Thursday, May 13, 2010

New Voice: Adrienne Sylver on Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog

Adrienne Sylver is the first-time author of Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog, illustrated by Elwood H. Smith (Dutton, May 13, 2010). From the promotional copy:

If we are what we eat, Americans are hot dogs.

We ate them on the way to the moon and served them to the king of England. We name a Hot Dog- Eating Champ!

Garnished with hilarious illustrations and amazing "foodie" facts, this kid-friendly, globespanning history of our favorite fast-food meal offers unique insight into America's multicultural heritage.

From a hobo's franks-and-beans to astronaut food, there's more to the wiener--and what's for dinner--than you think.

Could you tell us about your writing community – your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I am blessed to be part of a wonderful, supportive writing community on so many levels. Would I have completed a manuscript without these people? Probably, but I’ll be honest— it would not have been as well written and it certainly would not have been as much fun along the way.

One of the most important decisions I made was to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I attended my first critique group in Miami, out of which grew a revival of the SCBWI Florida chapter. We meet weekly (I go as often as I can) to read and critique each other’s work.

The group, led by Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld, Florida’s SCBWI regional advisor, is a mix of unpublished and published writers, and I have learned a tremendous amount from all of them. We’ve celebrated success stories and helped each other deal with everything from writing craft problems to rejections and difficult revisions.

The SCBWI-Florida chapter sponsors two large conferences a year, and I’ve volunteered in some capacity at almost every one.

In January, we meet in Miami (it helps that editors and agents don’t mind escaping a harsh winter to enjoy our sunshine), and in June, we meet in Orlando.

We’ve had terrific authors, illustrators, editors, and agents join us, each one a wealth of information and so open and sharing.

In fact, I’m an SCBWI success story. I met my editor at one of our conferences. Mark McVeigh (now a literary agent) was senior editor at Dutton Children’s Books at the time. He had critiqued ten pages of a YA manuscript of mine at the conference. Although that manuscript wasn’t for him, we talked about other things I was working on.

He perked up when I described my quirky, nonfiction picture book, Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog, and asked me to e-mail it to him when he returned to New York. I did, and eventually I got the good news that he wanted to acquire it.

I encourage all children’s writers and illustrators to join SCBWI. The organization not only helps you with your craft, but gives you the opportunity to access the industry’s best and brightest.

Within my weekly Miami critique group, I’ve become great friends with a number of members, particularly Danielle Joseph, author of Indigo Blues (Flux, 2010), Christina Diaz Gonzalez, author of The Red Umbrella (Knopf, 2010), and Gaby Triana, author of Riding the Universe (HarperTeen, 2009). (I’m listing only the most current book by my friends, but check out their entire lists on Amazon or their websites.)

We sometimes meet at Starbucks to write (confession here – they meet way more often than I do), and I credit them with forcing me to get off my butt and back to writing when I went through a period of about a year where everything in my life seemed to interfere.

We brainstorm, we share information about our respective publishing houses and industry news, and we are often the first readers for each other. But our friendship goes even deeper than that. We all have kids and crazy, busy lives, and we’ve helped each other cope with all that comes with that, too, and had plenty of laughs along the way.

Support also comes from my writing mentor, young adult author and teacher Joyce Sweeney, who facilitates several writing classes and critique groups. Not only is she a wonderful role model, but with her leadership and guidance, more than 25 South Florida writers have become published authors.

If you have a question on a manuscript or how to work with your editor, Joyce is the go-to person. If you need someone to tell you to keep going, she’s the go-to person. If you need advice on contracts, she’s the go-to person. She is one of the most giving and positive people I know.

I’m fortunate to be able to call many of her group members friends. Among them are: Marjetta Geerling, author of Fancy White Trash (Viking, 2009); Dorian Cirrone, author of Prom Kings and Drama Queens (HarperTeen, 2008); Debbie Reed Fischer, author of Swimming with the Sharks (Flux, 2008); Alex Flinn, author of A Kiss in Time (HarperTeen, 2009); and Laurie Friedman, author of Mallory Goes Green (Carolrhoda Books, 2010).

Then there’s the online community. You’re a prime example of the support writers give each other. And my friends over at Whatcha’ Reading Now, too. I feel as if I have a whole other family out there in cyberspace, cheering me on through Facebook and other social media sites.

And speaking of family, I have to say that mine is always rooting for me. Most writers know what it feels like to get that rejection e-mail, and when I’m feeling down there’s nothing better than hanging with my husband and two kids to get my mind off whatever is bothering me. And, with two teens in the house, I’ve got great material (I’m mostly writing YA these days), as well as a couple of harsh critiquers who aren’t afraid to tell me that my voice isn’t "teen" or that my dialogue is off.

Finally, I have two other groups who support me in different ways. I work virtually full time for a few select companies, doing freelance writing work.

One of those is Baptist Health South Florida, an organization I’m proud to say I’ve worked for both in-house and independently for 22 years. My colleagues in the marketing and public relations department there have become a second family. They are a smart, creative, hard-working group who never fail to amuse me when I need a boost. And, they’re out there selling my book, too. I bet they’ve told as many people about Hot Diggity Dog as I have.

And my mother-daughter book club, both moms and daughters, have endured far too many stories about the industry than anyone should be subjected to. Yet they’re among my biggest fans and still listen with interest (yes, they’re probably great actors) when I regale them with another unbelievable tale about the book industry.

It’s funny, but I feel as if I have these totally separate worlds—my writing group, my work colleagues, my family and friends— yet they are somehow connected through my writing.

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

Would you believe that my inspiration came from a snippet I heard on National Public Radio?

I was driving along in my car one evening listening to NPR and there was a segment about July 4th and all it means to Americans.

One fact stuck with me: Americans eat something like two billion hot dogs in the month of July alone. Now I like hot dogs, but that number was just mind-boggling to me.

I was off and running. I started by doing some research on the internet, where I uncovered hundreds of interesting tidbits about the hot dog. For example, did you know that the first astronauts to eat hot dogs in space were the same ones who first walked on the moon in 1969? And would you think it possible for a kid to invent a peanut-butter flavored hot dog? Well, one did when he suggested it to a hot dog maker and they took his idea to heart.

I went to the library and looked through book after book to learn more about where the hot dog was from and how it came to America.

The information I was discovering was fascinating, and I thought if it interested me, it would get the attention of readers, too.

I never considered writing the book for adults. Kids were my audience from day one.

It probably helped that I really like hot dogs. My husband and son are huge hot dog lovers, too. My daughter, well, that’s another story.

So I did a little more investigation, this time from the marketing end of things. Were there other books for kids about the hot dog? I couldn’t find anything recent.

At about the same time that I was delving into my research, I got a little push from another writer friend of mine. The wildly successful Elaine Landau, author of more than 300 nonfiction books for kids, had been encouraging our critique group members to give nonfiction a shot.

As a former reporter, and as a freelance writer, I’d written nonfiction most of my life. I wanted to do something different. But in this case, and with Elaine’s support, I stuck to nonfiction.

I’m so glad I did, especially once I got to see Elwood H. Smith’s illustrations. He’s the genius who made my manuscript come to life.

I hope, through the book, that even kids who aren’t nonfiction lovers see that nonfiction can be fun and interesting. Perhaps they’ll even think about one of their own favorite foods and start doing a little research. Before they know it, they might have a book of their own.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

The Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children was Watching Jimmy by Nancy Hartry (Tundra). The honor books were Vanishing Girl by Shane Peacock (Tundra) and Faerie Rebels - Spell Hunter by R.J. Anderson (HarperCollins). Source: ACHOCKABLOG. Read a Cynsations interview with R.J.

The Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award went to Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingstone (HarperCollins). The honor books were The Gryphon Project by Carrie Mac (Puffin) and The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade (HarperCollins). Source: ACHOCKABLOG. Read a Cynsations interview with Lesley and a Cynsations interview with Arthur.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia: an audio talk and reading by Rita from

The Texas Governor’s Committee on People With Disabilities Vote to Add a Book Category to Media Awards by Jo Virgil from Austin SCBWI. Peek: "The award is for a book that is either about a disability, or that features a character with a disability in a respectful and realistic manner." Note: children's-YA books are eligible; books must have been published in the current calendar year. See more information.

On Acknowledgments from Getting Past the Gatekeeper. Peek: "Whom do you thank? How much space do you have? Do you have to thank everyone? (No.) Should you thank your agent? (You'd better.)" Source: Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent.

30 famous authors whose works were rejected (repeatedly, and sometimes rudely) by publishers by Michelle Kerns from The Examiner. Peek: "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (later Sorceror’s) Stone was rejected by a dozen publishers, including biggies like Penguin and HarperCollins. Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, only took it on at the behest of the CEO’s eight-year old daughter, who begged her father to print the book. God bless you, sweetheart."

Lee & Low Books New Voices Award: "Established in 2000, the New Voices Award encourages writers of color to submit their work to a publisher that takes pride in nurturing new talent." Also: "Manuscripts will be accepted from May 1, 2010, through September 30, 2010 and must be postmarked within that period." See more information.

Publish Your First Book After 50 by Scott Hoffman from Writer's Digest. Note: this is less of an issue for children's writers (versus those who write for adults), but the pitfalls and tips are still worth noting.

The Catch-22 Dilemma by Mary Kole from Peek: "This is a perceived problem that some writers have. Let me explain why I say 'perceived.' It’s understandable thinking but I’d love to put this 'I can’t get published unless I’m published' thing to rest for good." See also Getting Into a "Closed" House.

Managing Multiple Identities Online (Avoid) by Jane Friedman from There Are No Rules. Peek: "There are usually two areas where I see a definite need to separate and maintain different sites or social media accounts..." Source: Greg Pincus.

Sara F. Schacter: new official author site. See also Sara's blog, This Is My Blog: Aha Moments for Moms who Write and Writers Who Mom.

Avoiding the Wannabe Trap by Anne Marie Pace. Peek: "When so many other writing activities beckon--conference, writing retreats, Internet chat sites and message boards for writers--sometimes writing time gets pushed aside." Source: Carmen Oliver.

Editor Interview: Brian Farrey of Flux from Alice Pope's SCBWI Blog. Peek: "...if you're going to write YA, you need to read YA. Know the market. Every day I get manuscripts from people who clearly have not read a contemporary YA novel." Read a Cynsations interview with Brian.

Jennifer Represents...where book reviews, agentish advice, party planning, cute animal pictures and general shenanigans collide from agent Jennifer Laughran. Note: new blog location.

The 40th Annual Rutgers One-on-One Conference is scheduled for Oct. 16. Peek: "One-on-One brings together the largest number of professionals of any conference of its kind. The unique one-on-one format gives writers and illustrators a rare opportunity to share their work with an assigned mentor. The conference also offers a chance to meet and exchange information and ideas with experienced editors, agents, art directors, authors, and illustrators, who have generously volunteered their time." Application deadline: June 15.

Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania by Haya Leah Molnar (Frances Foster/FSG, 2010)(ages 12+): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog. Peek: "...the sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, story of the day-to-day life of a young girl trying to discover who she is in a society where even school-children can be government informers."

Reminder: Do the Write Thing for Nashville: "We're raising money for flood relief in Nashville by auctioning off critiques and more from your favorite authors, agents, and editors." New items go live daily.

Book Contract Essentials by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "Contract savvy–and professionalism–begins with the idea that you have options."

Five questions for Laura Vaccaro Seeger (and much more) from Notes from the Horn Book. Includes a focus on concept books, much-buzzed new releases, war stories, gifts for grads and more.

How to Craft a Great Voice from Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "Voice, at its most basic level, is the sensibility with which an author writes. It's a perspective, an outlook on the world, a personality and style that is recognizable even out of context."

The Torrible Zone: Authors Talk About Writing Obstacles by Michelle Markel from The Cat and the Fiddle. Peek from Janet S. Wong: "Ordinarily I have no problem with revision--even substantial changes and many of them--but Charlesbridge's editorial team thought the book would read better as a novel. From this picture a novel?"

Interview with Joy Peskin, Executive Editor at Viking Children’s Books, by Amy Finnegan from Throwing Up Words. From part II of the interview: Peek: "The most successful authors I know personally earned their status by producing consistently excellent books over time, by accepting reasonable but not bloated advances, and by showing they can connect with their audiences in a long-term, meaningful way."

Congratulations, Anjali

Seaglass Summer by Anjali Banerjee (Wendy Lamb, 2010) is now available. From the promotional copy:

"Eleven-year-old Poppy Ray longs to be a veterinarian, but she's never had a pet. This summer, she's going to spend a month with her uncle Sanjay, veterinarian and owner of the Furry Friends Animal Clinic on an island off the Washington coast.

"Poppy is in for big surprises. She loves tending to the dogs, cats, and even a bird, and she discovers the fun of newborn puppies and the satisfaction of doing a good job. But she learns that there's more to caring for animals than the stethoscope and cotton swabs in her Deluxe Veterinarian First-Aid Kit. She's not prepared for quirky pet owners, gross stuff, or scary emergencies. With help from a boy named Hawk, a chunk of seaglass, and a touch of intuition, Poppy gains a deeper understanding of the pain and joy of working with animals.

"With warmth and humor, Anjali Banerjee tells the story of a resourceful, determined girl who can't wait to grow up, but begins to realize just how much she has left to discover.

Congratulations, Kimberly

The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt (Henry Holt, 2010) is now available. From the promotional copy. From the promotional copy:

"Amos Kincaid is the son of a dowser – a person gifted in knowing how to 'find' water deep in the ground. As a young person, Amos doesn’t reveal his gift to others; he’s not sure he wants the burden. But through his experiences growing up and crossing the Oregon Trail, Amos learns about life’s harsh realities, especially the pain in losing loved ones. As he cares for those around him, Amos comes to accept his dowsing fate.

"This epic novel is a fascinating period piece about the westward expansion and one man’s destiny as he searches for love and family."

Screening Room

St. Anne Institute Book Drive: YA author Eric Luper is holding a book drive for the outdated and depleted library at the St. Anne Institute, a residential/therapeutic facility for at-risk girls ages 12 to 18 in Albany, NY. He has set a goal of 1000 books.

See more information, including a chance to win the first signed hardcover of his forthcoming novel, Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto (HarperCollins, June 8, 2010). Giveaway deadline: May 17.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz reads from his latest YA novel, Last Night I Sang to the Monster (Cinco Puntos, 2009).

Cynsational Notes

Where Stories Are Made: Cynthia Leitich Smith: a guest post in which I offer a peek into my typical, at-home work day, complete with photos. Peek: "I love that my laptop allows me to migrate around the house. When I really need to spread out, it’s not unusual to find me at the dining room table. I often work on screen and on paper at the same time."

This week's in-person highlights included a dinner party at author Kathi Appelt's home in College Station. The event was in celebration of the release of her new novel, Keeper (Atheneum, 2010)(Simon & Schuster Audio, 2010; read by the author).

In keeping with the spirit of the book, Kathi dished up delicious gumbo...

and offered a buffet of shrimp, watermelon, and cornbread muffins.

She also gave hard-cover and audio copies of the book to everyone in attendance.

And decorated in celebration of the sea.

The beach towels, acting as table cloths, were a particularly colorful and fun choice.

Everyone had a wonderful time.

In other sparkly news, Greg and I joined YA author Carol Lynch Williams and children's author Debbie Gonzales for breakfast yesterday at Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Boulevard.

Central Texans: Make plans to see Carol at 1 p.m. this Sunday, the 16th, at BookPeople, where Carol will be talking about and signing The Chosen One (St. Martin's, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Carol.

What else? Look for a mention of Cynsations on pg. 58 of the May/June 2010 issue of Writer's Digest in the 101 Best Websites article. Thanks to Tara Nickerson for the heads-up!

Thanks to Nancy Bo Flood for recommending Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name, and my website in her guest post, Wanted: Books written by or about contemporary Native Americans, at papertigers blog!

Finally, I'm off to Fitchburg, Massachusetts for the New England SCBWI Conference (details below). Can't wait to see many of you there! Note: please hold off on email and other correspondence until next Tuesday--thanks!

Giveaway Reminders

Enter to win a copy of Morpheus Road: The Light by by D. J. MacHale (Aladdin, 2010). To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Morpheus Road: The Light" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message/comment me with the name in the header/post; I'll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: May 31. Publisher sponsored; U.S. entries only. See also the book trailer.

Enter to win a copy of Smells Like a Dog by Suzanne Selfors (Little, Brown, 2010)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Smells Like Dog" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I'll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: May 31. Publisher sponsored; U.S. entries only. See also Suzanne on Why I Love Writing for Middle Graders.

Cynsational Events

"The Misadventures of a Manuscript: How to Write a Viable Story, with Literary Agent Scott Treimel of S©ott Treimel NY," hosted by the Writers' League of Texas, is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 14 at First Presbyterian Church (5300 Main Street) in Houston. Note: "Top children's literary agent S©ott Treimel NY receives hundreds of queries and submissions each month, and he asks to see partial manuscripts of only 5 percent of those. In this workshop, you'll learn directly from him the answer the question: What's wrong with the other 95 percent? $99 members / $169 nonmembers." See more information.

Moments of Change: the New England SCBWI Conference will take place May 14 to May 16 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. See conference schedule, workshop descriptions, manuscript critique guidelines, and special conference offerings. See faculty bios. Note: I'm honored to be participating as a keynote speaker!

SCBWI Florida: Mid-Year Workshop and Intensives will be June 4 and June 5 at Disney's Coronada Springs Resort at Walt Disney World. Note: I'm honored to be leading the marketing track with author/social media consultant Greg Pincus and Ed Masessa, author and Senior Manager Product Development, Scholastic Book Fairs. Picture book, middle grade, YA, and series tracks also are available.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

New Voice: Holly Schindler on A Blue So Dark

Holly Schindler is the first-time author of A Blue So Dark (Flux, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year-old Aura Ambrose has been hiding a secret. Her mother, a talented artist and art teacher, is slowly being consumed by schizophrenia, and Aura has been her sole caretaker ever since Aura’s dad left them. Convinced that “creative” equals crazy, Aura shuns her own artistic talent. But as her mother sinks deeper into the darkness of mental illness, the hunger for a creative outlet draws Aura toward the depths of her imagination.

Just as desperation threatens to swallow her whole, Aura discovers that art, love, and family are profoundly linked—and together may offer an escape from her fears.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2010, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

I’ve been writing, in all honesty, since—ah—shortly after birth. I used to love to write stories at my child-sized rolltop desk when I was a little girl. And I used to come up with full-blown dramas to act out with my brother on cassette tapes.

(That hiss in the background of those old tapes isn’t from the old tape deck…it’s me whispering, “Say this now, John!” Ugh. I wonder sometimes why the guy still talks to me…)

Anyway—point is, I’ve always been telling stories. And I’ve always been drawn to books. And not just in an I-love-to-read kind of way. I mean in this sort of all-encompassing love kind of way. In an I-have-to-do-this-with-my-life kind of way…

As I got a little older, I filled up about (ahem) 6.3 million spiral notebooks in high school, majored in English, got a master’s in English (and was lucky enough to snare a few publications while in college).

Degree in hand, I decided to nix the idea of full-time work in favor of pursuing a writing career.

(This was only possible because I had some incredible financial support from my family. Incredible. I’m pretty sure, though, that they thought I’d explode if I didn’t write…)

Of course, when I started on my journey to become a published novelist, I just knew—knew—that it’d take, oh, a year or so to write a novel, and then of course it would sell right off, right?

Yeah—well—things didn’t exactly work out that way. Two unpublished years turned into three…four…five…

My friends from college were wrapping up PhDs, moving on with their lives, and I felt like I was completely wearing a flat spot in my head from banging it against the wall. I’ll be honest—I shed some tears. But I never felt like giving up, because I also felt like I was getting increasingly closer. Always.

I mean, I think everybody’s who’s gotten a manuscript accepted has come to learn from experience that a good rejection is not an oxymoron. And about five or so years into it, I was really getting the good rejections—I’d graduated from the form letter to personalized notes. Editors were writing to tell me that my work had potential.

Of course, by this point, I’d learned just how rare it is to get any recognition at all from an editor. So I really tried to listen to what they had to say. Internalized it. Revised. Reworked.

I had one book in particular that was getting a lot of attention. (A YA novel about an artist who struggles to care for her schizophrenic mother while fearing her own artistic ability is an indicator that she, too, will become mentally unstable…hmmm…sound familiar?) But I kept hearing the same thing: the book was too internal.

So I started to devise scenes that allowed my main character to interact with the world around her. And each time I revised, I got a little closer to publication than I’d been with the previous draft. Eventually, I did sell that novel, now titled A Blue So Dark, to Flux.

In some ways, I think about that little girl at the rolltop desk, or the girl hauling around the tape recorder, pestering her brother to act out some story, and I think, yeah, absolutely—it seemed inevitable. But the thing is, I think if I hadn’t seen accomplishment, even in the rejections, the sheer weight of all that time (seven and a half years before I got that first acceptance) would have made my knees buckle.

I think those “good” rejections were what helped me keep the faith. If all I ever heard was just “no,” without ever hearing that I was doing something right, I really might have questioned what I was doing writing. But even in the rejections, I had encouragement. Editors cheering me on. It’s pretty fantastic, when you think about it.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

I’m so low-tech. And I mean. Low, low, low-tech. I love vinyl. I prefer to write in notebooks. I have never used a cell phone for anything other than a phone call (and the cell I carry’s one of those disposable pay-as-you-go things that I refer to in jest as my “Gooseberry”).

In a lot of respects, A Blue So Dark is a low-tech book. I didn’t intentionally set out to nix technology…it just didn’t have any place in the novel. These aren’t characters with money to blow on high-tech anything. These are more like characters who worry about where their last ten cents is going at the grocery store. And Aura and her mother are artists who work on canvas or sketchbooks, rather than on a computer.

My second novel, Playing Hurt (due out from Flux in ’11) is also pretty, ah, low-tech. This time around, my main character, Chelsea, does at least carry a cell phone. We do see her send a few emails. But…the bulk of this novel takes place in rural areas of Northern Minnesota, where cells don’t get great reception.

Again, it wasn’t like I consciously set out to wrench all my characters away from technology’s grasp. But I must admit, I do find technology to be pretty impersonal. And for that reason, I don’t really find technology conducive to building relationships between characters.

I realize, though, that this is something of a tricky view to have when writing for teens. I was recently talking to a local teen reader who admitted that she spent more time texting than talking on the phone.

As someone who was in high school in the early to mid ‘90s, I have to admit, this seems completely foreign to me. Even though I wasn’t the world’s biggest talker, I still did spend plenty of time talking to my closest friends on the phone. Hours, sometimes. The idea of wanting to text instead of talk seems strange.

I know that, essentially, I view technology a little differently than my teen readers do. I keep that in mind so that I don’t ignore technology—I do bring it in, when applicable, to keep things “real.” But in all honesty, when I’m building characters and relationships, when I’m plotting the events of the novel, I’m looking for ways for my characters to interact face-to-face.

The thing is, if you’re writing contemporary fiction, you’re going to date your book—and not necessarily with technology. The makes of cars, the styles of clothing, what your characters watch on TV or read, what’s playing at the movie theaters…all of this dates a book.

If you’re writing about 2010, ten years from now, in some respects, it’ll look dated. So really, for me, using a little less technology wasn’t about trying to avoid dating a manuscript as it was about getting my characters to interact.

Because really, let’s be real: if it’s all text-messaging and emailing, you don’t get that face-time. And without personal interaction, your characters don’t have much of a chance to fight, or resolve conflicts, or fall in love.

Cynsational Notes

See the reader guide for A Blue So Dark.

Children's Choice Book Awards Announced

Kids Vote James Patterson Author of the Year
and Peter Brown Illustrator of the Year

NEW YORK, NY — The Children’s Book Council (CBC) in association with Every Child a Reader, Inc. (the CBC Foundation), announced the winners of the third annual Children’s Choice Book Awards at a gala in New York City this evening. Children across the country voted for their favorite books, author, and illustrator at bookstores, school libraries, and at, casting over 115,000 votes.

The Children’s Choice Book Award winners are as follows:

Author of the Year: James Patterson for Max (A Maximum Ride Novel) (Little, Brown)

Illustrator of the Year: Peter Brown for The Curious Garden (Little, Brown)

Kindergarten to Second Grade Book of the Year: Lulu the Big Little Chick by Paulette Bogan (Bloomsbury USA)

Third Grade to Fourth Grade Book of the Year: Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Knopf/Random House)

Fifth Grade to Sixth Grade Book of the Year: Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renée Russell (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster)

Teen Choice Book of the Year: Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press)

The Children’s Choice Book Awards program, launched in 2008 by the Children’s Book Council (CBC) in association with Every Child a Reader, Inc. (the CBC Foundation), was created to provide young readers with an opportunity to voice their opinions about the books being written for them and to help develop a reading list that will motivate children to read more and cultivate a love of reading.

The Children’s Book Council, established in 1945, is the nonprofit trade association of publishers of trade books for children and young adults in the United States. The CBC promotes the use and enjoyment of trade books for young people, most prominently as the official sponsor of Children’s Book Week, the longest running literacy event in the country. The goals of the Children’s Book Council are to make the reading and enjoyment of books for young people an essential part of America’s educational and social goals, as well as to enhance the public perception of the importance of reading by disseminating information about books for young people and about children’s book publishing. For more information, visit

Every Child a Reader, the CBC Foundation, is dedicated to supporting positive programs and opportunities that help promote the enjoyment and importance of reading among America's youth. Every Child a Reader is the administrator of such impactful programs as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and Children’s Book Week. For more information, visit

Cynsational Notes

In the video below, Rachel talks about Dork Diaries #2:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Writing Across Formats: Chris Barton

Learn about Chris Barton.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children's-YA literature?

For as long as I can remember, I've loved writing silly, goofy humor as much as I've loved doing historical research and writing nonfiction. Each of those satisfies a part of my brain that I'm not willing to let go unsatisfied for long, so it's not as much choosing to write both as not being able to imagine not writing both. And the formats--picture book, YA, points in between--have just grown out of the ideas and subjects I've wanted to take on.

Everything I write is relatively short--the thought of delivering a book approaching even 200 pages gives me the vapors, and I wonder if that's a result of wanting to be able to keep ample variety in my writing diet rather than give myself over to a particular form or genre for too long.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I think that the need to be clever and creative in a 32-page fiction picture book--to make that book stand out in the marketplace and on bookshelves--has made me more aware of the possibilities for that same sort of cleverness and creativity in other genres and formats, even in nonfiction. Maybe especially in nonfiction.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

I've never felt any pressure to brand myself that way. Are other writers receiving that pressure? From whom? Who would do such an awful thing? And why would a writer let that happen?

If I couldn't have the freedom to write whatever type of book I feel drawn to writing, I'd have a hard time seeing the point in pursuing this line of work. It's supposed to be fun.

Cynsational Notes

Shark vs. Train: the official tie-website for the picture book by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (Little, Brown, 2010).

Beyond the Book: Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld from editor Alvina Ling at Blue Rose Girls. Peek: "We won the text in a two-round auction, and then officially approached Tom to illustrate. He accepted with the caveat that he could work closely with the author on the text, something that Chris agreed to readily."

Children's Author Chris Barton: a radio interview by Julie Moody from KUT.

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

Monday, May 10, 2010

New Voice: Christina Diaz Gonzalez on The Red Umbrella

Christina Diaz Gonzalez is the first-time author of The Red Umbrella (Knopf, 2010). From the promotional copy:

The Red Umbrella is the moving tale of a 14-year-old girl's journey from Cuba to America as part of Operation Pedro Pan—an organized exodus of more than 14,000 unaccompanied children, whose parents sent them away to escape Fidel Castro's revolution.

In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution, Lucía Álvarez still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her sleepy Cuban town, everything begins to change. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. Her friends feel like strangers. And her family is being watched.

As the revolution's impact becomes more oppressive, Lucía's parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own.

Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?

The Red Umbrella is a moving story of country, culture, family, and the true meaning of home.

Could you tell us about your writing community--your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

Let me start by saying that children’s book writers are amazing, wonderful, supportive people. I started writing a few years ago because my kids inspired me to follow the dream I’d had when I was a child, but I had no real training as a writer (other than legal writing in law school, which is most definitely not the same thing as writing novels).

After some encouragement from my husband, I joined my local SCBWI critique group and life was never the same again. Seriously. This group of talented writers are part motivation coaches, part task-masters and part harsh critics. I’ve learned so much from them!

Then my writing base grew to include another local writing group run by the fabulous Joyce Sweeney, and again, I was surrounded by more fabulous writers and inspirations. That’s when the magic started to happen.

I went to an SCBWI conference in June of 2008 (the SCBWI Orlando Workshop) and had the first ten pages of my manuscript critiqued by an editor. I was floored when she told me she loved what I’d written and asked if I was almost finished with the book because it would be something she’d be interested in acquiring.

Well, as soon as my head stopped spinning, I smiled and said I’d be finish by the end of the summer. Did I forget to mention that I’d only written fifteen pages at that point?

Yeah…crazy! Needless to say, I went home, became a writing fiend and, with the wonderful support of my critique group friends, ten weeks later I had a finished book and a contract with Random House/Knopf.

After signing my contract, I continued working on new things with my critique group, but I also joined an online group of debut authors called the Tenners (a play on 2010…the year we all debut, cute, huh?). This group has been key for keeping my sanity because, at the time, I didn’t have an agent (yes, I got a contract with a major publisher without an agent…it can be done), and so they were my sounding board.

Having them there to share all the ups, downs, celebrations and freak-out moments of this fun, but slightly stressful, year has been so rewarding. I hope to one day meet many of them in real life!

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first--character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

I guess the concept is what first drew me to The Red Umbrella, although that isn’t really accurate because the story was always a part of me so I wasn’t truly “drawn” to it.

My book is loosely based on parents’ experience in coming to the U.S. and that of the other 14,000 children who were part of Operation Pedro Pan (a secret program where over 14,000 Cuban children were sent by their parents to the U.S. alone in order to escape Castro’s Communist revolution).

The idea that parents (specifically, my grandparents) would have to make the choice of sending their children away to a foreign country in order to save them was always part of my being. The tough part came when I decided to write about this.

The story behind The Red Umbrella was a big part of my family history, but more importantly, it’s part of American history that had been overlooked. It was one thing for me to know the story, something quite different to be able to share it with the world and still give it the same intensity I felt in my heart. Yet, somehow, it all came together.

I sometimes think there was a little angel (in the form of my grandmother) sitting by me as I wrote, whispering key events into my ear.

It also helped tremendously that I have such a large, extended family where I could ask my grandfather, parents, mother-in-law, aunts and uncles about their experiences in Cuba and in the camps/foster homes in the U.S. They are all an inspiration to me.

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