Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays: From My Home to Yours

a newly decorated tree

Is it just me, or do those angel wings look a little Diabolical?
New ornaments: white cat & Route US 66.
Christmas Eve Menu

Mixed Greens with Miso Dressing

Chicken and Pork Jambalaya

Fresh Baked Chocolate Chip Cookies

Cynsational Notes

A Cretaceous Christmas from Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Read the First Chapter of Magic of the Moonlight by Ellen Schreiber. Available free for preview (PDF). Novel on sale Dec. 27. From the promotional copy: "Beware of a bite under a full moon . . . It will complicate your love life. Celeste has more to worry about than a secret romance with a hot guy from the wrong side of town. That guy, Brandon, is a werewolf. With gossip and hostility swirling at school, it’s time to find a cure for his nocturnal condition, and perhaps the one person who can help is his scientist father. But what if a 'cure' makes things worse and Brandon becomes a werewolf full time?"

Writing Through Hard Times by Shawna Lenore from Art Is My Religion. Peek: "...Peter Beagle tells this story—which I think is the best description of what it really means to be an artist that I have ever heard—about his uncle who was a painter. Everyday this guy would get up, go to his studio and do the work, just like…wait for it…it was his job! In other words, he didn’t wait around for inspiration to strike. He would paint and sometimes it would go well and sometimes it wouldn’t."

The Heroine's Romantic Journey by Catherine Linka from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "...romance is just the Hero’s Journey from inside the heart."

Hooray for Jean Reidy, whose Light Up the Library Auction and fundraiser, met its goal for Libraries of Life -- Peace Corp Uganda and joined forces with another Books for Africa Uganda project (More than Pages), which together will provide the financing to send a 40-foot container of books to Uganda.
Eleven Reasons to Give Books as Gifts by Jennifer R. Hubbard. Peek: "They require no assembly or batteries, and they don't beep or squawk or whistle." See also When the Villain Outshines the Hero.

Skater Boy by Mari Mancusi, originally published in 2005, is now available as an e-book for $3.99.

Melissa Marr is Giving 236 Books to Libraries; see details.

Nine Tips on Finishing That Novel by Anna Staniszewski from Anna's Roundup of her Top Posts of the Year.

Imagination by Elizabeth Partridge from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: "...I live with my 94 year old dad who has been a photographer all his life. Now he's having a little trouble with things like focusing the camera, and grabbing the right chemical off the shelf in the darkroom. He keeps exploring new ways to stay engaged."

SCBWI Pre-conference Interview with Literary Agent Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown Ltd. by Jolie Stekly from Cuppa Jolie. Peek: "Seek advice and camaraderie, and be open to listening as well as sharing. Go outside your comfort zone! Remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s wise words—'Do one thing every day that scares you.'"

The Bright Literary Agency (U.K)., Part of Bright Group International by Addy Farmer from Notes from the Slushpile. New agent Gemma Cooper's favorite children's book is When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2009).

Voices You Should Hear: Author-Librarian Leda Schubert by Janet Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: "My Caldecott committee was one of the professional highlights of my life. The quality of discussion, the brilliance of the committee members, the respect for artists and authors, and the leadership provided by our chair changed my life. I’m a better person for that experience, I hope."

Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Don Tate by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: "Recently, I illustrated a series of chapter books. The subject matter and the ages of the kids were more mature, ages 11 or 12+. But the story used very simple language, appropriate for a younger reader. I chose to use a style more appealing to a younger reader — less realistic, clean, whimsical. Almost cartoony."

Congratulations to Vermont College of Fine Arts alum Melanie Crowder on signing with Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency and congratulations to Ammi-Joan on signing Melanie!

Congratulations also to April Lurie and Matt de la Peña, both newly hired faculty members at VCFA.

YA Houston: Houston area authors writing for teens.

2011 Recommended Books about the Writing Craft by Donna Bowman Bratton from Simply Donna. Note: not necessarily published in 2011.

Why Do Teens Love Fantasy? by Suzy McKee Charnas from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing. Peek: "... teens can use these fantasy-arenas to try on terrible futures in relative safety, and explore ways that kids might survive, thrive, and even conquer even among the ruins."

2012 Founders Workshops from the Highlights Foundation. Topics include: whole novel workshop, writing for magazines, screenwriting for the children's-YA audience, nature writing, science writing, creating an authentic cultural voice, poetry, fantasy, the business of publishing and being an author and much more!

Stocking Stuffers for Writers: Description by from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: "A sad woman's hairbrush is heavy, rough, and drags through her hair like sickly fingers. The same brush in the hands of a child? Glittery, prickly, and made in Santa's workshop." Note: "a series for the writer/blogger this holiday season." See also Emotion.

Multicultural E-Books: a Reading List to Get Your Started by PaperTigers. Peek: "Here is a far from conclusive set of suggestions for initial forays into the multicultural children’s e-book world, arranged approximately by reading age, youngest to oldest."

We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March by Cynthia Y. Levinson: recommended by Diane Chen of Practically Paradise at School Library Journal. Peek: "This is the story I have been missing all my life as it takes an importance series of children’s protests to explain the events of the Civil Rights movement and how individuals affected the greater movement."

Open Call for Submissions to YA Humor Anthology by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "I'm privileged to be editing an anthology published by Candlewick Press tentatively called OPEN MIC, a compilation of funny short pieces written by some of today's best YA authors, people who grew up along the margins of race and culture in North America. One of my dreams has been to introduce one or two fresh, relatively unknown voices in this anthology, so..."

The Christmas Coat by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve: recommended by Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children's Literature. Peek: "With Christmas 2011 a few days away, children all over the US are filled with wants, and needs, too. As such, the story will resonate with children and their parents, too." Note: don't miss the photo of Debbie playing Santa!

SLJ Nonfiction Best Book by Donna Jo Napoli
Best Books of 2011: Nonfiction from School Library Journal. See related Cynsations posts: Karen Blumenthal on the Power & Challenges of Using Photos & Cartoons in Nonfiction and Carla Killough McClafferty on The Many Faces of George Washington.

Do You Need a Publisher Anymore? from Writers Digest. Peek: "We protect authors’ intellectual property through strict anti-piracy measures and territorial controls."

Attention Texans and Chicagoans! Mark your calendars for Alex Flinn's Upcoming Tour.

Congratulations to Anna Staniszewski, whose agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, has sold My Way Too Fairy Tale Life and Happily Fairy After, creating a trilogy with My Very Unfairy Tale Life, to Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

The Secret to Having Time to Write, Promote, and Still Have a Life by Jane Friedman from Writer Unboxed. See also Jane's Best Advice for Writers 2011 and must-read articles of the year

This Week for Writers: Our Favorite Articles and Blogs from Adventures in Children's Publishing.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win Dreaming Anastasia and Haunted by Joy Preble (both Sourcebooks)! To enter, comment on this post (click preceding link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Joy Preble" in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Dec. 31. See also Joy Preble on Embracing Risk.

Kimberly from Arkansas is the winner of a signed copy of Home for the Holidays: Mother-Daughter Book Club #5 by Heather Vogel Frederick (Simon & Schuster, 2011)(excerpt).

This Week's Cynsations Posts
Cynsational Screening Room

Holiday greetings from the lovely and creative folks at Chronicle Books.

"Winter Wonderland," performed by a various YA authors.

Check out the book trailer for There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived by Matt Tavares (Candlewick, 2012); available for pre-order.

Check out the book trailer for Bloodrose by Andrea Cremer (Penguin); on sale Jan. 3. Source: YABC Blog.

More Personally

Happy Holidays! Last week's highlight was signing Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) at the Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony at LBJ State Park.

First daughter Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ and Miss Lady Bird's younger girl.
Luci shares a secret with Santa Claus.

My favorite book about the Johnson family is Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005). See also Hill Country Christmas from GregLSBlog.

Congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith, whose upcoming novel, Chronal Engine (Chronicle, 2012) is a Junior Library Guild Selection for March-September 2012! Central Texans (and visitors): mark your calendars for the Chronal Engine launch party at 2 p.m. March 24 at BookPeople in Austin.

On "Great Books to Give" from Tell Me More at National Public Radio, former ALA President and University of Texas professor Dr. Loriene Roy highlights the Tantalize series, especially Tantalize: Kieren's Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, 2011) along with Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by Don Tate (Charlesbridge, 2011), The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illustrated by Ellen Beier (Holiday House, 2011)(illustrator interview), and Sass & Serendipity by Jennifer Ziegler (Delacorte, 2011).

Powwows in Literature: Books that Offer a Look Inside the World of Powwows from Indian Country Today. Peek: "Jingle Dancer (Harper/Morrow, 2000) by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Creek...with a curriculum guide—a boon for teachers frustrated by the dearth of Native studies materials."

Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls (Chronicle, 2012) from Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts. Peek: "I love how the stories in this book don’t just tell simple stories of kids in love. They show complex stories of how love crosses boundaries and what one person can mean to another. I know high school students who would devour these stories and identify with the emotions that are experienced by the characters." Note: also offers curriculum support for my paired story with Joseph Bruchac's.

Thank you to Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing for the shout out for Cynsations and other 14 recommended blogs! Peek: " of the best out there with publishing information, writer resources and inspiration, bookseller-librarian-teacher appreciation, children's-YA book news and author outreach."

Personal Links:
Cynsational Events

See also Cynthia's upcoming events in Austin, Albuquerque, Tucson, Sandy (Utah), Southampton (New York), and Montpelier (Vermont).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Guest Post: Joy Preble on Embracing Risk & Two-Book Giveaway

By Joy Preble
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Was out with a friend the other night: sushi, sake, good conversation. Somewhere near the end of the evening, she observed, “I’m glad I traveled widely when I was in my early twenties. Because now that I’m older and a mom and aware of my mortality, I don’t know if I’d go on that safari with someone I didn’t really know all that well.”

Which explains why I’ve decided that I’m probably never going to sky dive. Because I have passed the point where I can fool myself into believing that once I jump out of that plane I won’t break something on the way down.

That said, I am still a firm believer in risk. Writing for publication requires huge leaps of faith. The risk is enormous. But so is the payoff, and you don’t get one without the other.

At Comic Con this fall, a guy in an amazing steampunk costume asked me what motivated me to move beyond "I think want to write" to "I’m going to finish a novel and get it published." He was a writer, he told me. But he had never finished any project that he started.

What I told him was this: I’d decided that I needed to jump out of that plane anyway. Because the alternative was to continue doing what I’d been doing, which while good enough, was not great.

We make all sorts of excuses for ourselves, and many of them are even legitimate: my family, my kids, my day job…

Jump anyway.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it is probably more accurate to say that I was pushed. The year I wrote what would become Dreaming Anastasia, I was having the worst year at work that I have ever had. From an unsupportive administration to cranky colleagues to a mold issue in the physical building, I would come home each day exhausted, demoralized, done. The kind of bone-deep tiredness that stops you from even looking for another job.

I wrote in spite of it. I wrote because somewhere around page fifty I realized that I couldn’t imagine my life without writing. Some weeks I wrote only a page. But I kept writing.

Even now, even with the above explanation, I can’t really say what changed, what switch flipped.

Part of it was watching colleagues who every single day talked about retirement even though they were decades from it. I did not ever want to be that kind of walking dead.

Part of it was listening to mom friends who had nothing to talk about but their children. They all, I noticed, used the pronoun ‘we’ – as though they had kicked that soccer goal themselves.

Writing is in fact the riskiest thing I’ve ever done professionally. I put a piece of myself on each page and send it out into the world: to readers, to editors, to publishers, to my agent. They see who I am through those pages – not everything, but enough. It is a scary and wonderful thing.

If they read enough of what I have to say, they will learn how I see the world: my take on love and loss and grief and passion and fear and joy.

So jump.

Make sure your parachute is working (I’m not an idiot; I didn’t quit the day job until this past fall and even with that, I’ve got contingency plans).

But jump. The view is awesome.

Cynsational Notes

Joy is the author of Dreaming Anastasia and Haunted (both Sourcebooks) She looks forward to the release of Anastasia Forever (Sourcebooks, Fall 2012) and The Sweet Dead Life (Soho Press, 2013).

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win Dreaming Anastasia and Haunted! To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with "Joy Preble" in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Dec. 31.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tantalize: Kieren's Story Featured on National Public Radio

On "Great Books to Give" from Tell Me More at National Public Radio...

Former ALA President and University of Texas professor Dr. Loriene Roy highlights the Tantalize series, especially Tantalize: Kieren's Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, 2011) along with Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by Don Tate (Charlesbridge, 2011), The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illustrated by Ellen Beier (Holiday House, 2011)(illustrator interview), and Sass & Serendipity by Jennifer Ziegler (Delacorte, 2011).

Audio issues? Try the direct link.

Guest Post: Carol Fisher Saller on Details from a Diary: Mining a Family Treasure for Fiction

By Carol Fisher Saller
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations 

I never meant to write historical fiction—mostly out of laziness (all that research!), but also because of the responsibility.

Since it’s fiction, we expect to take liberties with the facts. But how much liberty is too much? At what point does stretching the facts become a disservice to history, and to young readers?

Plus, from reading hundreds of slush-pile manuscripts when I was an editor at Cricket Books, I knew how difficult it is to integrate historical facts into a story gracefully. Less successful attempts sound like Google personified:

Aunt Zelda asks, “Have you spoken with Florence Kelley, the woman who worked with Jane Addams at Hull House and was the first female chief factory inspector in Chicago?”

“How could I?” replies Matilda. “You know she moved to New York in 1899.”

But something unexpected happened that changed my mind: after my father died, his wife sent me a diary that Dad had written when he was a farm boy in Ellisville, Illinois, during World War II. I’d never even known it existed.

It was a five-year diary, with room to write four short lines a day, and Dad did just that from 1944 when he was 12, to 1948 when he was 16. 

(The green arrow in the photo points to Dad. The blue arrow is my Grama. I’m pretty sure that what looks like her hat is actually on the head of someone standing behind her.)

Reading the diary, I found snippets filled with possibilities:

“Today we typed to music. If I could keep up, I’d type 16 words.”

“This afternoon we dug four little foxes out of the hill at Merl’s. Brought them home and put them in silo pit.”

“This morning Harold come over in a B-24. He circled 5 times. . . . We saw guns & insignia.”

Click to read larger image.
I was so inspired I ended up writing Eddie’s War, a middle-grade novel about (you guessed it) an Illinois farm boy during World War II.

Anyone who’s read my book will recognize the origins of vignettes in those quotes from the diary.

But the Eddie of my novel is not my father. And Eddie’s big brother Thomas, who goes off to fly a bomber in the Pacific, is not my uncle Harold. The diary was only a starting point.

I didn’t know my father when he was a boy. I never knew my uncle. Stinky, Gabe, Grampa Rob, Grama Lucy—all are from my imagination.

In fact, much more than plot, the diary was a resource for background and stage business: “We went over in the calf pasture and cut some mullen.”

I don’t even know what mullen is—but I know that in June 1944 teenagers were cutting it in a calf pasture, so when I needed some farm work for Eddie to do in June 1944, there it was:

Most of the time
it didn’t seem real.
Then one day in the calf pasture cutting mullen
it hit me again
and wouldn’t turn loose—
wave after wave, right to the gut.
I heaved up my breakfast
and started to cry.

I promise you I also consulted many books and online resources in researching Eddie’s War (namelos, 2011). But the kind of history I found in Dad’s diary brought more color and authenticity to the prose than anything else I found.

Whether I would have chosen to write historical fiction without it—or ever will again—who knows?

Cynsational Notes

Find more about Eddie’s War, including discussion questions and links to online history resources.

Eddie's War was named one of Kirkus Reviews's Best Children's Books of 2011.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Guest Post: Beth Kephart on Following the Voice, Finding the Soul: The Making of You Are My Only

By Beth Kephart
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I think, when I write, about voice. I begin there. Not with the color of the characters’ eyes, nor with the plot. Not with a sweet synopsis or even a one-page outline that points from here to there.

Sometimes I wish I started with those things. Sometimes I wish I were more organized. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a process that had me whispering (like a crazy lady) to myself out loud—trying to get a purchase on cadence, prepositions, word order, slang.

But what I’ve got, what I work on first, is voice.

Voice liberates me and also (in some ways) condemns me. It gives me the canvas, but it also gives me the frame. And frames, in the end, have boundaries.

You Are My Only (Laura Geringer/Egmont, 2011) was originally a book written for adults starring a 40ish protagonist, Sophie, who had grown up with a strange mother, moving from town to town, perpetually cloistered. We saw but glimpses of the child Sophie in the book I originally wrote, and the narration was delivered by way of a close over-the-shoulder third person. I thought of it as flute and bird song.

When I decided to tell the story of Sophie as a fourteen year old—and to alternate her story with the story of a young mother whose baby is stolen—I needed an entirely different sound for this book. I needed, obviously, two sounds.

My fourteen-year-old Sophie has not been out in the real world when we first meet her. She’s locked in a world of homeschooling with a beleaguered mom who moves her from town to town. Her voice hasn’t been buffed or shined or slanged by school lessons or schoolyard talk. It’s been informed by library books and loneliness and a resilient imagination. It sounds, when we meet Sophie, like this:

My house is a storybook house. A huff-and-a-puff-and-they’ll-blow-it-down-house. The roof is soft; it’s tumbled. There are bushes growing tall past the sills. A single sprouted tree leans in from high above the cracked slate path, torpedoing acorns to the ground.

Photo by William Sulit
The voice of Emmy, the bereft young mother, comes from another place. She’s not book smart. She’s not widely read. She turns verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs, she repeats herself, sometimes, but she’s a poet.

Creating Emmy’s voice made me happy. Forcing myself to tell her story made me sad. I fell in love with her, wanted to protect her, but I could not. Her voice kept taking me down an inevitable path. When we first meet her, she sounds like this:

The baby is missing. The baby is not where I left her—checked the rope and strapped her in, pulled my weight into the branch above, and said out loud, “This is good and nice and sturdy.”

Sophie’s voice—cloistered but resilient. Emmy’s voice—big-hearted, broken. This is what I had. This was the music in my ears. It was a privilege to write this book—not once, but several times. I never do get it right the first time.

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy: "In You Are My Only, Beth Kephart tells the story of a young girl ripped from the life meant for her as a child and raised in captivity with honesty, fairness, tenderness, and most of all hope. It's a story of unusual circumstances with universal application--no matter how dark and difficult life may seem the hope for something more is always within reach. Breathtaking in its beauty and with great heart, You Are My Only brings readers the story of a kidnapped young girl that they will never want to forget."

Monday, December 19, 2011

New Voice: Mike Mullin on Ashfall

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Mike Mullin is the first-time author of Ashfall (Tanglewood, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Many visitors to Yellowstone National Park don’t realize that the boiling hot springs and spraying geysers are caused by an underlying supervolcano. It has erupted three times in the last 2.1 million years, and it will erupt again, changing the earth forever.

Fifteen-year-old Alex is home alone when Yellowstone erupts. His town collapses into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence, forcing him to flee. He begins a harrowing trek in search of his parents and sister, who were visiting relatives 140 miles away.

Along the way, Alex struggles through a landscape transformed by more than a foot of ash. The disaster brings out the best and worst in people desperate for food, clean water, and shelter. 

When an escaped convict injures Alex, he searches for a sheltered place where he can wait—to heal or to die. Instead, he finds Darla. Together, they fight to achieve a nearly impossible goal: surviving the supervolcano.

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

My first reading materials were library science textbooks my mother foisted on me.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The truth is that, in a way, I foisted the library science textbooks on her.

Before I was born, she taught kindergarten in the Denver Public School system. They had a crazy rule that any pregnant women had to resign her teaching position and couldn’t return until her youngest child turned two. (I still don’t understand exactly where they thought all those kindergarteners came from.) Dad was in seminary and regularly driving their only car to Medicine Bow, Wyoming to preach.

Luckily, their apartment was next door to the University of Denver’s librarianship school, so Mom and I attended together.

I mean that literally. Mom was a great believer in reading out loud to babies. She would bounce me on her knees while reading her librarianship textbooks to me. It worked, too, since I was reading on my own before I turned four. But I still have a powerful aversion to reading library science textbooks.

Eventually, I graduated from textbooks to picture books. From age two to four my favorite book was Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963). My younger brother and I had a special ritual for it—when Mom reached the words, “‘And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!’” we would begin to dance. We didn’t need any music, just the example of Max and his subjects over the three full-page spreads that followed.

The other book I loved at that age was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (Houghton Mifflin, 1939), for perhaps obvious reasons. When Darla is geeking out over construction equipment in Ashfall, I’m definitely writing what I know.

By kindergarten, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (Hodder and Stoughton, 1911) had supplanted Sendak. I even went so far as to organize a production of it in my backyard. I recruited classmates to act, held rehearsals, and scheduled a big opening night (well, afternoon) with parents and classmates comprising the audience. When Mom asked why I didn’t have a role in my own play, I told her indignantly, “I can’t act—I’m the director.” The young actor assigned to play Captain Hook froze up with stage fright so bad he peed his pants. I convinced Dad to jump in and improvise the role.

Our family was firmly middle class, and I got all the usual stuff for Christmas: Lincoln Logs, Legos, even a bicycle one year. But the best Christmas gift of my childhood was the one I got while I was in fourth grade—a boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Geoffrey Bles, 1956).

I read the series eleven times over the following year, keeping count with hash marks inside the front covers. That year I’d been placed in a gifted and talented class with a particularly vicious and mean-spirited teacher, Mrs. Walsh, and C.S. Lewis provided me with a much-needed escape.

Once, I escaped in a literal as well as figurative sense—Mrs. Walsh interrupted her excruciatingly boring lecture about reading to scream, “Michael Mullin, if you’re just going to read that book under your desk, you can go out in the hall to do it!” Busted! So I calmly got up, left the classroom, and settled in one of the study carrels in the hall to finish The Horse and His Boy (1954).

As a teenager, I needed the escape books provided even more desperately. I read adult science fiction and fantasy voraciously, but my favorite book was one written for teens: Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (Scribner, 1955). It described my perfect world—one without adults, where teens could live without the oppressive constraints of parents and teachers. Like the protagonist, Rod Walker, I was interested in primitive survival at that time. I practiced building shelters, foraging for edible plants, and matchless fire starting, both on my own and with the Boy Scouts.

Today I prefer a lighter or matches for starting fires and hotel rooms over improvised shelter, but I still enjoy foraging for edible wild plants.

With Ashfall, I attempted to write the sort of book I would have loved as a teenager. So I dispense with all the adults in Alex’s life in the first chapter, much as Heinlein did in Tunnel in the Sky. And though the positive reviews and awards Ashfall has garnered have been thrilling, my highest hope for my work is that it will provide a few teens what Heinlein, Lewis, Peck and so many other authors provided me: a few hours of blissful escape from a childhood that was sometimes difficult to endure.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

Shirley and Mike Mullin at Kids Ink
When I finished rewriting and polishing the manuscript for Ashfall, I spent more than two weeks working on the four paragraphs of my query letter. I chose five literary agents to send it to, working mostly from Casey McCormick’s excellent Agent Spotlight series of blog posts.

Four hours later, I had my first request for a full manuscript. What’s all this fuss about how difficult it is to get a literary agent? I wondered.

Well, I found out. Two months and three batches of query letters later, every agent that responded had rejected Ashfall.

At the same time my mother, who now owns Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore in Indianapolis, had mentioned the manuscript to two editors.

One still hasn’t responded to my submission. The other was Peggy Tierney of Tanglewood Books.

With a firm offer of publication in hand, I figured signing with an agent would be easy. Not so much. I added a sentence about Tanglewood’s offer of publication to my query letter and sent it off to five more agents. Four of them rejected Ashfall, and one never replied.

Frustrated, I gave up and negotiated my own contract. I’m still not represented by a literary agent, although now that Ashfall has sold through its first printing in four weeks flat and been listed on Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011 list, I’ve had agents sending me queries.

If you’re struggling with getting published, take heart from my story. Yes, your work might not be ready. But it might also be great work that simply hasn’t found a champion.

I’m pretty confident that Ashfall wasn’t garnering rejections due to its quality. The prolific science fiction author Jay Lake said it best: to succeed as a fiction writer you need psychotic persistence. Or a mother in the industry. In my case, it took both.
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