Friday, March 28, 2014

Cynsational News

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Conversation about Diversity in Children's Literature from KQED. Click below to hear  author-illustrator Christopher Myers, author Mitali Perkins, illustrator LeUyen Pham, and, from the gatekeeper community Nina Lindsay, supervising librarian for children's services at the Oakland Public Library, former judge on the Newbery Award selection committee, as well as Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education. See also Mitali's thoughts on the panel, the challenges of doing radio interviews and what she wishes she'd said differently.



More News

How I Got Into Publishing by Mark von Bargen from CBC Diversity. Note: Senior Director of Trade Sales for Children’s Books at Macmillan.

Building a Emotional Anticipation by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "In fiction, the emotional groundwork you’re building should lead to things that are a big deal. Plot points. Turning points. Shifts in relationship dynamics."

Twent Has Two Mommies: In Which an Author Responds to the Angry Mother of a Curious Child by Laurel Snyder from Medium. Peek: "I don’t expect your kid to turn gay. I don’t actually want your kid to turn gay, or Jewish, or into a magical chocolatier. I’d just like to think that when she encounters magical chocolatiers in books, you won’t scare her away from them."

Failure Is Your Friend (Yes, Really) from Joy Preble. Peek: "...if I never fail at things, then what that means is that I am not stretching myself. I am not testing my limits. I have no idea what huge things I can achieve." See also Joy on Writing in the Suburbs: Can You Create Art While Carpooling and Buying Toilet Paper at Target?

Choosing Online Writing Classes by Vonna Carter from Dear Editor. Note: points to consider.

Mira Reisberg, Hummingbird Literary from The Whole Megillah. Peek: "I would love to find a hilarious Jewish writer who has really studied their craft and who writes non-religious, non-Holocaust related children’s books infused with Jewish culture and humor for a broad audience."

The "Divergent" Rape Scene: Here's Why It Matters by Beth Lalonde from Medium. Note: "Rewriting the Script on Sexual Assault and Giving Power Back to Girls."

Is My Character "Black Enough"? Advice on Writing Cross-Culturally by Stacy Whitman from Lee and Low. Peek: "If your local writing group isn’t very diverse, you might need to branch out for beta readers who you can rely on to comment on that particular element of your story—perhaps through an online writing group, perhaps through the SCBWI."

Getting Quiet and Letting Go of Expectations by Alyssa Archer from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Consider developing a set of writing rituals that work much like your waking routine to propel you from the state of everyday being to that of creative master."

Faith in Writing Redux by Lindsey Lane from EMU's Debuts. Peek: "Faith is what gets me to sit down with the blank page. Faith gets me to leap with the smallest wing of an idea or character. Faith that what I have to say matters. Faith that the words will come. The story will come." See also Make the Music You Make by John Vorhaus from Writer Unboxed.

This Week at Cynsations 



More Personally

Set in a small town; Spence is a visitor.
Revisions continue! I've finished my initial, deep character-plot sweep. Today, I'm going to write the author's note and work on an interview. This weekend, I'll reread to see if what I've done makes sense.

The post lingering on my mind this week is Joy Preble's on Writing in the Suburbs. I largely grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City. I'm a sense of place author, and I've had suburban characters like Spence from Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins) and Teghan from Feral Nights (Candlewick/Walker).

But my stories have taken place on the road, in cities and small towns. I suspect that, once I finish the Feral trilogy, that's going to change.

Writers, how does where you live affect your stories?

I'm also thinking about Malinda Lo's roundup of Diversity in Publishers Weekly 2013 Bestsellers.

Cheers to Austin's own Vanessa Lee on signing with literary agent Alexandra Penfolds of Upstart Crow, and cheers to Alexandra on signing Vanessa!

Congratulations Vanessa (in blue with author Lynne Kelly)!
I made a friend at Jeff Crosby's Rockabilly Goats Gruff (Holiday House) Book Launch!

Recommended in NYT!
I'm honored to see my picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu recommended by Sharron McElmeel of McBookwords in her letter to The New York Times. Learn more about Jingle Dancer (HarperChildren's, 2000).

Congratulations to Walker Books Australia & New Zealand for winning the Bologna Prize for Best Children's Publisher of the Year in the Oceana Region! Note: Walker publishers my Tantalize and Feral series.

Personal Links


Cynsational Events


Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new middle grade novels at 2 p.m. June 24 at BookPeople in Austin.

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.



Thursday, March 27, 2014

Guest Post: Debby Dahl Edwardson on Lens Shifting

By Debby Dahl Edwardson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by the year 2020, white people will be a minority in this country.

What this means, among other things, is that increasing numbers of people will be checking that new box on the census labeled “multiracial.” People no longer required to identify themselves as of one race only will increasingly identify as multiracial.

What does this say about the search for self, the very stuff of young adult literature? Given the nature of our changing demographics, I think it’s safe to say that the search for self will increasingly involve navigation between cultures. It will increasingly require us to be truly multicultural, able to comfortably wear different cultural lenses in different situations. It’s not about race, ultimately; it’s about culture and cultural alliance.

I think we are slow to understand the implications of this, despite the fact that most of us are well enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of it in our own lives. Our spouses, children, relatives and in-laws reflect many different races, many different cultural identities. We write from the heart of it, as it were, and should be better able, by now, to shift cultural lenses as matter of course.

Moreover, we should understand why the ability to do so is important, even imperative, in an increasingly multicultural world.

But we don’t. We still seem to subscribe to the idea that we are inevitably migrating towards a one-size-fits-all mass culture. As writers, we seem to assume that this is where young people are headed and so we are often seen racing after it with all we’ve got.

I have a problem with this. Even though the new mass culture now sports a variety of colors, it’s still largely homogenized. Regardless of the politically correct names we give it, it’s still the melting pot.

My take may be partly generational and partly situational, of course. I’m of the generation that fought for civil rights and I live in the heart of an indigenous culture that’s about as remote as it gets from the centers of mass culture, a place that holds the distinction of being the northernmost spot on the north American continent, accessible by air only—no roads in, no roads out—and a place not terribly interested in the melting pot.

And yet the tentacles of mass culture touch here, too. It’s in the books at the grocery store, in the movies everyone’s talking about and in the ubiquitous TV, the honored guest in everyone’s house.

The problem I have with it is that it reflects everyone and nobody. Young people where I live see a vision of what they are supposed to be, but they never see a reflection of who they really are. I suspect this is true for other marginalized and not so marginalized communities. Maybe it’s true for all of us.

I’m trying to puzzle out what this means from a variety of angles. I’m decidedly not trying to “preserve the purity” of anybody’s culture, including my own or my own so-called adopted culture.

I understand that when one culture comes into contact with another there is an inevitable melting, a blurring of the lines that happens naturally and is good, even healthy. It leads to new understandings, innovation.

But when a massive monolithic culture comes into contact with smaller distinct cultures there is a steamroller effect that tends to negate understanding and is not at all healthy. I see myself, as a writer, trying to stay the steamroller.

I always find myself on the edges of conversations that from my perspective reach into the heart of lens shifting. These are often conversations regarding books about Native American cultures.

Cultural insiders will review a book, saying something like, “an XXXX child would never speak that way to an elder.” The cultural outsider says, “oh, come on—are XXXX children perfect or something?”

No, not perfect, but where there are firm cultural norms, people never break with them unwittingly, the way a cultural outsider would. Even the ways in which we protest “norms” are culturally proscribed. This becomes an issue only when a writer doesn’t recognize the need to shift cultural lenses and assumes that everyone acts in relation to the writer’s own cultural norms. We call this ethnocentrism. It often comes from members of the dominant culture, so enmeshed in their own way they tend to think their perspective is culturally neutral: "I don’t have an accent! You do."

I guess I’m saying that if you don’t know how to switch lenses you shouldn’t write about other cultures. Hell, if you don’t know how to switch lenses you shouldn’t even try to write about other genders. I listened once, to an adult male recalling how he felt totally inarticulate as a teen, how the things that were going on inside his head and the things that came out of his mouth rarely seemed to match. Having known a number of teenaged boys intimately, this felt really authentic to me and explained a whole lot of things. I took notes.

To write in today’s world, lens shifting is paramount. That’s my take. Maybe it always was. And I don’t really believe that it is useful these days to speak of "cultural insiders" and "cultural outsiders" or of "borrowed" or "adopted" cultures. We are all immersed in multiple cultures.

What exactly do the terms "borrowed" or "adopted" mean to those, such as myself, who have lived within their “adopted” cultures longer than they have lived within their own birth cultures? Or to those straddling, by blood, two or more cultures?

Twenty-five years ago I found myself in an odd position, reporting, as a young white public radio reporter, to an audience that was 90 percent Inupiaq. My white boss sent me to a workshop on minority news reporting. What did minority reporting mean to me, I wondered, reporting in a region where I was the minority?

Flash forward 20 years. The cover of my first novel, Blessing’s Bead (FSG, 2009), a novel clearly rooted in Inupiaq history, features a beautiful young girl who, when you get right down to it, looks more white than Inupiaq. She has dark hair, but…. is this another white-washed cover? Should I reject it and use it as a forum to speak out on the issue? Hey, it might sell books!

In fact the girl on the cover of Blessing’s Bead is not white—she is biracial—part white and part Inupiaq. Her Inupiaq name is Aaluk, the same name as one of the characters in the book.

She’s my daughter.

In terms of cultural identity, she strongly tied to both of her cultures.

Hers is the face of the future.

Let’s go there, shall we?

Here’s one for fun. My novel, My Name is Not Easy (Marshall Cavendish, 2011), is about the boarding school experience of Alaskan Natives.

No, that’s not a particularly fun topic. But a few years ago a funny song about boarding schools went viral throughout Native Alaska and was emailed all over the place by boarding school alumni.

The late Vincent Craig, an Navajo musician and comedian, had us on the first line of his song, "Indian Alien"—have a listen, thinking about lens shifting.



Cynsational Notes

The "video" below is sound only--no pictures; Debby received permission from Vincent's son Dustinn for us to share the song in this post. Note: My Name Is Not Easy was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Census Data Presents Rise in Multiracial Population of Youth by Susan Saulny from The New York Times. Peek: "Among American children, the multiracial population has increased almost 50 percent, to 4.2 million, since 2000, making it the fastest growing youth group in the country."

Originally published in November 2011, this post continues to speak to the ongoing conversation about diversity in literature for young readers. Past posts will be sprinkled into the schedule for the duration of Cyn's revision deadline.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

New Voice: Lamar Giles on Fake ID

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lamar Giles is the first-time author of Fake ID (HarperCollins, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Nick Pearson is hiding in plain sight. In fact, his name isn't really Nick Pearson. He shouldn't tell you his real name, his real hometown, or why his family just moved to Stepton, Virginia. 

And he definitely shouldn't tell you about his friend Eli Cruz and the major conspiracy Eli was uncovering when he died. About how Nick had to choose between solving Eli's murder with his hot sister, Reya, and "staying low-key" like the Program said to do.

But he's going to tell you—unless he gets caught first....

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach "edgy" behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

I did have concerns. Fake ID is not the typical YA novel in a few ways.

First, the hero, Nick, is a 15-year-old African-American male. The percentage of YA books that feature an African-American male (or any person of color, male or female) as the main character is shockingly low. That alone presented an edge that I knew many publishers would shy away from.

Second, having the story be a contemporary murder mystery added another edge. Dealing with a modern, streetwise male in a town that is full of seedy figures, and trying to incorporate a noir sensibility into it all, meant themes of cynicism, violence, and for this story, sex.

All of these things can exist in the extreme in an adult novel, but in YA many folks have ideas of what you can’t do. So, it was tempting to pull punches.

However, I didn’t want to shy away from harsh language (used in moderation), or the flaws in Nick and his peers. There are plenty of books out there that soften language, or cut away from hard visuals, or give the hero an exaggerated sense of morality and social enlightenment. I’ve enjoyed many of those books, but I didn’t want Fake ID to be one of them.

Lamar's shelves
There’s a reason why the first line in my book is, “This is how you get your ass kicked.” (A line that’s never changed over the course of five drafts) I wanted people to know what they were getting into. That way if a reader or a reader’s parent picked the book up, and took issue with the language in line 1, they could easily choose to go with something else without a lot of wasted time.

Now, was that decision the right one? Depends on how you’re judging. I have had a few readers reach out to me with concerns over the language, mainly the cursing, and some terms Nick uses that are considered sexist. I appreciate every single person who reads my work, so when I get emails about things like that I take them very seriously. It’s never my intent to demean or offend. But, I feel like I’ve been true to the character. The book’s told totally from Nick’s point of view. He’s a 15-year-old boy who uses language that feels realistic considering his culture, geography, and scene context. Unfortunately, that has the potential to draw ire.

But, I believe if you’re writing fiction with the goal of pleasing everyone who reads it, you’re writing bland fiction. Overall, the vast majority of readers have expressed appreciation for Fake ID. Even people who’ve taken issue with the language have pointed out things about the book and Nick’s character that they enjoyed. With that in mind, I think my decisions have been sound.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Follow Lamar @LRGiles on Twitter.
I approached promotion with an eight-week plan (because I’d read somewhere that was the amount of time that was feasible to promote a book after its release…not sure how true that is, but it felt solid).

The planning for those eight post-release weeks started well before Fake ID debuted, with the heavy prep taking place about four months prior to release.

First, a budget. I set aside about $1,500.00 as a baseline for promotional costs.

A small portion of that involved printing costs (bookmarks, promotional giveaway items, wardrobe items for events) and larger chunks were dedicated to travel, and the rest for online advertising opportunities.

I got these ideas from other authors who’d published before me, trying to take note of what they felt was effective or ineffective.

I’ve been using Facebook’s advertising features a lot. I don’t know many authors who’ve used those tools (not to say authors aren’t doing it...I’m just not familiar with many who are). I like the idea of running short, low budget campaigns to increase awareness around what I’m doing. I have no clue how that’s translating to sales, but I’ve been to several events where people have shown up because they’ve seen the facebook ads, so I know it’s doing something.

Anyhow, during my eight weeks, I’ve pretty much had signings, conferences, or some other form of public interaction happening every weekend, which is about the only time I can do book events due to still having a day job. I’ve yet to have a poor turnout at any events, which is a plus.

As anyone who’s involved in publishing can attest, it’s a bit of a mystery just how well your book’s selling until you see a royalty statement, so seeing enthusiastic people when you go places helps subdue some of the “am I doing okay?” anxiety.

Lamar's work space
I’m enjoying doing promotional things, and I have several events scheduled beyond the end of my initial eight-week plan, but it can be fairly exhausting.

I attribute this to the fact that I do have a day job, so juggling that and my writing career has resulted in about four solid months of working seven days a week.

If I had any advice to give to anyone debuting in the near future, it’s that you should schedule some downtime. Build in a weekend (or two, or three) where you can completely step away from publishing duties.

Maintain your mental and physical health above all else. We all want successful careers, but we should also want to be around long enough to enjoy those careers.

No one is going to take better care of you than you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Guest Post: April Henry on Just Add Tension: How to Make Any Book - But Especially Mysteries and Thrillers - Better

By April Henry
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When Cynthia invited me to write a guest post for her blog about some aspect of writing mysteries, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about. Tension.

The trick to writing a good mystery or thriller is to have plenty of tension. Heck, that’s the trick to writing any good book, period.

But how do you get that tension? Here are some things that work for me:

Grab them by the throat

You start right out of the gate, like these first sentences:

• “He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air. Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him.” - The Maze Runner, James Dashner (Delacorte, 2009)

• “I find Will facedown in the woods near Barron Creek.” - The Less-Dead, April Lurie (Delacorte, 2010)

• “When I go down to breakfast, I’m greeted by photos of bullet wounds scattered all across the kitchen table.” - Flash Burnout, L.K. Madigan (Houghton Mifflin, 2009)

• “It was the rough hand over her mouth that convinced Cassie Streng that what was happening was real.” - Shock Point, me (April Henry)(Putnam, 2006)

Make it snappy

Chapters under two thousand words make a book just zip along. I’m currently writing a book where most chapters are under a thousand.

Create a ticking clock

In a mystery or thriller, this can be a literal bomb that the reader can’t stop worrying about. It could also be an ultimatum. For example, in my thriller - Girl, Stolen (Henry Holt, 2010) - Cheyenne’s folks are given only a few hours to gather millions in ransom money after she is kidnapped.

There are many kinds of ticking clocks, from a looming big test to a much-dreaded prom. You can even give it a twist by showing the clock but not saying what it’s counting down.

John Green does this to great effect in Looking for Alaska (Speak, 2007). Chapters are titled “136 days before,” “111 days before,” etc. The reader knows something dramatic is going to happen when the countdown is finished.

Cut to the bone

Look for passages that describe the weather, the landscape, the aftermath, or travel. Then cut them. (Or at least cut them back.)

Have actions backfire

Your main character has a goal - but every action her or she takes to reach the goal should just push it further away. In Girl, Stolen, when Cheyenne fights back against the guy who is stealing her step-mom’s car, he is forced to subdue her - and ends up kidnapping her.

Raise the stakes


Our main character was already nervous about singing in class, but now she has been asked to sing at the stadium. Or for a more mystery-related example, not only will someone die if our main character doesn’t catch the serial killer, but the next victim could be his girlfriend.

Make choices painful

Force the character to make a choice between two things he or she wants desperately. Edward or Jacob? Peeta or Gale? Staying safe at home or risking life and limb?

Create kick-ass chapter endings

Chapter endings should look ahead, not behind. They need to end on a note of drama (and, if possible, a cliffhanger) rather than just summing up what has just taken place.

For excellent examples of kick-ass chapter endings, take a look at The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008):

• Chapter 4: “Which also means that kind Peeta Meelark, the boy who gave me the bread, is fighting hard to kill me.”

• Chapter 5: “But because two can play at this game, I stand on tiptoe and kiss his cheek. Right on the bruise.”

• Chapter 6: “I wonder if she will enjoy watching me die.”

And here are some from Girl, Stolen:

• Chapter 1: “Because for the last three years, Cheyenne had been blind.”

• Chapter 12: “‘Well, well, well, what have we here?’ Jimbo said. ‘How come you don’t have her tied up’?”

• Chapter 23: “Then like a man splitting a log with an ax, Cheyenne swung the wrench in its swift and terrible descent.”

These tricks can make any mystery, thriller, or novel better.

Cynsational Notes

April Henry is the New York Times bestselling author of mysteries and thrillers for adults and teens. Girl, Stolen, a YA thriller, is about a blind girl who is kidnapped. Learn more about The Night She Disappeared, The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die, and The Body in the Woods (Book 1 of the Point Last Seen series).

You can visit April at aprilhenrymysteries.com. or aprilhenry.livejournal.com or @aprilhenrybooks.

Originally published in December 2010, this is the highest-traffic writing craft post in Cynsations history. Past posts will be sprinkled into the schedule for the duration of Cyn's revision deadline.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Event Report: Jeff Crosby's Launch for Rockabilly Goats Gruff

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

My weekend highlight was author-illustrator Jeff Crosby's launch of Rockabilly Goats Gruff (Holiday House, 2014) at the Writing Barn in Austin.

For the celebration, the Barn was converted to the "Shimmy Shack." Jeff hosted a 1950's rockabilly costume contest (with art as the prize), and refreshments included musical mini cupcakes, moon pies, and floats! 

Authors, illustrators & book event planners: this launch was a huge win with fans of all ages, a hit with the creative community, gatekeepers and families.

Take a look at how reading, art, music, and yes, livestock came together to make it such a success!

Writers Carmen Oliver, Varian Johnson & Greg Leitich Smith
With Greg & a rockabilly goat!
Don Tate purchases copies from BookPeople, Austin's own independent bookstore.
With illustrators Patrice Barton, Amy Farrier & author-illustrator Don.
Rockin' goat ears with cakelustrator Akiko White.
Author-illustrators Divya Srinivasan & Shelley Ann Jackson
Illustrator Erik Niells & his wife Maggie model faux (but convincing) tattoos!
Jeff reads with accompanying music provided by Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers.
It's a packed house and enthusiasm is high!
A fun event for kids & grownups!
Another rockabilly goat; photo by C.S. Jennings.
Goat on the loose; photo by C.S. Jennings.
Getting your goat; photo by C.S. Jennings.
The band plays on; photo by C.S. Jennings.
Jeff signs books; photo by C.S. Jennings.
And the troll is chased away; photo by C.S. Jennings.
Cynsational Notes

Photos by C.S. Jennings are used with permission. Also for sale were copies of Ten Texas Babies by David Davis, illustrated by Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby (Pelican, 2014).

Support Jeff and The Rockabilly Goats Gruff: #rockabillygoats

Photo by C.S. Jennings.

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