Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Survivors: Louise Hawes on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's-YA Author

Learn more about Louise Hawes.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. 

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I’d say the first and most severe “bump” in my writing life was…success!

Because I met with one version of “fame and fortune” early in my career, I nearly lost sight of my own convictions about what it means to be a truly successful writer.

When I joined the stable (yes, we were legion!) of authors creating the bestselling Sweet Valley Twins books (Batam/Random House) under the pen name, Jamie Suzanne, I had published only two novels for middle graders—humorous, literary books whose sales figures hardly made a dent in my single-mom budget.

But the Sweet Valley books? Their royalties were staggering; enough, at only a few percent, to put my son and daughter through college! And as to fame?

If I happened to let slip—at a conference, in a cab, during casual conversation—that I was partly responsible for the adventures of identical twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, I achieved instant rock-star status, complete with worshipful jaw-dropping, pledges of undying love for the books that had been passed from bunk to bunk at summer camp, and requests for autographs.

What was wrong with this picture?

Unfortunately, I didn’t stop to ask myself that question until I’d begun to lose what little artistic freedom and integrity I’d acquired via the normal route—submitting, being rejected, persisting.

Instead, I fell into the insidious habit of writing formula fluff (sorry, beloved fans of Jessica and Elizabeth, but if the shoe fits, I can’t call it by another name); of consulting a “cast bible” to find out how characters would react in any given situation; of perpetuating a white-bread world where pimples on prom day were as bad as it gets; and yes, of letting the checks roll in.

But no, I haven’t enjoyed “continued success,” at least not the kind that’s measured via sales figures or income. And it’s my students who taught me the way out of Sweet Valley.

You see, once I started working with new writers, beginners who modeled courage and risk-taking, I couldn’t very well stay stuck in that fictional California town, where it never rains and happiness is a new sundress with spaghetti straps.

I’ve heard folks in academia complain that reading student work drains their creative spirit. All I can say is that, so far as the students I’ve been privileged to work with at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, it’s been life-giving. And story-saving.

Because now what motivates my writing is what sparked it in the first place—the need to fuel fiction with my own pain and joy, to transmute them into something larger and more redemptive through the alchemy that is art.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

When we look back over the years, most of us can usually see the way our mistakes, like black stars, have lit the way to who we are.

So while I’m not sure I’d untie any of those tangles, I wish I’d valued myself and my writing a lot more. I wish I’d been strong enough to realize that almost no advance is worth signing away your own voice.

That would have saved me seven years of struggling to reclaim it.

(Once you settle repeatedly for clichés and stereotypes, it gets harder and harder to remember the sound of your unique truth.)

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

Margaret K. McElderry, 2017
In a career that’s spanned twenty years, I’ve seen a lot of changes, but two stand out. One is, perhaps, inevitable: it’s gotten rough out there!

In terms of the sheer volume of submissions to publishers, a new writer today is facing much more difficult odds than I did when I began. Which makes it much less likely that new work will find a publishing home without an agent.

(I worked for decades without agency representation, using a literary attorney to vet contracts, but relying on connections, dumb luck, and the work itself for all the rest. Today? I wouldn’t think of jumping into the fray without my agent’s contacts and publishing savvy behind me.)

The second change isn’t really new; it’s Sweet Valley redux.

“High concept” has become increasingly important to many publishers and agents, and with this emphasis, characterization sometimes takes a back seat to premise.

As publishers continue to buy each other out, the audience each serves grows exponentially, and the temptation to make one book fit all grows.

So while I see the increased competition and the rise of agents as an historical imperative, I sure hope publishing can make more room to accommodate “quiet” books and stories written without one eye on the market.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Above all? Take the time to actually enjoy this year.

Have you noticed the way debut authors are forming internet sites and going on tour together? Join with some writer friends, so you can share advice and appearances (and parties!) Your first galleys to proof, your first author’s copies, your first bookstore signing, your first school or conference gig—these won’t ever come again.

Vertigo, 2013
First reviews? If you’re strong of stomach and sure of who you are, you may be able to read them. If not, ask your agent or publisher to filter and summarize!

But above all....

Slow down.

Savor.

Have fun.

Oh, and give thanks.

You’ve achieved what thousands of writers are still wishing, hoping, and sweating bullets for!

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

I wish children’s writers increasing respect for one of the most important jobs in the world. YA has gained a kind of grudging acknowledgment from the rest of publishing, as its sales figures have risen.

My hope, though, is that the talent, imagination, and courage of authors for children also get recognized; that their impact on young readers is accepted for what it is: life-changing and future-shaping.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

As I've grown older, I’ve become more at home with saying, “I don’t know!” Coupled with, “but I’d like to find out,” this limitation has actually proved to be a freedom.

It’s opened doors to new ways of being a writer in the world.

Louise with fellow author David Almond.
Collaboration among arts and artists, for example, is something I find more and more exciting and invigorating.

Which may be why in the last few years, I’ve written my first graphic novel (a collaboration with four other authors for DC Comics); published a novel in prose, poetry, and play scripts; made electric blues an integral part of my most recent book launch; given a creativity workshop with my three sisters (a painter, a musician, and a film animator); and done my last poetry reading with backup singers.

What do I wish ahead?

More books, of course. And more juicy, cooperative mixed-media adventures!

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children's-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Guest Post: N.H. Senzai on Writing About War for Middle Grade & Escape From Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The reason I love writing for the middle grade audience is because at this age kids can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story as long as you create believable plots, authentic characters and dialogue that rings true.

However, you need to hook them in quickly, so my first goal is to create a story that “reels them in.”

Once they’ve signed on to follow your protagonist, you can present heavy topics, such as war and conflict, as long as it's age appropriate and presented in a nuanced manner.

At its heart, my new novel, Escape From Aleppo (Paula Wiseman Books, 2018), is an adventure story about a girl, Nadia, who becomes separated from her family as they flee war in their home city.

Stranded alone, Nadia has to overcome her fears, make alliances with strangers and come up with creative solutions to solve the challenges she faces so that she can reach the Turkish border and find her family.

I chose to write about the Syrian war after much deliberation as it was a tremendous responsibility to accurately portray the horrors of war while also sharing the country’s rich culture and history.

But as a writer I feel that we have a moral obligation to tell our readers the truth, no matter how difficult.

With the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, kids are exposed to current events and have probably heard about the Arab Spring and the conflict in the Middle East.

However, they probably don’t know much about its root causes, such as colonialism, religious sectarianism etc., that led to this terrible point in history.

But, if given the facts in the right context, they have the ability to weigh and analyze serious topics and can come up with their own conclusions.

Frankly, we shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

Aleppo before and after the battle, from BBC News

When writing Nadia’s story, I didn’t want my reader’s only frame of reference of Syria to be of war and of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, predating the Pharaohs, occupied by Alexander the Great, the Romans, Ottomans and the French. It’s a truly unique city whose destruction over the course of the war has been heartbreaking.

Through flashbacks and Nadia’s reflections as she makes her way through city, I wanted to showcase Aleppo’s beauty, architecture, culture, history and food through her eyes.

I also wanted to show how normal Nadia’s life was before the war and how she was like any other teen around the world; she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a cat named Mishmish (which means apricot in Arabic) a sweet tooth, a passion for Arab Idol and a dislike of Algebra.

Carmen, Nadia's favorite Arab Idol Contestant

In showing the two sides of the coin, life during peace and conflict, I wanted to illustrate how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children.

If we pause to reflect on that connection I hope that we can share in a common humanity. So, even though Nadia is from a “faraway place,” my hope is that no matter how different the characters in Escape From Aleppo may appear, readers can walk in their shoes and realize that people, no matter where the live, are intrinsically the same. They have similar hopes, dreams and desire to live a peaceful, meaningful life.

Nadia is more like us than we think – at the end of the day my greatest wish is that my readers build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

Cynsational Notes

See the reading group guide for Escape from Aleppo from the publisher.

Booklist gave Escape From Aleppo a starred review. Peek: "Filled with kindness and hope, but also with the harsh realities of the horrors of war, this heartbreaking book is a necessary reminder of what many people live through every day."

N.H. Senzai's previous books include the award-winning Shooting Kabul (Paula Wiseman Books, 2011), Saving Kabul Corner (Paula Wiseman Books, 2015) and Ticket to India (Paula Wiseman Books, 2016).

She grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England, where she was voted “most likely to lead a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class.

She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal.

She also attended U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, while pursuing her passion for writing. She once again lives in San Francisco with her husband, a professor of political science, her son, and a cat who owns them.

Gayleen says: Other titles focusing on Syria include:
  • Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017) The story of three refugees: a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany, a Cuban girl on a raft bound for America in the 1990s and a Syrian boy journeying to Europe in 2015 (middle grade).
For more titles related to war and peace in children's and young adult books, check the resources on Cynthia's author site.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

In Memory: Jean Marzollo

By Robin Galbraith
For Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Author, illustrator, and educator Jean Marzollo died April 10, 2018.

SCBWI Remembers Jean Marzollo 1942- 2018 from their website. Peek:
“...Marzollo served for 20 years as editor of Scholastic’s magazine for kindergartners, Let’s Find Out. ...she wrote nearly 150 books, and became best known for her I Spy series (Scholastic, 1992)...translated into twelve languages and...sold more than 42 million copies worldwide.”  
Obituary: Jean Marzollo by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
"[Walter] Wick had mailed a promotional card to the magazine, and...she ‘knew that this photographer would be perfect for kindergarten because his picture was so clear and enticing.’ She hired him to create a series of photos and posters with various themes and objects that interest children."
From Walter Wick’s Facebook Page. Peek:
I Spy sprang from a previous collaboration, its success was a complete surprise to both of us, and it changed our lives. It was Jean who recognized the educational potential of I Spy, and her ability to articulate those values made me a better illustrator.” 
Jean Marzollo, 75, Dies; Her I Spy Books Challenged Children by Neil Genzlinger from The New York Times. Peek:
"Of the many [books] that followed, one of her favorites was Pierre the Penguin: A True Story illustrated by Laura Regan (Scholastic, 2010). It is about a penguin at a California zoo whose caretaker makes the animal a wet suit because it is missing feathers."
I Spy Author Jean Marzollo Remembered for Her Generosity, Love of Words by Kara Yorio from School Library Journal. Peek:
"When a grant came to finally renovate the children’s room at the Butterfield Public Library in Cold Spring, NY, the library staff knew immediately who they wanted to honor with its name. ...Jean Marzollo was the only choice, says library director Gillian Thorpe. But they had to convince Marzollo."
Cynsational Notes

Robin: I Spy was the first book my oldest child was able to read to my youngest. My oldest is now twenty-five and my youngest twenty-two. Time flies!

Today my oldest texted me about the I Spy books. “As a kid it’s fun just looking at stuff, [Marzollo] understood that, but also gave a goal, too. She totally understood her reader base!”

My youngest agreed. “She made reading into a game. Who doesn’t love a good game, especially a kid?”

My husband, a doctor at an urgent care medical clinic, told me the clinic has copies of the I Spy series in their waiting room and every exam room because they are the perfect books to entertain kids and adults of every age.

Every year at Christmas we read our copy of I Spy Christmas (Scholastic, 1992), stopping to play the game on each page. Jean Marzollo will indeed be missed in the Galbraith-Liss house!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich SmithRobin Galbraith,
Gayleen Rabukukk & Kate Pentecost for Cynsations

Author/Illustrator Insights

South Asian Historical Fiction—Author Interview with Veera Hiranandani and Giveaway by Suma Subramaniam from From the Mixed-up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek:
“I grew up hearing about partition [of India in 1947] from my father...I would hear parts of the story, but I knew they weren’t telling me everything. This ignited my curiosity and when I got older, I started asking more questions and researching on my own.”
April 2018 Horn Book Herald: Spring News: Five Questions for Margarita Engle by Elissa Gershowitz from The Horn Book. Peek:
“Daydreaming is the secret to feeling close to one’s subjects. My writing is personal because I read as many diaries, letters, journals, and other first-person narratives as I can find. Then I imagine being on the inside of the story instead of the outside.”
Q & A with Jewell Parker Rhodes by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
“...as a writer I believe words have the power to shape the world. I believe today’s youth are going to make the world better. These two beliefs inspire me to write about resilience and to mirror children’s unlimited capacity for compassion, empathy, and love.”
Author-Illustrator Spotlight: Jonathan Roth from KidLit 411. Peek:
“Always look to see what’s being done, but in the end only create what really moves you. Also join SCBWI to learn about the industry and meet like-minded people, and always be open to feedback and prepared for rejection, because it’s a tough, competitive business that requires relentless perseverance.”
Erin Entrada Kelly Talks Newbery Award and Filipino Storytelling Tradition by Kara Yorio from School Library Journal. Peek:
"To write about a deaf character, Kelly reached out to the American Society for Deaf Children and was introduced to Gina Oliva, a deaf woman and advocate who has written books about deaf children mainstreamed in schools.”
Diversity

Q & A with Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: Why Children Need More Diverse Books from Penn GSE Newsroom. Peek:
“How you write that Other is going to depend on your perspective, and how you have experienced the others. We can't escape race, but we can do better at representing each other humanely in our stories.”
Sensitivity Readers Spot Racism, Stereotypes Before Books Are Published from CBC Radio. Peek:
"'I was investing a lot of time trying to help individual writers understand something that they just did not want to really work very hard on understanding in the first place,'" said [Debbie] Reese.”
Cultural Appropriation in Fiction: Here Are Some Tips to Consider When Your Writing Includes Different Cultures by Ixty Quintanilla from Everyday Feminism. Peek:
“I talked to two inclusive media experts, Bradford and Gussine Wilkins, to compile a checklist that you need to keep in mind to make sure you’re not culturally appropriating in your writing.”
Diverse Sci-Fi Fantasy Books to Read After A Wrinkle in Time by Thien-Kim Lam from I’m Not the Nanny. Peek:
“If your child loved A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962), here are some diverse sci-fi fantasy to add to their bookshelves. I’ve included a mix of middle grade and YA books for your reader.”
Writing Craft

Mining Our Characters’ Wounds by Robin LaFevers from Writer Unboxed. Peek:
“Emotional neglect, a betrayal, a rejection, a lie, are all painful enough, but often become the lens through which we see ourselves. We accept that rejection. Believe that lie. Justify the betrayal due to something fundamentally flawed within us rather than the betrayer.”
7 Tips for Creating Believable Fantasy or Science Fiction Worlds by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek:
“In our efforts to create the 'perfect' world for our stories, we sometimes force what we want into worlds that couldn’t possibly function. Make sure you’re not making these two common world building mistakes....”
Getting Feedback Can Hurt—Here’s How to Ask for It by L. Roger Owens from Brevity. Peek:
“I’ve discovered there is an art to asking for feedback, and if you learn it, you can get the kind of feedback you need, when you need it. Here’s what I’ve learned.”
Behind the Books: Nonfiction Writers Aren’t Robots by Laura Purdie Salas from Celebrate Science. Peek:
“...there’s a common, crushing misconception that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts that any basic robot could spit out.”
Publishing

W.W. Norton Brings on Boughton to Launch Children’s Imprint by Emma Kantor from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
“Boughton speculated that the launch will likely take place toward the end of 2019. In terms of the breadth of the imprint, he said, 'We’re cultivating a broad range of books, both in terms of age and category. Nonfiction is a particular strength for Norton and a particular interest of mine.’”
Preorder Campaigns by Rosalyn Eves from Thinking Through Our Fingers. Peek:
“...preorder campaigns can be a useful way to build buzz about your book before it comes out, particularly if readers share the campaign or their swag on their social media platforms.”
Why Our Youngest Generation Needs Your Compassion by Sara Stevenson from Austin American Statesman. Peek:
“Almost 30 percent of 12th graders reported that they did not read any books for pleasure in 2014. Kids are spending more and more of their leisure time on social media, gaming, and YouTube. Still, at least at the middle school level, we can reach them.”
Hard Time and Softback Books: Teaching Children’s Literature in Prison by Kerry Madden from Los Angeles Times. Peek:
“Paired up, the men read the other softback picture books. I gave out notebooks and pens and asked them to write their own stories about childhood, school and food. While they were scribbling away, one of the students said, 'I can't remember anyone ever reading a story out loud to me.'"
This Week at Cynsations

Brent Hartinger

More Personally - Cynthia

My post-oral-surgery diet.
After several days of reading for my MFA students and one of my Cynsations reporters, I had oral surgery. I'd been warned in advance to stock soft, cold foods for the recovery period. So, I researched to pinpoint the healthiest, best-tasting iced cream on the market, and Halo Top is apparently high rated across the board. My best use of the Internet in quite a while.

Link of the Week: Help Children's-YA Author Kathleen Duey Remain at Home from GoFundMe. Peek:

"Kathleen would want her many fellow writers to know how difficult it has been to leave the warmth and support of the community of writers she has cultivated over the years.

"She would also want her many fans to know how much she appreciated their positive comments and encouragement.

"She didn’t stop writing because she wanted to, she simply was unable to continue."

Kathleen is the author of more than 70 books for young readers. She's had a successful literary career (but not an especially commercial one). See also a Cynsations Interview with Kathleen Duey, a 2007 National Book Award Finalist.

Please consider supporting Kathleen and/or signal boosting this fundraiser. Thank you.

Personal Links- Robin

Thursday, April 19, 2018

New Voice: Jen Petro-Roy on Epistolary Novels & P.S. I Miss You

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Jen Petro-Roy is the debut author of P.S. I Miss You (Feiwel & Friends, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister, Cilla, away to stay with a distant great aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. Forbidden from speaking to Cilla, Evie secretly sends her letters. 

Evie writes about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend. 

Evie could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back, and it’s time for Evie to take matters into her own hands.

I'm always fascinated by epistolary novels and was very eager to talk with Jen about her process.

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

One of the most interesting parts of revising P.S. I Miss You was how complicated the calendar year would prove to be!

Because all of Evie’s letters are dated, I had to make sure that the contents of her letters aligned with the dates given on the top of every letter. If Evie mentioned that she would be doing something on a Friday, then that later letter and its events had to align with the appropriate day of the week.

Since Evie comes from a very Catholic family, I also had to make sure that the religious holidays fell on the correct day of the specific calendar year I used to crosscheck.

Then I had to make sure that I gave enough time for her older sister Cilla to write back, and that Cilla’s letters weren’t commenting on something from a letter that wouldn’t have been received yet. It made my head spin after a while!

Another challenge was the unique nature of writing a novel in letters.

I concentrated on making sure that while most of the letters were written in a genuine “letter writing” way, with Evie talking about her feelings and what happened on a certain day, that I also balanced those musings with dialogue in appropriate places—and especially dialogue that didn’t feel forced in letter format. 

Young Jen reading at the beach.
What model books were most useful to you and how? 

While writing and revising P.S. I Miss You, I was initially inspired by Beverly Cleary’s classic, Dear Mr. Henshaw, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (HarperCollins, 1983). Re-reading that book gave me the idea to write my debut novel in letters.

I loved the concept of two loved ones being separated for some reason (I just had to figure out the reason!) and using letters as a device to express that longing and sense of disconnection.

The amazing Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons (HarperCollins, 1994) also showed me that middle grade readers can handle serious issues, and that these issues can be incorporated into stories in a way that is honest and true.

One of my author inspirations is Kate Messner, who throughout her career, especially in the realm of middle grade fiction, has demonstrated how to infuse stories with gravitas while also balancing that “realness” with warmth, humor, and hope.

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community? 

My relationship to the children’s-YA writing community first started when I was a librarian.

Before I decided to concentrate on making my dream of publication a reality, I was a children’s/teen librarian for about five years. I selected the YA books for my library, I booked author visits, and I interacted a lot with people in the library world on Twitter and social media.

As I started to think more seriously about actually revising some of my messy first drafts or finishing my many half-drafts, I began following more authors on Twitter. Agents and publishers were soon added to my list, and I started interacting with them all, learning about the business of publishing and gathering helpful writing tips through blog posts and comment threads.

I think this sense of community is so crucial to our profession since it can be so solitary. Yes, we do research and talk to people, and yes, we go to conferences and schmooze (or do as much as we can, as so many of us are introverts!), but most of my time is spent at the keyboard, either writing or staring into space.

It’s so nice to be able to reach out to my peers and learn from our community when I’m online. Cultivating those relationships helped make my publication process a lot less stressful.

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

Honestly, this transition has been more difficult than I expected.

Like many, I always had this pie-in-the-sky belief that once I was published, everything would be perfect. I think it’s that belief that gets so many struggling writers through the stressful process of querying, revising, submitting, and more.

You believe that you will make it.

Jen with first finished copy of P.S. I Miss You.
You believe that things will someday be wonderful. And, yes, publication is wonderful. It’s thrilling to see P.S. I Miss You on bookshelves and to know that my peers and (more importantly!) actual kids are reading my words. But I didn’t realize how much I would still question myself.

I have a history of getting anxious about certain things, and I tend to compare myself to others a lot, even though I know it’s not helpful or even merited.

I don’t begrudge anyone their success, and it’s not even about what I “don’t have.” It’s that insistent voice inside my head that has haunted me for so long (and which I’m incorporating into my 2019 fiction and nonfiction books, Good Enough and You are Enough, both Feiwel & Friends) that sometimes tells me (if now only in a whisper rather than a yell) that I’m not performing to the best of my ability.

Launch party cake
That’s when I need to stop and remind myself that I wrote a book. That I published a book. That I’m proud of it and that I’m continuing to write. That I love what I’m doing. I love the art of it. I love constructing sentences and creating stories and characters.

That that is good enough, whatever my official “job title” is now.

Cynsational Notes

Jen Petro-Roy was born, raised, and still lives in Massachusetts, even though she rejects the idea that snow and cold are ever a good thing.

She started writing in third grade, when her classroom performed a play she had written. It was about a witch and a kidnapped girl and a brave crew of adventurers who set out to save the day. As a kid, numerous pictures of Jen often featured Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books clutched in her hand, so it was just a matter of time until she started writing her own books for children.

In the past, Jen has worked as a teacher and a teen and children’s librarian. She loves running, board games, trivia, and swimming, and has a mild obsession with the television show Jeopardy!


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

New Voice: Patricia Valdez on Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I love a good picture book biography and read so many in elementary school, especially those featuring women.

So when I learned Patricia Valdez’s debut picture book would feature the work of Joan Proctor, a zoologist researching amphibians in the early twentieth century, I knew there’d be a great story there.

Others think so too because the book has received starred reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.

I’m thrilled to feature Patricia’s Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Knopf, 2018) today on Cynsations.

Patricia, what first inspired you to write for young readers?

I’m an Immunologist, and my children always love to hear stories about the tiny armies inside their bodies.

I started out writing stories about germs invading cuts and the immune cells that came to destroy them. My kids got a kick out those stories, but they were nowhere near publication-ready.

As a woman scientist, it was always clear to me that there were not enough stories about us. The stories we did have were not particularly inspiring to me. Not that I don’t love Marie Curie, but the thought of spending my whole life in a laboratory handling lethal doses of radium was not appealing.

I decided I would find those interesting women that history forgot, and that is what started my writing journey in earnest.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This story came to me by way of a Komodo dragon.

My family loves to visit the Komodo dragon at the National Zoo. His name is Murphy and he’s so majestic. Thanks to the helpful zoo facts posted on the enclosure, I learned they were the largest lizard on the planet.

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.
I was curious to learn more, so searched online. As I scrolled through an article about Komodo dragons, one sentence jumped out at me. It said something along the lines of “Joan Beauchamp Procter was the first person to describe Komodo dragons in captivity in the 1920s.”

I immediately needed to know more about this woman scientist. And it turns out, she was as interesting as I thought she might be!

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.
As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story? 

Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor is a picture book biography about Joan Beauchamp Procter, a British herpetologist who lived in the early 1900s and designed the London Zoo’s Reptile House, which is still in use today.

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.
I was drawn to her story because it was rare to find women scientists working at that time. Women barely had the right to vote and universities didn’t allow women to earn full degrees. In a sense, Procter was a fish out of water working in a male-dominated field.

I related to her story because although my graduate school class had an equal number of women as men, I was the only Latinx out of 50 students. Like Procter, I stayed focused and succeeded.

I’m happy to report that I see so many more diverse faces in my former department’s most recent class pictures, but we still have a long way to go. I hope Procter’s story might inspire all children to pursue their passion, whether that includes the sciences, the arts, or both.

Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor a starred review and wrote, "Whimsical artwork and an empowering story make this biography of a lesser-known woman scientist truly charming."

In addition to being an author, Patricia Valdez is a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Originally from Texas, Patricia now resides in Maryland with her husband, two children, and three cats. You can find her on Twitter @Patricia_Writer.

Patricia is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Survivors: Brent Hartinger on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Brent Hartinger.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Oh boy, this is such a great topic!

There's so much discussion of getting published, but much less about staying that way, and making a living over the long-term. I also love that it's a reoccurring feature, because I've loved reading what others have had to say on this topic, too.

First, I completely agree that maintaining a career is as much a challenge as getting published in the first place. And, weirdly, I think it boils down to control. Or, more specifically, the lack of it.

Nutshell? We writers don't control how our projects are received. But I think that lack of control is something writers need to accept.

I'm a multi-hybrid author -- part screenwriter, part traditional novelist, part self-publisher. And all these mediums and platforms allow different degrees of author input, and in all of them, the writer always has control over what he or she writes in the first place.

No one can force you to write anything. Even in screenwriting, you can leave a project you truly don't agree with the direction it's taking (or at least have your name taken off of it, if you still want to get paid).

So yeah, we have control in that respect.

But ultimately, no one can predict or control how a project will be received by the world. Art is literally an "art," not a science. It's a cliché, but it's true: no one knows anything.

When it comes to books, even reviews and awards are not good predictors of sales or financial success,

I think this simple fact is what drives most writers crazy, and what burns so many people out.

Well, that and the unrelenting rejection, but the two things are related.

People want predictability, but it doesn't exist in the arts.

In my own career, I've had projects that I thought were some of the best work I've ever done, and they didn't sell well -- a few times, they didn't even sell to publishers! They never saw the light of day. Some probably weren't as good as I thought, but I still think others were. Others were published, but just fell through the cracks.

Of course, I've also had a few hits, but those aren't necessarily the projects I think are my best.

This is the story of almost every long-term author I know.

So when it comes to a long-term career, the lack of control really is the thing to be reckoned with. Successful debut novelists may not understand this, because they obviously think they're work is good, and it was successful, so naturally the system must reward good work.

Sometimes it does. But sometimes it doesn't.

So many things are as important, or more important, than the book itself: things like past sales, current trends, your relationship with industry insiders (or your editor and publisher's relationship with industry insiders!).

It's hard to overstate how important timing is to a project's success. But since no one can predict the future, and because books take so damn long to produce, timing is something we writers have -- you guess it! -- almost no control over.

At best, we can hope to catch a wave, which is what I did with my first book, Geography Club (Harper, 2003). It was a big hit, and I remember thinking at the time, "Authors always complain about how hard it is to get attention for your book, but that's not true. It's easy!"

Woo boy! What I didn't know then could fill a library.

Honestly, the more time I spend in this industry, the more real breakout success mostly seems like random chance to me.

That's hard for some people to accept. It's been hard for me to accept!

People don't talk about this very much. The American ideal is that we're in charge of our own destinies. We all control our own fates. If you work hard, you'll be rewarded! And in almost every non-artistic field, I think this is true.

Not so much for us artists. And there's definitely something to be said for just accepting this reality.

It's kind of a "zen" thing. It can save you a lot of heartache.

But lest someone think I'm all depressed and hopeless, let me hasten to add I don't think that means artists are powerless. We can't control how our books are received, but we can still find control in other areas.

For me, that's meant being nimble and adaptable as a writer. Whenever my novel-writing career flagged, I'd turn to writing screenplays. Once when I couldn't seem to get a traditional publishing deal, I tried self-publishing (to pretty great success, I might add!).

I think the secret to my career is that I've diversified.

I dedicated myself to a life of writing fiction decades ago, and I have never wavered from that. But my career goals have never ever ever been about any "one" project, or genre, or medium.

I'm lucky that I actually enjoy writing so many different kinds of projects.

And when things got tough financially, I sometimes did half-steps over into writer-adjacent careers. I taught writing for a year (at your invitation, Cyn!), and even once co-founded a website that we ended up selling to Viacom (for some very big bucks, thank you very much). But don't try this today.

As usual, it was all about timing.

Basically, I've tried to stay true to my career goals, even as I've stayed open to all kinds of possibilities.

I found control in other areas too, but I've obviously blathered on way too long on this, the very first question!

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Regrets? Yeah, I've had a few.

I said before that we artists have to accept that we don't have much, or any, control over how our projects are received. But I also said that doesn't mean we're completely powerless. Here are ways I had control over my writing career, but I didn't know it until after it was too late.

If I had to do it over again, I'd stick to one genre for at least my first three books (and/or write under a pen name). Or I'd write a series! Geez, why didn't I do that?

Anyway, I'd establish myself as a crystal clear brand.

Your brand is your single greatest marketing tool, and you're probably an idiot if you squander it and blur it all to hell, as I have done repeatedly. This is an area where my eagerness to write in different genres has really hurt me, I think.

Second, I've let people treat me poorly. Agents and editors, I mean. It's important not to be a diva -- that might be even more of a career-killer than being a doormat, and I do see diva behavior among successful authors (although mostly it's the middling-successful ones). But in my case, I've been much more likely to be the doormat than the diva.

I say now that if something feels off with an agent or editor, give it a year, maybe two. That's a long time. If it still isn't working out, there's probably something fundamentally bad going on, so make a break.

Yeah, yeah, I know that it's terrifying to leave an agent with no one else lined up. But just do it, okay?

A bad or unenthusiastic agent really is worse than no agent. I've signed nine screenwriting options in my life, and contracts for at least ten books, and exactly none of them were the result of an unenthusiastic agent. They were all either the result of a passionate advocate, or I basically hustled up the deals myself and brought them to my reps.

(Incidentally, I've never been happier with my representation than I am right now, Uwe Stender at TriadaUS.)

Anyway, as much as possible, surround yourself with people you're passionate about, and who are passionate about you.

There's one other mistake that I don't think I've made, but I think a lot of writers do. For long-term success, it's really, really important to learn the craft. But when I say learn the craft, I mean really learn the craft.

In the short run, quirkiness and gimmicks can totally get you a book deal. This is a creative industry, and all creative industries totally turn on gimmicks and quirks -- and every now and then, some writers even take real risks and make actual artistic steps forward. This is literally how a lot of books and movies get attention for themselves, by feeling like something fresh and different. That's how you break out, so naturally that's what publishers have a keen eye for.

But gimmicks and quirks will only get you so far, especially after that first book.

Unless you can come up with another equally good gimmick, you're eventually going to have to prove yourself as an actual writer. Because that's what will sustain a career.

No matter how funny your quips or beautiful your prose, after a book or two, it will start to seem like you're repeating yourself.

I've always been fascinated by plot and structure. It's why I was originally drawn to screenwriting.

I'm not always sure critics and award committees care very much about plot and structure, but I think readers and audiences do. So learn it, along with voice, and theme, and characterization. And learn how to take criticism and revise.

I think I can tell a pretty good story. You know, with a coherent theme, and a beginning, a middle, and an ending that is somehow both unexpected and satisfying?

Books and movies like this aren't as common as you'd think. But I do think story still matters, at least a little.

Anyway, I'd like to think the fact that I can tell one is part of the reason why I'm still selling books and screenplays after twenty years.

And while you're at it, learn discipline. I know there are mercurial types that manage to create and sustain long careers in the arts despite being unable to keep to a schedule or deadline. More power to 'em!

But I think my own writing life has been made much easier by being disciplined and self -motivated. I've never missed a deadline, and never will. Everyone says I'm a good reviser. I'd like to think editors and agents appreciate all this.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

Oh, the increased diversity, obviously. It's so fantastic, and so overdue. Like everyone, I'm worried it's a "trend" not a "change," but it's started to feel more like a sea change these past few years.

I guess I was sort of a pioneer in LGBT YA fiction (back in the early '00s, when I caught that first wave), and it blows my mind how diverse that sub-genre has become.

With all the bullcrap I went through, I would not have predicted it.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Relax. Realize the experience with your first book will be a predictor of absolutely nothing, that every book is different, and you can't control almost any of it, but that's okay because it'll all probably work out in the end.

No single thing is as important as you think it is at the time, and that's true of everything from bad reviews to major awards.

Oh, and GoodReads! Please ignore that completely. It's for readers, not writers, and it doesn't matter anyway. The same goes for all those "best of" lists that the YA world loves so much.

Basically, try not to panic so much.

But it probably wouldn't matter if I had given that advice to myself, because being published is so weird, so completely bizarre, that there's no way to prepare for it. It's like trying to prepare for parenthood. Or sex. Or death.

You can't know it, or understand it, until you do it. (And now I'm being pretentious, aren't I?)

I guess I would say this though: If you're lucky enough to find real success, try really, really hard to enjoy it as much as possible. Because it might not happen again for a while.

Oh! And absolutely don't compare your book or your degree of success to other authors. That is absolutely the worst trap you can possibly fall into. No matter what your level, there will always be someone more successful, more lauded, so you're completely doomed to always feel bad about yourself, to feel like the world isn't "fair."

I said before that artistic success is mostly random?

Well, the downside to that is that it's mostly random. But the upside is that eventually you'll have your time in the spotlight.

Probably.

At least if you follow my other advice about trying to relax and be zen, not being a diva, learning the craft, and surrounding yourself with people who are passionate about you and your work.

It also helps to have something to say. I hope that goes without saying. Ha!

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Well, it sounds funny at a time when everyone is talking about opening YA up to college-age characters, but I kinda wish the genre would focus more on actual teen readers. I get that a lot of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings love YA, and I'm always happy when anyone is passionate about my books or the genre I write in. Plus, it's cool that a genre I like is culturally relevant.

But if I'm honest, it feels like a lot of authors are already basically writing twentysomething characters, and just calling it YA. They say things like, "Teens are really sophisticated these days!" Which is true, but isn't really the point.

The issues teens face are different than the issues twentysomethings face, and the sensibility is different too. It sometimes feels like twentysomething readers have overwhelmed the genre. It's a little like how female authors of gay male romance have turned gay fiction into something different than fiction for and about gay men. But that’s definitely a longer discussion.

Anyway, that's my wish. That more YA authors would pay more attention to actual teen readers, and less to twentysomething book bloggers.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

My goal has always been to support myself as a writer of fiction, and I've managed to do that for twenty years now. I'm really proud of that fact. I've even had mortgages!

I also love that I've developed a passionate following, even if it may not be massive. I really do have the world's best fans.

But I confess that before I die, I'd love one huge, splashy, unqualified, culturally relevant break-out success. Is that selfish?

Anyway, in the meantime, my husband and I sold our house, and now we're traveling the world for several years.

We started in Seattle, and we're in Miami now until May when we're moving to London for the summer and fall. After that, we're not sure, but New Zealand, Thailand, and Costa Rica are all on the table to live in eventually.

Which I actually think is relevant to this whole discussion about finding lasting success in a writing career. Here's the real secret. Work your hardest, do your damnedest, learn from your mistakes, and never give up.

But then? Accept that after that, some things really are ultimately out of your control. And then go out and live your best possible life, trying as hard as possible to be happy.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children's-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Guest Post: Lori Mortensen on Writing Story Endings & If Wendell Had a Walrus

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Story beginnings are so important, it’s no wonder they get a lot of attention.

Writers not only have to come up with a fresh idea, they have to nail an opening hook that sets up the main character, grounds the reader in a specific setting, and gets a compelling story problem rolling. It’s a big bite of the story-writing apple.

However, story endings are just as important as story beginnings. After readers devour each page, they’re expecting a satisfying ending that’s often described as “unexpected, yet inevitable.”  A conclusion that fulfills the story’s promise in a surprising, yet emotionally fulfilling way.

Readers want to read that last page and say, Ahhhh…

When stories miss the mark, it’s like running a race, only to find that there’s no finish line. Whaat? Or, coming to the end of a scrumptious meal, only to find a stale graham cracker for dessert. You can taste the disappointment.

So what makes a satisfying ending?

At first, simply solving the story problem might seem like the obvious answer. For example, if Sally wants a pet, she gets a pet. If Sam wants to be a superhero, he becomes a superhero.

In my rhyming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2013) Clyde wants to catch his dog for a bath.

The obvious ending would be Clyde catching his ol’ dirty dawg and giving him a bath, right? But that ending doesn’t feel satisfying. There has to be more than Clyde just getting his way.

Instead, I showed Clyde trying to catch his dog, each attempt more comical and disastrous than the last. Clyde would get so frustrated he would ….

What would he do? I wondered.

I was delighted when I instantly realized things would get so bad, Cowpoke Clyde would scrap the whole idea.

Oh, no! I thought gleefully.

How was Clyde going to scrub his dog now? I was just as eager to find out what would happen as I hoped future readers would be. Moments later, I knew what my satisfying ending would be.

Clyde would not only scrap the idea of catching Dirty Dawg, he would decide to take the bath himself.

Whoa! I didn’t see that coming, but it felt absolutely perfect. As Cowpoke Clyde scrubbed and crooned in the tub, Dirty Dawg joined him with a tremendous splash!  At this point, I realized the story wasn’t about Clyde checking off a laundry list of chores.

It was about them. Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg.

Once Clyde stopped trying to finagle his dog into the tub, the duo discovered that taking a bath was something they both enjoyed. I avoided a didactic ending where Cowpoke Clyde showed Dawg who was boss and turned it into a satisfying friendship story that drew Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg together. 

In my original counting picture book story Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury, 2016) mice arrive at a ball in ascending numbers from one to 10.

At the climax, a cat shows up and scares them away in descending order back to one.

A fun idea, but after several rejections, I knew it needed a more satisfying ending. But what?

I decided the solution rested with the cat.

Instead of arriving as a threat, the cat shows up only wanting to dance. This unexpected twist gave the story a new meaning and level of satisfaction.

It wasn’t simply a book that counted mice up and down. It became a story about friendship and inclusion.

On April 17, my picture book If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Henry Holt) will hit the bookshelves. In this story, a boy named Wendell wants a walrus.

The obvious ending? Wendell getting a walrus.

However, as I wrote along, a different ending came to mind. As soon as I wrote it, I knew it was perfect.
  • Unexpected. 
  • Inevitable.
  • Satisfying.
Would Wendell get a walrus?

What do you think?

Illustration by Matt Phelan, used with permission.
So once you’ve got that all-important story beginning under your belt, remember that endings are just as important as beginnings.

Don’t be satisfied with the first idea that comes to mind. Play around a little and come up with something unexpected.

You’ll not only have more fun writing it, readers will have more fun reading it. And when they finally come to the last tantalizing page, they’ll sit back and say …

Ahhhhh.

Cynsational Notes


Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Other recent releases include Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt), and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life.

For more information about her books, teacher activities, critique service, events, and upcoming releases, visit her website.