Saturday, August 04, 2012

Guest Post & Giveaway: Jo Whittemore on When the Going Gets Tough & What to Do About It

By Jo Whittemore
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

“What do you do when you’re stuck in your writing?”

This is a popular question asked of authors.

In reply, the author will usually stroke his/her beard thoughtfully and say, “I step away from the page for a few days to clear my head.”

But there’s more to it than that.

Before you can clear your head, you have to figure out what’s clogging it, right?

So what is it for you?

Fear? Frustration? Drain hair?

Tell Cousin It that he's banned from our bathroom.
Whenever you’re stuck, ask yourself these five questions:
  1. Is the story going the way I’d hoped? 
  2. Is the story as riveting as I’d hoped? 
  3. Are the characters as awesome as I’d hoped? 
  4. Is the story as awesome as I’d hoped? 
  5. Am I as awesome as I’d hoped?

Well, which one is it?

Chances are one of these five doubts has been filling your mind.

1. If you fear your story isn’t going the way you’d hoped, you’ve got plotting issues. Consider what’ll happen following the logic of what you’ve already written (Elephant falls from tightrope, killing thousands of clowns trapped in car).

Compare that to what you wanted to happen (Elephant becomes famous tightrope walker). Where did the disconnect occur? Did the elephant miss some lessons that need to be written in? Does it never receive the all-important balancing umbrella?

2. If you fear your story isn’t as riveting as you’d hoped, you’ve got action/description issues. The reader won’t be drawn into your world because you haven’t made it interesting or exciting. If a sentence doesn’t move the story forward or paint a picture of your world, cut it.

3. If you fear your characters aren’t as awesome as you’d hoped, you’ve got character development issues. Reveal more of their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears. Add depth. Make them memorable. Make them human (or elephant).

4 & 5. If you fear a lack of awesome in the story or yourself, you’re doing one of the major no-no’s of the writing world...comparing what you’ve got to what someone else has.

The story you’re going to tell is different than the story someone else would tell, because it’s jam-packed with your emotions and experiences. Of course it’s awesome. Because it’s uniquely you!

See my big sister? She’s all, “Whatevs. You can have your bear. I’m awesome.”
Be like that!

And take heart...the fact that you’re stuck is a good thing. It means you’re putting thought into what goes on the page, and you want it to be your best.

If all else fails, come see your old pal Jo and we’ll share some tea and writing time.

Cynsational Notes

Attention Central Texans! Join Jo at 4 p.m. Aug. 12 to celebrate the release of D Is for Drama (Aladdin, 2012) at BookPeople.

Photos courtesy of Jo Whittemore.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a set of signed copies of Jo's books, Front Page Face-Off (Aladdin, 2010), Odd Girl In (Aladdin, 2011) and D Is for Drama (Aladdin, 2012). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

From the promotional copy of D Is for Drama: 

Sunny Kim is done with one-line roles at Carnegie Arts Academy, but even with an acting coach, she doesn't snag the lead in Mary Poppins. 

Desperate for a solution, Sunny convinces the school to let her produce a one-woman show, which other rejected kids soon beg to join. 

Before long, Sunny is knee-deep in curtains and cat fights as her one-woman show turns into the hit musical "Wicked." 

Can the show come together in time for opening night?

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, August 03, 2012

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

We Need to Talk about the Mid-list by Ellen Caldecott from An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Peek: "No-one ever sets out to become a mid-list writer, such dreams would be more getting texts from friends saying 'I was in Coventry Waterstones and they don't have your book'; being able to reserve your book only via the inter-library loan system; typing in the early hours before you go off to your day job."

Meograph Launches 4D Storytelling Platform by Joyce Valenza from School Library Journal. Peek: "The intuitive, browser-based interface prompts users to create moments by setting up dates (and times if they are meaningful) and locations and then adding media and links to external articles."

Join Shana Burg on the Laugh with the Moon Blog Tour from The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children's Literature. Peek: "...I knew the next book would be set in Malawi. I was passionate about sharing stories about the people I’d met there–people who are resourceful and resilient and manage to laugh despite the extreme poverty, people who taught me so much." Note: Attention Central Texans! Shana will be signing at 2 p.m. Aug. 4. at Barnes & Noble La Frontera Village in Round Rock.

Character Crisis by Amy Goldman Koss from Amy Koss Blog Thang. Peek: " I to tell them that if they want readers to recognize and sympathize with their characters they should write caricatures?" Amy has joined the faculty of the 41rst Annual SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles.

Writing and Selling Sci-Fi & Fantasy for Kids and Teens through Live Webinar registration, featuring literary agent John Cusick of Scott Treimel NY, from Writer's Digest Shop. Peek: "What makes some stories stand out, and others unsuccessful, cliché, or—worst of all—left buried in the slush pile? How can you define your craft to create novels at once lasting and fresh? How does writing for kids and teens differ from writing for adults? How can you capture the attention of an agent in this rich and extremely competitive market? In other words, how can you give your story the best chance to get published?"

Alex Sanchez on LGBTQ and Controversial YA Lit from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: " I believe our responsibility as adults is better carried out not by teaching young people what to think but rather how to think. One powerful way to do that is through stories."

Two Words by Annemarie O'Brien from Quirk and Quill. Peek: "Mining our childhood memories for material and translating them truthfully onto the page opens up the kind of vulnerability in our writing that pulls readers in."

How Long Should It Be? by Arthur Plotnik from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: "...form is key."

On Having Figured Out the Twist from John Green. Peek: "I stand with Rosenblatt in celebrating anticipation over surprise."

Andy Sherrod on Boy Readers from Janet Fox at Through the Wardrobe. Peek: "...the activity is as important as the gender of the main character."

Promoting Your Book Starts with Your Query by Nicola Furlong from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing. Peek: "Writing good queries is hard; it's both art and craft."

2012 Kidlit Con Registration Has Opened from educating alice. Peek: "at the New York Public Library no less, Sept. 28 to Sept. 29, 2012." If you can get there, go! It's free.

Time Out for Monsters Book Birthday Party: Jean Reidy is celebrating the release of her latest picture book Time Out for Monsters! with month-long party and she has something for everyone, including Time Out for Teachers - Free Skype Visits and Resources for Teachers and Librarians for the 2012-13 School Year, Tales from the Time Out Corner - A fun video contest (through 8/31/12) with a chance to win $100 and more. A Time Out for Picture Books Critique Contest, a GoodreadsGiveaway and more.

On My Week Without Exclamation Marks by Larissa Theule from Quirk and Quill. Peek: "I went a week without using exclamation marks. Not a single happy stick and dot in any emails, text messages, or reminder notes to myself or anyone else."

Interview with Author Lisa Yee by Marjorie Coughlan from PaperTigers. Peek: "I think that most kids (and adults) feel like an outsider at some point in their life. But because we don’t talk about this, many think that they are the only person who is invisible."

Essays on Education, Reading, Teaching and Literacy by Professor Nana from The Goddess of YA Literature. See L is for Literacies, Content and Content, E is for Environment, and more.

Attention, Austinites! BookPeople is hiring -- full-time, evenings and weekends. Fill out this application by 11 p.m. Aug. 5.

Cynsational Giveaways
 The winner of Starcrossed by Josephine Angeline (HarperTeen, 2011) was Gaby in Georgia.

New curriculum guide for Think Big!
The winner of Think Big by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Vanessa Newton (Bloomsbury, 2012) was Katie in Maryland.

The winners of two sets of Ron Koertge's bestselling books were Dawn in Illinois and someone who has yet to claim the prize (check your email!), and the winner of a first chapter critique by Ron was Christina.

The winner of Goddess Girls Super Special: The Girl Games by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams (Aladdin, 2012) was Margaret in New York.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Screening Room

Bookmark: We Believe in Picture Books! at Reading Starts Here! from Candlewick Press.

More Personally

Diabolical is now available from Walker Books in the U.K.; see more info!

Congratulations to the SCBWI 2012 Amazon Work in Progress Grant Winners, Runners-up, and Letter of Merit Honorees, including fellow Austinite Donna Bowman Bratton.
Donna at Varian Johnson's Saving Maddie launch!

Even More Personally

Last week's highlight was a trip to nearby Round Top, Texas, which is one of the top small arts towns in the world. If you love craftsmanship, fine antiques, and the visual and performing arts, this is a must-see destination, which attracts visitors from around the globe.

Greg and I stayed at The Belle of Round Top Bed & Breakfast Retreat Center.
Here's a peek at our room. The B&B has our highest recommendation!
Brazos Belle Restaurant in nearby Burton; a world-class dining experience (really).
And we saw "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Shakespeare at Winedale.
See Greg's report, The Play's The Thing.

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Celebrating Poetry: Margarita Engle

By Kate Hosford
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American author of young adult novels in verse. Most recently, The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012). The Surrender Tree: Poem's of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom (Henry Holt, 2008) received many awards, including the first Newbery Honor granted to a Hispanic writer.

Margarita has received two American Library Association Pura Belpré Awards, and two Pura Belpré Honors. Her books have been honored by the International Reading Association, the Library of Congress, and the International Youth Library in Munich.

She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.

Congratulations on the release of your latest novel in verse, The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012). Could you tell us a bit about the evolution of this project?

Thank you! I'm really excited about The Wild Book. It was inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. She was born in 1901, and grew up on a farm in Cuba during the chaos that followed U.S. occupation of the island after the Spanish-American War.

She also suffered the inner turmoil of dyslexia, so I wanted to write about her struggle to learn to read, and her fear of being kidnapped by bandits.

I tried to portray traditional rural aspects of Cuban culture. For instance, poetry was an essential part of daily life on farms at that time.

What was your connection to poetry as a child?

I was a bookworm, constantly reading. I copied poems out of books and tried to memorize them, although I was never great at reciting. I'm more of a silent reader and writer than a performer.

My love of books led to writing poetry while I was very young. Later, during my teen years, I experimented with all sorts of complex rhymed forms, eventually discovering that I love the simplicity of Japanese forms. Free verse now seems to combine complexity and simplicity in a way that feels natural to me.

Almost all of your books are set in Cuba. What is your personal relationship to that country?

At a Havana book fair with old books representing research.
My parents met when my American father traveled to my Cuban mother's hometown after seeing pictures of the colonial architecture in National Geographic Magazine. He's an artist, so he decided to paint the quaint town. They met on his first day there, which happened to be Valentine's Day. They didn't speak the same language, so they communicated by passing sketches back and forth.

I was born and raised in my father's hometown of Los Angeles, but during long summer visits to Cuba, I grew close to my mother's extended family and fell in love with Cuban culture. My passion for tropical nature eventually led to the study of botany and agriculture, but I never stopped writing.

Tragically, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba broke down during one of my childhood visits, in 1960, right around my ninth birthday. Two years later, after the Missile Crisis, travel restrictions isolated the island. I was unable to visit again until 1991, but since then, I have been back many times, to visit relatives.

I live with constant hope that someday soon, travel and diplomacy might be normalized.

All of your novels are historical fiction written in free verse. Why is free verse the right vehicle for your books?

There's something about the flow of emotions that fits the form. Free verse has a lot in common with dreaming. Things happen that aren't expected, even by the author. Images that don't seem to belong together suddenly join: The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, Tropical Secrets, The Firefly Letters, Hurricane Dancers, The Wild Book.

All my titles feel as if they've emerged from dreams, when really, they just come from the flow of visual images.

I love the way writing a historical novel in verse allows me to distill complex situations down to their emotional essence. I hope to offer an un-crowded page that will invite reluctant readers, while at the same time tackling the mature themes that young adults deserve. They don't need baby books. They're bursting with ideas and emotions. They can understand history.

I love it when middle school students send me letters telling me they think my books are easy to understand. The stereotype of poetry as difficult to understand is a relic of the past.

Besides the connection of setting, what are some of the other themes that you see emerging in your body of work?

No matter what story I tell, I usually discover, somewhere along the way, that I'm writing about freedom, whether social, emotional, or spiritual. All my stories have hopeful endings. If I research a topic that I find fascinating, but I find that in real life it had a depressing outcome, I don't choose that story as one for young people.

When I find real life people who were far ahead of their time, such as Juan Francisco Manzano in The Poet Slave of Cuba, Rosa la Bayamesa in The Surrender Tree, Fredrika Bremer in The Firefly Letters, or Maria Merian in my picture book, Summer Birds, then I know that those are great role models for young people. They are people who became independent thinkers while they were young, rather than accepting unjust concepts taught by the adults around them.

There is also a common theme of nature. Cuba is tropical, lush and green. Everything in the hot, wet tropics grows swiftly, and rots swiftly. There is a duality that suits my perception of human cruelty in places of great natural beauty. Paradise lost, in a sense, yet always with hope.

Your books are filled with descriptions of nature, and I see you also have a background in agriculture and botany. What role did nature play in your childhood?

There were two great contrasts between my life in Los Angeles, and those childhood visits to Cuba. One was contact with my mother's extended family, the Spanish language, and Cuban culture. The other was nature.

In Los Angeles, I was forced to live as a city mouse, but I always felt out of place. I am a country mouse at heart. In Cuba, I was in the small town of Trinidad, and on a nearby farm, where every plant fascinated me, every animal, every bird...I just couldn't get enough of nature.

I am still the same way. I became a botanist. My husband is an entomologist, and a volunteer trainer/handler for wilderness search and rescue dog programs.

On a typical Saturday morning, I hide in the Sierra Nevada forest, so our dogs can practice finding a "lost" hiker.

My next picture book is When You Wander, a Search-and-Rescue Dog Story (Holt, March 2013). It will help children understand how to stay found in the woods, and what to expect if a dog is coming to the rescue.

What are some of the daily rituals that feed your poetry?

I love peace and quiet. I write best when the weather is pleasant enough to be outdoors a lot, walking or swaying in a hammock, pen and paper in hand. I'm a morning person. I like to write as soon after dreaming as possible, during that phase when magical realism works its way into the mind, and onto the paper.

For later drafts, I have to come indoors and work at a computer, but at that point, it starts to feel like real work, not just daydreams. Also, I dread deadlines.

I work best when I pretend that time does not exist.

Historical novels in verse require a great deal of research. What was your most difficult research project?

Definitely Hurricane Dancers! The farther I moved back in time, the less reliable information I found.

In the case of this first-encounter tale of Cuban Indians and a shipwrecked pirate, the only first person accounts of the native culture were by Spanish priests. Without a written language, the indigenous point of view has survived only as legend, so I tried to combine what is known with what I feel free to imagine.

Halfway through the research process, I was invited to become a subject of the Cuban DNA Project, and discovered that my maternal mitochondrial DNA is Amerindian. In other words, I learned that I am a descendant of the people I was writing about, Ciboney or Taíno, both considered "extinct" for nearly five hundred years. I carry Haplogroup A, the same genetic marker found in Plains Indian tribes.

Essentially, five centuries of history books were wrong. This not only shows how little we know about history, but also how powerful the survival of a few individuals can be, in an era of genocide. For me, it made the writing of Hurricane Dancers extremely emotional.

I'm so grateful that the book has received the American Library Association's Pura Belpré Honor, is on the International Youth Library's White Ravens List, and on Oct. 5, will receive the Américas Award at the Library of Congress.

You were recently invited to speak at the Asian Festival of Children's Content in Singapore. What was it like to know that your books have traveled so far from home?

It was amazing. The conference was truly multicultural, with participants from all over the world. This year's regional theme was the Philippines, so I had the chance to meet teachers who are using The Surrender Tree in their classrooms. There is a shared love of poetry, and also the shared colonial Spanish history.

I also had the chance to visit some wonderful museums in Singapore, and learn a bit about the local cultures, and since my husband was with me, we took the opportunity to spend a few days in Sarawak, on the Malaysian side of Borneo.

Seeing orangutans in the rain forest was one of the most magical wilderness experiences of my life.

Would you like to tell us about a project you are working on presently?

My next novel in verse is The Lightning Dreamer (Harcourt, March 2013), about the childhood and youth of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Cuba's great nineteenth century abolitionist/feminist poet.

Unlike male abolitionists, she paired her anti-slavery views with a campaign against arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls.

While she was very young, she wrote a daring interracial romance novel that was published eleven years before Uncle Tom's Cabin, and was far more influential in Europe and Latin America.

I'm also working on a search-and-rescue dog middle grade chapter book in verse that grew out of my story, Trail Magic, which is included in Ann Martin's anthology titled Because of Shoe and Other Dog Stories (Holt, 2012).

I was amazed when Ann Martin asked me to expand it into a full-length book, to be published by Holt.

I don't know the exact publication date yet, but it is a contemporary setting in the California mountains, not Cuba, so it was a challenge, an opportunity that was both difficult and thrilling.

What advice do you have for emerging children’s poets?

Never give up. Summer Birds sat in a drawer for thirty years before I pulled it out and finally got it published. Only submit your best work for publication. Think of the rest as practice.

Writers need to rehearse, just like dancers or musicians. We don't like to admit this, because writing is so slow, but we really do need to practice, so don't rush. Be calm.

Cynsational Notes

Kate Hosford grew up in Waitsfield, Vermont, and graduated from Amherst College in 1988. She was happy to return to her home state to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2011.

Before becoming a writer, Kate worked as a foster care worker, a teacher, and an illustrator. Kate is publishing three picture books with Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group: Big Bouffant (spring, 2011), its sequel, Big Birthday (spring 2012), and Infinity and Me (fall, 2012). She loves writing picture books, children's poetry and middle grade novels.

She has lived in India, Germany and Hong Kong, but presently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two sons.

Diabolical by Cynthia Leitich Smith is Now Available from Walker Books (U.K.)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Prepare for a Hell of a Ride

Diabolical, the fourth prose novel in the Tantalize series, is now available from Walker Books in the U.K. (It was released in the U.S. and Australia/New Zealand last winter.)

The story unites the four protagonists -- Quincie, Kieren, Zachary, and Miranda -- from the previous installments, and is in many ways mostly a sequel to Eternal (in the way that Blessed was mostly a sequel to Tantalize).

The series also includes a graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren's Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle, and the forthcoming Eternal: Zachary's Story, also illustrated by Ming.

In addition, free downloads of two short stories set in the universe, "Cat Calls" and "Haunted Love" are available from major book etailers.

Check out curriculum tie-ins for the Tantalize series, developed by the Texas Library Association. Highlights include Vote for Your Favorite Character, an Evening at Sanguini's and Origins of Our Myths.

U.S. edition
You can purchase the U.K. edition or the U.S. edition from Book Depository and receive free shipping around the world or you can buy an autographed copy from my local independent bookstore, BookPeople of Austin, Texas (there will be a shipping fee).

“...this captivating story combines action, suspense, and romance with just the right touch of humor to keep it entertaining. A great finish to an original and satisfying series.” —School Library Journal

"It's a considerable challenge for a series not to lose steam by the fourth book, but this one runs full force on the fires of hell and the sword power of heaven."—The Horn Book

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Career Builder & Giveaway: Candice Ransom

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Candice Ransom is the author of 115 books for young people, in every genre, from board books to young adult literature.

She holds an M.F.A. in writing for children from Vermont College and an M.A. in children’s literature from Hollins University. Currently she teaches in the M.F.A./M.A. children’s literature program at Hollins University.

A ninth generation Virginian, Candice writes about her home state and life in the South (which she has boiled down to the three F’s: food, family, and funerals). She lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia (“America’s Most Historic City”) with her husband Frank and cats Winchester and Persnickety.

Her latest releases are Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World and Rebel McKenzie (both Hyperion, 2012). Check out the publication day party for Iva and Candice's insights on the book from Children's Literature Network.

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids?

How about a hike up a mountain that has a winding road at the top? Sometimes that road goes downhill, other times it leads nowhere.

Candice, age 13
I started so early, at age 15, so the mountain was steep and rocky because I knew nothing and had no talent, only strong desire. Because I was young, I just pushed myself from handgrip to handgrip.

In those days there were no writing classes, no groups, very few books on writing. My only guide was Writer’s Digest magazine (actually digest-sized), which I read at the library.

I made lots of mistakes, like sending my very first poem to The New Yorker, without an SASE—the person who got my little offering wrote me a note, setting me on the right track. And there was the picture book I wrote and illustrated with colored pens and sent grandly off to Albert Whitman.

Gradually, I figured out what I was doing. It was still a long scrabble, but I was a “pro” by age 24 when I sold my very first piece to Highlights. I landed my first book contract at age 29. Near the top of the mountain, at last.

From the second book on, I’ve been on a very long winding road. For years I wrote between four and six books a year—the road seemed like a straightaway with no end in sight. But there were significant curves, such as when my first editor, the one who kept me busy so many years, retired and my work for my major publisher sank like a stone.

As time wound on, I negotiated more curves: editors that quit or were fired, imprints that disappeared, publishers that went bankrupt, good reviews, stinker reviews, years with more money than I could count, years in which I thought I’d have to sell pencils on a street corner (like this one).

I’m not sure where the true top of the mountain is or if I’d recognize if I climbed that high. I’m a Thursday’s child, for one thing, which means I’ll never get where I’m going anyway. But that’s fine—it’s all about the journey.

How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?

Candice, at age 7, reading 
Since I started as a kid, with no education, I’ve done nothing but grow! I had to learn everything! One lesson I learned early on—write what you like to read.

Although I would totally forget this with my first “real” novel, which was a rip-off of Daniel Pinkwater, Dungeons and Dragons, and riots at rock concerts.

After the huge failure of “The Doomsday Kid” (an apt title), I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. My work lacked heart and plot. Plot I prayed would come, but heart I could fix by turning to my past, jotting incidents from my childhood that I would later parlay into books or parts of books. I learned to draw upon authentic emotions and add authentic detail.

Then I fell into a stretch of what I call “Boxcars and Biographies.” I had great success writing series books and nonfiction. But after a while I felt my “soul” work fading.

One day I sat down to write something of my own and found the words had dried up. I was in a rut and needed help getting out. I applied to Vermont College. I’d had 80 books published when I arrived and people (including some of my advisors) didn’t know what to make of me.

I left Writer Candice at home and became Student Candice at Vermont. It was hard, continuing to write contract books while pulling myself through the creative knothole. I worked on contract books five days a week and did my program work on weekends. When I graduated, there were eleven books in my thesis. I sold five of them (three while I was still in the program).

Sometimes you have to go to extraordinary lengths to reach new levels. My time at Vermont helped me deepen my work. I followed my M.F.A with an M.A. in children’s literature at Hollins. That degree helped me figure out the work I was meant to be doing.

As for areas that still need tightening, plot! Every day when I go to my computer, I pray to the god of plot to send me one!

Have you ever made an affirmative decision to alter your creative focus? What inspired this decision? What were the challenges?

Candice's vintage Trixie Belden collection
In high school, I was going to be a writer and an illustrator of children’s books. I could teach myself to write, but realized I’d need to go to art school to learn illustration.

After I became a full-time writer, I hung around illustrators more than writers. Though we were both in the same field, the level of competition was different. Plus illustrators had better stuff. Gradually, I let go of my dream to be an artist. It wasn’t going to happen.

Then one day I walked into a store devoted to scrapbook supplies, found a group of women who worked on their albums every Friday night, and fell down that rabbit hole without a backward glance. I was never a very good scrapbooker, instead spent my Friday nights creating mixed media projects related to children’s literature.

While I worked with my hands, my brain mulled over problems in my writing. It was a wonderful experience discovering my right and left brains could actually work together.

Since I always seem to do things out of sequence, or go through the back door, I used my Friday-night skills to illustrate my own (unpublished) board books with cut-paper collage. Thinking visually opened up a new avenue in my writing. If I got stuck, I’d doodle or draw or cut paper shapes. I made maps. I created scrapbooks and illustrated journals for my characters. The process of making things or fiddling with illustration-like things fed into my writing.

Now I always include some sort of visual project with my novels. I cover my notebooks with collages. When my latest book, Rebel McKenzie, included my own crude comic strips (supposedly created by a seven-year-old boy who’s not too bright, my level of art!), I was beyond thrilled.

The challenge was letting myself dream again. You realize after a certain age you can’t do everything. And then a few more years roll by and you realize maybe you can. Just try one more time.

How have you built an audience over time?

Candice's desk and reading nook
Pffffft! What audience? Years ago, when my contemporary fiction was in book clubs and in bookstores and libraries, I had quite an audience. Fan mail kept me busy every Saturday morning. Fans actually came to my door. But those were kids who bought my books themselves through the school book clubs or in the paperback section of bookstores.

Then I began writing picture books and my audience sort of shrank. It’s hard to reach the little kids. And then all sorts of things happened: bookstores disappeared, libraries had budget cuts, and other things like video games vied for kids’ attention. I wrote books that didn’t draw huge, adoring audiences—nonfiction, biographies. I wrote under pseudonyms.

To be honest, I don’t know where my audience is. I write mostly mid-grade now. Unlike YA audiences, kids 8 to 12 aren’t that tuned into the Internet, aren’t that influenced by blogs. I still go to bookstores, though not as much simply because there aren’t as many, and still do school visits, though not as many as I used because of slashed author-visit budgets.

But I’m still writing. I know the kids are out there. Somewhere.

Have you ever considered giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

Candice's office.
I’ve flirted with giving up many times, but those were mostly snits that I got over. But once I did give up. Nobody noticed because I was still working and still publishing.

In the mid-90s, I had a spate of bad luck: seven books (with different publishers) were canceled, some right before publication. My long-term editor left and my long-term publisher had no use for me any more, despite twenty-plus books, including many bestsellers.

I’d been toiling in the field for nearly 15 years and felt disillusioned. Hurt, actually, as if the publishing world had turned its back on me.

So I turned my back on it. I stopped going into the children’s section of bookstores, ignored the children’s section of the library. But those were my two favorite places and it was painful for me to shut myself away from the world I’d loved my whole life.

At the time, adult cozy mysteries were taking off and I thought I’d switch careers in midstream. The fact I’d never written for adults, except for articles, didn’t bother me. I tried to learn the new field, hung around mystery writers (professional lunches were so much fun, talking about murder instead of how to nurture the young child’s mind). After I wrung out half of a really bad mystery novel, my adult agent and my adult editor told me, “Don’t bother finishing.”

I stayed away from children’s publishing at least four years, though I still cranked out series books. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I wrote letters. As midnight neared, I wrote a long letter to myself. Basically I told myself to get over myself and go back to the thing I loved most.

And so I did.

On January 1, 2000, I leaped out of bed, eager to be in my field again.

I was a born-again children’s book writer.

Share an aspect of your process.

I always create notebooks for each project. This is the notebook for the sequel to Iva Honeysuckle. I buy binders with a clear-view window, make a collage, and slip it inside the window. I also cover composition notebooks in a similar theme to carry with me.

And I always have "icons" for each book. This book has a beach theme--the bracelet was mine as a child.  The postcard is of a house we used to rent at Ocean City when I was a child.

Authentic details make my work . . . well, authentic.

How have you handled being a player in the world of youth literature? Fans, reviews, jealousies, acclaim, etc.

Candice's office
Dealing with acclaim and a gigantic bunch of fans has been like finding dinosaurs in my backyard—hasn’t happened yet. Probably won’t happen.

But jealousy, bad reviews, and all that other tawdry stuff, yes, I’ve had more than my fair share. Once upon a time, I read all my reviews. I’m prone to obsessive thinking, and the bad ones would send me off on a tangent that lasted for days.

If I heard about someone I knew getting a multi-book contract for millions of dollars when I hadn’t broken the $5000 advance mark, I’d sink into a decline (I’m a Southerner, we are very good at declines). Worse, these things disrupted my work. I couldn’t do anything about a bad review or someone else’s huge success.

So I simply shut off the flow of information. I stopped reading my reviews, good and bad. If I believed in the good ones, I had to believe in the bad ones (if a review is really good, I tell my editor to send it on). I quit reading about other people’s successes.

But then along came the Internet and Facebook and again I was barraged with things I didn’t want to know. So I cut them off, though it’s not easy.

While I’m happy for other writers—and I am, really—I need to have the news when I’m ready for it. First thing in the morning when I’m starting my work, no. At a luncheon or a conference or in emails when my work day is done, yes. 

Where do you want to go from here? What are your short-and long-term goals? Your strategies for achieving them?

Winchester -- world's most photogenic cat
Since I’ve quit writing to trends, it’s been pretty quiet in my world. I’ve had lots of time to think. After more than a hundred published books, I’m thinking more about what I want to do with the time I have left.

I don’t write as fast as I did. My projects are longer and deeper. If I write a book a year, I’m doing well. I want to continue on my current path, writing funny Southern novels (something I know about!). It’s enough I keep working, staying the course.

I’d like to create a long-term workshop or write a book (or both!) on what I’ve learned over the years as a writer. I love teaching and feel I have much to pass along.

I’d call it the Turkey Buzzard School of Writing. Turkey buzzards aren’t much to look at on the ground, but when they fly . . . they are wizards in the air. They don’t even flap their wings.

The nuts and bolts of writing aren’t very glamorous, but when a piece works . . . you don’t detect a single wing-flap.

Of all of your books today, which one are you the most proud of? Why?

I’m most proud of Rebel McKenzie, my latest book, and not because it’s my latest.

Rebel was a book I wrote to satisfy myself, not an editor or publisher (though it was nice they liked it!).

I began with an episode from my life (yes, that’s me in the seven pairs of underpants with the leeches on my ankles, getting advice from a convict), then moved into a sort of endless summer from my teenage years, using people and places from memory.

But then the first lovely thing happened. The character became not-me and the story became not-mine. It grew into its own wonderful self.

The second lovely thing was figuring out how to tell all the characters’ stories without slowing down the plot or using flashbacks: Rudy drew comic strips, Bambi sent unsolicited beauty advice newsletters, Rebel kept a field notebook.

The third lovely thing was that the big cross-eyed kink-tailed Siamese cat, Doublewide, tried to run away with the book. It was so much fun chasing him.

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series offers insights from children's-YA authors who written and published books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win Rebel McKenzie by Candice Ransom (Hyperion, 2012). Author sponsored, U.S. only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest Post & Giveaways: The Girllustrators

In order of heads: Patrice, Lalena, Marsha, Shelley, Amy
By The Girllustrators
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Greetings, Cynsational readers!

The Girllustrators got together to talk about art, children's books, and inspiration, as a sort of ad-hoc interview for Cynthia's blog, at her generous invitation.

Five of us Girlls—Shelley Ann Jackson, Marsha Riti, Patrice "Patty" Barton, Amy Farrier, and Lalena Fisher—convened around the dining table of Amy's house in central Austin, while her dog Lloyd loitered about as groupie (at least while we had snacks on the table).

Girllustrator Emma J. Virjan (pictured below) could not make this meeting.


MARSHA: Should we talk about how we came together?

By Shelley (and Jeff)
SHELLEY: Well, I moved to Austin in October 2010 and didn't know many people here, especially in the children’s book community. My husband (illustrator/author Jeff Crosby) and I had been collaborating for a number of years.

I am at a point now in my career where I'm trying to reinvent myself artistically because I’m once again working on my own. I could really use some feedback and support. And also for the sake of making some friends in a new city, I thought it might be nice to have a girls' group. That's why I initiated forming the Girllustrators.

I met Amy at an Inklings meeting (the Inklings are an Austin SCBWI illustration critique group). At the 2011 regional SCBWI conference, Amy introduced me to Marsha, and Patty introduced herself. About a month later, I met Lalena at the Picture Circus in Georgetown.

(Group is quiet)

And that's a take!

(Group laughter)

Why did the rest of you want to get involved?

AMY: Well, I just wanted to meet with other illustrators and talk about work. We had been talking together—Marsha and I—with a different group. It's fun to meet with other illustrators and hear what they're working on and get new ideas.

MARSHA: And I love your work, Shelley. It's really inspirational to see someone who works in such an exacting way, and it's great to talk to someone else about craft, who obviously knows theirs extremely well.

PATTY: That's what I like too; when you emailed me to ask me, you told me who else was coming, and I liked everyone's work.

MARSHA: [To Patty] I was so excited when Shelley told me you were going to be part of the group!

SHELLEY: Yeah, that's how I got everyone else to join! I told them you were coming!

PATTY: (Laughing) Thank you. Well, when you work at home it's isolated, so it's nice to get out and have someone else to talk about work with. Especially if you're on a project and you're stuck on something.

By Marsha
MARSHA: And not just about the work itself, but the working relationships you have with the people around you. I find it really helpful to have other people who know what's going on, and maybe have gone through that. And are good sounding boards.

PATTY: Yeah, like "Are all art directors the same way?" Because they all have different approaches, and different publications have different approaches.

LALENA: Patty and Marsha, it's been so interesting to see your in-progress work for your chapter books. I feel like I'm getting an inside look into the process that I wouldn't get otherwise.

...Another thing we do at our Girllustrator meetings is show work in progress, and bounce ideas off each other. It's helpful to get other eyes.

SHELLEY: Last week we laid out Amy's entire portfolio on the floor to help her decide what to take to the Houston SCBWI conference.

MARSHA: What was super-exciting about that was rearranging it and realizing that just rearranging a portfolio can change the whole flow of it.

SHELLEY: And make it much more dynamic.

AMY: It helped me think about what to focus on, too.

MARSHA: It was brave of you to do that.

AMY: Oh. was brave of you guys to look at it!

(Group laughter)

It’s nice to have a group of people whose opinions you trust when you put something out on the table and say, "This is what I'm working on; what do you guys think?"

SHELLEY: I think it does make a difference that the group is all women, in that respect, and also that it’s a closed group. I’ve gotten to know you ladies well and you’re all very nurturing, so it’s a safe environment for me to be experimental in.

LALENA: But we have a "brother band."

By Jeff
SHELLEY: Yeah, Jeff was inspired by us and formed his own group!

MARSHA: The Armadillustrators!

PATTY: I think it's neat that sometimes we do things together with them.

MARSHA: It would be great to work together on the next conference.

PATTY: It was wonderful how they came in on the last one and brought prints for the auction.

LALENA: And it looks like we're going to do drawing days together.

SHELLEY: One thing I was looking forward to, because I have so much going on, is a monthly meeting that helps me set goals and get work done.

LALENA: And keep up momentum when you're trying to take your work to the next level. Because it's actually a kind of difficult pursuit. Especially when you have—well, everybody does have—other responsibilities.

MARSHA: Well, and you and Shelley have little ones.

PATTY: And they always come first.

By Lalena
LALENA: I also like the fact that we're at all different places in our careers, as well has have different styles. Like, some of us haven't been published at all, some have published a lot, and some work in pencil, and some on the computer, and others in watercolor.

It's nice to have the variety. Because you can get inspiration from unexpected places.

SHELLEY: I was kind of surprised when we first started meeting, because I learned so much about technology from you guys, which is not what I was expecting to get out of the group. At that time, I didn't know anything about blogging.

MARSHA: I forgot that! Because now you're really the one coordinating our blog!

PATTY: You've done a great job with that. It's been really good content, and really good feedback on the content.

SHELLEY: Thank you!

MARSHA: And people are following it.

LALENA: It is much more planned and put-together than a lot of blogs out there.

AMY: I think scheduling it was a good idea.

SHELLEY: Well, Tech Tuesdays was your idea.

By Amy
AMY: It was? I forgot!

(Group laughter)

I do like a catchy title.

SHELLEY: When Austin SCBWI regional advisor Debbie Gonzales approached Jeff and me about speaking at the Tech conference (Austin SCBWI's Storytelling in the Digital Age symposium, August 2011), I thought: "What? I don't know anything about technology."

And then I thought: "Well, when I have a technology question, I ask the Girllustrators! Maybe we, as a group, could talk about aspects that apply to illustrators."

MARSHA: And that really galvanized our whole group: us being a part of the tech conference.

LALENA: Once that started, that's when I began to come regularly. Because I felt obligated—I was taking part in something. So it ended up being a really good thing. It got me into the habit getting me into the habit of coming.

SHELLEY: And that's when we felt we needed a logo (see below), and the Tech Tuesday blog posts—to give ourselves a bit of credibility before we got up and spoke in front of people about technology!


But it also gave us the opportunity to research other illustrators, and learn about how they used technology.

MARSHA: So it was helpful to us as well as to other people. And now the group feels really solid. Because we went through that experience together.

LALENA: We've been through battle!


SHELLEY: At this last regional conference, it was nice to attend together.

LALENA: We had a collective identity: "I'm not just Lalena, I'm a Girllustrator!"

MARSHA: This really leads into what we do. I think that our group has done a good job being advocates for the illustrator community. Like during the conference, Patty was instrumental in making sure that the portfolio room represented the artists as well as possible.

PATTY: At the 2011 conference, there were so many illustrators that came, and not enough room to show all the portfolios.

SHELLEY: Overseeing all aspects of the illustration room was such a monumental task; more than one person could handle.

PATTY: Mark G. Mitchell, illustrator coordinator for Austin SCBWI, is spread too thin at these conferences. So we were thinking about how we could help him, and meanwhile help the illustrators look more professional. After all, we're the "I" in SCBWI.

MARSHA: Mark does such a phenomenal job for the illustrator community here in Austin with his blog, with Inklings; he attends every SCBWI event that he can attend. He's always there.

By Mark G. Mitchell

PATTY: He wants the very best for the illustrators, and he's a professional. So I asked him if he would like some help, and he did.

SHELLEY: He got down on one knee...

(Group laughter)

PATTY: He said, "Thank you! Thank you!"

Jessica Lee Anderson with illustrator chair Mark G. Mitchell
So we planned it out so that everyone had a defined space, with the name card holders from Marsha. Then we worked with Mark to set the tables up so that everyone could walk around, and we got to have the auction items in the same room. He put the coffee and pastries in there, which just invited people in. You could be out in the hallway with all the bustling, and then the minute you walked into where the coffee and donuts and portfolios were, you could feel people exhale. And just mingle, and was a very inviting space.

AMY: Plus, it was a great idea to have the prints and paintings for the auction.

SHELLEY: Patty thought that another way to showcase our work and raise money for SCBWI would be for the illustrators to donate prints to the auction. I think everyone got pretty excited about that!

Another thing that was exciting was having some other chapter’s illustration coordinators attend, like Diandra Mae of Houston SCBWI and Akiko White of SCBWI-San Antonio. They were enthusiastic about our ideas too. And since Amy went to the Houston conference, they shared their plans with her. So, the idea is that we don’t have just one conference a year; we're involved with all these cities, so we can collaborate and improve together.

2011 Austin SCBWI Regional Conference
Switching gears, something that you mentioned earlier, Lalena, that the Girllustrators do is our drawing days. We go someplace together and sketch.

AMY: I love having Harper (Shelley's five-year-old daughter) there; there's something about having a kid there—being super-free—that loosens me up.

SHELLEY: It's so funny because she'll be watching something intensely and drawing, and when she’s done you'll ask, "What's that you just drew?" And it'll be some fish swimming in the ocean, and you're like, "But you're looking at a monkey!"

(Group laughter)

LALENA: Have you heard of the fourth grade slump?

MARSHA: No! (Everyone shakes her head)

LALENA: Apparently one of the last parts of the brain that switches on is the amygdala, which is the part of our brain controlling inhibitions. It's in about fourth grade when it happens. And then kids are suddenly worried about: "What is it supposed to look like?" and "What are the rules?"

MARSHA: And that's when a lot of kids stop drawing! There's this book by Lynda Barry about that (Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book). They suddenly think they can't draw, because what they draw doesn't look like what they're looking at.

PATTY: When anime came out, my son suddenly started drawing again. He was about in sixth grade, and he was drawing all this anime stuff.

And I asked him, "Why is it that you like this style?"

And he said, "Because to do a nose, all you have to do is one line here and one line here—and there's your nose."

So he felt like he could draw again.

LALENA: I find it hard to switch off my amygdala even now. I mean, not everything has to look realistic, but I have preconceptions, and focus way too much on the goal so that I don't always enjoy the process as much as I should...

So, even for those of us who kept on drawing, it can still be a challenge.

SHELLEY: Once you’re able to make things look realistic, then you're stuck in that mindset. I want to loosen up, and it's hard.

LALENA: You form habits.

By Laura
PATTY: My friend Laura Logan has a playful style, but for one project she had to draw a tiger. She said, "I can draw a kitty, but if I draw that with stripes, it'll just look like a kitty with stripes!"

So she looked at YouTube and got some photos of tigers, and drew them realistically for a while. Then she put those away, and went back to drawing her kitty in her style, and then tried to draw a tiger in her style.

Gradually, she worked her way back from her style, to a tiger.

MARSHA: That's fascinating.

PATTY: She has images on her blog showing the process. So she had to learn how to draw a tiger realistically—learn what it really looked like—

LALENA: And then let go of it.

PATTY: And let go of it.

MARSHA: Amy and I met up for a drawing day, and I was trying to draw this horse. And I just got to the point where I was thinking, "I hate horses. I hate drawing horses!"

PATTY: Laura was saying that too; you get to the elbow, and then you get to the knee, and then the ankle, and you think you're done, but—Oh no!

Gene Brenek & Girllustrator Emma J. Virjan
MARSHA: Horses have a really exacting structure. If you don't get the horse's structure down, then it doesn't look like a horse.

SHELLEY: So should we sort of wrap this up? Do we want to say anything in conclusion?

LALENA: We really appreciate being part of Cynthia's blog.

MARSHA: Hear hear.

SHELLEY: Cynthia's awesome. If she could draw, she would totally be a Girllustrator.

MARSHA: She has beautiful hair.

Cynsational Notes

For more Girll talk—our favorite children's books, the language of nursery rhymes, and an artist's journey to a cohesive portfolio—meet up with us on!

Patrice Barton is a children’s book illustrator living in Austin, Texas; with her husband, son and a few doggies. Her clients include Alfred A. Knopf, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Scholastic Book Club, Ideals Children’s Books, Ladybug Magazine, Clubhouse Jr. Magazine, Highlights, Highlights High Five, National Geographic, and Hazelden Educational Publishing.

By Patrice
Patty’s recent books include Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine (Knopf, 2011); MINE! (Knopf, 2011); Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale (Knopf, 2010); The Looking Book (Ideals, 2009); Layla, Queen of Hearts (FSG, 2010); The Naming of Tishkin Silk (FSG, 2009); and the forthcoming I Like Old Clothes (Knopf, 2012).

Amy Farrier is an illustrator and designer with a degree in English literature. After years of working with words, she picked up a paintbrush and got hooked on watercolor. And the wonderful art and stories found in children’s books.

Inspired by morning walks, nature specials, and funny life moments (some of them involving a certain sweet dog and spicy cat that live with her), she is happily working away on some art and stories of her own.

Lalena Fisher illustrates children’s textbooks and workbooks, and designs characters and environments for children's animation. A native Texan, Lalena recently returned home after 14 years in New York where she assisted artist Matthew Barney, created characters and backgrounds for Nickelodeon’s "Blue’s Clues" and "The Wonder Pets," and created graphics for the New York Times.

Her current children's clients include Oxford University Press and the Mother Goose Club. She also designs logos, posters, books, and websites.

Lalena has a Master of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute, and a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. After-hours, Lalena is currently developing several of her own children’s picture books, and a short animated music cartoon.

Shelley Ann Jackson has illustrated for clients such as the New York Times, Berkley Books, and Faces magazine. Her first picture book, Little Lions, Bull Baiters & Hunting Hounds: A History of Dog Breeds (Tunda, 2008) was awarded the 2008 Gold Medal in Juvenile Nonfiction by ForeWord magazine and received a non-fiction research grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her second book, Upon Secrecy (Calkins Creek, 2009), was selected One of the Best Children’s Books 2010 by Bank Street College of Education. Harness Horses, Bucking Broncos & Pit Ponies: A History of Horse Breeds (Tunda, 2011) is her latest release. She lives in Austin with her husband, daughter, and three pups.

By Marsha
Marsha Riti is a freelance illustrator based out of Austin, Texas. She has a BFA in studio art from the University of Texas in Austin. She loves to create and takes inspiration from early comics artists as well as some new ones with a slight mid-century twist.

Her first illustrated picture first book, titled The Picky Little Witch, written by Elizabeth Brokamp, came out in September 2011 from Pelican Press. She’s now hard at work illustrating the Critter Club series to be published by Little Simon.

Emma J. Virjan was born in Texas, under an Aries moon, on a Wednesday evening, her Dad’s bowling night. This might explain her attraction to shiny, hardwood floors and crunchy, snack bar French fries.

Her career as a graphic designer and illustrator started when she gave everyone handmade business cards for Christmas when she was five years old.

Nacho the Party Puppy, her first children’s book, was featured in the 2008 Texas Book Festival. Get to know Nacho (and Emma) at

When Emma isn’t drawing, she spends her time reading, making lists, cutting out images of the numeral 5, and collecting produce stickers.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter for a chance to win Harness Horses, Bucking Broncos & Pit Ponies: A History of Horse Breeds by Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson (Tunda, 2011) and/or I Like Old Clothes by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Patrice Barton (Knopf, 2012). Both giveaways are illustrator sponsored, eligibility: North America.

From the promotional copy of Harness Horses:

Thousands of years ago people living on the steppes of central Asia realized that horses could transport them long distances, help them fight their wars, pull their plows, and provide them with sport and companionship. Ever since, horses and human history have been intertwined.

The author-illustrator team of Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson celebrates all kinds of horses in this beautifully illustrated, fact-filled book. 

From fast horses like the Barb, which traveled to Spain from Africa in the early eighth century to become a foundation for many Spanish and European breeds, to war horses like the Mongolian that gave their owners military advantage (today there are more horses in Mongolia than there are people), to the hard-working horses ranging from the tiny American Miniature to the giant Clydesdale, Harness Horses, Bucking Broncos & Pit Ponies is a treasure-trove of information. 

Today there are fifty-eight million horses in the world.

This is the perfect book for those who own (or dream of owning) a horse, who ride, or who simply like to read about these magnificent animals and the special relationship they share with humans.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

From the promotional copy for I Like Old Clothes (see cover art above):

I like old clothes, 

Hand-me-down clothes, 

Worn outgrown clothes,

Not-my-own clothes...

Originally published by Knopf in 1976 (with illustrations by Jacqueline Chwast), this poem—an exuberant celebration of hand-me-down clothes—is just as relevant and accessible today as it was over 30 years ago.

Children's Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman offers a bouncy, fun-to-read-aloud text and a refreshingly agreeable, resourceful protagonist who likes old clothes for their "history" and "mystery." 

Illustrator Patrice Barton brings new, contemporary life to the poem, with an adorable little girl and her younger brother playing dress-up, making crafts, and happily treasuring their hand-me-downs.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Visit The Girllustrators: United for Sharing, Support & Shop Talk
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...