Saturday, December 15, 2012

New Voice: Mike Jung on Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Mike Jung is the first-time author of Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2012) and also is a contributor to Dear Teen Me: Authors Write Letters to Their Teen Selves, edited by E. Kristen Anderson and Miranda Kenneally (Zest Books, 2012) and the forthcoming Break These Rules! edited by Luke Reynolds (Chicago Review Press, 2013).

From the promotional copy of Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities:

Vincent Wu is Captain Stupendous's No. 1 Fan, but even he has to admit that Captain Stupendous has been a little off lately.

During Professor Mayhem's latest attack, Captain Stupendous barely made it out alive - although he did manage to save Vincent from a giant monster robot. It's Vincent's dream come true... until he finds out Captain Stupendous's secret identity: It's Polly Winnicott-Lee, the girl Vincent happens to have a crush on.

Captain Stupendous's powers were recently transferred to Polly in a fluke accident, and so while she has all of his super strength and super speed, she doesn't know how to use them, and she definitely doesn't know all the strengths and weaknesses of his many nemeses.

But Vincent and his friends are just the right fan club to train up their favorite superhero before he (she?) has to face Professor Mayhem again. And if they make it through this battle for the safety of Copperplate City, Vincent might just get up the courage to ask Polly on a date.

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

By Mike Jung, used with permission
I was a voracious young reader, absolutely voracious. The years between ages 9 and 11 were, in terms of reading, absolutely the most satisfying years of my life, even though it was also a time of change and transition - my family moved from California to New Jersey just before my ninth birthday, and I terribly missed my friends and family on the west coast.

We actually left our dog there with my grandparents, which felt like the cruelest blow of all.

However, I acquired a bit of a reputation at our new local library for being a big reader, and I positively basked in the cooing approval of the librarians there each week as I walked out with my customary, teetering stack of books.

Those were also the years in which we went back to California for the entire summer, and among the many pleasures of that experience was the fact that my cousins Cathy, Grace, and Peter gave me carte blanche to plunder their bookshelves.

When I was eleven, about a quarter of the way through the school year, I was moved up from the sixth grade to the seventh grade, which turned out to be a very bad thing for me. I struggled terribly, failed to adjust to my new social surroundings, and saw my academic performance drop below a high-achieving level for the first time in my life.

And the nature of reading changed for me - reading functioned as more of an escape from reality than it ever had before, and it was often with a kind of frenzied desperation that I immersed myself as deeply as possible in the stories I read. I didn’t limit myself solely to novels – I also read comic books, magazines, our family’s World Book Encyclopedia, and a lot of nonfiction – but novels were always the first option, and science fiction and fantasy eventually became my flavor of choice.

The clearest and strongest influence those years had on Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities is the main character, Vincent. Vincent’s an outsider, and he has some challenges with regard to low self-opinion, and he’s not a thinly disguised version of my childhood self – in some ways he’s very, very different from the boy I was – but the emotional truths he deals with are familiar to me and I suspect those emotional truths will be a recurring theme in my work.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited? 

Mike & Arthur at SCBWI Nationals in L.A. 2010
I first saw the name "Arthur Levine" on Lisa Yee's blog, and I believe the first photo I ever saw of Arthur was him and Lisa balancing books on their heads. Something completely goofy and lacking in self-importance, in other words.

I thought how great it was that people in this industry didn't take themselves too seriously, and if a funny author like Lisa Yee could find a like-minded editor, why couldn't I?

It wasn't long before I learned Arthur was the co-editor of the Harry Potter series, but while that knowledge definitely impacted my mental image of him, it didn't supersede my original impression of him as Lisa Yee's editor and a guy with an obvious sense of humor.

As I continued researching the industry, I heard more and more about what a nice guy Arthur was. I also realized just how staggeringly high the overall desire to work with him was - there was clearly no end to the number of aspiring (and accomplished) authors who, like me, had Arthur in the top spot on their "Editors I Want to Work With" lists. I wasn't even agented at the time, so I put my head down and focused on the daily grind of writing my manuscript.

I finally started my current borderline codependent relationship with Facebook in 2009, and after friending Lisa (who I had a remote-but-pleasant online acquaintanceship with by that point), I started commenting on her status updates, as great teeming masses of other people were already doing.

This went on for a year or so, and imagine my surprise when in early 2010 I got a friend request from one Arthur A. Levine! Apparently he'd seen a variety of my comments on Lisa's posts, thought they were funny, and wanted to get acquainted.

So I had my introduction to Arthur, long before I felt even remotely ready to submit to him. We got to know each other a little bit, in that halting and limited Facebookish way, and I was striving mightily to maintain boundaries and not virtually hurl my manuscript in his face when he sent me a non-Facebook email and requested it! I sent it, despite my still-unagented state.

Mike & Joan at the EMLA retreat 2012
Shortly thereafter I registered for the 2010 SCBWI Summer Conference, realized Arthur was teaching an intensive class, and dreamily contemplated the mysterious workings of the universe as I signed up for it.

I was nervous about meeting Arthur, but not nearly as nervous as I would have been if we hadn't already established an embryonic relationship online. I mustered up the nerve to suggest we get a cup of coffee and chat, which we did. He was every bit as kind, funny, and engaging as I'd been told, and we hit it off in a way that's actually very rare for me.

The day after the conference I got an unexpected call from my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, and the rest, as they say, is history.

My respect and admiration for his editorial skills are stratospherically high, of course, but my fondness for him as a person and a friend are equally high. Working with Arthur has easily been the most enjoyable and fulfilling experience of my professional life.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Find out Allen's fictional dream date.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Author Insight: Fictional Matchmaking from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: "If your character was best friends or in a romantic relationship with a character from another book, who would it be?"

Stonecoast MFA from Megan Frazer Blakemore. Peek: "If you are considering an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, there is a new option opening up. The Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing will be offering coursework in writing for children and young adults as part of their Popular Fiction Focus. What is unique about this program is that it is fully integrated into the larger program. As a writer, you would be part of the Popular Fiction group, which means not only would you have access to faculty who specialize in writing for youth, but also top writers in several genres including fantasy, science fiction, and romance."

Next Steps and Considerations by Mary Kole from Peek: "The lessons and realizations (and then the energy and courage to use those insights when you’re back at the page) are up to you."

Three Things Which Are Not Signs You Should Give Up on Your Messy Draft by Leila Austin from YA Highway.  Peek: "It might have been that you didn’t get much sleep the night before, your computer started playing up, some neighbour was busy doing angry things to their hedge with a chainsaw, you weren’t quite caffeinated enough, you got interrupted six times by cats and small children and someone trying to sell you life insurance...." See also The Secret to Writing an Awesome Synopses Stephanie Kuehn from YA Highway.

The Perfection Myth by Laurel Garver from Laurel's Leaves. Peek: "...perfectionism promises freedom from fear while creating more anxiety." Source: Jennifer R. Hubbard. See also Stage 1 of Change: Making Up Your Mind by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid.

L.B. Schulman on Writing for the Long Haul from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "...writing has a lot in common with marriage. After the intensity of a relationship wears off, it can be challenging to maintain interest. It begins to take work."

Fictional Point of View Characters to Introduce a True Story from Donna Bowman Bratton. Peek: "There are a number of reasons why authors choose to add a fictional character to an otherwise true story. Sometimes, it's because of a lack of available research sources. Sometimes, it's just a creative storytelling decision."

A Humble Demand: More Nonfiction Book Trailers Please by Travis Jonker from School Library Journal. Peek: "It seems nonfiction gets almost completely overlooked in the book trailer department. This needs to change."

Getting a Traditional Book Deal After Self-Publishing by Judy Mandel from Jane Friedman. Peek: "I had sold about 2,000 print books and a few hundred e-books on Amazon. It’s very hard to say which marketing tactic worked best, but all combined produced this modest success."

Wouldn't You Like to Know...Libba Bray? from VOYA. Peek: "We’re bombarded with so much image and messaging in everything from politics to product branding that I think it would be good to learn how not to take this sort of messaging at face value, but to be able to decode and deconstruct it, to suss out the insidious reinforcing of gender and racial stereotypes, the beauty myth, consumerism, nationalism, etc. in order to make more conscious, informed choices and challenge that status quo."

It Matters If You're Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers by Annie Schutte from YALSA's The Hub. Peek: "The first step toward change is awareness, and so below I’ve tried to pull together a collection of examples of these forms of subtle and not-so-subtle racism." Note: don't miss the excellent conversation in the comments.

Should You Always Show-Don't-Tell? by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "But [Sara] Pennypacker says she didn’t write it humorous. Rather, the reader wrote it funny. What does she mean?"

Goals for 2013 by Varian Johnson from Quirk and Quill. Peek: "Now that 2012 is coming to a close, it’s time to come up with more goals. And as I do every year around this time, I look back on the year and use that as a way to gauge the future."

Charlesbridge Editor Yolanda Scott: the Pre-NY13SCBWI Interview by Lee Wind from I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read. Peek: "...the term 'mid-list' gets thrown around a lot...for the sake of this question, let’s say it refers to published authors that are neither household names nor people at the onset of their career. And there are a whole lot of people like that, so it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle at any publishing house..."

This Week at Cynsations
Cynsational Giveaways
The winner of Skinny by Donna Cooner (Scholastic, 2012) is Mary in Massachusetts.

The winners of three packages of five new and award-winning titles from Groundwood Books, to include Climate Change and Nobody Knows by Shelley Tanaka; Guacamole: Un poema para cocinar / A Cooking Poem by Jorge Argueta; Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda by Elisabeth Combres (translated by Shelley Tanaka); and My Name Is Parvana by Deborah Ellis were Selena in Wisconsin, Heather in Ontario, and Joan in Rhode Island.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out "It Gets Better: Write Your Own Future" from Hachette Books (Little, Brown); source: Blue Rose Girls.

More Personally

Many blessings to all of my friends and Cynsational readers celebrating Hanukkah!

It's a quiet week here at Casa Leitich Smith and boils down to: Deadline. Shopping. Friends.

Oh, and I'm looking forward to the Austin Trail of Lights 5K Run on Saturday night!

What are Gate Crashing authors asking for this holiday season? by Pamela K. Witte from Ink & Angst.

Personal Links

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Paying It Forward

By 2012 debut author Lynne Kelly
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kathi Appelt, Franny Billingsley, Kimberly Willis Holt, Jane Kurtz, Dian Curtis Regan...

To you, these names should represent some of the brightest, most respected talents in youth literature.

To me, they—among others—signify those established authors who made an effort to reach out to me as a young, beginning writer. They offered encouragement or advice or comfort or friendship—or all of the above.

And yes, I’m still starstruck by them all.

I’ve never been an active member of another arts community, so I don’t know whether this is unusual or the status quo. But I do know it had a powerful impact on my art, career and life for the better.

I can never repay them for their gifts, but I do what I can to pay it forward. And I hope I’d do that even if there were no pending debt. To those of you who, like me, have been traveling this path for a while, I strongly encourage you to do the same.

Here are 10 ways to nurture new voices:

1) Say hello and offer encouragement at your local SCBWI, RWA or other writer organization meetings.

2) Speak to and teach beginners about writing via private and/or public workshops and meetings.

3) Meet with newcomers, one-on-one, for a cup of iced tea and to answer their questions.

By 2012 debut author Gwenda Bond

4) Send an occasional encouraging card or email.

5) Celebrate when someone signs with an agent or lands his/her first contract. Send cards, flowers, share their announcement on facebook – whatever’s appropriate to the relationship.

6) Upon request, be willing to read in-production manuscripts and, if they’re a fit, offer blurbs.

7) Attend debut and new voice author launch parties and other promotional events.

8) Raise awareness of debut books via your blog, social networks, and perhaps even speaking engagements. (I often include cover art from various first-timers' new releases in my event presentations.)

9) Purchase and distribute debut books to your own book-loving contacts with a personal notes of recommendation.

10) Offer a sympathetic ear if expectations are dashed or must simply be readjusted from time to time.

The debut authors of 2011 and 2012 are still, in many ways, finding their feet. They new voices of 2013 are perched on the horizon. Let's think more about how we can show all of them some love.

What suggestions would you like to add?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Guest Post: Karen Rock on Joss Whedon & His Storytelling Slayers

Photo of Joss Whedon by Gage Skidmore
By Karen Rock
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

What makes groundbreaking film and television writer-producer Joss Whedon, the visionary behind such hits as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Avengers," and "Angel," so special?

His ability to mix satirical pop culture humor with life or death situations? Perhaps.

His take-no-prisoners heroines? Maybe.

His plot curve balls that leave viewers reeling?

No, wait. Make that: all of the above?


Like millions of other Whedonites, I’ve been a devoted fan since Buffy Summers took up residence in the ‘one-Starbucks-town’ of Sunnydale, California, (AKA Hellmouth).

Stakes were high and rattling around Buffy’s purse. With a supernatural apocalypse imminent, Joss gave us an unlikely savior…or slayer…in Buffy. Who knew a petite, teenage girl could be so adept at handling evil incarnate…including the Mean Girls at school?

Such innovative writing has inspired a generation of bestselling authors such as Carrie Jones, Jennifer Armentrout, Jennifer Reese, Nancy Holder, Micol Ostow, and Marlene Perez who shared their thoughts about Joss’ influence on their bestselling works.

For Jenn Reese, author of science fantasy middle grade series Above World (Candlewick) and kung fu action-adventure romance Jade Tiger, both her writing and life have been impacted by Joss’ works. “It’s safe to say that 'Buffy: The Vampire Slayer' has influenced not just my writing, but my life as a whole. From 1997 to 2003, while Buffy and the Scooby Gang were going through their journey, I was going through my own.

"During that time, I began writing, quit my job, got a divorce, moved to California, got a new job, had my car stolen, got laid off, wrote a novel, and started studying martial arts. Through it all, Buffy was my favorite show.

"It was one of the only real constants in a life full of new experiences and an evolving sense of self. If our lives have soundtracks, then Buffy was mine. When I made life-changing decisions or accepted new challenges, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in the background, singing about courage and heroes, about failure and loss and the power of friends.

"In short, Buffy is a foundational part of my writing career. I believe I’ve gone off in my own direction to tell stories that are truly mine, but I do so with gratitude for a show that inspired me both as a writer and as a person.”

A particular episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," ‘The Body’ was especially important and personal to Jenn. “Back in 2003, my (now ex-)husband’s brother shot himself. We got the call early in the morning after we’d spent the entire day before moving into a new apartment. Everything was in mislabeled boxes. We drifted through the unfamiliar space in a daze, trying to find clothes, brush our teeth, get directions to the hospital.

"In the middle of the chaos, there was also a memory. Willow trying to find her purple sweater, Anya blunt and clueless, Xander angry at the world, at the wall, at death itself. ‘The Body’ (season 5) makes me sob. I cried the first time I watched it, from the very beginning when Buffy shakes her mother’s body, calls her name, and can’t wake her.

Jenn Reese
"If I happen upon the episode while channel surfing, even for just a second, I become transfixed all over again, thumb poised on the remote but incapable of changing the channel.

"On that morning, I was so grateful for 'The Body.' I was grateful for the assurance that, no matter how I was reacting to the suicide, it was okay. It was normal. It was well within the acceptable parameters of grief and shock and awkwardness.

"In the midst of everything, I wasted no emotional energy on self recrimination. People are messy. Believing that was an incredible gift Joss Whedon and Buffy gave me on such a terrible day.”

Marlene Perez, author of the YA paranormal series Dead Is... (Graphia) and Strange Fates (Orbit, 2013), also connects personally to particular episodes such as “Once More with Feeling” and “Hush”.

According to Marlene, “…he sends the message ‘Don’t be afraid of your own creativity. Don’t be afraid to go into the dark, but also, don’t be afraid of the light. Don’t be afraid to break the rules.’”

To Marlene, “His characters are often broken people who find a makeshift family and he always makes us question who the true monster really is. The idea of a broken main character appealed to me.

"Nyx Fortuna, the main character in my Strange Fates trilogy was greatly influenced by Whedon’s ability to create broken, but relatable characters… …I love the idea that doing the right thing sometimes sucks almost as much as doing the wrong thing would have.”

Whedon did all the right things when he met Marlene several years ago at the San Diego Comic Con. “I spotted Joss Whedon right in front of me on the exhibit floor…I approached him and said, ‘I know you hear this all the time, but I love Buffy.’ His reply was ‘I never get tired of hearing it.’

"If I hadn’t been a fan before, that would have cinched it for me. It also taught me two things. Love your characters because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them and be nice to your fans.”

Joss’ empathy for others was also evidenced by essayist and novelist, Nancy Holder, author of Buffy: The Making of a Slayer (47 North). “I had been on set for days and I was working off fumes. I wanted to get as much done as I could in the time I had--researching, interviews--so I hardly ever slept. (Not my best strategy!) Whenever he saw me, he would give me a nod to let me know that he knew I was waiting to interview him and we had a number of moments where we'd sit down and get started, and then he would be called away. He was always good-humored and patient despite the dozens of questions and interruptions that bombarded him every day.

"We finally sat on top of Spike's tomb in pitch dark. I was really ragged by then (to my intense frustration), and he had so many things to say that I was enraptured and tried to make myself take notes as my two tape recorders recorded him. But it was difficult to do anything but listen. Then he was called to the set, and we went outside in the bright daylight. I saw that my primary tape recorder had malfunctioned and the first thing out of my mouth was an F-bomb.

"He simply smiled, took the recorder from me, and wound up my tape. I restarted my backup recorder (which wasn't as good as the primary one) and asked him to repeat what he said. He pretty much did. But the kindness he showed when I flipped out in such an unprofessional manner has stayed with me all these years."

Joss’ ability to plot an epic story equally impresses Holder. “Two of the structural elements of storytelling that Joss does so amazingly well are the buildup and the reversal. He very deliberately leads you to a hope or expectation (that two characters will get back together, that X is the bad guy) and then he pulls a reversal on you, where the opposite happens...

Nancy Holder
"Joss has often emphasized that structure lies at the basis of good storytelling. No amount of hand-waving and saying 'just because' can take the place of an organic trajectory in a story--this happens because this happens because this happens.

"When I was working on Buffy: The Making of a Slayer, I re-watched the entire series and really got a sense of the entire narrative sweep of the Buffy story. It's a monumental achievement.

"For me to get this kind of cohesion when I'm working, I have to read and reread my work to make sure I hit all the beats. That takes discipline. But you don't wind up with four (soon to be five!) TV shows, awards, and huge films like 'The Avengers' on your resume without discipline.”

Carrie Jones, author of the YA paranormal series Need (Bloomsbury), admires Joss’ softer side and his tenacity. “I am a sucker for the Whedon romance. His romances are tragic. That’s what makes them great. And it’s even more than that! Buffy, the movie version, flopped. But Whedon didn’t give up. He believed in his characters. He believed in his writing. And look what happened. Buffy became an icon. His character became someone who insinuated herself into people’s psyches. As a writer, I need that. I need the example of Buffy and of her creator, to help me believe in myself.”

Another important Whedon legacy, Carrie said, is that he…“made it okay to be a kick-(butt) girl who saved people, who could be the hero, who could quip, who could angst. But I think what he also did was show the humanity in female heroes and how sometimes saving the world requires a momentary loss of that same humanity. He also made it cool to be a girl that wanted to save people not just be saved by people.

"Still, it is more than that. His heroes depended on themselves, but they often depended on their friends. On their epic quests, they often showed how community mattered, how relationships and friendships made us stronger, braver, tougher, and gave us females more motivation to be kick (butt)….

"Buffy and her friends often made names into verbs and created an entire language of quirkiness. That quirkiness combined with the heroic flair of Whedon’s characters truly creates a safe place for teen girls to embrace their own quirky nature, their own inner (and external) hero selves, allows them to value their own friendships, and gives them a role model to emulate when they need to be brave and face their own demons.”

A young Carrie Jones, thinking she'd rather be watching "Buffy"
YA novelist Micol Ostow, whose novel Family (Egmont) features a strong female character, wrote an essay on the “Buffy” series finale. “I focused on the horror movie trope of the final girl: the (typically blond, conventionally attractive, and young) girl who survives all of her friends and defeats the monster. The final girl avails herself to a feminist reading, but nonetheless, she's a throwback to an earlier era. Buffy is the quintessential modern incarnation of that archetype. She doesn't conquer the demons by accident or even by stubbornness, but rather by birthright, bravery, and innate skill.

"I'd like to think that female heroines would have become more proactive as pop culture evolved, but I don't think it can be argued that Buffy herself got us there much more quickly.”

Micol and pup
Micol also admires Whedon’s blend of commercial and literary qualities in his work. “…There need not be distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture. Joss may be best-known for commercial powerhouses, but his knowledge of the literary and film canon is exhaustive, which is evident in all of his work: Giles saying, 'Thank you, Cyrano,' when Buffy tries to give him dating advice. The entire structure and (original!) score of the musical episode. The noir filter that colors the 'Angel' spinoff. It's all much more sophisticated than packaging might suggest.

"Critics of the show/s often write them off as campy and insubstantial, when the fact is that they're very intelligently, deliberately crafted.

"As a writer who frequently tries to bridge the gap between commercial and literary sensibilities, I appreciate so much an artist who can't be bothered with those distinctions, and who blends both completely seamlessly.”

Jennifer L. Armentrout, exhausted from writing
Jennifer L. Armentrout, author of The Lux (Entangled) and Covenant series, finds Whedon’s quote, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke” inspiring.

She says, “When you're dealing with a world were powerful supernatural creatures are gunning for your rosy red behind, things are going to be dark, things are going to be grim and gritty. Life will be tough for our characters. That (Happily-Ever-After) will be earned and not handed over.

"But humor--oh, humor--is the great equalizer. A well placed one liner changes the dynamics of the story and the characters, makes them more real and richer.

"Joss Whedon was a miracle worker with this. None of his characters were truly safe and that made you love his characters even more. It made the story real, because life is unpredictable.”

Jennifer subjects her characters to dangerous and deadly situations as well. “None of my characters are safe and all my characters sometimes make the wrong choices and they must face those consequences. But I love the humor and the snark. Even in the most dire and terrible circumstances, someone is always saying something.”

Thanks to Joss Whedon, we will always have something to say about his work and the lessons they teach. YA authors continue his legacy, paving the way for the next generation. They will continue to innovate in ways we can’t yet imagine. As Joss said, “Writers are completely out of touch with reality.” And that’s a good thing in the best, Whedon-way.

Check out why Cyn and I love Joss below, and, at the end of the post, please add your own tributes in the comments for a chance to win Buffy: The Making of a Slayer by Nancy Holder (47 North).

Cynsational Notes

More on Karen Rock
In a quest to provide her eighth grade students with quality reading material, English teacher Karen Rock read everything out there and couldn’t wait to add her voice to the conversation of books.

Now a debut YA series author, Karen is thrilled to pen stories that teens can relate to. When she’s not busy reading and writing, Karen is downloading live versions of favorite songs, watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" marathons, obsessing over reality TV contestants (Adam Lambert you were robbed!), cooking her family’s delizioso Italian recipes, and occasionally rescuing local wildlife from neighborhood cats.

She lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, her very appreciated beta-reader daughter and two King Charles Cavalier Cocker Spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch,” though they’ve managed to teach her the trick!

Karen says: "Joss taught me not to worry about writing what's expected... what works...what's safe. He's a rule breaker and that's what I love most about his movies and shows. Joss makes me laugh during the most terrifying moments, root for an unlikely character, and jump out of my seat when I'm ready for the end credits. It's the courage to write fearlessly, to be true to my own vision, that is Joss' legacy to me."

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on twitter @karenrock5. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author the the Tantalize series, which includes Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Diabolical, all YA Gothic fantasies originally published by Candlewick Press in the U.S., Walker Books in the U.K., and additional publishers around the globe.

Tantalize: Kieren's Story, a graphic novel illustrated by Ming Doyle, is also available and Eternal: Zachary's Story will be released in February 2013. Cynthia also looks forward to the release of Feral Nights, book one in the Feral series (Candlewick, Jan. 2013).

She says: "I so admire all of his work, but for me, Joss Whedon's 'Buffy' was life changing -- a major reason why I write strong girls (and guys) for YAs.
"I remember watching the series finale as the screen flashed from one girl to another, all potential slayers becoming slayers, and, especially as a writing teacher, it left me teary with a greater appreciation of the potential in us all.
"Stephenie Meyer's work is often cited by the mainstream media as fueling the paranormal boom in YA literature, and she has indeed been tremendously influential. Without in any way minimizing that, as a core member of the creative community, and having spent years talking to my colleagues about their artistic touchstones, I must stress that Joss Whedon's role cannot be overstated.
"Many of us are informally his students and among his most enthusiastic fans. Consider the YA books where humor cuts horror, reversals pivot tight, and girls stand tall. Most of the authors who created them are fiercely proud Whedonites."

Cynthia's home base on the Web is She lives in Austin, Texas; with with four writer cats and her very cute husband, author Greg Leitich Smith.

Check out her Facebook page and follow her on Twitter @CynLeitichSmith.

Don't miss Joss Whedon's Top 10 Writing Tips from Once Upon a Sketch, with thanks to Sean Petrie.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Trailer: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (Balzer + Bray, 2012). From the promotional copy: 

When Cameron Post's parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they'll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn't last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship--one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. 

But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to "fix" her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self--even if she's not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

Monday, December 10, 2012

New Voice & Giveaway: Melissa Guion on Baby Penguins Everywhere!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melissa Guion is the first-time author-illustrator of Baby Penguins Everywhere! (Philomel, 2012)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Can there be such a thing as too many adorable penguins?

One day a penguin sees a most unusual sight: a hat floating in the icy water. Even more unusual? Out of the hat pops a baby penguin. But not just one baby penguin . . . or even two. But a third, and a fourth, and on and on!

At first the mama penguin is happy for the company. Until she realizes that taking care of a family is very hard, very tiring work, and what she could really use is just a moment alone. Yet as newcomer Melissa Guion reminds us in her adorable debut picture book, alone time is all well and good, but, it's together time that's best of all.

Perfect for any mama penguin with a family, or classroom, full of mischievous little ones.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2012, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Cynthia, I landed my first illustration gig in the 80's:

My mom gave me limited phone privileges, so I don't know if it was ringing with offers after that.

Seriously, I've always written and drawn, but I only decided I wanted to make children's books about eight years ago. The first thing I did was register for the New York SCBWI conference

It was incredibly inspiring and demystifying. David Macaulay presented a slide show highlighting all the mistakes he made on his first book, Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction (Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

I left full of ideas and optimism. I figured, with a little luck, I could be working on a book very soon! The following day I sat down to draw. I drew for about half an hour, and then remembered I had to figure out what happened to the bathroom fixtures I'd ordered. I got an email that the rare funk record I'd listed on eBay had sold to someone in Brazil. Then I had a baby. A year passed.

It was not until late 2006 that I gave myself a real kick in the pants. I remember talking to my friend, the musician Jonathan Coulton, about a project he'd just finished called "Thing A Week." He wrote a song a week, for a year, and posted all the songs on his website. He eventually made them into a set of albums. It had obviously been a great project for him.

I decided I would do the same thing with illustrations, in hopes of making some kind of progress. When I think back, I can't believe how arbitrary the decision felt, because it ended up being one of the most important choices I've ever made.

In January 2007, I launched a blog called 52 Pictures, and committed to posting a new image there every Friday. The pictures themselves were important but so was everything around them. In addition to experimenting with drawing and painting styles, I learned to use Photoshop and HTML. I took part in collaborative projects. I began showing my work locally. I went to another SCBWI conference and displayed a painting in the show there, and SCBWI President Steve Mooser bought it.

The following year, I applied for and was awarded my first artist's grant. These were major confidence builders. I used the grant toward renting my first studio, which didn't pay for itself but gave me real space to work.

At that point I'd been talking for several years to a Writers House agent named Steven Malk. Steve saw my artwork in 2006 through a mutual friend. He really encouraged me to pursue writing and illustrating kids books. He would check in with me periodically, and his persistent confidence in me, right from the start, was very meaningful. I frankly didn't know where it was coming from but I figured he had good reason for it.

In 2009, Steve and I decided to send around a little postcard announcing that he'd be representing me. I made very simple sequential drawings for the front and back. Steve's response to the artwork was positive, though not effusive. A designer friend who helped me get the artwork ready for the printer was pretty unenthusiastic. I got very nervous for about 24 hours, wondering if I was about to make my professional debut with something people would ignore, or hate.

I sat in my studio that I couldn't afford, and looked at the postcard for a long time. I concluded that I really liked it. We went with it and it was a big success. I got my editor and my first book contract directly from that card. To me, it represents the moment when I finally hopped out of the nest.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children's books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for others interested in succeeding on this front?

I like working with both words and pictures, but my apprenticeship as a writer has been longer and more complete. You might not guess that from my first book, with its grand total of 115 words, most of which are "the" and "penguin." I wrote a lot when I was young. I liked it, I had a knack for it, and I was encouraged. I became an English major at Yale, which was initially frustrating for my scientist parents, but it was really what I loved, and they were ultimately very supportive.

After college I took a very business-y job, for financial reasons, but I always wrote for myself. Then a weird thing happened. In my early thirties I got really disgusted with my writing voice and stopped writing completely. I had no idea how long it would last and I didn't care. If I bothered to pick up a pen, I would draw, often in an abstract way.

After about six months of that, I found myself starting to draw letters and words, drawing them as if they were line art, not thinking much about what I meant by them. I thought about how they looked. Sometimes a drawing would turn into words, or words would trail off into a drawing, and that's basically how I got back to writing. My inner artist really bailed my inner writer out of a jam.

My apprenticeship as an illustrator was very different. I studied art a bit, at different times, and I wasn't bad, but there were always people who could draw and paint circles around me.

When I decided to illustrate books as well as write them I signed up for studio art classes in anatomical drawing and figurative painting, and they made me totally insane. My goal was to make books, not to become Leonardo da Vinci. I stopped after a few classes (and yes, of course, they were helpful in the end). I focus on having an expressive line and I keep things simple. I love the looseness of watercolor, so I use that. I leave detailed rendering and sophisticated color palettes to the illustrators who are wonderful at those things.

I don't have a lot of special advice for illustrators who want to become writers. Wait, there's one thing: don't read the chapter in Becoming A Writer (Tarcher, 1934) where Dorothea Brande insists you write every day at the same time, and says if you fail to write on schedule you should give up. If you've worked hard enough to become an illustrator, you've earned a free pass.) If you're a writer who wants to illustrate, I say find out what you do well and develop it. If you're not sure what that is, share your artwork with an artist friend and let them tell you what seems strong. Try not to be self-conscious. My drawing table is in my apartment and I used to keep it totally off limits. Now I let people in, casually or during open studio events. I share work in progress; I let people watch me draw. It's not for me to say when a person is ready to bare their mess, but it's true that once you do, things really start to move.

If you want to make picture books and haven't been to an SCBWI conference, go.

Two great teachers whose classes did not make me crazy were Roger Winter and Sergio Ruzzier.

Hear Jonathan Coulton's "Thing A Week" songs here.

See my 52 Pictures artwork in my 2007 blog archive, starting here.

Melissa saves her pencils after their too small to draw with -- she has quite a collection.
Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of Baby Penguins Everywhere! by Melissa Guion (Philomel, 2012). Eligibility: U.S. Publisher sponsored.

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

Book Trailer: Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein (Candlewick, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Because Amelia smiles as she skips down the street, her neighbor Mrs. Higgins smiles too, and decides to send a care package of cookies to her grandson Lionel in Mexico. 

The cookies give Lionel an idea, and his idea inspires a student, who in turn inspires a ballet troupe in England!

And so the good feelings that started with Amelia’s smile make their way around the world, from a goodwill recital in Israel, to an impromptu rumba concert in Paris, to a long-awaited marriage proposal in Italy, to a knitted scarf for a beloved niece back in New York.

Putting a unique spin on "what goes around comes around," David Ezra Stein’s charmingly illustrated story reminds us that adding even a small dose of kindness into the world is sure to spur more and more kindness, which could eventually make its way back to you!

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