Friday, October 21, 2011

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Novelist Catherine Fisher Named Young People's Laureate from BBC Wales. Peek: "It said the Young People's Laureate post is the first of its kind in the U.K. and aims to inspire young people in Wales to become involved with reading and creative writing."

Martha Alderson, "The Plot Whisperer," from Janet Fox. Peek: "The first draft of a writing project is the generative phase. Rather than become dismayed when you are faced with a manuscript full of holes and missteps, even confusion and chaos, accept that this is part of the process."

How to Combat the Fear of Rejection by Lisa Schroeder from Lisa's Little Corner of the Internet. Peek: "Live so you have no regrets."

Three Questions for Children's Bookseller Meghan Goel from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Meghan Goel, children’s book buyer at BookPeople in Austin, Tex., cues us in to the books she (and her customers) are looking forward to this season."

Writer's Block Solution: Think Again by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "Get up and walk away. Do some jumping jacks. Take some deep breaths and stretch. Move to another place in the house to write. Do what is necessary to wake up your brain."

Social Networking for Writers by Ash Krafton from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "It's not going to do you any good to write an amazing book if you aren't going to do anything to promote it."

Congratulations to the YALSA Teens Top Ten from the American Library Association! Celebrate reading for teens all year 'round! See also the annotated list of 25 nominees, including Blessed.

Visual Storytelling by Tanya Lee Stone from I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "It is an opportunity to tell MORE of the story. To elaborate, both with an image and with its caption, upon an aspect of the story that did not necessarily belong smack dab in the middle of the text."

Why We Write Kid Lit from The Brown Bookshelf: United in Story. A collection of inspiring personal insights.

Writing Roots by Laura McGee Kvasnosky from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: "Were I Mrs. Woodford, I would have laughed out loud. Such a serious subject matter for a kid -- plus she was death on what she called 'desperation rhymes,' a term she may have coined with me in mind. But what I knew from her was nothing but respect and admiration."

Always Liesa Abrams by Erin Murphy from Always Erin: Erin Murphy Literary Agency Blog. Liesa is an executive editor at Aladdin (Simon & Schuster). Peek: "Liesa is full of great thoughts about illustrated middle-grade, humor in general, and what makes Liesa tick."

Review of Second Sight An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein from Harold Underdown at The Purple Crayon. Peek: "...it goes beyond being a writing guide to get its readers thinking about the elements of good children's and YA literature, and to provide insight into the publishing process and the interests and personality of one particular editor."

Heart and Soul: The History of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson from Robin Smith at The Horn Book. Note: Do you think the book is a picture book or illustrated book? It's a key question for the Caldecott Award committee. See also Kadir Nelson Paints "The Heart and Soul" of America by Bob Minzesheimer from USA Today.

Vermont College of Fine Arts Applauds Alumna Lauren Myracle from PR Newswire. Peek: "'We are so proud of our faculty and alumnae,' said VCFA President Thomas Christopher Greene. 'All three books are deserving of attention, but we are especially proud of Lauren – for her grace, for her professionalism, and for her unswerving dedication to her many readers. We stand firmly behind her and the difficult decision she has made.'" For context, see Lauren Myracle Withdraws Shine from National Book Awards by Julie Bosman from The New York Times. Note: Learn more about and celebrate the remaining children's-YA finalists for the National Book Award, including VCFA alumna Debby Dahl Edwardson and VCFA faculty member Franny Billingsley.

Looking for more of links? See the round-up (which points to even more) from Adventures in Children's Publishing.

This Week's Cynsations Posts

Editor Critique Giveaway

In celebration of Tankborn by Karen Sandler (2011), Tu editor Stacy Whitman is offering a critique of the first 10 pages of a middle grade (ages 8-12) or young adult (ages 12 and up) manuscript. The manuscript should be fiction (no nonfiction or picture books). Though she specializes in fantasy, science fiction, and mystery, other genres such as realism are welcome.

Her response will include a fifteen-minute phone call with the author and short, written notes about the submitted work. The winner will have three weeks to submit an excerpt for critique, and the critique and phone call will occur within two weeks after that. The phone call may also touch on any questions the author has about the audience or market for the book, the publishing and submitting process, etc.

To enter, comment on this post (click preceding link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) to foil spanners or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly. An extra entry will go to those who, in a comment, ask Stacy or Karen a question or make a related observation. Additional extra entries will go to those who tweet, blog, or otherwise promote this link/giveaway. Please indicate your efforts/URLs in your comment. Limit five entries.

Eligibility for this critique giveaway is international! However, if the winner is from outside the United States, Stacy will confer via Skype instead of by phone. Deadline: midnight CST Oct. 24.

Don't miss the conversation in the comments with Stacy and Karen (scroll to view). Peek from Stacy: "Whether or not you want to worry about a cultural expert before submission depends on how confident you are in your research, I suppose. Generally I'll always want my own expert to take a look as well, either before acquisitions if it's a culture I'm not familiar with or after if I feel I know enough to acquire the book, if the writer is not from the culture he or she is writing about."

See also Author Karen Sandler & Editor Stacy Whitman from Cynsations.

 Book & T-shirt Giveaways

New! Enter to win an ARC of Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Melissa at Just One Opinion. Deadline: Nov. 1. See more information.

Enter to win an Aphrodite the Diva Swag Giveaway, courtesy of authors Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams.

To enter, comment on this post (click immediately preceding link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with "Aphrodite the Diva" in the subject line.

Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada entries only. Deadline: Oct. 23.

Enter to win a copy of Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow by Daniel Nayeri (Candlewick, 2011). The book features a quartet of YA novellas, written entirely on an iPhone.

Check out these book commercials for each of the novellas. Peek from Daniel: "I'd love to see more book commercials, instead of trailers. From a writer's perspective, they didn't mess around with a story that I spent years laboring over. They made their own thing."

To enter, comment on this post (click the preceding link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with "Straw House" in the subject line. Publisher sponsored.

Eligibility: U.S./Canada entries only. Deadline: Oct. 24.

Enter to win a paperback copy of The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Helen Hemphill (Front Street, 2008/Boyds Mills, 2011). To enter, comment on this post (click the preceding link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Deadwood Jones" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada entries only. Deadline: midnight CST Oct. 31.

The winner of Other by Karen Kincy (Flux, 2010) was Vivien in Kansas.

The winner of Bloodborn by Karen Kincy (Flux, 2011) was Sherrie in California.

The first prize winner of the latest Tantalize series giveaway was Amanda in Texas (USA), who will receive copies of Blessed, Tantalize: Kieren's Story and a gray Sanguini's Cell Phones Will Be Eaten T-shirt. The second prize winner, Mary from Queensland (Australia), won book, and the third prize winner, Karis in Ontario (Canada) will receive Tantalize: Kieren's Story. Note: second and third prize winners were given the opportunity to choose between my 2011 releases. 

Still longing for a T-shirt? Shop Sanguini's at CafePress.

Cynsational Screening Room

My first iBook: Bringing an OP picture book back to life by Loreen Leedy from e is for book. Peek: "The key to making it possible was a new, inexpensive iPad app called Book Creator that went on sale in September. The app allows you to make what is known as a fixed-layout EPUB in the size and format that works for the iBooks app, without having to code (double-yay!)."




More Personally

Thanks so much to Beth Wrenn-Estes and her class at the School of Library and Information Services at San Jose State University for their hospitality at last night's online chat about Tantalize!

I'm thrilled for all the finalists for the National Book Award, including pal Debby Dahl Edwardson, who'll soon be joining us at Cynsations.

However, I wanted to offer a special shout out to Franny Billingsley on her nod for Chime (Dial, 2011). I had the honor of taking a peek at an early draft of the manuscript for a private workshop held here at the house, and I know that Franny put years of thought, care and her own brand of magic into every word. Brava!

Along with Blessed (in Fantasy & Science Fiction), I'm pleased to report that my latest release, Tantalize: Kieren's Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle, has been nominated for the Cybils in the Graphic Novel category. Nominate a book for the Cybils 2011!

Library Media Connection says of Tantalize: Kieren's Story: "The characters are well developed and the graphic novel format enhances the storyline. This popular novel, redone as a graphic novel, is a quick read for those who enjoy action with some romance. Smith has set up the story to continue in a sequel and leaves the reader wanting more." Note: the librarian, L.J. Martin, who wrote the review is from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which caught my eye as it's the first "sighting" of one of my books there.

Part 2: The Cynsation of Cynthia Leitich Smith from Teen Voices: Changing the World of Girls Through Media. Peek: "For new voices, it’s not about finishing that first book and getting it published. It’s about preparing yourself to write the best first book you can and then another one and another, enjoying the process along the way." Don't miss Part 1.

Thanks to Amy at A Simple Love of Reading for naming Diabolical (Candlewick, 2012) a "future favorite"!

Congratulations to Anindita Basu Sempere on 10 years of blogging! Wow!

Enter to win an ARC of Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Melissa at Just One Opinion. Deadline: Nov. 1. See more information.

Personal Links:


From Greg Leitich Smith:

Cynsational Events


More Than One Way to Read with Barry Lyga and Cynthia Leitich Smith from 11:30 to 12:30 in Capitol Extension Room E2.010 Oct. 22 at the Texas Book Festival. Signings to follow.

A collaboration with Austin Bat Cave featuring the Festival's young adult writers will be from 9 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 at Texas State Cemetery.

Featured Authors:
Storytimes, interactive tent will get kids excited about reading: Tots can meet authors of popular picture books, while teens have their own events by Sharyn Vane from The Austin American-Statesman. Peek: "The spotlight is on graphic novels at the 'More Than One Way to Read' panel, with Mangaman's Barry Lyga and Cynthia Leitich Smith, whose Tantalize: Kieren's Story sketches further the supernatural Austin she has explored in three prose novels..."

See also 2011 Texas Book Festival Children's-YA Programming from Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be appearing at Austin Comic Con, scheduled for Nov. 11 to Nov. 13 at the Austin Convention Center.

Helen Hemphill to Serve as Director of Highlights Whole Novel Workshop & Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones Giveaway

Helen Hemphill is taking over the directorship of the Whole Novel Workshop for the Highlights Foundation in 2012 and has an amazing lineup of writers, editors and agents who will be teaching aspiring writers and helping with their manuscript revisions.

The Highlights Foundation has also opened a new conference center on the farm in PA where the workshops take place! You can see more photos of The Barn on the Highlights Foundations FB page.

Interested writers are encouraged to sign up. Highlights Foundation classes and programs are highly recommended.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Helen Hemphill (Front Street, 2008/Boyds Mills, 2011). From the promotional copy:

When Prometheus Jones wins a horse with the raffle ticket he got from Pernie and LaRue Boyd, he knows things aren't going to go smoothly. No way those two rednecks were going to let a black man, even a free man from the day of his birth, keep that horse. 

So as soon as things get ugly he jumps on the horse, pulls his friend Omer up behind him, and heads off. They hook up with a cattle drive out of Texas heading for Deadwood, North Dakota.

To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Deadwood Jones" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada entries only. Deadline: midnight CST Oct. 31.

See also a Cynsations interview with Helen.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

New Voice: Matt Blackstone on A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie

Matt Blackstone is the first-time author of A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie (FSG, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Rene, an obsessive-compulsive fourteen year old, smells his hands and wears a Batman cape when he’s nervous.

If he picks up a face-down coin, moves a muscle when the time adds up to thirteen (7:42 is bad luck because 7 + 4 + 2 = 13), or washes his body parts in the wrong order, Rene or someone close to him will break a bone, contract a deadly virus, and/or die a slow and painful death like someone in a scary scene in scary movie. 

Rene’s new and only friend tutors him in the art of playing it cool, but that’s not as easy as Gio makes it sound. 

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

While sometimes it’s tiring spending my day with high school students and my evenings writing about them—parents of teenagers, who spend their entire days with their children, I salute you and bow in awe—it’s definitely a blessing being a teacher-author.

Each and every school day, I am reminded of the irrational and entertaining dynamics of girl/boy drama, I have their voices in my head, I know what’s in, I know how they speak—at least, I know how Bronx teenagers speak, which, come to think of it, isn’t at all representative of the rest of the country. If it were, then everyone would use words like “whack” (crappy), “wavy” (cool), “O.D. wavy,” (an overdose of cool) “violate” (insult) and “O.D. violate” (insult someone in a way that can never, ever, ever be forgiven).

Thankfully, my students are forgiving. When I test out new material on them during independent reading time, they usually say nice things. If they think it’s crap, they let me down easy, never O.D. violating me. For the record, there have been a few, infrequent violations, but never anything close to an O.D. violation.

I don’t think I could write without teaching. How do I know? Because my summer writing isn’t nearly as authentic. Okay, that was way too forgiving.

Matt's wife made the book quilt in his office.
My summer writing is whack. Without my daily reminders during the school year, I forget how they speak, what they care about, how they react, how they think—and I just become a 30 year old man pretending to be young again, not that there’s anything wrong with that . . . it just isn’t very effective.

I simply can’t write without teaching. And, I’ve learned, I can’t teach without writing.

An admission: I used to lie to my students. A lot. As a young teacher in the inner city, I spent most of my first few years of teaching lying about my age, my birthplace, my hobbies, my background (I might’ve once said that I was in a gang . . . and I’m certain that I said in the military. And the Marines). But I’ve found that you can’t lie in your writing.

And that, in turn, has led to a more truthful and sensitive teacher. Exploring the inner-workings of troubled teens in my writing has definitely mellowed out my militant front at school. It has also helped me identify teen bullies, victims, real friends, fake friends, and those who could use a friend, or a teacher, to talk to during lunch.

And now I can’t do one without the other. If I’m teaching without writing, I’m unhappy. If I’m writing without teaching, my writing becomes an overdose of whackness. Yes, I may have butchered that phrase, but the school year has now started, and there are plenty of 10th graders waiting to put me on the right track. I only hope they can say the same about me.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

For years—three, maybe four, okay probably five—all I wanted was a book contract.

I would’ve have done anything to get it: put my soul on the open market, do cartwheels on flaming stones, eat a jar of mayo, denounce my love of the Phillies, accept bribes and teach my 10th graders that reading is for suckers, that Cheetos are healthier than carrots, that the principal is a rhinoceros, that true love is a bunch of hokey boloney unless it’s on "The Bachelorette," that the economy has never looked so sexy, that cooties are real, that college is the devil, and that I am really a very manly woman.

If only I had a manuscript to edit. An acceptance letter, however corny the story, to open and read and frame, instead of a mountain of rejection letters piled so high on my desk that if I breath or cough or sigh with enough gusto the entire mountain will collapse on me like an avalanche and crush me and cover me in my own rejections and failures and nobody will hear me scream and I’ll die a slow and painful death, which newspapers will find fascinating and therefore report, on the front page in big bold lettering, “MAN DIES OF FAILURE; NOT HEART FAILURE, JUST FAILURE.”

And then an agent finally said yes—at first I thought the email said, “jes,” as in Jessica, which isn’t my name—a few editors also said "yes" not "jes," and I was spared the headline. Still, it was hard to talk about. It made me irritable, itchy, like red ants were crawling up my thigh. I didn’t recognize my voice; no matter what I said, I sounded fancy—no, foncy—like I had a British accent, played a smashing game of Polo, and ate only “mixed greens,” and only with a salad fork. I told myself, “Self, yeah you, you’re not British; tell them the truth: your favorite food is hot dogs, you own one pair of jeans, suffer (sometimes for weeks) from writer’s block, and like to the sing “Poker Face” while washing your face in the shower.

But, I’ve learned, you have to talk about it. Not your Poker Face, your book. You have to sell yourself, even if the self you’re selling isn’t Mr. Foncy Ponts. This I realized early on in the process—and again a few months before my book came out and my book reading/signing schedule was . . . well, it wasn’t really a schedule, per say . . . it did say, “Matt’s Reading Schedule” at the top, but . . .

Matt Blackstone author photo
Cue Steven Colbert, adjusting his glasses, trying hard not laugh: “Nation, in the history of civilization, there are many men who rose above their circumstances and truly lived the American Dream. And then, Nation, there are those who saw the promised land, enjoyed the view, got this close [pinches the air] . . . and failed miserably. Like this guy. Matt Blackstone. [Cue my author photo].

I wasn’t okay with that. I had to get my book out there. I believed in its message (I wrote A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie for the outcast teens I teach). I believed that teenagers would enjoy and benefit from the story. I believed in my ability to present it. And I was tired of Colbert mocking me.

So I sat my butt in a white chair at the end of June and I emailed. I called. I visited stores. I stopped by libraries. I wrote letters. I contacted schools (and all their English teachers). I emailed the state of California. And half of New Jersey. I skipped breakfast, and then lunch. I called principals, superintendants. I mailed letters and books and flyers (Linda, at the local post office, thanked me for keeping her in business). I reached out to my friends, and their friends, and friends of their friends and their Facebook friends, and spent entire days on Gmail. I slept when I could no longer see. I ate dinner at my desk. I don’t know for sure how much time elapsed, as days blended quickly but passed slowly, but I was told it was more than six weeks.

Eventually, my wife staged an intervention. Threw me in the shower. Reacquainted me with washing machines and deodorant. Escorted me outdoors. Introduced me to the sunshine. The sound of birds. The taste of strawberries. The satisfaction of sleep.

Now, as I write this article, my precious teacher summer is over. But I learned an important lesson about self-promotion and hard work. And what it takes.

My Fall schedule now includes visits to 15 stores, 11 schools, 6 libraries, and 3 festivals.

A total of 35 Fall events. Can’t even keep a poker face. The number makes me smile.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

Marlene Newman, author of Myron’s Magic Cow (Barefoot Books, 2005). Aside from being a talented and hilarious writer, Marlene is a perfect writing partner. She’s honest. Smart. Witty. Creative but grounded. Tough but forgiving. Critical but complimentary. Nitpicky but always manages to see the big-picture.

She writes and edits for a purpose, and lives her life the same way. It’s an honor to call her my mentor, cousin, and friend.

Cynsational Notes

Follow Matt on Twitter, and check out his upcoming appearances.

Join Barry Lyga, Cynthia Leitich Smith & More at the Texas Book Festival (Oct. 22-23)

The Texas Book Festival is scheduled for Oct. 22 and Oct. 23 in the State Capitol Building and Grounds in Austin.

Please join Cynthia Leitich Smith and Barry Lyga for "More Than One Way to Read: Graphic Novels," moderated by Vicky Smith from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 in Capitol Extension E2.010.

From TBF: "Not all worthy books are lines of black text on white pages. We've asked two young adult writers with new graphic novels out this year to show images from their books (Mangaman (Houghton Mifflin) and Tantalize: Kieron's Story (Candlewick)) in a conversation about creating books for readers who want more than one way to read.

"Moderator Vicky Smith is the children's & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews, the world's toughest book critics. She has served on the American Library Association's Newbery and Caldecott committees and is an adjunct instructor for the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College in Boston. A children's librarian by training, she believes in connecting kids with great books in any way possible."

A Convergence of Souls

A collaboration with Austin Bat Cave featuring the Festival's young adult writers will be from 9 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 at Texas State Cemetery.

What’s spookier than a slew of the nation’s finest young adult authors all gathered together in one place? Well, a lot actually – that sounds downright pleasant.

But did we mention they’re gathering in the Texas State Cemetery, where the hallowed graves of countless former statesmen (and sometime ghosts) pass their grim vigil?

Okay, so it might be more than a little spooky, but terror aside, this collection of sheer talent should make for a rather fun evening. You’ll get to meet the writers (listed below), hear them talk about their newest books, and maybe even watch them compete for literary glory. And don’t worry, we promise to keep the prospect of your looming mortality to, you know, a minimum. Bring a blanket and flashlight!

Featured Authors:
Cynsational Notes

Storytimes, interactive tent will get kids excited about reading: Tots can meet authors of popular picture books, while teens have their own events by Sharyn Vane from The Austin American-Statesman. Peek: "The spotlight is on graphic novels at the 'More Than One Way to Read' panel, with Mangaman's Barry Lyga and Cynthia Leitich Smith, whose Tantalize: Kieren's Story sketches further the supernatural Austin she has explored in three prose novels..."

2011 Texas Book Festival Children's and YA Programming: a cheat sheet from Greg Leitich Smith. See also the full official festival calendar.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Guest Post: Kekla Magoon on Truth, Inspiration and Camo Girl

Learn more about Kekla.
By Kekla Magoon

“What’s your inspiration?” is a question that most authors I know get asked a lot—by friends, by child readers, by fellow writers.

Like most authors (I suspect), I’ve developed semi-canned answers to this question—answers which are based on truth, but which always leave me feeling a bit squirmy. I never can get to the bottom of something as unwieldy as my inspiration in a sound bite.

It never fails to intrigue me, how interested people are in this question.

Whether or not they’ve actually read my work, it seems they’re dying to know, “What made you write about that?”

I learned to anticipate this question after my first novel was released. In The Rock and The River (Aladdin, 2009), thirteen-year-old Sam has to choose whether or not to join the Black Panther Party in 1968 Chicago.

The Black Panthers were a topic that hadn’t been written about for young people, so it made sense that people were constantly asking me how I chose the topic. It was also very easy to navigate my response by uttering variations of “It’s an interesting slice of history, and it hasn’t been written about.”

See reviews of Rock and the River.
I was able to speak about the story as something that had captured my imagination as a young person, as a black person, as someone committed to conveying new truths about our collective history.

Basically, I thought I had a good handle on the inspiration question, but when my second novel came out, the bubble burst.

Camo Girl (Aladdin, 2011) is a contemporary middle grade novel about a pair of outcasts, Ella and Z, who experience bullying and isolation in sixth grade. Ella’s dream is to be popular, but Z is the “weird kid” in their class, and he’s unlikely to ever fit in with any group. A new popular boy in school, Bailey, befriends Ella and offers her a chance to make new friends, but to do so she would have to leave Z behind.

The story’s themes of friendship, loyalty, fitting in, and self-acceptance all rested very close to my heart, but when people asked why I wrote the book, I found myself hemming and hawing.

How was I going to talk about inspiration, when the inspiration was largely my own life and memories? The book is fictional, of course, and nothing that happens in the story actually happened to me, but I definitely attempted to capture an emotional truth about my middle school experience. Thus, any honest answers to the inspiration question veered a bit too close for comfort.

But I strive for authenticity in my work and in my professional life, and it struck me as disingenuous to obfuscate, or distance myself from the emotions of the project by declaring it “relevant subject matter for pre-teens,” or something lofty like that.

It became important to me to own the material, to say it was inspired by my middle school experiences.

And at heart, it was, although I maintain that an artist’s creativity can’t be so easily pigeonholed or attached to specific inspirations.

Yes, there was a mean boy who bullied me in middle school. Yes, I know how it feels to be left out of a group, or uncertain about which lunch table I will be welcome to sit at. Yes, I have frequently been the only black (biracial) person in a room, in a class, in a group. Many, many times.

Check out Kekla's Classroom Workshops.
There’s so much raw material from my life that inspires me. Observations, memories, facts, games, books, movies, television, radio, snatches of conversation overheard (crafty writers develop a talent for eavesdropping), letters from readers, and so on.

Digging deeper than that, I honestly don’t know exactly what inspires me. I can’t always identify the source of that little tug that draws me to the keyboard. Sometimes, I think my true inspiration is hidden—it doesn’t push me to write based on the knowledge of some truth, but rather pulls me there with the hope of uncovering it.

Once a book is fully written, I find I have a better sense of the force that has driven me to write it, but I don’t become any better at articulating it succinctly. (If I could be succinct about it, I suppose I would write short stories or flash fiction rather than novels! I refer you to this blog post for further evidence of this phenomenon of verbosity.) I’ll do my best to sum it up, though.

In Camo Girl, I now understand that I wrote about the highest form of friendship I could imagine—unconditional friendship—because I craved it back then and I still value and search for it now. I wrote about fitting in, because I’m the sort of person who likes myself but is never really sure if anyone else does. And I wrote about self-acceptance because realizing that I like myself, regardless of whether anyone else does, has been a powerful and lifelong evolution that I suppose I’m still rolling through.

More about Camo Girl from Indiebound.
Whew. I worked hard on getting comfortable sharing information like this with my readers. And I was well aware that child audiences might interpret these admissions about my past experience differently than adults do.

When I went to prepare my first school presentations on Camo Girl, I panicked. How would I articulate the difference between truth and fiction to middle school audiences who constantly want to know if the book is based on a true story? How was I going to explain to them what the veil of fiction had done with my personal truth—made it stand out in sharp silhouette, but hidden its actual face?

Child readers want so desperately to believe in the truth of a book, if it resonates with them. In fact, they invariably find what is true and bring it to the forefront.

By boldly declaring Camo Girl as a work of fiction, something made up, I hated to rob them of any connection they might have had with the material as it related to their own lives. If believing in the truth of the story could make a few outcast sixth-graders feel less alone, it was worth putting myself under the microscope. Absolutely.

Cynsational Notes

Kekla Magoon is a New York City-based author of books for teens. Her recent novels include Camo Girl and The Rock and the River, which won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award, an NAACP Image Award nomination and was named an ALA/YALSA Best Book for Young Adults.

Available Jan. 3, 2012
Forthcoming novels include 37 Things I Love (Henry Holt, 2012) and Fire in the Streets (a companion to The Rock and the River)(Aladdin, 2012).

She has also written several nonfiction titles, including Today the World Is Watching You: The Little Rock Nine and the Fight for School Integration, 1957 (Lerner 2011).

Kekla makes author visits and conducts book programs for youth in schools and libraries around the country. She is also a conference speaker, writing teacher, and was a founding editor of YA and children’s literature for the arts journal Hunger Mountain. She is a regular contributor for The Women’s Mosaic’s blog at and serves on the board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

Kekla was raised in a biracial family in the Midwest, and also lived abroad in Cameroon, West Africa, as a child. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Northwestern University and a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Guest Post: Letter from Vietnam Inspires YA Verse Novel by Sherry Shahan

By Sherry Shahan

My YA novel in verse Purple Daze (Running Press, 2011) was inspired while I was an MFA student (Writing for Children and Young Adults) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I was cleaning out my office when I found an old shoebox. Inside were letters from a friend who had served in Vietnam during the 1960s. I remember sitting on the floor and rereading the gut-wrenching accounts of his time in that living hell.

I still can’t believe I’d kept his letters more than 40 years.

A short time later, I began writing character sketches about other high school friends. Once I began scribbling, memories slammed me twenty-four-seven. I let myself tap into the emotions triggered by that crazy time—from happiness (our wild antics) to rage (over a senseless war) and sorrow (teen angst). It was like being in a constant flashback.

I’d attended poetry workshops over the years, studying language and form as a way to improve my prose; though I never considered myself a poet. The MFA program, however, challenged us to explore genres outside our comfort zone. So I started playing around with the idea of a verse novel.

Since my friend’s letters were the inspiration, I decided to use that form of expression for his character. I experimented with other styles for other characters—notes, journal entries, free verse and traditional poetry. I wanted the story’s emotional layer to be as true to life as possible, although I never considered portraying events as they really happened.

1960s letter from Vietnam.
Experimenting with a nontraditional form definitely had its challenges. (Earlier novels Frozen Stiff (Random House) and Death Mountain (Peachtree) were written in traditional prose.) Each of the six viewpoint characters required his or her own story arc, yet I had to weave the individual stories smoothly into the whole.

I suddenly became aware of ‘white space’ and its role in shaping emotional context. In certain instances, white space reflected the power of a thought or idea in a way that solid text could not.

This piece is only four lines:

Love is like sticking
your car keys in a pocket with
your sunglasses and thinking
your glasses won’t get scratched


In later drafts, I added descriptive entries about historical events in 1965, such as the Pentagon’s authorization of Napalm and the FBI’s all-out war to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These pieces are juxtaposed against musical references: rock concerts and the true story behind Arlo Guthrie's famous song “Alice's Restaurant.”

Ultimately, though, I wanted Purple Daze to be a story about six high school friends and their sometimes crazy, often troublesome, and ultimately dramatic lives. I didn’t want their stories be overshadowed by history lessons.

Even if a writer isn’t interested in trying a novel in verse, here’s a good revision exercise: Take a scene from your manuscript and rework it. Concentrate on metaphor, assonance, startling imagery, rhythm and cadence.

Sure, all good writing should contain these elements. Still, I find it’s easier to focus on ‘voice sounds’ and ‘patterns of expression’ when my writing looks like poetry.

To me, verse mirrors the pulse of adolescent life. Condensed metaphoric language on a single page is an apt reflection of their dramatic, tightly-packed world.

Sherry's friend looks into the camera.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Arthur Slade Interviews Kenneth Oppel on This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

Kenneth Oppel's first novel Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure was published when he was seventeen and he hasn't slowed down one iota since. He is the author of the Silverwing series (which has sold over a million copies), the Airborn series (winner of the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature and the Michael L. Printz Honor Book award), and the highly acclaimed Half Brother. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

AS: Congrats on the release of This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

The idea of doing a prequel to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is very inspired and I'm certain there are many authors shouting, "why didn't I think of that?" Has anyone accused you of stealing their idea?

KO: Amazingly, no, especially since there have been plenty of other classics rebooted with young heroes lately.

You yourself may be familiar with the fabulous Hunchback series; there’s also young Sherlock Homes, young James Bond, among others. But Frankenstein was still unclaimed!

I was making a presentation to a group of booksellers in the U.S. a few months ago, and someone in the audience asked me if I was planning on ripping off any other literary classics. She didn’t actually say “ripping off,” but you get the idea. I said I didn’t have any immediate plans, but asked if she had any suggestions. “Moby Dick,” she said, “focusing on Captain Ahab.”

It’s not a bad idea. But I don’t think I’ll take the bait.

AS: Hmm. Steampunked Moby Dick! Just let me write that down...anyway, back to the interview. Can you pinpoint when you first had that aha moment?

KO: I love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’d just re-read it a couple of years ago, and the mentions of his childhood were brief but evocative. There were mentions of seeking out the Elixir of Life, raising ghosts and demons – you know, pretty typical teenage stuff, right up there with rep soccer and hot yoga. But I saw these things as the seeds of possible Gothic adventure stories.

I spent a lot of time wondering about what might happen on such adventures, and what would motivate them in a powerful way. I sat on the idea for quite a while, almost a full year, before I shared it with my agent and approached publishers, because I wanted to make sure the idea was well formed; I really didn’t want it to be seen as a gratuitous attempt to cash in on the Frankenstein myth.

AS: Did you channel Mary Shelley while you were writing? By that I mean did you want to imitate the style of the original book? Shelley's Frankenstein is a rather slow and dreamy novel at times. You manage to keep that dreaminess, but also the plot moves along at a good clip.

Photo of Kenneth by Peter Riddihough
KO: I’m a pretty good mimic, so yes, I did try to capture the linguistic flavour of the original, but without making it inaccessible to contemporary readers. I quite enjoy the richness of period fiction, so the language in Dark Endeavor might be a little more formal, but I made sure it’s effortless to read.

I read all my books aloud during the writing/editing process, and if the prose sounds too constipated, or unnatural, or the pace is slack, I know about it, and change it.

The book combines Gothic adventure and horror and romance, and I wanted it to belt along. I’m not sure I could write a book that didn’t have a fairly powerful plot as its internal combustion engine.

AS: How much leeway did you give yourself to play around with the backstory from the original novel?

KO: Well, once I invented a twin brother for Victor, I was making a pretty clean break from the world of the original. I like to think of it as an alternative backstory to the Frankenstein myth. A search for the elixir of life is a great idea for an adventure, but I thought it would be even more powerful, and personal, if Victor needed the elixir to heal someone he loved. It could’ve been any family member, but I decided a brother – a twin! – would have the richest emotional possibilities.

As for the cast of characters, I made the love interest, Elizabeth Lavenza, a distant relation (as opposed to first cousin). Their best friend Henry Clerval was transformed into a slightly comic Woody Allen-like character who’s riddled with phobias and fears, making him the least likely person to enjoy a Frankenstein-style banquet of horror.

Victor’s parents I actually based on Mary Shelley’s real parents, the radical writers William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft, so my Frankenstein household is very liberal for its time. Mrs. Frankenstein writes pamphlets on the rights and education of women; Mr. Frankenstein is a fair magistrate who insists on his own family making the servants their Sunday dinner as a gesture of egalitarianism (a concept that was sweeping through Europe in the late 1700’s). And my Victor himself certainly shares traits of both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron (as did Mary Shelley’s Victor). So I tried to work in lots of insider Frankenstein information.

AS: Giving Victor Frankenstein a twin certainly upped the "interest" factor of the novel. The fact is, I liked "steady" Konrad more than the "impetuous" Victor, the narrator of the story. And yet, I was somehow cheering for Victor, too. Was that your intention?

KO: Anti-heroes can be incredibly charismatic and exciting. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call Victor an anti-hero. He has some dislikeable traits, but he’s never truly wicked (not in this first book anyway). You cheer for Victor, I think, because he has so much life and drive and passion in him; and you never forget he loves his brother, even though he’s ragingly jealous of him, and wants to steal his girlfriend. So yes, I wanted Victor to be complicated – but that makes him a much more interesting character I think.

AS: It must have been rather exciting to have the book optioned before it was published. What was the process for that?

KO: It was very exciting. My literary agent Steven Malk thought the book had strong movie potential, and showed the manuscript to an amazing pair of agents in Hollywood, Nick Harris and Josie Freedman at ICM, who specialise in book-to-film rights. They really liked it, and sent it out to a dozen top producers and within a couple days we had three offers from major studios.

This doesn’t happen often. I know. I used to write screenplays, and I’ve had many books and scripts optioned over the years and usually you’re lucky if you get one offer amidst the tsunami of “passes”.

Our decision was pretty easy: we sold the rights to producer Karen Rosenfelt and Summit Entertainment, the producer and studio who made the "Twilight" movies.

AS: The book ties up the ending nicely, yet there is still room for a sequel. What's next for Victor?

K: At the end of Book One, Victor promises himself he’ll unlock every secret law of the earth to achieve his goals – let’s just say he honours his promise.

AS: You've gone from the rich "bat" fantasy world of the Silverwing series, to the post-Victorian atmosphere of the Airborn series, to the modern reality of Half Brother. And now Frankenstein. Where will you be taking us next?

KO: Straight to hell, in the second installment of the Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. It’s called Such Wicked Intent, and should be published August 2012.

After that, who knows. I’ve got a couple of ideas I’m very excited about and now that I’ve just finished revisions on Such Wicked Intent, I have the wonderful luxury of daydreaming them into existence.

Arthur
Cynsational Notes

Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan and began writing when he was very, very young.

He went to university (English honours), later worked as a night auditor, and in radio advertising and now has been writing fiction full time for fifteen years.

 He is the author of seventeen bestselling books, including the Northern Frights series, Dust, and the multi-award winning The Hunchback Assignments.

He lives in Saskatoon, Canada with his wife and daughter and two fish.

See also Arthur Slade on How to Put the "Steam" in "Steampunk."

Happy Teen Read Week


From YALSA: "Teen Read Week is an initiative of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). Teen Read Week started in 1998. This year's theme is Picture It @ your library®, which encourages teens to read graphic novels and other illustrated materials, seek out creative books, or imagine the world through literature, just for the fun of it. Libraries across the world celebrate Teen Read Week with a variety of special events and programs aimed at encouraging teens to read for pleasure and to visit their libraries for free reading materials.

"Best-selling author Jay Asher is the spokesperson for 2011 Teen Read Week. Learn more about Jay. Artwork was created by Gareth Hinds. Learn more about Gareth."

Cynsational Notes

Part 1: The Cynsation of Cynthia Leitich Smith from Teen Voices: Changing the World of Girls Through Media. Peek: "To me, diversity means that anybody can be a hero that everybody cheers. It’s important because it’s true and because it’s wonderful news. Both in the real world and in the worlds of our imaginations, we need all the heroes we can get."

After my debut graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren's Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, 2011), my most "Picture It" book is definitely Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001).

Learn more about Rain, read a few reviews, and check out the teacher guides. Note: You may also want to consider it among your Native American Heritage Month titles for November, even as you integrate Native literature into your reading all year long.

Watch the trailer below!

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