Saturday, June 02, 2012

New Voice: Lynne Kelly on Chained

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lynne Kelly is the first-time author of Chained (FSG, 2012). From the promotional copy:

The story of a boy and an elephant who have a friendship stronger than any lock, shackle, or chain.

Ten-year-old Hastin’s sister has fallen ill, and his family must borrow money to pay for her care in the hospital. To work off the debt, Hastin leaves his village in northern India to work in a faraway jungle as an elephant keeper. 

He thinks it will be an adventure, but he isn’t prepared for the cruel circus owner. The crowds that come to the circus see a lively animal who plays soccer and balances on milk bottles, but Hastin sees Nandita, a sweet elephant and his best friend, who is chained when she’s not performing and punished until she learns her tricks perfectly. 

With the help of Ne Min, a wise old man who seems to know all about elephants, Hastin protects Nandita as best as he can. Still he wonders–will they both survive long enough to escape?

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

The protagonist, Hastin, actually came into the story after Nandita the elephant and the circus owner Timir did. Initially, I was writing it as a picture book about two elephant friends, one of whom is captured to be a show elephant. I was a teacher at the time, and was already thinking of how I could use the story in the classroom with my students, since I loved incorporating picture books into math lessons. (“How many more letters are in Chyrsanthemum's name than your name?” for example.)

I'd been talking to a co-worker, Stephanie Sheffield, about the book, since she'd written some nonfiction books about math-literature connections, and her editor at the time was looking to acquire picture books that could be used in math classrooms.

At some point, she suggested, “How about adding a boy who takes care of the elephant?” That way he could refer to the length of chain used for the elephant as she grew up, and students could figure out the size of the circle she paced around the pole she was chained to.

So then Hastin was born, although I didn't know his name yet. That came after I searched through Indian names and found one that meant “elephant.” It's not a common name, but it's one that fit.

The math-literature editor turned down the manuscript since math wasn't a big enough component of the story, but I wanted to continue working on it to submit it elsewhere.

By this time, some critiquers who'd read the manuscript mentioned that the story would work better as a novel instead of as a picture book. I couldn't imagine it. That's a lot of words to write!

But after hearing the same thing from a few different people, I thought I'd better give it a try. Of course now I can't imagine it any other way.

So now I just had to get to know Hastin, our new protagonist. He'd have to be someone who loved animals and was protective of his family. He's an elephant keeper, but a reluctant one, since he'd rather stay at home with his family and let the elephant stay with hers.

I knew early on that he and Nandita the elephant would have parallel lives-- each with a family they'd like to return to, but captive workers in the elephant show. I researched where Hastin might live and work; I needed him to be close enough to home to have some hope of returning if he could escape, but far enough away to make it difficult.

When I'm working on a story, freewriting works best for me, so I did a lot of that in the beginning to discover more about Hastin. It helped to think back to how I was myself at that age. On the surface I don't have anything in common with a ten-year-old Indian boy, but we all have the same feelings, so I could keep in mind what it's like to feel sad, frightened, lonely, happy—whatever the scene called for.

 Ne Min, Hastin's mentor, turned out to be the most interesting character to write. I knew for a long time he'd be an outsider, since he left home long ago after a traumatic experience, but I was thinking of him as being from a different region of India. 

As part of my elephant research, I read Elephant Bill by James Williams (Doubleday, 1950) about managing logging elephants in Burma during World War II, and I decided to make Ne Min's character Burmese.

Of course that meant more research for me, but it allowed me to give him a backstory I really loved. Sharad, the elephant trainer, needed more backstory to round out his character.

Uma Krishnaswami on career reinvention.
Uma Krishnaswami, who critiqued the whole novel, was concerned that the adults Hastin works for were bad guys, except for Ne Min, the one not from India.

I wanted to keep Ne Min a Burmese character, but I realized that Sharad needed a more clear motivation for behaving the way he did.

When I thought about what made him the way he is, I came up with a backstory that made him a more interesting yet realistic character and explained why he was so harsh in his training of Nandita.

Could you tell us the story of "the call" or "the email" when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

I was at work so I had to contain the excitement somewhat! I work as a sign language interpreter, and I was in a college classroom when my agent, Joanna Volpe, called.

At that time, Chained had been on submission for about three weeks. I don't remember if the class I was in was taking a break at the time or if I said to my co-worker, "Um, 212 area code, I really want to answer this," but I was able to step out in the hallway to take the call.

Jo told me that Margaret Ferguson of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was interested in acquiring the novel, and I was standing there saying, "Oh, wow, that's awesome," into the phone, since what I really felt like doing--running up and down the halls screaming--is frowned upon in most workplaces.

It was hard to focus for the rest of the day, and when I got home there was a lot of jumping around and random dancing.

Since a few other publishers had the manuscript, Jo contacted those editors to notify them of the interest; that way they'd know to start reading it if they hadn't yet and get back to her and then she kept in touch with me by phone or email for the next few days to let me know how they responded--either "no, not for me," "I like it but not enough to get in on an auction," or "Yes, I want this too." (Cue more jumping and sweet dance moves).

Since more than one publisher was interested, Jo set up an auction for a couple weeks later. I'm so glad I was home from work on auction day, because that was nerve-wracking yet super fun.

The best thing was that I knew the book would sell, and I'd have been happy with whichever editor ended up with it, so there wasn't going to be a bad outcome. Jo called and emailed throughout the day to keep me posted on how things were going, then called when it was all over to discuss the publishers' final offers. We went with FSG, and then I could celebrate the official book sale! I went to dinner with my family and probably bought some new books.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2012, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Check out Lynne's blog.
I first got the idea for the story in 2006, and it's probably a good thing I didn't know that publication was six years away--I'm not sure I would've stuck with it.

But it took time to write the story well, since I had a lot to learn about writing while I was working on the book.

And since I was thinking about it as a picture book at first, it went through a huge evolution over the years. It was in 2009 that I started submitting to agents for real (there were some earlier submissions, but before the book was really ready to go).

Of course there were some rejections, but now and then there were some requests for partial manuscripts, or even the whole thing. The partial or full requests among the rejections helped me to keep going; if the manuscript was good enough to pique an agent's interest, it would be only a matter of time before it landed on the right desk.

I'm also really thankful for the feedback I got from the agents who liked the manuscript but didn't love it enough to take it on. Besides helping in a practical way with revision suggestions, it's such a boost for a writer who's trying to get published when someone takes the time to explain why it wasn't working for them.

Early in the summer of '09, I got my first call from an agent who was interested in representation. But she wanted to see a lot of revisions first and wondered if I'd be willing to work on the manuscript more before she committed to signing with me. I said okay, because I knew she'd have great suggestions. And she did--six pages' worth! I got started on those right away and continued working on the revisions throughout the summer.

In September I was finally ready to re-submit the manuscript to her. And she said no.

*cue soul-crushing disappointment*

Something about it still wasn't working for her, so it was time for both of us to move on.

Even though it wasn't the answer I wanted, I knew the revisions had made a huge difference, so I don't regret anything about that experience, and I'm so grateful she took the time to work with me without knowing if things would work out with us.

And, since the manuscript had gotten some interest even before the giant revision, I was a huge step closer to finding the agent who'd like it and put a ring on it.

Right away I started submitting to agents again. Again, there were some rejections, some requests, and some who didn't respond. One of the agents who requested a partial was Joanna Volpe; my friend Monica Vavra was agented by her and loved her, so Jo was one of the agents I submitted to that fall.

Meanwhile, I kept working on my next manuscript--the waiting will drive you crazy when you're on submission, so it's important to keep busy by writing a new book. Whenever I received a rejection from an agent, I sent the manuscript to another.

Lynne as a child with Spike.
Then in February of 2010 I got an email from an agent who wanted to set up a phone call to discuss representation. Yay!

By some amazing coincidence, Joanna Volpe called two days before my phone call appointment with that agent. She apologized for the delay and said she'd read the 50 pages I'd sent in before and if I wasn't represented yet, she'd like to see the whole manuscript. Double yay!

I told her I wasn't represented yet, but that I was expecting a call later that week from an interested agent, and I'd send the full manuscript if she still wanted to see it. She did, and the next day she wrote back after having read the whole thing and set up a phone call to discuss representation.

I talked to both agents, and loved them both, and both offered representation. Dilemma.

But what a good problem to have! It was kind of like that time in high school when I hadn't had a date for a couple months and then two guys asked me out for the same night. But I digress. I took a couple days to think about it, and decided to go with Joanna, and I couldn't have picked a better agent.

By that time, I knew that I'd likely be a 2012 debut; books often take a long time to sell, and even if mine sold quickly, the book would be out in late 2011 at the earliest. It did sell early in May that year, so the publication date is almost exactly two years later.

I can't stress enough how much my friends from the writing community kept me going throughout the whole process. I joined the SCBWI soon after I knew I wanted to continue with this writing thing. Everyone was so supportive and they had fabulous workshops and conferences, and I found my critique groups that helped me whip the manuscript into shape.

Interview with Verla Kay.
And I've met so many writers online, like on Twitter or through groups like the Verla Kay Blue Boards. I seriously can't imagine how writers did it before the Internet. The research would've been hard enough, but to go through submission time, rejections, revisions, and writing a new draft with no one to vent to except your cats? I shudder to think of it.

Everyone needs some kind of writing community--in person, online, or both--to cheer with during the celebratory times and to hold them up during the crushing times.

Someone has to talk you off the ledge at times. And by "ledge," I mean "bed covered with Oreo wrappers."

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?

Here's another place those writing communities are vital. I'd advise any debut author to stay connected to their local writers' organizations and join a debut group. I seriously can't imagine doing it all in isolation.

All along I've had my critique groups and the SCBWI, and I'm involved with two debut author groups, The Apocalypsies and The Class of 2k12. Through those debut groups we share ideas about what marketing strategies and resources have worked and haven't worked, plan events like mutual signings and panels, and exchange bookmarks and other swag to take to our own libraries and bookstores. And since we pass our ARCs around to the group, we're able to let everyone know about all the awesome books to look for this year!

All the support from other authors is awesome, but if we're only talking to each other, we're not reaching our audience. And for middle grade authors, our audience probably isn't reading our tweets and blog posts. Often kids that age find out about books from teachers and librarians, so I've looked for ways to reach out to those groups.

Interview with Caroline Starr Rose
One idea I got from Caroline Starr Rose was a Book Club Kit Contest (now closed) for teachers and reading group coordinators. Everyone who entered got a set of Chained bookmarks for their readers, and one group won ten copies of Chained, a Skype visit, bookmarks, and other goodies.

Book bloggers are a fabulous resource too, for getting the word out about our books. A book trailer or interview on a blog that focuses on YA or kids' books will reach a different audience than a post on the author's own blog.

I've been on Facebook and Twitter for a long time, so it's been fun to celebrate the whole publication journey with my friends and followers there.

For any social media, it's important to build relationships by interacting with people; if you're just hopping on to Twitter, for example, because you have a book coming out, it'll be about as effective as shouting into an empty room.

There's so much out there, though, and we can't do it all. I'd say all writers should do whatever they're comfortable with online. If it's too much of a chore, we'll participate begrudgingly and I think that would come across to our readers.

The hardest thing for me to keep up with is the blog--I like having written a post, but I don't always like writing them, and I don't update as often as I'd like. But I could spend all day on Twitter and Pinterest, so the challenge for me is checking in with those sites without staying too long.

I always worry about all the fun stuff I'm going to miss when I log off to write, kind of like a little kid who doesn't want to go to bed.

When I really need to get to work without the distractions, I use MacFreedom to lock myself out of the Internet to get rid of the temptation to check in on all those friends who live inside my computer.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Lynne's blog, Making Stuff Up & Writing It Down, and The YAHous (YA Houston)!

See also Interview: Lynne Kelly from Cari's Book Blog.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Japanese Picture Books as a Window to Japan, English-language Asia-set Children's and Young Adult Fiction, and Children's and YA Books in Translation from Japan, all by Holly Thompson from PaperTiger's Global Voices. Peek: "The reasons for so few Japanese books being sold to English-language publishers are layered and complicated ranging from cultural differences and weak English copy or sample translations used for marketing books to foreign publishers, to stagnant picture book markets in English-speaking countries and a lack of interest from markets that are focused intently on books set in their own countries."

Picture Book Tips from Abrams Books for Young Readers at Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "This breakout session focused on what Brazis finds important in any manuscript coming across her desk- memorable characters with strong voice, a genuine relationship between characters, and an obvious character arc."

Do Non-interactive Books Do a Better Job of Encouraging Literacy than Interactive Books? by Sheila Ruth from Wands and Worlds. Peek: " The study found that when parents and children read together, children recall significantly more details when reading print books or regular, non-enhanced ebooks than they do when reading interactive ebooks."

CBC Diversity Committee: Starting Conversations and Building a Following by John A. Sellers from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Mercado stresses that the members of the diversity committee are open to suggestions from all corners, and that this is just the beginning. 'None of us are experts in this area, but we all see a need for something like this. It can only happen from everybody getting involved,' she says."

Of Plot Promises and Michael Jackson by Peggy Eddleman of Crowe's Nest. Peek: "My teacher made our class a deal. If we met certain goals–really, really hard goals the whole class would have to work for— THE Michael Jackson would come to our class."

Writing Credentials by Gina Damico from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing. Peek: "Credentials aren't necessary. Can they help? Absolutely. But can you also get published without them? Absolutely."

Cynsational Blogger Tip: White space is your friend. Look at your posts. Are they all gray? All text without any breathing room? (And, eep, no images?) Consider a space between paragraphs. It'll make your blog so much more readable.

Harry Potter, Seriously by Philip Nel from Nine Kinds of Pie. Peek: "Children’s literature is literature. Intelligent adults already know this. However, as those of you who study or write or teach children’s literature are well aware, the world is full of alleged grown-ups who insist on spreading the myth that children’s literature is not literature, and (thus) cannot be studied as such."

Jane Friedman: Authors on Facebook by Sarah W. Bartlett from sarahscapes: the nature of writing life. Peek: "I can’t imagine using Facebook as a replacement for a meaningful blog. I don’t mean to say everyone should blog, but a Facebook status update doesn’t have much in common with a great blog."

Writers Block: Take a Break by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro. Peek: "Try these suggestions, and experiment to find new tricks that work for you."

Talking "Dark" YA Lit with Terry Trueman from Blogging Censorship: The National Coalition Against Censorship. Peek: "Isn’t it best to help our children deal with new, possibly frightening and difficult subjects through the intelligent and caring platform of literature rather than to just leave difficult and painful parts of life to happenestances and the scribblings on public restroom walls?" Source: Bookshelves of Doom.

How to Respond to Negative Reviews from Beth Revis. Peek: "My own husband hates chocolate. I didn't find this out until after we were married."

Gratitude and Goodbyes by Mary Quattlebaum from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: "Before the advent of electronic submissions, I used to package a manuscript and walk it to the post office and then reward myself with a quiet hour or two."

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win one of two author-signed copies of The Year of the Beasts by Cecil Castellucci (Roaring Brook, 2012). To enter, comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with "The Year of the Beasts" in the subject line. Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: midnight June 11. See also Cecil Castellucci on Medusa, a Childhood Friend.

Brendan Buckley's Sixth-Grade Experiment by Sundee T. Frazier (Delacorte, 2012) was Robin in Texas.

Middle Grade Memories: Greg Leitich Smith ( + Giveaway) from Claire Legrand. Peek: "In any event, The Enormous Egg (Little, Brown) is one of the few books that show (and showed) dinosaurs and humans interacting in a somewhat realistic fashion and is a classic of the 'bring-the-dinosaurs-to-us' genre, well worth a read today." Note: giveaway features The Enormous Egg and a signed copy of Greg's new release, Chronal Engine (Clarion/HMH, 2012).

Cover Reveal & Nine-Book Giveaway by Kimberley Griffiths Little from Kimberley's Wanderings. Take a peek at Kimberley's upcoming novel, When the Butterflies Came (Scholastic) and enter to win! 

This Week at Cynsations
By Shirley Smith Duke

More Personally

Illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein.
The manuscript formerly known as "Smolder" has a new title (and the series has a new title, too). I've seen the cover (as well as some interior page design work), and it's too early to share, but I'm hopeful you'll find it intriguing. 

In non-writing news, I saw "Men in Black III" at the Alamo Drafthouse last weekend and highly recommend it--if only for Josh Brolin's depiction of Tommy Lee Jones as K. Wow.

Attention: Dallas YA & Graphic Novel fans! Look for Ming Doyle, the illustrator of Tantalize: Kieren's Story and the forthcoming Eternal: Zachary's Story (both Candlewick) at A-Kon, this weekend at the Sheraton Dallas! See more information.

Congratulations to my student, illustrator Joy Fisher Hein, and author Cherie Foster Colburn on the release of Bloomin' Tales: Seven Wildflower Legends (Bright Sky, 2012)!

Congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith, whose Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012) was named a Top Pick for High Interest Middle Graders by the editors at Junior Library Guild at School Library Journal!

Personal Links:
By Susan Taylor Brown.
About Greg Leitich Smith:
  • Author Insights: Writing Behind the Scenes from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: "If someone had a behind-the-scenes pass to observe your writing process what would they see?" Note: includes answers from several authors, including Greg.
From Greg Leitich Smith:
Cynsational Events

Central Texans! Mark your calendars for June 9 at BookPeople! Greg Leitich Smith will speak on "Writing Speculative Fiction" at 10 a.m. and Don Tate will host a book launch and signing of It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low, 2012) at noon.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear June 30 at Bastop Public Library in Bastrop, Texas.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

New Voice: Mary G. Thompson on Wuftoom

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Mary G. Thompson is the first-time author of Wuftoom (Clarion, 2012)(blog). From the promotional copy: 

Everyone thinks Evan is sick ... everyone thinks science will find a cure.

But Evan knows he is not sick; he is transforming. Evan’s metamorphosis has him confined to his bed, constantly terrified, and completely alone. Alone, except for his visits from the Wuftoom, a wormlike creature that tells him he is becoming one of them.

Clinging to his humanity and desperate to help his overworked single mother, Evan makes a bargain with the Vitflies, the sworn enemies of the Wuftoom. But when the bargain becomes blackmail and the Vitflies prepare for war, whom can Evan trust? Is saving his humanity worth destroying an entire species and the only family he has left? 

Could you tell us the story of "the call" or "the email" when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

It’s kind of a funny story, bordering on totally and completely inappropriate. At the time, I was staying with my mom for a while in Eugene, Oregon; before heading to New York to start in The New School Writing for Children program.

We had decided to go down to Ashland for a couple days to see some plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. So this morning we were having breakfast around 10 a.m. when my agent called. I took the call outside, and acting totally calm, I came back in and told my mom that I had an offer.

Then, in what was truly an extreme expression of emotion for probably the two most reserved, WASPiest people in America, we clasped hands and bounced up and down in our seats over our eggs.

Needless to say, my spirits continued to rise un-WASPily high. I had to call or text everyone I knew and tell them the good news.

Now, this is where the inappropriate part comes in. Just a couple hours after that breakfast, we had tickets to go see "Ruined.' This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage about rape in Africa. It’s a very serious, dramatic, emotional play highlighting the plight of women whose bodies and lives have been completely destroyed, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Except mine. I was smiling like a fool. I’m not sure if the old ladies sitting next to us noticed, but my mom did feel the need to explain my inexplicable reaction by telling these random strangers that I’d just had some good news.

So in conclusion, there are a theater’s worth of people somewhere in Oregon who probably think I’m a psychopath. But that’s okay. I’m happy I was able to share that really cool moment with my mom.

The book is dedicated to her, and not least because she’s let me stay with her more than once since I’ve become a supposedly self-supporting, responsible adult. And she’s always there to explain my weird behavior if I need it. “No, my daughter is not a psychopath!” Thanks, Mom!

As a horror writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

First, a word on genre. I don’t know whether most people would consider Wuftoom to be fantasy, horror, or science fiction.

It’s science fiction in the sense that there’s nothing in it that’s supposed to be “magic,” and it’s fantasy in that it’s probably unlikely to really happen (now don’t you feel better?).

But it’s about a kid who’s turning into a monster. Nobody wants that. In fact, it sounds pretty horrible. So for now, I think “horror” is a pretty good fit.

I like to joke that this book is about monsters vs. middle school.

How many of us, if they could have, would have chosen to go live underground with the monsters? Monsters may not be so horrible compared to bullies, social ostracism, and assorted other tween nightmares. That’s certainly the feeling I began this book with. Evan is a kid who was unpopular and unhappy when he was healthy, and at the beginning of the book, he’s got some crazy disease that’s turning him into a disgusting monster. There’s really nowhere to go for him but up.

The question is, how is he going to get there? Is he going to maintain his humanity, or is he going to give in and become everything the Wuftoom—or their enemies the Vitflys—want him to be?

The themes of the book definitely evolved through the drafts. I originally had much more of a straight horror theme in mind, with Evan getting something he wanted—the ability to travel into the bodies of other kids, which the Vitflys offer him—but at a terrible price.

While I was writing, though, I realized that it would be much more interesting for Evan to really grapple with his humanity and for the world of the Wuftoom to be more nuanced. Evan had to face real, difficult choices in a world where good and evil weren’t black and white.

Mary says the pig makes her write.
So the book began to be about Evan learning how to deal with the hand he’s been dealt, and how to make it through his transformation a stronger and happier person, regardless of whether he’s human or Wuftoom. He has to protect his mother, even though he’s not supposed to care about her any more, and at the same time, he has to protect and be accepted by the Wuftoom, who are his new family. But he also has the choice of siding with the Vitflys and getting revenge. And there are times when none of his choices seem like the right one, yet he has to make those choices.

Ultimately, it’s his choice whether he’s doomed as he would have certainly been in my original concept, or whether he’ll pull through a stronger person and, ultimately, be happy.

Does any of this parallel real world problems? Well, we’re all pulled in different directions by competing forces. There are always people who want us to change, or who want us to identify with a group and be loyal. Sometimes these people have our best interests at heart, and sometimes they don’t. All we can do is protect those we love and learn to decide who our true friends are.

Most of us get to stay physically human, but some of us, if we’re not careful, will let negative forces guide our lives. Is a monster defined by what it looks like or by how it acts? What does remorse count for? How can we best live with ourselves, and how can we find our place in the world?

These are universal themes that ended up in the final draft. Of course, there’s also the not-so-real-world theme of having fun with some gross monsters. I hope readers won’t let all these deep thoughts distract them from the “eeewww!” and “ick!”

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Guest Post & Giveaway: Cecil Castellucci on Medusa, a Childhood Friend

Learn more.
By Cecil Castellucci
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I first met Medusa in a museum, probably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where I grew up. My parents, avid culture fiends, would take us to museums and some of my earliest memories are of the Greek and Roman statues at the Met.

There, Perseus stood, naked, holding onto Medusa’s newly chopped off head. She looks sad and kind of mannish. I imagined that all the statues that crowded the hall were her final victims, and I worried that perhaps we were next.

I met her again, all over Italy when we went there for a visit at age seven. She was riveting. I could not look away from her. She captured my imagination.

Why was she so terrible to look upon?

I found that I could look upon her safely. To me, she always seemed beautiful, even with the snakes. She also looked as though she was steeped in a profound sadness. That she had been driven to fury by the very fact that no one could look upon her.

Medusa from the Vatican.
It was clear that something must have driven her to be so horrible. I imagined that perhaps her monstrous-ness sprang from something already crouched inside of her only to be brought out when she was cursed with snakes for hair.

My parents only told me the part of her story where if you looked on her you would turn to stone and how Perseus beheaded her. They didn’t tell me the whole myth. Not because they didn’t know her story, or maybe they didn’t, but most likely because they didn’t think that was the part that I wanted to know. But I longed to know the before, about who she was before the snakes tormented her.

I still didn’t know her whole story when I saw "The Clash of the Titans" (1981), but there she was again. Something terrible, something to be killed, something filled with fury.

I only know that I loved her in some way, and that I was the only girl in sixth grade with a spiral notebook that had an image of Perseus holding Medusa’s head. It was about then that my Father lent me his copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and I got the whole story.

Oh, those ancient Greeks and the way they wove a tale. Dramatic. Exciting. Perilous. Tragic. Enlightening. Terrible. Wonderful.

But the one thing that was confirmed was that before Medusa was a monster, she was a girl. Perhaps a vain one. Perhaps a victim. Perhaps the focus of goddesses jealousy. There was a before and an after to Medusa, she was a complex character.

When I was writing the book, The Year of the Beasts, I was writing a story that sometimes couldn’t be explained in words. It is a hybrid book, alternating chapters of prose and comic book. It is two stories, the prose is of two sisters and the summer and the boys they like.

Cecil has coffee with her new bobblehead.
The comic book is of a Medusa, who just wants to be a girl again and her friends, a Centaur, Mermaid and Minotaur. I always knew that I wanted there to be a comic book element, and right from the moment that I started writing the book the image of Medusa kept coming up.

But at first, I wrote Medusa’s part of the story as prose and Tessa’s part as the comic book.

It wasn’t until a few stabs at the story that I realized that as a comic book writer it was much more interesting visually to see the snakes. I had already had them talking as characters, but to see them talking would pack more of an emotional punch.

The Year of the Beasts is not a retelling of Medusa. But the very root of the Medusa myth is there on all of the pages. And while she may be terrible to look upon, I think that I believe to this day, that deep down inside, even beasts have hearts.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two author-signed copies of The Year of the Beasts by Cecil Castellucci (Roaring Brook, 2012). 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 you can email Cynthia directly with "The Year of the Beasts" in the subject line. Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada. Deadline: midnight June 11.

In Memory: Leo Dillon

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Leo Dillon 1933-2012 by Irene Gallo from Peek: "Illustration has lost another giant. Leo Dillon, husband and life-long collaborator of Diane Dillon, passed away on May 26th. Together they created a remarkable array children’s books and book covers." Note: post includes samples of Leo's art.

Meet-the-Author Program: Leo Dillon from Peek: "In this five-minute mini-documentary, filmed in the New York home and studio of Leo and Diane Dillon, they talk about how they met at art school and collaborate on all their illustrations, share their thoughts on the message and imagery of Earth Mother, and detail the way in which they illustrate books to capture and reflect diverse cultures." See also a comprehensive bibliography of Dillon's work from

See also a tribute post from Muddy Colors: An Illustration Collective.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Guest Post: Shirley Smith Duke on Want to Write a Book? Try the Educational Market.

By Shirley Smith Duke
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When you think of a children’s writer, trade books often come to mind. These royalty-generating books come with an advance and are published by traditional houses. Working with a big publisher is a terrific way to become an author, but there’s a counterpart to trade writing that fills libraries and schools with books alongside the better known trade books.

The educational market is a curriculum-driven sort of writing, open to new ideas and series. It allows writers to explore specific topics and write many books and covers both fiction and nonfiction.

The pros and cons in educational market writing may be the same things. Educational writing is mostly work-for-hire, which means you’ll get a flat fee with the publisher retaining all rights. The money comes fast, but there’s no income from royalties and no large advance.

Quick turnaround times mean the writing must be done right away. No time for writer’s block here! As a freelancer, you don’t control your schedule and can’t plan when you’ll be working.

This market is a great training ground, too. Word counts and writing to a specific reading level teach you how to write tight and choose the best words to convey information. It allows you to hone your research and writing skills, and often leads to better organization in your writing.

The books are useful for a school visit platform, and open the doors to school visits with their additional income, too.

So how do you get started in this market?

Look up the publishers and read their guidelines. Study the books they publish and their style and choose one that produces books you like.

Book packagers (they produce books for publishers) and educational publishers work with freelance writers, and they need to see that you can write. That means they want to see a cover letter expressing your interest in their company, a resume that includes writing credits, and writing samples.

Writing samples don’t have to be from a published work. Choose a topic and research it if it’s nonfiction. Then write a page or so on the topic or write a fiction sample that shows the range of your writing. Make sure it aligns with the Core Curriculum or state or national standards for that genre. Write the sample at a couple of different grade levels to show your ability to write to a specific reading level. If you send nonfiction, include your bibliography to show your research.

As with any kind of writing, staying with it is part of the way to success. With perseverance, you’ll be able to get involved with this kind of writing. There’s a satisfaction that comes from seeing your name on a book kids will be reading.

These resources to help you get started:

Cynsational Notes

Learn more about Shirley and visit her blog.

Book Trailer: Slide by Jill Hathaway

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Slide by Jill Hathaway (Balzer + Bray/HarperTeen). From the promotional copy:

Vee Bell is certain of one irrefutable truth—her sister’s friend Sophie didn’t kill herself. She was murdered.

Vee knows this because she was there. Everyone believes Vee is narcoleptic, but she doesn’t actually fall asleep during these episodes: When she passes out, she slides into somebody else’s mind and experiences the world through that person’s eyes. She’s slid into her sister as she cheated on a math test, into a teacher sneaking a drink before class. She learned the worst about a supposed “friend” when she slid into her during a school dance. 

But nothing could have prepared Vee for what happens one October night when she slides into the mind of someone holding a bloody knife, standing over Sophie’s slashed body.

Vee desperately wishes she could share her secret, but who would believe her? It sounds so crazy that she can’t bring herself to tell her best friend, Rollins, let alone the police. 

Even if she could confide in Rollins, he has been acting off lately, more distant, especially now that she’s been spending more time with Zane.

Enmeshed in a terrifying web of secrets, lies, and danger and with no one to turn to, Vee must find a way to unmask the killer before he or she strikes again.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Report from Bookaroo in India

By Christopher Cheng
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Last time I reported about networking and I mentioned Singapore and India. Here is what happened at Bookaroo in New Delhi last year:

My First Picture of India

I love India. If I had to use two words to describe my first impressions, they would be sensory explosion.

I arrived at New Delhi airport and was driven to my hotel, and all the while my brain was working in overdrive and I was thinking, “What is going on?”

Welcome at midnight

It was midnight for goodness sake and the roads were jam packed, and they drive so close to each other and they don’t use the marked lanes. Street lights I don’t remember, but there were so many car lights they weren’t needed. And the sounds! Honk! Honk! (plus a few toot toots from the wildly decorated tut-tuts!)

My Festival Appearance

It was like many other literary festivals I have spoken at. There was an outdoor bookshop, a green room, and enthusiastic audiences. But the children and parents that I was speaking to in India were wildly enthusiastic. They wanted to touch. They wanted to question.

They wanted more and more and more.

At Bookaroo

I presented a story reading session for my (then) new picture book Sounds Spooky under the overarching branches of a gorgeous tree (botanical name unknown) next to a solid stand of bamboo that provided a wonderful backdrop and sound barrier for my spooky storytelling session.

In an amphitheatre seating a few hundred, I presented a community story-creating session (one I used as a classroom teacher), gathering children from the audience, bringing them to the front of the stage and together creating an oral story. It was mid morning there (early for Indian time) so I started with about 20 people, but within minutes the amphitheatre was full and children were hollering to join our expanding story. After an hour, it was standing room only, and there were 20 children standing on stage (and hundreds more in the audience) who could recite the lines from the story we had created.

Next to a clay covered building I presented talks about my favourite subject - me and the life of a children’s author; about writing historical fiction texts; and about writing picture books. It was mostly outdoors under the warm and inviting Indian sun.

And like many festivals there were the author signings and the bookstore was alive with children, trying to locate the books. And the signing queues seemed to snake on forever.

The bookstore.

Like most festivals, I was asked to sign pieces of paper (okay), and books that I didn’t write (I declined), as well as the autograph book…but these autograph books were something special. They had the signatures of Indian cricketers too!

I have made it. I am up there on the same plane as international cricketers! (At one hotel, the lobby was vacated while I was signing the visitors book - there were a few Bollywood stars in that book).

My School & University Appearances

My school visits in India were some of the most wonderful and inspiring that I have ever been to. The schools were not elite wealthy schools but simpler schools with a passion for inspiring their students and empowering them to have a better future, schools where parents have sacrificed enormously. They were unlike any other school I have visited, and even writing this now, I pop out with goosebumps and I tingle.

These students were like super sponges. Not only had they researched as much as they could about me, some students created posters, others wrote biographies, and still others read my website so thoroughly that they could tell me about all of the animals that were with me while I was teaching at the zoo.

And the questions they asked. They were not intrusive or ones that could have been answered from reading my website. They were inquisitive and showed a real passion for finding out all there is to know about me and writing and being a ‘famous’ children’s author (in reality the fame doesn’t go past my street corner), with the most frequently asked question:“Mr. Cheng,” (so courteous and polite), “you write lots about Chinese people, so will you write about us?”

These children want their stories told to a wider audience, too. At every school visited, I was treated like a rock star. At each school entrance was a welcome sign - just for me - crafted by students, often with my picture downloaded from the internet. Morning and afternoon teas were in the Principal’s Office. I was presented with gifts that had been crafted by the students from their hand craft classes, a small glazed kiln-fired clay vase that now holds my pencils, a plaque that is now attached to our outdoor wall, a small bamboo lined mirror now on our sitting room wall, a note book for me to use crafted from recycled paper (the students were so thrilled to see that I write first drafts in note books) and much more. And in these offices, Mr. Cheng was asked if he would consider staying to teach at their school - they were serious.

I spoke in universities to students who were just as passionate and just as sponge-like as the school students but in conditions that (mostly) were very unlike our universities.

In one talk, not only was room filled inside (about ten seats wide and thirty rows deep), but there were students outside blocking the breezeway.

At university
The raised wooden podium wobbled and I had a handheld microphone (with a rather short chord) and the single speaker was tied to the window frame. The lights were sparse and there were no projection facilities. But these students too, they continued to ask, to question, wanting more.

India is a fascinating and a passionate country, and the students are passionate, too. They love hearing us speak, reading our books and they want more!

So if opportunity comes your way, grab it with both arms and go!

Cynsational Notes

More on Christopher
With more than 35 titles in traditional and digital formats, including picture books, non-fiction, historical fiction, a musical libretto and an animation storyline, Christopher Cheng is well experienced in Australian children's literature.

He conducts workshops and residences for children and adults and holds an M.A. in Children's Literature. He is a board member for the Asian Festival of Children's Content and on the International Advisory Board and co-regional advisor (Australia and New Zealand) for the SCBWI.

A recipient of the SCBWI Member of the Year and the Lady Cutler Award for services to children's literature, Chris is a devoted advocate of children's literature, speaking at festivals worldwide.

Christopher will be covering the children's-YA book scene in Australia, New Zealand and across Asia for Cynsations. Read an interview with Christopher. Read more about Christopher's time in India at his blog.

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