Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate it today! I'm thankful for my very cute husband and co-author Greg Leitich Smith, the children's-YA literature community, and especially you!

Cynsations will be on hiatus until Monday.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New Voice: Sandy Fussell on Samurai Kids: White Crane

Sandy Fussell is the first-time author of Samurai Kids: White Crane (Candlewick, 2010)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

Niya Moto is the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan, famous for falling flat on his face in the dirt. The one school that will accept him is the Cockroach Ryu, led by the legendary sensei Ki-Yaga.

He may be an old man overly fond of naps, but Ki-Yaga is also known for taking in kids that the world has judged harshly: an albino girl with extra fingers and toes, a boy who is blind, a big kid whose past makes him loath to fight.

A warrior in his time, Ki-Yaga demands excellence in everything from sword-fighting to poetry. But can the ragtag Cockroaches make the treacherous journey to the Samurai Trainee Games, never mind take on the all-conquering Dragons?

In a fast-moving, action-filled tale that draws on true details of feudal Japan, Niya finds there’s no fear they can’t face as long as they stick together --for their friendship is more powerful than a samurai sword.

Can a one-legged boy become a great samurai warrior? Meet some unique aspiring champions in this kick-off to an exciting new martial arts series.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?

I write because I love it. There is something inside me that only storytelling can satisfy. I couldn’t do it otherwise because time is always plotting against me. It’s a difficult juggle with a full-time job and a school-age family. My free hours begin at 10 p.m. (if I’m lucky), and I work on writing or related tasks until 1 a.m. every morning.

White Crane, the first book in the Samurai Kids series, is my debut novel. It was published in Australia in 2008 by Walker Books Australia and in the U.S. in August 2010 by Candlewick Press. However, in the intervening two-and-a-half years, I have had seven more books published in Australia. The Samurai Kids series now comprises five titles with a sixth on the way. My treasured writing time is now divided between promoting existing works and developing new stories. While I find this a challenge, it is one I enjoy.

I belong to two writing workshop groups and am involved in online critiquing with both emerging and established authors. I am active in the kid’s literature cyber community. Writing friends and colleagues keep me focused and encourage me to work hard to improve my craft.

I read widely, for pleasure and as a book reviewer, finding great inspiration in a story well written, a beautiful description or a character that comes to life in my head. I learn a lot from the words of others.

My greatest motivation, and writing secret weapon, is my readers. I spend considerable time in schools as a visiting author. I recently established ReadWriteZone, a blog-based project to encourage interaction between the classroom and authors. It’s early stages yet, but the feedback is exciting and I have a lot of fun. Ultimately, I hope to extend the project across a wide range of authors and schools.

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?

For me, it is always concept. I find many paradoxical issues in history, especially the ancient cultures I am drawn to write about. These immediately raise questions in my mind, and from the answers I imagine, stories evolve.

With White Crane, the thought process went like this: A person is born a samurai, but lineage won’t necessarily make someone a good warrior, and the samurai were at the time some of the greatest warriors in the world. What if a boy had a disability, physical or emotional, that made it incredibly difficult for him to claim his birthright? And what if a girl wanted to be a samurai? Then a sentence popped into my head: “My name is Niya Moto, and I am the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan.”

I read widely from primary sources, works written at the time. A constant companion was the legendary samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy (1645). This kept me firmly grounded in 17th century feudal Japan.

When I closed my laptop, it was never 1 a.m., it was the hour of the rat. Very fortuitous as I was born in the Year of the Rat and apparently Rats make good writers.

I also attempt to establish a personal physical connection to history. While writing White Crane, I went to sword fighting classes – I was hopeless, but this too was useful as not all my characters are expert with a sword. I did archery and am currently learning the shakuhachi flute.

Finally, I immersed myself in the Japanese popular culture of my readers – manga, animation, martial arts, cartoons and movies. This gave me a reader perspective to look at history from – to identify similarities and differences.

My various research activities resulted in the teachers resources available on the Samurai Kids website – WebQuests, a classroom play, craft, fact sheets and even interactive quizzes.

One of the challenges was finding the tone of voice for my characters. In the end, the Kids decided for themselves, as they are constantly talking inside my head. The Kids have a modern turn of phrase that makes their dialogue accessible to contemporary young readers, but at the same time, there is nothing they say that literally is not appropriate for feudal Japan. This was a tricky balance to establish – accessible and humorous dialogue without sacrificing any historical credibility.

Another difficulty was ensuring that my story, while having a humorous element, was respectful to the obstacles that disabled children face in everyday life.

In this respect, my inspiration was the children themselves. I was determined Samurai Kids would be a history-based celebration of difference.

A few months ago, I was in a classroom and a blind child approached me. “I’m Taji,” she said. “I’m the Golden Bat, and I can hear things from two rooms away. You don’t need to be able to see to do that.”

I hope her comment means I’m achieving what I set out to do.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos on the release of Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science (Clarion, 2010)! From the promotional copy:

When this award-winning husband-and-wife team discovered that they each had sugar in their family history, they were inspired to trace the globe-spanning story of the sweet substance and to seek out the voices of those who led bitter sugar lives.

The trail ran like a bright band from religious ceremonies in India to Europe's Middle Ages, then on to Columbus, who brought the first cane cuttings to the Americas.

Sugar was the substance that drove the bloody slave trade and caused the loss of countless lives but it also planted the seeds of revolution that led to freedom in the American colonies, Haiti, and France.

With songs, oral histories, maps, and over 80 archival illustrations, here is the story of how one product allows us to see the grand currents of world history in new ways. Time line, source notes, bibliography, index.

In a starred review, School Library Journal raves, "Meticulously researched, brutally honest, compelling.... An indispensable part of any history collection."

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews cheers, "Covering 10,000 years of history and ranging the world, the story is made personal by the authors' own family stories, their passion for the subject and their conviction that young people are up to the challenge of complex, well-written, narrative history."

See more reviews & news. Note: named a 2010 Best Book for Teens in Kirkus Reviews and Best Book, Nonfiction, School Library Journal.

More News & Giveaways

Nervous? by Jennifer R. Hubbard from writerjenn. Peek: "People are sometimes surprised at how nervous writers get--about writing first drafts, editing, submitting a book, doing public appearances, reading reviews, and so on." See also Introverts: Finding Friends and Followers Online by Jennifer from Shrinking Violet Promotions.

Writers and Depression by Nancy Etchemendy from the Horror Writers Association. Peek: "The steady drum of rejection slips is a part of life for every writer, even the most successful. The courage it takes to deal with rejections and keep going may fail us at times. Without courage, we become fair game for depression." See also An Open Love Note to Debut Authors About Hurtful Online Reviews.

Spotlight on Agent Mary Kole: an interview by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: "I read the work of a lot of writers and see the work of a lot of artists who are technically fine…they have solid writing and good technique…but they haven’t risen to the next level yet. And only time and learning and growth can take them there."

Agents Requesting Work: The Happy Dilemma by Jane Lebak from Peek: "If it appears you should have received a response, assume a technology fail. Send a status query to the agent from a different email address, just in case her reply went into your spam folder (You are checking that periodically, right?)"

How to Survive Tough Times from Verla Kay. Peek: "The trick in tough times is to write (or illustrate) something that editors want. I've been struggling now for 20 years to figure out just what that is."

New Agent Alert: Molly Jaffa of Folio Literary by Chuck Sambuchino from Guide to Literary Agents Editor's Blog. Note: Molly is seeking fiction and nonfiction for middle grade and YA readers; link offers more specific information on her tastes.

Publishing by Brian Yansky from Brian's Blog: Writer Talk. Peek: "Learning to write well is a slow process. If you’ve written for a year or two, even if you’ve written some good work, maybe your work isn’t quite ready to be published." See also Agent Mary Kole on Putting in the Time to Become a Good Writer from Chuck Sambuchino at Guide to Literary Agents Editor's Blog.

Did You Hear About Nathan [Bransford]? An Interview with Everyone's Favorite (Former) Agent by Rachel Gardner from Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: "If ever there were a time to empower young editors and trust their instincts, it's now."

Curious City: Where Kids and Books Meet: "a children’s book consulting duo building creative marketing projects and outreach for authors, illustrators, and publishers."

Secrets of a Library of Congress Cataloger by Elizabeth Bluemle from PW ShelfTalker. Peek: "I can tell you that we try to write 'in one voice' — that is, we try not to inject our own personality into the summaries, but sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes I try to have a little fun with them."

Bid Now in the Bridget Zinn Kicks Cancer Season of Love and Hope Auction. Bidding will take place from Nov. 22 to Dec. 4. Items/services available for bidding include: 25-page MG or YA manuscript critique by author/agent Ammi-Joan Paquette; 25-page manuscript critique and signed book by author Sydney Salter; custom classroom guide for your book by Shannon Morgan; critique by NYT bestselling author April Henry; critique by children's author Jody Feldman; query with 10 pages of MG or YA critique by agent Jill Cocoran, plus, more critiques, signed books, jewelry, additional accessories, tutoring, tote bags, B&B nights, pottery, and much more! Note: Bridget Zinn is a librarian and YA author who was diagnosed in 2009 with Stage IV colon cancer.

Best Literary Agents on Twitter by Jason Boog from GalleyCat. Note: (a) not all children's-YA agents; (b) bookmark to check back as list will be updated on an ongoing basis. Source: ACHOCKABLOG.

12 Tips for Writing Action Scenes by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: "Find a question that brings into play an issue your hero has that it’s important for him to learn. If he learns it, then he can win the scene, otherwise, he should lose. In this way, the reader can see how the action sequence causes the character to grow and change."

Interview with Andrea Cremer about Nightshade by anesbet from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: "I wanted to write a story about a female character who wasn’t being pulled into a magical world – she was already in the middle of it, a leader and a warrior."

Top Ten Reasons the Editor Doesn't Love What the Critique Group Loves from editortorent. Peek: "Publishers are only as innovative as their customers. They might be wrong—publishers frequently underestimate the ability of readers to adapt quickly to what might seem experimental—but editors do have to take the attitude of the higher-ups into consideration, and the higher-ups generally think their customers are conservative and change-resistant."

Austin Bat Cave
: "a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for kids in Austin, Texas; that connects a diverse population of young writers and learners with a vibrant community of adult volunteers."

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Love Drugged by James Klise (Flux, 2010).

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Love Drugged" in the subject line. Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just message me with the title in the header or comment on this round-up. I'll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30. U.S. entries only; sponsored by the author. See also a Cynsations interview with James about the novel.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Quackenstein Hatches a Family by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by Brian T. Jones (Abrams, 2010). Note: "A $500 donation to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums will be made by the author when this video is viewed 1000 times! Or a donation of $1000 will be made when this video is watched 5000 times!"

Check out the book trailer for Tyger Tyger: A Goblin Wars Book by Kersten Hamilton (Clarion, 2010).

Skye Video Interview with Author Jennifer J. Stewart from azang.

More Personally

The first review of Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2011) is in, and it's glowing! Kirkus Reviews calls the world, "wild and ultimately fascinating" and says of Quincie and Kieren, "...the pages fairly smolder in describing their attraction to one another." Smolder! I've never smoldered before.

Pie-of-the-Month Club: Cynthia Leitich Smith: an author interview from Heather Vogel Frederick. Peek: "I love working visually, and I’m thrilled to have my text partnered with art. I consider a key part of my job to offer a stage for the illustrator to play on and then get out of their way."

Win an ARC of Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2011) from Steven R. McEvoy from Book Reviews and More. Deadline: Dec. 1. See details. Peek: "This much anticipated book ties the stories from Tantalize and Eternal together in a wonderful new story."

Check out this reader-created trailer by Midnight Machiko for my novel, Eternal.

Thanks to Cyndi Hughes, Bethany Hegedus, Jan Baumer and everyone at the Writers' League of Texas for their hospitality at last Thursday's monthly meeting at BookPeople in Austin. I spoke on a panel, “Give Yourself a Longer Shelf Life: Marketing for the Long-Term," with Jay Ehret and Dana Lynn Smith. Jay is a book marketing expert, and Dana is a book marketing coach and author of The Savvy Book Marketer Guides.

Werewolf cupcakes! What fun I had at the "Fangs vs. Fur" event on Nov. 19 at the University Hills Branch of the Austin Public Library! It was a treat to see families pour in, many dressed for the occasion. I'm still wowed by the teens' questions in the Q&A. Huge thanks to YA librarian Michelle Beebower and the entire staff for a remarkable event. Here's just a peek at the "furry" wolf cupcakes! Note: Special thanks to teen services Sarah Cronin for the photo and to Candlewick Press for sponsoring the book giveaway!

Ahoy there, matey! Thanks to Sherry (above) and everyone at Region 12 Education Service Center in Waco, Texas; for your hospitality at Library Jubilee 2010 on Nov. 16! The theme was "literature (our greatest treasure) along with various technology tools (trinkets)."

Highlights included seeing fellow Austin authors Janice and Tom Shefelman...

And fellow Texas author Jill S. Alexander.

Cynsational Events

Save the Date! Joint Launch Party: Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) and Night School by Mari Mancusi (Berkley) book party and signing at 2 p.m. Jan. 29 at BookPeople in Austin.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New Voice: Jen Cullerton Johnson on Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace

Jen Cullerton Johnson is the first-time author of Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace, illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler (Lee & Low, 2010). From the promotional copy:

As a young girl in Kenya, Wangari was taught to respect nature. She grew up loving the land, plants, and animals that surrounded her—from the giant mugumo trees her people, the Kikuyu, revered to the tiny tadpoles that swam in the river.

Although most Kenyan girls were not educated, Wangari, curious and hardworking, was allowed to go to school. There, her mind sprouted like a seed. She excelled at science and went on to study in the United States.

After returning home, Wangari blazed a trail across Kenya, using her knowledge and compassion to promote the rights of her countrywomen and to help save the land, one tree at a time.

Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace brings to life the empowering story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman, and environmentalist, to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Engaging narrative and vibrant images paint a robust portrait of this inspiring champion of the land and of women’s rights.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

When I stared the research for Seeds of Change there were only a few academic journals about Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. I drew heavily on Wangari’s biography, Unbowed (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

What drew me to Wangari was how she spoke to so many different kinds of people from poor women to presidents. Her words inspired me to action.

When I wrote the book, I wanted readers to “hear Wangari.” I decided I would take every opportunity to use Wangari’s own words, so when the book is read, it feels as if Wangari Maathai is the room since the words came from her.

Also Wangari Marathi’s life had many challenges. She was thrown in jail for planting trees. My editor, Jennifer Fox at Lee & Low, never hesitated, never doubted that telling the truth was important to telling all of Wangari’s story.

There is a line in the books that says, “One day while she was out planting a tree, some wealthy businessmen paid corrupt police officers to arrest Wangari.”

This is a tricky line with big implications.

But Lee & Low did not shy away from the truth. Like the life of Wangari Maathai, they stood firm, and I will always be grateful to them for their deep respect for story and truth telling.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Wangari’s life inspires me. She took two issues, poverty and the environment, and came up with a solution to both of them. She taught women to plant trees, and in doing so, the women learned a skill and trees grew green again in Kenya.

When Seeds of Change came out, I wanted to embrace Wangari’s idea of putting ideas into practice. Whenever I go on a school visit, do a reading or presentation, I make sure that after Seeds of Change is read, the students or the audience has a chance to make a change.

Sometimes we plants trees, other times seeds, but each time there is a connection to reading and doing. People need to dig in the dirt, roll a seed between their fingers, touch the leaves of different plants so that they know that Wangari’s experience of embracing nature and caring for the environment can also be part of their own experience.

As the old saying goes: it is not knowledge that is power but how to apply the knowledge that makes lasting change.

One of our jobs as writers is to inspire readers with our words, but sometimes inspiration fades or is forgotten, therefore, our words must also move readers to action, be it to plant seed or be nicer to their neighbor.

I think environmental books for children are doing just that--inspiring and moving readers to action. I am very grateful Seeds of Change is part of the genre.

I hope new writers push ahead and continue to explore how our natural world and our human place in it is both one of many, and many for the good of all.

Cynsational Notes

Jen Cullerton Johnson is a writer, an educator, and an environmentalist with masters degrees in nonfiction writing and curriculum development. She has taught in countries all over the world and now teaches at an inner-city elementary school in Chicago, where she also conducts writing workshops. She is inspired by Wangari Maathai’s dedication to women and the environment. Johnson can be found online at Seeds of Change is her first picture book.

Biography and the Environment with Jen Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler Author and illustrator of Seeds of Change from Lee & Low. Peek: "What moves me the most about Wangari’s story is her message of harabee, which means “let’s work together.” We can solve problems if we work together."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Guest Post: Joseph D’Agnese on Math Phobia

By Joseph D’Agnese

When I meet math teachers at schools or conferences, they assume that I am a lifelong math lover since my picture book is about Leonardo of Pisa, namesake of the Fibonacci Sequence.

I should come clean. Math teachers, here’s what I’ve been ashamed to confess: When I was a kid, there was no subject I feared more than math.

I once watched a first-grade classmate stare intensely at a tall column of numbers our teacher had written on the blackboard, then announce the solution. I was flabbergasted. He added those numbers with his eyeballs!

No way could I do that, not with my eyes, fingers, toes, copious sheets of scratch paper or any number of pencils. My fear of math steered me away from subjects I might have enjoyed, such as science.

I was defiantly resigned to my innumerate, unscientific fate. I told myself that it didn’t matter because I knew in my heart that I would someday be a writer or illustrator. One did not need to know about numbers to toss around words and pictures. And so I struggled to keep numbers at bay throughout high school and college.

But fate is a masterful practical joker, because within a few years of graduating college I was an editor of a children’s math magazine. There I finally grasped that math unlocks nearly everything: botany, art, topology, music, architecture, and hundreds of other disciplines.

Astoundingly, when I left that job, I started writing for science magazines.

I think back to the way I was taught math in the 1970s and wonder if my suffering might have been ameliorated had I been told some stories along the way.

Fibonacci’s tale is particularly rich and engaging. He sailed the Mediterranean, and helped convert the western world from I-II-III to 1-2-3. Some historians argue that without the robust methods of calculation and accounting born out of the Hindu-Arabic numerals he introduced to the west, the Renaissance would not have occurred.

What a profound contribution! Yet you will not find that theory in your kid’s math or history textbooks, even today.

Math education has a changed a lot since I went to school. Today there’s more talk about hands-on math, of cross-curricular tie-ins, of the value of linking math to kidlit.

But the general notion that math can be a zesty, juicy subject has still not penetrated many school districts, despite decades of work by inspired teachers and the prodding of organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

We are still a woefully innumerate society, and far too many of our children are made to pay for the fears of their elders. They will never hear the stories of Fibonacci’s wanderings, of Archimedes’s bathtub, of Eratosthenes measuring the world with a stick and a string—because most math teachers are not given the freedom, the classroom time or the institutional support to explore the history, culture and relevance of math.

Call me crazy, but I’d argue we teach more history in gym and art classes than we do in math class. History pops up in English, science and social studies classrooms of course. But only math class is expected to exist in a sterile realm devoid of role models and human accomplishment in art, music, architecture, nature and more.

So, if you are one of the inspired math teachers who could have once changed my life, thank goodness for you. And if you’re a kidlit writer who dreams of writing a math-themed book, what are you waiting for? Let us have it. Our planet cannot afford to have more kids shunning a subject that has so long enriched and still enriches their world.

Cynsational Notes

Joseph D’Agnese is author of Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, illustrated by John O'Brien (Henry Holt, 2010). According to IndieBound, he's also "a writer and journalist who lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Though he writes about the Middle Ages, he considers himself a Renaissance man." Teachers, parents and librarians should see also the teacher page of his website. Follow him on facebook and on Twitter at @FibonacciJoe.

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