Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Guest Post: Linda Joy Singleton on Novels to Picture Books, the Long & Short of Writing for Children

By Linda Joy Singleton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When I joined SCBWI, my biggest dream was to sell a middle-grade novel. I attended as many workshops as I could and was excited when there were speakers who wrote MG or YA.

But often I had to sit through talks on writing picture books.

It seemed like writers all around me were in love with the picture book genre. I enjoyed reading picture books to my kids, but I was writing for the kid in me and preferred thrilling middle-grade mysteries.

My most exciting day ever was when I got The Call. Yay!

My middle-grade novel Almost Twins sold to a small publisher. More sales followed, mostly YA and MG paperback series.

I was living my writing dream!

All along, I kept going to SCBWI conferences and learning everything I could about the industry— which usually included many, many workshops on picture books.

I learned so much that I could give a talk on writing picture books. Still, writing short seemed like a magical talent I lacked. So, I happily continued writing longer books.

And then it happened—I got the itch to write a picture book.

My picture book friends encouraged me and critiqued my first attempts. I rewrote and cut and rewrote then submitted.

The rejections rolled in, smothering me in disappointment. While my friends thought my picture books were great, editors were not impressed.

Years passed, and while the ups and downs of writing MG and YA series often frustrated me, I kept selling novels.

I'd made nearly 40 book sales, when a photograph changed my career course.

My writing friend Verla Kay, came to visit and I tagged along to her school talk. She gave a power point presentation, starting off with photo of herself as a child. The photograph showed two girls building a snow dog. This photo stuck in my head—and words followed:

"More than anything, Ally wanted a dog, but dogs made her ACHOO."


The next day, I was driving to a writing conference when more words danced in my head. I couldn't ignore them.

When we stopped for lunch, I grabbed a pen and scribbled the first draft of Snow Dog, Sand Dog, illustrated by Jess Golden (Albert Whitman, 2014) on a napkin.

Now I'd love to say this book sold immediately, but it went through many rewrites and two agents before it was published five years later by Albert Whitman.

Still I thought it was a fluke.

“I'm not really a picture book author,” I'd say because writing picture books was so challenging and I was in awe of talented picture book author friends.


Delighted with the sale, I considered myself very lucky. And soon I was working on my 7th series for older kids, Curious Cat Spy Club (Albert Whitman, 2015).

Then a money game I created for my grandson, inspired me to write another picture book, Cash Kat, illustrated by Christina Wald (2016) which I sold to Arbordale. And a year later, A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin (June 13, 2017) sold to Little Bee.

I started thinking maybe I did have some picture book skills, especially when my agent sold two more of my picture books: Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and Crane And Crane (2019).

Now I consider myself a novelist and a picture book author.

These genres seem opposite with word counts around 50,000 words for novels and usually under 200 words for picture books. But the genres complement each other, too.

Here are some thoughts on being a multi-genre author:
  • Writing short can be more difficult since every word counts. But to be honest, I spend about six months of daily writing on a novel and probably only a few weeks on a picture book. The challenge for me with a picture book is coming up with a good idea.
  • Inspiration is a big difference in genres. If I waited for inspiration for a novel, I'd never finish the book. Instead, I have a routine of writing most mornings until the novel is done. But with picture books, inspiration is elusive. If I force a picture book idea, it's rarely any good. I like to tease that I've averaged one good picture book idea a year. So, when that idea strikes, you can bet I stop everything to write it down.
  • Word play is part of the fun with picture books. Sometimes I find myself playing with words in my novel writing, too. Smash, crash, boom! I can't resist using fun sound words, poetic rhythm and even alliteration in longer fiction. 
  • Fun fact: My longest novel, Memory Girl (CBAY Books, 2016), was nearly 100,000 words. My shortest picture book, Crane & Crane (2019), sold with just 19 words.
  • Don't limit your creativity. Genres are just boxes that shape the story. For a long time, I told myself I wasn't a picture book author, but then I became one. Make a routine of writing, and say “yes” when inspiration strikes. And you can become the writer you want to be.

Cynsational Notes

Linda Joy Singleton wrote her first story when she was eight about a mischievous kitten.

Two decades later, she pursued a career in writing and joined SCBWI. She's sold over 45 books, including series: Curious Cat Spy Club, The Seer (Llewellyn/Flux), Regeneration (Berkley Books) and Dead Girl trilogy (North Star Editions).

Two new picture books come out in 2017: A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin  (Little Bee Books, June 13, 2017) and Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, December 2017.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Trailer: This is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for This is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe (Chronicle, 2017). From the promotional copy:

This is How We Do It follows the real lives of seven kids from Italy, Japan, Iran, India, Peru, Uganda, and Russia for a single day. 

In Japan, Kei plays Freeze Tag, while, in Uganda, Daphine likes to jump rope. But while the way they play may differ, the shared rhythm of their days—and this one world we all share—unites them. This genuine exchange provides a window into traditions that may be different from our own as well as a mirror reflecting our common experiences.

Inspired by his own travels, Matt Lamothe transports readers across the globe and back with this luminous and thoughtful picture book.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Guest Post: Melissa Stewart on Concept Picture Books

By Melissa Stewart
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Most people in the children’s literature community are familiar with picture book biographies, but did you know that there’s a second major category of nonfiction picture books?

It’s time to shine some light on concept picture books.


A concept picture book explores an abstract idea or process, and in many cases, offers a unique perspective or new way of seeing things.

This approach works well for authors interested in focusing on patterns and cycles in the natural world, animal behavior and adaptations, and math concepts.

Picture book biographies have a narrative writing style and a chronological sequence structure.

In contrast, concept books usually employ an expository writing style. And they can feature any of the six major text structures now being taught in most schools (description, sequence, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect, problem & solution).


Sometimes they make clever use of a unique text structure that perfectly matches the book’s topic.

Here are some examples:
In most cases, a picture book biography has a third-person point of view, and the voice is either lively or lyrical, depending on the subject’s personality. Once again, concept picture books offer greater diversity.

The voice can fall anywhere along the lively-to-lyrical continuum.


The point of view can vary, too. Plenty of concept books have a second-person point of view, and a few recent titles boldly employ a first-person point of view. One of my favorites is The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin (Henry Holt, 2015).

With so many choices, how do writers narrow their options? It isn’t easy.

What it comes down to for me is finding the best possible way to delight as well as inform young readers. Once I stumble upon the special bit of magic that allows me to accomplish this goal, I take out my writer’s toolbox and start tinkering.

I consider various text structures and writing styles. I think about voice and point of view and the best way to use language devices. Then I plunge into the writing and see where the ideas swirling in my head take me.

For Feathers: Not Just for Flying (illustrated by Sarah Brannen) (Charlesbridge, 2014), I crafted a lyrical voice that I hoped would awaken the young reader’s sense of wonder.

The strong compare-and-contrast text structure assists children in making connections among the sixteen different examples in the book.

For Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, June 13, 2017), I took a different approach.


The book features an intriguing title, fabulous illustrations by the uber-talented Steve Jenkins, and an interactive question-and-answer text structure that makes it perfect for read alouds.

Secondary text supports and expands on the book’s main ideas, allowing readers to thoroughly explore how and why animals use sounds to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

If you’re interested in gaining a deeper understanding of concept picture books, I encourage you to read and analyze a broad range of the books listed above, considering (1) what makes them special and (2) what tools the authors employed as they crafted the texts.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Can an Aardvark Bark? a starred review. Peek: "Prolific science writer Stewart always chooses appealing facts, but what makes this collection work so well is the skillful presentation by both author and illustrator."

A curriculum guide, storytime guide and activities are available from the author. A book trailer is available on Vimeo.

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

She is the co-author, with Nancy Chesley, of Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2014) and Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, 3-5 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016).

Melissa maintains the blog Celebrate Science and serves on the board of advisors for the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Friendship, Family & Food: Hena Khan & Karuna Riazi on Writing for Salaam Reads by Kiera Parrot from School Library Journal. Peek from Karuna Riazi: "Fantasy has always been my first love and has always been the primary genre I write within. It’s also what I grew up on—particularly the plethora of marvelous girl-power centered narratives that cropped up in the 90s: Ella Enchanted [by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins, 1997)], Diana Wynne Jones’s body of work."

Choosing When to Chuck a Joke by Deborah Halverson from DearEditor. Peek: "Plot advancement is a crucial gauge for keep-it-or-chuck-it choices. Just don’t let good intentions regarding plot advancement take you on some joke-axing rampage that squelches your humor in service of brevity and focus."

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi: A Personal Recollection by Tim Wynne-Jones from the Horn Book. Peek: "...[Chris] Van Allsburg was a primary influence in starting my own career as a children’s book author...It was the magic of the book’s art that did the trick. The shock of a lavish picture book in black and white."

The Story in Nonfiction Picture Books by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing With a Broken Tusk. Peek: "Pay attention to what
Me...Jane  (by author-illustrator Patrick McDonnell (Little Brown, 2011)) doesn’t do. It doesn’t try to plunk everything one might know about this life into the small container of the picture book. Instead the story builds internally, in the small and comfortable world that the child Jane inhabits." See also Uma on Citizenship, Culture and Community from the Lee & Low Blog.

Want to be Creative on Purpose? Schedule It by Carl Richards from The New York Times. Peek: "This notion to wait around in the rain until you get struck by lightning to make art (or anything) doesn’t mesh with my experience at all. What comes much closer is the famous Chuck Close quotation: 'Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.'"

Outsiders Author S.E. Hinton Still Gold After 50 Years by Gwen Ihnat from A.V. Club. Peek: "I’ve always been an observer. There’s people who do things and people who watch, and I’m a watcher. I was very well aware of what was going on."

Using Real-World Locations to Ground Your Story's Setting by Sara Letourneau from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "By learning how a real-world location 'functions' above and underground, as well as why it functions in this manner, we can ensure that our story’s depiction of that setting is not only realistic, but also factually accurate."

Cinnamon Illustrator Explains How She Brought Neil Gaiman's Story to Life by Nivea Serrao from
Entertainment Weekly. Peek from Divya Srinivasan: "This was my first time illustrating a book for someone else’s story. The books I’ve written and illustrated have been for much younger children, and so have a lot less text than Cinnamon’s longer story. Breaking up the text into pages was my first step."

How to Write Dynamic Secondary Characters by HarperChildren's editor Rosemary Brosnan from Epic Reads. Peek: "When you are writing, you will sometimes tend to focus solely on your main character, to the detriment of other characters in the book, which can make for flat secondary characters." Note: Includes writing prompt aimed at creating believable, rounded secondary characters.

A Writer's Worst Fear by William Kenower from Jane Friedman. Peek: "If you have ever shared even one thing you have written with another person, you are an author. The moment you surrender this thing you wrote in the supreme privacy of your imagination to the unknown of another person’s mind, your relationship to your writing changes."

Caroline Carlson and The World's Greatest Detective by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launchpad. Peek: "When I reach the end of reading a mystery story, I want to guess the true solution to the mystery only a page or two before it’s revealed, and I don’t want to feel cheated. As a writer, it’s impossible to ensure that every reader has this experience..."

Must-Visit American Writers Museum in Chicago by Esther Hershenhorn from Teaching Authors. Peek: "...this one-of-a-kind museum does so much more than engage and celebrate. It inspires and educates while honoring what all writers do. Writers across all genres, formats and publishing designs, from Cotton Mather to Dr. Seuss."

How to Write With Feeling - Finding the Still Points of a Turning World by Addy Farmer from Notes from the Slushpile. Peek: "...writing for children is a remembrance of not just what happened but crucially how it felt when it happened. As adults we carry baggage...but as writers we should be able to rummage around and find the bit which takes you to a place or a person or event when you felt something...."

A Muslim YA Author on Belonging At A Tennessee Book Festival by Sheba Karim. Peek: "...I sometimes feel like I’m on and off a soapbox, reminding audiences of the dangerous divisiveness of Islamophobic rhetoric, explaining that Muslims are a diverse group of people who defy any stereotype."

How to Prepare for a TED-style Author Talk by Deanna Cabinian from Writer unBoxed. Peek: "The talks I gravitated toward included some very personal stories so I knew I had to include some in my own talk. Make a quick list of all the possible story lines you can tell about yourself as a writer."

How Real Books Have Trumped E-Books by Alex Preston from The Guardian. Peek: "...after reaching a peak in 2014, sales of e-readers and ebooks have slowed and hardback sales have surged. The latest figures from the Publishing Association showed ebook sales falling 17 percent in 2016, with an 8 percent rise in their physical counterparts. At the same time, publishers’ production values have soared..."

The Workout Writer: Perceived Weakness by Kathryn Magendie from Writer unBoxed. Peek: "There is a perceived weakness that keeps us from realizing our potential, when we don’t recognize that potential and falter in the face of what masks itself as failure."

The Face in the Mirror by Zetta Elliott from her blog. Peek: "...privilege is bidirectional; you can’t unfairly advantage one individual without simultaneously disadvantaging someone else...children of color and the Indigenous child have only one mirror each; their mirrors diminish in size, corresponding with the limited number of books published about their group."

On Seeing & Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing with Empathy & Writing with Love by Alicia Elliott from Room. Peek: "Empathy has its limits—and, contrary to what some may think, it is possible to both have empathy for a person and still hold inherited, unacknowledged racist views about them."

Author Interview: Emily X.R. Pan by Shenwei from Reading (AS) (I)AN (AM)ERICA. Peek: "My grandmother lives in Beitou and she was such a huge inspiration for the story that I knew I wanted to draw from her neighborhood....All the (non-historical) steps that my characters take, I actually walked myself in effort to really capture the atmosphere."

Rachel Bateman on Someone Else's Summer by Tara Hackley from YA Interrobang. Peek: "I really thought about how grief works – sometimes it seem to completely consume you, like that’s all there is in your life. But other times it fades away, and before you know it, you’re having fun and enjoying life again for a moment."

The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz Returns to Print by Hannah Ehrlich from the Lee &
Low Blog. Peek: "Told in the rhythms of traditional oral narrative, this powerful telling of the history of the Native/Indigenous peoples of North America recounts their story from Creation to the invasion and usurpation of Native lands." Note: Cynsations host Cynthia Leitich Smith blurbs and supports this title wholeheartedly; see link for quote.

Why Amazon.com's One-Click Sales Can Cost Authors Dear by Danuta Kean from The Guardian. Peek: "A week ago, buyers on Amazon.com, the U.S. site, began seeing heavily discounted secondhand copies of books sold by third-party sellers being presented as the default buying option, instead of new copies supplied to Amazon by publishers." 

How the Redesigned Judy Blume Covers Avoid Nostalgia & Embrace Universal Adolescent Angst by Constance Grady from Vox. Peek from Debbie Ohi: "When Justin Chanda, my editor at S&S, invited me to audition to be the illustrator of the reissued books, I immediately said yes....I knew there was no guarantee that Judy would pick me as the illustrator, but even the chance to be rejected by the Judy Blume was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up."

Gwenda Bond on Young Lois Lane by Nivea Serrao from Entertainment Weekly. Peek: "There’s probably more of me in Lois than any character I’ve written... My parents were both high school principals, which is not exactly like having an army general for a dad, but it will bring out your authority issues!"

Woman-owned and Independent: An Inside Look at Peachtree Publishers. Peek from publisher Margaret Quinlin: "I strongly believe that publishing is an important cultural endeavor and as such, diverse voices across the country committed to publishing books for all kinds of readers is critically important."

The TBR Stack(s) The Fire Took by Tirzah Price from BookRiot. Peek: "Books will wait for you. That’s what I tell customers who always worry that they have too many unread books at home. Maybe that’s not always true, and if I could apologize to all of the unread books I lost, I would. I’d say, I’m sorry that the fire got to you before I did, but I’m still here."

This is What Happens to Your Brain When You Read Poetry by Cody Delistraty from New York Magazine. Peek: "Their neurological responses, however, seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films."

Childhood, Summers in China & The Emperor's Riddle by Kat Zhang from CBC Diversity. Peek: "The scene in Riddle where Mia flips through old photobooks of her mother’s childhood pictures is pretty much pulled from my own eagerness as a kid to know more about my own parents’ lives so very long ago. Their childhoods in 1960's China always seemed like another world, one so very removed from my own growing-up years in the U.S."

Sarah Ellis & Waiting for Sophie by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launchpad. Peek: "For me, time gallops. (Another birthday! Didn’t I just have one?) For children, time crawls. (How many sleeps?) So I asked myself what children have to wait for and I came up with the one human event that technology has not managed to speed up, waiting for the birth of a baby."

Congratulations to SCBWI Crystal Kite Winners! See Cynsations interviews about a few of the winning books with Debbie Levy, Gwendolyn Hooks and Janet Fox.


This Week at Cynsations
More Personally - Cynthia

Happy Friday! This is a MFA teacher week. I'm about halfway done with the fourth (of five) round of manuscript and critical writing packets from my Vermont College of Fine Arts students, and I look forward to attending the Austin SCBWI 2017 Writers & Illustrators Working Conference this weekend. I also lunched with author pals Kathi Appelt, Liz Garton Scanlon and April Lurie.

No word yet from my editor on the revision, and I'm in no hurry. After I finish my packets this weekend, my plan is to work on my summer residency lecture.

Reminder: the ebook edition of Feral Nights is on sale this month for $1.99; see book trailer.

Personal Links

More Personally - Gayleen

Donna Jannell Bowman
I'm thrilled to be assisting fellow VCFA alum Donna Jannell Bowman as she teaches a six-week class at the Writing Barn on Picture Book Nonfiction beginning June 11.

I took an afternoon class on nonfiction PBs with Donna last fall and can't wait to delve deeper into the subject with her. Thanks to Bethany Hegedus, creative director of the Writing Barn for giving me this opportunity!

Personal Links

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Author Interview: Gwendolyn Hooks on Inspiration, the Writing Journey & Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Gwendolyn recently won the
NAACP Image Award for Tiny Stitches
When I saw Jimmy Kimmel’s recent monologue about his son’s surgery, I remembered Gwendolyn Hooks’ picture book biography, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Lee & Low, 2016).

I tweeted about the book, in hopes Kimmel might invite Gwendolyn to be a guest on his show.

Since I have a little more pull with the Cynsations blog, I interviewed Gwendolyn about the story behind the book, which is also pretty amazing.

How did you get the idea to write about Vivien Thomas?

One night in 2010, Anna Myers (author, regional advisor for SCBWI Oklahoma and friend of 20 years) texted me, “Are you up?” I told her I was, so she called me. 

Her voice had a quality that struck my heart – I worried she was about to tell me someone had died. 

Instead she said, “I just saw a movie about the man who saved Little Will’s life (Anna's grandson), and Gwen, you’ve got to write a book about him.”

The movie was Something the Lord Made, about Vivien Thomas, the man who developed the surgical procedure to repair Tetralogy of Fallot, a four-part heart defect. Vivien focused on one defect. He found a solution to the heart pumping oxygen-poor blood throughout the body.

Anna & Gwendolyn
I thought, she’s just out of her mind. I can’t write well enough to tell that story.

Anna sent me the DVD and I watched it. I kept thinking, “How did I not know this story?”

Vivien Thomas is the perfect inspiration to show what you can do once you’ve made your mind up. His life is a beautiful story of setting goals and working to figure things out.

This seems like a very complex subject. Do you have a medical background?

I took biology in college, but that was years ago, and we didn’t learn much about medical science. Basically, I had to learn it all.

Vivien Thomas himself inspired me to tackle the project. He only had a high school education and he didn’t know anything about working in a medical research lab. When Dr. Blalock interviewed him for the job, he asked questions about all the equipment and how it was used. Dr. Blalock recognized his sharp inquisitive mind and hired him as his research assistant.

I was a teacher for many years, mostly I taught seventh grade math, which by the way was my most
difficult year as a student. My teacher was young and enthusiastic, but I didn’t understand much of what she told us. When I was teaching and a student would tell me they didn’t understand, I would take a step back and remember how I felt that year, then try to find a different way to explain it.

That happens a lot with writing too. Sometimes a story may not be working and we have to step back and think about it in a different way. I’m always looking for a different approach to write something so young readers will understand and enjoy reading it.

Tell us about your research and what you did to make sure you got the story right.

Vivien Thomas wrote an autobiography that included lots of details about his research. Dr. Blalock advised him to write everything down - every step of an experiment. He took that advice to heart, and that helped me a lot.

PBS did a documentary on the procedure and included Vivien Thomas’ work.

I contacted doctors and residents who worked with him and interviewed them. They all said he was a generous person who really took the time to explain things. If you didn’t understand the first time, he would find a different way to frame it to make sure it was clear.

I also talked to his nephew who is now an orthopedic doctor with a sports team in Florida. He didn’t know what his uncle did until he attended Johns Hopkins as a medical student and saw his uncle’s picture on the wall.

Whenever the nephew had visited Baltimore in the summers, Vivien just told the kids he worked with dogs. He was humble about his accomplishments.

Vivien did an interview in the 1980s, I listened to the recording, but the sound quality made it difficult to hear well. Fortunately there was a transcript.

I really wish I’d had the chance to interview him myself.

Vivien Thomas portrait
at John Hopkins
I also read journals and articles written during his lifetime to get a sense of the challenges he faced. Both Nashville and Baltimore were segregated cities at the time. I was doing a school visit recently and we talked about his hardships and how he didn’t get credit for his accomplishments. The students were very vocal about how unfair that was, so that was very good to hear.

I watched a YouTube video done by a doctor at the Mayo clinic explaining the procedure. It was a video he showed patients and families, so it was very understandable.

I included the video in the resource section and when I was checking to make sure the link worked, I discovered the doctor had left the Mayo Clinic – and moved to Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City.

I emailed him, not really expecting to hear back, but he responded and ended up reading the book to make sure the science was correct. I dedicated the book to him and sent him a copy. He said he was happy to share it with his kids so they would understand what he does at work.

Gwen with Will, who was saved by Vivien Thomas' procedure
That’s a great bit of serendipity. Did you find that one bit of research led you to the next?

Sometimes the path led me astray. There were so many stories I wanted to include, but I knew I couldn’t include them all.

I really wanted it to be accessible to upper elementary/lower middle school students and wanted them to see his determination and his ability to follow through.

Tell me about shaping the story.

The manuscript was about 2,500 words to start with and it ended up being about 1,100. I did several rounds of revision with the editor to cut it down. It’s a challenge to eliminate words and still keep the heart of the story.

What advice do you have for other writers?

My advice is to read the books being published now in the genre you’re trying to write. A lot of times I get a manuscript from another writer and they tell me it’s a picture book or a chapter book, but then when I read it, it’s not that at all.

Were there model books that helped you?

Author Barbara Lowell sent me Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Henry Holt, 2013). It’s a different style, but it was interesting to see what information she included.

I read a lot of picture book biographies.

I lived at the library and read at least one or two every week (52 weeks x 5 years = 260 at least). Writing friends also loaned me books.

I didn’t limit myself to science books. I was reading them for writing techniques too.

Blizzard: The Storm That Changed America (Scholastic, 2006) by Jim Murphy. I love the way he can write nonfiction and make you feel like it’s fiction.

A couple of how-to books I found helpful were Yes! You Can Learn to Write Successful Children’s Books by Nancy I. Sanders (Createspace, 2013) and Anatomy of Nonfiction (Institute for Writers) by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas. (See Cynsations post about Anatomy of Nonfiction.)

Other picture book biographies I love (and this list doesn’t include the ones I checked out of the library!):


Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Tiny Stitches a starred review. Peek:"(Vivien Thomas') life and work are vivid in the pages of this picture book biography, in which Hooks details how his youthful work in fine carpentry, paired with his desire to become a doctor, propelled Thomas in his pursuit of his goals."

A teacher's guide is available from the publisher.

Gwendolyn Hudson Hooks was born in Savannah, Georgia. Her father was in the Air Force, so Gwen and her family moved a lot when she was a child. Her first stop in every new city was the local library where she got her new library card.

She is the author of 20 books for children, including the Pet Club Series from Capstone. Gwen now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and their three children.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Author Interview: Jennifer Ziegler on Inspiration, Confidence & Revenge of the Happy Campers

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Today we welcome author Jennifer Ziegler to discuss the third book in her MG series featuring the Brewster triplets, Revenge of the Happy Campers (Scholastic, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Mother Nature Meets Sister Nature

Dawn, Darby, and Delaney Brewster are always up for an adventure, whether it’s ruining a wedding (for good reasons!) or turning a Christmas pageant tradition on its head. But now they’re about to go where they’ve never gone before: Camping!

They’re spending spring break with their beloved Aunt Jane at the same campground she and their mom used to go to as kids. But the first morning there, they run into a trio of boys, and one starts bragging about his plan to become the President of the United States. Clearly this is Dawn’s destiny, and the two, well, don’t become fast friends.

Between the fierce competition to see who’s the best leader and some unfortunate encounters with nature, this camping thing is sure looking like a bad idea. And when their final contest puts them in real danger, it might take six future leaders of the country to keep this from being the worst trip in history.

Camp can be such an exciting adventure. Did your childhood experiences inspire Revenge of the Happy Campers?

Definitely! I never went to “away camp,” but I had many outdoor adventures with my dad over the years, since camping and fishing are pretty much his favorite things to do.

Jennifer's daughter, Renee, son Owen (right), and their cousin
Gabe (middle) after a successful day of camping & fishing.
Pappy Camp might not fit the standard definition of fun for a modern young person, but it was always a great experience.

I remember very primitive lodgings, fishing mishaps, bad weather, and critters visiting in the night. But I also remember the beautiful scenery, the sightings of wildlife, the thrill of reeling in a big fish, and how great food tastes when it’s cooked in the open air.


Mostly, though, I recall that sense of triumph. Every time I went on a camping trip, I came away feeling bigger, stronger, and more capable.

Renee holds up a mangrove snapper that she caught.
This is the third book in the Brewster triplets series. Were there challenges in keeping everything that happened in previous books straight, or by now do you feel like you know the girls as well as your own family? (and can readers start with the third book without feeling lost?)

Right before I started work on Happy Campers, I reread the first two books to remind myself of the pacing and rhythm and make sure I kept certain details straight.

I still had the characters’ voices in my head, so that part wasn’t very difficult. In fact, it’s going to take some serious effort to get their voices out of my head when I write a non-Brewster book.

The girls do seem like family to me now. I talk about them as if they really exist and often wonder how they’d react to world events. I find myself making remarks like, “Oh, the Brewsters would hate this,” or I’ll describe an actual person as being “like Delaney.”

It’s a magnificent feeling -- and also a little alarming -- when people you’ve imagined seem to have come to life.

I do think readers could start with the third book. It’s a complete story that doesn’t build off of the previous books’ plots, and background is given when needed.

Of course, those who’ve read the first two novels would recognize certain references and understand characters and relationships from the get-go.

Will there be more Brewster triplet books?

There will be! I’m currently writing Book Four in the series. I can’t say too much about it yet, except that the girls are twelve now and facing some new challenges -- at home and elsewhere. I’m hoping it will be out fall of 2018.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

The first inspiration? Probably the relationship I had with reading while growing up.

I think when you are young, the bonds you have with favorite stories and characters are stronger and more special than the ones you form as an adult. You’re experiencing ideas and feelings for the very first time and learning about yourself and the world. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say these beloved stories can help shape you into the person you become -- or help you tap into parts of yourself you never realized were there.

The tales that enchanted me early in life (Judy Blume novels, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, the first Star Wars trilogy) wove into the matrix that is me. Their worlds will always seem like cherished places I’ve visited, and their characters will always feel like old friends.

It’s similar to love. No … it is love. That’s what I recognized as a young reader. And I came to believe that if I could create stories that allowed young people to recognize themselves and understand life a little better, it wouldn’t just be fun, it would also be an important, almost sacred calling.

Competition is an underlying theme in Revenge of the Happy Campers. What advice do you have for writers about competition?

I feel strongly that with writing, the real competition has to be with yourself.

There do exist official literary competitions that result in fancy dinners and your name etched on a plaque -- and don’t get me wrong, such honors feel fantastic  -- but they can’t be what motivates you.

Owen & Renee hiking at Enchanted Rock in Texas.
What really matters is pushing yourself to do better in some way and succeeding. If, by the time you’ve finished a project, you have grown as a writer -- that’s a win.

Perhaps you’ve honed your process or attempted a new style or genre. Maybe you’ve identified a bad habit that you can now avoid or learned a trick that can help you tackle writer’s block.

Such achievements won’t get you a shiny trophy (unless you give yourself one, and that’s okay), but they’re the stuff that will keep you fueled and focused for the next writing challenge. It’s proof that you can handle the demands of this calling.

Confidence. Faith in your abilities. Belief that you can overcome the fear and doubt (which never go away). I think those are the real rewards that can change you, and your craft, for the better.

Cynsational Notes

Jennifer & Chris lead horses with Fletcher & Renee 
on a camping trip.
Reviewer Sharyn Vane of the Austin American-Statesman wrote, "Ziegler’s young democratic-process aficionados are as appealing as ever, brimming with confidence and problem-solving savvy. They’re empathetic enough to notice that their aunt is saddened by the state of the campground she remembers visiting each summer....full of real-world adventures, both wise and witty."

Like the Brewster triplets, Jennifer Ziegler is a native Texan and a lover of family, history, barbecue, and loyal dogs.

Although she only has one sister, she does know what it is like to have four kids living in the same house.

She is the author of several books for young people, including Sass & Serendipity (Delacorte, 2011), and How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte, 2008). Jennifer lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, author Chris Barton, and their four children.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Trailer: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Illustrated by Frank Morrison
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia (HarperChildren's, 2017).

The first chapter comes to life as Clayton Byrd plays harmonica alongside his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the Bluesmen.

From the promotional copy:

From beloved Newbery Honor winner and three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner Rita Williams-Garcia comes a powerful and heartfelt novel about loss, family, love, and the blues.

Clayton feels most alive when he’s with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the band of Bluesmen—he can’t wait to join them, just as soon as he has a blues song of his own. But when the unthinkable happens and Clayton’s mother forbids Clayton from playing the blues, Clayton knows that's no way to live.

Armed with his grandfather’s brown porkpie hat and his harmonica, he runs away from home in search of the Bluesmen, hoping he can join them on the road. But on the journey that takes him through the New York City subways and to Washington Square Park, Clayton learns some things that surprise him.


Video credits: Rita Williams-Garcia, Ferdinand Leyro, Kenneth "Chop" Alston, Mark "Blue Salim" Edwards, Timothy "Breeze" Winston, and Zuberi Zoboi.

Cynsational Reviews

★ “Clayton’s love of his grandfather and his music is wonderfully drawn, as is his grief when he loses them.... Strong characterizations and vivid musical scenes add layers to this warm family story.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Congratulations, Rita! You're amazing!
★ “With the precision of a surgeon, Williams-Garcia lifts and examines layers of Clayton’s hurt and anger: the loss, but also the inability of his dismissive mother to understand... The book’s through line, though, is the music, and Garcia-Williams skillfully finds melody in words.” — Booklist (starred review)

★ “This slim novel strikes a strong chord... [A] holistic portrait of a family in pain, a realistic portrait of grief and reconciliation, and a reminder that sadness and loss are wrapped up in the blues.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

★ “An appealing, realistic story with frequent elegant turns of phrase. The third-person voice helps to keep Clayton’s story from becoming self-absorbed, as he learns to navigate the literal and figurative underworld and then find his way back to the everyday world of family, friends, and school.” — Horn Book (starred review)

★ “Williams-Garcia packs a lot of story in this slim book... This complex tale of family and forgiveness has heart.” — School Library Journal (starred review)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Author Interview: Kate Hosford on Theme, Re-imagined Colonialism & How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Today we welcome author Kate Hosford to chat about How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea,
illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (Carolrhoda Books, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Each day when the Queen wakes up, three maids dress her, two more style her hair, and her butler James makes her tea. But when she grows dissatisfied with her brew, the Queen and James set out in search of the perfect cup. 

With each stop on their hot-air balloon journey, the Queen encounters new friends who expand her horizons—in the kitchen and beyond.

Can you tell me about your new release? Was it inspired by something in particular?

I started working on it in 2009 when getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I worked on picture books there with the extraordinary author and teacher Uma Krishnaswami.

The book was probably partly inspired by my aversion to cooking. (Both the Queen and I approach the kitchen with a certain amount of trepidation.) Aside from that, I just knew that I wanted to write about a pampered and lonely queen who yells at her butler when her tea tastes horrible, and then makes him take her around the world in a hot air balloon, searching for the perfect cup of tea.

Illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska, used with permission
I knew she would meet children along the way, and that the tea would start to taste better once she became more self-sufficient, and made some friends. However, in the early drafts, the children were still somewhat deferential, treating the Queen like royalty and giving her special gifts.

Uma really encouraged me to turn colonialism on its ear. Once I did, the story not only made more sense, but also became funnier, because the unimpressed children force the Queen to try all sorts of things that she normally wouldn’t do, like snuggle a kitty, play soccer, dance at a birthday party, and of course, make tea.


The Queen is like a toddler in some ways, experiencing a huge range of emotions in a small amount of time. Each time she visits a new land and is forced to try new things, she goes through a whole cycle of emotions: condescending, perplexed, startled, happy, proud, etc.

Gabi Swiatkowska did a wonderful job expressing all of these emotions in her incredible illustrations. She even used reference from baby faces for some of the Queen’s expressions!

Since Gabi also illustrated Infinity and Me, did the two of you end up communicating about How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea more?

Gabi & Kate
Gabi is an old friend, so we communicated a lot on both of the books. Infinity and Me (Carolrhoda, 2012) was done in a very different style with a number of different non-oil based paints.

For How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea, Gabi told me that she was going to use colored pencil and expressive line, and then occasional full page spreads just in colored pencil, which I thought was great combination for this humorous book.

I loved seeing sketches transform into finished artwork.



I've noticed sometimes beginning writers think picture books should have a moral or teach a lesson. How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea illustrates self-sufficiency, but this is very subtle, almost a subtext. Can you talk about this difference and how a theme emerges in a picture book?

Thank you! I hope the message about self-sufficiency is subtle and integrated into the story.

I think themes can naturally emerge from picture books when the intention behind the writing is to explore the growth of a character rather than to teach a lesson.

In this case, I tried very hard to focus on the Queen’s character. At the beginning she is lonely and impotent, even though she is a Queen.

I wanted her learning curve for making tea to be so slow that it would be funny. In Japan she can only turn on the faucet, and in India she is able to turn on the faucet and add water to the teapot. By the time she gets to Turkey, she can even boil water!

The Queen approaches each culinary task like an explorer who has discovered an intriguing but dangerous new land. I hope that after this slow build-up, her discovery of the perfect cup of tea feels earned.

When and where do you write? Why does the time and space work for you?

I live in Brooklyn, and have a writing studio next door to my house.

When I look out the window,  I can see squirrels running up and down the trees in the back yard, and can sometimes hear a trumpet player practicing, and pigeons chatting.

I try to start writing at about 11:00 am after exercising and doing other household duties, and get home by 4:00 for my boys. Honestly, that means the writing day is too short, so sometimes I try to work more from home while they are doing homework.

After dinner, I’m too tired to do anything productive.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a poetry collection about the brilliant and mysterious octopus. I would also like to do a non-fiction picture book on either a classical musician, or perhaps an ornithologist.

I have a picture book coming out with Abrams next spring called Mama’s Belly, which will be beautifully illustrated by Abigail Halpin. I’m really excited about it, and can’t wait for it to come out!

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly described Gabi Swiatkowska's illustrations as "delicious, old-world pastels render
each character as a distinct individual...the details give Hosford's round-the-world tale offbeat charm, and readers will smile as they watch the Queen shed her haughtiness and embrace her own capabilities."

A curriculum guide and tea recipes from each of the countries the Queen visits are available online.

Kate Hosford graduated from Amherst College in 1988 with a degree in English and Philosophy. Before becoming an author, she worked as an elementary school teacher, a social worker, and an illustrator. In 2011 she received her MFA in Writing for children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Her other titles include Big Bouffant, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2011), Big Birthday, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2012) Infinity and Me, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (2012),  Feeding the Flying Fanellis and Other Poems from a Circus Chef, illustrated by Cosei Kawa (2015). All of these are published by Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing.


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