Saturday, March 03, 2012

Interview: Laura Watkinson on Children's-YA Book Translation

SCBWI Netherlands' Laura at Bologna
By Angela Cerrito
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Laura Watkinson’s translation of Soldier Bear (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers) was recently awarded the Mildred L. Batchelder Award. The award is given by the American Library Association to an American publisher for the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States and translated into English for publication in the United States.

I met Laura years ago at the Bologna Children's Book Fair where she was representing SCBWI’s chapter in The Netherlands, and I really enjoyed learning about her work translating books.

A true story about a bear enlisted into the military would be beyond fascinating but that this took place during a world war and the bear, Voytek, traveled on such a long journey sounds like a fantasy. Have you ever read anything like it before?

I have to say that the story came as a complete surprise to me as well. I knew that army regiments sometimes have mascots, such as a goat or a dog, but a bear! I’d never heard of such a thing before.

Then I started looking into Voytek’s story and reading other books about him, and I was amazed to hear that this really was a true story. There are photographs of him and even short pieces of film footage on YouTube. It’s a fantastic story, and I’m pleased to have played a part in getting it out there.

And, of course, Voytek wasn’t the only animal in the camp. Kaska, the monkey, is also an important character, along with her baby, Kubus, and she actually existed, too. There’s a photo of the real Kaska and Kubus in the back of the book, along with the photos of Voytek.

After the war, Voytek went to live in Edinburgh Zoo, and I found out as I was translating the book that my Scottish mother-in-law had seen this famous bear at the zoo when she was a girl. It felt good to have a very vague personal connection to Voytek. I’m related to someone who actually saw him in real life!

What a wonderful personal connection to Voytek! Voytek was actually a soldier in the Polish military, yet traveled from Iran to Italy and then to Scotland with his group. What was it like to translate about such a diverse mix of cultures in a historical and wartime setting?

Ah, incidentally, at this point I should probably comment on the spelling of the bear’s name. Technically speaking, the correct Polish spelling is "Wojtek." However, his name was often written as "Voytek" in the English-speaking press, and we decided to retain that spelling for the book, as it’s probably easier for younger readers to handle.

Voytek’s friend Peter was also a "Piotr" in fact, but he’s often called "Peter" or "Pete" in the literature. It’s just one of those things that happen when you travel across borders and into different languages.

As for the setting, the focus of the book is on Voytek and his relationships with his friends and fellow soldiers and the other animals on the camp. He travels in a bubble, as part of a gang. There’s definitely a sense of moving and different environments in the book, though, and you can follow his movements on the maps: he travels a long way from his life in the desert as a cub, crossing the sea to Italy on a military ship, and serving as a soldier in Italy, before moving on to Scotland.

The most important thing is always his bond with his friends, but there are also some hilarious encounters with other people and animals. Voytek manages to capture a spy at one point (a true story) and lands himself in trouble with farmers in Italy and Scotland. His camping holiday with his friends in Italy was one of my favourite episodes. That poor goose!

Kathleen Merz who edited Soldier Bear wrote that the process of acquiring a book to be translated comes first with a synopsis and sample chapters provided by the publisher and next a readers report from a translator who speaks both languages. Do you ever create these reader reports for publishers? If so can you tell us about the process? 

Yes, the typical route to translation will involve a report from a reader who is familiar with both languages and cultures, the source and the target. I write a number of these reports every year for various publishers in the U.K., U.S. and Australia. They’re usually a page or two, no longer than three pages, and will include a summary of the plot and the reader’s impression of the strengths and possible weaknesses of the book.

As a translator, I comment on whether I think the book would translate well or if there might be some cultural or linguistic issues that would prove tricky to get across.

I also like to provide a survey of how well the book has been received in its home country and in any other translations that have already come out.

One children’s-YA editor stressed to me that she’s particularly interested in hearing about the emotional impact of the book: what feeling does it leave you with?

She’s right. I often feel that my emotions on putting the book down are a good indicator of my feelings about the book as a whole – and whether I’d like to translate that particular book!

As a translator, it’s always best to read the actual book before you get started on the translation, so that you can form your own impression. I don’t need to see the reports; they’re just intended for the publishers.

Perhaps it’s also worth pointing out that these reports aren’t only written by translators, but also by interested readers who have an understanding of both markets. It’s just that translators are an obvious choice for the job, but often I’ll end up translating a book that I haven’t written a report on.

It’s a funny old process. The publishers from the various houses meet at the book fairs in, say, Bologna or Frankfurt and discuss the books that sound like interesting options for translation.

However, it’s most often the case that the English-speaking publisher can’t read the book in the original language, so they have to call in someone they trust for another opinion. Often, at this stage, they don’t even have sample translations to go on, so they have to rely on the reader.

One literary publisher is taking a new approach to the issue of acquiring titles for translation. And Other Stories led by Stefan Tobler, has formed reading groups to focus on particular languages. The groups read a number of books in the foreign language and then discuss the titles to see if there are any books that they’d like to put forward for translation. It seems like a great approach for finding good new books and means that the publisher doesn’t have to rely on just one or two readers’ opinions, which has to be healthy.

I haven’t heard of anyone doing something similar for children’s books though. Might be a fun idea!

Your experience includes translating a wonderful variety of books from novels for children and adults, graphic novels and nonfiction. What is the process like to make a work come to life in a new language?

Learn more about Laura.
When I’m translating, I translate what the author writes and aim to reflect the voice and atmosphere that he or she has chosen.

I read, think, put words down on the page, ponder, come back again, tweak, polish – pretty much the same process as most writers, I think.

However, you do of course have the figure of the author lurking in the background.

You have a responsibility to that person and you want to make certain that you do justice to their words, which sometimes involves asking for second opinions from friends and other translators, and perhaps getting in touch with the author if he or she is still alive.

What languages do you speak? Do you translate between each of these languages?

Hmm, well, probably about 80% of my translation work is from Dutch. I translate a wide variety of texts from Dutch, from children’s books and graphic novels to literature and texts about art. I’m probably more connected to the Dutch language and publishers because I live in Amsterdam.

However, I’ve also translated a number of children’s books from Italian and the occasional piece from German. German was always my first foreign language – it’s what I studied at school and university. I’ve also lived in various places in Germany, for about four years in total.

I only ever translate from the foreign language into my native tongue. There are plenty of native speakers of Dutch who can do a far better of translating into Dutch than I can! They’ve been speaking the language all their lives, after all.

What are the best and worst things about working as a translator? Is it solitary work like writing? What would you say is the difference between writing and translating?

Zorba guards the writing space.
Best thing: you get to work with books. I’ve always been a big reader and it’s wonderful to work with stories professionally. It’s always interesting to help bring different cultures together.

And most of the other translators, authors and publishers are really great people to work with, too, which is a huge plus point about the job.

I also love the fact that it’s a job you can do anywhere. I was recently translating a book about Berlin, and I took my laptop off to Berlin and spent six weeks there doing research and working on the translation.

Worst thing: it’s possibly the lack of recognition. Reading some reviews, you might think that a book gets magically translated into English at the press of a button in Google Translate.

I think that perhaps the funniest – you have to laugh – review of a translated book I ever saw included a great long list of facts at the beginning, including the name of the author (of course), publisher (yes), price (okay...), number of pages (hmm), font (maybe interesting from a design point of view), and type of paper used (huh?), but neglected entirely to mention the name of the translator, i.e. the person who had written every single word of the book that was being reviewed.

I laughed – and then I wrote a note to point out the critic’s omission. They were very apologetic, but said that it hadn’t actually occurred to them to mention the translator’s name. Sigh.

And then there are the occasions when the perceived weaknesses of a book are blamed on the translator. There’s honestly only so much you can tweak when you’re translating a book. You have various options at word and sentence level and you can spot consistency issues, but plot and character issues are generally out of the translator’s hands.

It’s so frustrating to see that tired old "lost in translation" line trotted out when you know how much work goes into the process of translation and how many tricky issues the translator has to solve.

Visit SCBWI The Netherlands
Good and bad: yes, it’s a solitary profession like writing, but I don’t mind that so much. It can be a little difficult though, when you suddenly find yourself in company after a few days of battling away with a text and it feels as though you’ve forgotten how to talk properly to real people. You can find yourself getting a little too excited! Wheee!

Translators are a pretty friendly bunch, though, and a bunch of us use Facebook as a kind of water cooler, for sharing our news and just chatting about translation problems and other stuff.

Goodness knows how translators ever coped before the internet came along! And, of course, organisations like SCBWI are also fantastic for meeting other people who are enthusiastic about great stories and books.

Soldier Bear has certainly been recognized. How did you find out that this book had been awarded the Mildred L. Batchelder Award? What it is like to be an award winner?

Well, strictly speaking, the award goes to the publishing house, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, as recognition for their work in publishing translated books, but I’m delighted to have been involved in the process and so pleased that the book has been recognized by the American Library Association.

I heard about the award when Kathleen Merz from Eerdmans dropped me an excited email. It completely blew me away, as I had no idea that Soldier Bear was even up for the Batchelder. It had felt like just any other Monday afternoon up until that point.

Anyway, I was just in the middle of responding to Kathleen (I’m sure there were lots of exclamation marks involved...) when my SCBWI friend Roxie Munro messaged me and posted on Facebook to ask if I’d heard about the award. There was then a bit of a party on my Facebook page, and my husband and I went out for a couple of glasses of champagne that night.

Bibi Dumon Tak, the author of Soldaat Wojtek, the original Dutch book, also got in touch, which was actually our first contact. Of course, we’re both absolutely delighted that the bear is a winner.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on now?

I’m currently translating a wonderful middle-grade book for Enchanted Lion in Brooklyn. It’s called Mr. Orange, and it’s written by a Dutch writer called Truus Matti and set in New York during the Second World War.

Linus, the protagonist, is a boy whose father runs a fruit and vegetable store. One of the customers on Linus’s fruit delivery route is an artist with whom he develops a close friendship. Linus calls him Mr. Orange, because of all the oranges he orders, but we later find out that he is in fact the artist Mondrian. Matti subtly tells the reader about just how innovative Mondrian’s art was, but she also creates a wonderfully rounded character in Linus through her depiction of his relationships with his friends and family, particularly his big brother, who has gone off to fight in Europe.

Comic books and superheroes are also very important to Linus and his brother, which is an element of the story that I’m really enjoying.

Mr. Orange sounds like it is packed with great characters. Can you recommend any resources for people who would like to know more about becoming a translator?

I’m a member of the Society of Authors, which has a section for translators (Translators’ Association) and also a children’s/YA section, CWIG, the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group.  And, of course, there’s SCBWI. Both memberships are very useful, for professional advice and support from other writers/translators.

This free downloadable book on literary translation also gives a good overview of the profession for anyone who is thinking of making the leap (scroll down for the PDF).

I also have a list of links on my website. Translation is a great profession to work in. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys getting really, really wrapped up in stories.

Thanks so much for the interview, Angela. Hope to see you again in Amsterdam soon! Hey, how about paying another visit to our SCBWI chapter?

Laura, thank you for sharing your expertise. I dream of visiting Amsterdam again someday!

Cynsational Notes

Interview with Translator Laura Watkinson by Sarah Blake Johnson from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "In this case of a picture book, that’s nice and easy – the translator produces a translation of the whole text and the American publisher has access to both the pictures and story and can assess the book there and then. ...if a foreign-language publisher is trying to sell something like a YA novel, it makes little financial sense for them to have the whole book translated and time is also an issue, so they’ll usually have just an excerpt translated to take along to the book fair."

Angela Cerrito writes by night and is a pediatric physical therapist by day.

Her debut novel The End of the Line (Holiday House, 2011) was selected for VOYA’s Top of the Top Shelf 2011 and Top Shelf for Middle Grade Readers 2011.

She is the Assistant International Advisor for SCBWI and regularly attends the Frankfurt and Bologna Book Fairs.

When she’s not writing, Angela enjoys eating, climbing in caves and jumping off cliffs. She lives in Europe with her husband, two daughters, a big black cat, a little white dog and a talking parrot.

Angela covers the children's-YA book scene in Europe and beyond for Cynsations. Read an interview with Angela.

Giveaway: Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter for a chance to win:
  • a signed hardcover copy of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart (Delacorte, 2012);
  • a trivia book Donna used during research for the novel;
  • and an awesome "Nerd Power" pin, which no self-respecting nerd should be without.
  • (Sumo wrestler not included.)

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 "Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen" in the subject line. (If you're on LiveJournal, I'm also taking entries via comment at the Cynsations LJ.)

Author-sponsored. Eligibility: North America (U.S./Canada). Deadline: midnight CST March 26.

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy:

Olivia Bean knows trivia. She watches "Jeopardy!" every night and usually beats at least one of the contestants. If she were better at geography, she would try out for the show’s kids’ week. Not only could she win bundles of money, she’d get to go to the taping in California, where her dad--who left two years ago and who Olivia misses like crazy--lives with his new family.

One day Olivia’s friend-turned-nemesis, Tucker, offers to help her bulk up her geography knowledge. Before Olivia knows it, she’s getting help from all sorts of unexpected sources: her almost-stepdad, superannoying Neil; her genius little brother, Charlie; even her stressed-out mom. 

Soon she has breezed through the audition rounds and is headed for Hollywood! But will the one person she wants to impress more than anyone else show up to support her? 

More Giveaways

Enter to win one of three copies of Z Is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelisky (Greenwillow, 2012) from Kelly Bingham. Deadline: March 31. Note: Z Is for Moose has received six starred reviews. Source: Leda Schubert.

Enter to win a copy of Firelight or Vanish, both by Sophie Jordan (Harper) from Cynsations. 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.

Enter to win an ARC of Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith (Clarion) 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.

3000 Thank Yous Giveaway from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Enter to win books by Janice Hardy, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, and one of 10 pre-release copies of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Guide to Character Expression. Deadline: March 12.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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 24: Sofia Quintero, Day 25: Malorie Blackman, Day 26: Alice Faye Duncan, Day 27: Elizabeth Zunon, Day 28: Margaree King Mitchell, and Day 29: Meet the Brown Bookshelf: Paula Chase Hyman, Crystal Allen, Don Tate, Gwendolyn Hooks, Tameka Fryer Brown, Kelly Starling Lyons & Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Check out the whole series!

Character Trait Entry: Diplomatic by Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: "Astrophil, Petra's tin spider (Cabinet of Wonders); Alfred Pennyworth (Batman); Minerva McGonagall (Harry Potter)."

Writing Guys: Tips from YA Author Jennifer R. Hubbard from Laurel Garver at Laurel's Leaves. Peek: "...there are real cultural differences. In our world, for example, aggression is still encouraged, or at least tolerated, far more in boys than in girls. On the other hand, talking about emotions is expected more of girls."

Business: E-Books & Libraries - What's the Vision? by Lee Wind from the Official SCBWI Blog. Note: a quick-hit roundup of relevant, ongoing considerations.

Who Thinks Picture Books are Just for Kids? by Anna Cavallo from Lerner Publishing Group. Peek: "Picture books texts, whether rhyming or not, involve a certain poetry. The more limited the text, the more thought put in to each word selected and the weaving of those words into a narrative."

2012-2013 Tejas Star Book Award List from Regional One Education Center. Peek: " promote reading in general and for readers to discover the cognitive and economic benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism. All the children of Texas will have the opportunity to select their favorite book from the Tejas Star list...." Source: Lupe Ruiz-Flores.

New Mexico Centennial Author Series by Rebecca Donnelly from The Chained Library. Featured authors include: Jan Thomas, Katherine B. Hauth, Uma Krishnaswami, Caroline Starr Rose, and Vaunda Micheaux Nelson.

Figment will acquire inkpop, the teen writing community from HarperCollins. Peek: "As Figment continues to establish itself as the premier creative social site for teens and young adults, this acquisition represents a major leap forward for us."

The Writing Process by Danyelle Leafty from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "For me, character and plot aren't completely separate entities. Rather, they are two points on a continuum. Some stories will lean closer to the character side, while others will lean nearer to the plot end."

Help Is Here: Eliminating Author Anxiety by Kristi Holl from Writers First Aid. Peek: "I found some blog posts by agents and former agents that will lower your blood pressure, reduce your writing anxiety, make you more optimistic–and maybe even make you laugh."

Breaking Stalin's Nose: Author Book Reading from Audio in which Eugene Yelchin introduces and shares some of the backstory for creating Breaking Stalin's Nose.

Alliteration Always Annoys by Mary Kole from Peek: "A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite."

Weenies Topical & Literary Index from David Lubar. Peek: "Yes, there are anthropomorphic hot dogs on the covers, but they conceal a broad and deep variety of short fiction....find the perfect story for any classroom need."

A Brief History of the Children's Picture Book and the Art of Visual Storytelling by Maria Popova from The Atlantic. Note: "From cave paintings to Maurice Sendak, a look at the masters of the form."

More Author Insight: Coveted Characters from Wastepaper Prose. Several authors chime in on the question: What character in any book do you wish you had written?

Build a More Effective Author Website from Jane Friedman. Peek: "Every author website should include these elements, whether on the homepage or elsewhere."

Guest Editor Melissa Wiley on Facebook vs. Google as Author Tools from Peek: "At this point, however, Google+ users tend to be early adopters and tech-lovers; it’s a smaller audience and you may find it harder to connect with readers there."

Golden Kite & Sid Fleischman Awards from SCBWI.  The 2012 Golden Kite Award winner for fiction is Between Shades Of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel); the nonfiction award winner is Amelia Lost: The Life And Disappearance Of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade); the award winner for picture book text is Over And Under The Snow by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (Chronicle), the award winner for picture book illustration is Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin), and the Sid Fleischman Award For Humor goes to The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander (HarperCollins). See The Official SCBWI Blog by Lee Wind for details.

Cynsational Blogger Tip: any time you mention a book, be sure to include the publisher's name. This information can be quite helpful to event planners, librarians, and readers seeking more information and resources. 

Notes on Building Characters by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro! Key considerations.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Middle Grade and Were Willing to Ask: a conversation between literary agent Michael Bourret and editor Molly O'Neill from Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Peek: "...there can be a fine line between stories that feel familiar and those that feel, well, dull. This is a big reason I often encourage my authors to push past their initial ideas and explore the unknown creative wilds beyond the very first idea/solution/problem/mystery/story point/etc that they think of – because often the really fresh ideas live deep in writer’s minds, not at the very forefront."

Interview: Trend Spotter: A Sneak Peek at 2012's Top Kids' Books by Laura Weiss from School Library Journal. Peek: "Nonfiction is the most requested genre, specifically, science, biographies, and history. We also get many requests for graphic novels and fantasies and, for high schools, historical fiction." Notes: (a) an interview with Susan Marston, editorial director of Junior Library Guild (JLG), (b) Susan mentions YA historical fiction, but Cynsations is seeing an uptick in middle grade historicals as well. Check out some of this week's new voices posts, for examples.

Feeling Festive? Check out the February Carnival of Children's Literature from The Fourth Musketeer. See also This Week for Writers: Our Favorite Articles & Blog Posts from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing.

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.

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.

3000 Thank Yous Giveaway from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Enter to win books by Janice Hardy, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, and one of 10 pre-release copies of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Guide to Character Expression. Deadline: March 12.

Cynsational Screening Room 

In the video below, the Asian American Author Series celebrates author-illustrator Grace Lin. 

This Week's Cynsations Posts

More Personally

Great news! Alfa Basim Yayim Dagitim in Istanbul has bought Turkish-language rights to Tantalize and Eternal. Thanks to my newest international publisher and my literary agency, Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Beyond that, I thrilled to report that my revised draft of "Smolder" is off to my Candlewick editor, Deborah Wayshak. Yesterday's highlight was receiving an email from Deb calling me "the world's BEST reviser" and saying that the revision had a "grand polish." It's off to the copy editor!

Smolder will be book 1 in the spin-off series; feel the heat! Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen.

My current focus is preparing for my upcoming trip, reading student manuscripts, and helping Greg Leitich Smith prepare for the Chronal Engine Launch Party on March 24 at BookPeople.

Personal Links: 

From Greg Leitich Smith:
About Greg Leitich Smith:

Dino-Mite! An Exclusive Interview with Greg Leitich Smith by Susan VanHecke  from Authorlink. Peek: "I had to pick a time and place and ecosystem. Fortunately, I knew enough by then that Texas had a terrific Late Cretaceous dinosaur population including tyrannosaurs and some of the last sauropods, like Alamosaurus. It also had some amazing non-dinosaur fauna."

Book Reviews and More says of Chronal Engine: "It was incredibly well written. I found it hard to put the book down the few times that I had to while reading it. The characters were amazing, and the loops in the story and the logic behind them was stunning. The way Greg has scripted this story sets it up for a number of wonderful reads in the same world." More on Chronal Engine.

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.

Greg Leitich Smith will launch Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012) at 2 p.m. March 24 at BookPeople in Austin. The program will include an author presentation and refreshments. Pre-order the book.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear at A Festival of Authors, which will take place from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. May 12 at Reagan High School in Northeast Austin.

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, March 01, 2012

New Voice: Debra McArthur on A Voice for Kanzas

Debra with Midge, Italian Greyhound and writing helper
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Debra McArthur is the first-time novelist of A Voice for Kanzas (Kane Miller, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy: 

"Kanzas" Territory in 1855 is a difficult place to settle, particularly for a 13-year-old poet like Lucy Thomkins. 

Between the pro-slavery Border Ruffians and Insiders like her father who are determined to make Kansas a free state (not to mention the snakes and the dust storms), it’s hard to be heard, no matter your age.

But after Lucy makes two new friends – a local Indian boy and a girl whose family helps runaway slaves – she makes choices to prove to herself and others that words and poems are meaningless without action behind them.

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

Writing historical fiction is a real challenge. I wanted the story to be authentic to 1855 Lawrence, Kansas, and I always imagined a historian reader who would be looking for anachronisms.

I had previously written a history book on the subject, so I felt pretty well grounded—at least until I got started.

Even the smallest details required research. What kind of shoes did they wear? What kind of pen would Lucy use? What kinds of merchandise would be in Lucy’s father’s store?

I had to do research every single day as I wrote the first draft. I used a lot of materials from the Kansas State Historical Society, including newspapers, photos, and other documents. I read literature of the time and considered how Lucy would respond to what she read. I visited the Steamboat Arabia Museum to look at the collection there. I used online resources like Territorial Kansas Online. I interviewed historical re-enactors about horses, wagons, and Sharp’s rifles. I visited Lawrence and walked down Massachusetts Street, looking for historical markers and imagining where Lucy’s store would be.

But the biggest breakthrough was a single document. I had been working on the book for a couple of years when I found “Information for Kanzas Immigrants,” a pamphlet published by the Boston Emigrant Aid Society in 1855. That document really helped me find the focus for the book, and it helped me know Lucy’s real story.

Could you tell us the story of "the call" or "the email" when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react?

More about Louise Hawes.
My mentor Louise Hawes suggested that I submit to Kane Miller. I don’t have an agent, so I simply went to their website to read their submission guidelines. I followed their instructions and submitted the first two chapters in July 2010, with a return envelope.

Two months later, I received my brown envelope back with an invitation to send the whole manuscript. One day in November, I remember thinking “It should be about time for my rejection letter to arrive.”

A few days later, I was visiting my parents in my hometown when I opened my email to find a message from the editor, Kira Lynn. “Yup,” I thought, “Here’s that rejection.”

But the first line of the message said “We’d like to offer…” and I couldn’t move. I read the message three times through, thinking I was surely misinterpreting something here.

When I finally realized it was really an offer to publish my book, I went downstairs to tell my dad. He was watching a basketball game on TV. He turned his head away from the TV a little, said “Well, that’s real nice,” and turned back to the game.

Then I knew I had to share my news with a writer. I called my friend Amy and I jumped up and down while she screamed into the phone. I could hear her husband cheering in the background.

When I hung up, I thought, That’s more like it.

Then I called my husband to tell him.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

By Debra (Marshall Cavendish, 2009)
I’ve always juggled writing around my full-time job. When I began writing nonfiction books in 2000, I also did volunteer work at my church, I was a Girl Scout leader, and my daughter was doing Irish Dance competitively.

I wrote during my lunch hours at work. I took my research materials with me when I drove my daughter to her dance class across town, then sat in the back seat of my car during her class to write.

You know how the doctor’s nurse always takes you to the examination room, gives you a gown, then leaves you there to sit for 20 or 30 minutes?

My doctor was pretty surprised to come into the room and find me with 3 x 5 cards spread out on the examining table as I outlined a chapter in my notebook!

When you don’t have time, you have to find time and make time. You can’t wait for your muse to show up. You have to invite her in, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time.

Illustrator Video: Kevin Henkes

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations
Source: HarperKids

Award-winning, New York Times best-selling author and illustrator Kevin Henkes shows us his childhood drawings and paintings, talks about creating such memorable characters as Lilly and Owen, and demonstrates his illustration process.

Award-winning and New York Times best-selling author and illustrator Kevin Henkes introduces us to his newest mouse, Penny! The Penny series is perfect for brand-new readers and starts off with Penny and Her Song (Harper, Feb. 28, 2012).

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guest Post: Joan Holub on To Dummy or Not to Dummy a Picture Book & Zero the Hero

By Joan Holub
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Zip. Zilch. Nada. That's what all the other numbers consider Zero in my new picture book that’s about, well, nothing.

Zero doesn't add anything in addition. He's of no use in division. And don't even ask what he does in multiplication. (Hint: Poof!)

Still, he knows he's worth a lot, and when trouble comes, Zero swoops down just in time to prove that his talents are innumerable.

This book grew from a conversation with a teacher, who mentioned that she uses the Zero the Hero concept to teach place-holding to her students. In her classroom, Zero is a hero because he enables us to count beyond the number nine. Without him, we’d be like the ancient Romans, unable to do much in the way of math.

I immediately visualized Zero as an underdog math superhero, complete with cape. But it took me about five years to actually finish writing a book about him. Lucky thing, because the manuscript hit my editor’s desk just as she was working with a wonderful New York Times-bestselling artist named Tom Lichtenheld, who agreed to illustrate it.

In this kind of “faction” (a blend of fiction and fact), the fiction component is always paramount. It’s the story. Young readers won’t necessarily pick up this picture book to learn math facts. They’ll likely want the story to entertain them, make them root for the characters, and wonder how it will all turn out.

Sure, Zero the Hero subtly teaches place-holding and arithmetic operations like addition and subtraction. It touches on stuff like rounding up and down, and even/odd numbers (and the fact that the number eight resembles a snowman). But all of that is secondary. I just hope kids find it to be a fast-paced, funny story. And who doesn’t love a superhero?

I submitted this picture book to Henry Holt/Macmillan as a dummy, complete with very rough black-line sketches, even though I didn’t intend to illustrate it. When writing easy readers, chapter books, and tween or middle grade, I submit a traditional, typed manuscript instead.

But when it comes to picture books, I think visually. So I create dummies. Sometimes they’re just words taped on pages that I can turn so as to get a feeling of how the story unfolds. Those never go to an editor. Other times—as in the case of Zero the Hero—I draw sketches, generally spiff things up, and actually submit the dummy itself.

Why? If you were an editor, and a book like Zero the Hero came your way asking to be published, which of these examples would you find easier to envision at first glance--my dummy page or my typewritten text?

(typed manuscript)
Number 6, speaking to Zero: Hey! Aren’t you a Froot Loop? I love those.
Zero: No, I’m Zero the Hero!
Number 6: Um, yeah I don’t think so. Are you a donut?
Zero: No!
Number 6: I’ve got it! You’re the letter “O”.
Zero: No! How many times to I have to tell you?
Number 6: Six.
Zero: Grrr.

Not every picture book requires that an author make a dummy. However, if you have a cast of ten numbers or more, all with something to say, and sometimes saying it in speech balloons—a dummy could be a good vehicle for communicating your vision to an editor. And you don’t have to be a professional artist to make one that gets your ideas across.

Speaking of creative ways to get your ideas across, look how Tom Lichtenheld used this birdhouse to display his earliest character sketches. Although Zero’s ‘look’ evolved quite a bit from this initial point, I was really wowed when I got this in the mail from Tom. It was my introduction to his humor and generous spirit, and I knew right away that the process of creating this book was going to be something special with him involved.

After the book was finished, our collaboration continued. Tom and I also wrote the script for an animated book trailer short about Zero the Hero that’s lots of number fun. We hope everyone will take a look. After all, you’ve got nothing to lose!

Cynsational Notes

Visit Joan Holub at her blog, website, or on Facebook.

Zero the Hero zoomed into bookstores Feb. 28. It’s published by Henry Holt/Macmillan for ages 6 to 10 and up. Zero the Hero excerpts and sketches copyright © 2012 by Joan Holub. Zero the Hero art copyright © 2012 by Tom Lichtenheld.

In Memory: Jan Berenstain

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jan Berenstain dies at 88; co-creator of the Berenstain Bears empire by Elaine Woo from Los Angeles Times.

Peek: "Jan Berenstain, who with her husband, Stan, made up one of the most successful husband-wife teams in children's literature, guiding an empire of books, videos and TV shows about the everyday problems of a family of bears, has died. She was 88."

Visit the Berenstain Bears.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

New Voice: Leanna Renee Hieber on Darker Still

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Leanna Renee Hieber is the first-time YA author of Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul (Sourcebooks, 2011). From the promotional copy: 

I was obsessed. 

It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I'd ever seen--everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable...utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike.

There was a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury never had committed suicide. He was alive. Trapped within his golden frame.

I've crossed over into his world within the painting, and I've seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me too. He and I are inextricably linked--bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit cobblestone streets of Manhattan. 

And unless I can free him soon, things will only get Darker Still.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you're debuting this year? 

1848 "Ultima Thule" daguerreotype of Poe
From a very early age I was attracted to Dickens, Poe, Austen, Wilde, 19th Century writers. I adored ghost stories and some of my earliest memories are of telling them, so Edgar Allan Poe really spoke to me from my very first encounter with his poetry and stories.

The more I write, the more I feel Poe's influence. I can't explain my intense attraction to the era from such an early age--maybe a past life?

I started my first novel when I was about 12 years old, it was set in 1888, so this has always been "a thing" of mine. The 1880s has always felt like home and while I love my modern life and always have, I've always felt as though I am a child of that era too; that I hold an echo of it in my soul and I feel it whenever I read literature from the 1800s, enter a building from that era, listen to music of the time, or put on clothing from the time.

(Yes, my Victorian wardrobe is also "a thing").

I've always been charmed by the rich language of the Victorians, by their beautiful clothing and elegance, and also horrified by the conditions so many lived in and by the arrogance and double standards.

Yet the contrast of the era is fascinating, the grit and grandeur of the era holds endless questions and curiosity for me.

Also, big words are sexy. That's become somewhat of a mission statement for me as a writer.

Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul, set in 1880 New York City, is my tribute to my favorite writers.

It includes shout-outs to Gothic and atmospheric tales like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, the nightmarish visions of Poe and more, all my favorite classic works that have defined me (I like my classics with a scary edge).

I've always wanted to write a haunted painting story, so this is my chance.

The sequel, The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart, continues the Gothic adventure this November 2012.

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 for today's young readers? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines? 

I didn't choose this era, this era chose me. As a pre-teen I fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic style. I loved Victorian ghost stories.

I was about 12 when I started my first novel; a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, set in 1888. The aesthetics were the first things to draw me in; the whole look of the time period, the music, the language, the literature. I studied the era in college and after graduation took to adapting works of 19th century literature for the professional stage. I acted in Victorian-set productions and got a chance to 'live' in the era every night on stage. I traveled for research to various Victorian sites, and I read (and continue to read) a lot of 19th century fiction.

So I've "experienced" this past time period in as many ways as I possibly can, so I honestly don't think too hard about "capturing" the voices of the era. I've been living and breathing those voices all my life and have to trust in all my homework.

Some people suggest it's a past life that drives me. I'm not sure; all I know is that the era is my muse. Because I live in a modern world but feel a Victorian one within me, I feel there's a natural fusion between the modern ear and my internal Victorian voice.

The most important resource is reading the work of the era, watching carefully researched films of the era (and on that count, I only trust the BBC for accuracy) and then distilling the density slightly for modern audiences.

Pacing has to be adjusted, too. Watching films is helpful because there's already a more edited version of the language in a screenplay.

Author Leanna Renee Hieber by gaslamp.
In writing for teens, its important to never talk down to the teen reader, I want to challenge every reader with rich language and big sexy words.

The most important thing in writing YA is to keep in mind the themes that appeal to teens and make sure they are universal ones, themes and conflicts that will ring true no matter the era.

My editor is vital, I could never write books without editors, and we go several rounds on a book to make sure both the voice and themes are firing on all appropriate cylinders. (One of my pitfalls is always pacing.) I get reined in here and there and have to be reminded to spread out historical detail so that it's evenly dispersed and not just little lectures. (It's hard, because I think historical details are like gems and I want to throw them in everywhere).

But the important thing is to make sure details are doing at least double duty and telling us something not only about the era, but about the world-building, character development and or plot.

Thank you so much for the privilege of being here, Cynthia, keep up your wonderful energy and talents! Every blessing!

Cynsational Notes

Find Leanna Renee at Facebook and Twitter.

Readers, have you ever imagined yourself living a past life? What era(s) call to you?

Monday, February 27, 2012

New Voice: Barbara Wright on Historical Fiction & Crow

Read an excerpt & view teacher guide.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Barbara Wright is the first-time children's-YA author of Crow (Random House, 2012). From the promotional copy:

 The summer of 1898 is filled with ups and downs for 11-year-old Moses. He's growing apart from his best friend, his superstitious Boo-Nanny butts heads constantly with his pragmatic, educated father, and his mother is reeling from the discovery of a family secret. 

Yet there are good times, too. He's teaching his grandmother how to read. For the first time she's sharing stories about her life as a slave. And his father and his friends are finally getting the respect and positions of power they've earned in the Wilmington, North Carolina, community. 

But not everyone is happy with the political changes at play and some will do anything, including a violent plot against the government, to maintain the status quo. 

One generation away from slavery, a thriving African American community—enfranchised and emancipated—suddenly and violently loses its freedom in turn of the century North Carolina when a group of local politicians stages the only successful coup d'etat in US history.  

What is it like, to be a debut author? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

I don't think about audience as I write. For Crow, I focused on trying to get inside the head of the main character, in this case, a 12-year old African-American boy named Moses.

 This was a real challenge, because, being a boy, he was interested in all kinds of things I am not—trains, firetrucks, boats, and pirates.

Visit Barbara online; photo by Jill Toyoshiba.
Because he lived in a different historical time, I had to be careful. I couldn't write "He zipped up his jacket" because zippers weren't in use in 1898. I couldn't write "He slammed the screen door" because there were no screens.

Then there was the whole issue of race. I am white, so I had to figure out how a curious, intelligent boy would feel as he begins to experience prejudice, and it dawns on him that the world of possibility that his father has raised him to believe in may not be a reality.

As to what I love about being a debut kids' author, what are the challenges and what came as the biggest surprise, the answer is the same: kids. They're so smart, sophisticated, and responsive.

Thank goodness I didn't think about this as I was writing the book, or I might have been intimidated!

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

It was the incident of the 1898 race riot and coup d'état that hooked me enough to spend four years on the novel. I first learned about it in an op-ed article in The New York Times. I grew up in North Carolina and have spent summers my entire life at a beach next to Wilmington, and I had never heard of the race riot. My reaction was: How could I not know about this?

I plunged into the research. In addition to reading history books and the riot report that was funded by the North Carolina legislature in 2006, I also looked at historical photographs, and visited museums and libraries. An original late 19th Century diary written in long hand by a white boy in a nearby town was particularly helpful. Thank goodness his handwriting was easy to read. This is where I picked up Moses's fascination with bicycles.

On one of my frequent trips to Wilmington, I read the historical markers that are placed along the docks for tourists. It was here that I learned about the tunnels under Wilmington. This became an important plot point in the novel.

Barbara Wright's office.
After I had researched the events leading up to the race riot, I wanted to create a family who could interact with the events in a personal way.

Thus, the father is from the thriving African-American middle class in Wilmington at the time. He is an alderman and works as a reporter for the Daily Record, which becomes key to the plot. He is an enthusiastic citizen who believes in democracy and cherishes the right to vote. 

Starting out, I knew the job descriptions of the characters in the novel, but they didn't become real people to me until I had been writing a while, and then each developed his or her own personality, sometimes to my surprise.

Boo Nanny was who she was from page one, and that didn't change, but I did not plan on making the father such a principled man of character. When I put him in a situation, he just started acting that way.

In constructing Moses's world, I tried to use things that were local or unique to the area. He likes pirates, because Blackbeard actually did operate off the coast of the Outer Banks, just north of Wilmington. The conjoined twins, Millie-Christine, are real people who were born in Columbus County, right next to Wilmington.

At one point, I describe the house on the Turpentine Plantation where Boo Nanny was a house slave: It faced a river that fed into the Cape Fear and had first and second floor porches that spanned the front of the house, with a separate building for the kitchen.

Long after I had finished this chapter, I came across a photograph of a plantation north of Wilmington that exactly fit my description. It was both creepy and thrilling to realize that I had invented something totally out of my imagination that existed in real life.

While writing the novel, I turned to my husband for support. There are many tragic and sad things that happen in the novel, but after a hard day's work, he could always make me laugh.

Close-up of Barbara's desk.

Cynsational Notes

"Crow is a fascinating and poignant story of one boy's summer in the time leading up to the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. Thought-provoking, but not preachy, Crow pulls no punches as it remains true to the era yet always maintains the perspective of an eleven-year-old. Altogether, it's a compelling read with an engaging and likeable protagonist." --Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Trailer: The Catastrophic History of You and Me

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Jess Rothenberg on the release of her debut novel, The Catastrophic History of You and Me (Dial, 2012). From the promotional copy:  

Brie's life ends at sixteen: Her boyfriend tells her he doesn't love her, and the news breaks her heart--literally. 

But now that she's D&G (dead and gone), Brie is about to discover that love is way more complicated than she ever imagined. Back in Half Moon Bay, her family has begun to unravel. Her best friend has been keeping a secret about Jacob, the boy Brie loved and lost--and the truth behind his shattering betrayal. And then there's Patrick, Brie's mysterious new guide and resident Lost Soul...who just might hold the key to her forever after. 

With Patrick's help, Brie will have to pass through the five stages of grief before she's ready to move on. But how do you begin again, when your heart is still in pieces?


Cynsational Notes

Jess Rothenberg lives in Brooklyn, New York. She received her BA from Vassar College and is pursuing her MFA in Children's and Young Adult Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She recently gave up her job as a children's book editor to write full time. This is her first book.

What's Your Biggest Stumbling Block in the Writing Process and How Do You Overcome It? from Wastepaper Prose. Note: Jess and thirteen other authors chime in on this question.

Full disclosure: Jess is one of my former students. I'm so thrilled for her success!
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