3. Environment Details that Enhance the Story 

Another of the things that Guillermo del Toro is known for is really beautiful, intriguing sets—sets that often have as much of a story to tell as his characters.

In his Gothic, “Crimson Peak,” the heroine is whisked away to a mansion far away to marry a mysterious lord. But when she arrives, she sees that the mansion itself is in quite a state of advanced decay, but the lord and ladies of the house (the lord’s sister lives in the house as well) live around the decay as well as they can.

This house is really something.
Leaves and snow fall through the ceiling into the foyer (which I can’t find a good picture of!) The machinery from the lord’s inventions carve deep into the blood red clay that gives the mansion its name and the movie its title.

These details give new dimension to the “haunted house,” taking it from just a backdrop to a unique character in and of itself: a house that is also a corpse. A house whose decay (in the Gothic tradition) mirrors the protagonist’s own mental or emotional decay. The result is a set that is not just important but vital to the message of the film.

Think about your own settings. Does the baseball field in your realistic young adult novel feel sad, with its sagging, rusted chain link fence and grass so dry it’s gone almost gray? Does the home of an angry step-parent in your middle grade novel feel sharp, full of things like kettles about to boil and couches that seem ready to give way under one’s weight at any moment? Is your setting a character too? Or just a backdrop?

But the last and most important lesson we can learn from Guillermo del Toro is this:

4. Pay attention to your ending. 

Living in the world we’re in right now takes its toll on us every day. The news seems to be growing increasingly bad.

Talks of nuclear war, of shootings, of seemingly unstoppable climate change dominate the airwaves. We are the closest we’ve been to midnight on the Doomsday Clock in half a century. Fear is all but inescapable, and it is tempting to let this fear creep into our writing.

Though Guillermo del Toro is a master of horror, and someone who has seen more than his share of actual dead bodies in Jalisco, his endings are never hopeless. He never goes for the easy, nihilistic, hopelessness that I’ve seen in so many other horror films.

Instead, when asked about his endings, he had this to say:

“I think when we wake up in the morning, we can choose between fear and love.
Every morning. And every morning, if you choose one, that doesn’t define you
until the end… The way you end your story is important. It’s important that we
choose love over fear, because love is the answer.” 

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia
(image from Pan’s Labyrinth media kit)

This quote reminded me of why I write for kids in the first place: to create stories that restore faith in humanity rather than break it.

Am I saying that every ending you ever write has to be happy?

No. Guillermo del Toro’s certainly aren’t all what you’d call “happy.”

All I’m saying is that, in writing for kids in times when everything seems hopeless, it is more vital than ever that the opportunity for happiness, peace and love is present in our endings.

Because it is our responsibility to create worlds that are not hopeless. It is our responsibility to create worlds in which kids can change the world for the better, and we have to understand that above all else.

From monster-punching robots to sexy fish men, to haunted houses to labyrinthine passages into fantasy, My Boy Guillermo del Toro is out there making his mark on the world. And hopefully with these lessons, you can too.

So get out there and write what you love!

Kate Pentecost holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She is obsessed with the Romantic Poets and can be identified by the enormous tattoo of Percy Bysshe Shelley on her arm.

She lives in Houston with her husband.

Kate is the YA author of Elysium Girls (Hyperion, winter 2020).

She is represented by Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties.

New Voice Interview & Giveaway: Kerri Kokias on Snow Sisters!

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In addition to covering publishing news pertaining to Native creators for Cynsations, I am excited to shine a spotlight on fellow Epic Eighteen authors and illustrators, all of whom have a debut picture book coming out in 2018.

One of the first releases from our group is Snow Sisters! by Kerri Kokias, illustrated by Teagan White (Knopf, 2018).

From the promotional copy:

Just like snowflakes, no two sisters are alike, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work together to make the perfect snow day! 


When snowflakes fall, two sisters react very differently. One is excited and the other is wary. The first sister spends the morning outdoors, playing until she’s all tuckered out. Meanwhile, the second sister stays indoors, becoming ever more curious about the drifts outside. 


Soon, they switch places, and spend the second half of the day retracing each other’s footsteps. But each sister puts her own unique spin on activities like sledding, baking and building.
     
Since winter has descended upon most of the nation, I thought it would be the perfect story to start off this series.

Upon reading Kerri’s book, I noticed how the marriage of her text and Teagan’s art come together seamlessly. 

And although my sister and I both loved to play in the snow as kids, I appreciated how the book shows the differences between the way they interact with snow, the winter scene and, more generally, navigate the world. I related to that so much, yet it’s not an experience I’ve seen so well featured in a picture book.

Kerri, what was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Kerri at Snow Sisters! book launch
Snow Sisters! was initially inspired by its structure. 
I wanted to write a story as a reverso poem, meaning featuring mirrored language.

I played around with several different story ideas over a long period of time before landing on this particular story. 

The text for Snow Sisters! builds up to the middle of the story and then repeats itself backwards for the second half of the piece.

The two sisters’ stories are told parallel to each other with the first sister’s story unfolding on the left panel of each spread and the second sister’s story unfolding on the right. 

The sisters’ stories themselves are also in reverse language of each other. Using this structure where the same words are used in opposing ways seemed to suit the story of two sisters who are different and yet connected.



What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in writing this story?

Because of its unique structure, described above, writing Snow Sisters! was very much a logic puzzle. Any minor change I made affected other parts of the book. 

Kerri’s Post-it Note work board

Because of this I pretty much wrote this story on Post-it Notes. I laid them out on a tri-fold board so I could see the whole story at once and easily reposition or change text. Each spread started with a column of Post-it Notes for the text on the left panel and a column of post-it notes for the text on the right panel. 

Aside from wrestling with word order, I had to figure out how to develop character and plot within this mirrored structure. 
I spent a lot of time playing around with specific word choice and ways that the words could have different meanings for each sister. 
My favorite picture books are ones where the text and illustrations work together to tell the complete story; where they each bring something to the book that the other does not. 
So, it was natural for me to envision how the illustrations could work with this structure. 
As an author, I needed to figure out the story, but I didn’t need to be limited by the text spelling it all out. So yes, my manuscript has a lot of illustration notes. Not art direction, more like stage notes. 
I added columns of post-it notes indicating parts of the plot and character development that could be portrayed in the illustrations.

Once I had editorial interest, my editor, Katherine Harrison, also helped me draw out ways each sister’s action could build off the other’s to help them connect during the parts of the story where they are apart. More columns of Post-it Notes!

Seriously, I probably should have dedicated this book to 3M.

An important takeaway for me was that in some ways, this very limiting structure also had a way of freeing up my creativity by narrowing my focus.

What did Teagan White’s art bring to your text?

Teagan White’s art brought my text to life! Without the illustrations, there would be no story. 

The text for Snow Sisters! is very sparse, 58 words total, all repeated at least once. I gave my editor the manuscript and Teagan worked her magic and returned a book. 
I suspect there were more people involved, and perhaps in addition to magic, Teagan also used her talent and training and put in a good deal of time. But for someone like me who thinks visually, but has no ability to represent her ideas physically, it’s all magic! Just look! 
Here is a spread of the manuscript I turned in….
 and the finished spread. Magic! 
 
Cynsations Notes

I agree with Kerri’s assessment and loved Teagan’s magic in creating the art for this book. Check it out where you buy books or request it from your local library.

Kerri Kokias [Ko-KAI-us] credits most of her story ideas to her “fly on the wall” personality. 
This means she’s both a keen observer of social interactions and a nosey eavesdropper. She lives in Seattle with her family.

Learn more about Kerri on her website. Or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

Learn more about Teagan White and her children’s illustrations on her website. Or connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Enter below for a chance to win a copy of Snow Sisters! in a giveaway.

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 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.

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on Feb. 15, 2018 and 12:00 AM on Mar. 1, 2018.  Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about Mar. 1, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

Author & Editor Interview: Jessica Lee Anderson, Madeline Smoot on Uncertain Summer

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve always had a fascination with Bigfoot; the idea that an ape/human creature could be secretly living in the woods both intrigued and terrified me as a child.

So when I got the opportunity to chat with the author and editor of Uncertain Summer by Jessica Lee Anderson (CBAY, 2017), I couldn’t pass it up. First, the promotional copy:

For decades something has lurked in the swampy lakes of East Texas. Could it be the elusive Bigfoot?

Everdil Jackson thinks so. Her whole life she’s grown up listening to the stories of the Bigfoot sightings around Uncertain, Texas. 


When a TV show offers a million dollars to the person that can provide conclusive proof of Bigfoot, Everdil, her brother, and two friends form a team to snap a picture of the beast. 


With any luck, they’ll prove the impossible and win the money Everdil’s family badly needs. But tracking a monster, especially one nobody’s been able to catch, proves trickier than Everdil expected. 

With each new adventure, Everdil seems to create more problems with her friends and family than she solves. In the end, she has to hope that her brave, foolish actions will ultimately make things right with everyone, including Bigfoot.


Jessica – author

Patterson-Gimlin Sasquatch image and Jessica’s dog, JoJo 

Jessica, what first sparked the idea for this book?


I’ve always been intrigued by cryptid tales, and it was after watching the Patterson-Gimlin film that I looked over and felt like Bigfoot was lurking in my living room.

It was just my old terrier, JoJo, staring at me—she resembles a mini-Sasquatch.

The experience fired up my imagination and I knew I wanted to write story featuring Bigfoot with a twist of course.

(As an aside, the Patterson-Gimlin film is now over 50 years old, and folks are still debating if it is real Bigfoot footage or not!)

Have you had a Bigfoot encounter?


I can now say that I’ve eaten Bigfoot!

The amazingly-talented Akiko White created a Bigfoot cake for the book release party.

Baby Bigfoot created by Akiko White
(see creation video at the bottom of this post)

I did spend some time out in Uncertain, Texas and searched for Bigfoot while hiking and exploring the area. I smelled some skunk-like odors in the air that made me think that there was certainly the possibility that Bigfoot was lurking around a woodsy corner.

Scenes from Uncertain, Texas

How do you navigate that fine line between spooky fun and too scary?

This seemed to come naturally for me because I tend to get spooked easily when it comes to scary books and movies. My imagination seems to run overtime (even while I’m sleeping)!

After writing the first draft, I layered in extra adventure and upped the stakes as well as the spooky fun aspects of the story. I enjoy writing, and I love the revision process…most of the time.


Do you have any writing tips to offer?


Gayleen & Jessica at Texas Library Association conference

My path from idea to publication took about seven years.

If I were to go through the whole process again, I would sit down and create a detailed outline that would offer direction yet still leave much room for creativity during the actual writing process. The story lacked much shape in the earlier drafts.

So, advice? I would say find a process that helps you as a writer to be the most efficient, and spend the time getting your manuscript in the best shape possible.

Keep fighting for your story even if there are some bumps along the path! I’m so glad I didn’t give up on this book.

I noticed you’ve done a lot of travel and school visits to promote this book. How do you balance promotion/writing/being a mom?

My background is in education, and before my full-time writing days and being a stay-at-home mom, I was a teacher. I love spending time in the classroom and in various libraries to get kids fired up about reading and writing!

It feels like such a gift to be able to travel around Texas as well as out of state to inspire and be inspired! When booking various events, I try to be as mindful of writing deadlines as possible as well as various happenings with my daughter, though life certainly happens.

I’ve learned to write on the go as much as possible, and I’ve gotten much better about asking for help when needed. I’m grateful for such caring family and friends as well as my understanding daughter!
 
Madeline Smoot – editor/publisher

Jessica (left) and Madeline at  BookPeople
for the launch of Uncertain Summer.

What appealed to you about this story?

There are so many wonderful aspects to Uncertain Summer.

I loved the adventure and mystery surrounding the cryptid. I liked how the characters were relatable.

I thought Jessica had crafted a dynamic book that would appeal to a large number of kids for various reasons.

Could you tell us a little about CBAY and how your acquisition process works?

Like most publishers, we are initially approached by authors or agents with a query.

In an effort to avoid becoming overwhelmed, CBAY is rarely open to unsolicited submissions. However, if authors have met me at a workshop, conference, SCBWI meeting, etc or if they are referred to me by a CBAY author or some other professional acquaintance, I am willing to consider their query.

If the query looks promising, I’ll request the full manuscript. From there I consider each season’s list and any holes I may have, and I will also look at the financial side for each potential title. 
If it is a book I wouldn’t mind reading at least eight times, and if the numbers work out, I’ll then make an offer and hopefully acquire it.

This is exactly how it worked for Uncertain Summer. Jessica is a veteran author, and her book was in excellent shape.

However, I primarily work with debut authors, and often their books needs some revising before I’ll make an offer. I generally only make an offer on books that are ready (or very close to ready) for the market.

Uncertain Summer interior illustration by Jeff Crosby, used with permission.

Uncertain Summer has lovely interior illustrations that enhance the story, something we don’t always see in MG books. How do you decide if you’re going to include additional illustrations? Is this something you see as a developing trend in MG?

Younger middle grade often has some illustrations, and I personally have always been a fan of illustrations used in the chapter headers. A famous example of this would be all of the small spot illustrations at the beginning of each Harry Potter chapter.

I am more likely to have interior illustrations if I have hired an illustrator to produce the cover artwork than if I used stock illustrations for the cover.

Illustration by Jeff Crosby, used with permission.

How do you select an illustrator?


I rely more on stock images rather than illustrators for many of our projects, but I do enjoy getting to work with an illustrator when the project calls for it.

Every illustrator I have ever worked with is one that was referred to me by a trusted source. In each case I had a vague stylistic idea of what I wanted the book to convey, and then I hired the illustrator with a similar aesthetic.

What else do you have out/coming up?

In the spring we have our “Princess” season with two middle grade novels and one YA anthology where all the books feature a princess.

Once Upon a Princess by Christine Marciniak debuts in April and revolves around a princess forced into hiding with her family when their country experiences a revolution. 

The second book, Royal Trouble: The Sinister Regent by Hope Erica Schultz follows a princess and her royal cousins and friends as they try to thwart a plot against their respective crowns. 
Finally, Perilous Princesses is a 10-story anthology with contributions by various authors where the princesses aren’t in danger—they are the danger. Includes stories by Susan Bianculli, Lori Bond, Alison Ching, Steve DuBois, Jeanne Kramer-Smyth, Ameria Lewis, Christine Marciniak, Kath Boyd Marsh, Hope Erica Schultz, and Madeline Smoot.



Cynsational Notes

Jessica Lee Anderson is the author of Trudy (Milkweed, 2005), winner of the 2005 Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature, Border Crossing (Milkweed, 2009), a Quick Picks Nomination and Cynsational Book of 2009, as well as Calli (Milkweed Editions 2011),  a 2013 Rainbow List Final Nomination and 2011 YALSA’s Readers’ Choice Booklist Nomination.

She’s published multiple chapter books for Rourke Educational Media including Brownies with Benjamin Franklin, Case of Foul Play on a School Day, and Runaway Robot.

She’s published also fiction and nonfiction with Heinemann, Pearson, Seedling Publications, Six Red Marbles, and a variety of magazines including Highlights for Children.

Jessica graduated from Hollins University with a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature and previously instructed at the Institute of Children’s Literature and St. Edward’s University.

She is a member of The Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels and hopes to be more sweetheart than scoundrel.

She lives near Austin, Texas with her husband, daughter, and two crazy dogs.

Madeline Smoot is the publisher of CBAY Books and former Editorial Director for Children’s Books of Blooming Tree Press. She blogs about writing at Buried in the Slush Pile and is the author of several writing guides, including Story Slices: How to Make Story Plotting a Piece of Cake. 

Madeline lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband, son, a cat, a dog, and more books than should fit in any normal person’s house.

See the Baby Bigfoot Cake by Akiko White

Guest Post: Helena Echlin on How to Write (& Rewrite) a Tale of Suspense

By Helena Echlin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 


Happy Halloween! 


Yesterday we heard from Gillian French about techniques for building suspense. 


Today Helena Echlin shares her take on giving your readers goosebumps. 


And if you looking for even more ways to scare your readers, check out this post from April Henry, one of the post popular Cynsations posts ever.


And now, Helena.


One rainy Friday the 13th a few years ago, I met up for a drink with fellow novelist Malena Watrous, and complained about how hard it was to get any writing done, since we both had jobs and young children.

We recalled how we’d devoured books as kids and teens, and we wanted to write as a suspenseful story that would captivate readers in the same way. If I worked on a story like that, I was sure I’d find the time and energy to write it, whatever it took.

Malena confided her idea: a girl wakes up and finds her older sister missing from their shared bedroom. The only people who can help the girl save her sister are the mean girls at school. I was hooked. Fueled by more cocktails, we plotted out the entire story that night.

We’d both published novels already and we both taught fiction-writing.

So, we naively figured, how hard could it be to dash off a suspenseful YA thriller in a few months?

After the angst-filled life of the solo writer, it was enormously fun to get together in a café every week and rough out the next few scenes. We’d each draft a scene on our own, squeezing in a writing session while watching the kids in swim class or at the end of a long day, and then we’d bat the scenes back and forth until we were happy.

We dashed off that first draft in a mere five months, convinced we had a bestseller on our hands. Then trusted readers looked over that draft and told us that our careers writing sensitive, nuanced, literary novels hadn’t prepared us to be thriller writers well as we thought.

Yes, the novel was gripping in places, but in parts it fell flat.

So we hunkered down and rewrote our book more times than I will ever admit.

When it comes to writing a thriller, it’s essential to start with a gripping concept, but you can do much to amp up the suspense in successive drafts.

Here’s what we learned about how to captivate your reader:

Keep raising the stakes. The protagonist’s desire is what drives the plot in any novel, but in a suspense novel, it’s not enough if all the protagonist wants is to renovate his house in Nova Scotia or breathe new life into a middle-aged marriage.

If you are writing a thriller, raise the stakes higher, and keep raising them. At first, our heroine Laurel wants to find her sister Ivy. Then she realizes she has to rescue Ivy from a kidnapper and she only has a week to do so.

Then she realizes that Ivy’s kidnapper is an ancient demon. Side benefit: if you’re a busy mom who worries about things like what will your kids take for lunch other than cream cheese sandwiches, it is incredibly relaxing to write about a girl who has much bigger problems.

Hide the truth in plain sight. Readers don’t like guessing the truth too soon. They want you to mislead them along with the protagonist. But they also like to feel that in retrospect there was a trail of clues.

Your job is to plant these clues without drawing attention to them. In one of our early drafts, our villain kept offering the girls fleur-de-sel-topped caramels. Their taste was “a dreamy combination of butterscotch pudding and salted popcorn and as soon as you had finished one, you wanted just one more.”

In successive drafts, it became clear that these caramels just screamed “demonic magic,” so we had to kill that darling.

Avoid “zombie character syndrome.”
My writing students are often so focused on what happens in a story that they forget to have their characters react to it. I call this “zombie character syndrome.”

In fact, interiority—what a character is thinking and feeling—is an important way to increase suspense. It draws the reader’s attention to an approaching threat and makes it sharp and specific.

If your character isn’t scared, then your reader won’t be either. In our first draft, Laurel always “gulped” or “swallowed” when she was terrified (or sometimes had a “lump” in her chest or throat).
What a cliché. In successive drafts, we found more complex and vivid ways to show her reactions.

Book trailer for Sparked (Geek & Sundry, October 2017)



Slow down when it matters. It may seem that writing a fast-paced story means that things have to happen in quick succession, but don’t rush through climactic moments.

The reader is desperate to know what happens next and at the same time, their pleasure lies in the anticipation rather than in finding out. So slow way down.

It’s more psychologically realistic too: if a character’s adrenaline is peaking, their attention is hyper-focused and he or she will notice every detail.

At one point, a psychopath with a hunting rifle threatens Laurel and her friends while she cowers behind a log. In revision, we added in the song of a particular bird, “like the snip of scissor blades,” and have her numbly notice a pill bug on a blade of grass.

Surprise yourself. If you’re writing a tightly constructed novel with lots of twists and turns, you’re probably going to need an outline, unless you’re Stephen King. But don’t stick to it.

Often, the best ideas come from your subconscious, when you are least expecting it. Be open to those ideas and be prepared to change your story or rewrite it entirely if necessary. Remember: if you know what’s going to happen when you are writing it, so will the reader.

When we thought we were finally done, Malena had a plot epiphany at the DMV that meant we had to embark on yet one more draft. But now, when readers say they had “no idea what was coming next” or comment on the “hairpin twists and turns,” it was totally worth it.


Cynsations Notes

Malena and Helena

Helena Echlin, a native of the U.K., is the author of the novel Gone (Random House UK, 2002) and for five years wrote “Table Manners,” an etiquette advice column for Chow, the online food and drink magazine.

She has also written for the Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Telegraph in the U.K., and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the U.S.. She lives in Berkeley and teaches fiction-writing online for Stanford.

Malena Watrous co-authored Sparked. Malena also wrote the novel If You Follow Me (Harper Perennial, 2010).

She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and helped to found the Online Writers’ Certificate, Stanford’s two-year online novel-writing program.

She teaches fiction-writing for Stanford as well as working on her own fiction, and has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times. She lives in San Francisco.

Guest Post: Gillian French on Hooking Readers: How to Build Suspense

By Gillian French
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 


What scares you? Snakes? Spiders? Bigfoot? It’s different for everyone. Likewise, authors use different approaches for building suspense. 


Our Halloween treat for you is a glimpse at techniques from two YA authors for upping the stakes. 


We suspect this is a topic you want to know more about, because the most popular Cynsations posts of all time is April Henry’s guest post on adding tension.

So,without further ado, Gillian French offers a plan to give your readers chills.


And tomorrow Helena Eichlin will present a different route.

Readers want to be hooked.

We’re addicted to the rush of finding a story we want to live in, characters we want to bring along everywhere—the laundromat, the commute, lunchbreaks. Broken down to its basic components, any un-put-downable story has suspense at its core. Not just footsteps-coming-up-the-stairs goosebumps, but a genuine investment in how things are going to turn out for our protagonist, and, ideally, the more peripheral characters in the book as well.

You recognize compelling suspense when you read it—but as a writer, how do you craft this vital element and keep your audience turning pages until the wee hours?

Read on for three methods I swear by:

Strong Character Motivation: This is your most important job as a storyteller: making readers care about your characters. The swiftest way to do that is to figure out what each character wants, an easily relatable standpoint. We all have something we’re working toward, something that matters to us, whether it’s being a loving mom or a world-class bungee jumper.

See also April Henry on Just Add Tension.

In my YA paranormal thriller, The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), protagonist Natalie wants to find out why she’s experiencing a reoccurring nightmare about an abandoned farmhouse in her former hometown. The stakes are high right out of the gate—her peace of mind and sanity are in jeopardy—making it easy for readers to invest in her pursuit of the truth. As the action unfolds and more danger is revealed, Natalie’s journey grows more perilous, and, with some luck, a page-turner is born.

Even antagonistic characters need motivation. No matter how loathsome you want readers to find your villain, he or she needs to exist in your book as more than an awfulness-producing machine.

As uncomfortable as it may be, cast yourself in that role; we’ve all had our unlovely moments, times when we’ve done things we regret. The difference is, when this character does something awful, they rarely regret it. You may be surprised by how freeing that is, and how much fun you can have playing devil’s advocate.

Timing Is Everything: Knowing when to ratchet up the suspense in your book can be tricky. Randomly dropping in action-packed or frightening scenes just because you’re worried that you’ll lose your reader can be indicative of larger structural problems or issues with character development, and probably won’t be effective.

Have faith that your audience will hang in there during the quieter sections of the book; that said, every scene must have a purpose, even if it’s a conversation between two characters over coffee. A plot needs to work as a machine with multiple moving parts, churning towards one conclusion. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

Simply put, the “big” scenes should feel natural because the pages that came before built the foundation to support them.

  • If you find that your plot sags in places, try charting out a simple chapter outline, highlighting gripping, standout scenes. If you see uneven gaps between them, you may want to consider restructuring to make the action feel more measured.
Franklin Treat House, a reportedly haunted mansion in Frankfort, Maine
near Gillian’s hometown. “I’ve heard stories about it since I was a kid.”

Tap into Your Senses: We’ve all felt anticipation and fear; the key is, remembering the finer details of those experiences and breaking it down on the page to get the strongest reaction from your reader.

  • Think of a time when you were genuinely afraid—what effect did it have on your body, how you perceived your surroundings? Was any one sense heightened, a normally mundane smell like stale coffee, or a background noise like passing traffic or a ticking clock? 
  • If it was a person you were afraid of, what was it about their body language or attitude that lingers in your memory? This is your chance to dig into an uncomfortable memory and make it work for you. Brainstorm everything about that moment, then see which details really stand out.

Also, contrasts in sensory perception can go a long way toward disquieting your readers. In The Door to January, during the first confrontation between Natalie and Jason, a boy who bullied and terrorized her when they were younger, I drew the focus in tight, contrasting the brightness of Jason’s words—“Hey, there, sunshine”—with the flat, cold expression in his eyes, trying to put both Natalie and the reader off-balance, not sure what he might do next.

We’re all engineered to seek level ground, to find certainty, and readers will fly through pages to find out when or if the characters achieve that.

Reading and writing suspense are the perfect way to experience nail-biting moments from the safety of your favorite chair. The more you finetune your craft, the stronger your grip on your audience will be—and you may be surprised when they thank you for the ride of their life.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews called The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), “Chilling and suspenseful, this paranormal thriller with a touch of romance will keep readers on the edges of their seats.”

Growing up in rural Maine led Gillian French to believe that the mystery of the past is all around. She uses her surroundings as a setting for the dark stories that often have a creepy twist.

While she’s never seen a ghost, she’s pretty sure she’s heard ghostly footsteps in the night.

Gillian’s short fiction has appeared in various publications and anthologies. Her first YA novel, Grit (HarperCollins, 2017) received starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Booklist.

Her next novel,  The Lies They Tell (HarperCollins) is scheduled for publication in May 2018.

She holds a degree in English from the University of Maine and is perpetually at work on her next novel.

Guest Post: Sarah Albee on Brain Training: How Writers Must Learn to Shift Gears

By Sarah Albee
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

If you write for kids, chances are you are working on several things at the same time.

 Most writers of books for kids don’t have the luxury of working on one project for years and years. We are short-order cooks, juggling multiple tasks at multiple stages.

So how do we shift gears between projects?

To answer this question, I thought I’d start by giving you a tour of what’s on my own highly-organized and tidy desk today:

My laptop, which includes:

  • a first draft of a book for first graders about gorillas (just completed and sent to my editor—Boo-yah! That’s now off my desk.) 
  • A proposal for a new book that I’m readying for my agent 
On my actual desk:
  • Several books about female pirates (research for a new project). 
  • Copies of sketches for the Level Two I Can Read (History) book I wrote about Alexander Hamilton (Harper Collins, 2018). Fun fact: Unlike fiction picture book authors, who are usually not involved in the art phase of their books, we nonfiction authors get to review sketches for “historical accuracy.” 
  • My latest book, Poison (Crown Books for Young Readers), which came out Sept. 5. 
  • A hard copy of a manuscript I wrote about the California Gold Rush, just back from my editor. It’s covered with supportive and admiring editorial notes. I mean, I haven’t yet read her notes, but I’m sure she’ll tell me it’s practically perfect—and that I just need to sprinkle a little fairy dust on it. #sendfairydust 
  • “Third pages” for my book, Dog Days of History, coming out next March with National Geographic. I’ve looked at these images about 27 times by this point, as have platoons of people over at Nat Geo. And yet I just noticed “an issue” with the prehistoric cave painting on page 8. It shows hunters with their dogs, but it turns out those large stick-like things protruding from the hunters’ midsections are not swords. #heartfailure #pictureswap 
  • A folder entitled “Fall School Visits,” containing letters, contracts, and book order forms that I’m arranging with all the schools I’ll be visiting soon. 
  • A box that was just delivered, containing sixty pairs of spectacles and a large stuffed green beetle. Props for my fall school visits. 

So how do we shift gears from reviewing sketches, to writing proposals, to promoting our books, to visiting schools, to hopping on Twitter, to coming up with ideas, to entering that Deep Thinking Zone where we actually get our writing done? Let alone juggling family responsibilities and basic life-maintenance?

It happened for me only after years of training my brain. I’ve learned not to wait for environmental conditions to be perfect. If I did, I’d never get a thing written.

I’ve trained myself to enter the Deep Thinking Zone no matter where I am. I’ve written in bleacher seats. I’ve written in parking lots. I’ve written in airports.

Which is not to say I don’t get sidetracked. Heaven knows I do. But that’s the beauty of our job. Distractions can turn into books.

I usually get my best ideas for new books while I’m immersed in research for a different book. I’ll stumble over some cool fact or event that pulls me away from whatever I was researching. I’ve taught myself to harness those ideas, to write them down for later.

For instance, as I was researching my book, Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up (Bloomsbury, 2010), I was struck by the fact that so many so-called “filth diseases” were vectored by insects: malaria, typhus, yellow fever, bubonic plague, etc.

And I thought, “I should write a book about how insects changed human history.”

Which led to my next book, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, illustrated by Robert Leighton (Bloomsbury, 2014). And while I was researching that one, I discovered the fascinating history of cochineal scale insects, which were the source of the color red, a color that made Spain a world power in the seventeenth century.

And I thought, “I should write a book about the historical conditions that led people to dress the way they did.”

Which led to a book about the history behind what people wore, Why’d They Wear That? (National Geographic Books, 2015)

As for my latest book? Poison has been a lifelong fascination for me. There’s poison in practically all of my books. My challenge was deciding what poison tales to include in the book and which ones had to get cut. Luckily, there are great editors in the world. Also, I turned those extra stories into videos, like this one:

Oh, hey guess what. My email just plinked. It’s from my editor, and the subject line says: “re: first draft gorillas.” He wants revisions. It’s back on my desk.

Off to go look for that fairy dust.

Cynsations Notes


Watch the book trailer for Poison:

Booklist gave Poison a starred review and said, “While there are shocking and disgusting facts aplenty, Albee also discusses the rise of toxicology and forensic science, and the much-needed emergence of food and drug regulation. Her light tone makes this morbid, well-researched study a sinister indulgence.”

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 100 books for kids, ranging from preschool through middle grade. Recent nonfiction titles have been Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections, Notable Social Studies Trade Books, and winners of Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Awards. These days she writes primarily nonfiction, and especially loves writing about topics where history and science connect.

Prior to being a full-time writer, Sarah worked at Children’s Television Workshop (producers of “Sesame Street”) for nine years. She played basketball in college, and then a year of semi-professional women’s basketball in Cairo, Egypt.
She lives in Connecticut with her husband, who is a high school history teacher and administrator, their three kids, and their dog, Rosie.

Guest Post: Candice Ransom on Working Backwards & Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

By Candice Ransom
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

People always ask writers how they get their ideas. Ideas are everywhere—people should ask how does a book come about? 

Over my 36-year career as a writer of children’s books, I’ve written a dozen picture books.

Normally, an idea comes to me and over a period of months, I’ll write the text. If the manuscript is acquired, the editor finds an illustrator, who then gets busy on the art.

In the spring of 2015, Frances Gilbert (associate publishing director, Random House, Golden Books, Doubleday Books for Young Readers) emailed me about a panda girl character created by illustrator Christine Grove.

Outside and in-house attempts to write a picture book to go with Amanda Panda didn’t work. Would I give it a try? I said yes (and then gulped).

The character, I was advised, should be less glitzy and girly, more independent and childlike, like Frances the Badger (by Russell Hoban).

I asked to see the illustrator’s sketches. I fell in love with Christine Grove’s round-headed, little-eared characters instantly! A little boy panda crying fountains of tears made me laugh out loud!

I decided that Amanda is a kindergartener. I always use my own life experiences, even if only for emotion, but I never went to kindergarten.

 I watched neighborhood children at the bus stop. The kindergarteners seemed so small and young, yet when I was five, I couldn’t wait to go to school like my big sister.

Next, I read character-driven picture books: Fancy Nancy (by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins, 2005)), Ladybug Girl (by Jacky Davis, illustrated by David Soman (Penguin Random House, 2008)), Vampirina Ballerina (by Anne Marie Pace, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Disney Publishing, 2012)).

I took notes and typed out manuscripts to separate the words from the art. I studied and thought and read for weeks.

It had seemed so easy to say, “Yes, I can write this book,” yet it wasn’t. What did my character want?

Where was the story?

 I drafted weak and even ridiculous story ideas, like having Amanda try to cram an entire week into one day because she was impatient. Aside from being too abstract, that story would have been an illustrator’s nightmare.

Finally, I stopped trying to be too clever and let Amanda tell me who she is:

  • Her favorite color is brown. 
  • She wants to be a school bus driver when she grows up. 
  • She has a rock named Hartley. 
  • She knows exactly what will happen on the first day of kindergarten because she has an agenda. 

 Amanda Panda, I realized, is me in a nutshell.

Young Candice reading a book

I wrote a lengthy character sketch and a summary of the book. To my astonishment, another character appeared. Bitsy is everything Amanda is not, little and girly, but with her own agenda to find a best friend and she lights on Amanda.

Frances liked the direction I was taking and gave me her blessing.

Buoyed by her enthusiasm, I wrote the manuscript. In only five days. This flabbergasted me—I’m an excruciatingly slow picture book writer.

 The book isn’t any good, I thought, but a few weeks later, Frances Gilbert offered to publish it.

 I was over the moon! I hadn’t written a picture book in many years. Plus, this would be my first with animal characters!

Frances and I did minimal revisions, then Christine Grove began working on the illustrations. A little less than two years later from that original email, the book landed in the stores on June 20.

The process of writing a book based on a sketch of a character is backwards to my normal process. I figure that its up-ended nature turned my sometimes sluggish writing method upside-down, too. It made me look at characters and stories in a whole new way, more visually, less cerebral.

Change is good! Even this far into my career, I’ve learned it pays to be flexible and take chances.

The experience has been so great, the three of us are doing it all over again! Last summer Frances and I talked about a sequel, I wrote a new manuscript last fall, and Christine is drawing and painting. Look for Amanda Panda Doesn’t Do Birthdays in the summer of 2018!

Cynsations Notes

See also Popular Author Candice Ransom Chats About New Book, a video interview with Candice.

Publishers Weekly said, “Ransom sensitively addresses the challenges of handling expectations in new circumstances, as well as the roundabout path to friendship.”

Kirkus Reviews said, “…empathy and kindness are just as important as ABCs and 123s, and Amanda gives readers a good lesson.”

Candice Ransom only ever wanted to be a children’s book writer. She is the author of over 125 books for kids and young adults and teaches in the children’s literature program at Hollins University. She lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with her husband and her cats, Faulkner and Edison. She blogs about writing and travel at Under the Honeysuckle Vine.

Guest Post: Becca Puglisi on Setting as a Characterization Tool

By Becca Puglisi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In storytelling, our number one job is to make readers care. We want to ensure that our fiction captivates them on many levels and that our characters seem like living, breathing people who continue to exist in readers’ minds long after the book closes.

So how do we do this?

Well, it may not seem like the obvious choice, but the setting can be one of the best tools through which to organically reveal truths about your characters.

Here are two quick tips on how to use the setting to characterize your cast for readers:

Choose Emotionally Relevant Locations

As the gods of our own little universes, we have the power to choose literally everything. But when it comes to the setting, the decision is often a halfhearted one—since the setting is just a backdrop, right? Wrong.

Ordering Information

Every character has a history of blissful interludes, toxic run-ins, embarrassing moments, and traumatic episodes. And long after these formative events have been forgotten or buried, their settings will continue to hold significance for the characters involved.

For instance, let’s say that after being out of the romance game for a while, your heroine has agreed to go on a first date, and you need to decide on a setting.

Instead of falling back on a generic location for this scene, brainstorm some possibilities that hold significance for the character. Maybe her date has asked to meet at the same café where her fiancé once dumped her. Or in the park where she was mugged. Or at the bar where the guy she’s been in love with since tenth grade works as a bouncer.

Any of these settings can work because they’re already emotionally charged for the protagonist.

A first date can be difficult in and of itself; experiencing it in one of these places is going to heighten the character’s emotions and bring back old memories when she’d rather avoid them, ensuring that she won’t be at her best. When it comes to the important scenes in your story, complicate matters for your protagonist and tap into his or her emotions by choosing settings with personal significance.

Get Personal with the Details

Showing rather than telling is the most powerful means of providing insight into the personality of your protagonist and other cast members. Rather than explaining your characters through boring chunks of narrative, hone in on the personal details within a given setting that will tell readers about the people inhabiting it:

I surveyed Rossa’s spotless kitchen. Dishes in their racks—sparkling. Wooden counters—scrubbed to a stone-like smoothness. Rossa herself—hair perfectly arranged, clothes crisp even at this hour, the frivolous fall of lace at her throat. I crossed my arms and couldn’t help wondering, again, how she and Dad could be meant for each other.

Ordering Information

Here we have a scene that says loads about its owner. Rossa is meticulous when it comes to tidiness—both for her home and herself. You get the feeling that she values propriety and appearances. And we learn something about the narrator, too: she isn’t so concerned with all of that. She disdains it, in fact, and doesn’t seem to like her Dad’s love interest very much. All of this we’re able to infer from the simple description of a kitchen.

Personal spaces can be quite telling. Make them do more than simply set the scene by zooming in on those details that reveal something about your characters. And for those vital scenes in your story, put your cast members on edge by thoughtfully choosing the settings—ones that add an emotional component or will up the stakes. Resist the temptation to settle for a generic setting and start putting your locations to work for you and your characters.

Cynsational Notes

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her latest publications are all about settings: The Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses showcase over 200 different possible story locations, highlighting their associated sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells so authors can effectively describe them for readers.

Becca is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find her online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.