Friday, February 03, 2017

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

"We Need Diverse Books," They Said, and Now A Group's Dream Is Coming to Fruition by Ron Charles from The Washington Post. Peek: "an impressive new milestone for We Need Diverse Books. Oh, the group’s chief executive and president, has edited and published WNDB’s first anthology: Flying Lessons and Other Stories, published by Crown Books for Young Readers. The book, aimed at readers between ages 8 and 12, features 10 stories by a who’s-who of contemporary YA literature...."

Graphic Novelist Urges Kids to Reach Beyond the Comfort Zone by Jeffrey Brown from PBS Newshour. Audio interview with Gene Yang, national ambassador for young people’s literature. See also Reading Without Walls.

How Character Attributes and Flaws Work within a Character Arc by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Until the character sees how fear is steering his life and how flaws limit his ability to connect with people and work against him as he tries to achieve meaningful goals, he will never be fully happy or satisfied." See also Tips for Weaving Romance Into Your Novel by C.S. Lakin.

Educators Roundtable by Allie Jane Bruce from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: "I have not met a single teacher who is hostile or disagrees with my intent. They are enthusiastic and genuinely want to do the right thing. So why had they taught into the tsunami of harmful stereotypes?"

RWW Interviews: Debbie Reese by Ernie Cox on Reading While White. Peek: "I'm thrilled to see a growing awareness of our sovereignty!...I love that Tim Tingle's How I Became a Ghost (RoadRunner Press, 2013) has 'Choctaw Nation' on the very first page, and I love that Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) has information about the Muscogee Nation in the author's note. This matters!" See also How This Man Formed a Friendship with a Choctaw Ghost by Joy Diaz from The Texas Standard. Audio interview with Tim Tingle.

Interview: Richard Sobol on Coexistence, Travel & Capturing the Perfect Moment by Jalissa Corrie from Lee & Low. Peek: "Once I learned of the Mirembe Kawomera coffee cooperative—and the idea that it was created to show Muslims, Christians, and Jews working together—I knew it was a story that was important to share. Since I had done a lot of work in Uganda and knew that life can be very challenging there, I felt that this was a unique opportunity to present a hopeful message from a rural village in Africa."

Six Tested Tips for Keeping Your Writing Resolutions by Kell Andrews from Project Mayhem. Peek: "The best plans have flexibility built in. If you skip a day or fall behind, you are not a failure. Just begin again."

Hypermobility & Representation by Laura Noakes from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "Hypermobility syndrome is a condition that means that my joints move beyond the normal scope for joints, and my ligaments are really stretchy. Whilst this can be cool, since I’m really flexible and have loads of bendy party tricks, it also has its horrible moments."

Got a "Fix" for Stiff Dialogue by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor. Peek: "I’ve got something for you to try out: repetition."

The Brown Bookshelf: 28 Days Later Campaign: featuring a different Black children's-YA author or children's illustrator every day in February.

When Bilingual Dreams Come True by Margarita Engle from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: "Latino family literacy is a challenge that can only be met by providing a wide variety of books in both languages, so that older and younger generations can read and discuss the same poems and stories. That wide variety should include—but not be limited to—books by Latinos."

Author Interview: Greg Leitich Smith from Austin SCBWI. Peek: "I tend to be very much a place writer and I think with that also comes a sense of the sensibility of the inhabitants, which may be why it took me twenty years to write a novel set in central Texas (Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time). And even then, most of those occur seventy million years ago and most of the native Texans are dinosaurs (literally)."

Registration is now open for the Oklahoma SCBWI Conference, March 24-25, featuring author Ally Carter, along with two editors, two agents and an art director.

Cynsational Awards

Children's-YA book awards received more mainstream press coverage this year, thanks to March: Book Three (Top Shelf, 2016) by Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell. It's the first time a single book has been recognized with three American Library Association Awards: the Coretta Scott King Book Award, the Michael L. Printz Award and the Robert F. Sibert Information Book Award. March also won the National Book Award in the fall. Congratulations to all the ALA winners!

Finalists were recently announced for the Cybils Awards and the Edgar Awards. If you write mysteries, be sure to check out the Helen McCloy Scholarship from the Mystery Writers of America. The $500 scholarship offsets tuition for writing workshops, seminars or university writing classes. Deadline is Feb. 28.

See also Five Questions for Coretta Scott King Jury Member Martha V. Parravano from The Horn Book.

Author Spotlight: Crystal Allen

Who Is the Magnificent Mya Tibbs and Why Should I Care? by Crystal Allen from CBC Diversity. Peek: "When I was asked to create an African American Ramona Quimby/Clementine-type character, I wasn’t sure how my character should act. Both Clementine and Ramona are memorable for their personalities, families, and storylines. However, there is nothing about their characters or their stories that is race-driven. So why would I make Mya Tibbs any different?"

See also Crystal on Don't Judge a Book by Its Color from HarperChildren's. Peek: "this was probably a time when I should have said something, but I was so heartbroken that I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t just hurting for myself. I hurt for Mya, and for all the characters in this book that the little girl would never meet."

Cynsational Queries

If you have an idea for a Cynsations post, please email Gayleen to discuss options: gayleen.rabakukk(at) Guest posts are approximately 500 words of inspiration and information with real reader, writer, gatekeeper takeaway. Debut authors are eligible for the New Voices interview series, and established authors are welcome to suggest ideas for topic series or interviews about new releases and/or the craft of writing, the writing life, and/or publishing.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally -- Cynthia Leitich Smith

The Essex Culinary Resort and Spa
Welcome back, Cynsational readers! You may have already noticed that intern Gayleen Rabakukk is taking a more active role on the blog this spring. Huge thanks to her for her efforts to date. She's an absolute gem!

As for me, I spent three weeks in snowy Vermont, first at the winter residency of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults in Montpelier, and then at Kindling Words East in Essex. At VCFA, we hosted guest author Kathryn Erkine and guest author-illustrator Don Tate. We also welcomed a new visiting faculty member, Martha Brockenbrough.

At Kindling Words, I spoke in conjunction with a former VCFA advisee (turned Printz honor author!), Julie Berry. Our topic was voice--she focused on the manuscript page and I addressed authorial voice more broadly, through one's body of work, on the platform, podium and through the more personal persona.

Now, I'm packing again for an event through An Open Book Foundation and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, D.C., and then for the SCBWI Annual Winter National Conference in New York City. Hope to see many of you soon!

Later this spring, I look forward to speaking at the Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University April 6 and April 7 as well as keynoting at the KWELI Annual Writers Conference April 9 in Manhattan.

Looking for a craft-building opportunity? Join me, fellow author Uma Krishnaswami, comedian-poet Sean Petrie and literary agents Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding from Curtis Brown Ltd. at "The Jokes on You! The Scoop on Humor in MG & YA," a Highlights Foundation Workshop.

With Kekla Magoon in the College Hall Chapel at VCFA, discussing X: A Novel

Personal Links


More personally -- Gayleen Rabakukk
Gayleen and Cynthia Levinson

I started the New Year off with a healthy dose of inspiration from author Bethany Hegedus, who talked about leading a literary life at our monthly Austin SCBWI meeting. I tried to apply that information by meeting other writers at a lunch and learn program on researching at the Texas State Library and Archives and celebrating the launch of Cynthia Levinson's The Youngest Marcher (Atheneum, 2017) at BookPeople.

Congratulations to my VCFA classmate, Mary Cronin on being selected for the Eileen Spinelli Scholarship from the Highlights Foundation to attend the Picture Books and All That Jazz workshop.

Our Austin kidlit community has had a lot to celebrate recently:
Cynthia joins me in congratulating the winners and wishing all our Cynsational readers a great reading/writing/illustrating week!

Thursday, February 02, 2017

New Voices: Sarah Johnson on Crossings

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Sarah Johnson is the first-time YA author of Crossings (Cedar Fort, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Eliinka has been able to hide her deepest secret...until now. Her only choice is to make a perilous crossing to a foreign land where she'll discover the truth about a powerful legend and the hope for peace after centuries of conflict.

Immerse yourself in this enchanting fantasy world and take heart in Eliinka's journey of sacrifice, romance and intrigue.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The two main characters woke me up one dark Finnish morning, around 4 a.m. They propelled me out of bed to the computer, and I wrote so I could find out what would happen.

How does your expat life influence your writing?

The most obvious influence is settings. For example, the setting in my book, Crossings, is influenced by my years living in Brazil and Finland. Another completed novel is set in Brazil. Some countries I’ve lived in, such as China, Nigeria, and Egypt, haven’t yet shown up in a story.

Real-life adventures and experiences don’t appear in my stories, as I write fiction. But my experiences as an expat emerge in the themes, deep questions, and struggles that my characters experience.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I came to writing in a surprising way, at least it surprised me. I always have loved reading and story, but never wrote much and becoming a writer was never something I had considered.

Then one day characters arrived in my mind, and a story emerged as I quickly wrote an exploratory draft. I expanded the skeleton scenes into my novel, Crossings. I had never planned to write a novel, yet the characters demanded that their story be written.

Sarah and Rose
As I looked at this first draft, I knew the story needed revision and the writing needed improvement. I read books on my shelves, looking at how sentences were crafted, how chapters were formed, and how stories were structured.

I met other writers on LiveJournal and traded manuscripts with a few of them, and from their feedback, I revised, and my writing continued to improve.

Rose Green is a writing friend who I’ve traded my stories with from that time. We’ve met a few times in person and when we meet we typically go hiking and, of course, we talk about writing and books.

After a couple years of writing, I stumbled across information about a conference that was scheduled when I would be in the States. At that conference I met Martine Leavitt and found out about Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), where she began teaching the following year.

Next, I attended VCFA and worked toward my MFA as I worked closely under the guidance of many amazing writers. Those couple years were huge in my growth as a writer. After graduation, I continued to work on my writing craft.

As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

When I think of my experience at VCFA, I think of creative energy. It was intense and exciting and fun to be with others who love writing stories, and the energy spilled over into my own writing.

The opportunity to interact with and learn from the community of writers in such a supportive atmosphere made my growth as a writer much more rapid than I could have imagined. During the program I took advantage of learning all that I could, and I wrote everything from picture books to short stories to nonfiction; a novel was my creative thesis.

VCFA has continued in my writing life after graduation, and I contribute to an official VCFA blog, the Launchpad. I stay in contact with friends I made while attending residencies.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Find a writing community where you can connect with other writers and nurture your craft. This could be a writing partner or a critique group. You can meet either in person or online.

There are many places to meet other writers such as classes, a conference, SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) or other writing organizations.


Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Author Interview: Zetta Elliott on Ghosts, Magic & Imperialism

Zetta Elliott's last Cynsations interview was in 2009. Since then she's published more than two dozen
books and nearly twice as many essays, like Decolonizing the Imagination for The Horn Book (March 2010).

I've been thinking a lot about the lasting effects of Imperialism and how it influences both society and literature. When I learned Zetta's latest MG novel explores those themes - and includes castles and ghosts - I had to know more!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

There was a time when almost everything I wrote could be traced back to something I saw on PBS. These days almost everything I write can be blamed on what I don't see on PBS!

I love period dramas, but people of color are usually erased or marginalized even though we've always been present in - and contributed to - the eras being depicted.

I also wanted to address the issue of harm and reparations in a way that children could understand; I grew up in a "former" British colony (Canada) and so consumed a fair amount of literature and television programming that in no way reflected my own reality.

I've written elsewhere about my struggle to "decolonize" my imagination, and The Ghosts in the Castle (Rosetta Press, 2017) is really my attempt to heal some of the wounds caused by the erasure or misrepresentation of Black children.

It's the book I wish I'd had as a child: a Black princess, a Black prince, and a haunted castle in England. All that's missing is the dragon!

It's also the book I wish my father had had when his Caribbean grandmother forced him to stay indoors and read Alice in Wonderland (which he loathed). That experience turned him off fiction for the rest of this life, and today I regularly meet kids of color who aren't enthusiastic about reading because there aren't enough books where they get to have magical adventures. This book is for them.

What were the challenges in bringing the text to life?

I've written several historical fantasy novels and the biggest challenge is always balancing fact and fiction. The research process can be time-consuming and rather tedious - especially when I know that I'll probably only use 10 to 15 percent of it in the book. There's nothing worse than info-dumping, no matter how interesting some facts may be, they only belong if they somehow advance the narrative or help with world-building.

Because I write speculative fiction, I also allow myself to bend history sometimes. For me, the story always comes first.

The internet made researching this book a lot easier. In 2015, I came across some elegant antique photographs of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843- Aug. 15, 1880) on Facebook; that led me to At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic, 1999).

I decided to write a story about Sarah (Myers' book is nonfiction) and for some reason thought she had spent time at Kensington Palace.

When I finally got my facts straight, I found out that another African child had a connection to Queen Victoria. Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia (April 23, 1861 - Nov. 14, 1879) is actually buried at St. George's Chapel, and so I headed to London in October 2015 with the intention of visiting Windsor Castle. I went back in February 2016, and slowly the story began to take shape.

Photography isn't allowed in the castle or chapel, so I took notes, but also reached out to the Windsor Castle library and a very kind archivist there answered some questions that helped a lot.

A neighbor with expertise in Ethiopian history and culture assured me I'd respectfully and accurately represented the prince's sad story.

I wrote the book off and on over a year, but tried to honor the earliest chapters I'd written back in 2015. Initially, the two children didn't get along, and when I reread those passages months later, I wondered whether I should change that. But I'm happy with the book's resolution and their reconciliation.

I try to honor my initial impulses when I'm writing a book because they're largely intuitive and not informed (limited) by subsequent research.

As an author/scholar how do your various roles inform one another? (Did this influence your decision to write this story for a MG audience?)

I wear a lot of different hats, but I definitely think about how the books I write could be used to start a conversation between kids and adults at home or in the classroom. My dissertation was on literary representations of lynching, so I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about trauma and its impact on Black people. I feel quite strongly that I have a responsibility to "teach the youth the truth" and that's one reason I self-publish.

The Ghosts in the Castle is a book that likely would not appeal to corporate publishers and neither would Billie's Blues (Rosetta Press, 2015), which gives lynching as one of the reasons for the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South. When I told my college students that I wanted to write a picture book about lynching, they were shocked. Yet many of those same students were furious that they'd never learned about lynching until they reached college. Children are taught about the Holocaust and some kids learn about slavery in the U.S., but many textbooks are sanitized or decontextualized.  

There's a real fear within the dominant group that if children know the ugly truth about the country's history, they'll become embittered and "unmanageable" (to borrow a term from Frederick Douglass). But I think young people are empowered by the truth, and so my challenge is to make events and figures from the past relevant to contemporary kids who think Harry Potter novels have taught them all they need to know about England.

You have both self-published and traditionally trade published books. What are the challenges and benefits of self-publishing?

Illustration by Charity Russell
The benefits include telling my story my own way without needing the approval of someone who's not from my community and not familiar with my culture(s). I'd already collaborated on two books with Charity Russell and so immediately went to her when I was looking for an illustrator. She's brilliant and put in the time it took to get all the details right.

Last summer I wrote a book that would have been the third in the City Kids Series, except my agent - against all odds - managed to sell it to Random House. I won't have a final say over the illustrator that's selected and I can't do anything about the Fall 2018 publication date.

But that sale prompted me to finish The Ghosts in the Castle. I wrote a thousand words a day for most of November until the book wrapped up at 25,000 words. Charity whipped out the illustrations and we got the book ready for publication in about two months.

I was at the Brooklyn Public Library last month and a youth librarian said, "Wait - you're Zetta Elliott? A parent came in the other day asking for more easy readers by you."

That parent and her child don't matter to corporate publishers who need to sell thousands of books, but I can respond to that need within my community. I can act on the sense of urgency that I feel, and that kind of autonomy is really empowering. I know some folks will complain that I'm not following the conventions of other series: I don't use the same protagonists in every book, and the reading level and length vary, but I'm not trying to mimic anyone else. To me, what connects the three books is the way they blend Black history with Black magic. I subvert some conventions and preserve others in a way that reflects the rupture and continuity that defines the African diaspora.

The challenge now, of course, is that most review outlets (including bloggers) won't accept self-published books. So I have to rely on social media to get the word out.

Cynthia has supported me as a hybrid author from the very beginning and so I wasn't afraid to approach Cynsations. But when I surveyed blogs that focus on middle grade fiction, most were closed to indie authors. So the marginalization and exclusion I'm writing about in my novels plays out in real life, too. But I've connected with some folks in the U.K. and they're not snobbish about self-published books, so I'm hopeful that my book will find a home!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winners

Winners of the annual Sydney Taylor Book Award were recently announced by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Named in memory of Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series, the award recognizes books for children and teens that exemplify high literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience.

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster), won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers category. This biography of the Supreme Court Justice teaches children that dissent does not make a person disagreeable, and can even help change the world. The grab-your-attention illustrations help explain the text. See Cynsations interview with Debbie Levy.

The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children And Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly (Dutton) won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers category. Part fantasy and part adventure, this is the tale of strangers who become friends while on a quest to save thousands of volumes of Talmud. The illuminations reflect the medieval flavor of the book.

Anna And The Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (Knopf) won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Teen Readers category. Anna is left alone in 1939 Krakow when the Nazis take her father away.  She meets the mysterious Swallow Man who is able to speak “bird,” and travels with him in the forests of Poland, where they spend four years hiding and eluding capture.   

Four Sydney Taylor Honor Books were also recognized. 

For Younger Readers, the Honor Books are Fascinating: The Life Of Leonard Nimoy by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez (Knopf), and A Hat For Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting And Love by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Schwartz and Wade). 

Dreidels On The Brain by Joel Ben Izzy (Dial) and A Poem For Peter: The Story Or Ezra Jack Keats And The Creation Of The Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Viking) are the
Honor books in the Older Readers Category.

In addition to the medal winners, the award committee designated ten
Notable Books of Jewish Content for 2017

Winning authors and illustrators will receive their awards at the Annual Conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries, to be held in New York City in June. Gold and silver recipients will also participate in a blog tour during February. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

In Memory: Paul Goble

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk
Award-winning Author Paul Goble, Dead at 83 (Rapid City Journal, Jan. 5, 2017). 

Paul Goble’s work – writing, illustrating, or both – were included in more than 40 books.

In 1979, he won the Caldecott Medal for The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses (Simon & Schuster, 1978).

Peek: “'The world of children’s literature is poorer for his loss, and the world in general, because he was such a kind person who dedicated his life to his passions — Native American people and art. His life was a marriage of those two passions,'” Gregory Bryan, a professor of children’s literature at the University of Manitoba."

Bryan’s biography, Paul Goble, Storyteller, released earlier this month from the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

This video interview withTeresa Fugate, director of the Prairie Edge Fine Art’s Gallery, includes many of Goble's illustrations.
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