Friday, April 14, 2017

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

The Power of Representation by Ellen Oh from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: "In books, you can be anything you want. A rock star, an astronaut, a warrior queen.... Books allowed me to escape from the hardships of real life....But I didn’t know that it also helped me develop a complex. You see, all I ever read were books about white kids."

The Convenient Indian: How Activists Get Native Americans Wrong by Melanie Benson Taylor from the Los Angeles Review of Books. Peek: "Indians have been in all the headlines about the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline....The narrative here is so timeworn as to be banal: every epoch of American history has featured the callous removal of indigenous obstacles to the expansion of corporate capitalism."

Angie Thomas Says The Hate U Give, Proves There's a Market for Books With Black Characters by Victoria Sanusi from BuzzFeed. Peek: "'Publishing does have a diversity issue...It's easier for a young black boy in America to pick up a gun than to find a book where the main character is a young black boy and that's a problem.”

Dhonielle Clayton on How The Belles Allowed Her to Explore Teen Issues by Nivea Serrao from Entertainment Weekly. Peek: "I write about things that bother me and this is something that Teenage Me was very bothered by: my body, it’s limitations, and why it didn’t look like magazines. I wanted to talk about a world where if you could change yourself down to your bones, what would it be like and what could you do?"

Children's Institute Talks Diversity and Numbers by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “'We believe our work with We Need Diverse Books, the Children’s Book Council, and the Children’s Institute sponsors, whose event scholarships help broaden participation, is working toward the important goal of greater diversity.'”

Cover Reveal: Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: "...apparently during World War I it was believed that if you painted a ship in a dazzle pattern it could make it difficult for an enemy to estimate the correct range, speed, and heading. In other words, the perfect subject for a work of nonfiction by Chris Barton."

Terry Pierce and Mama Loves You So! by Adi Rule from The VCFA Launch Pad. Peek: "My son Greg, and a song, were the inspiration. I got the idea when he was a baby (he's now 32!).....after hearing the song 'Longer,' by singer Dan Fogelberg, I thought that someone should write a children's book using nature as a metaphor to show a mother’s love for her baby."

Third Person Narration: Using the Zoom Lens by Sarah Callender from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: "Likewise, in fiction with third person narration, we have control over the distance between the narrator and the reader. Sometimes we want to snuggle the reader inside the head of a character. Other times, like when I am trying to work in a coffee shop, a more distant narration is preferred."

The Importance of a Strong Opening Scene by Hallie Ephron from Jane Friedman's Blog. Peek: "Your opening scene can be long or short. It can be action packed, or moody and rich in description, or skeletal and spare....Regardless of what’s in that scene, the reader should have some idea of what the novel is going to be about after reading it, or at least have a good sense of the theme. Most of all, when they finish, readers should be eager to keep reading."

The Most Common Entry-Level Mistake in the Writing Game by Larry Brooks from Jane Friedman's Blog. Peek: "By far the most common entry-level mistake in the writing game, the thing that can get a perfectly good story rejected by an editor on the first page, is overwriting: a writing voice that is laden with energy and adjectives, that tries too hard, that is self-conscious in a way that detracts from the story...."

Q&A With Rebecca Van Slyke by Deborah Kalb from Book Q&As. Peek: "I love playing with words, and I’ve always wanted to be a cowgirl. Putting the two together just seemed natural! I was on a road trip over the mountains when the phrase “word wrangler” popped into my head....Her name, Lexi, came easily: it’s Greek for word!"

Is Your Character's Face the Window to Her Soul? by David Corbett from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: "To know the face is to know the person. Our faces are the roadmaps of our lives—they reveal our lingering innocence and hard-won experience, our openness and suspicion, our capacity for laughter, our bitterness, our anxiety, our lightness of heart."

Planning the Perfect Love Triangle by Roz Morris from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Consider why the lovers are attracted. For the cheating character, it’s usually something missing or unsatisfied. What does the lover add? It might be a dash of excitement or danger in a life that’s become too routine, but it might be the other way round."

The Do's and Don'ts of Query Letter Writing by Mark Gottlieb from Elizabeth Spann Craig's blog. Peek: "A query letter that reads well is usually a good indication to the literary agent that the manuscript will similarly read well, inclining the literary agent to request a manuscript. Often the query letter can go on to become the publisher’s jacket copy, were the publisher to acquire the manuscript via the literary agent."

Learning to Outsource and Then Let Go by Sharon Bially from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: "...I’m convinced it’s incredibly important for writers to learn to let go. True, as writers we value our solitude and the control we have over our work. But for our work to have broader appeal, to speak broadly to readers and to transcend our immediate networks, we will have no choice but to outsource at least certain core tasks at some point.  After all, it takes a village to create a great book and bring it out into the world."

Illustrator Catia Chien On Failing by Mel Schuit from All The Wonders. Peek: "In early 2012 my life fell apart. I guess you can say it was a long time coming. I was raised in an emotionally and physically abusive family....I was working, illustrating two children’s books simultaneously. And I was trying to carve out some kind of life for myself. I was spread thin."

How Are Children's Publishers Talking About President Trump by Paula Willey from School Library Journal. Peek: "Only with a vast amount of context, much of which requires sophisticated analysis, can these elements be faithfully explained. Further, Trump’s public record is typified by negative, disputed, and sometimes vulgar statements. How do you fit that into 32, 60, or 100 pages using a low unique word count?"

Teaching a Novel by Teri Lesesne from Professor Nana's Blog. Peek:"...when I read a number of tweets and posts about 'teaching' a novel, it simply set my curmudgeon teeth on edge. I teach students, not novels. My children's lit class reads ore than 75 books a semester. The YA class reads about 25 books. I do not teach any of them. Students read the books. They respond to the books on a blog they create. They tie in other books, trailers, and the like. I do not take any title and 'teach' it.

Bookshare's Free Ebook Library Making a Difference for Students with Print Disabilities by Omar Gallaga from the Austin American Statesman. Peek: "...before technology such as Bookshare, schools typically had the option of setting up a reading-disabled student with a 'buddy reader' student assistant, or sending the student to a content-mastery room, isolating them from the classroom. 'Bookshare has allowed those students to be back in the classroom.'”

Congratulations to the winners of the 2017 Bank Street Children's Book Awards! The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones by Wendelin Van Draanen (Knopf, 2016) received the Josette Frank Award, Ada's Violin by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and March by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Books, 2016) and Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story by Caren Stelson (Carolrhoda, 2016) won the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award. When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Julie Morstad (Roaring Brook Press, 2016) won the Claudia Lewis Award. See also, the complete list of  Best Children's Books of the Year.

This Week at Cynsations


Cynsational Screening Room



More Personally - Cynthia

How blessed am I? Last weekend, I had the opportunity to keynote at two diversity-focused children's-YA literature/writing conferences--the Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State in Ohio and Kweli: The Color of Children's Literature in Manhattan (NYC). At both, I spoke on my journey as a Native author, the importance of #ownvoices, writing across identity elements and how the conversation of books has evolved over the past twenty years.

Thank you so much to my hosts, especially those of you who came through with delicious dining and warm outwear for this naturalized Texan who'd forgotten about April snowstorms. Most appreciated!

Now, I'm joyfully polishing my YA novel in progress for my mid-May deadline. At this point, it's mostly a matter of line-level work, though I have expanded a few scenes. Huzzah!


Carole Boston Weatherford & Don Tate at the Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University.

With Native writers and illustrators at Kweli: The Color of Children's Literature Conference in New York.

Personal Links

More Personally - Gayleen

At last week's Austin SCBWI meeting, I was honored to see the F&G's (folded and gathered) of Paige Britt's upcoming picture book, Why Am I Me? illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls (Scholastic, September 2017). 

Several months ago, I had a writing meet-up with Paige and saw a few digital copies of the illustrations. That made it even more exciting to witness the next step in the publishing journey of this story.  

Personal Links


Thursday, April 13, 2017

SCBWI Initiative: Lin Oliver on Books For Readers

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators recently announced a new initiative: Books for Readers. To learn how this program would get books into the hands of more young readers, I interviewed SCBWI's Executive Director Lin Oliver.

So, each region will be nominating an organization, and then the SCBWI Board of Advisors and staff will pick one or two organizations that will receive the books, right?

Most of our SCBWI regions have been doing book drives for local organizations for a long time. The idea for SCBWI Books for Readers came from our desire to join our regions’ individual efforts to make a greater national and worldwide impact on the lives of readers in need. 

This initiative will advance our mission, as an organization of children’s book creators and literacy advocates, to place good books in the hands of all children.

Our regions will nominate organizations from their local communities. A selection committee made up of members of our Board of Advisors will select two recipients who will receive a library of books from SCBWI authors and illustrators, along with a big celebration party for the kids who are receiving the books.

We always want kids to associate books with a joyful experience. Presently, our members are in the process of nominating their top causes or organizations that are in need of books. The selection committee will begin their deliberations at the end of this month.

Can you tell us some of the factors the selection committee will be considering?

The SCBWI Books For Readers selection committee will choose two organizations or causes, based on their immediate need for books, and their ability to benefit from receiving a large donation of children’s books.

The collected books will be curated prior to the donation based on the type and number of books desired. Surplus books will be donated to other causes and/organizations who were nominated.

Tell us about the logistical aspects of this - members send their books to SCBWI Headquarters in L.A., then what? Have you rented a warehouse to store them? 

We are asking all interested SCBWI members to send no more than three copies of each of their books to our SCBWI HQ in LA. We will be renting a storage unit to house the books until we deliver them to the selected recipients.

The announcement mentioned, "soon to be out-of-print titles that could be donated instead of being pulped or remaindered." Have any publishers stepped up to contribute their remainders to this effort, or should individual authors initiate this conversation directly with their editors or marketing staff?

We’ve made a change where this point is concerned. In order to make this a finely curated shipment of books to the recipients, we will not be taking large numbers of books either through remainders or those that will be pulped.

The mission of the Books For Readers initiative includes promoting SCBWI authors, illustrators and their books; can you tell me more about that aspect? What sort of promotion do you envision? 

Participating members’ names will be printed in an official SCBWI Books For Readers program, and all members are encouraged to attend the distribution events!

There will also be extensive publicity and promotional efforts surrounding the book drive, the donors and donations, and the distribution and celebration events on a national and regional level.

These efforts will focus on shining a light on the crucial need to increase book access for readers in need worldwide, to spotlight our donor members and their books, and to highlight SCBWI as a professional organization of book authors, illustrators, and literacy advocates.

Supporting literacy efforts seems like a natural fit for the book creators of SCBWI (our Austin region does a much smaller version of this - collecting books at our holiday party and donating them to a local organization) Has the larger organization been involved in an effort like this before? Is it something you hope to make an annual event?

Yes, yes, and yes!

Yes, it is a natural and organic fit. We create books for readers. There are so many kids who are in need of books, and we’d like to help change that. Yes, it is our first literacy initiative, and Yes, we plan to make this an annual event.

For more information, you can visit SCBWI Books For Readers. Thanks for your interest, for your help in spreading the word, and for all you do for children’s literature and our community!

Cynsations Notes

Nominate an organization from your region before the April 30 deadline.

Lin Oliver is the co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

For much of her career, she was an executive in the film and television industry, including being the Executive Vice President of MCA Universal Studios for over 12 years. She is the writer and executive producer of over 300 episodes of television and three feature films directed at the family audience.

During her career in film and television, she served as Executive Director of the SCBWI as a volunteer spending nights and weekends and vacations in the service of SCBWI while earning her living in filmed entertainment.

Since 2000, she has not only led the SCBWI as Executive Director but simultaneously has pursued her career as a children’s book author, publishing more than 35 books for children including a best-selling series about a child with learning differences.

She also manages staff and personnel matters, establishes programs with partner organizations (such as First Book or We Need Diverse Books or The American Library Association) and oversees much of the work of the regional advisors.  She has a BA in English from the University of California, Berkley, a Masters in Educational Psychology from UCLA, and has completed course work for an doctorate in Education from UCLA. She is recognized as a leading voice in promoting literacy and children’s literature.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

New Voice: Hena Khan on Amina's Voice

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Hena Khan, a well-published picture book author makes her novelist debut with Amina's Voice (Salaam Reads, March 2017). From the promotional copy:

A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community.

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. 

Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” 

Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I was working as a communications specialist for an international public health organization when I unexpectedly got the opportunity to first write for kids back in 2001. 

I had a very good friend who worked as an editor with Scholastic’s continuity department. She was editing a series called Spy University and, since we had worked together on our high school newspaper, asked if I could help out with the writing. 

It was perfect timing for me because I was looking to transition out of a full-time job that required international travel as a new mother. I thought it could be the perfect stay-at-home alternative and a great way to balance my consulting work.

I soon realized that writing for kids was far harder than I had imagined! 

I’d grown a bit tired of writing and editing jargon- and data-filled technical documents with the aim of making them more accessible to lay audiences. 

And I thought that writing for kids would be a welcome change, which it was, but it took hours of practice for me to finally nail the lighthearted tone and fun style of the series. 

I had to learn to write in an upbeat, pun-filled manner, and to present a serious theme (espionage) in a kid-friendly and appropriate way. 

It was challenging at times but it helped to have an amazing mentor.

In the end, I loved writing those initial children’s books, and went on to write for three other series before my first trade-published picture book, Night of the Moon came out in 2008 with Chronicle Books.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Amina’s Voice?

I first thought about and started writing Amina’s Voice more than four years ago. 

I had published two picture books about Muslims, and wanted to write something for a middle-grade audience. Since books spoke to me the most when I was a middle grader myself, I loved the idea of connecting with that age group.

Also, parents often asked me to recommend mirror books for their tweens and I struggled since so few of them existed.

I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was an “every girl” who happened to be an American Muslim. I hoped that readers of all backgrounds would be able to relate to her as much as I did to the characters I had grown up reading and loving—none of who had resembled me in any way. 

At the time, Islamophobia was growing in our country, and I was alarmed by reports of anti-Muslim campaigns, and an increasing number attacks on Islamic centers, bullying of Muslim kids, and hate-motivated crimes. 

I wanted to offer a Muslim friend to people who didn’t have one through storytelling, and a window into my often misunderstood and misrepresented faith and culture.

Amina is a girl that struggles with common challenges—friendship changes, family conflict, finding confidence. 

Yet the story also allows readers to get to know a Pakistani American family, gain access to an Islamic center and Muslim traditions, and to perhaps see how they’re not as different as they might have imagined. 

At the same time, the story introduces the idea that Muslims are not a monolith, and that there are variations in the way we approach our faith and integrate it into our daily lives, which is an important if subtle idea in the book.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

The biggest challenge for me was trying to make sense of the various feedback I received from editors who initially passed on the book. 

Some said they loved the writing, connected with Amina and were emotionally moved by her story, but that it wasn’t the right fit for their list. Others said they didn’t connect with Amina’s voice enough or find her story compelling. Others said the book was too “quiet,” which was a term that was new to me, or—perhaps the hardest to hear—that they felt the book didn’t reflect the type of diversity that they were seeking. 

No one actually said what they recommended I do to “fix” the story or make it work better.

I was determined to tell the story I wanted to tell, even if it wasn’t likely going to be an extremely commercial book. 

After sitting with all the opinions for a while, and getting some helpful comments from my writers group, I finally realized what was missing in the story. 

We knew all the things Amina was afraid of or didn’t want, and not enough about what she did want. She was too much of a bystander in her own story. 

When I set about to change that, and give her more of a presence, I felt that she lost her sweet quality and had a personality change. So then I rewrote the book in the first person voice, which allowed me to really get into her head, see things from her perspective and get the voice right. 

I was also able to shed unnecessary details and edit out the 40-year old woman voice that had snuck in from time to time. But the story remained essentially the same.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

As a child of Pakistani immigrants who was born and raised in America, and now as a mother to third generation American Muslims, I have a diverse background that also feels very common. 

I grew up witnessing my parents struggle to both assimilate and hold on to their culture, balancing two cultures myself, and reconciling my American identity with my Pakistani heritage and my faith. 

My children, who in many ways are much more grounded and comfortable with their identity that I was at their age, understand that they are as American as anyone else, no matter what they might hear. I like to think that growing up in a fairly diverse community, and having exposure to diverse books from a young age helped in that regard.

In a nutshell, what I essentially bring to my writing is an example of the amazing American immigrant experience, from a Pakistani American Muslim perspective. 

Pakistani Americans make up the largest percentage of immigrant Muslims in America, but the story I tell and the family I describe in Amina’s Voice is very familiar to people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and faiths. 

To me it was important to create a character who is unashamed of her culture or faith, who is unapologetically American and Muslim. It means a great deal to me for kids like mine, and all others, to be able to identify with, empathize with, and root for a character like Amina.

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal, Booklist and Kirkus Reviews all gave Amina's Voice starred reviews.

Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Khan deftly—and subtly—weaves aspects of Pakistani and Muslim culture into her story, allowing readers to unconsciously absorb details and develop understanding and compassion for another culture and faith. Amina’s middle school woes and the universal themes running through the book transcend culture, race, and religion."

School Library Journal called it, "A universal story of self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. A welcome addition to any middle grade collection."

Booklist wrote, "Khan gracefully balances portraying the unique features of Amina’s cultural and religious background with familiar themes of family, belonging, and friendship worries, which should resonate with a wide range of readers. Written as beautifully as Amina’s voice surely is, this compassionate, timely novel is highly recommended for all libraries."

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

New Voice: Andrea Page on Sioux Code Talkers of World War II

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Andrea M. Page is the first-time author of Sioux Code Talkers of World War II (Pelican Publishing, 2017). From the promotional copy:

In World War II, code-making and code-breaking reached a feverish peak. The fabled Enigma Cipher had been broken, and all sides were looking for a secure, reliable means of communication.

Many have heard of the role of the Navajo Code Talkers, but less well-known are the Sioux Code Talkers using the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota dialects.

Told by the great-niece of John Bear King, who served in the First Cavalry in the Pacific Theatre as a Sioux Code Talker, this comprehensively informative title explores not only the importance of the indigenous peoples to the war, but also their culture and values. The Sioux Code Talkers of World War II follows seven Sioux who put aside a long history of prejudice against their people and joined the fight against Japan.


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

Great question. When I really set my mind to writing this story for publication, I enrolled in children’s writing courses at our local Writers and Books. I remember the first course was Writing Children’s Picture Books.

When starting out, I really thought the story would make a fine picture book. Very quickly, the instructor, Jennifer Meagher, gently informed me that the story was not a picture book and suggested a middle grade format. 

I tried fiction, then nonfiction, and over time, she helped me frame my book based on some mentor texts we located. Once I accepted the lengthier format, I knew what parts needed more research. 

In addition, I joined our local writing group, the Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators (RACWI) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

 I formed a critique group, then another, and a third one with Jamie Moran and Kathleen Blasi. We added a few more writers to the group. People came and went, leaving Kathleen, Elizabeth Falk, Keely Hutton, and me. 

During all this time, I devoured every craft book I could find. I attended SCBWI conferences, including the one in New York City. Then I landed on a novel idea- the online course. I took a non-fiction writing course from Laura Purdie Salas and began to look at myself as an author-in-training.

Eventually, I sent a round of query letters out and Pelican Publishing Company responded. After reading my manuscript, editor Nina Kooij explained they might be interested if I doubled my word count. 

I was excited, but at that time, I had no idea how to double my word count. I knew I put all my solid research in the manuscript, I didn’t know what to do. But, I was not going to give up.

I took a self-imposed sabbatical to study the craft of writing. 

I studied mentor texts, I joined online writing groups, and heard tips about other intriguing books on author’s craft. I read and I wrote. And then one day, I found the Call of the Writer’s Craft (Simon & Schuster, 2009) by Tom Bird. His technique opened the door for me. 

Basically, you access the right brain, write fast, and write a lot. I stopped editing lines and wrote about topics in my book in no particular order. I filled a huge, blank sketchbook. (I still write this way today) I found my voice while piecing together the chapters in my book. 

Mailing final version of manuscript
In a few months, I more than doubled my word count. Revisions were easier. I resubmitted to Pelican Publishing Company five years later. I had more tasks to complete before I received a contract. But my contract finally came!

I still take online courses, most recently from Joyce Sweeney and attend writing conferences with my critique partners. I’ve enjoyed writing retreats with other writing buddies like Sharon Lochman, Leah Henderson, Patricia Miller, Agatha Rodi, Janie Reinart, Kristin Gray, Jenna Grodzicki, and Julie Rand.

 One cannot do this job alone. Having lots of writing friends helps raise the bar, sets high expectations, and keeps me moving forward.

I’ve had many opportunities at RACWI meetings to meet and learn from established authors. Studying the craft under mentors like Carol Johmann, Vivian Vande Velde, Linda Sue Park, Marsha Hayles, Ellen Stoll Walsh, Robin Pulver, M.J. Auch, Peggy Thomas and many others has been quite a gift over the years.

It’s been quite a journey from novice to published author. I’ve been blessed with wonderful writing friends who stand by me, cheer me on, and encourage me to dedicate my life to the craft of writing because that is who we are- writers and readers.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

I encountered many hurdles while writing this book.

While researching at first I couldn’t find any documentation about the Sioux Code Talkers. Back then and even today, people are well aware of the Navajo Code Talkers. (There are a few reasons for that, which I explain in my book.)

My uncle’s unit only had seven men used as code talkers and their orders were top secret, so they couldn’t talk about their service for many years. 

By the time the papers were declassified, several men had died. I had the opportunity to interview one several times, but I wasn’t asking the right questions and his memories were vivid but not detailed enough for me to follow a solid trail.

Once I had a path to follow, I ran into other obstacles. 

Service records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire years before, historical records for the unit were minimal since the 302nd Rcn Troop was an unusual unit. Most members never attended the Cavalry Associations reunions. I did manage to meet the commanding officer of the unit at one reunion. We became close and he started sharing copies of his documents.

Literary & Logistical Struggles

I mentioned my determination to become a better writer in the previous answer. One added hurdle was trying to figure out the best way to tell this story. I kept planning, organizing and revising. 

One revision meant that I pulled everything apart, reorganized and wrote again – 35 different ways over 20 years.

Psychological

There were many times over the course of 20 years that I had negative, internal thoughts: 

What if I’m not meant to do this? What if I get it wrong? I’m not a history person, I’ve never been in the military. So many people are expecting me to get this right. I’m a terrible writer. I’m too shy to put myself out there in the world. What if nobody likes my writing? I know I have no style or writing voice. I’m so tired- this is taking too long. 

This is where critique partners and a writing group are needed. They helped me re-frame these negative thoughts and keep moving forward. They are my biggest cheerleaders and I am theirs. 

We all know what we (writers) are going through with each low point as well as each highlight. We are connected to each other and share the highs and the lows together.

What would you have done differently?

I tried to stay organized by recording names, dates, all the citation information as best I could. 

Research bins
However, I wish I would’ve logged the details right from the beginning. 

When I was going through my final edits, I realized I couldn’t find one source for a quote. I looked through my nearly 10 bins of research, but couldn’t locate the quote’s documentation. I had to bail on that quote and find a similar one that could be cited in the bibliography. 

The second quote was adequate but not as powerful. So, I learned a valuable lesson as a nonfiction writer.

As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

Watching historical movies became part of my research process. My teenage daughter sat down with me one night to watch, eventually asking, “Why aren’t we learning this stuff in school?”

I thought that was a great question. Our schools teach about historical events, but often times from the non-Native point of view. I hope my book opens the eyes of students and teachers to the two points of view. Both sides need to be studied. This is part of our history as a country.

Growing up in two worlds myself (Native and non-Native) as well as learning about different cultures (Lakota Sioux, German) made me knowledgeable and accepting of many differences and cultural viewpoints. 

Mary Monsees (Andrea's mom), John "Teton Jack" Gibbons Langan & Andrea at Yellowstone. Jack was the first person to confirm the use of Lakota language in coded messages by the 302 Rcn TroopAs a member of the First Cavalry Division, he witnessed the use of the Code Talkers sending and receiving the top secret messages. He pushed Andrea to tell the story of the Sioux Code Talkers.  He died in 2002 and did not have the opportunity to see the finished book.
We were blessed with determined, hard-working parents who took us on many trips to South Dakota, Germany, and Australia to visit our family members. Many times, these experiences opened our eyes to the way people connected with each other, good and bad. We learned both sides and became stronger, more resilient people because of our experiences. This is my hope for my readers as well.

Code Talkers were awarded Congressional
Medals in November 2013
Lastly, I wanted to share a story about a Congressional hearing that took place in Washington D.C. Veterans provided testimony in support for the Code Talker Recognition Act. Some elders testified in their own language. 

Since the hearings are recorded, this may be the first time testimony was documented in Lakota. I heard the pride in the veterans’ voices when they explained this, and it made such an impression on me that I pursued trying to have some of the code messages translated. 

The incoming and outgoing messages are documented in the military files and I asked an elder who knew how to read and write the language if she would translate for me. Therese Martin worked tirelessly to complete this task for me. 

Once I typed the messages, I wanted to make sure that the language was authentic and readable from another source. I contacted another elder, Vernon Ashley, who verified the coded messages. I’m pleased and thrilled that these two elders supported the efforts to include the Lakota language in the book.

Mary Monsees, Andrea's daughter Alana and Andrea with Law Honoring Code Talkers
Andrea and her mom, Mary Monsees with the Gold Medal honoring
John Bear King for his service in World War II.
Cynsations Notes

Andrea M. Page is a sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Her interest in her great-uncle’s story began in 1994 when a family member found a newspaper article about John Bear King, revealing his previously unknown World War II service. For 20 years, she gathered information on his story through interviews and research. 

She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, The Rochester Area Children's Writers and Illustrators and the New York State United Teachers.

Kirkus Reviews said Sioux Code Talkers of World War II is "an engagingly written, deeply researched account of a little-known part of World War II" and "Page explores not only the importance of these soldiers to the war, but also their history, culture, and values." 

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Author Interview: Michelle Markel Explores the Birth of Children's Literature

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Each January the kidlit community celebrates the Newbery Medal and Honor Books awarded by the Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. Some even have gatherings to watch the webcast of the awards presentation, but do we know about the man the award was named for?

Michelle Markel offers insight in her new picture book: Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's Books, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, (Chronicle, April 2017). She recently shared more about Newbery and her research and writing process.

Why were you drawn to the story of John Newbery?

He wanted to spread knowledge, encourage reading, and offer kids informative and delightful books. Me too!

Newbery’s first publication for children, A Little Pretty Pocket Book, had letters from Jack the Giant Killer, and was sold with a ball or pincushion. A book and a toy- in 1744! That was forward thinking.

In those days, children’s literature consisted mostly of fables and grim texts on manners or religion (think: New England Primer, “While youth do cheer, death may be near”).

Interior illustration by Nancy Carpenter
Can you tell us about your research?

The highlight was checking out Newbery’s antique little books at UCLA’s Special Collections Library. It was like holding the crown jewels!

From UCLA
Special Collections
For details about the setting, and printing presses in particular, I looked at 18th century paintings and illustrations. I read novels, primers, books of manners, and collections of street cries- this gave me a feeling for the language of that era.

An exhibit on Samuel Johnson (one of Newbery’s acquaintances) at the Huntington Library was helpful too.

Was there anything you learned that surprised you?

Newbery was a clever advertiser. Some of his publications for children cross reference each other. So Woglog the Giant, who is a villain in Lilliputian Magazine, later changes his ways and shows up in Fables in Verse, where he visits a bookshop to read some of Newbery’s little books.

Product placement. Metafiction!

I was also surprised by the kid appeal in The History of Little Goody Two Shoes. One of my favorite characters is Ralph the Raven, who is rescued by Little Goody, then taught to speak and spell. He perches on the heroine’s arm and recites poems.

Do you typically visualize the illustrations for your picture books? What about this one?

I may have a general notion about the style, but the editors and art directors are far more talented at choosing illustrators than I am (my writing students are appalled when I tell them this).

For Balderdash- I envisioned old timey artwork, and I think Nancy Carpenter nailed it. Her pen and ink artwork captures the playfulness of the text, and adds lots of treats for the kids to discover.

Interior illustration by Nancy Carpenter
What might readers take away from the book?

They might get a sense of how culture changes over time, and how trailblazers like Newbery and one of his influences- John Locke- advance new ideas.

I hope young readers will understand how much books were loved and treasured in the 18th century- and I hope that’s contagious.
Michelle's writing buddy

Do you have any tips for nonfiction writers?

1. At some point the research can become overwhelming- you can’t see the forest for the trees. There are so many delicious facts- how to decide which to include?

That’s when it helps to revisit a clean, concisely written nonfiction book (one of my favorites is Diego by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).

2. Remember the age of your audience.

Pick a subject you deeply believe in- and that young people can relate to. Then blow their minds. Pour some love into the story - No holding back!

Cynsations Notes

Michelle Markel is the author of many books for young readers, including Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Balzer & Bray, 2013), an Orbis Pictus Honor Book for 2014 that also received the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Nonfiction from Bank Street.

Balderdash! is a Junior Library Guild selection for 2017.

It also received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. Peek: "...Markel’s enthusiastic narration pays its own homage to Newbery’s belief that children should have 'delightful books of their own.'

A teacher's guide for Balderdash! is available from Chronicle Books.

Michelle lives in West Hills, California and is a founding member of The Children's Authors Network. She teaches classes in writing for young people through the UCLA Extension's Writer's Program.

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