New Voice: Dawn Quigley on Apple in the Middle

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This is a watershed year for the release of Native young adult novels.

From Eric Gansworth’s Give Me Some Truth (Scholastic, 2018), the followup to his If I Ever Get Out of Here (Scholastic, 2013), and Tim Tingle’s Trust Your Name (7th Generation, September 2018), the fourth in his No Name series, to the upcoming Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, October 2018), I’m pleased to feature a newcomer to the age market, Dawn Quigley.

Her debut novel, Apple in the Middle (North Dakota State University Press, 2018), features Apple, a teen whose mother, from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, died due to complications from her birth.

Raised by her white physician father and stepmother in an affluent suburb of the Twin Cities, Apple has never had contact with her mother’s family.

The story focuses on Apple’s experience during an extended summer visit with these unknown relatives on the tribe’s reservation located near the Canadian border in what is now north central North Dakota.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

As I was writing some poetry I found myself sharing my frustrations of how many non-Native authors were creating books which were stereotypically shedding negative light onto Native culture. Here was my inspiration, my poem, and my call for the Native world to not let others tell our stories for us:

Arise 

I am tired of seeing Indians portrayed as victims in literature.
I am tired of how Natives are dripping with alcoholism in your books.
And I am tired of images of
sexually deranged,
violently abused and
educationally-lacking characters. 

Native people, arise!
We have, and are still, climbing the mountain of injustice;
Carrying our history on our back as we tread to the top to see the vision our ancestors told us of.
But, instead of glimpsing at the majestic vista,
Too often we must listen as writers plunge our People back to the desolate valleys again.
But you only show the darkness, shutting out the light of hope, and resilience; condemning the beacon of a better tomorrow to melt away.
We Natives have lived in nightfall, but revel in the sunrise of tomorrow.
We, at times, hibernate for a season, but awake in springtime of life. 

Native people, arise!
Our stories, like of old, must reflect the balance between darkness and light; between the highs and the lows; and between this world and the next.
Our history has been one of
genocide,
tear-wrenching tragedy,
and historical trauma.
This must be remembered. This should be told.
But we also know the beauty of our culture; the history which we hold tight; and the values we pass down seven generations. 

So why, when we only have our imaginations to limit us, do we as Native writers and storytellers allow them to present only our darkness to the world?
Why do continually let
them tell our tales? 

Native people, arise!
Where are the heroic characters in our modern Native fiction?
There are too few Indigenous writers who shine the light on our culture.
But I am greedy. I want more.
Why don’t we write about our success –
Not success as the world may see it, but in our Indian way?
Tell us about your grandmother’s quilts.
Tell us why your sister worked two jobs and went to night school for her college degree.
Tell us the time when your grandfather’s teaching touched your life.
Tell us.
Tell us.
Just tell us.

Honoring author Joseph Bruchac during the Native YA Today: Contemporary Indigenous Voices & Heroes for the 21st Century panel at the American Library Association conference. Author Cynthia Leitich Smith, moderator Alia Jones, Joseph Bruchac and Dawn Quigley.


Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable? 

My greatest challenge was that I had no idea how to write a book!

In teaching middle school English and reading for most of my 18 years, I spent countless hours reading YA books for my students to select read-aloud and classroom novels.

I fell in love with reading books that could transform my students.
I began writing letters to the editors of our local newspapers, then wrote full commentary essays. I gained a lot of confidence each time something was published.

Next I branched out to poetry.
But to write a book, this was the challenge. I took a few courses at a local writer’s loft on how to sell and promote books, but not on the actual task of writing.

I did read only one book on it: Stephen King’s On Writing (Scribner, 2000). That book, and reading up to 10 books a month, were my teachers.

I would use favorite sections of a book to learn how the author crafted dialogue, the climatic parts, etc. Then I wrote roughly two pages a day for some time until I had a finished book! I didn’t outline my story at all, and this is something I will do in the future: begin with a rough frame.

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

The best moment was when I actually finished the book! I felt like a five-year-old wanting to run out and say, “Look, Ma, I wrote a book!”

Then the down side was trying to learn how to pitch and query editors and agents for my Apple in the Middle. I got many “bites” and asks for partials and fulls and also rejects, but it was one editor from North Dakota State University Press who made my writing career when the first line in her letter back to me was: “I love Apple. I love everything about her world.”

Suzzanne Kelly loved my Native coming-of-age book, and this, so far, has been another great moment.
My book has just come out, so I’m doing readings, signings, et cetera. I know I’m only beginning!

Rolling hills of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story? 

Turtle Mountain rose

I taught in K-12 grades for over 18 years, and it was challenging at times to find books and materials that reflected Native people respectfully.

As a Native teacher, I wanted to show the positive aspects of our culture. I knew that I have lived and seen these beautiful Native aspects and began to educate myself and my peers that there are books out there, but we all need to put in the effort to find, read and evaluate them.

I began this book because of a beckoning voice I kept hearing: Tell them the stories.

My first instinct was to push it away. How could I write a book? Who was I? But I felt this book was to be a legacy for my children to hear about my Turtle Mountain grandparents and what they taught me-and are still teaching me today even though their footprints are no longer on this Earth, but in my soul. And like many Native people who are storytellers, I knew that the best way to share history and life lesson is through the telling of tales.

As I was in the middle of the book, I started to wonder if this was meant to be more than just a family tale, but instead a way to let non-Native people peer through the keyhole to get a glimpse into our world. A world that is a beautiful one, but also a world that is many times misunderstood.

Cynsational Notes

Dawn Quigley, enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, North Dakota, is an assistant professor in the Education Department at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Her website offers support for educators in finding, evaluating and implementing Native American curriculum content from an indigenous perspective.

In addition to her coming-of-age Young Adult novel, Apple in the Middle, Dawn has over 25 published articles and poems, in mainstream magazines, academic journals and newspapers, including American Indian Quarterly, Yellow Medicine Review: A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art and Thought, Indian Country Today, Hollywood and Vine magazine, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

She was awarded the St. Catherine University Denny Prize Award for Distinction in Writing and has been a finalist in both the Minnesota Loft Literary Center‘s Emerging Writer award and its Mentor Series.
Dawn lives in the metro area in Minnesota with her husband and two girls.

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 (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) 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.

Author Interview: Samantha Mabry on Being Unique & All the Wind in the World

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Samantha Mabry is the author of All the Wind in the World (Algonguin Young Readers, 2017). It was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. From the promotional copy:

Sarah Jac Crow and James Holt have fallen in love working in the endless fields that span a near-future, bone-dry Southwest, a land that’s a little bit magical, deeply dangerous, and bursting with secrets. 


To protect themselves, they’ve learned to work hard and—above all—keep their love hidden from the people who might use it against them. Then, just when Sarah Jac and James have settled in and begun saving money for the home they dream of near the coast, a horrible accident sends them on the run. 


With no choice but to start over on a new, possibly cursed ranch, the delicate balance of their lives begins to give way—and they may have to pay a frighteningly high price for their love.


All The Wind In The World is so lush with atmosphere. Do you have a personal connection to the southwest settings in the novel?

I do! My husband and I both teach college, so we have summers off. For the last five years, we’ve spent a good chunk of those summers out in Marfa, Texas, which is about an eight-hour drive west from where we live in Dallas. I love it out there, but it’s hard to describe exactly why.

It’s very dry and quiet and windy. There are mountains in the distance, and trains that roll through (breaking the silence). I spend a lot time outside, on walks or reading in a hammock. I always knew I wanted to set a story there because I hoped to explore the layers beneath that quiet and seemingly simple landscape. 

You touch on complex social issues, like marginalized communities and the balance of power in societies and relationships. What drew you to those topics?

While A Fierce and Subtle Poison (Algonquin, 2016) was my book about culture, I wanted All the Wind in the World to be my book about class. 


And yeah, I wanted to explore power imbalances –from the way the ranch owner and higher-ups manipulate their workers to the way a young couple’s relationships starts to teeter and tilt. These power imbalances cause ranch life to unravel.

Natural phenomena meld with mutinies; people start to look for answers in the supernatural. There’s a lot to mine in a system and a setting that’s unfair.

I didn’t want to make this world too much of a dystopia, though. Even though it’s set in the future, I wanted to make it as reflective of working conditions in the past and present as I could.

I can’t really say what drew me to these topics. I studied Marxist theory all throughout college and graduate school, and thus have always been keen on viewing texts and stories in terms of what’s happening with power dynamics and economics and how those aspects affect everything else.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?


I just always try to look at people (and characters) as being full of complexities. 

My mother is Mexican American, and my dad is half-Puerto Rican and half-white. So, I’ve always generally been interested in (and will probably always be interested in) people who are of mixed heritage and how those people both shape and are shaped by their identities. 
In A Fierce and Subtle Poison, culture and identity were very front and center –the characters spoke often about their heritage. It was such a central part of that novel. 
In All the Wind in the World, the main character is often defined by others (she’s referred to as having “mixed blood” on a couple of occasions), but her bloodline is not something she thinks about often. She’s not reflective in that way.

I’ll probably always explore the shades of Latinidad and try to show that there are myriad authentic ways to be Latinx.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?


I didn’t become a writer until I was in my late twenties because I was intimidated and had no idea how to even start. It took me a long time to realize what kind of writer I wanted to be and how I fit in.

I try to encourage beginning writers to figure out where they fit in a tradition. Like, are they wanting to write thrillers like Author X or horror novels like Author Y? Or are they wanting to do some hybrid genre, inspired by both Author X and Author Y? 

Then, with their favorite, most inspirational authors as touchstones, I’d ask these beginning writers how they are going to be different. Like, how are they going to fit in with the tradition without being derivative or copycats? 
I’m a huge fan of honoring tradition and wearing my influences on my sleeve, but I also think an author needs to consider how their contribution is going to be unique and different, not just in terms of writing a different kind of story, but in approaching a genre with fresh eyes, a new point of view, and/or a new stylistic angle.
Cynsations Notes

Samantha by Laura Burlton Photography
Booklist gave All the Wind in the World a starred review and wrote, “In aching, luminous prose, Mabry crafts a story impossible to forget, infused with southwestern folklore and magical realism. The harsh desert is exquisitely, painfully rendered, and the characters are flawed and wholly real. A gripping, fablelike story of a love ferocious enough to destroy and a world prepared to burn…”
Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books. 
She credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off bad spirits. 
She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. 

Guest Post: Kim Purcell on The Alternate Epistolary Novel


By Kim Purcell
from Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There are so many types of epistolary novels, and I love the ones that play with the form. In my second novel, I tried to shift the traditional epistolary novel format.

In This Is Not A Love Letter (Hyperion, 2018), Jessie writes her missing boyfriend an account of what they’re doing to find him, entirely in her head. The reason I chose to do it this way is rooted in what happened to me when my friend went missing in high school.

My friend Al stopped by a barbecue in the middle of a run and I talked to him, said he should stay, and he said he’d be back. He never made it home.

I searched through the woods, in the pouring rain, thinking of what I’d tell him when we found him.

In real life, we feared a hate crime, since he was one of the only African-Canadians in our small mill town in Northern British Columbia. Finally, the search was called off, and I returned to school to do finals, talking to him in my head, worrying he was missing them.

For that whole summer, I ran every day, and every time I ran, I imagined him running beside me, grinning at me, making wry comments, or just listening to me talk.

Those runs taught me how to tell this story.

Apparently, talking to people in your head isn’t strange. A lot of people experience this when someone drops out of their life all of a sudden due to a disappearance, death, or a sudden break-up.

It’s jarring. The brain just can’t adjust. For sure, my brain couldn’t adjust. I couldn’t believe that I’d never see him again.

At first, I wrote this story as a traditional epistolary novel, one long letter that started with Dear Chris. It was written in the past. No dialogue. But this version had one major drawback of a traditional epistolary novel that I wanted to avoid: a lack of immediacy and tension.

So, I rewrote the book in several short letters, which Jessie wrote at the end of each day as she searched for Chris. The struggle in this rewrite was in figuring out when she’d write the letters.

Then, I thought it could be in journal form, written at various points throughout the day with time stamps, but who’s going to pull out a journal in the middle of a search for her boyfriend?

Finally, I swung back to the way I wrote to my friend, in the moment, in my head. This was the only true way I could tell this story. I rewrote this book from scratch, again, in the present tense. I could interweave Jessie’s moment-to-moment story, and keep the reader in her body, and in her emotional journey. Also, the reader could stay in her thought process when a song or an object would throw her into a memory of Chris or into an ESP communication with him.

I could also incorporate other alternate epistolary forms within the narrative, such as text messages from the friends to one another, old texts from him, an old voicemail message, and one love letter from him that Jessie finds after he’s missing. In this way, the reader gets to peruse the pieces of evidence that give clues to what happened.

Kim’s writing companions

In shifting to an alternate epistolary model, my hope was to provide a challenge to the reader and increase the suspense. Because Jessie writes the love letter in her head, the reader is essentially living in her brain, seeing what she hopes to share with Chris when he returns.

The reader very likely sees the answer before Jessie sees it, and this also increases the tension, because the reader is calling to Jessie through the pages, interpreting the evidence.

It turned out this was the only way for me to write this story, and I think that’s when epistolary novels work best, when there’s some underlying emotional reason to write the story in that format.

In the end, you have to write a book for your own heart, and hope it connects to others.

For me, it was a love story to my friend. And I like to think he’s looking down at me, and saying, “Hey, I love you back.”



Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave This is Not a Love Letter a starred review and wrote, “Purcell handles the nuances of interracial relationships with a remarkably sensitive and observant eye and challenges readers to view racism under a broader category of generalizations.”

Kim Purcell grew up in British Columbia, Canada, and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids, two dogs, and three cats.

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

She loves loud laughter, random elevator dancing, cold bodies of water and hot chocolate with extra whipped cream.

New Voice: Nic Stone on Dear Martin

William C. Morris Award Finalist

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Nic Stone is the debut author of Dear Martin (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.

Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?


Reading books written for young readers! I didn’t pick up a YA book until I was 26. That first foray was The Hunger Games  by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008), and I read the entire trilogy over the course of five days.

That then started a dystopia kick for me, and I read the first two books of the Divergent  series by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books, 2011) and the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins, 2011). Then I picked up my first John Green book, and that was that.

There was something about the Young Adult category that spoke to me in ways literary fiction hadn’t, and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that YA wasn’t a thing when I was a teen, so there was this hole in my reading life.

Now I write for the kids like me—specifically the African American ones—who are still underrepresented in the YA sphere.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

The first time I went through professional copyedits, there was a note about the spelling of a particular curse word. I’d spelled the first part of it (because of course it was a compound curse word) “motha” and the note said something to the effect of “I think this should be ‘mutha*****’ because this way it looks like ‘MOTHa*****’. Okay?” I will never ever forget this note.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

The answer to this changes depending on the book I’m working on, but for Dear Martin  there were five specific ones:

1. A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2011), which is the book that helped me to see that I could play with various storytelling formats in one single novel;

2. When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2014), which helped me settle into my black boy character’s voice;

3. Grasshopper Jungle  by Andrew Smith (Dutton, 2014), which loosened me up a bit and made it clear that irreverence is an okay thing in books written for teens;

4. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (Atheneum, 2011), which was so beautiful and lyrical and helped me find my prose rhythm; and

5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2009) which showed me the power of reaching into the heart of a story and keeping the plot from taking over.

These books will always hold a special place on my shelf.

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

For me, this part of the journey has been the most surprising part and it’s largely because of the way the world is changing with regard to author visibility and accessibility. It’s weird to me that people want to see me and hear from me and connect with me as a person above and outside of the work I create.

Right now, I’m in the process of connecting my writer self with my selfie-taking self and connecting two of my creative outlets: books and makeup. Working on a concept for a Youtube channel, actually. Stay tuned!



Cynsational Notes

In a starred review of Dear Martin, Booklist says, “Teens, librarians, and teachers alike will find this book a godsend in assisting discussions about dealing with police, as well as the philosophical underpinnings of King’s work. Vivid and powerful.”

Dear Martin was named a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award by the American Library Association.

Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one.

After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to  the U.S. to write full-time.

Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work.

You can find her goofing off and/or fangirling over her husband and sons on most social media platforms as @getnicced.

New Voice: Kate Hart on After the Fall

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Kate Hart’s YA novel, After the Fall, debuted in January 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. From the promotional copy:

Kate Hart’s debut YA novel After the Fall is a wrenching, emotional read and an intense conversation starter about issues of sexual consent.



Seventeen-year-old Raychel is sleeping with two boys: her overachieving best friend Matt…and his slacker brother, Andrew. Raychel sneaks into Matt’s bed after nightmares, but nothing ever happens. He doesn’t even seem to realize she’s a girl, except when he decides she needs rescuing.



But Raychel doesn’t want to be his girl anyway. She just needs his support as she deals with the classmate who assaulted her, the constant threat of her family’s eviction, and the dream of college slipping quickly out of reach. Matt tries to help, but he doesn’t really get it… and he’d never understand why she’s fallen into a secret relationship with his brother.



The friendships are a precarious balance, and when tragedy strikes, everything falls apart. Raychel has to decide which pieces she can pick up – and which ones are worth putting back together. 

Publishers Weekly said After the Fall “has a lot going for it—well-defined and believable major and minor characters, in particular—as well as a lot going on. The book takes up consent, slut shaming, issues of class and (to a lesser extent) race, unrequited love, and competition between siblings—and then adds a tragic accident and the resulting guilt and fractures.”

I’m pleased to welcome Kate to Cynsations to talk more about After the Fall, what she is writing now, and her thoughts about working on a future project with her tribe, the Chickasaw Nation.



What was your initial inspiration for writing After the Fall?

I started writing After the Fall in 2010, when I had just trunked a paranormal manuscript and wasn’t sure where to go next. Someone online suggested the “I want” technique, so I sat down and made a simple list with “I want to write about…” at the top, followed by random topics that appealed to me.

After “hiking,” “the Ozarks,” and “keeping up with the boys” showed up, I wrote a random line about rock climbing that led to an entire scene, and six weeks later it was an entire book.

A lot has changed in the manuscript since then, and it took a lot more than six weeks to reach the book’s final form, but that scene stayed and the first line remained the same.



What has your author journey been like since publication in January of this year?

It’s been complicated, because my health took a downturn right around the book’s release (which also coincided with the week of the Inauguration), and an even worse downturn this fall.

I was lucky enough to attend several book festivals in the spring, and meeting readers has definitely been my favorite part of the experience, so being unable to travel for promo later in the year was really disappointing. But that’s life with a chronic illness, and hopefully I’ll be better prepared to manage those issues next time around.

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

The assault that Raychel’s character experiences is loosely based on my own, so when the first version of the book went on submission in 2010, it was very difficult for me to separate criticism of her actions from criticism of my own teenage behavior.

Seven years later, it’s not fun to read reviews that victim blame or claim that I, as an author, have somehow made light of the issue, but the time it took to get the books on the shelves gave me a while to develop a thicker skin and draw a better distinction between myself and my work.

What delighted you the most about writing this book?

With author Maureen Goo

Setting is an important element to me, so it was fun to pull parts of my hometown into the story. People have some pretty strong preconceived notions about Arkansas, and it’s been lovely to get thanks from locals who are relieved to see our area portrayed realistically.

You’ve mentioned in an interview earlier this fall that you’re working on a book informed by your Chickasaw ancestors’ experience. Will it also be a young adult story?

This is a great question because I’ve been asking myself the same thing! It’s certainly written about teenagers, but while one of the point of views is first person from a seventeen-year-old girl, the other is a “bird’s eye view” third person that may be skewing more adult.

I keep worrying about it, but ultimately you have to let the book be written in the way that works best for the story. My hope is that the finished draft will at least be a crossover – and if not, that my agent and/or future editor can help me straighten it out!

Any plans to work with the Chickasaw Nation’s White Dog Press to publish books for children and teens?

For now, I plan to stick with the major YA publishers, but I’d love to take part in some kind of anthology or project through the Chickasaw Nation.

I recently read their larger Chickasaw Press’ release Wenonah’s Story as a reference for my work-in-progress and I’m so grateful that they’re preserving the stories of our ancestors for future generations.

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

Find your group (but not your tribe, because Dear Internet, tribes are a totally different thing).

When I first started writing, I didn’t have any local writer friends, but thanks to sites like Absolute Write and the early days of Twitter, I ended up with an amazing support group of colleagues.

Watching their publishing journeys taught me so much, and I went into my own career well-informed because of their generosity and advice.

Any last thoughts on Native/First Nations writers for young people?

I am beyond excited for the books coming soon from Rebecca Roanhorse. Her debut novel Trail of Lightning is for adults, but she also has a middle grade called Race to the Sun coming from Rick Riordan’s new imprint, plus several short pieces in various anthologies.

I’m also a fan of Tim Tingle’s House of Purple Cedar, which takes place in Skullyville, a Choctaw town in Oklahoma where many of my relatives lived.

Cynsational Notes

After studying Spanish and history at a small liberal arts school, Kate Hart taught young people their ABCs, wrote grants for grownups with disabilities, and now builds treehouses for people of all ages.

Her debut YA novel, After the Fall, was published January 2017 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux; she’s also a contributor to the 2018 anthologies Toil and Trouble and Hope Nation.

A former contributor to YA Highway, she currently hosts the Badass Ladies You Should Know series, and sells woodworking and inappropriate embroidery at The Badasserie. Kate is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation with Choctaw heritage and lives with her family in Northwest Arkansas.

Traci Sorell joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators.

Traci writes fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies for the trade and educational markets. She has been an active member of SCBWI since August 2013.

In April 2016, Charlesbridge acquired her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, from the slush pile. It will be published on September 18, 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 an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

She also has a Master’s degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Previously, she taught at the University of North Dakota School of Law and the University of New Mexico.

She also worked as an attorney assisting tribal courts nationwide, advocated for national Native American health care, and directed a national nonprofit serving American Indian and Alaska Native elders. She now lives in the Kansas City area and is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram @tracisorell.

Author Interview: Jay Asher on Thirteen Reasons Why

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jay Asher on Jay Asher: “My past five jobs include working at an independent bookstore, a chain bookstore, an outlet bookstore, and two public libraries (I still work full-time at a library). I do have a favorite type of ‘book distribution’ among those jobs, but I’m not here to make enemies. Except for six months I spent in Wyoming, where I began writing Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill, 2007), I’ve lived my entire life in California.”

What prompted you to write stories for young readers?

I took a class in college called Children’s Lit. Appreciation. For my final project, I wrote a picture book titled “Stop, Easter Bunny! You Forgot Something.” The book never sold (shocker, I know!), but I was hooked.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any bumps or stumbles on the way?

I don’t think there were any real bumps on the path; it was just an insanely huge mountain. It took me around twelve years to sell my first book.

Along the way, I worked on everything from picture books to chapter book series to middle grades. But they were all humorous books. Eventually, I started this suspenseful YA…and it sold. I guess I should’ve looked beyond humor years ago!

Before selling this book, I’d won a lot of awards (a free trip to New York to meet with editors, a work-in-progress grant, etc…), and I suppose I got my hopes up a few too many times. In fact, I almost quit writing about nine months before this book sold. I started questioning whether there was some other creative outlet out there for me.

Looking back, though, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m so happy that Thirteen Reasons Why is my debut novel.

Congratulations on the release of Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill, 2007)! Could you tell us a little about the story?

It’s about a high school junior, Clay Jensen, who comes home and finds a package on his doorstep. Inside are seven audiotapes, their sides labeled one through thirteen. He finds a tape player, pops in the first tape, presses play, and out comes the voice of Hannah Baker…his classmate and crush who, two weeks earlier, committed suicide. Each side of each tape tells a story about a different person at their school who, Hannah feels, led to her decision. And since Clay received the tapes, he’s one of the reasons why.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this novel?

I took an audio tour at a museum several years ago, and I felt that would make for a fascinating way to format a novel: someone’s recorded voice leading another person on a journey through their town.

So that’s the inspiration for the way the story’s told, but the main issue in the novel was something of interest to me because a close relative of mine attempted suicide when she was Hannah’s age. Since then, she and I have had many conversations about her state of mind at the time as well as how she may not have seen things exactly for what they were.

When the novel’s format clicked with the subject of a girl discussing her reasons for taking her life, it gave me chills, and I knew I had to explore that idea some more.

What was the timeline between spark and initial publication, and what were the major events?

I began writing the book in the winter of 2002-2003 and finished it the summer of 2006. Along the way, it won a work-in-progress grant from SCBWI and the Smartwriters.com Write-It-Now competition (with Chris Crutcher as the YA judge!). With those endorsements, I knew I had to finish the book, but I also wrote a mid-grade novel, a chapter book, and a few picture books during that time. I found an agent in August 2006 and ended up having three houses bidding on the book by the end of September.

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

Logistically, I lived in four houses, in two states, and worked five different jobs while working on Thirteen Reasons Why. Who knows, maybe writing this book kept me sane during all of those changes.

The format of the book was definitely a challenge; popping back and forth between two voices, sometimes several times per page. To keep the voices consistent, I wrote Hannah’s side of the story all the way through. Then I went back and added Clay’s story. Quite often, it felt like I was putting together a puzzle rather than writing a story.

Other than my relative, I spoke at length with a lot of my female friends about their high school experiences (being a boy, it turns out, is a totally different experience).

I didn’t straight-out use any of the scenarios they told me about; I mainly focused on trying to capture some of the emotions they spoke of. But I also read a lot of books on suicide to make sure Hannah’s emotional journey rang true.

What scared you the most about writing this story?

I was mainly afraid of writing a book no one wanted to read because it was too depressing. Since there was no way to get around the seriousness of the issues (nor did I want to), I wrote it as if writing a suspense novel…to hopefully compel people to read through to the end.

What kept you going and raised you up during the process?

First, my wife. From the day I started writing this book, she refused to let me doubt my ability to write it successfully (which I did quite a lot). Then, Robin and Eve…my fellow Disco Mermaids. They kept this journey fun.

What was it like, being a debut author in 2007?

Pretty cool. For starters, it’s the year of the Class of 2k7…a co-op of debut middle grade and YA novelists. It’s been fun to watch so many careers in that community take-off and to be a part of it.

Other than taking part in the Class of 2k7, what else have you done to promote your new release?

I’ve been speaking at schools as often as possible, which has been amazing. Not only does my personal twelve-year journey give me a lot to talk about, but there are a lot of serious issues raised in my book, which have provided for some intense discussions.

Other than that, MySpace is huge. Not only is it a great way to interact with teen readers, but it puts me in touch with librarians and booksellers all over the country, some of whom I’m now working with to organize Thirteen Reasons Why book clubs.

If you could go back and talk to your beginning writer self, what advice would you give him?

Learn the value of patience…immediately!

You’re an active member of the kidlitosphere! Please tell us about your blog.

Robin, Eve, and I started The Disco Mermaids mainly as a way to infuse some much needed fun into the depressing world of rejection letters. Not only do we discuss the ups and downs of writing for children and teens, but we try to write some silly posts, as well.

For example, our dePaola Code series got the attention of Tomie dePaola, and he wound up reprinting it on his website…which we still have trouble believing (Tomie is a god to us!). Basically, Robin and Eve are my closest friends, and it’s just something we like doing together.

Update: Jay’s individual blog.

What about the community appeals to you?

There’s just no cooler group of people than those who write for children and teens. My very first writing conference I went to, it felt like I was surrounded by friends…and I didn’t know any of them! But with blogging, I can be a part of that community whenever I need it.

According to your MySpace page, you think the best show ever was “My So-Called Life.” What about it worked for you?

Everything! The acting, the dialog, the small story details…even the coloring on the screen. It was just so honest. I feel blasphemous saying this, but that show influenced my writing more than any book. The characters were so real. No one was without faults, but all of their faults made sense. While I was writing Thirteen Reasons Why, the MSCL soundtrack was playing in the background almost constantly.

What can your fans look forward to next?

More unusual relationships. Writing this book made me realize how fascinated I am by the way people interact…and the obstacles that keep us from understanding each other better.