Saturday, May 23, 2015

Cover Reveal & Interview: Author Ashley Hope Pérez & Editor Andrew Karre on Out of Darkness

By Ashley Pérez and Andrew Karre
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

From the promotional copy of Out of Darkness (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner, Sept. 2015):

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them.

“No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs.”

They know the people who enforce them.

“They all decided they’d ride out in their sheets and pay Blue a visit.”

But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

“More than grief, more than anger, there is a need. Someone to blame. Someone to make pay.”

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history— as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

The starred Kirkus review of Out of Darkness called it “a powerful, layered tale of forbidden love in times of unrelenting racism,” and Elizabeth Wein, best-selling author of Code Name Verity, had this to say: “The beauty of Pérez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing, star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.”

Read on for a conversation between Ashley and her editor, Andrew Karre, who is now executive editor of Dutton Books for Young Readers. 

Ashley and Andrew talk about book covers, challenging boundaries in YA, what happens in the woods of East Texas, and the author-editor collaboration that made Out of Darkness possible.

Ashley Hope Pérez: Since this is also the cover reveal for Out of Darkness, can we start there? I love that we arrived at this design. What do you think it signals to readers?

Andrew Karre: I think it does the jobs of a book cover very well: it is visually arresting from the shelf, and it rewards deeper looks after you’ve read on in the book.

The image of the braid is lovely and intriguing, but once you’ve read the book, the layers begin to emerge.

I also love the uncomfortable separation in “Darkness.” It is not a comfortable cover—and it shouldn’t be.

AHP: I love that you mention the absence of comfort—right now I’m writing an article about the role of discomfort in YA reading experiences. So let’s linger for a moment on the topic of narrative elements that don’t sit easily with readers’ expectations.

Your particular vision of YA—which I’ve always taken as being focused on engaging or deconstructing various ideas of adolescence—gave me license to write the book without worrying about fitting it to a particular YA mold. You’ve never been interested any kind of filter for writing “at” teen readers and instead have gained this incredible reputation as an editor for choosing unusual, boundary-pushing works.

Did Out of Darkness give you a chance to scratch anything off of your boundary-pushing bucket list?

AK: I definitely got to put a check in the box labeled “historical YA that portrays teenagers acting on recognizable sexual appetites.”

AHP: Glad to have helped on that front. I think I was at least a little bit influenced by the workshop on sex in writing that you and Carrie Mesrobian did with teens last year and the insights that came from that.

I took a few items your compelling piece and the list Carrie compiled, and I thought about how they intersected with the private worlds and identities of my characters.

Portraying teen sexuality as a real part of the past was one of the contributions I wanted to make in Out of Darkness.

This is in addition to my general adamancy about the fact that teens are sexual people regardless of how they act on that fact. I find it maddening when people assume that the relative silence around sex in times past somehow amounted to a magical chastity or innocence among teens. That’s an assumption that especially gets applied to women in depictions of the past, I think. I enjoyed researching sexual matters of the period from the book.

AK: I distinctly remember my own delight at discovering some vintage condom packaging.

The kind of tins that held condoms in the 1930s. Image from www.collectorsweekly.com.

AHP: As do I… I think you gleefully tweeted a link to this article full of handy details about prophylactics of the past. For me, beyond the period particulars, there was also the pleasure of thinking about logistics for my characters. The woods in East Texas are notorious for being where you go to do things you don’t want others to know about, but I loved the chance to also show it as a space where a particular kind of possibility unfolds: an interracial love with a definite sexual intensity.

Although I didn’t want to idealize the physical aspect of Wash and Naomi’s relationship, which has an intensity that can be parasitic on their emotional connection at times, there’s also a sweetness to what they give each other.

So, we did some important work around the idea of teen sexuality in days gone by. What other boundaries do you see Out of Darkness testing?

AK: Well, the book pushed a bit at my personal definition of YA, which is novels about people experiencing the various social constructs of teenageness. For example, I don’t think Wash and Naomi are teenagers in the sense of your typical YA character. Because of their races, they’re not afforded the leisure we associate with teenagers. They are adults in many significant ways, but they do overlap with modern teenage-ness (in the form of all the white high school kids) and I found this deeply fascinating and illuminating. Your execution of these characters casts a bright light on the white privilege at the heart of that teenage-ness.

I also saw that you had set yourself an enormous challenge with the character of Naomi’s stepfather Henry. The book would fail if you let him simply be a racist monster. You had to make him a deeply flawed human who behaves monstrously—a considerably taller order and one that makes the book harder for some readers, though I think ultimately more satisfying.

AHP: I remember several important conversations with you that helped me to find and capture the humanity, however distorted, in Henry. I went through a similar process to uncover the complex character of the pastor who initially encourages him to bring the kids to East Texas and then has to buoy him up repeatedly in the role of father. The evolution of characters is more memorable, maybe, but the editorial back and forth was just as critical to the development of the narrative and stylistic choices that make this book what it is.

You’ve managed to be my ideal reader three times now. Each time we’ve worked on a book, the questions or challenges you presented me with opened the right doors for me in revision so that I could help the story grow into what it was supposed to be. Dark magic aside, how do you do that?

AK: I have no idea, but it’s my only useful skill, so I’m glad it works. Good editing is about building a little space where an author’s best work can happen. (And it has to be a little space, because books don’t happen by committee.) The minimum qualifications are understanding, nurturing, and—when necessary—reminding the author of the original vision.



AHP: That little space is a gift to writers. I think you must also have a kind of special sight that allows you to see submerged possibilities, both in a manuscript and in the writer herself. I feel like this was especially true in how you responded to Out of Darkness. I mean, it was such a different case from What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012)(both Carolrhoda Lab), both of which are contemporary realistic fiction and arrived to you somewhat resembling their final form. And then there was Out of Darkness…

AK: Out of Darkness is the best of what can happen when an author and an editor have a good working relationship. Honestly, if at any point after our first two books you’d told me about the school explosion and your eagerness to use it as an entry point for a story about race and class and love and family, I would have been in. I knew we could work well together, and I wanted to do so again.

At least 294 people were killed in the New London, Texas, school explosion. Chaos after the explosion and the destruction of all school documents made an exact count impossible. Image from the London Museum archives.

AHP: It’s true that you didn’t even flinch when my agent sent you a manuscript that filled a ream of paper. Or at least you didn’t let on that you flinched. I think the first complete draft weighed in at 200,000 words.

AK: I’m glad that you sent those 200,000 words. Even though I knew we were years away from a book, the scale of that draft gave me a sense of how committed you were to a project somewhat more ambitious than our first two. And I knew you would match my effort, so I didn’t worry about how much work it would be or whether you were prepared to explore some difficult places.

AHP: There was some serious cutting, reshaping, and expanding that happened over those years… and a ton of collaboration to develop the vision for what the novel would become. Did your expectations evolve over those years we went back and forth?

AK: I don’t think my expectations evolved much, given how high they were to begin with. This is a book that could obviously only exist on a fairly significant scale and scope.

As you know, I dearly love short, circumscribed stories of unusual individuals. This was never going to be such a book—or maybe better said it was several such books tightly braided together and making a still greater whole. My job was to see that from the beginning and work like hell to make sure we never compromised. (We didn’t.)

AHP: I’m grateful for that. I felt all along the way that I had just enough space to grow to be the writer who could handle whatever challenge we’d set for a round of revision.

Looking back, I realize that you probably read this manuscript at least five times as we were working through that process. Am I some kind of crazy outlier, or do you find yourself going through comparable iterations with other authors?

Ashley’s writing process. Crucial tools: writer’s notebook, Scrivener, paper, pen, scissors, and tape.

AK: You’re not a crazy outlier, except perhaps in terms of length of first draft.

With some authors, I’ve gone through more drafts, others fewer. Ideally, they all get a similar level of attention, but sometimes that attention takes different forms.

AHP: You also do this thing where you don’t force a change but you plant a seed that makes it possible for me, on my own, to wholly embrace that change. That probably happens dozens of times in a book, but I distinctly remember at one point discussing the author’s note for Out of Darkness.

There was this line in it that more or less sounded to you like an apology for the intensity and tragedy of the novel, and you gave me the courage to cut it. I think you said something like, “you shouldn't apologize for making your readers feel deeply.”

AK: The longer I do this, the more I’m convinced that the only reliable indicator of a book’s durability and quality is whether it elicits strong feelings in the reader. Whatever those feelings may be, if they are present, then the book is doing something right.

I get more upset by indifferent reviews than I do by strongly negative ones. A.S. King and I were talking just a couple weeks ago about a Goodreads review for her first novel, where the reviewer thinks she’s angry at the book—thinks she’s writing a bad review—but by the end of the review both of us agreed that the reviewer got exactly what we’d hoped from the book: very strong feelings. We didn’t take issue with a single point from the review.

Polite people generally apologize for causing emotional distress in others, so I’m never surprised to see a line like the one you cut. But I always try to remind the author that emotional distress is what the reader is paying for.

AHP: There’s an intensity and darkness to Out of Darkness that connects it to The Knife and the Butterfly, but I also feel like both novels leave room for hope, too. Does that resonate with you? Or do you see the works differently?

AK: I do absolutely find a hopeful quality in all your books. It’s hard earned and never more so than in this book. Brokenness and injustice are things I find in your work, but you also have a faith in human resilience that balances the brutality. That’s hope.

AHP: Hope is a thing with me. It’s literally my middle name, so how could it not be?

There are some books, like Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2014), that are so full of promise and hope that you can’t miss it. I mean, that’s a novel set in the 1980s where two gay, Mexican-American boys discover and embrace their love for each other in part because of the support they receive from their parents. Ben finds ways to tell stories that get to the heart of growth and healing without being sentimental.

In Out of Darkness, I’d say that the possibility for hope depends on a certain kind of commitment from the reader. Or maybe what the novel does is create an appetite for hope—an authentic desire for life possibilities that go beyond what the characters achieve. My characters improvise wholeness, cobble together a family, but it can’t hold.

AK: There is something so, so gorgeous in the magical little family Wash, Naomi, Cari, and Beto make for themselves. Yes, it cannot possibly survive, but the short spring of that incredible family is unbearably and eternally beautiful.

Sabine River and the East Texas woods where Wash, Naomi, and the twins improvise a family. Image by Michael Gras.

AHP: That does sound like grounds for hope. Readers might only wish for things to be different for Wash, Naomi, and the twins as they’re reading, but maybe that wish can turn into something like a broader awareness that an unconventional family can have a rightness to it that is just as fundamental as any biological family. That’s one possibility I see in the novel when I think about it as a reader or lit professor rather than a writer. I try not to do that too much because it’s not the lit professor in me who runs the show when I’m writing.

My academic work has a place in my heart and my brain, but the novels I’ve written take up a lot more space. They’re like houses I once lived in but have had to leave behind. Each one is unique, and I have a distinct sense of what it felt like to be inside them, what the building and repairs and maintenance cost me.

I have favorite spaces, too, passages that, at least in my imagination, are where I felt most at home as a writer, most myself.

Is there anything comparable for you when you think about the books you’ve edited? What’s their afterlife like?

AK: I find myself remembering the process more than the book itself. I mean, I can recall the books as needed, but the pleasant memories that come unbidden are more about the experience of working on the book—the editing on my own, the phone conversations, the emails, the lunches. It’s as close as I get to old army buddies.

AHP: I look forward to reenlisting for another tour of duty. I’ll take the pen over the sword any day.

Cynsational Notes 

Find Ashley online at www.ashleyperez.com, where her blog is full of writerly and readerly insights, or at www.latinosinkidlit.com, where she’s part of a team of bloggers working to get the word out about awesome kid lit by Latina/o authors or about Latina/o experiences.

Follow her on Twitter (@ashleyhopeperez) and on Facebook.

Also follow Carolrhoda Lab on Twitter (@CarolrhodaLab) and Facebook for news and reviews of Out of Darkness and other fantastic Carolrhoda Lab titles.

Andrew Karre keeps us all entertained and informed from Twitter via @andrewkarre.

Librarians, bloggers, booksellers, reviewers, and teacher types: don’t forget to go to netgalley.com by the end of July to request an advance read of Out of Darkness.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for Borrowed Time by Greg Leitich Smith (Clarion, Nov. 2015). From the promotional copy:

In this exhilarating time-travel adventure and sequel to Chronal Engine, Max Pierson-Takahashi and his friend Petra find themselves whisked back to the treacherous, dinosaur-packed Cretaceous Period.

Soon they discover they have more to worry about than dinosaurs when they encounter a girl from the 1920s with a revolver and one thing on her mind—to avenge the death of her father, Isambard Campbell, whom she believes was killed by Max.

Meanwhile, Max’s then-thirteen-year-old uncles, Nate and Brady, have inadvertently time-traveled from 1985 and have problems of their own as they face mosasaurs, tyrannosaurs, and other dangers. The two pairs must not only fight for survival, but join forces to find their way home to their respective decades. Mind-bending time twists and white-knuckle encounters with deadly creatures plus a realistic peek into the age of the dinosaurs make this a perfect choice for anyone looking for a survival story with nonstop action.

Congratulations to Greg, whose novel Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, 2014) has been nominated for the Rhode Island Children's Book Award!

More News & Giveaways

Bombing Through It by Dave King from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "The actual process of getting the story down on paper has a unique intimacy and particularity. Stories are organic. You’ve got to let them grow as you write, even if you’ve already built a trellis."

The Symbiosis of Science & Poetry by Sylvia Vardell from Poetry for Children. Peek: "...people who feel uncomfortable with science often feel very comfortable with language arts, so a poem might be the perfect way to introduce a science topic."

How to Read with Rising Kinders and First Graders This Summer by Jill Eisenberg from Lee & Low. Peek: "...the ultimate goal here is to show our beginning and soon-to-be readers how reading can be a joyful, positive experience. This mindset will set them up for the best start to their school journey." See also Let the Summertime Reading Hoopla Begin by Frances Lee Hall from ReaderKidz.

Lee & Low Announces 16th Annual New Voices Award Contest from Lee & Low. Peek: "The Award will be given for a children’s picture book manuscript by a writer of color. The Award winner receives a cash prize of $1000 and our standard publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a first time author. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash prize of $500."

Depression Has No Straight Lines, Only Lies by Kelly Jensen from Disability in Kid Lit. Peek: "Depression feels like it needs a cause or a destination. The truth is, though, that depression is chemical; it’s a brain misfiring and miswiring in ways that don’t have an easy-to-point-to reason for happening."

Nancy Sondel's 13th Annual Pacific Coast Children's Writer Workshop & Retreat will take place Oct. 2 to Oct. 4 in Santa Cruz, California. Faculty: HarperCollins executive editor Kristen Pettit and agent Stephen Barr of Writers House.

Writing During Summer Travels by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "You may have activities planned (or planned for you) that don’t seem to show any gaps of free time. If so, look again."

Cynsational Giveaways


Don't miss the Kissing In America (by Margo Rabb (HarperCollins, 2015)) Audio Tour & Giveaway!

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig (HarperCollins) with Emma J. Virjan & Greg Leitich Smith.
The lovely & brilliant author-illustrator!

Congratulations to Varsha Bajaj (Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert Whitman, 2014)), SCBWI's Crystal Kite winner for the Texas/Oklahoma region! See the full list of winners.

Congratulations to Vicky Lorencen for signing with Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and congratulations to Erin for signing Vicky!

Personal Links

TX/OK Crystal Kite Winner!

Cynsational Events

Join Cynthia at 11 a.m. May 30 in conjunction with the YA Book Club at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Cynthia will serve as the master class faculty member from June 19 to June 21 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. June 28 on an Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) program--"We Need Diverse Books: How to Move from Talk to Action Panel"--at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.
Learn more!
Cynthia will teach on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts from July 8 to July 19.

Join Cynthia from July 30 to Aug. 2 at GeekyCon in Orlando, Florida. See more information.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will lead a YA Writing Retreat for A Room of Her Own Foundation from Aug. 10 to Aug. 16 at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Cynthia will lead a breakout session on "Diversity in Children's and YA Literature" Aug. 22 at East Texas Book Fest at the Harvey Hall Convention Center in Tyler, Texas.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 29 at Richardson Public Library in Richardson, Texas.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Guest Post: Amy & David Axelrod on The History of Magic & The Bullet Catch: Murder by Misadventure

See facebook page, excerpt  & educator guide.
By Amy Axelrod & David Axelrod
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When we began, we knew that we wanted to write a novel about a down-and-out magician during World War I.

We knew the setting would be New York City and that this washed-up magician, who we named Barzini, would be involved with a roster of famous illusionists of the time. And finally we knew we would have a young protagonist, named Leo, whose life would serendipitously change from being a petty criminal to a stage magician.

Both of us had interest in the history of stage magic and its legendary personalities. The early 1900s was an exciting and innovative period in the history of magic. But it was also a time of intense competition, jealousies and theft.

When trying to come up with a plot for the book, we kept circling around one magician in particular: Chung Ling Soo.

He was an American named William Ellsworth Robinson who masqueraded as a Chinese conjurer and became a world-wide sensation. His signature illusion was the bullet catch, which would ultimately kill him during a performance. Chung Ling Soo became Barzini’s nemesis, and Leo became entangled in their rivalry.

Writing an historical novel is like being on a treasure hunt. One clue leads to another and another.

We read and cross-referenced many Internet sources, biographies on Houdini and books on illusion written by magicians of the golden era.

Chung Ling Soo (Ransom Center, U.T., Austin)
One particular gem was a book written by Harry Houdini in 1906. The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals, was intended to be a handbook educating the public on the ways of criminals. Instead, it read as a primer on how to commit crime, and was taken out of print. This book proved helpful when creating Leo, a pickpocket, and his gang of thieves.

We also researched the magicians’ collection and Houdini’s private scrapbooks at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Other books used in researching The Bullet Catch (Holiday House, 2015):

Jay, Ricky. Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women. New York: Warner Books, 1986.

Jay’s Journal of Anomalies. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001.

Celebrations of Curious Characters. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books 2011.

Steinmeyer, Jim. The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer. Boston: de Capo Press, 2006.

Cynsational Notes 

Follow Amy @amy_axelrod & David @chunglingwho at Twitter

Amy Axelrod has written many picture books, including The Pigs Will Be Pigs Math Series (Simon & Schuster), and the middle-grade novel Your Friend in Fashion, Abby Shapiro (Holiday House).

David Axelrod works in publishing and has written numerous YA novels under pseudonyms.

Read more about their research and collaboration at Amy's blog at Goodreads.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Guest Post & Giveaway: Sarah Frances Hardy on Writing a Companion Picture Book

By Sarah Frances Hardy
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations


My third picture book Dress Me! (Sky Pony, 2015) is a companion book to last year’s release Paint Me! (Sky Pony, 2014).



When I was thinking about what my next submission to Sky Pony would be, I sifted through my pile of finished, sort-of finished, and not-at-all finished manuscripts.

I had a longer manuscript for a dress up book that was giving me trouble, but I liked the concept of a girl trying on different outfits and personalities, so I talked through it with my agent.

She suggested that I keep the “me!” theme going and write a companion book to Paint Me! using some of the elements from my longer (and quite honestly, not working) dress up book.

Brilliant!

But it was tricky to do ...

My first attempts too closely mirrored Paint Me!. The rhythm and structures of the stories were almost identical, and my main character, although different looking, struck many of the same poses as my main character in Dress Me!. The two stories were just too much alike. I had to figure out how to echo my original story while making a fresh and new narrative.

And that was the biggest challenge ... making it the same but somehow different! It wasn’t enough to give the main character different words and a different color hair. She had to be a unique person with her own problems and interests.

And the ultimate conflict of the story had to be completely different, but structurally it I wanted it to happen at a similar place in both narratives.

In Paint Me!, a little girl begins the day painting a portrait of her dog and gets a little out of hand. As she skips through the book trying different colors, she calls out the name of each color ... “Yellow me! Red me! ... etc.” The conflict happens when the main character spills paint everywhere and falls down in a giant messy pile yelling “Mom--meeee!”.


As easy as it would have been to have my main character in my companion book fall down in a pile of clothes and yell “Mom-meee!”, I couldn’t do that. It would’ve been lazy and unimaginative--pretty much the exact same book done over again. And who wants to read that?

So ... in Dress Me! my main character tries on lots of different outfits, careers, and (yes) a mustache ...


before trying out the ultimate Diva garb complete with a pink boa and tiara.


“So NOT me!” she yells. The structure and language of both books are the same, but the conflict and character tell a different story.

Different ... but the same.

Plus, I managed to get in a bit of a feminist message, making my book a little different from most of the stereotypical “girl” dress up books out there. My main character in Dress Me! explores who she can be instead of how pretty she can be.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Dress Me! by Sarah Frances Hardy (Sky Pony, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Giveaway: The Neptune Challenge by Polly Holyoke

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a signed copy of The Neptune Challenge by Polly Holyoke (Hyperion, 2015) along with a glass dolphin pendant and earrings. From the promotional copy:

Genetically engineered to survive in the ocean, Nere and her friends are recovering from their long, treacherous journey to refuge and settling in at Safety Harbor. 

Despite its name, plenty of dangers still lurk just outside the colony's boundaries.

When two among them are kidnapped, the remaining Neptune kids and their loyal dolphins must set out on a mission even more perilous than their first: infiltrate the kidnapper's fortress to save their friends and steal away a vital scientific secret that may save the world and its oceans.

Fighting terrifying mutated creatures and teens, will the Neptune kids find a way to save their friends, themselves, and their underwater world? The stakes couldn't be higher in this thrilling sequel to the award-winning The Neptune Project.

Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

A 2014 Texas Library Association Bluebonnet Author Polly Holyoke


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Monday, May 18, 2015

Guest Post: Kristi Helvig on Incorporating Science Into Science Fiction

By Kristi Helvig
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

One of the great things about writing science fiction is that you get to make up a lot of stuff.

You can create new worlds, new languages, and even new life forms. From the androids in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) to the self-aware computer Hal in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), an author’s imagination can exceed the limits of what science can do in a given time period.

Yet, as authors, we can’t insert these fantastic elements willy nilly into the story without respecting the basic laws of science.

While some science fiction writers are, in fact, scientists, most of us are not. My Ph.D. in clinical psychology helps quite a bit when exploring character motivation but isn’t so useful when I need to know how a planet’s distance from the moon impacts its rotation speed.

So how does a writer incorporate scientific aspects into their fiction? A little research goes a long way. For instance, if you’re writing a time travel novel, you might want to investigate things like black holes, event horizons, or even string theory. A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle (FSG, 1963) is pure fiction, but wormholes (similar to the tesseract in her story) are real.

The key is not to bore your reader with pages and pages of theories and expositions about the science involved with your story. If it’s fiction, you just want to sprinkle in enough research that your premise is believable.

For my first book in the series, Burn Out (Egmont/Lerner), I had to find a plausible reason that our sun could burn out early. Only by contacting an astrophysicist at a respected university did I find my answer, and luckily for us, it’s unlikely to happen.

In the sequel, Strange Skies (Egmont/Lerner), the new planet of Caelia has only four hours of light (called light breaks instead of “day”) followed by four hours of dark. I had to contact an astrophysicist again for questions I had about planet size and rotations speed, along with making sure that my freshwater oceans were possible.

Oftentimes, reading scientific articles and watching documentaries is enough, but I believe that contacting experts is a necessity in many cases.

It’s always interesting to see life imitate art—I’m still waiting for the flying cars in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997)—but I had something cool happen with my series.

In Burn Out, the bio-weapons protected by my main character, Tora, are keyed to her individual energetic vibration, meaning that no one else can fire them.

Right before the book was published, which was several years after it was written, my agent sent me an article about guns being developed that would only fire for their specific owner. It’s often a circular relationship, where the science initially serves as a basis for a more advanced idea in science fiction, and then when science advances, that idea can come to fruition years later—such as the advanced crime software in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" (2002).

The takeaway here for writers is that as long as you follow basic scientific laws in your sci-fi novel, the sky (or galaxy) is the limit!



Friday, May 15, 2015

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Activity Pages & Teacher Guide
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Emma J. Virján on the release of What This Story Needs Is A Pig In A Wig (HarperCollins, 2015). Peek:

What this story needs is a pig in a wig, on a boat in a moat with a frog, a dog, and a goat on a log. . . .

As a panda in a blouse, a skunk on a trunk, and more hop on board, it becomes clear that what this story really needs is a bigger boat Join Pig on an exciting boat ride as she discovers that life is more fun with friends in this fantastic funny read-aloud with cumulative text from author-illustrator Emma J. Virján.

Note: Central Texans! Join Emma in launching the book at 3 p.m. May 16 at BookPeople in Austin.

See also Interview: Author-Illustrator-Designer Emma J. Virján from Cynsations. Peek: "Community plays a huge, supportive role. I'm fortunate to live in Austin, where there is a fantastic, loving, talented kid lit community. I'm also a member of the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels and The Girllustrators."



More News & Giveaways

The Emotional Wounds Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Whatever the wound, the result is an all-consuming fear that if the character does not protect himself, this situation (and resulting emotional pain) will happen again." See also How to Uncover Your Character's Emotional Wound by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers.

Meeting People on Twitter: Hanging Out & Getting Found by Annie Neugebauer from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...if you’re newer and/or interested in broadening your following, the most sure-fire way to get discovered is to find others and engage with them."

Turning Prisons into Reading Centers by Deborah Jiang-Stein from CBC Diversity. Peek: "A baby’s early experiences shape his or her brain’s architecture, building either a strong or a fragile foundation for life, learning, and health. Adverse early experiences and deprivation can impact a baby’s brain development for an entire lifetime, and positive learning experiences can set the path for self-esteem and possibility."

Author Alicia Potter & Miss Hazeltine's Home for Shy and Fearful Cats by Adi Rule from VCFA Launchpad. Peek: "I had kittens who stayed under the bed for two weeks, kittens who’d run and hide whenever I moved, and one who growled the entire time he was eating. But their metamorphosis was so gratifying and poignant to me."

What Are The Great Children's Literature Writing Retreats? by Elizabeth Bird from A Fuse #8 Production. Peek: "...when I say “writing retreats” I mean places where authors, incipient and otherwise, pay a fixed amount to be inspired, edited, or taught by a knowledgeable staff. Bonus points if there’s pretty scenery. Extra added bonus points if you get good food." See also Elizabeth on In Search of the Elusive Lesbian Mom.

What Are You? by Christian Trimmer from CBC Diversity. Peek: "With nine million Americans identifying as more than one race, with one in every seven marriages being between spouses of a different race or ethnicity, and with the number of mixed-race babies soaring, the demand for more of these stories is growing."

New Literary Agent: Noah Ballard of Curtis Brown Ltd. in NYC from Writer's Digest. Peek: "Noah mainly represents books geared toward adults, but is open to YA and middle grade that breaks the mold."

Are They LGBTQIA? Let Your Characters Tell You by Karen Sandler from Gay YA. Peek: "I have yet to write a “gay character” during that initial process. Why not? Because I don’t know them that well. Most people don’t walk up to total strangers and blurt out, “So, are you gay, or straight?” I have to get to know my characters as I write my book just as I become acquainted with an actual person in real life."

When Life Imitates Art...Or What Hurricane Irene Taught Me by Tamara Ellis Smith from Emu's Debuts. Peek: "Am I more suited to tell a story about flood victims because I have experienced a flood? Yes. Am I still a middle class woman who could borrow money from my family when I lost so much in that flood? Yes."

Writing After Major Losses by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "I had symptoms of 'writer’s burn-out': by-products of prolonged stress. It can be treated. Each symptom stifles a writer’s creativity in a specific way and needs a specific remedy."

Children's & YA Book Awards

2015 Jane Addams Book Awards: Winners & Honorees by the Jane Addams Peace Association from Mitali Perkins at Mitali's Fire Escape. Note: special congrats to pals Duncan Tonatiuh and Deborah Wiles.

The 2015 International Latino Book Awards Finalists from Latin@s in Kidlit. Peek: " The Awards are produced by Latino Literacy Now, an organization co-founded by Edward James Olmos and Kirk Whisler, and co-presented by Las Comadres para las Americas and Reforma, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos. The Awards themselves will be June 27 in San Francisco as part of the ALA Conference."

Cynsational Giveaways


The winner of Valiant by Sarah McGuire (Egmont/Lerner, 2015) is Donna in California.

See also Interview & Giveaway: W. Nikola-Lisa's The Men Who Made The Yankees (Winner of the SPARK Award) by Lee Wind from The Official SCBWI Blog. Peek: "Before the crash of 2008, I had published 21 trade children's books over a 25 year period. ...everything stood still. ...mid-career authors; they're not always first in line: they often have to stand in line behind new talent, marquee authors, and celebrities."

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Austin's own Cate Berry has been admitted to the VCFA Writing for Children & YAs program.

Quiet but busy week! I finished my fourth round of packet grading for VCFA and began catching up on correspondence, blogging and event preparation. As you can see from my schedule below, it's going to be a summer jam packed with travel, teaching and speaking!

Personal Links

Cover Reveal!

Cynsational Events

We Need Diverse Books YA Author Panel, moderated by Cynthia, will take place at 1 p.m. May 17 at BookPeople in Austin. Peek: "After the public event, the authors will host a writing workshop at BookPeople. Space for the workshop is limited." RSVP ASAP.


Join Cynthia at 11 a.m. May 30 in conjunction with the YA Book Club at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Cynthia will serve as the master class faculty member from June 19 to June 21 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. June 28 on an Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) program--"We Need Diverse Books: How to Move from Talk to Action Panel"--at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.
Learn more!
Cynthia will teach on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts from July 8 to July 19.

Join Cynthia from July 30 to Aug. 2 at GeekyCon in Orlando, Florida. See more information.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will lead a YA Writing Retreat for A Room of Her Own Foundation from Aug. 10 to Aug. 16 at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Cynthia will lead a breakout session on "Diversity in Children's and YA Literature" Aug. 22 at East Texas Book Fest at the Harvey Hall Convention Center in Tyler, Texas.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 29 at Richardson Public Library in Richardson, Texas.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Jumpstart and Candlewick Press Partner to Celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Jumpstart’s Read for the Record®

From Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

National Early Education Organization and Children’s Book Publisher Join Global Movement to Shine a Spotlight on the Importance of High-Quality Early Learning with 2015 campaign book Not Norman: A Goldfish Story

Jumpstart, a national early education non-profit organization, and Candlewick Press, an independent children’s publisher, have announced their partnership in honor of the 10th anniversary of Jumpstart’s Read for the Record, a global campaign that generates public support for high-quality early learning and highlights the importance of building children’s vocabulary and love for reading.
On Oct. 22, children and adults worldwide will take action by participating in the world’s largest shared reading experience, known as Jumpstart’s Read for the Record. Since 2006, the campaign has mobilized over 14.5 million people and has kept the world reading record for the most people reading the same book on the same day.

Each year, Jumpstart selects one children’s book as the catalyst for Read for the Record to bring together schools, libraries, communities, and businesses. Jumpstart is honored to embark on a new partnership with Candlewick Press and is proud to announce that award-winning picture book, Not Norman: A Goldfish Story by Kelly Bennett, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones, has been selected as this year’s campaign book.

Jumpstart President & CEO, Naila Bolus, quotes, “During the first years of life, children from low-income communities hear roughly 30 million less words than their more affluent peers. Jumpstart is working alongside Candlewick Press to combat this word gap and increase every child’s vocabulary and love for reading and learning.” Bolus continues, “We could not be happier to celebrate this momentous 10th year with our partners at Candlewick Press and look forward to making Oct. 22, 2015 a day to be remembered.”

Special edition copies of Not Norman: A Goldfish Story will be available through the Jumpstart website at readfortherecord.org. Each special edition features reading tips, vocabulary words, and extension activities provided by Jumpstart’s team of early education experts. Not Norman: A Goldfish Story will be available in both English and Spanish and pre-orders of the special edition are available now.

Karen Lotz, President and Publisher of Candlewick Press, says, “We are thrilled to partner with Jumpstart in this challenge to bring attention to children’s literacy issues and to connect with readers around the world in a global reading of Not Norman. The 10th anniversary of Jumpstart’s Read for the Record is a time to celebrate all that the campaign has accomplished, and to look ahead to its future successes. Candlewick is especially proud to join forces with Jumpstart for this landmark year, as Not Norman also celebrates its 10th anniversary.”

To learn more, register for the campaign, and to pre-order your copy of Not Norman: A Goldfish Story, visit readfortherecord.org.

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Kelly Bennett; see also Kelly on That Last Revision

About Jumpstart

Jumpstart is a national early education organization working toward the day every child in America enters kindergarten prepared to succeed. Jumpstart provides language, literacy, and social-emotional programming for preschool children from under-resourced communities and promotes quality early learning for all children. By participating in Jumpstart’s year-long program, children develop the language and literacy skills they need to be ready for school, setting them on a path for lifelong success. Since 1993, Jumpstart has trained 36,000 college students and community volunteers to transform the lives of 76,000 preschool children nationwide. Follow @Jumpstartkids on Twitter.

About Candlewick Press

Candlewick Press is an independent, employee-owned publisher based in Somerville, Massachusetts. For over twenty years, Candlewick has published outstanding children’s books for readers of all ages, including books by award-winning authors and illustrators. Candlewick is part of the Walker Books Group, together with Walker Books U.K. in London and Walker Books Australia, based in Sydney and Auckland.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

New Voice & Giveaway: Maggie Lehrman on The Cost of All Things

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maggie Lehrman is the first-time author of The Cost of All Things (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2015). From the promotional copy:

What would you pay to cure your heartbreak?

Banish your sadness?

Transform your looks?

The right spell can fix anything…

When Ari’s boyfriend Win dies, she gets a spell to erase all memory of him. But spells come at a cost, and this one sets off a chain of events that reveal the hidden — and sometimes dangerous — connections between Ari, her friends, and the boyfriend she can no longer remember.

Told from four different points of view, this original and affecting novel weaves past and present in a suspenseful narrative that unveils the truth behind a terrible tragedy. Part love story, part mystery, part high-stakes drama, The Cost of All Things is the debut of an extraordinary new talent.

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

When I started writing The Cost of All Things (way before it had a title, even), the only thing I knew was that Ari had chosen to forget her boyfriend Win, who had died. I wrote nearly a hundred pages from just her point of view as she attempted to navigate the world without part of her memory.

Then I started my final semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts with Tim Wynne-Jones as my advisor.

Tim took a look at this 100 pages and got very concerned. How could I convey anything about Win, about Ari herself, if she doesn't actually remember him? How is the reader supposed to understand this world or connect to the characters?

I knew Tim was right, but I didn't know what to do about it. Switch to an omniscient third person? Start the story earlier?

Give up, cry, take a nap?

So I put the story aside for a year as I worked on other things, and when I came back to it, I started thinking about the other people in this world, and how they would be affected by Win's death.

Partly just for me, I wrote in other voices, basically starting the story over from the beginning. And as the other characters' wants and needs came into focus, I knew their stories were an important part of Ari's, even though she might not know it (yet). The interconnectedness of these characters became a driving force of the book. How does one person's actions affect the others? What do they uncover, the closer they get?

At an early point, there were as many as seven or eight points of view. But I fairly quickly narrowed it down to the four in the book: Ari, Markos, Kay, and Win, all in first person.

I've read interviews with Jandy Nelson where she talked about how she wrote the absolutely brilliant I'll Give You the Sun (Dial, 2014), which has two first-person narrators: she drafted straight through with one voice, and then straight through with the other, interspersing them later.

I couldn't do exactly that, as these four stories were meant to ping off of each other and loop around, but I did find myself going on a run of three-to-four Markos chapters in a row, and then catching up with a handful of Ari or Kay chapters, and then a whole mess of Win scenes. (Win was easier to write straight through because his chapters were all, by necessity, flashbacks.)

This meant I had a big jumble of scenes and plots in no particular order, which led to a lot of sorting and finessing after the first couple of drafts. Hence the Big Plot Wall, or what was affectionately known in my apartment as the Serial Killer Wall, named after the obsessive charts you see on TV in the homes of serial killers and those who hunt them.

The Big Plot Wall
Each of the four characters' stories are so personal, and they're each so blinded by their own perspective (at least in the beginning) that first person always made the most sense to me. They deal with pain in different ways, which I found I could express in first directly -- as well as show how much of the story was about who knew what secrets when.

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

Tumblr & Twitter
My glimpse of this world began very small, with Ari and the spell she chose to take to forget Win.

I like to understand the characters before I do any larger-scale thinking about themes, or I can get bogged down with expressing ideas instead of exploring human behavior.

I completely understood why one girl would choose to eliminate the source of her pain -- isn't there something we all wish we could forget? -- and that moment of empathy made me want to know more about Ari and what happened to her. And so I had to dig in to the glimpse and expand it beyond Ari.

If Ari can take this spell, what else is true about this world? How does the magic work? What are its costs?

Once I started thinking about those questions -- how spells were made and taken and paid for, what the consequences would be, who took spells and why -- I started to see the types of parallels you could make to the real world: spells were shortcuts, a way to avoid moments or situations that might be difficult or painful. They gave you what you wanted, but what you wanted isn't always what you needed. There were parallels to performance-enhancing and recreational drugs, cheating, plastic surgery, and more.

This is not to say that using spells was always a bad idea; like in the real world with medical decisions or pain relievers or other important means of self-care, sometimes a spell could be a healthy choice. Hekame (what I called the practice of magic in this world) wasn't good or bad on its own, but could be used for good or bad based on the decisions of the characters. And it always has consequences.

As a side note, for a fascinating and very different way of looking at some of the same questions, especially when it comes to memory, I'd check out the excellent More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (Soho Teen, 2015). Part of the reason I love fantasy/science fiction (as it is in Adam's case) is that writers can answer similar questions in totally different ways.

I've always been fascinated by the way fantasy heightens and reflects the real world. Ursula K. LeGuin said that fantasy stories "work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter."

Hekame was a way for me to talk about choices and consequences, things we in the real world have to face constantly, without having to name each of the parallels. There's room for the reader to fill in their own experience and intuition.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligibility: continental U.S.

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