Saturday, April 14, 2012

Videos: "I Read Big Books" & "Why Does the World Need Librarians?"

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

I Read Big Books, a Reading Awareness music video by Dowell Middle School in McKinney, Texas. Source: James Blasingame.

Why Does the World Need Librarians? Check out this video. Source: YA Books & More.

Emma Dilemma's Book Trailer & Giveaway

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations 

Surf over and enter to win the Emma Dilemma's Giveaway from Kristine O'Connell George! Prizes include a signed first edition, a gorgeous pink hat, a lavender maribou boa, a stunning, sparkly rock (like the one in the book) and more. Deadline: 8 p.m. PST May 10. Ages: 18 and up. Eligibility: U.S. only. See more information.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more about Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems by Kristine O'Connell George, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Clarion), winner of the Claudia Lewis Award from Bank Street for best poetry book of the year.

Claudia Lewis Poetry Award Teaching Toolbox: free resources for sharing award-winning poetry books with young people.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Indies Choice YA Book Award Winner
Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Winners of the Indies Choice and E.B. White Read-Aloud Winners Announced from the American Booksellers Association. Peek: "All of the Indies Choice and E.B. White winners and honor recipients are being invited to the Celebration of Bookselling Author Awards Luncheon on Tuesday, June 5, at BookExpo America."

On Top of the Hen House -- Meet My Agent by Carmen Oliver from Following My Dreams...One Word at a Time. Peek: "...she wasn't exactly connecting with the main character. Hold everything. That's huge!" Note: feeling stuck? Do a careful read of Carmen's feedback and revision process.

Día Initiative Extends Its Literacy Outreach by Sally Lodge from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "(Pat) Mora decided to combine the idea of honoring children with literacy advocacy, a subject she is passionate about. She created Día, now a year-long, family literacy initiative based at the ALA’s Association of Library Services to Children."

Calling all cats! Model call! Send author-illustrator Ruth Sanderson a few photos of your cat - action is best - no more than three - and she might make him/her one of the cat characters in A Castleful of Cats (Random House, 2013). Be sure to include your cat's name, as Ruth will mention all the models on the dedication page. You'll also receive a free signed book, if she features your cat. Email photos to ruth at ruthsanderson dot com.

Editor Week for a Non-N.Y.C. Literary Agent by Mandy Hubbard from Pub(lishing) Crawl. Peek: "At almost every conference, authors want to know: does it matter if an agent is based outside of New York? Are New York agents better, more connected, more… something?"

2012 RITA Nominee
2012 RITA Nominees for Best Young Adult Romance from YA Fresh. Note: a list.

Point of View in Queries by Mary Kole from Peek: " should discuss your plot and characters, and then introduce yourself and do your breezy sign-off in the first person." See also Mary on Biographical Information in a Query.

Cynsational Author-Blogger Tip: ask yourself, "What is the reader takeaway? How can the information I'm sharing apply to someone else's life/art/dreams?" Not every post will be a grand-slam, but just being more aware of readers will increase the odds of attracting/satisfying them.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Writing Middle Grade and Were Willing to Ask, featuring editor Molly O'Neill, from Dystel & Goderich. Peek: "...the best books, even when they’re not deal with the end of the world or magic, aren’t really 'quiet.' They may be a smaller story, with very real, relatable stakes. But if the story is constructed well, and the voice is strong, the writer can make us care very much what happens in these more everyday struggles." Source: April Henry.

Defining Genre: The Problem with "Dystopian Romance" as a Label by Phoebe North from Intergalactic Academy. Peek: "Will women who write YA sci-fi have to try twice as hard to justify their genre credentials? Will they have to squeeze in an explosion to counterbalance every kiss lest their work not be seen as worthy of meriting intergender appeal?" See also On the Rights of Reading and Girls and Boys by Hilary Rappaport from The Horn Book.

Highlights Founders Workshops: A Novel Experience by Janet Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: "There was plenty of time between one-on-one consults and group workshops for participants to work in their cabins or to walk in the gorgeous countryside or to socialize. The TA’s were given time to be available for consults and evenings were for the most part free." See also Interview: the Highlights Foundation and Patricia Lee Gauch from Cynsations.

Recommended by CBC
What a Small World: a bibliography of recommendations from the Children's Book Council. Note: Highlighting books that showcase cultural diversity. Course: CBC Diversity.

In Honor of Beverly Cleary's 96th Birthday by Jodi Chromey from BookRiot. Note: required reading.

A Thrilling Fantasy with Roots in Real Life: An Interview with R.L. LaFevers by Heather Seggel from BookPage. Peek: "While you won’t find assassin nuns in any history book, Ismae’s job takes her to Brittany and Duchess Anne, who really did rule the region at the ripe old age of 12. That the characters in this story are teens is entirely faithful to the roles they occupied in society, “doing really big, important, cool things” as military and political leaders."

Procrastination Means You Won't Get Things Done by Melissa Wyatt from And if I come to ledges... Peek: "There are plenty of other writers out there who are writing and getting things done. So if you want to be one of those people, you must do this on your own. There is simply no way around this."

Taming the Dreaded Synopsis by Jane Lebak from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "...the synopsis is primarily a selling tool. It will give a quick overview of your entire novel from soup to nuts, proving to the agents and editors that you understand story structure, that your story has both a plot arc and a character arc, and that you know how to pull together a satisfying ending."

You Mean I've Got to Write Another One? by Sarah Davies from The Greenhouse Literary Agency. Peek: "You may have put months, if not years, into that first book; if you write another you could be on a much tighter deadline and under contract. All of which means the stakes can suddenly feel a whole lot higher."

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of a signed advanced reader copy of The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin (Razorbill, 2012) and some sinister sweet swag is Jackie in Maryland!

Enter to win one of two Robot Zombie Frankenstein! prize packages.

Each includes: a signed book, plus build-a-bot foam stickers, robot chest panel iron-ons, and other kid-sized story-related bling: a Robot Zombie Frankenstein mini-notebook; a Robot Zombie Frankenstein pirate hat, eye patch and hook; a Robot Zombie Frankenstein pirate superhero-in-disguise disguise; Robot Zombie Frankenstein pirate superhero-in-disguise outer space invader glow-in-the-dark stars; and a Robot Zombie Frankenstein pirate superhero-in-disguise outer space invader chef hat and apron.

To enter, comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with "Robot Zombie Frankenstein!" in the subject line. Author-illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: 11:59 CST April 23.

Note: Robot Zombie Frankenstein (Candlewick, 2012) is a spring Indiebound Kids' Next Pick.

Last call! Enter for a chance to win Angel Burn and Angel Fire, both by L.A. Weatherly (Candlewick, 2012). To enter, comment on this post (click immediately previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Angel Burn & Angel Fire" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: midnight CST April 16.

Last call! Enter to win a signed copy of  A Million Suns by Beth Revis (Razorbill, 2012)! To enter, comment on this post (click immediately previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Million Suns" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only. Deadline: midnight CST April 17.

Enter to win Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems by Kate Coombs, illustrated by Meilo So (Chronicle, 2012) from Book Aunt in conjunction with ReaderKidz. To enter, write a haiku "about an ocean animal or some other maritime topic" and share it as a comment in this post (click immediately previous link and scroll); be sure to leave contact information and/or check back. Winner will be chosen and announced at the end of April. See also an interview with Kate and A Letter to Readers by Kate from ReaderKidz.

This Week at Cynsations
More Personally

Great news! Cynsations welcomes Christopher Cheng as a new international reporter, covering Australia, New Zealand and Asia! See details.

On a related note, the SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is now posted in its entirety here at Cynsations. Highlights include interviews with author Christopher Cheng, author-app creator Sarah Towle, author-illustrators Barbara McClintock, John ShelleyPaul O. Zelinsky, Bruce Degen, marketing consultant Susan Raab, and agent Erzsi Deak, among others. Special thanks to all the contributors, especially Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

At LBJ State Park by Jeanette Larson.

I received a lovely note informing me that Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) has received the 12 annual St. Mary's Book Award from St. Mary's International School in Tokyo. The librarian says: "Thank you for creating books that boys love to read. We truly love Holler Loudly here in Japan."

What else? Baby Earth in Round Rock, Texas will kick off storytime on April 26 with Holler Loudly!

A souvenir from children's-YA author Bethany Hegedus's recent wedding.

This tabletop decoration is a book bouquet made out of novels by fellow Austin children's-YA authors. Looking for a Central Texas venue for your celebration, workshop, or writers' retreat? Or just a lovely place to stay in South Austin? Check out The Writing Barn.

About Greg

The possibilities are limitless...

Huge congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith on the sale of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn to Roaring Brook Press!

From Publishers Lunch: Greg Leitich Smith's "Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn," about three friends at a motel in Cocoa Beach, Florida, after a manned space launch at Kennedy Space Center is scrubbed due to the appearance of a UFO over Cape Canaveral, to Deirdre Langeland at Roaring Brook Press, for publication in fall 2013, by Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown (world English).

Congratulations also to Greg, whose newly published novel, Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012), is a Junior Library Guild Selection.

Personal Links:
From Greg Leitich Smith:
Cynsational Events

Cynthia will appear at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference:
  • April 18: 1 p.m. to 1:50 p.m. "Connecting Teens and Authors: Teen Book Festivals and Awesome Author Visits." 
  • April 18: 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. signing in the author area. 
  • April 19: 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. signing in the Permabound booth #1529.
  • April 20: 8 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. "Introducing the Spirit of Texas Reading Programs." 
Note: Greg Leitich Smith also will be signing in the author area from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. April 18.

See YART's list of authors signing at the conference (PDF). See also Austin authors-illustrators at TLA.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear at A Festival of Authors, in celebration of 100 Years of School Libraries in Austin, which will take place from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. May 12 at Reagan High School in Northeast Austin.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear June 30 at Bastop Public Library in Bastrop, Texas.

Interested in taking a class with Cynthia this summer?
More about the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrel at TLA!

Interview: the Highlights Foundation & Patricia Lee Gauch

Patti (left) in session.
By the Highlights Foundation
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

For twenty-seven years the Highlights Foundation held a writers workshop on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, N.Y. 

Memories were made, friendships were forged, and, most importantly for the Foundation, writers gained the skills they needed to create meaningful children's literature. 

Long time editor and award winning author, Patricia Lee Gauch was a faithful presence at the Chautauqua workshop and will help the Highlights Foundation make the leap this summer from Chautauqua to three week-long workshops. 

These workshops will offer the same variety of courses Chautauqua was known for, but now held at the Foundation's brand new facility, nestled in the picturesque Pocono Mountains.

Here, Patti shares some successes from past Chautauqua Workshops and her hopes for the new workshops this summer.

The Highlights Foundation has been working with writers and illustrators for nearly 30 years. What is your history with the Highlights Foundation? 

Kent Brown happened to hear me speak at an International Reading Association conference.

I think I shared the podium that day with the author of Seventeenth Summer, Maureen Daly. I loved that book which only proves that my love for the young adult genre really began in my own teen years. I think there was something about my philosophy of education - individualistic - that Kent liked. Maybe my energy, too.

So he invited me for a one-visit stint at the writing-for-children conference at Chautauqua. I loved all of it, teaching outside under the trees, teaching one on one - the conferees are so enthusiastic, so dedicated, and often so talented. I probably gave it my all, and was invited back for another year. And another.

I have always loved the thought process that goes into a good speech, some topics a little off beat but crucial, and I like to give good up-beat, sure-you-can-do-it speeches, so in time I began to give one of the two morning lectures at the conference. Lectures like: "Sassy Is as Sassy Does," which took a good look at the wonderfully feisty heroes and heroines that create our children's literature.

I became a regular faculty member, and began working a weekend a year at Founders (Boyds Mills) in Pennsylvania, too. At the base of my dedication to the writing programs at Chautauqua and now at Boyds Mills, though, is my immense respect for the basic philosophy of the Highlights tradition.

It is child-oriented, reading oriented. Kent Brown programs want fine writers, because they want to create literature that will affect and enhance the life of young readers, perhaps bring them to a new place. Maybe a better place. I like the standards Kent Brown sets, and I like to hold out for the best in writers, too.

Magazine writer lesson

Many attendees of the Chautauqua Writers Workshop share that the week transformed their writing. Can you share a specific success from your time on faculty at Chautauqua?

I can. I am not sure if we can ever count someone else's success as our (teacher or editor's) success. Not really. For example, there was this handsome young woman who would stand at the back of the auditorium at Chautauqua at our morning speeches; she seemed interested. I don't know that I ever spoke to her, but I saw her there for two, perhaps three, summer conferences.

She turned out to be Sharon Creech; the book that we eventually saw at Chautauqua was Walk Two Moons (HarperCollins, 1994).

Can any of us claim success? No, not really. Sharon is immensely talented. Maybe something we said connected with something she was already trying to figure out. That's good enough for me.

I met Kathy Erskine at three different venues, once at a Washington, D.C. writers' program, once at Chautauqua, and once at the Founders farm in Honesdale for one of those lovely weekend programs on "The Heart of a Novel." But when her manuscript was sent to me at Philomel, even though I had heard she was going to send it, I didn't recognize her or it!

I accepted the manuscript simply because I liked it. I felt this writer had promise. Then I discovered it was the Kathy I knew and had worked with. She won the National Book Award for Mockingbird (Philomel) in 2010, but can I count that a success? Not really. She became a writer on her own.

I am fascinated by the internal energy and movement of a novel; I like to read from the best books, books like Jerry Spinelli's and Kate DiCamillo's, always looking for the best models. I like to share these good models.

But whether a writer turns into a published writer is more truly up to that writer: how he or she listens, what he or she understands, what least-traveled-roads she or he travels to get to their story. The credit becomes theirs.

Moving from the week-long writers workshop at Chautauqua to the week-long Fiction Writing for Children and Young Adults workshop in Honesdale will certainly be a change for both faculty and guests. How do you feel this change will impact writers who choose to join you for this brand new workshop? Faculty?

I loved Chautauqua, every tree and bell and bat of it. I loved what came out of it.

The Barn
But writers look so closely at their world. How could they not see the beauty in the meadows and woods and Barn of Boyds Mills.

There are glorious sunsets; sometimes cows come straggling through the property (lost); once we had a surprise autumn snow. The snow fell in patterns around the big wooden barn, and made lovely pictures as we looked out the huge panes windows.

The food is unquestionably better. Marsha (Dunlop), a CIA graduate, not only feeding us, but nurturing us with creative menus that make us ooh and ahhh.

Perhaps most important, though, the new Masters workshops - and I know newcomers are welcome, too - give writers real time to reflect on what the speakers and mentors say individually to them, and in this venue they will have an opportunity to revise and show it to their mentor. Hurrah!

It was something I always wanted more of. It is a writers' week of the truest sort. Would we call it "total immersion" the most writerly way.

As for the faculty? Kent has found a way for the Chautauqua regulars to overlap. I will overlap Joy Cowley's week; she and Peter Jacobi will overlap my week (the Young Readers and Young Adult Fiction).

What's more there are some new faculty coming, like the wonderful artist and writer Robert "Rob" J. Blake, with whom I worked for twenty three years producing books like Togo (Philomel, 2002), winner of The Texas Bluebonnet Award.

What do I think of the new plan: I think it is going to be great. Tell your friends. The week is a life changer.

Dining room.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?

Aren't editors suppose to condense and simplify?

In my enthusiasm for my subject, I have gone on and on.

The master classes, including Joy Cowley's, imitate the Chautauqua schedule, expanding to include major New York editors and agents. How can that be anything but great?

And there is that time-to-write feature which allows the writers to make practical what they are hearing, and allows the faculty to follow up and follow through.

I suspect since the place itself is like a cozy homestead, everyone will get to know each other better, and everyone knows how much this publication business thrives on "who do you know."

The answer in this case: is, if you are faculty, thirty promising new writers.

In the case of the attending writers, ten to fifteen professionals straight from the New York (and beyond) scene! Just a great opportunity, if I do say so.

Cynsational Notes

Former vice president and editor at large of Philomel Books, Patricia Lee Gauch is now a full-time writer and lecturer.

She has authored more than 40 picture books and novels for young readers, including the highly acclaimed Thunder at Gettysburg; This Time, Tempe Wick?; and Christina Katerina and the Box.

Her most recent title, The Knitting of Elizabeth Amelia, was published in fall 2009.

Patricia holds a doctorate in English literature and has taught children’s literature on the college level and reviewed for the New York Times.

Patricia has edited three Caldecott books, including Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr and So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George and David Small. She has worked with many well-known authors and artists, including Eric Carle, Patricia Polacco, Brian Jacques, Andrew Clements, T.A. Barron, and Loren Long.

Learn more about the Highlights Foundation.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

New Voice: Lizzie K. Foley on Remarkable

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations 

Lizzie K. Foley is the first-time author of Remarkable (Dial, 2012). From the promotional copy:

A wonderfully whimsical debut that proves ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

In the mountain town of Remarkable, everyone is extraordinarily talented, extraordinarily gifted, or just plain extraordinary. 

Everyone, that is, except Jane Doe, the most average ten-year-old who ever lived. But everything changes when the mischievous, downright criminal Grimlet twins enroll in Jane's school and a strange pirate captain appears in town.

Thus begins a series of adventures that put some of Remarkable's most infamous inhabitants and their long-held secrets in danger. It's up to Jane, in her own modest style, to come to the rescue and prove that she is capable of some rather exceptional things.

With a page-turning mystery and larger-than-life cast of characters, Lizzie K. Foley's debut is nothing short of remarkable.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you're debuting this year? 

Here’s the deep dark secret about me. I was not a reader as a young kid.

I didn’t learn to read until I was about 8 ½ years old. This may have been from an undiagnosed learning disability, it might have been from some type of issues with my eyesight, or it might have been from something else entirely.

Not being able to read meant that I got held back in kindergarten. And not being able to read meant I wanted nothing to do with books for a while – because I saw reading as a source of shame.

And this was astonishing to my family, which is full of academic-types like teachers, scientists, librarians, etc., who all read all the time.
Lizzy with her eye patch, age 5

But I was really lucky, because I had a grandmother who was an amazing elementary school teacher – and she figured out that the shame of not being able to read was going to be a bigger issue than whatever was keeping me from reading in the first place.

And because of her, my parents took an unusual approach to helping me overcome my inability to read. They just relaxed about it. They got me to relax about it. They let me discover books in whatever ways were comfortable. They took me to the library and let me have the run of it without pressuring me to look at anything. I spent a great deal of my library time playing with globes and watching library filmstrips. My older sister Nancy started reading out loud to me.

Gradually, I got interested in the stories – even if I still wasn’t interested in the books. So instead of reading, I starting playing “story,” which meant I took the characters from book, pretended to be them, and made up new adventures for them to be in.

And then, eventually, something in my brain changed and it changed fast. And I went from being not able to read to reading chapter books in about a week.

My long path from being a non-reader to a reader is a huge part of my debut novel. For starters, I think my inability to read was what first launched me on the road to being a writer. All of those hours I spent “playing story” taught me a lot about creating ways to try to entertain myself – which eventually led to the idea that I could create stories that entertained people other than myself (erm…whether I’ve succeeded in this remains to be seen).

Additionally, most of my protagonist’s struggles in the story – her feelings of inadequacy and insecurity – are taken straight out of my own childhood. One of the side effects of not being able to read as a kid is that I had (and still have) a very over-developed sense of all the ways in which I didn’t measure up to the people around me. And this sense of not measuring up was probably strongest when I compared myself to my sisters (who are both absolutely amazing human beings).

Imagining an ordinary girl in a family where she is the only unexceptional person – and who lives in a town where everyone is really quite remarkable – was not all that hard for me.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

Jane, my main character, came about because I went to listen to a lecture on children’s literature once, and during this lecture, I was told that main characters in children’s books needed to be really heroic and special and could never ever ever ever, without exception, be ordinary. Which – as an ordinary person – made me kind of mad.

So I decided that I would prove that lecturer wrong and write a story with an ordinary main character. But, you know, it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be – because every main character I thought of turned out to secretly be deeply exceptional.

And after a few attempts, I forgot all about it and went back to writing a story that I was absolutely certain was going to be wonderful and publishable – a book I now think of as “that story I was totally delusional about.”

Anyway, one day right after I finished a draft of that story I was totally delusional about, I suddenly had one of those moments of clarity where I could completely imagine the main character for my children’s book. It was a girl – a deeply ordinary girl – who was living in a town where everyone else was super special. And the town would be named Remarkable. And the girl would not discover some secret talent by the end of the story. Instead, she’d learn she liked being ordinary.

And because I am sometimes slow on the uptake, it took me a while to realize that the character I was writing about was me as a child.

 No one else was fooled though. Every time I told someone I was writing a book about a girl who was deeply ordinary and had no discernable talents, that person would inevitably say, “Oh, this is a story about you, isn’t it?” (and yes, it always stung just a little bit).
Lizzy & her "amazing" sisters

Anyway, after my experience of (slowly) realizing that Jane was me as a child, you’d think I might have been more prepared for what happened with the character of Mrs. Schnabel, who started off as just a minor character but suddenly developed into a major player in the story.

When I started Remarkable, Ms. Schnabel was just a warm body. Jane needed a teacher in her classroom, and the teacher needed a name, and the name I chose was Ms. Schnabel. But Ms. Schnabel would not behave. Instead of quietly disappearing into the background, she kept saying things. She hated being a teacher. She had dreams – big dreams – that she’d walked away from. She walked away from them because society (as embodied by her parents) expected her to do something with her life that was sensible and safe.

I could not figure out where these ideas were coming from, but they seemed interesting to me, and so I went ahead and decided to see where they’d take me. And where they took me was to a familiar place.

You see, I’d always struggled with the idea of being a writer. I’d wanted to for years and years. But I couldn’t quite dedicate myself to it, because what if I dedicated my life to writing and I failed at it? It was so awful to contemplate that I kept chickening out and doing “sensible” things instead, such as getting jobs with paychecks and going to graduate school.

Eventually, I convinced myself that my dream was to become an academic sociologist and teach women’s studies for living, which seemed like such a responsible and sensible dream to have. Except, um…er…well…it totally wasn’t my dream.

And so there I was, writing a character who didn’t want to be a teacher, but who wanted to live the wild and unpredictable life of her dreams – and eventually (remember, I’m slow on the uptake here), I started to realize that if Jane was me as a child, then Ms. Schnabel was me as an adult. 

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what's funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor?

Okay, here’s the thing about writing humor. It is really hard to tell the difference between what is funny and what is not funny but for some reason makes the person who wrote it laugh. Seriously.

Lizzie's workspace
My best advice for anyone who wants to write humor is to have very patient people who will listen to your writing and tell you if it is working or not.

And when I say listen to your writing, I actually mean listen. Don’t hand them a copy of your work and have them read it to themselves. Read it out loud to them and listen for their response. If it’s funny, you’ll know it from their reaction. They will smile, they will chuckle, they will nod their heads and signal their enjoyment in a million subtle ways. The air in the room will feel friendly and happy.

If what you wrote isn’t funny, you’ll feel and hear the dead air, and you’ll know you have more work to do.

I have been lucky – extremely lucky – to be part of two writing groups where reading out loud is how we share our work with each other (as opposed to sending out the work beforehand and having people critique it on paper before meeting as a group).

I am sure the critiquing-on-paper method has many good aspects to it, but I really can’t extol the virtues of reading to a group enough. Listening to people hear your writing for the first time, and then picking up the cues from their reactions is an amazing way of getting feedback.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them? 

Matthew and Lizzie
My search for an agent started with a round of good old-fashioned query letters. Well, they were query emails, actually, because I am lazy, hate going to the post office, and I’m always out of stamps.

I know there are people who say that queries never work unless you have connections in publishing, but don’t believe them. They do. Most of the people I know who are agented met their agents through the query process. And most people I know who got agents have high pain thresholds, because querying means facing rejection, and rejection hurts.

Writers who let these rejections devastate them to the point where they are afraid to send more queries out are much less likely to get agents than writers who suck it up and keep sending them.

And I know this is simple math and it’s not something I need to say, except that I don’t think it can be said enough. If your writing is ready, then don’t take rejection personally. Persist.

Of course, timing plays a role in the query process too – and while timing isn’t a factor you can control, it doesn’t mean they will always work against you.

Through sheer dumb luck, my timing on submitting Remarkable was pretty good. It was during a summer in which publishers were telling agents they’d be acquiring more middle grade fiction in the fall, and so middle grade fiction was something a lot of agents were looking for.

So, for the first time ever in a long history of querying projects, I got requests for partials and fulls. Of course, the agents who requested my full manuscript quite often didn’t want it after they’d read it.

This was hard, because while I’d grow accustomed to having my query letter rejected, having my actual manuscript rejected hurt in all new ways. Some of the rejections were nice (“sorry, this isn’t my cup of tea”) and some of them weren’t (“I thought this story would be good, but it wasn’t at all. I should probably go get therapy now to help me clear my mind of the stench that is your lack of talent…").

Robbie and Lizzy
But after a while, I did get an offer, which was exciting. And this led to several more offers. And eventually, I chose Faye Bender as my agent because she is a) awesome; b) came highly recommended by a friend’s agent; and c) was the agent I felt most connected to and comfortable with.

It was a great choice. I adore Faye, and I am grateful to her every day. But as an aside here, and I think it is important aside, I really, really encourage people to submit to multiple agents at once. None of the agents who offered were upset or put out that I had additional offers to choose from.

In fact, every single one of them encouraged me to notify the other agents who were considering my work in case any of these other agents wanted to offer.

And all of them encouraged me to take my time, ask as many questions as I wanted and to make sure I found an agent that I really, really wanted to work with (and I did!).

Cynsational Notes

Lizzie K. Foley has an M.A. in education from Harvard University and has taught women's studies at Northeastern University. She has also worked in story development in the film industry in L.A. She currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband and son and four poorly trained dogs.


Book Trailer: Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to author Nathan Bransford and illustrator Christopher S. Jennings, an Austinite, on the release of Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe (Dial, 2012)!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Guest Post: Margie Gelbwasser on Write What You Know...Except When You Don't

By Margie Gelbwasser
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

As a writer of YA contemporary fiction, I'm often asked if my stories mirror my own teenage experiences.

No matter how many times this question comes up (and it's a lot), my response is often stated in the same tone: apologetic.

I know the answer people want, and a part of me wishes I could give it to them.

Another part of me wants puff my chest out and exclaim, “I made it all up. Yes, all of it. My imagination is that good!”

This need to know?

I get it.

As a reader, when I connect to the characters or the story, I want to know more about it. I want to understand the plot and the characters' motives on a deeper level, find meaning in what the pages before me leave out.

As a writer, I know some things are not meant to be answered. As a writer, I may take a small incident that happened to me and expand it further. I may give it a different outcome.

Through my writing, I will try to find an answer to the things that puzzled me. But I try to keep fact and fiction very separate. I learned this the hard way.

My first novel was Inconvenient (Flux, 2010), and the final result was very different from the earliest draft.

The original story focused on three generations of one Russian-Jewish family. I tried to fictionalize my families' experiences, but it didn't work. Voices (and by that I mean my family) kept telling me I was writing them “wrong.”

Of course, I was! It was supposed to be fiction.

After a while, even when I stopped telling my family about the story, I couldn't write it anymore. There was a character that was too me, one that was too much my sister, others that were too similar to other family members. There were too many barriers, too much of a need to make things “right.”

The final version drew on the Russian-Jewish aspect and the culture, but that was it. The parents weren't mine, the protagonist had no siblings. Yes, some experiences (e.g. like discrimination the main character faced) mirrored my own, but it wasn't all me.

And still, my newest novel (Pieces of Us (Flux, 2012)), utilizes my own experiences even less.

Pieces of Us focuses on cyber-bullying, family relationships, and physical and sexual abuse. It draws on some of my high school and college experiences—like when a group of boys thought it would be funny to call me "whore"—but takes the incidents many steps further.

It addresses how technology can escalate bullying today. It addresses how one character's choices can affect the lives of three other teens.

Writing Pieces of Us was freeing. There were no voices telling me I was writing the “facts” incorrectly. There was no one to censor the outcome. I didn't question whether portraying a character one way or another would insult someone.

I know there will be many questions when the book comes out, like what possessed me to write such a dark story. I know many will wonder if any of the events happened to me. I know some will say I have no right to write about what I myself did not experience. But that's fine.

My goal is to be truthful in my writing.

As for what that means, opinions may differ, but I think I accomplish that.

Cynsational Notes

Margie Gelbwasser got her first shot at becoming an award-winning writer when she was seven years old. But her ten-page story about a kidnapped girl was beat by a three-page talking-strawberry tale from a fellow second grade student.

Margie kept her dream alive by editing her high school and college literary magazines – she earned a bachelor’s degree in English at The College of New Jersey and got her master's from William Paterson University – and freelance writing for "Self," "Ladies’ Home Journal" and "Girl’s Life."

Margie as Batgirl with her husband and son, both as Batman.
She debuted as a published novelist in 2010 with her young adult book about a Russian-Jewish girl with an alcoholic mom; Inconvenient was a 2011 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens.

Her second novel for teens, Pieces of Us is told in four points of view and hones in on the growing issue of cyber bullying, abuse, family relationships and how one teen’s actions affect the other three.

Born in the former Soviet Union in what is now known as Belarus, Margie came to America when she was three years old. She lived in Brooklyn as a child and throughout New Jersey in her adult life, settling in Fair Lawn with her husband and their superhero-firetruck-construction-dinosaur-loving five-year-old son.

When not writing and spending time with the family, Margie leads creative writing classes and programs for teens.

Find Margie at Twitter and facebook.

New Cynsations Reporter: Christopher Cheng

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

With more than 35 titles in traditional and digital formats, including picture books, non-fiction, historical fiction, a musical libretto and an animation storyline, Christopher Cheng is well experienced in Australian children's literature.

He conducts workshops and residences for children and adults and holds an M.A. in Children's Literature. He is a board member for the Asian Festival of Children's Content and on the International Advisory Board and co-regional advisor (Australia and New Zealand) for the SCBWI.

A recipient of the SCBWI Member of the Year and the Lady Cutler Award for services to children's literature, Chris is a devoted advocate of children's literature, speaking at festivals worldwide.

Christopher will be covering the children's-YA book scene in Australia, New Zealand and across Asia for Cynsations. Read an interview with Christopher.

Cynsational Notes

Check out this video celebrating the 2011 Asian Festival of Children's Content, which in part features Christopher. The 2012 AFCC will take place from May 26 to May 29. Source:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author Interview: Kathleen Ahrens

By Resham Premchand
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

As the International Regional Advisor Chair of SCBWI, what initiatives has you seen blossom over the years outside of the U.S.? 

Erzsi Deak started up international regions and became the SCBWI International Regional Advisor Chair (IRAC) in the early part of the last decade. She invited me to become a Regional Advisor for Taiwan in 2001. I later became her International Assistant Advisor (AIA) in 2005 and took over the role of IRAC in 2008 (and the fabulous Angela Cerrito is now the AIA).

Erzsi was instrumental in envisioning the role SCBWI should have in Bologna at the Book Fair and we've tried to continue to achieve her vision to expand SCBWI's presence at Bologna

I've also worked to expand SCBWI International's reach by co-sponsoring the Asian Festival of Children's Content, which is held in Singapore every May. This conference is a magnet for writers and illustrators in the greater Asian region.

In addition, we have approximately two dozen international regions holding great events around the world: the U.K., Australia & New Zealand, Tokyo, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Canada East and Canada West, France, Germany, Malaysia, Israel -- the list goes on and on.

You often go to the different events SCBWI organizes: New York, LA and Bologna. What do you think is the flavor of each of the events?

Since 2008, SCBWI International has organized a showcase for P.A.L. members at the Bologna Children's Book Fair every two years. Conferences were also organized at Bologna between 2004 and 2010, but this was dropped in 2012 due to the desire to focus solely on providing a space for authors and illustrators to showcase their works at the Bologna Fair.

Thus, Bologna differs markedly from the New York and L.A. conferences, where the focus is on attending workshops and improving one's craft. At Bologna, there are no workshops -- the focus is on highlighting publications from a region or from P.A.L. members and, thus, is a way for our P.A.L. members to promote themselves. You can check out for more info.

Taking into consideration your own multicultural background into account, what impact do you think bilingual books have on children, including third-culture kids?

Bilingual books let children know that language is not an either/or proposition. It validates their own experiences as bilingual speakers, and lets them know that it's normal and fun to use two languages. Also, seeing the languages contrasted side by side in a book allows them to see both the similarities and differences between languages, which is an important step in their cognitive development.

In your recent publication of bilingual books, Ears Hear and Numbers Do (both Sun Ya Press, 2012), what did you find most challenging?

Illustrated by Marjorie Van Heerden

These are texts for the very young, so we wanted to tell the story in as few words as possible to encourage multiple readings, as it is through multiple readings that a child's linguistic competence is developed as the brain scaffolds information from a previous reading onto the following reading.

It was a challenge to get the words to flow smoothly in both languages and at the same time to attain a heartfelt ending.

In an interview with RTHK, you recommended reading Celine by Brock Cole (FSG) and also mentioned that one of your favorite books is Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright (Square Fish). Both books are young adult books, coming of age books. This is also true of your own work, "Life Saving Secrets," nominated for the SCBWI Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award in 2005. Do you have a special place for them in your heart? Why? 

Celine is a brilliant novel that has so many levels to it -- on the surface it is the story of two children who feel abandoned by the adults in their lives, but at the same time, it is a story of hope and a story of love, even though that love is imperfect and never right and never enough -- it's still there.

Then There Were Five looked at from the lenses of "today may seem to good to be true" -- the five siblings are much nicer to each other than any sibling set I've ever seen, but at the same time, they still upset each other. They still are insensitive to each other's feelings and needs.

So you have to ask yourself: if even these kids hurt each other's feelings, it's no wonder I'm so upset by my own brother/sister, etc.

Both books really tap into the emotional lives of their characters, and that's what makes them so real for their readers.

On a personal note, how do you do it all – from being a linguistics professor, having a family with two growing boys, writing creatively and being part of SCBWI? Do you go without sleep?

I think there are a couple things to keep in mind -- the first is that I have had different priorities at different stages in my life. So in my twenties, my priority was my academic research, and in my thirties, my priority was raising my two children. Of course, I kept working and enjoyed my teaching and research greatly, but during that period of my life, if I had to choose between meeting the needs of my children and meeting my own professional needs, I put the children first.

Now, I'm in my 40s and my children are older so I have more time to devote to writing. And as regards the commitment SCBWI, I've never felt that it's a strain because it's a volunteer organization and everyone is willing to pitch in and also support each other. So, for example, if I can't manage to attend a conference, other RAs understand and help out.

However, keep in mind that the above story this is a sanitized, retrospective version of events -- it wasn't as neat as the story I laid out above. I actually started writing when I was pregnant with my first child and wrote throughout my thirties. It's just that now, in my forties, I'm paying more attention to my writing and to my goals related to writing. It's moving up in priority in my life.

In addition, the second really important thing to keep in mind is that I've asked for and received a lot of help along the way. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was in grad school came from a senior academic who reminded us that it was important to remember that our time is valuable. Thus, it was worthwhile to our careers to find someone to handle the chores that we didn't want to do ourselves.

May I ask what are you working on now?

I am currently working on two YA manuscripts: "Lifesaving Secrets" and "Virtual Love."

"Lifesaving" Secrets is about a teen who has to decide between the perfect guy and the half-sister she hates. This manuscript was previously nominated for the Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award, and it also received the Runner-Up Award for a SCBWI WIP Grant for a Contemporary Novel.

"Virtual Love" is about a teen girl geek who wouldn’t know true love if it hit her over the head, even though she spends all her time writing programs to create virtual relationships.

Then, the weekend a major computer program is due, three possible boyfriends present themselves and she has to quickly separate virtual love from the real thing.

Cynsational Notes

Kathleen Ahrens is Professor and Head of the Language Center at Hong Kong Baptist University. She received her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California, San Diego and has published extensively in academic journals on issues surrounding meaning and metaphor. She is also a writer and translator of children's books. She serves on the board of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators as the International Regional Advisor Chairperson.

She has been invited to talk in Taiwan, Italy, Germany, and Hong Kong on topics relating to language in publishing in the Chinese children's book market, children's picture books, picture book evaluation, and the creation of literature for children, and she recently served as a judge for the Fengzikai Picture Book Award for picture books published in Chinese. She has two co-authored picture books, titled Numbers Do and Ears Hear! coming out in 2012 from Sun Ya Press.

Resham Premchand is a keen life-long student of literature and enjoys playing with words. She is an active member of Hong Kong and Singapore SCWBI groups and enjoys learning from critique groups. Resham is primary school teacher and loves working with children!

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase.

Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

This post concludes the SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series. Highlights have included interviews with author Christopher Cheng, author-app creator Sarah Towle, author-illustrators Barbara McClintock, John ShelleyPaul O. Zelinsky, Bruce Degen, marketing consultant Susan Raab, and agent Erzsi Deak, among others.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Guest Post: Mara Rockliff on Writing the Longer Picture Book

By Mara Rockliff
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

How long should a picture book be?

Ten years ago, the answer was “under a thousand words.” Since then, the recommended length has shrunk to 750, then 500, then “as short as you can possibly make it—or shorter.”

Recently a post on the Verla Kay children’s writers and illustrators chatboard reported that one agent, speaking at a conference, said she hadn’t sold a picture book of more than 600 words in the past three years.

I’ve never sold a picture book under 600 words. My shortest picture book, The Busiest Street in Town (Knopf, 2009), is 619. My Heart Will Not Sit Down (Knopf, 2012) weighs in at a hefty 975. And I just signed a contract with Candlewick for a picture book manuscript of 1,450 words (including notes and sidebars).

There’s still a place for longer picture books. But that doesn’t mean just any picture book works well with lots of words. Longer picture books are longer for a reason. They have their own subject matter, audience, and style.

If you’re writing a longer picture book, here’s what you need to know:

1. Longer picture books are for older kids. Think ages 5 to 8. Characters tend to be older and have more sophisticated concerns. Eve Bunting’s One Green Apple (Clarion, 2006)(958 words) is a good example. The main character is at least nine or ten, and she is worried about fitting in to her new school, where the children dress differently from her and speak a different language.

If your story is about a mischievous kitten who won’t go to bed, your audience is younger—and probably your story should be shorter.

2. Longer picture books don’t ramble. Longer picture books are longer because there is more to say. The writing still needs to be tight, tight, tight, and the story must zip along. Every word counts.

Check out Michael Kaplan’s Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake (Dial, 2011)(1075 words). It’s long, but it doesn’t feel long. In fact, the text and illustrations are so lively that little kids also love this book—but only older kids (and grownups) really get the jokes.

3. Longer picture books still need to be great read-alouds. Yes, older kids know how to read. But there’s a good chance their teachers will read aloud your picture book in class, especially if it’s nonfiction or fiction that ties in to the curriculum. So it’s still important to think about sound and rhythm as you write.

Linda Arms White’s I Could Do That! Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote (FSG, 2005)(1460 words) is a terrific read-aloud. Without being babyish, the story uses rhythm and repetition (“I could do that!” Esther always says—and does!) to bring a piece of American history to life.

As with any format, the best way to get a feeling for how longer picture books are written is to read as many as you can. A few more suggestions:

Still worried that your book is running long? Consider pulling out some of the content for sidebars or an author’s note.

Also, remember that the illustrations tell the story too. Once those are done, you may find you’re able to trim.

With that in mind, write on…and on!

Cynsational Notes

Mara Rockliff's most recent picture book is My Heart Will Not Sit Down, which Booklist calls "a terrific choice for cross-curricular sharing and discussion."

She is also the author of Get Real: What Kind of World Are You Buying? (Running Press Teens) and the humorous chapter book series The Milo & Jazz Mysteries, which she writes under the pen name Lewis B. Montgomery.

The Work of a Community: Mara Rockliff Interview from Literary Friendships. Peek: "I think writing picture books is a little like building a cathedral. My name is on the front, and so is William’s. But really it’s the work of a community—writer, illustrator, agent, editor, designer, and other people I will never even meet—all collaborating to create something that none of us could have managed alone."
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