Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Voice: Krista Russell on Chasing the Nightbird

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Krista Russell is the first-time author of Chasing the Nightbird (Peachtree, 2011)(teachers guide). From the promotional copy:

Fourteen-year-old Lucky Valera is a seasoned sailor about to join the crew of the whaling ship, Nightbird. But when his estranged older brother suddenly kidnaps him and forces him into servitude as a mule spinner at the mill, his life takes a dramatic turn for the worse.

Determined to escape, Lucky links up with some unlikely allies: Daniel, a fugitive slave who works alongside him at the mill, and Emmeline, a Quaker ship captains daughter. Emmeline offers Lucky passage on her fathers ship in exchange for his help leading escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad, but Lucky knows getting out from under his brother wont be easy.

When their plans go awry and Daniel is threatened by ruthless slave catchers, Lucky discovers that true freedom requires self-sacrifice, and he comes eventually to realize he is part of a larger movement from which he cannot run away.

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?

Young Krista
I grew up in New England and, as a kid, one of my favorite places to visit was the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I guess you could say my research began back then, with books from the gift shop and the rope bracelets my sisters and I wore every summer.

While New Bedford has long been famous for whaling, its connection to the Underground Railroad is not as well known. I first read about it in a newspaper story describing a secret room found when a building in the downtown area was demolished.

I was fascinated, and started to do a little digging. I learned that Frederick Douglass traveled the Underground Railroad using borrowed sailor’s protection papers. He actually lived in New Bedford and worked on the wharves as a ships caulker. Around the same time, huge textile mills had begun to spring up, competing with whaling for the city’s workforce.

It was a tumultuous period, and a story I couldn’t resist.

More about Krista
When I began research for the book, I looked at photographs, newspapers, and first hand accounts to get a picture of what New Bedford was like in the mid-1800s.

I also wanted to know more about life on a whaleship.

What I found was that the ship formed its own society, and in many ways a very egalitarian one. The work was so dangerous and the crew so dependent on one another, that their judgments tended to be based on ability rather than skin color (on my website is an advertisement made by the crew of a whaleship).

Still, my biggest roadblock was getting into the head of my main character, Lucky. Despite all the research I’d done, I was having a difficult time putting myself in the shoes of a boy who’d spent more time at sea than on land. How would he view the world? What were his hopes and dreams? What rules did he live by?

I was stuck.

After working on several different versions of the story, I set it aside for almost two years.

As writers, we often find inspiration in unlikely places. My greatest coup came from an estate sale. While looking through a box of books, I found a title I hadn’t come across in my research. Black Hands, White Sails by Patricia C. and Fredrick L. McKissack (Scholastic, 1999) is an inspiration in more ways than one.

Aside from offering a well-researched history of African American whalers, it contained a list of whalemen’s commandments. Rules such as fight anytime you think you can win, run when you think you can’t win, and never volunteer.

As soon as I read the whalemen’s commandments, I knew I’d found my main character, Lucky.


As a historical fiction writer, how did you capture the voices of the era? What resources did you turn to? Did you run into challenges translating the language of the era for today's young readers? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines?

The voices of the era were a challenge, mainly because there was such a diverse cast of characters. I turned again to primary sources, but also to works of historical fiction to see how other authors handled the voices of their characters. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon & Schuster, 2008) is a favorite and a great example of brilliant dialogue.

Aside from the voice of a whaleman, one of my main characters is Quaker. To make her dialogue authentic I needed lots of thees, thous, and thines. Enough to make your head spin. What I’d done (at least on the first pass) was to get it written. But, of course, it was important to get it right. And to do so without making her speech so clunky that it stopped the reader.

Another challenge was that I’d fallen in love with the seafaring jargon of the era (my editor came to call it pirate-speak) and went overboard in the manuscript. I had to be brutal about cutting words or phrases with meanings not immediately clear in context. The dialogue needed to flow, and I had to resist the urge to launch into a history lesson.

An author is born!
 But I wouldn’t change the process I went though. The salty language and Quakerisms made writing the story fun.

I guess my advice to other writers would be to jump right in: immerse yourself in the voices of the era you’re writing about. Revel in the wonderful words, phrases and expressions you’ve worked so hard to uncover in your research. You can always trim the sails later.

Cynsational Notes

Don't miss the teachers guide to Chasing the Nightbird or extras from Krista Russell.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

No Boundaries: A YA Novel Roadtrip by Naomi Bates from A Bookable Trip. A celebration of YA novels set in the U.S., state by state. Note: Texas is represented by Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2011, 2012) and Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill (HarperTeen, 2009, 2010).

The Edge in Fiction or Why Safe Books are Dead Books by Ashley Hope Pérez from Finding Wonderland. Peek: "There has to be an element of risk and exposure in the reading relationship if anything very profound is going to occur. A great book is not a safe place for the reader."

Questions You Might Be Asked When Offered Representation by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "If you have one amazing idea and then a nightmare litany of things I will never be able to sell in a million years, that will honestly dampen my enthusiasm. I’m not looking to sign you for one project, I want to work with you for a long time."

Blind Date: Those All-Important First Five Pages by Martina and Lisa from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "We are taking readers on a journey, and they want to be sure it isn't one they have traveled before, but at the same time, they want to know what kind of a journey it is going to be." Note: Includes questions for consideration.

The Editorial Process: My Experience vs. My Expectations by Mary Lindsey from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "Sometimes editors will spend a great deal of time studying your manuscript and analyzing ways to make it stronger. Sometimes, they will ask you to take your story apart, delete 40%, reorder it, and write new scenes to replace the deleted ones." See also Philomel editor Jill Santopolo on her experience editing that same manuscript from Books Complete Me.

Clarion Editor Daniel Nayeri: How I Got Into Publishing from CBC Diversity. Peek: "They represented, to me, the ability to assimilate--a quality that any first-generation immigrant desires on some level, for various reasons. I realize only now, looking back, that I was also beginning to see slang as a sort of mastery over language, a kind of expert-level code that only native speakers could employ."

Reminder! 28 Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children's Literature from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: "To celebrate children’s authors and illustrators of color, during the twenty-eight days of Black History Month, we’ll profile a different artist (each day)." See Day 17: Charlotte Riley-Webb, Day 18: Bil Wright, Day 19: Pansie Hart Flood, Day 20: Traci Dant, Day 21: Nikki Carter, Day 22: Sharon Robinson, Day 23 Teresa Harris (posts are ongoing).  

Reading Rainbow to Return as an App by Lauren Barack from School Library Journal. Peek: "Actor LeVar Burton wants to bring Reading Rainbow back—as an app. So says the popular show's former host, who has kept the flame alive for the beloved children's series, which launched on PBS Kids in 1983. Instead of a television show, Burton is planning to launch a mobile application, which will offer books to children."

Permission to Be Stubborn by Rachel Harris from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "...hold tight to the story you want to tell. The core of your book. The things that turned you onto the shiny new idea to begin with. About a year ago, I read that author Stephanie Perkins always makes a Love List for her works in progress, and now I do, too."

Talking PR: a report on #mglitchat on Twitter, along with Kellie Celia, the Marketing Communications Manager at Walden Pond Press, and Tracey Daniels, the founder and senior partner at Media Masters Publicity by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident. Note: tips for promoting middle grade (and other) books.

Want American History? Interview with editor Carolyn Yoder of Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills by Gretchen Woelfle from I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "This is the mission of Calkins Creek books – to offer young readers original research and original writing. For me, great history writing is a balancing act of the two."

2011 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award from Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Children. The winner is Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt, 2011); the one honor book was Hidden by Helen Frost (FSG, 2011). See more information.

However You Can by Susan Fletcher from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: "While many writers seem to have some kind of inner sonar to guide them, I tend to stumble into quagmires and pit traps, taking vast amounts of time and energy to extricate myself and find my way back to solid ground. Panic is familiar territory -- the gut-level feeling that I'm stuck, that I'll never get out, that this whole thing has been a massive waste of time, that my career as a writer is over."

Enter to win an ARC of Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith from P.J. Hoover from Roots in Myth. Peek: "This is the kind of adventure I would have desperately wanted to go on as a kid (or heck, even as an adult). It's smart and witty and 100% engaging!" Deadline: 11:59 p.m. March 3. Eligibility: North America.

Cynsational Writer Tip: If you write, you are not an "aspiring" writer. You are a writer. You don't need publication to prove you're a writer; just get the words down on the page. Own your awesomeness.

Marketing Consultation Giveaway with Shelli Johannes from Project Mayhem: The Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers. Peek: " Build relationships online and help others. What comes around goes around. That, to me, is the best tool an author can have. Other than that, it depends on your target audience." Enter to win a one-hour phone consultation with Shelli. Deadline: midnight EST Feb. 29.

Agent Spotlight: Marie Lamba of Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency from Literary Rambles. Note: Marie is interested in middle grade and young adult fiction manuscripts. She is published in YA fiction (with Random House) herself.

AAAS/Subaru Middle Grades Science Book Winner
2012 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Film Winners Announced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Peek: "Books on vanishing frogs, secretive seabirds, and the fascinating history of feathers were among the winners.... The annual award, established in 2005, recognizes books for young readers that encourage an understanding and appreciation of science." Source: Chicken Spaghetti.

Are Teens Embracing E-Books? by Karen Springen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "'The YA market has the largest demographic reach of any category,' says Felicia Frazier, senior v-p of sales for Penguin Young Readers Group. 'You’ve got little kids, eight-and nine-year-olds, some of them reading teen books, and 30- and 40-year olds as well. We want them to come to us on any platform, whether it’s physical or e-books. If we can get more people reading and interested in reading and having access, whether it’s physical or digital, it’s a win-win.'"

Story Water: The Cultural Wellsprings of Storytelling by Sayantani DasGupta from Hunger Mountain. Peek: "Just as American children recognize the cackle of a Halloween witch, what Bengali child hasn’t shivered with delight at the Haau! Maau! Khaau! of a carnivorous rakshas on the trail of a human meal?"  

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a copy of Firelight or Vanish, both by Sophie Jordan (Harper). To enter, comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Please specify if you already own one of the books and are looking to win the other. Or email Cynthia directly with "Firelight," "Vanish" or "Firelight/Vanish," if you're open to winning both, in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST March 5.

The winner of the Blessed (Candlewick) paperback grand prize giveaway was Christina in Pennsylvania. The winners of Tantalize Kieren's Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle were Marla in Florida and Kyle in New Hampshire, and the winner of Diabolical (Book 4 in the Tantalize series) was Maria in Oklahoma.

The winners of the Alex Flinn six-book giveaway were: Karin in Oklahoma, Aricka in Texas (Bewitching); Vanessa in Florida, Crystal in Washington (Beastly Deluxe Edition (including Lindy's Diary), and Rebecca in California, Brittany in Pennsylvania (Cloaked). Thanks to Alex for sponsoring!

The winners of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Dutton, 2012) were Debby in Alaska and Arianna in Texas. Thanks to Penguin Books for Young Readers for sponsoring!

The winner of  One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by David Small (Dial, 2012) was Amalia in New York. Thanks to Toni for sponsoring!

The winner of The Camping Trip that Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Our National Parks by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (Dial, 2012) was Margie in Michigan. Thanks to Barb for sponsoring!

Note: don't miss the Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith giveaway and Marketing Consultation by Shelli Johannes Giveaway.

Cynsational Screening Room

Guadalupe Garcia McCall Interview by Ed Spicer from Spicy Reads. See also Guadalupe's speech at the YALSA reception honoring her as a Morris finalist. (She's also a Pura Belpre author.)



This Week's Cynsations Posts
More Personally

Last week's highlight was the 2012 Austin SCBWI Regional Conference, "Something for Everybody," at St. Edward's University. Special thanks to RA Debbie Gonzales, ARA Carmen Oliver, Illustration Chair Mark G. Mitchell as well as the the faculty, volunteers, and attendees for a wonderful event. The Meredith Davis Member-of-the-Year Award went to writer Shelli Cornelison, the winner of the portfolio contest was author-illustrator Jeff Crosby.


In a surprising turn of events, Greg Leitich Smith and I received an award naming us the 2011 Ambassadors for the Austin Kid-Lit Community. We're deeply honored.

See my event photo report. See also Illustrator Advice: Austin SCBWI Takeaways from C.S. Jennings at CSJenningsDrawings, Nikki Loftin's photo report, Austin SCBWI report, Salima Alikhan's report on Donna Jo Napoli's keynote, ARA Carmen Oliver's report, and the Writing Barn report. Note: congratulations to Lori Ann Stephens who signed with agent Jill Corcoran of Herman Agency at the conference; see the whole scoop on how it happened!

"Captivating" --SLJ
School Library Journal says of Diabolical: "...this captivating story combines action, suspense, and romance with just the right touch of humor to keep it entertaining. A great finish to an original and satisfying series."

Writing Heroes: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: "Which is why I’m pretty sure she’s got some secret superpowers that enable her to watch over and come to the rescue of the global writing community." Note: Highlighted that particular quote due to a longing since childhood for superpowers. Also, it'll be a pleasure to pass on the generous critique giveaway offer to Cynsations readers; watch for announcement to come!

Nifty! My literary agency is now on Twitter @curtisbrownltd.

Seeking study? On a budget? "Cynthia Leitich Smith will be leading an intensive, small-group workshop in writing for young adults (also “tweens”) this summer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference from Aug. 13 to Aug. 19. VCFA offers funding for partial scholarships to support writers needing assistance to join in the Conference. Contact Ellen Lesser, Director at pgcnference@vcfa.edu or 802-828-8835 with scholarship inquiries and other questions."

Doesn't fit into your schedule? Cynthia also will be teaching with Greg Leitich Smith at the Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers Conference in June 18 to June 22 in Sandy, Utah; and the Southampton Writers Conference from from July 11 to July 15.

Long-awaited rain in my garden reveals a dragon.
My Valentine's Day flowers in bloom.
Personal Links:
From Greg Leitich Smith:
Cynsational Events 

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at an Alamosa Books Author Event from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 7 in Albuquerque.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith on March 10 and March 10 at Tuscon Festival of Books. Panels: from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. March 10 "Blood and Kisses: Paranormal Romance with Courtney Rene and Aprilynne Pike," followed by signing and from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. March 11 "What's New & Who's Reading Now? with Janni Lee Simner, R.L. Stine & Aprilynne Pike," followed by signing.

Interested in taking a class with Cynthia this summer? Try the 13 Annual Conference of Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers from June 18 to June 22 in Sandy, Utah; the Southampton Children's Literature Conference from July 11 to July 15 in Southampton, New York; or the 17th Annual Postgraduate Writing Conference from Aug. 13 to Aug. 19 at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.
See more of Cynthia's upcoming events.

Note: Due to volume, I can't feature the author/illustrator events of all of my Cynsational readers, but if you're Austin bound for an appearance here, let me know, and I'll try to work in a shout out or two.

Join Cynthia from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 7 in Albuquerque

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Interview: Meredith Buchanan & Emily Rivet from Marketing & Publicity at Peachtree Publishers

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations



Meredith Buchanan (MB) has been the marketing coordinator at Peachtree Publishers since 2010. She graduated from the University of Georgia in 2008 with degrees in English and photography, and received a Certificate in Publishing from New York University in 2009. At Peachtree, she oversees their participation in conferences, school and library shows, and literature festivals.

Emily Rivet (ER) graduated from Berry College in 2009 with a degree in journalism. She worked for Scholastic Book Fairs and Blooming Twig Books before becoming the Publicity Assistant at Peachtree Publishers in January 2011. At Peachtree, she manages the company blog, Facebook pages and Twitter feed. She also makes sure all the publicity mailings go off without a hitch -- if you’ve received a review copy from Peachtree in the past year, chances are Emily packed it!

What inspired you to focus your career on books, especially those for young readers?

MB: I have been a book fiend my whole life--pestering my parents to read to me, and then spending all of my time nose to paper after I learned to read myself. I was a flashlight-under-the-covers, "you're-grounded-with-no-books!" kind of girl.

MB: All through school though, books were never presented to me as a viable way to making a living. It wasn't until after college, dismally clutching my fine arts degrees, that I realized I had no clue what I was going to do for a career. I took stock of my interests, and reading was at the very top, so I tried to think of a career where I would have the most access to books. It was either working in publishing or being a librarian, and I just happened to pick publishing (I'm a big fan of librarians though!).

MB: I love working in children's books--I believe that a good children's book transcends age. I can pick up any book that I love as a ten-year-old, and enjoy it just as much today.

One of my favorite children's book authors, Madeleine L'Engle, has a great quote that I think is very apt about young reader's literature: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” I count myself as extremely lucky to work in this field.

ER: I was always a fairly bookish child and I dabbled in creative writing in elementary school (my comic books about a super hero dog were pretty brilliant, if you ask my mother), but it wasn’t until late in college that it finally dawned on me to pursue a career in the book industry.

ER: I think my love of the book itself and the idea of what a book is to a child finally pushed me over the edge. I have a huge collection of children’s books that I’ve kept with no immediate practical purpose in mind – beautiful books, classic books I grew up with, books that make me chuckle (I’m looking at you, Mo Willems), etc – and one day a friend of mine asked me, “Why aren’t you majoring in something to do with literature or education? You sure love this stuff!” It was my “A-ha” moment.

Does being based in Georgia give the house a different point of view or "vibe" than, say, a NYC-based publisher? If so, how?

Meredith Buchanan
MB: I think so. A lot of our authors and illustrators are local, as in Atlantans, or at least Southerners. So we have several that drop in regularly, which is always a treat. In true Southern fashion, lots of them bake something for us for Christmas (which we love).

MB: I don't think it's unusual for authors to have a close relationship with their editor in New York. But I do think we are unique in that our authors and illustrators have close ties to all of us; they know who works in marketing, and who orders office supplies, and the names of the staff in the warehouse. I think that we have a much more close-knit community that our authors and illustrators are a part of.

Emily Rivet
ER: Absolutely, however, having never worked for a larger publisher, I can only speculate. I think our size in particular lends itself to lots of collaboration. I don’t work in editorial, but I’ve been part of meetings where we analyze a main character or talk about different ways a story may need to change in the editorial process. I’ve been asked my opinion on cover art, typesetting, etc. and right now as I type out my answers to this questionnaire, I can overhear a meeting going on between our publisher, one of our editors and one of our authors. It sounds like he has an idea for a new series, so they’re fleshing out the story and main characters.

ER: I count myself incredibly lucky to be working in a smaller office where I can soak up these artistic conversations. Authors are always stopping by, signing books, chatting, discussing current or future works and even if your daily job has nothing to do with that side of publishing, chances are you’ll still encounter it and reap the benefits of being near all that creativity!

How do you connect your titles to teachers and librarians?

14 Cows for America Teacher Guide
ER: We have a great collection of teacher lesson plans and classroom discussion guides available for a ton of our titles, which include ties to national curriculum standards. A number of our authors are available for school visits as well, which is always so much fun. I remember thinking as a student how incredibly cool it was to meet a real, live author at school!

ER: We are also very active in library conferences where we get the chance to meet with teachers and librarians about their classroom needs.

ER: With so many constraints on their time and resources, teachers and librarians are always looking for the best way to get books to their students – hopefully we can help them with that!

Are there any particular books you'd like to highlight?

MB: We have a spring title, The Princess and the Packet of Frozen Peas by Tony Wilson, illustrated by Sue deGennaro, that I am just crazy for.

I love fairy tales, and I love a twist on a fairytale even more. The illustrations are a lot of fun, and I love the premise.

 It does make you wonder about the original fairy tale--why did the prince want such a whiner?!

Have your marketing strategies changed during the recent economic downturn? If so, how, and what is your rationale?

ER: We have turned a lot of our focus toward social media marketing, not only for the benefit of a cost-efficient way to reach a lot of our readers, but also for the simple fact that so many people are online and using these social media outlets to connect with fellow readers. It’s a burgeoning market out there, and we’re one of many publishers who have jumped right into the middle of it with our blog, Facebook pages and Twitter feed.

What recommendations do you have for writers and illustrators in the submissions process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

No Bows Teacher Guide
MB: My best recommendation for writers and illustrators is to do your research and be respectful. Before you call with a question, make sure the information you're looking for isn't available online. Any house that takes submissions has specific guidelines they want followed, and they are always on their website.

MB: Never, ever show up uninvited to a publisher's office. And remember, especially in a small house, you never know who might have answered the phone. Don't be rude to someone that you assume is a receptionist, she very well might be an editor!

There's been a lot of conversation of late about the current state and future of the picture book. What do you think?

MB: I think everyone in publishing can now see the changes that are coming. I have an e-reader, and even with my great love of the printed word, I believe that in the next ten years we will see a definite shift towards e-books over print.

MB: However, I think picture books will be a holdout. Can you imagine reading aloud to your children, holding up a screen? Well, maybe you can, and I'm sure it has been done, and will be done. But I think people have a real connection with picture books that maybe they don't have with their trade paperbacks. There is just a certain connection that you get from holding a child in your lap, letting them turn the pages, and examining the artwork together. It's just not the same on a screen.

Emily's niece AKA "Miss Biscuit"
ER: I don’t think there will ever be an end to the physical picture book. In my opinion, they are too important to a child’s development – think of the motor skills they develop as they learn to turn a page, their growing attention span as they learn how to sit and get from one end of the physical book to the other (and often back again) and the satisfaction they get from looking at all the books on the shelf and getting to physically pick one out for themselves. It’s priceless!

ER: I have a niece who is 15 months old and her favorite thing to do, already, is pull all of her books out, spread them out and go through them one by one. She loves turning pages and will happily sit and “read” for as long as you’ll let her. She’s a girl after my own heart!

What is the one word you'd like people to think of when they think of Peachtree Publishers?

MB: Quality.

ER: Timeless.

Cynsational Notes

Follow Peachtree Publishers at Facebook and Twitter.

New Voice: Cynthia Y. Levinson on We've Got a Job: The  1963 Birmingham Children's March (Peachtree, 2012) from Cynsations.

Thomas Gonzalez talks about his illustrations for 14 Cows for America, written by Carmen Agra Deedy. The powerful and true story recounts the gift of hope, generosity and compassion one small Kenyan Village made to the American people in the face of tragedy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

New Voice: Cynthia Y. Levinson on We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March


By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations   

Cynthia Y. Levinson is the first-time author of We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012)(excerpt)(blog). From the promotional copy:

The inspiring story of one of the greatest moments in civil rights history as seen through the eyes of four young people who were at the center of the action.

The 1963 Birmingham Children's March was a turning point in American history. In the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, the fight for civil rights lay in the hands of children like Audrey Hendricks, Wash Booker, James Stewart, and Arnetta Streeter.

Through the eyes of these four protesters and others who participated, We've Got a Job tells the little-known story of the 4,000 black elementary, middle, and high school students who voluntarily went to jail between May 2 and May 11, 1963. The children succeeded - where adults had failed - in desegregating one of the most racially violent cities in America.

By combining in-depth, one-on-one interviews and extensive research, author Cynthia Levinson recreates the events of the Birmingham Children's March from a new and very personal perspective.


Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an "ah-ha!" moment in your craft? What and how did it help you?

By Carolyn Coman (Arthur A. Levine, 2010)
Absolutely. A Whole Novel Workshop sponsored by the Highlights Foundation completely turned my writing around, though not in the ways I had anticipated.

These intensive, week-long sessions are by-application, by-invitation only. When the novel I’d been working on for four years was accepted, and I was assigned to work closely with Carolyn Coman, I was thrilled.

At our first one-on-one session, Carolyn talked with me about structure, point of view, voice—basic issues that I knew I needed help on but didn’t know how to improve.

Help seemed on the way! During the second evening’s group discussion, however, the other mentor-teacher so thoroughly criticized my draft, I thudded to a standstill. He was right. The novel was beyond help. At that moment, I switched to writing nonfiction.

For the rest of the week, I continued to meet with Carolyn. And we continued to talk about structure (especially, story-boarding, in which she’s an expert), point of view, and voice—all of the elements of fiction that play a role in good nonfiction writing. During private writing time, I pondered and explored the topics about which I wanted to write true stories.

At a previous Highlights-sponsored event, Chatauqua, I had talked with Lou Waryncia, editorial director of Cobblestone Publishing, who encouraged me to submit article queries to this group’s family of excellent nonfiction and fiction magazines.

It was one of the articles that I wrote for Cobblestone, called “We Shall Overcome,” about music during the civil rights period, that led to We’ve Got a Job.

As a nonfiction writer, how did you approach researching your topic? Then, how did you find the story, the focus, amidst all of your acquired subject matter?

Cynthia loves travel; here, she's with a young guide in Bolivia.
I started by reading. Fortunately, much has been written about the civil rights movement, not only in general but also in Alabama and, in particular, Birmingham. The events there were so melodramatic—beatings, hoses, dogs, jails.

I started with two hefty Pulitzer-prize-winning tomes and, then, went on to other prize-worthy texts, including children’s books (though, at the time, nothing was available for kids on the Children’s March). I read solidly for three months.

At about that time, I discovered the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), which has an excellent website, and, even better for my purposes, video interviews with hundreds of civil rights activists. I watched snippets of these interviews online and read many dozens of transcripts.

Finally, I was ready for my first trip to Birmingham. In addition to spending days in the BCRI and Birmingham Public Library archives, I wanted to meet the people I was reading about.

But, as a new writer, with only magazine articles to my name, I felt like an encyclopedia salesman making cold calls. Would busy, professional people be willing to meet with me to talk about events of 45 years ago?

Many, many did! I interviewed not only black people who had marched in 1963 but also white people, including a policeman, about their perspectives. This trip convinced me that onsite research is invaluable.

But, you’re right, Cyn. All of this research produced a welter of material. How to make sense of it?

Two tasks were especially instrumental in that process.

First, on large poster sheets, I bullet-pointed six or eight major themes that surfaced from the research. One stated, “Birmingham was the most violently segregated city in the country.” Another, “The Civil Rights Movement was deteriorating.”

These statements formed the basis of my initial outline, which transmogrified into my first proposal. At that point, the book was going to be an overview of the Children’s March with supporting quotations from many different marchers.

The second step took me by surprise and required many, many more months of research, two more trips to Birmingham (one with my editor), and a complete revision of the proposal.

Here’s what happened. An editor who was interested in the book (but who, ultimately, was not able to buy it) suggested in an editorial letter that I tell the story through the voices of two or three marchers. Aha! Great idea. But, how do you do that?

It took a year before I found the exactly right four people (the story is so layered that two or three were not enough) who were willing to tell their stories.

Audrey, Wash, Arnetta, and James did a beautiful job.

Cynsational Notes

Click to enlarge Cynthia's outline.
Cynthia Y. Levinson interviewed dozens of participants in the Birmingham Children's March and spent four years researching and writing We've Got a Job to share their stories.

A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she has also published articles in Appleseeds, Calliope, Dig, Faces, and Odyssey. She divides her time between Texas and Massachusetts.

Visit Cynthia's books page. Check out related lesson plans and discussion questions. Read the prologue from We've Got a Job. See also the National Civil Rights Museum.

Join Cynthia at 3 p.m. March 4 at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina (near Kealing at the corner of Angelina and Comal) in conjunction with BookPeople in Austin for a celebration of the release of We've Got a Job. The event will include a presentation, reading and refreshments.

She also will offer a presentation from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 23 at Birmingham Public Library.

Who Are You, Really? by Cynthia Levinson from Hunger Mountain. Peek: "Had these extraordinary people not allowed me to immerse myself in their lives, I would have stereotyped them and their city. I would have overlooked the gradations that angled their varying politics, actions, friendships, and conflicts across a blurry but unexpectedly wide spectrum." See also The Day Job: Cynthia Levinson by Erin Robinson/Erin E. Moulton from A Writer's Inquiry.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Interview & Giveaway: Sophie Jordan on Firelight & Vanish

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sophie Jordan grew up in the Texas hill country where she wove fantasies of dragons, warriors, and princesses. A former high school English teacher, she's also the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Avon historical romances. She now lives in Houston with her family.

When she's not writing, she spends her time overloading on caffeine (lattes and Diet Cherry Coke preferred), talking plotlines with anyone who will listen (including her kids), and cramming her DVR with true-crime and reality-TV shows.

Could you tell us about your path to writing for teen readers? What were the ah-ha! moments, victories and challenges along the way?

I had countless rejections before I landed my agent, and then, ultimately, my first book contract. Until then, the only thing that kept me going was sheer determination, the support of family and friends, and the belief that I had a unique writer's voice.

While getting published was the first great victory, each book is its own challenge. You start over every time (even if you're already published).

One of my first a-ha moments was allowing myself to just write the book. Get the first draft out. Later you can fix it and polish it. Allowing myself to write something less than perfect and adjusting my expectations was liberating. It let my writing flow. A first draft is just that -- a first draft. It's never perfect. The fun part is polishing that draft and making it shine.

Congratulations on the success of Firelight (Harper, 2010)! Could you tell us about the novel?

Thanks, Cynthia! Firelight is the first book in a trilogy. It's about a girl that descends from dragons. She's the last of her kind (there are other "draki") that can breathe fire. Of course, that makes her doubly unique ... and there's lots of conflict ... sexy boys ... and kissing ... and um... well, read the full summary here:

Marked as special at an early age, Jacinda knows her every move is watched. But she longs for freedom to make her own choices. When she breaks the most sacred tenet among her kind, she nearly pays with her life. Until a beautiful stranger saves her. A stranger who was sent to hunt those like her. For Jacinda is a draki—a descendant of dragons whose greatest defense is her secret ability to shift into human form.

Forced to flee into the mortal world with her family, Jacinda struggles to adapt to her new surroundings. The only bright light is Will. Gorgeous, elusive Will who stirs her inner draki to life. Although she is irresistibly drawn to him, Jacinda knows Will's dark secret: He and his family are hunters. She should avoid him at all costs. But her inner draki is slowly slipping away—if it dies she will be left as a human forever. She'll do anything to prevent that. Even if it means getting closer to her most dangerous enemy.

Mythical powers and breathtaking romance ignite in this story of a girl who defies all expectations and whose love crosses an ancient divide.


What was your inspiration?

Well, I first got turned onto YA by reading some really marvelous YA books. Snap! Just like that I was hooked and inspired to write YA. But it took a while for the idea of Firelight to come together.

I was thinking of paranormal creatures, and when I landed on dragons, it just triggered something. Other than fantasy, I couldn't think of any "dragon" books grounded within a contemporary setting.

I started wondering what if dragons had been real... Where did they go? What happened to them? All those questions led me to create the lore of Firelight. With this lore, Jacinda's story was born -- a girl who looked human but wasn't. A girl who was a dragon at the core...who could shape-shift, fly and breathe fire.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Spark and publication? I love that! Hmm, the first spark came when I fell in love with YA and decided I wanted to write a YA (as mentioned above). Then the idea for Firelight itself didn't come until almost eight months later. I was really waiting for the right idea. Sometimes the muse doesn't come right away.

Of course I'd been writing as a career for a while now, so I was waiting for a really good concept -- something not only I would love, but publishers, too. Once I had the idea, things moved pretty quickly. I already had an agent, so I drafted a proposal (synopsis, plus three chapters) and showed it to her.

We went back and forth on it for a couple weeks, and then I submitted it to HarperTeen. They came back with an offer within a week or two. All very quickly and very exciting!

Hooray for the release of Vanish (Harper, 2011)! How is it related to Firelight?

Well, it's the sequel to Firelight. I definitely suggest you read Firelight before Vanish. Where Firelight largely took place in the human world, with Jacinda acclimating to the life of a "normal" high school girl, Vanish takes place back in her pride, in the world of the draki. It continues her story - with more action, adventure and, you guessed it! Kissing.

Rumor has it, you have some exciting movie news! Please fill us in!

Yes! Mandalay Pictures has optioned the film rights to Firelight. They've also hired screenwriter Nick Pustay to pen the screenplay, which is almost complete. Hopefully, there will be more news to announce this year.

You also publish books for grown-ups! How is it different writing for teen (versus adult) readers?

Honestly, not that different. For me every story is character-focused. In that regard each book is different because every character I write is unique. So every time I sit down to write a new book it's a fresh adventure for me.

What, if anything, about it came as a surprise to you?

Hm... Probably how quickly it got snatched up for film adaption! Also...the teen/YA readers are amazing. They hold nothing back. Their response has been overwhelming and humbling.

What advice do you have for your fellow fantasy writers?

Think out of the box! If no one else is doing it, then maybe you should!

What can your fans look forward to next?

Hidden releases this September. It's the final book in the Firelight trilogy...and there are definitely some surprises and twists that readers won't see coming.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of Firelight or Vanish, both by Sophie Jordan (Harper). 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. Please specify if you already own one of the books and are looking to win the other. Or email Cynthia directly with "Firelight," "Vanish" or "Firelight/Vanish," if you're open to winning both, in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST March 5.





Monday, February 20, 2012

New Voice: Shannon Wiersbitzky on Making Time to Write and The Summer of Hammers & Angels

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Shannon Wiersbitzky is the first-time author of The Summer of Hammers & Angels (Namelos, 2011). From the promotional copy:


Most folks have never seen an angel.


I know, because I’ve asked them.


I asked Miss Martha at the post office.


“Maybe someday, Delia, God willing.”


God does a lot of willing in Tucker’s Ferry, West Virginia.


The Summer of Hammers and Angels is the story of an amazing summer in a girl's life, a summer of surprises and challenges, of shocks and recovery, of discoveries and friendship, and of loneliness and community.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career?

Know that excuse? It’s the one that goes like this, “I’d (fill in the blank), but I don’t have any time.”

Whether we like to admit it or not, each of us makes time for the things that matter to us—family, friends, exercise, television, shopping, even house cleaning.

We all have time.

We simply choose to prioritize it in different ways.

I’m a working mom with two young boys, ages 11 and 8. I do not have a nanny or an au pair or a maid. The choices I make: involved in homework and reading at school, not involved in organizing parties or chaperoning trips, and I probably choose to clean less than the average mom…unless company is coming.

As for the working part, I am the Director of Market Research and Voice of Client for one of the world’s largest investment firms. I spend roughly 50 hours a week uncovering why people do the things they do, and how they think.

Oh, and I write.

I know a few things about busy. According to family legend, I was born with a day planner in one hand. And according to that day planner, seven months was plenty long enough to gestate, thank you very much! I had things to do, stuff to accomplish!

So out I came, feet first, ready to tackle the world. I was type A from the get go.

On that day planner this week, and for as long as I can remember, read, is always a to-do.

Robert C. O’Brien’s books spoke to me as a child, The Silver Crown (Atheneum, 1968), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Atheneum, 1971), and Z for Zacariah (Atheneum, 1975), which is a gripping tale of a teen girl who may be the last survivor of a nuclear war. I recently reread Z for Zacariah, and it was just as compelling as I remembered!

John Christopher’s sci-fi Tripod Trilogy—The White Mountains (Simon and Schuster, 1967), The City of Gold and Lead (Simon and Schuster, 1968), and The Pool of Fire (Simon and Schuster, 1968), were three I read and reread (and bought again as an adult). I’d lay awake at night imagining looming silver alien machines pulling me up and capping me, then controlling my mind. Eek!



When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

When friends and colleagues find out that I write, their eyebrows arch, the tone of their voice jumps two octaves and they say, “How do you find time for that?”

My answer is simple.


I get up earlier. I choose to sleep a little less so I can write. As the pop music begins to play, my alarm clock flashes 4:30. (Full disclosure. I usually hit snooze once.)

Our guest bedroom doubles as my writing “office”. I wish I had one of those perfect offices I see in other blogs, with lovely cork boards packed full of ideas. Instead, I shuffle into my guest room each morning yawning, snuggle into the blankets, fluff the pillows behind my back just so, pull my laptop off the night table, settle it on my lap and away I go. When I work, this is what I see.

 
I’d say about 90% of my writing is done in the dark.

For me, maybe because of the time and space and lighting of where I write, writing feels like an extension of a dream. Still drowsy and warm and flexible from the night, I can string together words and images without interference from anything “normal” around me. No TV, no music, just the tip-tap of my fingers on the keyboard, the occasional bird chirp from some other early riser, and the deep hum of the heater as it kicks on in the basement.

Now there are days (or weeks) when that alarm screams at me and I do not feel like getting up. My blankets could win an Academy Award some mornings. I think about how wonderful the fresh air from the cracked window feels on my face, I replay whatever dream was interrupted and I think, maybe I’ll skip writing today.

That is when day planner me takes over with a bullhorn and a cattle prod. I nudge myself awake with whatever motivational tactics are required for the day. The only way to get published is to write! Or I might think through my to-do’s—finish Chapter 15, rename that character, think of a better ending for Chapter 3. Sometimes I need to take the drill-sergeant approach: Get your lazy butt up and write!

I’d say I have a 95% success rate.

What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

More from Shannon on Writing
If you’re not already in the habit of writing, then find 10 or 15 minutes a day to start. Try to make it the same time every day. Not everyone is a morning person. Writing at the stroke of midnight might work better, or a few minutes over lunch (which I did for years).

I heard Eileen Spinelli say once that she stole minutes here and there for writing…in the line at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office with the kids, or waiting at a sports event for school. I thought…I can do that!

You can do that too. If you feel inspired to put words on paper, choose to write!

Cynsational Notes

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of The Summer of Hammers & Angels are donated to Habitat for Humanity®.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Event Report: Austin SCBWI Regional Conference

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to RA Debbie Gonzales, ARA Carmen Oliver, Illustration Chair Mark G. Mitchell, and the faculty, volunteers, and attendees at yesterday's Austin SCBWI Regional Conference, "Something for Everybody," at St. Edward's University.

Faculty included: authors Lisa Yee, Donna Jo Napoli, Anastasia Suen, and Chris Barton; attorney Barry Furrow; editor Bonnie Bader of Penguin Young Readers Group (Grosset and Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan); editorial director Diane Muldrow of Golden Books/Random House; senior art director Patti Ann Harris of Little, Brown; publicist Kirsten Cappy of Curious City; agent Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary Agency; agent Jill Corcoran of Herman Agency as well as Erin Murphy and Ammi-Joan Paquette (who's also a children's author) of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Critique faculty included: April Lurie, Brian Yansky, Bethany Hegedus, P.J. Hoover, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, Jennifer Ziegler, Jessica Lee Anderson, Margo Rabb, Mari Mancusi, Nikki Loftin and Varian Johnson.

Former Austin RA, author Julie Lake, illustration chair Mark G. Mitchell & author Jennifer Ziegler.
 
Socializing at the Friday night reception.

Raffle items and illustration portfolios.

Opening session.

Agent Jill Corcoran with her client, author Varsha Bajaj.

Authors Brian Yansky and Greg Leitich Smith.

Author-illustrator Frances Hill-Yansky & writer-editor Samantha Clark.

Author Liz Garton Scanlon, Jenny, Chris, Varsha, and agent Erin Murphy.

Jill's breakout session on query letters.

Debut author Nikki Loftin, writer-educator Jerri Romine, writer Lindsey Scheibe.

Author & VCFA faculty member April Lurie chats with the Yanskys.

Author-illustrator Divya Srinivasan
The Meredith Davis Member-of-the-Year Award went to writer Shelli Cornelison, the winner of the portfolio contest was author-illustrator Jeff Crosby, and in a surprising turn of events, Greg and I received an award naming us the 2011 Ambassadors for the Austin Kid-Lit Community. We're deeply honored.
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