Writing Across Formats: Author Interview Round-up

The Writing Across Formats interview series features conversations with well established children’s-YA authors about creating a range of books–why they do so, what it’s taught them, and the pressures of author branding.

Click link from author name for more information about that contributor. Click link from “see WAF interview” to read more of their thoughts.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?


“It’s like when you’re writing with a graphite pencil. After a while, the tip gets worn on one side, so the line is flat and broad and sloppy. Then you turn the pencil a bit, exercise a different part of the point, and the line is thin and tense again.”

“Actually, my writing began to ‘grow’ with my kids. As I found myself reading older books to my boys, I also found myself wanting to write for those older audiences. Nothing more mysterious than that.

“And there is the boredom factor. Maybe I have ADD and just can’t seem to concentrate on one form for too long.”

“When I first started writing, I wanted to write a historical fiction novel. But with two little boys underfoot, progress on the first novel was very slow.

“At the same time, I was reading and enjoying dozens of picture books each week with my sons. Soon I found myself with several picture book ideas of my own (inspired by the boys), which gave me a fun break from the more serious subject of the novel.”

“…the ideas came first, and they dictated the form and the age level. I don’t think I ever sat down and said, ‘Now I’m going to write a mystery,’ for example, or ‘Now I’m going to write a nonfiction book–what shall it be about?'”

“I’m a waste-not/want not kind of person, so after doing three years of research for a non-fiction fifth grade book about Vietnam, I had accumulated lots of information that I didn’t want to ‘throw away.’ Since I am a fiction writer first and foremost, I began to think of several fiction projects about Vietnam.”

“For several years I continued to write in those forms I had come to know best, mostly board books and beginning readers. When I began trying to write picture books, it took me a long time to write one that actually worked. And it took me a very long time to feel ready to try writing a novel.

“I’d actually always wanted to write novels, even before I knew I wanted to write for children. But it was so different from all the writing I’d done so far, and I went into it very cautiously, taking a lot of time to figure things out as I went along. I don’t know if it was so much about being inspired to write across forms as to work up the courage to try things outside my comfort zone.”

“…I do recall having a moment in which I gave myself permission to switch gears.

“My career began as an editor of children’s nonfiction, primarily for the school library market–and those were the kinds of books I naturally wrote first when I transitioned from editor to writer.

“And then there came a point when I needed to stretch as a writer and find my own stories to tell–what was I passionate about–what was I yearning to say?

“Then it became about the right form for the right story. Sometimes that is picture book, and sometimes it is a longer form.”

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

“At the end of the day, they all require a good story. Even a concept book has to have a narrative arc. That sounds cliche in a way, but with every book I write I learn something new that informs the next book, regardless of the subject or the form.”

“…the need to be clever and creative in a 32-page fiction picture book–to make that book stand out in the marketplace and on bookshelves–has made me more aware of the possibilities for that same sort of cleverness and creativity in other genres and formats, even in nonfiction. Maybe especially in nonfiction.”

“…all of my writing is more lyrical because I write picture books. It is more concentrated for having written 150-word nonfiction. It is more intense for the experience of the shorter chapter books. And when I climb into something longer, the sprawl is utterly satisfying.”

“Writing in itself is a learning experience. Picture books have taught me about rhythm; easy-to-reads have taught me to write a story using fewer words; novels have taught about story arc; nonfiction books have taught me that they can be as interesting as fiction; and poetry has taught me that I’ve discovered a voice I didn’t know that I had.”

“For me, Big Bad Bunny, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Atheneum, 2008) gave me some welcome brain oxygen–not that picture books are easy, because they aren’t, but the demands are so different.

“I can see the whole of a picture book at once, unlike a novel; I can focus on the level of the word in a picture book (you can do that when you have 500 words and not 75,000); I can leave breathing holes for the illustrator. It was so restful in a funny kind of way.”

“…poetry taught me to choose words carefully and to a deep awareness of imagery, which has helped me in writing novels. The structure of fiction, even such devices as foreshadowing and character development, helped me be a better writer of nonfiction. Poetry also taught me about voice, finding my own voice and finding the voices of the characters who have come to inhabit my fiction.”

“In the thirteen years I’ve been writing for children, I’ve now dabbled in several genres and formats: poetry, picture books, historical fiction, humor, fantasy, and nonfiction.

“What I’ve learned is that, while each has its own particular requirements in terms of structure and technique, first and foremost they all require a compelling story.

“A great story trumps all.”

“…poetry has had the greatest impact on all my writing. We write so our readers will enjoy what we have written. And if we can write with a sense of poetry–a feeling for the musicality of the language (rhythm, sound)–whatever we write will be much more elegant, pared down, to the point and enjoyable. This happens even if the reader is not aware of it.”

Shutta Crum, see WAF interview

“When I wrote my (so far!) only picture book, for example, Molly’s Family, illustrated by Sharon Wooding (FSG, 2004), I had to concentrate so much on learning how to do it that I didn’t think much at first about what I was learning that would be useful elsewhere.

“But I know it helped me become even more conscious of the need for economy in all other forms, for I tend to be, er, long winded. Short stories help me practice that skill, too.”

“One thing I learned was to respect the picture book format. With picture books, you do not have the luxury of 60,000 words to evoke emotions, describe scenes or use pithy dialog.

“For example, my forty page historical picture book about Texas history took just as much research as my middle grade novel or YA novel about Texas history.

“It was the same topic and same research, but with the picture book format, I had to get across an historical event in just a few stanzas, and cover a time period from 1500 to present day in about a thousand words. The words had to be poetical and emotional, yet at the same time convey history accurately.

“The picture book process of culling down, cutting back, and selecting the most powerful words, helped me learn to keep the novels more tight.”

“I’m an auditory person. The voice and dialogue of my stories usually comes easier for me. Adding the visual details is not as easy. Picture books remind me that visual details matter (even if the illustrator is the one providing those).”

“I would like to say that working in shorter formats with strict word and page limits taught me to write succinctly, but I’m afraid that didn’t happen.

“On the contrary, once I started writing things without strict limits, I found myself writing really long manuscripts and having to work at cutting them down later on. I do think the shorter formats taught me to think really carefully about word choice, because when you’re only allowed a few lines on a page, you really need to make every word count. They also taught me to think visually, because if you know you need to have an illustration on every page, you need to make sure there is something different for the artist to work with from page to page or spread to spread.”

“One good thing about publishing in all genres is that it makes you more hire-able for schools who want an author who can speak to every grade level K-12, and has books to sell for every age. Also, at conferences, I’ve been needed a few times to ‘fill in the gaps’ (e.g.: speak about writing for teenagers when the other speakers are picture book or middle grade writers only).”


“I tell my college students that all of your present writing will inform your future writing, and that has been true for me.

“Fiction has taught me to embrace point of view in my nonfiction. If I’m investing tons of time and energy into telling a complicated piece of history, for example, there must be a compelling reason for me to do so.

“It is the ‘why is this story important to you’ question I always kept in the forefront of my mind for fiction that I now let be the driving force in my nonfiction as well.

“And the short form of picture books has taught me how to capture an essence of a person or an emotion, which is certainly helpful in any form of writing.”

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

“I really don’t like the idea of an agent applying pressure to their clients to stick to the same thing (which I hear happens occasionally). The agent should be there to serve you and your inspiration, not to shoehorn you.

“And frankly, I think many writers actually achieve their popularity by writing for various different age levels and in various different forms. While in my case it hasn’t specifically helped my career, it certainly hasn’t hurt it.

“And no, I don’t think it’s done much damage to, say, Kate DiCamillo‘s career, or E. Lockhart‘s (though she oddly publishes under different names), or Kevin Henkes‘ career, or Adam Rex‘s, or Kathi Appelt‘s, or Alison McGhee‘s. (To name a few off the top of my head.)

“For some of these writers, I actually feel that it helps in that kids start to love them as early readers and stick with them as they grow into their teenage years. That’s a beautiful thing.”

“I can understand, from a marketing standpoint, how a publisher might want to create a ‘brand.’ But to me, that undermines the basic human drive for creativity.

“I think humans are larger and wider than brands. This is not to say that a good mystery writer is going to necessarily be successful writing a romance, any more than Madonna can be successful writing a children’s book (and I had such high hopes).

“But I resent and resist the urge for anyone to be cornered into a pigeonhole. I think it underestimates what is possible in our human ability to stretch and discover and to create.

“Imagine what might have happened if E.B. White had been branded? He was an excellent, well known author of adult letters before he ever wrote Charlotte’s Web (HarperCollins, 1952). What a loss to the world it would have been if his publisher had refused to publish that book because it might have damaged his brand.”

“I’ve never felt any pressure to brand myself that way. Are other writers receiving that pressure? From whom? Who would do such an awful thing? And why would a writer let that happen?

“If I couldn’t have the freedom to write whatever type of book I feel drawn to writing, I’d have a hard time seeing the point in pursuing this line of work. It’s supposed to be fun.”

“…we all should be writing whatever we most need to write for whatever audience we are best equipped to reach. But in the early years of a career, I suppose the realities of the market support a certain amount of ‘branding,’ though I dislike the term and all its implications.

“My pattern–a pattern that was forced on me rather than chosen–was to get myself established with one kind of book, the hard-hitting, realistic, upper-middle-grade novel, before I turned to anything else It’s what I came into the field needing to write.

“When my children were grown and grandchildren became part of my life, my emotional focus shifted, and I began to have a real need–not just a passing desire–to write younger.

“I’m approaching my 71st birthday, and I find myself feeling farther and farther removed from the world of tweets and twitters and text messages and all that is so integral a part of the lives of the kids I used to write for. I don’t think the emotional reality has changed for our young people, but the same emotional realities are being housed in very different vessels.

“I find myself, even when I write novels, moving younger, back into the space where family is central, because that has always been the only territory I know how to write out of. And its harder, these days, to spin a story totally out of family if you are writing about older kids.

“Thus, I have turned to animal stories or to novellas about younger kids.”

“I’ll add another piece that isn’t often spoken of. It’s enormously difficult to support yourself solely with writing novels. They take too long to write and, unless they are unusually successful, they often don’t sell enough to pay for the time committed to them. My collection of YA short stories, Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins (Clarion, 2007), took me two years to write.

“The publisher and I had great expectations it, but we quickly discovered that it was an equal-opportunity book. There was something in there to offend just about everyone. And while the books flowed out quickly with the first buzz that surrounded the collection, they came flowing back to the publisher with equal speed. So considered solely in financial terms, those two years were a bust.

“For the last twenty-two years of my career, I’ve been supporting myself exclusively with my writing and a little teaching on the side. Being able to sell the younger pieces has made that possible.”

“For years I wrote just what came to my heart, in the form it wanted to be. I published an easy-to-read, a biography in prose, a novel in prose, and a collection of folklore from Puerto Rico.

“Editors kept telling me that readers wouldn’t know me unless I wrote in a genre or specific form. I, however, know well-known authors who, from the very beginning of their careers, wrote in different forms. Why couldn’t I do the same?

“I want to write whatever my heart dictates.”

“…this sort of pressure is not healthy. It can lead to writers repeating themselves, literally imitating themselves in the hopes of holding on to an audience.

“I’d rather think of the demands of the story itself, the form itself, rather than the imagined or expected audience you would be trying to please.

“No author should be expected to always write the same sort of book or focus on the same subject each time.

“The danger of this is especially great when a writer’s early work finds a wide and eager audience that expects more of the same. The curse of the successful first book.

“Writers need to have space to hear their own stories, their own poems, while they are writing them. I know that I often feel in the midst of a story as if I am not creating but listening, not crafting a tale, but taking dictation.”

“…it’s very unfortunate, unless the author truly wants to write just one kind of book. For me, it would take away what I most love about writing: the ability to express myself in many different ways.

“Just as my reading choices are eclectic, so are my writing habits. Some days I want to be silly, other days I want to slow down and be more reflective.

“What I write is who I am. And I am not a brand.”

“Like many authors, I do not think it is a good thing for an author to be ‘branded,’ though I do understand why some publishers do it. I’ve even been told in rejection letters that a particular manuscript isn’t ‘Shutta.’ How can that be? I wrote it!”

“I don’t like it much; it’s like typecasting in theater. I’m known primarily for writing LGBTQ YAs, and in a way that’s been very helpful to me, and of course in many ways I’m proud of being know for it.

“But I fear my other books have suffered, because reviewers especially and perhaps some publishers as well expect me to write only LGBTQ books.

“Don’t get me wrong; those books are very important to me! But so are the others that I write!”

“Because I had so many books about Vietnam, for a while I was branded as a ‘multicultural’ author. It was a good thing for me at the time because there was a market for the kinds of books I wrote.

“When that market went soft and I switched to writing books that were not about Vietnam, it was difficult to adjust. It was almost like starting over. Likewise, my most recent books have been picture books.

“Now, I’m finding it difficult to re-enter the YA market because a few years have gone by. Readers (even librarians) will forget you if you don’t keep producing.”

Sherry Garland; see WAF interview

“There are certainly advantages to sticking to the same kind of book. Folks come to expect a certain type of story for a certain age group and the writer delivers. But that’s not the kind of writing life I want.

“Thank goodness I write for a publisher that has allowed me to explore outside of the box. When I turn in a complex novel, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to focus on Piper Reed (Scholastic, 2008-). I owe my sanity to that character.

“The downside to writing for different ages is that, after almost 12 years of being published, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t know my name. I think some of that has to do with my exploring different forms. That being said, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I started out writing all different kinds of books, and never really felt the pressure to write any particular thing until after Library Lion (Candlewick, 2006) was published and began receiving some attention.

“Then people were asking me when my next picture book would be coming out, and I suddenly felt a lot of pressure to write another picture book.

“I think that pressure definitely worked against me. It took me a long time to write another picture book manuscript that I felt good about. My second picture book, which will be called Argus, is scheduled for Spring 2011 — four and a half years after the publication of Library Lion.”

“…for some, it’s not any one particular book, but a body of work.

“For example, Nancy Werlin is a definite YA author, yet each book is different. Teachers know that a new Nancy Werlin book is not going to be a picture book, but an intriguing novel for teenagers. Her fans know what to expect. Likewise, a Mo Willems book is going to be a simple picture book or early reader, with fun animal characters. An April Pulley Sayre book is going to be a nonfiction picture book about natural history. A book any teacher can tie into curriculum.

“So in that respect, I think it’s a good thing to have a ‘corner of the market’ in which you excel.

“I used to be known for writing funny/scary monster books, but again, I have to keep myself entertained and growing as a writer, so I continue to try new things.

“My ‘advantage’ now after publishing over 50 books is name recognition and longevity in the marketplace. Even though my books do not fall into only one genre, I’d like to think that by now, teachers, librarians, and book reviewers take note when they see a new ‘Dian Curtis Regan book’–whatever it may be.”

“Well, I’m resistant to pressure of any kind, so…

“But for me, I suspect that some people do now connect me with a certain kind of book; for example, I often write about strong women or issues of female empowerment. It’s not branding in the traditional sense of the word, and it came about organically, but that is probably the closest I will ever come to that concept.”

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference. They were posted occasionally on Cynsations over 2010.

Writing Across Formats: Julia Durango

Learn about Julia Durango.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

When I first started writing for children, I wanted to write a historical fiction novel; but with two little boys underfoot, my progress on the novel was very slow.

At the same time, I was reading and enjoying dozens of picture books with my sons. Soon I found myself with several picture book ideas of my own, which gave me a fun break from the more serious subject of the novel.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

In the thirteen years I’ve been writing for children, I’ve now dabbled in several genres and formats: poetry, picture books, historical fiction, humor, fantasy, and non-fiction.

What I’ve learned is that while each has its own particular requirements in terms of structure and technique, first and foremost they all require a compelling story. A great story trumps all.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

I think it’s very unfortunate, unless the author truly wants to write just one kind of book.

For me, it would take away what I most love about writing: the ability to express myself in many different ways. Just as my reading choices are eclectic, so are my writing habits. Some days I want to be silly, other days I want to slow down and be more reflective.

What I write is who I am. And I am not a brand.

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Check out Julia’s blog, Three Silly Chicks: Readers, Writers, and Reviewers of Funny Books for Kids. Co-bloggers are Carolyn Crimi and Andrea Beaty. Don’t miss the Three Silly Chicks Store!

Writing Across Formats: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand

Learn about Carmen T. Bernier-Grand.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

My editor at Marshall Cavendish asked me to write César: ¡Sí se puede! Yes, We Can! illustrated by David Diaz (2006) with a special voice.

The words started coming to me in the form of free verse. Strange, because I never considered myself a poet before that.

César was successful, so I used the same form to write Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life! illustrated by Frida Kahlo (Marshall Cavendish, 2007) and Diego: Bigger Than Life, illustrated by David Diaz (Marshall Cavendish, 2009).

What inspired me to write in this form? Maybe my editor, maybe my I CAN READ Juan Bobo: Four Folktales from Puerto Rico, illustrated by Ernesto Ramos Nieves (HarperCollins, 1995), or maybe Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life In Poems (Front Street, 1997). I don’t know.

As I said before, the form came to me as a gift, almost as if I were channeling.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

Writing in itself is a learning experience. Picture books have taught me about rhythm; easy-to-reads have taught me to write a story using fewer words; novels have taught about story arc; nonfiction books have taught me that they can be as interesting as fiction; and poetry has taught me how to discover a voice I didn’t know I had.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

For years, I wrote just what came to my heart, in the form it wanted to be. I published an easy-to-read, a biography in prose, a novel in prose, and a collection of folklore from Puerto Rico.

Editors kept telling me that readers wouldn’t know me unless I wrote in a genre or specific form.

I, however, know well-known authors who, from the very beginning of their careers, wrote in different forms. Why couldn’t I do the same?

I want to write whatever my heart dictates. But right now my heart is enjoying having readers.

Believe me, having readers is the best award.

Cynsational Notes

From Marshall Cavendish: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand grew up in Puerto Rico. She is the author of several children’s books, including Pura Belpré Honor Books Frida: Viva la vida! Long Live Life!, César: ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!, and Diego: Bigger Than Life. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Look for Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Justice by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez (Marshall Cavendish, 2010). From the promotional copy:

On August 8, 2009, Sonia Sotomayor became the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Hispanic justice and the third woman to serve the Court.

In elegant free verse, Carmen T. Bernier-Grand describes Sotomayor’s remarkable journey from her childhood in the projects near Yankee Stadium to her stellar academic achievements at Ivy League universities to her rapid rise in the legal profession.

When confirmed as a federal judge in the Southern District of New York, she said, “I feel I can touch the sky.”

Also included: Biographical Summary, Glossary, Chronology, Sources, and Notes. Also available in Spanish.

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Writing Across Formats: Michelle Knudsen

Michelle Knudsen is the author of 40 books for children. Her best-known title is Library Lion, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2006), which was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into several languages. Her latest book is a middle-grade fantasy novel called The Dragon of Trelian (Candlewick, 2009, paperback Jan. 2011)(sample chapter).

Formerly a full-time children’s book editor, Michelle continues to edit manuscripts on a freelance basis and has also worked as a bookseller, substitute teacher, library supervisor, and managing editor, among other things.

She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her diabetic cat, Cleo.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

I think part of it was because my introduction to children’s literature was all about working in different forms. I started out in the editorial department of Random House Children’s Books, and my division worked on “format” books–board books, beginning readers, structures with strict page limits and guidelines. I edited many types of these books and began to try my hand at writing different types, too.

For several years, I continued to write in those forms I had come to know best, mostly board books and beginning readers.

When I began trying to write picture books, it took me a long time to write one that actually worked. And it took me a very long time to feel ready to try writing a novel. I’d actually always wanted to write novels, even before I knew I wanted to write for children. But it was so different from all the writing I’d done so far, and I went into it very cautiously, taking a lot of time to figure things out as I went along.

I don’t know if it was so much about being inspired to write across forms as to work up the courage to try things outside my comfort zone.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I would like to say that working in shorter formats with strict word and page limits taught me to write succinctly, but I’m afraid that didn’t happen. On the contrary, once I started writing things without strict limits, I found myself writing really long manuscripts and having to work at cutting them down later on.

I do think the shorter formats taught me to think really carefully about word choice, because when you’re only allowed a few lines on a page, you really need to make every word count. They also taught me to think visually, because if you know you need to have an illustration on every page, you need to make sure there is something different for the artist to work with from page to page or spread to spread.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

I’m not sure what to say about this. I started out writing all different kinds of books, and never really felt the pressure to write any particular thing until after Library Lion, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2006) was published and began receiving some attention. Then people were asking me when my next picture book would be coming out, and I suddenly felt a lot of pressure to write another picture book.

I think that pressure definitely worked against me. It took me a long time to write another picture book manuscript that I felt good about. My second picture book, which will be called Argus, illustrated by Andréa Wesson (Candlewick) is scheduled for spring 2011–four and a half years after the publication of Library Lion.

I think in a perfect world, authors wouldn’t need to worry about expectations and could write whatever kinds of books they wanted, but I also understand about developing an audience and feeling a responsibility to write books that fans of your previous books will enjoy.

An author certainly can’t write only to expectations, though. At least, I don’t think they should. Writing things you don’t really want to write is not going to end up pleasing anyone.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said of Argus, “Knudsen (Library Lion) never overplays her hand, but lets the story’s laughs unfold naturally from the characters and circumstances. Her grasp of the life of the elementary school classroom is spot-on; this should become another favorite.”

A Conversation with Michelle Knudsen, author of The Dragon of Trelian, from Candlewick Press (PDF). Peek: “World-building can be a complicated business. I’m the kind of writer who likes to jump into a story early and figure things out as I go along, but when you’re making up a whole world, you’ve got to be careful to keep track of everything!”

Of The Dragon of Trelian, Booklist cheers, “Calen and Meg’s easygoing, entirely believable friendship is the core of this adventurous first novel. Meg is gutsy and impulsive while Calen is thoughtful and steadfast, and they make an appealing duo.”

Michelle’s latest release is “The Bridge to Highlandsville,” which appears in I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes, and Switcheroos by Johanna Hurwitz, illustrated by Tim Nihoff (Candlewick, 2010). From the promotional copy: “How many different ways can ten leading middle-grade authors tell a story including the line “I fooled you”? Prepare to be surprised!”

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Writing Across Formats: Sherry Garland

Learn about Sherry Garland.

What first inspired you to write across formats in children’s/YA literature?

It was my red-headed Scotsman frugal nature. I’m a waste-not/want not kind of person, so after doing three years of research for a non-fiction fifth grade book about Vietnam, I had accumulated lots of information that I didn’t want to “throw away.”

Since I am a fiction writer first and foremost, I began to think of several fiction projects about Vietnam. First, I wrote a picture book, The Lotus Seed, illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi (Harcourt, 1993) about the life of a Vietnamese woman, from childhood in Vietnam until she was an old woman in America.

It came about because of the dozens of interviews I had with Vietnamese refugees in the Houston area.

Then I wrote a YA novel, Song of the Buffalo Boy (Harcourt, 1992), about an Amerasian teenager in Vietnam trying to find the truth about her American father. That one was inspired after reading an article in “Parade Magazine” during my research.

Next was a YA novel, Shadow of the Dragon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993), whose subject matter concerned Vietnamese gangs in Houston. Again, that came about from my research for the nonfiction book.

Also, there was a picture book about Vietnamese shrimpers along the Gulf Coast, My Father’s Boat, illustrated by Ted Rand (Scholastic, 1998) that evolved when doing research about Vietnamese adjusting to American life.


Additionally, there were two picture books about Vietnamese folk tales (Why Ducks Sleep on One Leg, illustrated by Jean Tseng (Scholastic, 1993) and a collection, Children of the Dragon: Selected Tales from Vietnam, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Harcourt, 2001)).


Lastly, I wrote a short story about the Vietnam War for “Scholastic Scope” magazine, which was later used in a Scholastic seventh grade text book. So, from one big hairy batch of research, I produced seven books and one long-lived short story.

I did the same thing with the topic of Texas history. I was asked to write a picture book about the Alamo (Voices of the Alamo, illustrated by Ronald Himler (Scholastic, 2000)).

That research took about two years, which is a lot for a picture book, but then I wrote one of the Dear America Books about the same topic (A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Gonzales, Texas, 1836 (Scholastic, 1998)), so most of the research had already been done.

Then I wrote a YA novel about the same topic but from the Mexican perspective (In the Shadow of the Alamo (Harcourt, 2001)).

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

One thing I learned was to respect the picture book format. At first, I was like a lot of inexperienced people who thought that a picture book would be an easy project. I soon learned that in may ways writing a picture book is more difficult than writing a middle grade or YA novel.

With picture books, you do not have the luxury of 60,000 words to evoke emotions, describe scenes or use pithy dialogue.

For example, my forty-page historical picture book about Texas history took just as much research as my middle grade novel or YA novel about Texas history.

It was the same topic and same research, but with the picture book format, I had to get across an historical event in just a few stanzas, and cover a time period from 1500 to present day in about a thousand words. The words had to be poetic and emotional, yet at the same time convey history accurately.

The picture book process of culling down, cutting back, and selecting the most powerful words helped me learn to keep the novels more tight.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

If the author enjoys writing a certain kind of book, it can be a good thing to find a niche in the publishing industry. I am thinking of writers of mysteries, horror, romance, fantasy, series books or perhaps picture books for the very young.

Having a ready-made audience improves book sales, and your fame builds over time. The down side would be that once you are pegged, it may be difficult to break out of that niche, should you decide one day to try something different.

On the other hand, hopping around from format to format can be detrimental to your career. Publishers and librarians don’t know what to think of you; they may not be aware of all the genres you write. For example, I’ve spoken at elementary schools in which the librarians were totally unaware of my YA novels. And I’ve spoken at junior highs, where the librarians weren’t aware of my picture books. It’s more difficult to develop a following because those who read picture books are different than those who read YA novels.

Because I had so many books about Vietnam, for a while I was branded as a “multicultural” author. It was a good thing for me at the time because there was a market for the kinds of books I wrote. When that market went soft and I switched to writing books that were not about Vietnam, it was difficult to adjust. It was almost like starting over. Readers (even librarians) will forget you if you don’t keep producing.

On the positive side, writing for many different age levels increases the potential for schools visits. A YA author may only be invited to speak at middle, junior high or high schools. Picture book authors may only be invited to speak at elementary schools. But the author who writes for many age levels will get invited to all of these.

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Writing Across Formats: Tanya Lee Stone

Learn about Tanya Lee Stone.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

Since I didn’t set out to write across forms in a deliberate way, I’m not sure there was any one moment of inspiration linked to that outcome. However, I do recall having a moment in which I gave myself permission to switch gears.

My career began as an editor of children’s nonfiction, primarily for the school library market–and those were the kinds of books I naturally wrote first when I transitioned from editor to writer.

And then there came a point when I needed to stretch as a writer and find my own stories to tell–what was I passionate about–what was I yearning to say?

Then it became about the right form for the right story. Sometimes that is picture book, and sometimes it is a longer form.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I tell my college students that all of your present writing will inform your future writing, and that has been true for me.

Fiction has taught me to embrace point of view in my non-fiction. If I’m investing tons of time and energy into telling a complicated piece of history, for example, there must be a compelling reason for me to do so. It is the “why is this story important to you?” question I always kept in the forefront of my mind for fiction that I now let be the driving force in my nonfiction as well.

And the short form of picture books has taught me how to capture an essence of a person or an emotion, which is certainly helpful in any form of writing.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

Well, I’m resistant to pressure of any kind, so….

But for me, I suspect that some people do now connect me with a certain kind of book; for example, I often write about strong women or issues of female empowerment.

It’s not branding in the traditional sense of the word, and it came about organically, but that is probably the closest I will ever come to that concept.

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

In the video below, Tanya talks about engaging reluctant readers from Vermont Public Television:

Writing Across Formats: Nancy Garden

Learn about Nancy Garden.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

I’m not sure anything in particular did. I think the ideas came first, and they dictated the form and the age level.

I don’t think I ever sat down and said, “Now I’m going to write a mystery,” for example, or “Now I’m going to write a nonfiction book–what shall it be about?”

Once an editor asked me write a middle-grade book about a kid with two moms, and I did (that editor didn’t publish it, though another one did!). But I’d been thinking about doing that anyway.

As far as my books about LGBTQ characters and issues are concerned, however, I did decide to write a picture book because I felt there was a need, and I’ve felt that about other areas as well–so perhaps I should say that sometimes a perceived need sometimes leads to a form.

I should also say that the desire to write an occasional adult novel is usually with me, but only once has that materialized in an actual published novel (Nora and Liz (Bella Books, 2002)). Ideas for adult books rarely occur to me, and when they do, they rarely stick with me for enough time to make them feel viable. So the story idea (or subject, since I’ve written a little nonfiction, too) is more important, and I think that’s really always true.


What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

That’s an intriguing question!

When I wrote my (so far!) only picture book, for example, Molly’s Family, illustrated by Sharon Wooding (FSG, 2004), I had to concentrate so much on learning how to do it that I didn’t think much at first about what I was learning that would be useful elsewhere.

But I know it helped me become even more conscious of the need for economy in all other forms, for I tend to be, er, longwinded. Short stories help me practice that skill, too. Writing fiction I think helps anyone who writes nonfiction, especially nonfiction for kids. At least it helps one try to make nonfiction vivid.

Here’s another thing: I haven’t written much in play form, but I did a little when I was just starting out and I did work on revising a script someone else wrote. And I have an extensive theater background, mostly in acting, directing, and lighting design.

My directing experience in particular has I know helped me with scenes in novels or stories that involve several characters at the same time, and my acting experience has helped me develop characters, for, as an actress, I used to write an “autobiography” of each character I played, and I usually do that with main and important other characters in novels as well.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

I don’t like it much; it’s like typecasting in theater. I’m known primarily for writing LGBTQ YAs, and in a way, that’s been very helpful to me, and of course in many ways I’m proud of being know for it. But I fear my other books have suffered, because reviewers, especially, and perhaps some publishers as well expect me to write only LGBTQ books.

Don’t get me wrong; those books are very important to me! But so are the others that I write!

Cynsational Notes

From Two Lives, “Nancy Garden is the author of around 35 books for children and young adults, a number of which have to do with gay and lesbian kids and families. She and her partner divide their time between Massachusetts and Maine.”

In 2007, FSG published the 25th anniversary edition of Nancy’s groundbreaking YA novel, Annie on My Mind (1982).

From FSG: “Of the author and the book, the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee said, ‘Nancy Garden has the distinction of being the first author for young adults to create a lesbian love story with a positive ending. Using a fluid, readable style, Garden opens a window through which readers can find courage to be true to themselves.’

“The 25th Anniversary Edition features a full-length interview with the author by Kathleen T. Horning, Director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Ms. Garden answers such revealing questions as how she knew she was gay, why she wrote the book, censorship, and the book’s impact on readers – then and now.”

Nancy’s recent releases include The Case of the Vanishing Valuables (Candlestone Inn Mystery #2), illustrated by Danamarie Hosler (Two Lives, 2010)(ages 7-up). From the promotional copy:

A new group of guests has checked into Candlestone Inn, and the Taylor-Michaelson family – Nikki, Travis and their moms – have their hands full with their innkeeper duties.

When valuable objects start disappearing, Nikki and Travis start investigating – is it one of the new guests, the new maid, or could it be – a ghost?

See also The Case of the Stolen Scarab (Candlestone Inn Mystery #1)(Two Lives).

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Writing Across Formats: Shutta Crum

Learn about Shutta Crum.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

Well, I’ve always loved children’s literature at all levels. However, here is the story of how I specifically came to writing one idea three ways.

Like many writers, poetry was my first love–as far as the written word is concerned. I’d had a number of my poems for adults published in literary journals and taught creative writing at the local community college.

So, when Cynthia Rylant‘s When I Was Young in the Mountains, illustrated by Diane Goode (Dutton, 1982) came out in the first part of the 1980s . . . I was incensed! She’d written my story, the one I kept thinking I’d get around to writing one day.

At any rate, she moved me to write a poem about going to Kentucky (from Michigan) to visit my grandparents when I was young, which I did almost every summer. So I wrote a poem about all the things I loved in the Appalachian mountains of southeast Kentucky.

When I took it to my poetry critique group, they said it sounded like there was more to the story. Perhaps it was a kid’s book? Hmmm, I thought.

So I wrote a picture book from this poem. When I showed it to some friends, and submitted to Joan W. Blos‘ editor (Newbery winner Joan is another Ann Arborite and a friend.), the response I got back was that it felt like there was more to my main character’s story.

Hmm . . . I started a novel which became Spitting Image (Clarion, 2003).


In the meantime, I had submitted “Melvin, Me, and Morning Glory” (the original title of My Mountain Song, illustrated by Ted Rand (Clarion, 2004)) to the Writer’s Digest annual contest. It came in 17th place among a field of tens of thousands! That made me more confident with it. So I sent it to Clarion.


At home, I was busily working on the extended version, the novel. One day I got a call, and I crabbily answered the phone. I’d been interrupted a zillion times already that day.

It turned out to be Dinah Stevenson from Clarion with an offer on the picture book. Great!

I quickly apologized for being so gruff on the phone, but explained that I’d been working on a novel all day and had gotten many interruptions.

She said, “no problem” and asked what the novel was about.

So I told her, and she said, “Send it to me when you finish.”

I was flabbergasted! This was my first novel attempt! I didn’t even know if I could finish a first draft yet–I hadn’t gotten that far.

She said not to worry. Just send it when I got it finished.

A year or so later, I sent her Spitting Image, which they bought as well.

In the course of things, the novel came out first, since we did not need an illustrator. It took four years for the picture book to come out as we were waiting for Ted Rand to get to it–a perfect choice. Well worth waiting for.

To sum it up: a poem became a picture book became a novel; however, the novel was published before the picture book. I have never submitted the poem anywhere yet.

In this case, it was poetry that facilitated the longer books. And poetry is what I believe should be at the core of all writing.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

The formats I mostly write in are poetry, picture book (poetry and prose), the chapter book, and the middle-grade novel. In addition, I do write some articles for professional publications.

If I were to say that one type of writing informed another that I do, I would have to say that poetry has had the greatest impact on all my writing. We write so our readers will enjoy what we have written. And if we can write with a sense of poetry–a feeling for the musicality of the language (rhythm, sound)–whatever we write will be much more elegant, pared down, to the point and enjoyable. This happens even if the reader is not aware of it. I would even say this is important for nonfiction, though I do not write nonfiction except for magazine articles.

There are certain conventions in western literature that we often take for granted. The series of three in kids’ books (except for in certain cultures, such as Native American). If we veer too far from this there can be a sense on the reader’s part that the telling is somehow awkward, though the reader may not be able to pinpoint what that is.

And if the writing includes rhythmic and internal rhyme, there is something pleasing about that to the ear that makes it all seem to flow, often without the reader consciously aware of it.

A little more than half my picture books are in verse. But looking at all my prose books, from the picture book to the novel, I’ve found that those manuscripts needed an amassing of emotion at certain turning points. That emotion is more memorable because I used strong alliteration, onomatopoeia, simile, metaphor or other poetical techniques–even caesura–at those points.

And in a novel, the recurring use of symbols can be an especially useful tool.

Symbols and metaphors are short cuts that allow the writer to keep the text short but get the full impact. And strong similes can pack an emotional punch. One of my favorites is by M.T. Anderson from his novel, The Game of Sunken Places (Scholastic, 2004). “About time you struck out on your own, instead of sticking to your friend like a tapeworm in a dowager’s belly.”


So when I come to a tight spot in a novel, I try to relax and think, how would I write this if it were a poem? Do I need something visual on the page–a break? A chant, a quote, a bit of poetry written as such? In my book Thomas and the Dragon Queen, illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf, 2010), there are several places where I invoke the use of the poetical line, such as in the scene where Thomas must swear fealty to his king.

As far as the picture book translating directly to the novel, this only happens for me when I have a main character that I have not had room to develop fully in the picture book. (As in the instance above with My Mountain Song.)

Characters do need to be fully developed in a picture book, but it is of the moment–like a snapshot. A novel is more like a whole photo album, and we see the character(s) in many situations.

As for the novel translating directly to a picture book, I have not had that experience yet. However, I see where it could happen. I can envision several scenes from my novels that could be played out in very specific detail, but in fewer words than in a novel.

Again, that is where poetry comes in handy. One can get very detailed with few words and let one example stand for the many.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

Like many authors, I do not think it is a good thing for an author to be “branded,” though I do understand why some publishers do it.

Personally, I get very bored doing the same old thing. I don’t know if I could do a series. I am trying to write a follow-up book to Thomas and the Dragon Queen and am not sure I will be able to finish it.

We writers are like any other artists–we love variety. I do mosaics and quilt art. I have never been able to do a repeat of either. I even have a hard time when I want to use a traditional quilt design. I always end up changing something–making it my own.

We need to follow the whims of our hearts–wherever that takes us. In fact, I sold a “fantasy” picture book about a toddler who creates the world to Disney/Hyperion, a couple of years ago. It is in process now and was based on an old African-American chant. I am looking forward to its eventual publication.

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Writing Across Formats: Joseph Bruchac

Learn about Joseph Bruchac

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

Writing across forms seems to be something that comes naturally to me.

I started off as a poet, but when I had children of my own that led me into storytelling and then telling them stories. Which led to my first children’s books that were collections of my retellings of traditional tales. Then that gradually led into writing picture books.

However, stepping back a bit in time to my college days again, when I was awarded a writing fellowship at Syracuse to pursue my MA, I was given it for both poetry and fiction. I studied poetry with Phil Booth and fiction with Grace Paley.

Slipping forward again in time, I have to admit the advent of the personal computer and word processing programs also made it possible for me to write prose and do as much revising as I was doing for poetry. I revise everything many times. So technology inspired me, too.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I would say that poetry taught me to choose words carefully and to have a deep awareness of imagery, which has helped me in writing novels. The structure of fiction, even such devices as foreshadowing and character development, helped me be a better writer of nonfiction.

Poetry also taught me about voice, finding my own voice and finding the voices of the characters who have come to inhabit my fiction.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

I think this sort of pressure is not healthy. It can lead to writers repeating themselves, literally imitating themselves in the hopes of holding on to an audience.

I’d rather think of the demands of the story itself, the form itself, rather than the imagined or expected audience you would be trying to please.

No author should be expected to always write the same sort of book or focus on the same subject each time.

The danger of this is especially great when a writer’s early work finds a wide and eager audience that expects more of the same. The curse of the successful first book.

Writers need to have space to hear their own stories, their own poems, while they are writing them. I know that I often feel in the midst of a story as if I am not creating but listening, not crafting a tale, but taking dictation.

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Writing Across Formats: Kimberly Willis Holt

Learn about Kimberly Willis Holt.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

Writing for different age groups wasn’t a calculated decision. It just happened. I never thought I’d write a picture book or a series for young readers.

When I created a scrapbook filled with the moments waiting for my nephew to be born, I started to think about how they might also be an interesting subject to explore.

The only problem was I set the entire story in a hospital waiting room, leaving no room for picture opportunities. It took me nine years to get it right.

My other picture books have come to me like my novels–a voice with a first line. For me, that’s the key.

That’s also what led me to write the Piper Reed series (Henry Holt, 2007-). “I’ve lived everywhere,” the voice said. I followed the voice, and it brought me to a story.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I’m an auditory person. The voice and dialogue of my stories usually comes easier for me. Adding the visual details is not as easy. Picture books remind me that visual details matter (even if the illustrator is the one providing those).

Short stories are my first love, and I’m a little sad that I don’t spend as much time writing them these days. Although I think the novel is where I’m most suited, I’ll will always dream that one day I’ll be known as a decent short story writer.

But even my short stories that were published were novel-like. They took place over more time than I think a fine short story should. So, maybe writing short stories made me realize I should stick to novels.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

There are certainly advantages to sticking to the same kind of book. Folks come to expect a certain type of story for a certain age group and the writer delivers.

But that’s not the kind of writing life I want. Thank goodness I write for a publisher that has allowed me to explore outside of the box.

When I turn in a complex novel, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to focus on Piper Reed. I owe my sanity to that character.

The downside to writing for different ages is that, after almost 12 years of being published, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t know my name. I think some of that has to do with my exploring different forms. That being said, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.