Friday, March 18, 2016

2016 SCBWI Bologna Author-Illustrator Interview: Lauren Mills

By Angela Cerrito
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Lauren Mills spent her youth in the woods trying to tame wild animals and has been illustrating since she could hold a crayon. She always knew she wanted to write and illustrate children’s books and was the first in the California State System to receive an MA in Illustration.

Her picture book, The Rag Coat (Little, Brown, 1991), won numerous awards including the Charlotte Award, and her original fairy tale, Fairy Wings, co-illustrated with her husband, Dennis Nolan (Little, Brown, 1995), won SCBWI’s Golden Kite for best picture book.

Mills is also a sculptor and painter, but returned to children’s books, especially after reading that her Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins (Little, Brown, 1993) had helped young girls.

Her first novel, Minna’s Patchwork Coat (Little, Brown, 2015) is a Social Studies Notable Trade Book and a Children’s Book Council Hot of the Press pick.

Congratulations on your illustration Minna’s Patchwork Quilt being selected as a finalist in the Bologna Illustrators’ Gallery. The illustration is the cover to your latest work. The novel Minna’s Patchwork Quilt is based on the much-loved picture book (The Rag Coat). What was it like to expand the characters of Minna and her family into a novel? Were there any specific challenges?

It was very gratifying and rewarding to expand Minna’s story into a chapter book. When I originally sent in the first five chapters I had only intended the book to be a small chapter book of about sixty pages. When my editors, Deirdre Jones and Andrea Spooner responded they asked for the synopsis for the rest of the novel.

 Since I didn’t have one, and I write very stream-of-conscious, letting the characters move the story along, I wrote the rest of the short chapter book in the following two weeks so I could give them a synopsis. They then wanted it longer and with more tension and character development of Minna. So, that’s when I focused more on the new characters of Lester and Aunt Nora, his grandmother, the Cherokee midwife, and changed the ending a little bit.

In The Rag Coat, Minna remembers her Papa’s words about “People only need people”, jumps off the log and heads back to school. In the novel, she says, “People only need nice people” and she resolves never to go back to school until her conversation with Lester makes her think about her own power.

Picture books are like poems or songs where every word counts and you must tell a whole story in very few words. I was daunted by the idea of writing a novel, but in some ways it’s easier to let your characters have interesting conversations without trying to cut them short.

What is difficult is tying it all together and remembering what was already said and done and keeping the reader interested from one chapter to the next.

Your sculptures have received national acclaim in the U.S. and have been recognized in Italy. How do the two art forms, sculpting and painting complement each other?

I noticed my drawing skills improving after I began sculpting and studying anatomy.

When I teach drawing, I always use sculpting to help with: perspective, anatomy and character design. Drawing and painting are a like a magician’s trick - how to show something three dimensional on a two dimensional surface.

Sculpting is the real thing. It just has to look right at all angles.

When one draws one must think about what is on the other side and how it connects to what they see from their perspective.

In addition to creating your own work, you also teach drawing as a faculty for Hollins University's MFA in Children's Book Writing & Illustrating. What advice do you offer to students who are starting out in the field of children’s illustration?

Three favorite quotes I give to students are: “Follow your bliss” by Joseph Campbell and “Do what you love, love what you do”, anonymous. And the third I think is John Burton - “It is the love of the process that pulls one through the discipline necessary to master the demands of that craft.”

I tell students that if you love doing art then make it your priority. Fit it into your day the best you can, and don’t worry how you make your living, as long as you can spend some of your day doing what you love. Somebody, somewhere will also love it and you will have made the world a better place by pleasing yourself and that other someone.

While I am a task master and believe in passing on the traditional academic teachings from the old masters. I believe that if one doesn’t love what they are doing that will show. And your love of the process, which for me is meditational, will show in your work and people will respond to that.

The only problem is that much of today’s American art education, art and book markets do not support or value craftsmanship or tradition or anything that takes a lot of care and time. “Quiet” and “precious” are seen as negative terms that don’t sell books.

Evie with a bust of her, created by her mother (Lauren)
Sometimes I wonder if I was born in the wrong century or the wrong country or both, but I have hope that my work will reach and inspire the next generation and/or the pendulum will swing back.

All the classical ateliers now are indicative of that, but we need more stories. That’s where illustration comes in. My definition of the difference between fine art and illustration is that there shouldn’t be any difference if they both are at their best.

Since this recognition of the cover for Minna’s Patchwork Coat, I have had an American agent in France ask to represent me. I’m now happy to have Erszi Deak of Hen and Ink Literary Studio as my agent and hope to expand to the European market.

The Rag Coat was adapted into a ballet. What was it like seeing your characters on stage, living, breathing and dancing?

It was thrilling to see the book translated into song and dance! It was almost an opera as well.

When someone approached me about making it a movie that’s when I thought about expanding the book into a novel myself and adding my favorite folk songs that would have been sung in 1908.

How do you juggle everything – painting, illustrating, sculpting, teaching and exhibiting your work?

I’m scattered. I work from project to project and sometimes do have too many things going on at once and our place gets very messy at times. I wasn’t writing or illustrating when I was painting and sculpting. Now, I hardly sculpt, unless it’s to make a doll out of clay I can fire in the oven.

Sometimes I get together with doll artist, Anna Brahms, and illustrators, Jane Dyer and her daughter, Brooke, and Kathy Brown to sculpt dolls. I adore sculpting but the cost of working from a model, making a mold and casting it into bronze is extremely expensive and difficult to sell these days.

Someday I would like to combine the sculpting, painting, and writing into art pieces... or perhaps a puppet show!

When I am teaching it is hard to get too much other work done, but teaching helps my art, too, and I believe in passing on what you’ve learned. Sometimes, we go on three day writing retreats with our writing group. Noticing how much we accomplished by not having any other interruptions, we’ve sometimes scheduled “at-home retreats” and just let people know we can’t be disturbed for a couple of days.

What is a typical work day like for you?

Lauren's studio
It always changes, but lately I get up at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. and Dennis and I do 20 minutes of yoga stretches and exercises then go down to the first floor where there’s a gym.

(We used to live in a converted barn on 15 acres with our daughter and two whippets, but the dogs are gone, sadly, and our daughter is grown so we’re now in a converted factory building filled with lots of other artists who live on the fourth floor, and the other floors are studios and businesses such as the gym, a restaurant, hair salon, printer, photographer, yoga studio, and Figure Drawing studio... all of which we frequent!)

After working out at the gym, I make a smoothie, rinse off and get dressed into vintage, hand-made, natural clothing... mostly made by Magnolia Pearl - (I believe in creating the world you want to live in. Wearing art that harkens to another time and has a story book feel with handmade old lace or homespun linen brings me joy and brings beauty to the world I inhabit.)

At 7:30 a.m., I arrive at my elderly parents’ house, five minutes away, and make their smoothies and breakfast, take out the dog, and do whatever chores or errands they need.

At 9:30 a.m. or so I come back home and begin my work day. A lot of times it is taken up with business, so that’s why we need to schedule “creative retreats” where that’s all we do.

At 4 p.m. I may or may not go back to my parents to help them with dinner, etc...

View of Mt. Tom from Lauren's studio window
Sometimes we go to Figure Drawing at night or we continue working or we read or see a movie.

(We haven’t owned a TV for 30 years, but we do watch movies and series, such as the "Downton Abbey" or "Outlander" series or Jane Austen movies.)

Sundays we have our writing group here... either we all write for the day and critique or they just come over at 3 p.m. and we critique then go downstairs for dinner.

We belong to WMIG (Western Massachusetts Illustrators Guild) and once a month there is an illustrators meeting at someone’s home.

What are you working on now?

Lauren, Kathy & apple-head puppets at a Carle Museum workshop
I have just sent off sketches and manuscripts for three picture books about a little girl and her dog. My agent, Erzsi Deak, also has many of my picture books and novels that I’ve just sent her.

I have several novels in various stages, but the front runner is a novel version of Tatterhood (loosely based on the folk tale). My picture book, Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins came out about 20 years ago and is part of the reason I returned to children’s books.

I have read online that my book helped little girls who had felt different feel like they were special. Now that is the reason to keep writing and to publish books!

Is there any wisdom you’d like to share to other’s who write and illustrate children’s books. Especially those who are just starting out?

My advice to anyone in the book field: There are children out there who need to have books that can help them navigate this world. Do whatever it takes to create a better life for children.

Cynsational Notes

Angela Cerrito is a pediatric physical therapist by day and a writer by night. She thinks she has the two best jobs in the world.

Her latest novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House), was named a finalist for the 2015 Jewish Book Award, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Readers and a Notable Social Studies Book for Young People.

Angela Coordinates the SCBWI Bologna Interview series, volunteers as SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and is a Cynsational reporter in Europe and beyond.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

A Conversation with Author-Illustrator Matt Travers by Lila Quintero Weaver from Latin@s in Kidlit. Peek: "Once all my sketches are approved by my art director (after a couple rounds of revisions, usually), I start working on the final illustrations. That part usually takes four to six months. The whole process, from start to finish, can take nine months to a year, depending on the book."

Tropes About People with Hearing Loss by Cristina Hartman from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "Predictably, many of the tropes relating to D/deaf and hard of hearing characters deal with communication methods and degree of hearing loss. Most, if not all, of these tropes have to do with people’s assumptions and wishful thinking about hearing loss."

Productive Procrastination by Maggie Hall from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "The key is to have a list of everything I have to do nearby, and instead of letting myself drift away to the black hole of the internet when I have the urge to procrastinate, I tick off these other tasks one by one."

Purging the Fear by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Sadly, for every person reading this post, fear (at some level) is an issue that must be addressed. It stifles creativity, encourages negativity, and exponentially increases our chances of failure. It’s a toxin that poisons us on a basic, human level. And it’s death to the writing process."

Andrew Smith to Head Children's Books at Abrams, Susan Van Metre Gets New Role by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Smith is a children’s publishing industry veteran who has worked for Hachette Book Group for the past 10 years. Since 2013, Smith served as deputy publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, where he led the company’s efforts to increase its market share in licensed property publishing. Before joining Hachette, Smith was v-p of sales at Candlewick and v-p of marketing at Random House Children’s Books."

KidLit Community Auction for Betsy and John MacLeo: "Recently one of our own in the KidLit community, Betsy MacLeod, and her husband John, were dealt a cruel blow when John was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). ...John and Betsy are faced with enormous and mounting medical expenses, many of which are not covered by insurance. To help them financially and in spirit, we are offering wonderful items through this online Kidlit Auction, which will run from March 17 to March 30." Items include "signed books, artwork, (editor/agent/author) manuscript critiques, vacation homes from Vermont and Cape Cod to Scotland."

Dear Mrs. Cleary by Varian Johnson from The Horn Book. Peek: "I didn’t understand all the humor in the book at the time — and actually I was pretty ticked off that Mr. Henshaw didn’t write back very much — but I loved how Leigh Botts was turning into a writer. A real writer."

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith, Austin Regional Conference Faculty, from Austin SCBWI. Peek:

"Remember that the world of children’s-YA literature is a small one. Err toward the professional over the petty. If you don’t find much to like in someone, seek out what you can respect–if only it’s that you have kid lit in common. Forgive readily. Give yourself–and everyone else–permission to stumble. Offer a hand up, even to those who’ve slighted you. Each of all us, all of us, need one another to offer our young readers the high quality of literary art that they deserve."

Personal Links

Greenhorn Film TrailerDiscussion Guide
Is Your Stuff Stopping You?
Why I Let My Children Read Books About Upsetting Things
What is the Biopunk YA Book Genre?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Guest Post: Alexandria LaFaye on Acting Your Age: Writing Across the Ages of Young Readers

By Alexandria LaFaye
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Kicking, screaming, and spinning tantrums are appropriate in a picture book—though surprisingly sparse in children’s literature for how prevalent the are in the life of most children, but we don’t expect to see a teenager spinning on the floor throwing a fit because the "'rents won’t extend curfew."

Know your audience when you write across the ages/genres of children’s and young adult literature.

(Harcourt, 2001)
For instance, when does a child learn “conservation” and how does that affect the readers ability to know when a repeated image of a child learning to play or crawl is really just one kid and not a whole group of them?

And when do children start to understand abstractions that would allow them to comprehend that two people can have different opinions and still both be right?

How does this new emerging skill affect the psychology of a middle grade novel?

The answers to these questions illustrate the essential need for understanding the psychological and cognitive development of children and adolescents.

Too bad they don’t have a Child Psychology for Dummies—oh wait, they do (Child Psychology for Dummies).

Seriously though, you can learn so much about the psychology of kids from raising them, working with them, visiting schools, and various other essential interactions with your target audience.

These relationships are key to our own happiness and the development of a natural and organic understanding of what it means to be a kid or a teen in our society today.

It's important that you consider the “today” component because writers for young readers are often writing to rescue or relate to their own childhood self when our childhood is world’s away from the experiences of today’s child. The current six year olds were born in a world that can’t recognize a landline phone, has probably never used a point-and-shoot camera, and can’t remember a world when there weren’t 40,000 television channels targeted to children, often watched on a game system or tablet.

We need to know the kids of today by getting to relating to real world kids in their own environment. Personal connections are a must. But you can also pick up a lot by watching their shows, reading their magazines, studying fellow authors, watching videos until far too late at nigh.

Family (l. to r.): Jeron, Regan, Dean (husband), A. LaFaye, Adia, Kyler, Katie
I’m all for the organic—understanding of young people, dialogue and imagery in writing, and food, but there is something to be said for academic/book knowledge or that’s just the geek in my talking and quite frankly it never shuts up, so listen here, if you want to know more about child psychology—don’t take my word for it. Learn a thing or two from a specialist in the field, realizing that three specialists will have at least six different opinions so read up on what folks have to say.

Here are a few suggestions:

To be truthful, I probably only picked this because the author said “geeked out”

A veritable panoply of books to choose from. Which I of course chose so I could say “panoply.”

And most importantly, read the work of writers who get kids—what they like, what they want, what they need. Don’t just read the most popular books for teens because those books most often address the wish fulfillment , adrenaline rush, romantic-angst-driven elements of teen life. You also need to study the writing that addresses the deeper social issues of teen life.

I’m even a bigger fan of YA World Literature because, perhaps it’s just me, but it seems that too much of the YA literature in the U.S. focuses on me, myself, and my friends versus what the next generation could do to make the world a better place.

Internationally, adolescent literature focuses less on how a teen can become an individual and more on how a teen can learn to contribute to society. But that’s my “taking care of the world” bias coming out again. I just want to take care of everybody.

Speaking of everybody, which is much easier than speaking to everybody, but as a writer you’re trying to do both—portray the world as it really is, address as wide an audience as possible, and provide an authentic , accurate, and compelling look at the diversity in our society today, not just in the U.S., but globally.

You’re writing realism and the reality is our world is very diverse and that diversity should be reflected in our writing from books for babies to novels for teens. For instance, Everywhere Babies is an adorable celebration of infants and their families and it shows an enormous range of diversity, but I wonder, where are the parents with tattoos? The folks who live out in the country? The immigrants who wear the clothes they grew up with?

No book can show the whole world. Each book can only be a window into part of the world, but it helps to know not only the “universals” of youth development, and to learn how class, religion, ethnicity, gender orientation, and other cultural elements influence a child’s development.

We are, after all, a society of artists—writers, illustrators, readers, and critics, who are engaging our world one word, one line, one book at a time.

Good luck! And remember, let your characters act their age!

Cynsational Notes

Alexandria LaFaye, is an author of a baker’s dozen of books for young readers.

These include Walking Home to Rosie Lee (Cinco Puntos, 2011), a picture book about the reunification of African American families at the end of the Civil War, to the young adult novel-in-verse, Pretty Omens (Anchor & Plume, 2015), a retelling of the myth of Cassandra in a coal mining community in Virginia in 1911.

She’s also an associate professor of creative writing for Greenville College and the Hollins University Children's Book Writing & Illustrating MFA.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on In a Dark and Not-So-Quiet Room

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I’m in a cozy, dark room – too warm, and scattered with noises of children’s breathing, soft wordless Beatles’ arrangements, and the burble of the turtle tank filter. It’s nap-time at the early childhood school where I work, and I’m on duty. I’m also working on a major revision for my novel in verse.

It’s an unlikely setting, this child-dense room with documentation of the children’s discoveries through paint, clay, blocks, but between two or more hours at Starbuck’s in the morning and the napping room in the afternoon, I’m making good progress on my revision.

In the not-so-quiet space I sink deeply into my character’s life, where I may hear and feel her anguish and joy without interference from any angst of my own.

For years, I struggled with finding the perfect place to write, because something seemed “off” with so many spaces. I found myself writing in short, deep spurts, but I was easily distracted.

Too quiet. Too loud.

The thing is, I carried with me so much noise of my own, that almost every place was far from perfect.

Early on in my committed writing journey, I heard the well-known caution to “keep my head down and do the work”. And yet online and off, in informal gatherings and at conferences, the longing to be book-published was front and center. I worked hard, submitted, survived rejections with my learned resilience, and “came close” many times.

Then, about five years ago, unusually distracted and distressed by the new industry policy adapted by so many agents and editors: If you don’t hear from us, assume we’re not interested. If I don’t hear from you by when? I wondered.

The absence of waiting for responses took too great an emotional toll on my resilient self.

So one day I decided to put an end to the situation that troubled me. I challenged the assumption that I would eventually get a book contract. Maybe I wouldn’t. I said it aloud, then asked myself one of the most important questions of my life: Now what?

Now, I am a writer, I answered myself. Now, I keep writing. An emotional gust of wind that blew me away in the best of ways. The relief I felt turned into a joy about writing that opened unimagined possibilities.

Without any expectations of myself other than writing, I gave myself permission to work at all the things I loved – poetry, essays, picture books, and my middle grade novel in verse. I avoided places online and in person where discussions of hoped-for publication abounded. I felt somewhat isolated from a community I’d been involved in, but the benefits were worth it.

Eventually I began submitting again. But I was calmer, even carefree. My queries were more casual, authentic. I had acceptances and rejections – interestingly, with more personal responses to rejections than I’d ever gotten. I was shocked and quietly pleased to find that my middle grade novel in verse was chosen a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children's Writing.

My (now) agent took notice of my book from the contest, and the revision process with her has been challenging and immensely pleasurable. I feel a calm, deep pleasure when I when I get an acceptance, an agent, write a verse I’m particularly proud of – instead of the wild excitement I felt years ago when I assumed each step was closer to “success.”

I hope my book is published one day – of course. But success is truly the journey, and how my own strengths meet the challenges of the work.

And, of course, the sweetness in the dark, not-so-quiet room with the sleeping children.

Cynsational Notes

More on Carol Coven Grannick
Carol Coven Grannick has been a writer since before her fourth grade teacher told her she was one. Her poetry, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous print and online venues.

She began writing for children in 1999, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket and Hunger Mountain. Her picture book manuscripts have won several awards, and her middle grade novel in verse manuscript, "Reeni’s Turn," was named a finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children's Writing at Hunger Mountain.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her column, “The Flourishing Writer,” is archived in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family, friends, and work at an extraordinary early childhood center.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Guest Post: Janet S. Fox on Blending History With Fantasy

By Janet S. Fox
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Some of my favorite books ever are the books of C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. The fantasy of leaving home and entering a land where a child can experience talking animals, mythological creatures, desperate (and deadly) battles - where a child can be perceived as making real, respected choices - where good deeds are rewarded by kindness and love and bad deeds are punished, but only by "just desserts" - I read these books (and still read them) over and over.

They articulated lessons without didacticism. Included in those lessons were reflections of the real world of the characters, World War II era England, and an interesting Arthurian tilt to the Pevensie children's experiences of Narnia.

So for me, the young reader, reading these books in America during the post-war years, they had the taste of something "historical" and of course foreign.

And then there were the myths and fairy tales I devoured. The Red Fairy Book, the Anderson and Grimms's tales, Greek and Roman myths and legends - I read these over and over, too. In my mind history became inextricably linked with the fantastic.

And why shouldn't it? The truth is that we are all shaped by perception, and even history is subject to personal interpretation. (If you don't believe me, check out the new hit musical "Hamilton".)

My first three novels are historical YA romances. When I wrote Faithful (Speak/Penguin, 2010), set in 1904 Yellowstone, I sought to capture the natural magic inherent in that environment of spouting geysers and colorful hot springs.

In my second YA, Forgiven (Speak/Penguin, 2011), I tried to capture the dark magic of the terrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake. By the time I wrote my third YA, Sirens (Speak/Penguin, 2012), set in 1925, I added full-on fantastical elements, including a ghost, an approach I felt was consistent with the 1920s obsession with spiritualism and magic.

I realized that as a writer I was drawing closer and closer to crafting books like the ones that so captivated me as a kid. It has become my goal, now, to try and evoke the same wonder in my readers as I felt when I was young.

Yes, fantasy is my aim, but having written history, I became game to try a blend of the two genres. My newest book, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle (Viking, 2016), is that blend.

It's set in World War II; the children are sent out of London during the Blitz; there are enigma machines and short-wave radios and even spies. But...there are also ghosts, and magicians, and a ghastly monster, and only magic can save the day (while itself being a double-edged sword.)

Whether writing historical fiction or fantasy, the objective of suspension of disbelief can only be accomplished if the world-building is sound. In historical fiction, that means lots of research to get interesting tidbits right. In fantasy, it means crafting an environment in which those interesting tidbits feel right.

I loved writing The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. I loved being able to play with a world that is both real and fantastical, where terrible and beautiful things did happen, and could happen. I can't wait to try it again.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Guest Post: Susan Thogerson Maas on Writing from a Faith-Based Perspective

By Susan Thogerson Maas
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Why do we write middle grade and young adult books? Perhaps we love to play with words. Or we admire the honesty and realness of kids—and never quite grew up ourselves.

These reasons also apply to those of religious faith, but we have an added motive—to inspire children, deepen their faith, or help them live a better life. These ideas can be part of both religious and mainstream market books.

Writing faith themes in children’s literature can be fulfilling and fun. My first middle grade novel—Picture Imperfect, published by Ashberry Lane—came out in 2015.

Writing this book (and prior failed attempts) taught me a few things about writing middle grade fiction from a faith perspective.

1. Choose an appropriate theme. 

People of faith believe life has meaning and God speaks through our circumstances. Naturally, we want to express the truth, as we see it, through our stories. But keep it kid-appropriate. (Forgiveness and loving others are great, fire and brimstone not so much.)

As a child, I loved reading books that inspired me and gave me hope. Now I love writing those books. In Picture Imperfect, my young protagonist, JJ, faces many challenges, including an annoying live-in aunt, a runaway cat, and her great-grandmother’s death. But she grows and finds God through the challenges.

2. Put story first.

Concepts of faith and moral values should emerge organically from the story. Nobody—least of all a child—wants to have a message hammered into them. And forcing a theme onto a story rarely works. I’ve tried it—that book never sold.

Picture Imperfect started out being about a girl discovering faith through her beloved great-grandmother. As I wrote, that element remained, but the focus shifted to JJ finding her place in the family.

Susan & middle grade author Angela Ruth Strong, 2015 Oregon Christian Writers’ summer coaching conference
3. Don’t preach. 

Show, don’t tell is the Golden Rule of writing, and it applies equally to faith-based writing. Let the characters’ experiences and interactions demonstrate the underlying concept. While hints of it may appear in conversation, keep it light. Children would rather discover meaning for themselves than have some wise character explain it.

Picture Imperfect does have a “mentor” character with the occasional pithy saying, but the character's life, more than her words, helps JJ discover the importance of faith.

Susan's book launch with critique partner Sandy Zaugg
4. Use symbolism and metaphor. 

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (1949-1954) is a clearly Christian series, yet never mentions God. In Picture Imperfect, the stained-glass windows of a small church illustrate the protagonist’s longing for God. These tools must be used carefully, of course. An allegory heavy with symbolism may turn off readers. But a gentle touch can add depth.

Not Back to School Day (Portland)*
5. Portray all faiths positively. 

Faith themes can work in both the religious and general markets, although emphasis will differ. Even nonreligious books can add diversity by including children of different faiths, whose religion is a normal part of their lives.

A final thought

Believers, there’s no need to force spiritual themes into your stories. Your faith will naturally come out in whatever you write.

Cynsational Notes

Susan Thogerson Maas grew up on five green Oregon acres, coming to love the plants, birds, and wild critters of the woods—who often find their way into her writing. She has written part-time for 30 years, selling devotionals, homeschooling and personal experience articles, Sunday school curriculum, and children’s stories.

Picture Imperfect is her first published middle grade novel. She is currently working on another middle grade novel, along with a nature-based homeschool unit study. 

Susan chose to publish with Ashberry Lane, a small Christian publisher, due to the supportive, caring environment it offers. The mother-daughter publishing team works closely with the authors, and the authors work together to promote each other’s writing. In today’s publishing world, most authors end up doing much of their own marketing, but Ashberry Lane’s family atmosphere provides both physical help and spiritual encouragement.

*with Christian Tarabochia, Sherrie Ashcraft.

Ashberry Lane family (Aug. 2014): from left: Sherrie Ashcraft (publisher), authors Sam Hall, Angela & Jim Strong, Bonnie Leon, Susan Maas, Camille Eide; cover designer-board member Nicole Miller & editor Christina Tarabochia

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Cover Reveal: Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A horse that can read, write, spell, and do math? Ridiculous! 

That's what people thought in the late 1800's - until they met Beautiful Jim Key.

Born a weak and wobbly colt in 1889, Jim was cared for by William "Doc" Key, a formerly enslaved man and self-taught veterinarian who believed in treating animals with kindness, patience, and his own homemade remedies. 

Under Doc's watchful eyes, Jim grew to be a healthy young stallion with a surprising talent - a knack for learning! For seven years, Doc and Jin worked together, perfecting Jim's skills. Then it was time for them to go on the road, traveling throughout the United States and impressing audiences with Jim's amazing performances. In the process, they broke racial barriers, and raised awareness for the humane treatment of animals.

Here's a true story of an extraordinary horse and the remarkable man who nurtured the horse's natural abilities. Together they asked the world to step right up and embrace their message of kindness toward animals.

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