Saturday, May 31, 2014

In Memory: Maya Angelou

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Remembering Maya Angelou from NBC News. Peek: "The renowned poet, author and civil rights activist with the unmistakably regal voice died on May 28 at the age of 86."

Wishing You "Amazing Peace," Maya Angelou by Sylvia Vardell from Poetry for Children. Peek: "Maya Angelou published several works for young readers, including..."

In a Commanding Literary Voice, Maya Angelou Sang Out to the World by Elizabeth Alexander from The New York Times. Peek: "The intimate lives of such women were not considered the stuff of memoir on a grand scale until the success of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), which found a readership of millions." Note: Maya Angelou's first book was published when she was 41.

The Language of Maya Angelou by Anne H. Charity Hudley from Slate Magazine. Peek: "The language in her works reflect the different social and cultural worlds that she navigated, especially as a groundbreaking Black poet with access to Standardized English, African American English, and the great diversity of both."

Maya Angelou: A Hymn to Human Endurance by Lev Grossman from Time. Peek: "When Maya Angelou was 16 she became not only the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco but the first woman conductor. By the time she was 40 she had also been, in no particular order, a cook, a waitress, a madam, a prostitute, a dancer, an actress, a playwright, an editor at an English-language newspaper in Egypt, and a Calypso singer..."

Maya Angelou, Radical Activist by Adam Sewer from MSNBC. Peek: "History has a way of turning radicals into Hallmark cards–a task made even easier with Angelou given that she literally wrote Hallmark cards. But behind her inspirational quotes and talent for turning a phrase was a dedicated activist, not just a witness but a fighter in the battle for black rights in America." 

Maya Angelou's Life in Photos from The New Yorker.

How Maya Angelou Touched a Young Teacher's Life by Valerie Strauss from The Washington Post. Peek: "I’d been nervous to use Angelou’s memoir; there was a deep racist streak in the town, and the school itself had recently had a racially charged incident. But Angelou’s story of struggle resonated deeply with my students, and when we finished Caged Bird, they decided to continue reading as many of her books as they could."

Food, Friends and Freedom: Nikki Giovanni Remembers Maya Angelou from CNN. Peek: "We only have to look at her life to see that she took every ounce of joy life had to offer."

Maya Angelou Was Deeper Than a Pithy Quote by Mary Schmich from The Chicago Tribune. Peek: "Death is an occasion to get to know someone better. The publicity surrounding Angelou's death has provided a lot of people with the occasion to look more closely at her life and her writing."

Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928-2014), compiled by Elissa Gershowitz from The Horn Book. Peek: "We were saddened to hear of the passing of Maya Angelou. Here are some books by which to help remember the great author and poet."

Cynsational Screening Room

Maya Angelou: 1928-2014 from the Associated Press.



Maya Angelou: Finding My Voice from Visionary Project. Peek: "...mutism is like a drug. It's so addictive. You don't have to do anything."

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Fight for Desegregation by Julie Danielson from Kirkus Reviews. Note: Focusing on Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Abrams, 2014). Peek: "My artwork is very much inspired by Pre-Columbian art, especially by Mixtec codices from the 14th century. That is why my art is very geometric, my characters are always in profile, and their ears look a bit like the number three. My intention is to celebrate that ancient art and keep it alive."

Seven Things You Need to Know About After the Book Deal by Maria E. Andreu from Latin@s in Kid Lit. Peek: "I got an editorial letter so detailed that I shut the document immediately after seeing its page count (let’s just say this: it was in the double digits) and couldn’t make myself open it for two weeks. Be prepared. It’s not about you. It’s about making the work the best it can be."

Writers' Anxiety by Tom Bentley from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...the kind of anxiety I’m talking about is a nagging sore, an ache. This is lousy for anyone, but particularly lousy for writers, who often waver in their confidence. That kind of poor-mouthing of my own work has put up walls for me. But if the walls can’t be fully toppled, there are ways to peek around them." See also Recovering the Joy in Writing by Barbara O'Neal from Writer Unboxed.

Michael Criton's Method for Plotting Out a Story by Dorothy Cora Moore from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Michael said he developed his 3″ x 5″ index-card method of plotting out a story while going to Harvard Medical School, and he did this before writing one word. He needed to supplement his income by writing books under a pseudonym, and this is how he did it."

Fictional Mirrors & Childhood from Salima Alikhan. Peek: "I remember resenting the fact that every cartoon heroine was blond, and that nearly every villainess had dark hair." See also A Place at the Table by editor Yolanda Scott from CBC Diversity.

How to Balance High Action with Deep Characterization by Deborah Halverson from DearEditor.com. Peek: "Give characters something to talk about and bond/conflict over that isn’t directly related to the plot. Then, to make sure that Something doesn’t feel random and unconnected, work it into the resolution of the story."

Kirkus Unveils Three $50,000 Book Prizes by Ron Charles from The Washington Post. Peek: "Kirkus announced its creation of three new literary awards worth $50,000 each. The annual Kirkus Prizes, which will be among the largest cash awards in the literary world, will honor works of fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature. Only books that have received a starred review in Kirkus will be eligible for consideration." Source: Bookshelves of Doom.

When We're Forced to Work Outside Our Own Writing Boxes by Tracy Hahn-Burkett from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "I use iCal on my laptop and iPhone, and now anyone who looks can see I’ve frequently got time marked off for 'meetings' with people who just happen to share my primary characters’ names. I also print the calendar out each week and tape it to my desk."

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of The Boy Problem by Kami Kinard (Scholastic, 2014) was Jen in Massachusetts.

The winners of Homicidal Aliens and Other Disappointments by Brian Yansky were Kate in California and Charlotte in Rhode Island.

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

My highlight of the week was reading a YA manuscript aloud for a fellow Austinite who's about to send it to his agent. Some of you may want to try that strategy.

Ask a fellow writer, one who's brand new to your text, to read it to you.

It's a terrific way to catch typos, junk DNA (elements that made since in previous drafts but now don't), gender-pronoun confusion, and other minor glitches that might slightly drag an otherwise agent-or-editor-ready submission.

You'll also get a sense of when reader interest may start to flag or gear up and what touching or humorous moments really hit their mark. Beyond that, it'll help fuel you with fresh enthusiasm, right when you're psyching yourself up to send out the story (or, in other words, right when you need it).

Greg & Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn
I also enjoyed "X-Men: Days of Future Past," which was far less depressing than "X-Men: The Last Stand"

Thanks to Pamela K. Witte for Author Interviews that Rock: Cynthia Leitich Smith at Ink & Angst. Peek: "...I’m reclaiming and reinventing myself right now. The future feels less certain than it’s been in a long time yet bursting with possibilities."

Buzz is building for Greg Leitich Smith's Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, June 2014)!

From Live to Read: "The characters are very witty and keep the story largely entertaining throughout the entire length of the story. All in all, this makes for a fun quick read that should prove interesting for many in the middle grade."

From Read Write Tell: "The author does what I hope to do which is take an idea–aliens among us in this case–and give it some twisting, original good fun with characters kids will relate too. And yep, he’s got voice all over the place."

From Book Reviews & More: "This book is a great entertaining read, humorous, quirky and full of surprises."

Personal Links


Cynsational Events


Middle Grade Mayhem! Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new novels at 2 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin. See more information. Don't miss this article about Varian and The Great Greene Heist (Scholastic) from Kirkus Reviews.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith in discussing Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014) with the YA Reading Club at 11 a.m. June 28 at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Guest Post & Giveaway: Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne on Writing Prompts

By Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The Cabinet of Curiosities began in January 2013 as a spooky-stories website devised by Emma Trevayne, who invited Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, and Claire Legrand to join her.

Each month they choose a theme, from cake to love to Halloween, and each Wednesday, one of them posts a scary middle-grade story written to that prompt.

On May 27, 2014, Greenwillow/HarperCollins released a collection of those stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister, which includes eight never-before-seen pieces, other new material, and art by Alexander Jansson. It has already received a Kirkus star.

The widely-scattered Cabinet curators—they live in New Jersey, Austin, London, and Zurich—gather below to talk about what they love (and hate) about writing to prompts.

Stefan Bachmann: I was actually pretty terrified to start writing with prompts. I had never done that before, and I had never tried writing one short story per month either, and I was convinced it would stifle my creativity or something.

Our prompt for the first month was "Cake", so I started a story called "The Little Cakemaker" about a girl who bakes cakes for the people she doesn't like and thereby brings about their weird and gruesome downfalls. And it was lame and fake, and I was like, "I can't do this."

So I ended up re-purposing a very old story about a dollhouse with metal spider-legs and adding a reference to cake to make it work. Basically. I cheated that first month.

But I got over the initial shock the prompts weren't a problem anymore, and now I really like them. I like trying to think of the least obvious way to make the prompt an integral part of the story.

One of our themes coming up is keys. I'm already excited. Because what kind of keys are they? And what if someone had keyhole for eyes? What would unlock them? And keys have teeth, right? So what if the keys eat things... Ahem. And so on and so forth.

This is Stefan, roughly 86% of the time.

Katherine Catmull: Sometimes—often—my brain spins like a tire on ice. Writing prompts give me some traction, which is incalculably helpful. In fact, I began getting serious about writing when I entered the ScriptWorks (they’re an Austin-Dallas playwrights’ organization) “Weekend Fling” contest, where we write a ten-minute play to three rules in 48 hours.

I often use prompts even in non-Cabinet writing, and not always words. I’ll focus on a writing problem, then do a random Flickr search or draw a tarot card.

Once you’re deep into a book, you’d think writing to prompts would narrow you too much, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. They’re flint to spark against.

Katherine’s cat, who, like her, is curious, nervous, and frequently aghast.

Claire Legrand: You might think writing to a prompt would limit your creativity, but that hasn’t proven at all true for me. In fact, I find it as helpful as writing a novel based on an outline; the prompt gives me guidance and focuses my creativity.

Writing to a prompt also helps stretch my creativity. For example, last March we wrote to the prompt “luck.” Without that prompt, I might have never thought of writing about a demonic monster living in an old tin who, once released, grants children luck in exchange for pain—which ended up being one of my favorite stories!

The only part of Claire's office not covered in plastic cockroaches and cat hair. (That's a Lyra doll, by the way, not Claire).

Emma Trevayne: The first thing I do when writing to a prompt is play word association, looking for a way in. For example, with our “cake” prompt, I thought of baking, icing, decoration, birthdays…and then I thought of how in England, where I live, small cupcakes are known as fairy cakes.

Aha. Now that had possibilities. From there, a tale of malevolent fairies who demand cake from innocent villagers as part of a yearly ritual (like a birthday!) unfolded.

Prompts are excellent for getting you moving forward creatively, and with the Cabinet, I love seeing how the four of us take one word and run forward but in completely different directions.

Emma admits that, yes, she cleaned before taking this pic.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister (Greenwillow, 2014) signed by one of its authors! For one entry, leave a comment. For four entries, leave an extremely short (100 words or less) scary story in the comments. In honor of the Cabinet authors’ status as visitors to Cynsations, please write your story to the prompt: "visitors". Author sponsored. U.S. only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Guest Post: Jennifer Ziegler on How to Live Happily Ever After With Another Writer

Authors Chris Barton & Jennifer Ziegler; photo by Sam Bond Photography
By Jennifer Ziegler
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I keep getting asked: “What is it like, living with another writer?”

Chris Barton, the love of my life, who lives with me in a not-quite-big-enough house in Austin, also writes books for young people.

This shared pursuit brought us together in the first place, and had a lot to do with our courtship.

Now it’s a huge part of our marriage.

I think what people are specifically wondering about is how does it help or hinder our writing – and our marriage?

Upon reflection I've come up with some underlying “rules” that make our partnership work.

1) We celebrate each other’s triumphs – even if it’s “Yay, you worked out that thorny section in chapter nine!” Because we are fans of each other’s work, each other’s victories feel like our own.

But also, we know that because other rewards, like honors, critical acclaim, and, yes, money, are fleeting in this business, we need other ways to measure our success. And a hard-fought victory over a tricky section is every bit as worthy of commemoration as a major award.

In addition to complimenting each other...

Jenny & Cyn
2) We complement each other. He’s tilted toward nonfiction and I’m strictly in the made-up realm. He’s mainly picture book and I’m YA /middle grade. He’s a little bit country and I’m a little bit rock and roll.

There’s plenty of room in the writing world for both of us so it isn’t like we’re competing for the same prize.

Plus, we learn from each other. He’s great at logistics and structure. Meanwhile, I can easily steep myself in a story’s emotions and will know my main characters as if they were living under our roof.

3) We respect each other’s processes. Chris can work in one to two-hour bursts every day from inception to finish. I start out slowly and end up in deep dive where I work for several hours at a time. Near deadlines I’m pretty useless in the outside world, and will forget other obligations or details. Like dental appointments. And my name.

We do our best to understand each other’s methodologies. It’s like being a boxing trainer. You have to know when to get in there, give water, massages, and pep talks, and when to get the heck out of the ring and let the other person do what they do. Which brings me to my last item...

Learn more!
4) We know how we each take our coffee and sandwiches. Often it’s the small things, like having a grilled-cheese with a slice of fresh tomato set beside you as you work, that can keep you going through tough spots – both in marriage and writing.

Marriage and writing are somewhat similar.

You have to be committed. You have to know that when it isn’t perfect, you can always find a way to make it better. And both allow you the opportunity to create something meaningful and enduring.

Here’s to happy ever afters.

Cynsational Notes

Congratulations to Jennifer Ziegler on the release of Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic, 2014)! From the promotional copy:

One bride. Two guys. Three flower girls who won’t forever hold their peace. What could go wrong with this wedding? Everything!

The Brewster triplets — Dawn, Darby, and Delaney — would usually spend their summer eating ice cream, playing with their dog, and reading about the United States presidents. But this year they’re stuck helping their big sister, Lily, plan her wedding. Lily used to date Alex, who was fun and nice and played trivia games with the triplets, and no one’s quite sure why they broke up. Burton, Lily’s groom-to-be, is not nice or fun, and he looks like an armadillo.

The triplets can’t stand to see Lily marry someone who’s completely wrong for her, so it’s up to them to stop the wedding before anyone says “I do”! The flower girls will stop at nothing to delay Lily’s big day, but will sprinklers, a photo slideshow, a muddy dog, and some unexpected allies be enough to prevent their big sister — and the whole Brewster family — from living unhappily ever after?

Middle Grade Mayhem! Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new novels at 2 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin. See more information.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Guest Post: Gail Giles on Writing Across Mental Abilities

By Gail Giles
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Okay, so I’m going to try to write a book that fully explores the life of a special needs girl, two of them in fact. And I’m going to do in in alternating voices—in first person.

How do I get in the heads of people that I am not? Whose mental abilities are different that mine?

First, I have a background. I taught special needs (the upper end) in my classes when I taught high school.

 Some would be able to read and some never would, but they were in my reading classes nevertheless.

I saw first hand what they could and couldn’t do. What their frustrations were and were not. How tired they became when we did the same things over and again. How they needed variety just as much if not more as the higher-functioning students did.

I learned that one thing the special needs student understood is that he or she is special needs. Knew exactly what that needs was. As Biddy puts it, what her “dys” is—her dysfunction.

These students may have a hard time learning, but they have had years to learn that they are different and that is frustrating.

I learned that not all special need students are patient, naive and kind. Some have lower boiling points than others. Some resent the attitudes that the “normal” people in society have toward them. I learned that they have coping skills that give them insight that can amaze. Or sometimes have tunnel vision and anger issues that come from their disabilities.

Gail's office
I did research, of course, but it kind of told me the same things that I saw in anecdotal form. I learned at what point in the I.Q. the idea of grammar and tense seems to form. I learned at what point in the I.Q. reading can happen. I learned that dysgraphia is the least diagnosed form of the spectrum. But possibly not the least prevalent.

I learned a lot of facts in my research, but I learned more from the students. I learned that inability to read or write or do more than simple math is not really the issue with most of the students.

It’s that people make assumptions about them that are not true. These students can become and will become and are now functioning members of society.

What they want most is to be appreciated for who they are.

I can write that. It’s not so different than anybody else.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews cheers, "A respectful and winningly told story...bravo."

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly raves: "blunt, honest, and absorbing story…rewarding and powerful."

Gail's writing assistant

Gail's take-a-break-from-writing assistant


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