Friday, November 17, 2017

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith,
Gayleen Rabakukk & Robin Galbraith
for Cynsations

Picture Book Month: "Every day in November, there is a new post from a picture book champion," explaining why they think picture books are important. This initiative was founded by author-storyteller Diane de Las Casas, who died earlier this year and is dearly missed.

See 2017 posts by Picture Book Month champions (and more to come!):

Author/Illustrator Interviews

Jane Kurtz and Planet Jupiter by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launch Pad. Peek:
“I’m constantly learning new craft skills. When I was revising Planet Jupiter (HarperCollins, 2017), it was the concept of microtension (including the book The Fire in Fiction [by Donald Maass, Writer’s Digest Books, 2009]) that handed out some great advice about how to make the reader uneasy and curious.”

Five Questions for Malinda Lo by Katie Bircher from The Horn Book. Peek:
“I find it interesting that authors of fantasy and science fiction novels are rarely asked if their books are based on their personal experiences, because all writing is based on personal experience.”

Member Interview: Lynn Rowe Reed from Austin SCBWI. Peek:
“I think my stubborn perseverance and work ethic are the things I’m most proud of. We all know how daunting the task of publishing is, and those of us who refuse to quit are definitely tough.”

Diversity

Zetta on why Nice Is Not Enough
There Is a Minefield and You Will Become a Demolitions Expert by Justina Ireland from CrazyQuiltEdi. Note: On women of color (and, by extention, Native women) raising their voices, however forcefully or gently, in the conversation of books for young readers. Peek:
"It doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about, your words will be catalogued, critiqued, dismissed. People may smile and nod but what they’re really doing is considering their own opinion and response, their feelings over yours."

See also When Women Speak: "Nice Is Not Enough" from Zetta Elliott and Laura Atkins at CrazyQuiltEdi. Note: Click links on preceding names to read. Peek from Laura:

"As a White person who has made an effort to listen to POC friends about their experiences, and also taken part in an equity circle at my daughter’s school, I’ve experienced a shift as I’ve just started to recognize what White privilege is, how my life is defined by it, and how differently POC move through, and are treated by, our society. 
"Mostly, I'm aware of how much I don't know."

Tips for Choosing Culturally Appropriate Books & Resources About Native Americans by Dr. Cathy Gutierrez-Gomez from Colorín Colorado. Peek:
“Prepare units about specific tribes, rather than units about ‘Native Americans.’ ...Ideally, choose a tribe with a historical or contemporary role in the local community. Such a unit will provide children with culturally specific knowledge (pertaining to a single group) rather than over-generalized stereotypes.”

Why Is Society Intent on Erasing Black People in Fantasy and Sci-fi’s Imaginary Worlds? by Ashley Nkadi from The Root. Peek:
“In these fictional worlds, anything could happen: magic, dragons, travel through space and time. Anything, that is, except diversity. The more I read and watched the genres, the more I felt just the way I had at school. As if I did not belong.”

Reading Recs for Classics by Amanda Rawson Hill from Thinking Through Our Fingers. Peek:
“While there is something to be said with having students read books that they will be expected to know, we also need to continue to expand that list of books and bring it into the 21st century with relevant topics and diverse authors and characters.”

“As a Sappony person, I’ve done a lot of stereotype busting in the schools. Instruction is driven not just by data, but also by popular literature, resources, and what people think they know, and when those concepts are inaccurate and full of stereotypes, so is the instruction and hence, the learning.”
Writing Craft

Pantser, Revised from Janet Fox. Peek:
“I needed to understand deeper motivation and theme, I had to expand my character analysis, and I wanted to be certain that the plot was not only clear but also included the twists and turns that I love to incorporate in my stories. So I wrote a ‘treatment.’ It’s the kind of thing that filmmakers write as they are about to begin storyboarding.”

Writing a Memoir by Sophie Masson from Writer unBoxed. Peek:
“Memoir is written usually in subjective first person; but you need the third-person objective eye, too, if it is to communicate to readers and succeed as a work of art.”

Writing Active Character Reaction by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek:
“The most compelling protagonists not only move action forward, but they remain plugged into the action as it progresses. They act on the plot, and react to the plot, in other words. They are…wait for it…proactive and reactive protagonists.”
Publishing 

Three Keys to Selling a Children’s Picture Book Biography by Michael Mahin from Writers Digest. Peek:
“The trick to structuring a picture book biography, and all nonfiction for that matter, is being true to historical events while making sure the story stakes escalate in a way that builds to some sort of satisfying climax.”

Unpublished Writers and Websites: Should You Have One and What Should It Say? by Jane Friedman from her blog. Peek:
“Your website serves as an online home and hub for everything that you do, whether in real life or in the digital realm. You fully own and control it, tell your own story, and connect directly with the media, readers or influencers.”

The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey 2016 by Jim Milliot from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
“In 2015, men earned an average of $96,000, compared to an average of $61,000 for women. Furthermore, 72 percent of men reported that they earned $70,000 or more compared to only 41 percent of women.” See also Writing Under a Male Name Makes You Eight Times More Likely to Get Published by Jess Denham from The Independent.
Awards

Congratulations to Robin Benway, winner of the National Book Award in Young People's Literature! Watch the 2017 Finalists' Readings from the National Book Foundation.

See Robin Benway Wins 2017 National Book Award by Rocco Staino from School Library Journal. Peek:

"Asked about inspiration by one of the teens, Benway said that she got the idea for Far From the Tree from a song lyric. While sitting in a Costco parking lot, she was listening to 'Cosmic Love' by Florence + the Machine. 'A falling star fell from your heart and landed in my eyes' became the spark for her story."

This Week at Cynsations
More Personally - Cynthia

Greetings from Georgia!

I dearly hope to see some of you today and tomorrow in conjunction with Savannah Children's Book Festival.

Last week's highlight was "An Evening with the Authors," hosted by Friends of Northside Libraries at Harlan High School in San Antonio.

It was an author speed-dating style event, in which paired author moved from table to table of book enthusiasts (heavy on the writer-teacher-librarian community) to briefly offer an overview of our work and answer questions.

Every year, I try to do a couple of local-ish literary events that are wholly about supporting school and public libraries. I highly encourage my fellow national trade published authors to consider doing the same.

I loved meeting so many enthusiastic book lovers and reconnecting with fellow authors-illustrators like Mari Mancusi, Tracy Deebs, Greg Leitich Smith, Joy Fisher Hein, and Jessica Lee Anderson.

More Personally - Gayleen

I had a fantastic weekend at the Austin SCBWI Novel Writing Retreat!

Huge thanks to Samantha Clark and P.J. Hoover for organizing the event and to agent Natalie Lakosil and editor Deirdre Jones for sharing their insights! I left excited and energized with a fresh start on my projects.

And then, on Wednesday evening, my daughter, Anna Langthorn, was interviewed by Rachel MaddowDemocrats Feeling New Energy, Flipping Seats in Red Oklahoma.

Personal Links - Cynthia

Personal Link - Robin

Thursday, November 16, 2017

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

Joy Preble, Heather Demetrios & Renee Watson at Texas Book Festival.
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, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Ha! Oh the bumps. So many bumps. Some have been the things that no author can control, such as an editor leaving in the middle of a project.

With the Dreaming Anastasia series (Sourcebooks, 2009-2012), I had four different editors over a three-book series. As you can imagine, this kind of turnover is no one's friend, and not only because subsequent editors have to work with a series they didn't acquire and that probably isn't a good match for their tastes.

It also meant that the only true continuity editor for the three-book saga was me. The first book had been an unplanned breakout--this extremely miraculous event that came from a combination of timing, luck, and an in-house publicist who happened to like me and decided to work very, very hard and savvy with me and on my behalf.

Thus, book one sold very well and is still the book for which I'm best known.

The initial plans for book two were focused and big. But when the publicist left just as book two was coming out, all those plans basically fell apart or didn't materialize, and so I had to figure out how to keep promoting the series in the ways I felt would be best.

With Jenny Moss & Jennifer Ziegler at the Texas Library Association con.
I realized that I could either moan about it all or try to do something. Make my own luck, my own connections. It wasn't perfect, but it kept me in the game.

We all know the truth. It's tough to make any book a success without consistent and substantive publisher support.

So much of what gets books noticed starts happening a year or more before publication and continues its game plan right up to publication.

All those conference and book festival pitches, all that print promo, those personal notes to booksellers, the ads and the media whatevers, they add up.

Without that support, it's a trickier thing.

Trickier being a euphemism for "good luck to you."

So I built my own support system with authors and librarians and booksellers. Because I might not be able to get that broader publicity, but I could still get my name and my books out there.

This took many forms. I pitched panels and workshops to the numerous regional school librarian conferences around Texas, both individually and with fellow authors. I attended and networked at SCBWI conferences not only in Houston but also in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and more.

I went to TLA each year, sometimes paid for by publishers, sometimes paid for by me.

I supported other authors and independent bookstores because this business is about community, about supporting the art and the stories, about being part of the conversation.

I contacted all the Houston YA authors I knew-- some debuts, some mid-listers like me, some NYTimes bestsellers and created a loosely structure author co-op we call the YAHOUs (YA Houston), designed to help us signal boost and support and pool our various opportunities.

I said "yes" to as much as I could. I kept at it.

I put my name out there.

I pitched for school visits and did more librarian networking and developed programs to present.

I kept up -- and still do--with many of the authors in my 2009 debut class.

I also found my own niche--the things that work for me and my books and my skill set: Presenting workshops on craft and the writer life. School visits that are writing workshops or some hybrid that also includes talking about never giving up and tenacity. Keynote speeches when I get them. Author panels both as participant and moderator.

I have come to grudging terms with the fact that some of the big-name festivals might never be offered to me for a variety of reasons. But many, many are.

Lasting in this business means understanding when to reinvent yourself, when to stick to your brand, and when--to paraphrase that song from "Frozen"--just let something go.

We can't all be all things, so:
  • Keep your eyes on your paper. 
  • Find your villages. 
  • Be kind. 
  • Be aware of the opportunities that do come your way.
Mostly, I keep writing. That's been its own bump. After seven books in seven and a half years and a few manuscripts that didn't sell, I hit a wall with the book I'm finally getting right.

I started over more than once. Gave up the notion that it would be the option book for one of my publishers. Wrote it again. And now I'm writing it one more time.

It's the book it should be. But it means there will be a gap. I'm trying to be good with that.

Joy on a panel with Mari Mancusi, Jessica Lee Anderson & Madeline Smoot at Brazos Bookstore.
Having a new job at an independent bookstore is helping. I've learned much about the industry from this side of things. I've been reminded about all the amazing small books by small publishers that are simply brilliant, and it's an honor to hand-sell these books that otherwise would have little or no noise around them. The push to persist has ultimate always been the same: I can't imagine my life without writing. I have stories to tell.

And that Dreaming Anastasia series that went through all those editors and all those bumps?

It's still selling, still being reviewed by readers and amazingly, being referenced in numerous scholarly papers about retellings of Russian fairy tales! They're still the books I'm best known for. In fact, there's been talk about repackaging the series. So you just never know.

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

For sure, I would have persisted earlier, as far back as college when I started writing what would have been a YA novel but didn't ever finish it.

I would have treated writing as a business earlier, although I will say that it was harder to do that in the pre-Internet days, which may or may not be a valid excuse.

I would have sometimes pushed harder to make sure Marketing was defining my books as I wanted them to be defined.

Beyond that, I honestly have no regrets. This journey has been in many ways a miracle. And if that's overstating things, let me rephrase.

My character Leo in Finding Paris (Balzer + Bray, 2015) says something at the end of the novel that I truly believe-- that she understands not everyone gets the life they want.

Of course Leo hopes this won't be true for her, hopes she can move forward now that she has finally told her devastating truth.

I know I'm lucky to have gotten a chance at the artist's life I probably should have been living long before I finally realized that's what I was supposed to do.

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?

Children's-YA publishing feels much more big deal/dollar driven than it did back when I first signed with an agent and sold my first novel in 2006-2007. Not that money wasn't a focus.

Publishing is, of course, a business.

But the competition is greater, the desire for debut authors who will break out and make it big with that first book rather than a slower build of a career is much more intense--and it certainly does drive the promotional aspect of things.

In YA literature, there seems to be a large push for signing authors who can be promoted as sort of analogues for their books and I'm not always sure what I think about that. It makes promotion easier. But I worry that it shoehorns certain authors into writing only that one thing and I do believe that at some point, this becomes, at best, formulaic and, at worst, detrimental to their growth as writers.

That being said, I am heartened by the focus on #ownvoices, heartened that in kidlit we are committed to making sure that representation of marginalized groups is done authentically and with the proper nuance and awareness of potential, even if unintended, bias. I am glad for sensitivity readers.

Joy launches The Sweet Dead Life at Blue Willow Bookshop.
In my previous life as a high school English teacher, I was frequently disheartened at curriculum choices that limited, for example, African-American characters to a study of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and Jewish characters to Night by Elie Wiesel (1956) or Diary of Anne Frank (1947).

"But we've got this great unit," teachers would say. "The students love it."

And I would have to say, "Yeah. Okay. But listen. If the only books students read about Jews and People of Color focus on those people as victims then what subliminal lesson are we teaching?"

Often I'd be met with blank looks.

So I'm glad to see us collectively working to the write the books that need to be written.

I am glad we are being tough on each other.

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

Have faith in yourself.

Tune out the noise.

Write the stories you need to write. Don't follow the trends.

Make sure you have critique partners who challenge you and who are the right ones to help you raise the bar.

Remember that once a book is out in the world, it's no longer yours. Which means that Goodreads is for readers, not for you. Peer at it at your own peril. Remember that sometimes readers will read the book they think it is, not the one you've written. Learn what you can from this, but don't fret.

Keep writing.

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

I will borrow from Cynthia's own answer to the question: I want Story to be the main focus of books. The focus needs to be on telling the stories you are best able to tell.

Identity needs to be organic to the story and when it's not, there's sometimes a fill-in-the-blanks feel that diminishes the power of the story. This is a tough job, that balance.

I'm writing a Jewish character, for example, and I'm Jewish so you'd think easy, right?

But it's not always easy because that identity is not just about surface things like holidays or food but all the nuances of how this specific Jewish character sees the world.

So how do we make sure editors see all that and then readers? How much should we worry about? And I think at the end of the day, it comes back to making sure we focus on Story first.

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

Most immediately, I want to finish the book I'm working on and move it toward publication. Hopefully that will have happened by the time you read this!

I think that's enough of a goal for now!

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.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Guest Post: Beth Bacon & Marianne Murphy on Conveying Meaning With Meta Fiction & Concrete Poetry

By Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

This is the third post in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Writing conveys a full spectrum of experiences and emotions—but are there limits to what words alone can do? When digging deeper into the building blocks of literacy, you realize that letters and words are more than the ideas the represent. They’re physical entities too. Their shapes and designs can contain meaning.

One way to reach emerging readers is with a visual approach to storytelling. Authors who explore the relationships between words and images have a rich set of tools at their disposal.

Words can have shapes that enhance their meaning. Shapes and symbols can add new ideas to the words on the page.

Young people today are in many ways highly visually literate.

In my work, I use of imagery to help emerging readers make meaning. In this third article in my series for relucant readers I spoke with another author whose work employs visual elements to make meaning, Marianne Murphy. 

Marianne came up against some of the limitations of traditional writing conventions while working on a memoir about her childhood. Murphy turned to concrete poetry to squeeze more meaning out of our alphabet. The result is her new title, Bad Thoughts (Amazon Digital, 2017), which is now available as an ebook. Her unique use of of letters as visuals adds to the mood of the story. Her sentence design contributes to the voice.

Perhaps more authors should take a visual approach to writing. The additional meaning conveyed by the imagery aids emerging readers in their quest for understanding. But more than that, it allows writers to express themselves in new ways.

Marianne Murphy
Beth Bacon: You’ve written a memoir about your struggles with OCD as a child. Why did you choose to use the concrete poetry form to convey the story?

Marianne Murphy: I knew that I wanted to express my experience, because it was a very isolating time period for me and there isn’t a lot of narrative representation of childhood and adolescent OCD. But I was having a really hard time expressing my story in a traditional way, because that linear, logical, structured path is not how I was processing my thoughts at the time. 

I didn’t think people would be able to recognize their own experiences in my story if I forced the story into an uncomfortably linear narrative.

It became clear to me that it had to be visual because some parts of the experience were indescribable through words alone, and I found that the chaos of concrete poetry helped me access and recall a lot of the rawness of the experience. 

The concrete poetry form sometimes utilizes the repetition of words to create a deconstruction of meaning, and I found that repetitiveness naturally reflected how my brain felt during the times when my OCD was really intense. 

Beth Bacon: Visual literacy is the ability to make meaning from images. Stories that present information visually can help emerging readers.

Can you talk about how the visuals in your story make meaning?

Marianne Murphy: One of the first visuals that came out while I was writing was the repeating Y to represent obsessive thoughts. 

It first occurs during the main character’s obsessive prayer, where the word “Sorry” deconstructs, and the Y’s break off and overwhelm the page. 

The sensation of abstract concepts being broken down into meaningless tasks and clouding my focus was one of the most exasperating and indescribable parts of OCD, and for me there wasn’t a clear way to express that sensation through words alone. 

I think some concepts need to be conveyed visually, and some people absolutely find it easier to relate and project their own experience onto a visual narrative.

A page of concrete poetry from Bad Thoughts.

Beth Bacon: You say you weren’t a reluctant reader as a child. What was your relationship with books when you were young? How often did you read, what types of books, and why? Did you perceive your reading habits as different from other kids?

Marianne Murphy:The biggest problem I encountered as a child was a lack of understanding and vocabulary to explain my experience and seek professional help, so abstract and surreal visuals were the only way I could even try to convey what was going on. That is still partially true today.

Beth Bacon: Meta fiction techniques break a book’s conventions. They are any self-referential elements that disrupt the text or boundaries of the book, refer to themselves, invite interactivity, and mock the rules of reading we work so hard to teach. For readers who feel marginalized, meta fiction can be affirming and empowering.

As a child, I used reading to escape from my reality, did you?

Marianne Murphy: I read all the time! For the most part I alternated between very visual, meta picture books like The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales by Jon Scieszka (illustrated by Lane Smith, Viking Press, 1992), and nonfiction like arts-and-crafts books, joke books, and biographies. 

I was really obsessed with Ellen Degeneres’s and Whoopi Goldberg’s adult memoirs, and I was also really drawn to books that were aware of their own structure, like Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School (illustrated by Adam McCauley, HarperCollins, 2003).

Beth Bacon: Books can be powerful allies to kids who feel like outsiders for any reason. There’s something very personal about the relationship between a reader and a book. And meta fiction draws attention to this relationship. 

The Book No One Wants to Read
makes a deal with the reader.
When a book behaves differently in its structure, format, or content, it’s as if the book and the reader make a secret, rebellious pact.

In my new title, The Book No One Wants To Read, the book/narrator makes a deal with the reader: “What if you just sit here and turn my pages and we just goof off? I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.” 

What conventions did you work with while writing Bad Thoughts?

Marianne Murphy: For the most part, I wanted the fiction I read to be very visual and to have a strong word/image connection and balance, and I wanted the nonfiction I read to be strictly technical, structured, and real. 

I noticed that I stayed in the realm of picture books a lot longer than other kids, though my reading level was advanced. 

I didn’t really use reading to escape reality, because due to my obsessions I always felt very isolated from reality. I think I was reading to try to perceive my own reality more clearly.

Beth Bacon: Can you talk about how you wrote this story? Did you write it out in straight sentences first then create the art? Did you sketch the designs from the start? What tools (software programs?) did you use to manipulate the sentences? What were your challenges artistically and technically?

Marianne Murphy: Every page started as a concrete poem! 

I made it entirely in Photoshop without sketching first, and strictly in Times New Roman 12 pt. font, primarily using the pen tool although I made custom brushes of some of the letters so that I could scatter them more easily. 

I made the pages out of order first, sort of just going with my gut to recall the experiences and get everything down that I needed to, and then worked with my advisor Will Alexander at VCFA (Vermont College of Fine Arts) to come up with a good way to order the pages, add a couple transitions, organize the story, and turn the collection into something of a narrative. 

It was very hard to keep the rawness when I was working on something so technical like page design and in such a strict font. I noticed pretty early on that if the page wasn’t literally physically painful to write, then the emotion wasn’t going to come across.

Letters take on new meaning in Bad Thoughts.

Beth Bacon: One theme in your story is the perception of being different from others. The amazing thing is, however, this story brings up universal feelings we all share.

Marianne Murphy: Thank you! The biggest surprise to me after showing this piece to friends and ultimately releasing the book was the fact that people could identify with parts of it or recognize these behaviors in their family members, especially since I’d felt so completely isolated about it for such a huge chunk of my life. 

I think that it’s very hard for people to recognize and own their darker thoughts, let alone express them, but that we find it very cathartic to see those thoughts represented even abstractly in someone else’s work, with a layer of psychic distance. I think the visual elements help create some safe distance, too.

Beth Bacon: Marianne, you’re a writer unafraid to go beyond the conventions of YA novel in order to tell your story. 

Even though I didn’t experience life as Marianne did, I had a deep connection to the characters in Bad Thoughts. I think that’s what happens when an author taps into Truths (with a capital T) we all share. Marianne addresses the Truths about the difficulties and absurdities of learning to be a person in the world. 

In my work, face the Truths about the difficulties and absurdities of learning to decode written English language. We both needed to break the “fourth wall” of writing to express ourselves. The boundaries may be internal or external, but ultimately, the disruption is an act of freedom and hope.

Cynsational Notes

Huge thanks to Beth Bacon for putting together this three-part series focusing on reluctant readers!

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Guest Post: Beth Bacon & Editor Tracey Keevan on Encouraging Reluctant Readers

by Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Editor Tracey Keevan
This is the second post in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Two out of three fourth graders in the United States failed to read with proficiency, according to a 2015 Kids Count survey.

The fundamental skill of reading is not an easy one to master.

Writers, editors and educators need new ways of addressing this humbling fact.

In the second installment of my series about reluctant readers, I ask: What does it take to create a book that appeals to emerging and reluctant readers?

And who better to ask than the editor of some of the most beloved books—among reluctant readers as well as kids who enjoy books. 

Tracey Keevan is an executive editor at Disney-Hyperion. She has worked with a number of best-selling, award-winning authors and illustrators beloved by many struggling readers, including Mo Willems, Dan Santat, Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, Tony DiTerlizzi, Bryan Collier, and Nate Powell among others.

Tracey herself is an Emmy-nominated writer whose children’s fiction has been featured on Nickelodeon as well as in books and magazines. Tracy’s perspective offers powerful insights into the art of reaching out and appealing to reluctant readers.

Tracey Keevan: Reading a book has always felt a lot like running a race to me. Nervous anxiety hits my gut at the starting line. So far to go. So alone.

So many people who will finish faster, easier, stronger than me.

The first chapter, the first mile, sets that pace. I’m either in the zone, confident and charged, or I’m way out of the zone—struggling through each page, each tenth of a mile, wondering if I can make it to the end. 

Worse: wondering why I’m trying to make it to the end at all. The dreaded Quit Demon starts bouncing up and down on my shoulder: Quit. Quit. Quit.

As an editor of books for kids and teens, I hunt for those “quit moments.” They need to be stomped all over.

Those are the places that make or break a book for reluctant and emerging readers. It’s where the writer—that invisible voice on the sideline—needs to step up and cheer her head off: Go! Go! Go!

Beth Bacon: When creating books for kids who struggle with reading, one can’t assume your audience is going to be an eager one. Humor is one strategy. Every kid loves to laugh.

What writing techniques do you look for?

Tracey Keevan: There is no magic formula, of course. Humor helps. Word choice helps.

So do an active voice, authentic dialogue, relatable characters, and relevant themes. 

But I think the answer is more complex than story mechanics or book format. I think it’s an artist’s respect for the reader (especially the struggling one) that keeps her going. 
  • It’s choosing clarity over cleverness. 
  • It’s about trusting and inviting the reader to share in the storytelling. 
  • It’s about letting the reader know you’re in it together. 
Beth Bacon: When kids read a book, without struggling too much, and they’ve enjoyed themselves, that’s thrilling to me. I feel I’ve succeeded as a writer when kids want to read another book—any book—after they’ve finished mine. What’s your definition of success?

Tracey Keevan: Success with all readers, to me, is a feeling of inclusion. When a reader is connected to the experience, she’ll power up the hills, sprint to finish, and carry that finisher’s medal with her for the next time.

Beth Bacon: What was your experience with reading as a child?

Tracey Keevan: Reading can be terrifying. I know. I was not a “book kid” in grade school or middle school. 

It was no mystery to me why, either. I was paralyzed with fear of failure while reading aloud in class. I struggled with spelling and sight word recognition—I still do today. 

And while I could usually parse out meaning when I was reading to myself, the embarrassment of sounding out words and being corrected in front of my classmates left me feeling insecure, anxious, and isolated. Books were not my friends. I was afraid of them.

Beth Bacon: Fear is something authors don’t like being associated with books! But the truth is, struggling readers certainly feel fear. I address that fear by talking directly to the reader. 

In my new book, The Book No One Wants To Read, the narrator is the book itself. It bends over backwards (literally) to help the readers enjoy their time. How do you address this fear?

Encourages readers to relax & enjoy reading.
Tracey Keevan: I remind myself of that fear often. What would have helped me? Well, not having to read aloud for one. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. 

Shorter sentences would have helped. Scaffolding and repetition would have helped too.

[Scaffolding is a strategy used by reading instructors to address issues blocking the path to literacy by building scaffolds of support like monitoring comprehension and employing pre-reading and post reading activities.]  

Mostly, though, understanding that reading wasn’t a competition, with winners and losers, but a tool to share, learn, grow and be a part of something bigger than myself—that would have helped the most. 

The writers and illustrators who share the fun win kids like me over. (Thank you, Judy Blume!) It’s simple, but true.

Beth Bacon: Sharing the fun—that’s one way authors can help emerging readers get through their required reading sessions. 

As with anything, reading takes practice. So our books need to keep these kids turning the pages. No one knows that better than Tracey Keevan, who has worked in children’s media for over 20 years as an editor, writer, and producer. She also acquires and edits picture books, early readers, chapter books, graphic novels, middle grade and young adult fiction. 

Thanks, Tracey, for your insights!

Cynsational Notes

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Guest Post: Beth Bacon on Honoring Reluctant Readers with Author & Illustrator Charles Johnson

By Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

This post is the first in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Reading is the closest thing we have to magic in the real world.

Is there any other explanation for the way those small, squiggly symbols on the page transform into meaning in our minds?

Scientists can provide technical explanations of the way our eyes and brains make reading happen. But I’m talking about the way a book can move us to tears or spur us to action. Reading conjures actual emotions. It transports us to places that are as real as any we’ve been to in person.

Reading is enchantment. Writers, editors and educators have the honor of introducing this power to young people. But reading can be difficult to learn.

Many children struggle to read or are reluctant to spend time with books. In this series on emerging readers, I spoke with editors, authors and educators who are thinking deeply about the issues our young people face when learning to read.

Charles Johnson with his grandson and daughter
Author, illustrator, teacher and philosopher Charles Johnson who recently wrote and illustrated a series for children, The Adventures of Emery Jones Boy Science Wonder (Libertary Company, 2015).

Johnson is a creative writing professor (emeritus) at University of Washington and received the National Book Award for Middle Passage (Scribner, 1998). He also is a preeminent voice on literature and race and a practicing Buddhist who’s written many books about the philosophy.

Beth Bacon: You’ve written a couple of children's books. Can you talk about your motivations? Did you have someone in mind when you wrote them?

Charles Johnson: According to a study by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, and in 2012 only 3 percent of children's books published in America had "significant African or African-American content."

And, of course, few of these books were produced by black American authors and illustrators.

As both a storyteller and a cartoonist/illustrator, part of my motivation is obviously to correct this dearth of books for children of color to read.

At the time my daughter Elisheba and I co-authored Bending Time and The Hard Problem, the first two books in The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series, we had my grandson Emery in mind—that's where the protagonist's first name comes from.

I care very much about this issue of reading material for our children. You know, of course, about the special issue of The American Book Review (September/October 2014) that I guest-edited titled, "The Color of Children's Literature," because you kindly reviewed Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America, by my friend, the prolific, award-winning children's book author Tonya Bolden (Abrams, 2014).

Something else—perhaps the most important thing of all about the Emery Jones books—is that we want to get kids around middle school age interested in STEM learning and fields. To see the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as exciting and fun.

So Emery in the books is a scientific whiz kid who finds himself flung into different adventures—saving a bully who gets stuck in the prehistoric period, saving the world from aliens and AI robots gone amuck in the second book.

In the next book we do, he'll save the future from a disaster.

As a writing instructor, do believe there is a difference in writing for children who struggle to read and writing for those who like to read?

Yes, I think there is a difference. And you know what? Many adults today struggle to read.

The lack of literacy is a well-documented and very serious problem, especially for high school students who can't read a newspaper op-ed and tell you what the argument is, or adults who can't read and understand the instructions on their prescription medication.

Humanities Washington has a long-running and important program that addresses this, called Mother Read/Father Read. These are a series of books aimed at helping parents learn to read as they read to their children.

How is writing novels for young people different than writing for adults?

As an academically trained philosopher, I write very complex, multi-layered, language rich philosophical novels that dramatize the quest for the Good, investigate the nature of the self, the experience of the middle passage or north Atlantic slave trade, and the philosophical dimensions of Martin Luther King Jr. as a theologian/activist.

But for the Emery Jones books my daughter and I select subjects close to the experience of a middle school-aged child. For example, the experience of being bullied or of first love. I rely on my daughter for this because she is closer to those experiences of young people than I am.

Do you remember learning to read? Did you like to read as a child? What kinds of books influenced your childhood?

I don't remember when I learned to read. But as an only child, books were my refuge (along with drawing) from boredom.

In high school I read one book a week, sometimes three, and they ranged from Ian Fleming's James Bond novels to westerns to Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

My mother was in several book clubs and kept our house full of interesting titles, and I was in a science fiction book club, receiving a new title every month.

I describe this early reading experience in the chapter titled "In the Beginning" in The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner, 2016).

You are a cartoonist, how does this inform your writing?

Well, every picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and our nation's cartoonists (and graphic novel illustrators) are storytellers, too.

In others words, I've always had since childhood a very strong visual imagination, and I'm sure that shows in the descriptive passages in my novels, where I work for as much granularity of detail and specificity as possible.

A blank writing page is for me like a painter's blank canvas---and that is a beautiful thing, a white surface onto which I can project images that hitherto existed in my head where no one could see them.

An illustration from Charles Johnson’s Emery Jones series
Can you talk about the differences in reading, writing and books over the three generations (your childhood, your daughter’s experiences, and now reading to your grandson, Emery).

In the early 20th century, and into the early 1970s (a period still suffering from racial segregation), white, mainstream commercial publishers seldom published black writers and artists. That's why what we call the "black press" (Ebony, Jet, Negro Digest, Players, Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago) came into existence.

As a cartoonist in my teens and early twenties, I published drawings and one book (Black Humor, 1970) with black publishers, then from 1974 until today with so-called "mainstream" publishers.

So the publishing situation for black writers and artists became somewhat freer since the 1980s than during my childhood. But today, sadly, and as I mentioned in my response to your first question, we still have a situation described eloquently by author and illustrator Christopher Myers in his essay "The Apartheid of Children's Literature” (New York Times, 2014):

"Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination...at best background characters, and more often than not absent. …They recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves within the lines."

So our goal with the Emery Jones books is to break down those borders and lines, and free the imagination of as many young readers (of all backgrounds) as possible.

Beth Bacon: Freeing the imagination was one goal I had in mind when writing I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read (Pixel Titles, 2017).

Children who find reading difficult—whatever the reason—face real barriers. Not just barriers on the page, but challenges from parents, obstructive comments from peers, and isolation at school.

What if we authors for children approached our writing projects asking, “How can I include struggling readers within the boundaries of this text?”

My two books for struggling readers are barrier-breakers. They break the barriers of linear narrative; the barriers of a single authorial voice; the rules of separating words and pictures. And that’s just the form.

The content of the books break barriers, too, by directly acknowledging the experience of reluctant readers and honoring those kids whose feel like they’re on the outside in their own classrooms.



Sometimes writers have to go beyond the margins of a book to reach the readers on the margins. Let’s acknowledge and address the experience of young readers as they develop the magical skill of reading.

Cynsational Notes


Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Cynsations News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith,
Gayleen Rabakukk & Robin Galbraith
for Cynsations

Author/Illustrator Interviews

Cherie Dimaline On Ersaure, the Power of Story, and The Marrow Thieves by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek:
“I very strongly believe that with the current state of the world, one of the best options we have as the human race is to start globally valuing the traditional and ecological knowledges that are held by the original inhabitants of the land.”

A Story of Images for a Story by Sara Kahn from YouTube. Peek:
“I always wait and read the story at a good time because this is when I get the main images in my mind.”

Meet National Book Award Finalist Ibi Zoboi by Emily Temple from LitHub. Peek:
N.K. Jemisin told me to get robots: a Roomba, a dishwasher, a crockpot. These would allow me the physical energy and time to get words down on the page.”

Tackling the Personal Narrative, Part 2 by Melissa Stewart from Celebrate Science. Peek: Explores Sarah Albee’s Cynsations post as a tool for teaching personal narrative essays.
“The idea of describing what’s on my desk seems boring to me. After all, I see those items every single day. But am I curious to know what’s on another writer’s desk? You bet! ...Young writers, many of whom have read Sarah’s wonderful books, will be curious too.”

7 Questions For: Author Katherine Applegate by Robert Kent from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek:
“I aim for two hours a day writing and read as much as I can, whenever I can. It’s so important to connect with work daily, if possible, even if it’s only for five minutes.”

What Really Matters by Tillie Walden from Diversity in YA. Peek:
“I tell them about moments in Spinning (First Second, 2017), about how I knew I was gay when I was five...about how art gave me a connection to myself and a career at the same time. And I talk about how publishing a memoir is so healing because it lets others hold your memories with you.” 

Diversity

We Need Diverse Books by Linda Sue Park. Peek:
“Donations to WNDB have enabled us to fund grants for 25 publishing internships over the past three years. Fully half of those interns have gone on to obtain full-time jobs in publishing, and they’re already bringing greater diversity to children’s books, promoting affirmation and empathy for all kids.”

We Need Diverse Series by Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:
“The characters in series books become part of our lives for many weeks or even months. Readers get to know the characters in series books deeply as they experience many situations and life circumstances together. Here are ten great series that have diverse characters.”

The Lotterys Plus One is the Queer Happily-Ever-After We Deserve by Alyssa Eleanor Ross from BookRiot. Peek:
“That means what we get from the Lotterys is a happily-ever-after—not one where everything is always perfect, but one where a queer family faces messy, mundane, heartbreaking, hilarious, entirely normal problems. It’s the kind of happily-ever-after that’s really just the beginning.”

Writing Craft

Ties that Bind and Define – The Family of Your Protagonist by John J. Kelley from Writer Unboxed. Peek:
“...depictions of family can offer a window into a protagonist’s core character. ... fictional families, not unlike real ones, can challenge a protagonist unlike any other external or internal force.”

The Time It Costs to Write by Natalia Sylvester from Writer Unboxed. Peek:
“Writers are always seeking it out, longing for more of it, waiting for a window of its uninterrupted bliss to present itself, or chasing it in tiny bits, catching whatever we can of it, in hopes of making what we can with it.”

Confessions of a Recovering Plotter by Anna Elliott from Writer Unboxed. Peek:
“After writing several books, though, I noticed something: no matter how much I outlined and plotted and planned in advance, a certain percentage of my outlined plot points never made it into the book, because...I would come up with something that actually worked better…”

The Art of Distraction by Lee Conell from Glimmer Train. Peek:
“...even if I turn off the WiFi connection, I find myself pulled between the page and the weird spiral of my thoughts, which rarely constrain themselves to the story at hand. For a long time while I was supposed to be writing, I would find myself thinking about the news and feeling depressed.”

6 Things to Consider Before Writing a Series by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek:
“A series where every book is a complete stand-alone tale will have a contained plot every book. A series with a longer story arc that moves a little in every book will likely have more subplots and series-arcing plots that don’t get resolved every book.”

Publishing

A Basic Guide to Getting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter from Jane Friedman. Peek:
“Determining what’s fair use is a gray area, and depends on your risk tolerance. To eliminate all possible risk, then it’s best to either ask for permission or eliminate use of the copyrighted material in your own work. Here’s a flowchart that can help you evaluate what you might need to ask permission for.”
Interview: Debbie Reese on Native Identity, Voices & Depictions in Books for Young Readers by S.E. Smith from Bitch Media. Peek:
"The same resistance we’ve always had, no matter where we speak, which is an unwillingness to hear the voices of people who say 'This is not okay' when nobody has ever challenged you on that before. A good example is mascots. People say, 'Why didn’t you object 50 years ago?' to this or that mascot. How do they know we didn’t?"

Donna Janell Bowman
Cynsational Awards

Congratulations to all authors and illustrators whose books were named to the Texas Bluebonnet Award List! See Cynsations interviews with Hena Khan, Donna Janell Bowman and Yona Zeldis McDonough.

Cynsational Events

Attention, Georgia book lovers! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at the 2017 Savannah Children's Book Festival, which will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 18 in Forsyth Park.

Cynthia also will be on the critique faculty of WriteOnCon: A Totally Interactive Online Writers Conference from Feb. 9 to Feb. 11.

This Week at Cynsations
More Personally - Cynthia

With my brililiant editor, Hilary
I'm happy to announce that Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids, edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (Atheneum) was named among the Best Nonfiction Children's Books of 2017 by Amazon.com. My contribution to the book is "Dreams to Write."

On a related note, see also For Young Readers: Four Books That Celebrate the Wonders of Books, and Writing by Abby McGanney Nolan from The Washington Post.

Last week's highlight was attending the Kirkus Reviews Prize reception with my Candlewick editor, Hilary Van Dusen, on Thursday evening at the penthouse of the Four Seasons Residencies in Austin.

Hilary edited one of the must-read finalists, Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, translated by Helen Wang, illustrated by Meilo So.

Huge congratulations to the winner in Young Readers' Literature, Cherie Dimaline for the Marrow Thieves (DCB)! It's heartening to see a First Nations woman win such a prestigious (and hefty cash) prize.

More Personally - Gayleen

What is it about book festivals that turns reserved writers into giddy social butterflies?

I enjoyed the 2nd Annual Texas Authors' Summit at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission with Gloria Amescua, Erin Sewell and Cate Berry, along with many other members of the Austin children's literature community.

The event was organized by Rebekah Manley, Texas Center for the Book coordinator, and kicked off a weekend devoted to the celebration of books and literacy.

Texas Book Festival attendees made donations to buy 370 books for Houston Reading Rock Star students. Each donation was matched by a donation from the Texas Book Festival and the Tocker Foundation, which means 1,110 students will be receiving books thanks to the support and generosity of the literary community.

Also, the Texas Library Association recently announced $102,600 in disaster relief grants to 25 libraries. TLA is still accepting donations to fund future grants.

Personal Links - Cynthia
Personal Links- Robin
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