Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Trailer & Author Video: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson (Penguin, 2014) From the promotional copy:

For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

Will being back home help Andy's PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Beyond Bollywood: South Asian American Middle Grade Fiction from From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. Peek: "Our stories are funny, tragic, brave, silly, and, most importantly, varied." See also Diversity in YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults by Malinda Lo from Diversity in YA.

A Valentine from the Teacher by Louise Hawes from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: "Thank you for your grace under fire, your courage, your resilience, your can do/won’t surrender attitude; for teaching me so much about starting over unafraid."

First Line of Defense: Cancelled Contracts, Multiple Submissions & No Deal by agent Brandi Bowles from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "The truth is, outside of career guidance, editorial work, writing advice, matchmaking, and selling, agents are the only people that can protect you when the publishing process goes awry. And it happens more than you might think." See also Songs on Surviving the Midlist by Gretchen McNeil from Jan O'Hara and Plan B. or What to Do When Things Go Wrong by Allison Winn Scotch from Writer Unboxed.

Using Emotional Discharge to Power Up Your Story by M.J. Bush from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "What happens if we don’t give our characters time to recover after a high-tension scene? They take out the fear or anger on the next person who makes the slightest mistake."

Three Reasons Most Writers Give Up & Three Reasons Why You Shouldn't from Angela Scott. Peek: "If I don't go for it, and push fear aside, then I will never know if I could have reached my dream. You won't either." Source: Lee Wind at the Official SCBWI Blog.

YA Finalists for the L.A. Times Book Prize are: Elizabeth Knox for Mortal Fire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); Rainbow Rowell for Fangirl (St. Martin's Griffin); Joyce Sidman for What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms and Blessings (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); Jonathan Stroud for Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase (Hyperion); Gene Luen Yang for Boxers & Saints (First Second).

Truth is Not Dot-to-Dot by Cynthia Levinson from The Writing Barn. Peek: " struck me that ten-year-old readers would not want to feel as if they were stuck inside a city council chamber, listening to middle-aged white guys bicker about municipal politics."

Anatomy of Nonfiction Writing True Stories for Children by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas: a recommendation by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon. Peek: "...the chapter on interviewing is worth the price of the book by itself."  See more information.

Writing on the Road by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "I was able to write a whole chapter on the way there and half a chapter on the way home. That was about 4,200 new words of a rough draft."

The Space Between Discipline and Freedom from Marion Dane Bauer. Peek: "...discipline is the gift that lies at the center of every writer’s success. It provides the platform beneath our feet, the place to stand while we catch hold of inspiration."

Putting Pieces of Your Real Life Into Your Fiction by Ilsa J. Bick from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "...I began to wonder—and this is the shrinkly self-conscious part of me coming out—what might happen if you put too much of your real life into a book? What would happen to the characters?"

2014 Ezra Jack Keats Book Awards: New Writer: Ame Dyckman for Tea Party Rules (Viking);
New Illustrator: Christian Robinson for Rain! (Houghton Mifflin); see also Honor Books and more information.

An Interview with Yoshio Kobayashi of Shueisha English Edition by Wendy Uchimura from SCBWI Japan Translation Group. Peek: "We check it with the original text in Japanese and point out to the translator errors and misunderstandings. Then our American editor will revise it as a reader-friendly text. But we don’t stop there."

Hiring an Editor by Andrew Karre from Carolrhoda Lab. Peek: "Allow me to say this plainly: When an author chooses, hires, and pays an editor, the author is creating incentives that are meaningfully different than the ones present in a 'traditional' publishing deal."

Writer vs. Author Smackdown by Rachel M. Wilson from Quirk and Quill. Peek: "The writer in me wants to tackle the author and shut her in a dark room free of distractions till she passes out from lack of Twitter."

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win one of three copies of Feral Curse or one of three paperback copies of Feral Nights (both by Cynthia Leitich Smith and published by Candlewick). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

In honor of Black History Month, Lee & Low is giving away two copies of Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today's Youth, personally signed by Rosa Parks at facebook. Deadline: Feb. 26. Eligibility: U.S. only.

Enter to win signed copies of Nightingale's Nest and The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin (Razorbill) from The Book Cellar.

28 Days Later

28 Days Later is "a Black History Month celebration of emerging and established children’s book creators of color" from the Brown Bookshelf.
See 10 African American Authors to Know from Diversity in YA.

See also 10 New Children's & Teen Books for Black History Month.

More Personally

In response to multiple queries about crafting Native American characters, I put together Writing, Tonto and The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is First to Die. Fair warning: it's long, and probably best suited to the MFA crowd. But those struggling with writing diversity may find it food for thought. See On Diversity and Story by Sangu Mandanna from Author All Sorts and The Good and Bad of Writing Advice by Brian Yansky from Brian's Blog: Writer Talk.

Don't miss The Page 69 Test: Feral Curse. Peek: "If I were making a movie trailer, I don't know that this is one of the scenes I'd highlight, but it does offer a sense of how, from a contemporary teen perspective, fantasy and reality collide."

My character cheat sheet for the alternating points of view in Feral Nights.
Regular Cynsations readers know that Feral Curse is newly available in hardcover and on audio, and Feral Nights is now available not only in hardcover but also in paperback and on audio. In addition, both are available as e-books. Candlewick Press e-books are available through Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and the Sony Reader Store. They're also carried in many libraries via OverDrive and in many independent bookstores via the American Bookseller Association and Kobo.

Photo by Sam Bond Photography
From 2014 Conference Craft & Professionalism (Austin SCBWI): "....finalists for the inaugural Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award. Chosen by the conference critique faculty, the finalists were: Jayme Allen, Miranda Koerner, Laney Neilsen, Carmen Oliver, Melinda Payne, Gayleen Rabakkuk, Ramona Siddoway and Charles Trevino. The winner will be chosen by New York Times best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith and announced on this website soon." Note: Cheers to all the finalists!

Shana Burg, Claire Legrand, Diana Lopez & Lisa Schroeder
Congratulations to fellow Texas author Diana Lopez, whose novel Choke (Scholastic), is being made into a Lifetime Telefilm, "The Choking Game," starring Freya Tingley & Peri Gilpin.

Congratulations to former (and hopefully returning) Austinite Lisa Kay Parker for being chosen as one of 12 novelists from more than 300 applicants "to take part in Novel Fair 2014, an annual event taking place on February 22nd and organised by the Irish Writers’ Centre."

A peek into my Valentine's Day weekend!
Sunday brunch, family style, at Crave -- new in Austin. (Photo used with permission.)
Tantalize-Feral series fans know I'm a foodie (restaurant settings FTW!). I had the pleasure of visiting Crave twice last weekend. For me, the hook was sushi + American. The ambiance is terrific -- upscale but accessible -- and I love the design trend of pattern through shadow.

For Valentine's Day dinner, I had sashimi and pulled chicken and avocado egg rolls as appetizers, followed by filet mignon for dinner and miniature blueberry cheesecake for dessert.

I returned Sunday for the reasonably priced brunch and liked it just as well. It's a chain--also located in Minnesota, Florida, Nebraska and Ohio--but you'd never know it from the personal service.

Another recent brunch win: Olivia's on South Lamar. Very crispy bacon. Make a reservation.

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers will be held June 16 to June 21 at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Keynote speaker: James Dashner; faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith. Learn about the WIFYR Fellowship Award. See also Alison L. Randall on Choosing a Writing Conference.
Visit the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels!

New Voice: Melanie Bishop on My So-Called Ruined Life

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melanie Bishop is the first-time author of My So-Called Ruined Life (Torrey House, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Tate McCoy has not spoken to her alcoholic mother in two years, and then her mom is murdered and her father is the prime suspect. 

Convinced of his innocence, Tate takes up swimming and finds solace in her best friend Kale, volunteer work, the great outdoors, and a new crush. 

But after discovering a horrible secret, Tate questions everything she thought she knew about her parents. 

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

I should confess that I have never been a fan of revision. I preach to my students about its importance, but I am loath to embark on it myself. I want what I write to be right the first time.

A creative writing professor once suggested I’d finally written a decent short story, but he thought it needed a few more drafts. I told him I didn’t like to revise.

I said, in defense of my stance: “I like first drafts; there’s a virginal quality to them.”

I actually used that word virginal. I was that dumb.

This professor, Alan Weisman, who is now a famous writer (The World Without Us and Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth) was kind enough not to guffaw.

I think he smiled, and then told me when to have the next draft in his faculty mailbox.

A year later, just before graduation from Prescott College, Weisman said: “Melanie, don’t sit back on your potential.”

It was good advice. I knew I had potential; he thought so, too. I thought potential was enough; he knew otherwise.

Many times in the 27 years since that conversation, I’ve had to remind myself of his closing words to me. Not revising an essay, story, memoir or novel is the equivalent of letting that piece of writing sit back on its potential. Quick way not to get published: market all your work in its virginal state.

In some cases, these days, I would much rather revise than go through the turmoil of generating new material–of inventing something new. Revision, once you have a solid first draft, can be so much easier than creating virgins.

But my resistance still shows up, in the writing scenarios that are the hardest.

A young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life, just released from Torrey House Press had an unusual revision trajectory. I wrote the book, revised a couple of times, and submitted some chapters to Milkweed Press. An editor there liked what he’d read and asked to see the rest.

Milkweed has a 200 page limit for the young adult genre, so I pruned my book down to 200 pages and sent it in. Several months later, that editor was laid off and the person above him ended up, after many more months, saying "no thanks."

The next place I sent the manuscript was Torrey House, and they accepted it, with the condition that I amp up the role of the environment in the protagonist’s life, to better address the press’ mission. I immediately knew what I would do, adding a chapter after the climax, and was eager to reenter the world of Tate McCoy without the page restriction. That one chapter turned into four, and they are now my favorite chapters in the book. Such a happy revision tale!

Still much later, my editor there scheduled what was to be a 90-minute conference call. Ninety minutes stretched to over two hours, and the notes I took filled nine notebook pages.

It is safe to say I freaked out. I had been under the mistaken impression that since my development of the nature chapters, the book was done. I was aghast to hear how much the editor still wanted me to do. We’d already sent the manuscript out to half a dozen authors for blurbs; how could it be that I would be expected to change it substantially at this juncture?

As much as I loved this Tate McCoy girl I’d invented, I dreaded going back into revision mode. I was plotting Book Two of the Tate McCoy series, and couldn’t conceive of doing such substantive work on Book One. I put the revision notes from the phone call away and spent the evening complaining to my husband. Why are they making me do this? I’d had several teenagers—kids of friends—read the book and they liked it. Why fix what isn’t broken?

The next day I reread the notes and they no longer came across as extreme. I saw patterns in the suggestions and was able to categorize the notes so that the job looked manageable. I had a month-long retreat coming up, in a remote cabin in the Santa Cruz redwoods and I would tackle these revisions in that time frame. In the end, it took only eight days—four days of the first week and four of the second—and I had a new draft that addressed the entirety of those nine pages of notes. And the book was again a much better book for those eight days spent.

Since this is my most recent experience with revision, I’m a fan of it right now. Revision has been good to me, has done exactly what it’s supposed to do—allowed me to re-see.

I will always wish writing was easier than it actually is. I will wish my first drafts, those lovely virgins, would be deemed brilliant. "Flawless. Don’t change a single word!"

I’d be one of those writers who lets things gestate just long enough in her head to have them come out on paper perfect.

I do have one short story that pretty much wrote itself, and soared through MFA workshop, won an award, and then helped me win a year-long screenwriting fellowship. So I’m not saying it can’t happen—these pure and gorgeous virgins landing on the page. But it’s rare.

Count on having to work your stories over. And over.

You are the pestering partner, always wanting more.

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

Teaching writing makes me a better writer, I think. Some of the basics you cover in the college classroom are things we writers need to remind ourselves of rather constantly. Teaching keeps me in touch with those basics, but, more importantly, teaching keeps me inspired. I'm inspired by my students' talent and vision and drive.

Now if you're talking about time, I definitely did not have enough hours for my own writing when I was teaching full-time. But the teaching itself, the dynamic exchange that happens in the classroom, that definitely energizes my work.

I've also had whole stories grow out of writing exercises my students assigned during class presentations.

Teaching for me has always been a very good thing, enriching my life and my writing immensely.

I am equal parts teacher and writer, and wouldn't want to exclude either of these identities.

Cynsational Notes

My So-Called Ruined Life is set in Austin, Texas. Signed stock is available at BookPeople.

"My So-Called Ruined Life" - Book Trailer from Samuel Coodley on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Writing, Tonto & The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die

What images do you recall from childhood?
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

When I think of the quintessential American Indian sidekick in mainstream media, the name that first springs to mind is "Tonto."

Sorry, Johnny Depp—I adore your Captain Jack Sparrow—but by that, I mean the “faithful Indian companion” depicted by Jay Silverheels (Mohawk), who co-starred in the 1949 to 1957 TV series “The Lone Ranger.”
When I was a kid in the 1970s and '80s, there were only three national television stations, plus a local one. “The Lone Ranger” appeared in re-runs in syndication on my local station in Kansas City.

Errors in framing Tonto’s character abounded (part of Silverheels’ legacy is having played the role and part of it is having later spoofed it). But zeroing in on what I recall from childhood, the most remarkable thing about Tonto was that he existed at all.

Amidst a Western TV-movie tradition in which Indians were depicted as blurring, whooping bogeymen (or winsome primitive "princesses"), Tonto was a main character. Not the hero and stereotypical—but still, there he was. Tonto.

The only other mainstream media “Indian” characters I can recall are those (including winsome, primitive Princess Tiger Lily) from Disney’s 1953 animated film “Peter Pan.”

Of late, the conversation around occasionally forced buzzwords like “multiculturalism” and “diversity” in youth literature has deepened. Champions from writing and illustration, education, library science, bookselling, and within publishing houses are discussing the need for quality quantity. Speaking out matters, and that roar must translate to sales.

Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2014
Vanguard authors from underrepresented communities like Joseph Bruchac, Nancy Garden, Uma Krishnaswami, Walter Dean Myers, Pat Mora, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Laurence Yep have broken ground for a new wave that includes Matt de la Peña, Eric Gansworth, Varian Johnson, Malinda Lo, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, G. Neri, and Varsha Bajaj as well as those who write within and cross-culturally or intersecting communities like Debby Dahl Edwardson, Brent Hartinger, Lynne Kelly, Jane Kurtz, Linda Sue Park, and Trent Reedy.

Meanwhile, our conversation has expanded to include not only characters of various religions, regions, ethnic and national origins and (increasingly) sexual orientations but also characters with a range of gender identities, characters with disabilities and those reflecting a greater range of body types, among others.

We have made strides, though the numbers don’t always show it, and there’s still work to be done.

One way or another, every single one of us is part of this struggle, this transition.

We are the establishment. We are accountable.

We must slay our inner chicken. Punt our inner snail.

Time’s up.

Which brings us to: How?

How do we go about this? Writers are readers, so what are our strategies on both fronts?

For those who write within and/or outside personal experience, how do we honor and craft stories for the young readers of today and beyond?

I bet they saw "Peter Pan" as kids, too.
This past week I received a message every single day from a different non-Indian writer, asking me how to approach children’s-YA fiction with Native American characters.

That’s right, every single day for a week.

In the past, I’ve received such queries now and then—never before in a deluge.

All expressed concern about their responsibility to diversity and to getting it right. They care. Caring leads to communication.

That said, it's not hard to understand resistance to the conversation. There's peril in addressing subject matter so emotionally charged, and at times, we all fret finding the right words. There's also a lingering tension, a frustration that some of us experience in feeling obliged to articulate what seems self-evident to us but isn't always to our friends and colleagues.

How does any of that help?

It doesn't.

So more and more, writers find ourselves talking with each other about these issues. For example, on the same afternoon, I met with a white writer who felt he'd be unfairly targeted with criticism and with a Mexican-American author so concerned that a story based on her own childhood wasn't sufficiently “representative” that she was on the verge of giving up…giving up writing altogether.


Take a breath. Let it out. Repeat as necessary.

Truth is, all authors worry about doing our best work and connecting with readers. Or at least we should. I know I do. I write both within and across. My latest story, a romance-friendship short, is told from the perspective a black, male, gay guardian angel. We all must stretch to some degree.

Is there one right way to write? Definitely not. My own process has evolved over time and depending on the demands of each manuscript. But writing defensively tends to be self-defeating. We can't anticipate every reader's politics or pet peeves, and even if we could, trying to placate them all would result in bland, banal mush.

Let's take risks, learn from our mistakes, and set aside our longing for bright-line rules, our quest for a single formula. It’s never going to be that easy.

An example: I’ve heard it said—as though the matter were settled—that we should no longer write Native characters or those of color as best friends. The concern is that “tossing in” a minority best friend/sidekick is a halfhearted attempt at diversity, and in doing so, defaults to stereotypes.

There’s validity to the implied critique. It’s the tossing, I suspect, that’s the problem.

Roaring Brook (spring 2014)
Or, put another way, it was Greg Leitich Smith who jokingly suggested I title this post “The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die.”

I mostly went with it, even though I opened with Tonto, who neither cracked wise nor died first, though…in his particular might’ve actually improved the character if he had.

I know Tonto. I’m familiar with the stereotypes. I grew up with them, and so did most of you.

But do we really want it to follow that in any story with a, say, white, straight, able-bodied protagonist, the best friend can never be Lebanese-American or Korean-Canadian or transgendered?

That would quickly decrease representation, and kids crave it in roles both big and small.

Besides, what if the author doesn't feel ready to take on writing, say, a cross-cultural protagonist? Does that mean her supporting casts must always be uniformly of her same culture, orientation, religion, body type, etc.?

What purpose does that serve? What is the cost?

On the other hand, because the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die trope (or, in fairness, combination of tropes) has become so prevalent, it's worth second-guessing ourselves to ensure we don't descend into cliché. (And it’s by no means the only trope that merits second-guessing—just the one we're considering right now.)

In writing fiction, we focus on characters—especially protagonists and antagonists—as well as plot, setting, any speculative constructs, and watch for themes to arise.

Authorial sensibility is crucial. It’s also tricky, sinking deep into our subconscious. We can only be so aware of it. But we can develop a more inclusive, more socially aware sensibility with nurturing.

True, characters have sensibilities of their own, sometimes in direct contradiction to ours. Of course they will have flaws and make mistakes. Some of them may be genuinely lousy individuals. (I have written Lucifer. I am not the devil.) But how we frame our characters' thoughts and behaviors, to varying degrees, still comes back to us.

Steps to Consider in Creating a World with Diverse Characters

It's within our power to:
  • Widen our range of model texts. Study books by the authors mentioned above and then keep reading. It’s a small sampling, one of many places to begin.
  • Pay attention to the conversation around literature and diversity. I routinely highlight related articles and books here at Cynsations. 
  • Weigh various viewpoints, competing viewpoints. Realize there will always be exceptions, and that sometimes seemingly contradictory truths can co-exist.
  • Consider (and reconsider) our vision for representation within our own body of work and our reasons for it. The exercise of articulating one's philosophy can be illuminating. 
  • Remember that execution is everything. 
  • Ask ourselves the tough questions. Be honest in our answers.
  • Write from the heart.

Together these steps can increase our understanding, our resources, and what we bring to bear.

Tough Questions

When I say “tough questions,” what do I mean?

Enter the six-book giveaway!
Enough with the abstracts. I'll step up. Once I have a novel draft, along with a myriad of craft considerations, I gut-check my cast. The goal is to reflect and weigh assumptions, to question impulses and instincts.

My latest novel, Feral Curse (Book 2 in the Feral trilogy), introduces a secondary character, Jess Bigheart. Jess is the best friend of Kayla Morgan, who offers one of the alternating points of view, along with fellow protagonist Yoshi Kitahara.

Avoiding spoilers as best I can (but—fair warning—not 100%), here’s roughly how that shakes out with Jess:

Jess is a Native American. This can't come as a huge surprise. Am I going to craft a fantasy world, based on this real one, without any Native people in it?

Obviously, no. American Indians are in this world. American Indians are in that one. Attentive readers of the previous books have already noticed a brushstroke or two to that effect.

Jess doesn’t get a lot of screen time, though it looks like she’ll have a larger role in Book 3, “Feral Pride.” But cue the raised brow. Jess, a Native American, is Kayla's best friend.

Is she Tonto? Is she the “faithful Indian companion”?

Let's briefly address that and go more global. I'm by no means talking only about writing Native characters. There are considerations specific to each community, which merit conversations unto themselves. But there's also common ground.

Is she a stock character or stereotype?

Skimming the pages... Jess is a high school student who lives in fictional, small-town Pine Ridge, Texas. She has thick curly hair. She’s an Osage girl, a citizen of Osage Nation in Oklahoma and has ties to the urban Indian community in Austin. She’s the local sheriff’s daughter, and the relationship between her and her dad is great. They go fishing together. She helps out part-time at his office.

What else? Jess is close to her sisters. She’s played soccer and studied ballet. She likes superhero and sci-fi movies (I adore geeky characters). I could go on, but Jess is an individual.

Note: If Jess had a smaller role, like a walk-on or cameo, would the same level of development be necessary? No, a few brushstrokes might do. But just because it wouldn't all appear on the page doesn't relieve us for thinking it through.

"Dances with Smurfs"?
Is she the exotic (related to stock, but with its own spin)?

In a novel where the characters include shape-shifters, a ghost, a yeti-like boy and a near-south Austinite?

She’s arguably the most typical YA character in the story.

Besides, Jess isn't the only Native or “minority” character and, for that matter, she’s not the only significant human character either.

Is she a diminished/"magical" character

Is she only there to impart Yoda-like wisdom or to make the protagonist(s) look good?

Feral Curse is Kayla’s story (and, to a lesser degree, Yoshi’s), but Jess holds her own. I can't explain without spoilers, but Jess isn’t there purely to bolster Kayla (or Kevin Costner). They each have their moments.

Note: The “magical minority” usually involves stories featuring a white, straight, able-bodied, etc. protagonist, which doesn’t apply. Kayla is black, a werecat adopted from Ethiopia by African-American human parents. Yoshi is a Eurasian (Japanese) werecat, newly relocated to Austin from rural Kansas. However, even where the protagonist isn’t white, straight, able-bodied, etc., the question is still worth considering.

Does she die first?

Horror fans should especially appreciate this question. I’m not going to tell you the answer. The series has its share of life-and-death suspense. But suffice it to say, I’m not spending a lot of time on this question for Jess.

Note: It’s not that the "minority" best friend should never die or be in jeopardy. We don't want automatically safe characters any more than too-disposable ones. Instead, we should weigh our motivations, what’s accomplished and why.

Is she “a model minority”?

Both Jess and Kayla are keeping secrets from each other, but Jess also spills info that maybe she shouldn’t. In my draft of book 3, nobody’s playing strictly by society’s rules, Jess included (society is bent, verging on broken). She’s a good kid, but not perfect.

Does heritage/identity/culture/etc. inform the character?

Yes. Will non-Indian readers notice? Maybe. Will Native readers pick up on it? Not necessarily, but probably most of them will.

In my latest revision of Book 3, I reconsidered Jess’s role in a scene and realized, for culturally-based reasons, she should disagree with Kayla and say so. I revised accordingly.

Not because all Native people always think the same or are raised the same way, but because of this specific character under those specific circumstances. I’d missed it before because I was so deep into Yoshi’s point of view.

Note: The extent to which this question comes into play will vary, depending on the story. We don’t want characters so identity obsessed/trapped that they never get off the ground. They shouldn’t be two-dimensional excuses for social studies lessons or to score political points.

Teen Cyn
What will young readers think of her? How about teens she reflects?

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own intent, however benevolent, that we forget to consider impact.

Are there limits to our ability to do so? Sure, but if we're writing a related character, we're already stretching in that direction.

I hope Osage/Native teens will like Jess and her dad. Some may wonder about my choice of "Pine Ridge" for the name of the town. One has already written to ask me if it’s a wink. I love that, "a wink." In any case, they’re not going to shrink in their seats if this book is read aloud in class.

Note: How about small-town teens? Texans? Girls? Geeks? Identity is a bundled package.

This isn't to say that a character of any background can't be an antagonist, even a villain. We want to reflect the full range of humanity. With characters wrapped in a fantasy construct (like werecats), that burden is even higher. But let's ask ourselves if we're using identity markers as shorthand for inferiority, malice, or stereotypical traits. Maybe not intentionally, but simply from having absorbed certain predispositions as members of our overarching society.

Sometimes we choose not to reinforce everyone's comfort zone. Remember my black, male, gay guardian angel? His name is Joshua, and he first debuted in Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

I routinely write heroic characters of faith. Kayla Morgan and Jess Bigheart from Feral Curse, for example. Cassidy Rain Berghoff from Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) and Ray Halfmoon from Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002). It concerns me that people of faith constitute an underrepresented group in children's-YA literature.

At the same time, I know religion is sometimes cited as a justification for homophobia. I've been asked why I found it "necessary" to write gay secondary characters like Ruby, Sergio, Harrison, Freddy and Evie. But if a few readers are put off by Joshua, so be it.

I stand with my angels.

Big Picture

Again, the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die isn’t the only trope(s) or issue to consider. These are by no means the only questions, merely a sampling. They can be applied to characters with various combinations of identity markers.

I’ve mentally clicked through them (and more) for all of my own characters, including Aimee who’s a white, middle class, straight, able-bodied, self-described “Goth girl/geek girl/New Age hippie girl.” Her point being, she's more than a label. She won't be stuck in a box.

Do I move forward only if I have ideal answers to each question?

No, they’re tools, not chains.

Now available in paperback & on audio
Take Yoshi. I don’t love that he’s a fantastical person—a werecat—and the only Asian/Eurasian American character in this book. But Pine Ridge is loosely based on Bastrop, Texas.

Bastrop’s largest minority populations are African American (17 percent) and Latino of any race (almost 18 percent). I already have Native characters in a town wherein its model has a less than one percent population (one family).

Granted, Yoshi’s not a Eurasian American human. He’s a Puma concolor sapiens. Yes, he earns his Cat status. His shifter abilities, societal situation and sensibility all come into play.

He has his feral moments, which don't quite line up with preferred societal behavior, in the way that werecats (or--cough--teenagers) sometimes do.

But in my experience, only grown-ups will split hairs in gauging his representativeness. Teens will view him as reflecting Japanese or Eurasian Americans and werecats. And they crave diverse heroes in speculative fiction. They want the world to root for them like we do for Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter. Remember: Anybody can be a hero that everybody cheers.

In fictionalizing, I can tweak, but introducing another Asian American character, for the sake of it, might feel forced. It could jolt readers out of the story in the same way the lack of Asians/Asian Americans sometimes jolts this devoted Whedonite out of "Firefly"/"Serenity" and Buffyverse.

On the upside, there are Asian American human characters previously featured in the Tantalize-Feral universe. That’s the best I can do right now.

Meanwhile, given the focus on shifters, I framed to indicate that "of color" doesn't suggest "animal." The diversity within my cast pushes against it. The humans of color, the shifters who project WASP. Clyde Gilbert, a Wild Card Lossum (Lion-Possum), is a co-protagonist and presents as a white boy. 

As for Kayla, I’ve looked twice at her as a model minority. She’s at the top of her high school class, has an engineering scholarship to Cal Tech, and is a track and cross-country state champion. Her dad is the mayor, effectively making her the first daughter of Pine Ridge. On the other hand, she underestimates people who love her, arguably takes advantage of her cheetah-like speed, and keeps secrets from her parents. We weigh competing traits, the reasons behind them, and go from there.

Does heritage/identity/culture inform my leads?

Feral Curse features an Asian-American guy and a "dark-skinned girl" as dynamic, attractive headline heroes (despite hopefully fading prejudices to the contrary).

The super-arc over the series focuses on conflicts between different species within the Homo genus—Homo sapiens, Homo shifters (including subgroups) and Homo deific.

Thematic questions include: What makes us human, and what makes us humane?

The nature of those tensions have real-world parallels. Brushstrokes illuminate the real-world context. The magic is in the metaphor.

The tone isn't heavy-handed. My characters are adept at wit and humor. They're plugged into pop culture. It's fast-paced adventure-fantasy, after all. I tell teens the story is about "spec-fic geeks in a spec-fic world." But however (hopefully seamlessly) interwoven, there's no way around it. That construct is unusual. In children's-YA publishing, it could be interpreted as a statement.

I respect my YA readers. I trust them.

Within the story, I largely let it speak for itself.

I'm on facebook & @CynLeitichSmith.
Might another writer handle it differently?

Might she make different judgment calls with casting? Might he emphasize theme in a different way? Might an apprentice using my book as a model wish I’d done something else?

Yes, please.

The point is not the results of my abbreviated sample analysis but that we all engage. We ask questions and wrestle with answers. Sometimes we make changes. Sometimes we don’t.

And hey…hey you, over in the corner! Yes, you!

Remember what I said about breathing?

Don’t panic. Maybe you're still trying to figure out what "point of view" means. Maybe you're doing well to write what you do know, let alone beyond it. Maybe you're a teen writer, seeking refuge in Story. That's okay. Really, it is.

What we feel ready to do and when? Those are deeply personal questions. Ones each of us has to answer for ourselves. Every manuscript—from apprentice to contracted—has its limits and possibilities. Every writer does, too, but that balance shifts over the course of our creative journeys.

It’s like exercise. Forcing a performance goal before we’re ready tempts injury. Working steadily toward it may be a smoother path to success.

Give yourself permission to grow. In the meantime, do what we all should be doing to support diversity in children's-YA publishing.
  • Step up as a reader, a noise-maker, a library advocate and bookstore consumer. 
  • Talk to young people about reading and writing and publishing. 
  • Welcome new voices into the writing life. 
  • Mentor, when you're ready. 
  • Share your knowledge of the craft and industry. 
  • S-t-r-e-t-c-h and celebrate.

Forget Tonto.

Actor Jay Silverheels’ legacy is fascinating, layered and contradictory. It still generates strong feelings in his Native and non-Indian audiences, both pro and con.

Did you know he was a boxer and a lacrosse player and a stuntman? He appeared with Humphrey Bogart in "Key Largo" (1948). His birth name was Harold J. Smith.

I've been contemplating his work with the Indian Actors’ Workshop. It inspired me consider and reconsider his career. It prompted me to reflect on creative communities and ponder the importance of each of us, in whatever way we can, reaching within and beyond ourselves.

Cynsational Notes


Hello again. Did you watch the video of the Indian Actor's Workshop? How about the video, "Jay Silverheels: The Man Behind the Mask?" Did you see the children in each?

Consider what was said. Consider what went unsaid, and then reconsider all of the above.

Discussion Guide
My inspiration for this post was a Jan. 17th article in Indian Country Today, reporting that the real "Lone Ranger" was an African American who lived with the Muscogee Creeks and Seminoles. It made me to think about the Hollywood version of the story, about my own stories for young readers, and, in turn, the body of youth literature more globally. (That, plus the recent uptick in writer inquiries, led to this post.)

It also reminded me of Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s Coretta Scott King Award book Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Carolrhoda, 2009).

I'm mentally folding the practice of consulting beta readers/experts under “the conversation around literature and diversity,” but quickly:
  • Be gracious, appreciative, patient and respectful; 
  • Don't presume anyone owes you their knowledge or time;
  • Recognize diversity within communities (i.e., "Native" isn't necessarily "Osage");
  • Seek more than one point of view; 
  • Listen and apply advice, even if it means taking "no" for an answer;  
  • Sometimes silence equals "no" for an answer (sometimes your message is lost in spam);
  • Where recommendations are irreconcilable, perhaps address the issue in your author’s note or, if possible, consider making due without (or writing around) that content; 
  • Don’t use sources'/readers' names without express permission;
  • Reference sources/readers in an "any-mistakes-are-mine" way, not as human body shields.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz by Larry D. Moore
While writers can (and increasingly do) successfully write beyond our own identity markers, life experience does matter, and voices from underrepresented communities should be nurtured, sought out and held up as models.

For example, to say that (my literary crush) Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s personal background hasn’t enriched and informed his writing strikes me as ridiculous (of course his commitment to developing his literary art played the decisive role).

At the same time, should Ben elect to craft a story about, say, tapestry-weaving dragons from an alternate dimension, I will be first in line to purchase and marvel over it.

My sample analysis goes beyond one book because Feral Curse is part of a trilogy, which spun off from the pre-existing Tantalize series, set in the same universe. So, I consider each novel both as a stand-alone and as part of the whole.

Check out Writing Cross-Culturally and 10 Resources for Writing Cross-Culturally from Lee & Low.

Feral Curse is now available in hardcover and e-book and Feral Nights is now available in hardcover, e-book and paperback from Candlewick Press in North America. Both novels are likewise now available on audio from Brilliance. The series is also published by Walker Books in the U.K. and Walker Australia and New Zealand. For more information, see Feral Curse: Giant Steps Through the Ashes. At that link, you can also enter a six-book giveaway, sponsored by Candlewick Press.

The term “vanguard authors” is borrowed with great affection from the Brown Bookshelf, partly as an excuse to urge you to check out 28 Days Later, a currently ongoing Black History Month celebration of children’s-YA authors and illustrators.

Tropes are not necessarily bad. As Television Tropes and Idioms points out, "Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word 'clichéd' means 'stereotyped and trite.'"

Harry Shum, Jr.; by Gage Skidmore
The Joshua short story I reference is tentatively titled “Cupid’s Beaux” and will appear in Things I’ll Never Say, Short Stories about Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick, spring 2015).

For you "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" fans, Greg Leitich Smith has this theory that U.C. Sunnydale has such a low Asian-American population because it's simply not that good of a school. Yes, he thinks he's hilarious.

On a related note, check out Secret Asian Man, My Husband, Yoshi Kitahara & Feral Nights. Peek: "I distinctly remember...being a teenager, sitting in the front seat of a parked car one night, talking to my then best girlfriend and admitting that I found it hard to imagine ever being attracted to an Asian guy.... Doesn’t sound like me, does it?"

I've never seen "Avatar" (2009), so I can't comment on it per se but am rather nodding to the "South Park" episode that spoofed it. I'm not a regular "South Park" viewer, but that one caught my attention. Note: I haven't seen Johnny Depp's "The Lone Ranger" (2013) either.

Yes, the Pine Ridge town name is "a wink." What it means should become clear in the future. On a more literal note, the Bastrop region is home to the famous Texas lost pines.

With regard to the "model minority," I linked to the “Glee” episode, “Asian F” (2011), which features a parody of the stereotype and is one of my fave episodes. I'm a fan of Harry Shum, Jr., who plays glee-club member, dancer extraordinaire, and emerging singer Mike Chang.

Are you still reading? That's tremendously generous. My first instinct was to split the post into three parts or reduce the word count by half. But upon reconsideration, I decided to settle in for a while. I appreciate that you cared enough to join me. Thank you.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Guest Post: Kristen Simmons on The Toddler-hood of Publishing

Kristen writing in her son's fort
By Kristen Simmons
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

My third book comes out this February – the last book in the Article 5 series – and though I feel fortunate to have additional stand alone titles to follow it in the coming years, I can’t help but feel like a very important part of my life is coming to a close.

My first series will be done, which still blows me away when I think of how I waited ten years to see my first book on a shelf.

I have held my work in my hands, traveled to share it with others, and spoken about it at conferences.

I now know about the mysterious world of publishing.

Which is, to say, I know just how much I don’t know.

Find Kristen at facebook & Twitter
Trust me. Just when you think you’ve got it decently figured out, something comes along to throw you off course. A bad review comes in. Then another. And another.

Your revisions are just not right. Your editor informs you that you have been using “more or less” wrong in every draft of every novel you’ve sent her way (which is now five).

But that’s not to say I haven’t learned anything over the last few years. I’m in a constant state of learning. And being the mom of toddler, I can tell you that these journeys are not so different.

When my son does something awesome like puts away his toys, or doesn’t throw his spaghetti in my face, we celebrate. We make a big deal out of the little things. I have done a record-breaking number of happy dances this year for eating broccoli or not pulling the dog’s tail.

On the flip side, we don’t focus on the negative. We are trying to teach him to recognize hurt, sadness, and anger, but not to drown in them. Not to stay down every time he falls. To adapt, adjust, and move forward.

Watching him has made me realize I’ve now entered the toddler-hood of publishing.

I’m not good at celebrating victories. I am, however, exceptional at focusing on my faults.

At least I was. I’ve realized that if you don’t recognize your own accomplishments, you don’t know when you’re going the right direction. I like writing too much not to feel good about it.

I’ve learned not to dwell on negative reviews, or focus on how much more successful my writer friends are.

I have to move forward, because if I stay in that space too long, I’ll get stuck.

I don’t want my son to live in a perpetual tantrum because he didn’t get another cookie, and I don’t want to not feel the excitement, and gratitude, and kinship that have become such an important part of my life through these books.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: I’m not afraid of the bumps in the road anymore. They still trip me up, but I don’t let them keep me down.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Guest Post: Lesléa Newman on In Writing I Trust

By Lesléa Newman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Sometimes a book is years in the making. And the writer doesn’t even know that it is gestating.

Such is the case with my book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012). Unbeknownst to me, I started writing the book on October 12, 1998.

On that Monday morning, I flew to Denver, Colorado, where I was met by a University of Wyoming student who would be taking me to Laramie. The student and I didn’t talk much. She looked tired and told me that she had been up all night. This didn’t surprise me. Her entire campus was in an uproar: that morning, a gay student named Matthew Shepard had died in the hospital where he’d been taken after being kidnapped, robbed, beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die.

Today was the start of the university’s Gay Awareness Week and I was the keynote speaker. My talk, which focused on my children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies (Alyson Books), and how education can end bigotry and hatred, could not have been more relevant.

After giving my talk, I met many of Matthew Shepard’s friends, including the members of the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Association, all of whom sat in the front row. In the middle of the row was an empty seat. I kept imagining Matthew Shepard sitting there.

Matt on the phone
Before I left campus, I promised Matt’s friends that I would do all I could to keep his name alive. But I didn’t know it would take me eleven years to figure out a way to do so.

Flash forward to 2009. I was coming towards the end of my two-year term of as poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. I wanted to go out with a bang. What could I give back to the community, that had given me the honor of being an ambassador of poetry?

I created a project called “Thirty Poems in Thirty Days.” During the month of November, I would gather a group of poets together who would write a poem a day for 30 days. The poets would find people to pledge a monetary amount per poem. The money collected would go to a local literacy group. We’d end the month with a public reading.

By November first, everything was in order: 75 poets had signed up and all of them had impressive pledges. As did I. There was only one problem: now I had to come up with something to write about.

On October 12, 2009, the eleventh anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, "The Laramie Project Part II: The Epilogue" was performed in 150 cities all across the country. I attended a performance, which consisted of monologues constructed from interviews of many of the key players in the tragedy including police officers, townspeople, Matthew Shepard’s parents, and the two murderers.

What I wanted to know was what actually happened during the 15 minutes that Matt and his murderers were at the fence. If only there had been witnesses.

Then I had the aha! moment I had been waiting more than a decade for. There were witnesses to Matt’s murder. The fence he was tied to was there. The starts were there. The moon was there. Animals were there. His clothing was there. What about the rope that bound his hands? The pistol that was used to strike him in the face?

As a poet, I could inhabit those inanimate objects, hear what they had to say, and learn what I could about had happened.

That’s crazy, I said to myself, but then the words of my mentor, Allen Ginsberg, came back to me: First Thought Best Thought. In other words, go with your idea, no matter how wacky it sounds and don’t let your own internal censor stop you. Trust the writer within.

What I learned from writing October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard was this:
  • It is important to write every day. You never know where your pen will lead you. 
  • Each of us is a treasure chest of experience, imagination, and observation. Our stories are inside of us, waiting to be told. 
  • No idea is too farfetched to try.

THE FENCE (that night)

I held him all night long
He was heavy as a broken heart
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing

He was heavy as a broken heart
His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood

His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood
I tightened my grip and held on

The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
We were out on the prairie alone
I tightened my grip and held on
I saw what was done to this child

We were out on the prairie alone
Their truck was the last thing he saw
I saw what was done to this child
I cradled him just like a mother

Their truck was the last thing he saw
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
I cradled him just like a mother
I held him all night long

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Copyright @2012 by Lesléa Newman. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Cynsational Notes

Lesléa will read from and discuss October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012) at 7:30 p.m. March 5 at BookWoman in Austin.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

In Memory: Maxine Kumin

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maxine Kumin in The New Yorker by Paul Muldoon from The New Yorker. Peek: "Her poems...have the virtue of being meticulously observed and of dealing plainly with the things of the world." Note: article includes audio of Maxine reading.

Maxine Kumin, Pulitzer-Winning Poet With a Naturalist’s Precision, Dies at 88 by Margalit Fox from The New York Times. Peek: "The author of essays, novels, short stories and children’s books as well as poetry, Ms. Kumin...was praised by critics for her keen ear for the aural character of verse — the clash and cadence of meter, the ebb and flow of rhyme — and her naturalist’s eye for minute observation."

From Candlewick Press: "She wrote poetry, essays, novels and children's books, including the picture book What Color is Caesar? which we were proud to publish in 2010."

From Shelf Awareness (quoting TNYT): "A poetry collection, And Short the Season (Norton), is scheduled to be published this spring, as is Lizzie! (Triangle Square/Seven Stories Press), 'a partly autobiographical novel for young adults about a girl coping with a spinal-cord injury....'"

From W.W. Norton & Co.: "...she muses on mortality: her own and that of the earth. Always deeply personal, always political, these poems blend myth and modernity, fecundity and death, and the violence and tenderness of humankind." Note: read from Maxine's "Whereof the Gift Is Small."

Cynsational Notes

Lizzie by Maxine Kumin, illustrated by Elliott Gilbert (Seven Stories, March 11, 2014). From the promotional copy:

America, meet Lizzie Peterlinz, age 11. Paralyzed below the waist after slipping off a diving board two years ago, Lizzie does not let her wheelchair get in the way of her curiosity.

She and her single mother are starting life over in a small town in Florida, where Lizzie's hunger for knowledge and adventure lead her to some unlikely friends. 

She bonds with Josh, the only other disabled kid at her school, and they rejoice in normal kid activities, despite the awkward stares they face at school. And she and her mother make friends with some elderly neighbors, Teresa and Digger Martinez, who become Lizzie's adopted grandparents, teaching her Spanish and encouraging her to embrace her life, difficulties and all.

One of Lizzie's favorite things to do is visit a run-down roadside petting zoo, run by a slow-moving gentle giant Lizzie and her mom affectionately call Henry the Huge. One afternoon, as Lizzie is exploring the fields behind the petting zoo, she comes across a shack full of screeching monkeys and the mysterious boy who cares for them.

A man with a slick grin arrives on the scene, and Lizzie begins to uncover where the monkeys came from.

With Josh and Digger's help, she puts the pieces together, but it's too late, the monkey thief strikes again and this time, it's Lizzie who's in danger.
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