Friday, October 20, 2017

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Author Interviews

We've Been Waiting in the Wings Forever: A Queer Theater Story by Amy Rose Capetta from CBC Diversity. Peek: "It’s no real secret that the theater world, from the professional stages in NYC to the drama clubs in most schools are havens for creative and hardworking LGBTQIAP folks. Before I even knew I was queer, I found my people, and they shared my fervor for story-making, a heady mix of love and ambition that still drives me."

On the First South Asian YA Novel: Born Confused 15 Years Later by S. Mitra Kalita from LitHub. Peek from Tanuja Desai Hidier: "In Bombay Blues (Push, 2014), Dimple travels to India, to experience being 'brown among the brown' and feels 'beige' at best. Part of what I wanted to explore in this book is this phenomenon of the reverse diaspora: people of Indian origin gone West now turning around and heading back East."

7 Questions For: Author Kate Dicamillo by Robert Kent from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek: “Like Raymie Clarke, the hero of this novel, Kate DiCamillo grew up in a small southern town in the seventies with a single mother, and she, too, entered a Little Miss contest and attempted to learn to twirl a baton.”

Podcast Interview: National Book Award Finalists Rita Williams-Garcia and Ibi Zoboi from Vermont Public Radio. Peek: "When Rita Williams-Garcia read Ibi Zoboi's application to Vermont College of Fine Arts, she knew the writer was extremely talented. Williams-Garcia then served as Zoboi's faculty advisor at the school.... We speak with the two authors about their young adult novels, their writing relationship at VCFA and afterwards, and what it takes to write for a young audience."

Philip Pullman Returns to His Fantasy World by Sophie Elmhirst from The New York Times Magazine. Peek: “Arranged on the desk are various objects of mystical significance. ‘I write more easily, more comfortably, with less anxiety if I’ve got my various magic bits on the table.'”


Middle-Grade Novels Featuring South Asian Characters by Suma Subramaniam from From the Mixed-Up Files. Peek: “I interact with many middle-grade readers of South Asian descent in grades 4-8, so these books are of high interest. This post is about celebrating and sharing such books that were released in 2017 and also seeking out ways to find them.”

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Bridging Between the Familiar and Unfamiliar by Lindsay Barrett from the Lee & Low Blog. Peek: "Books with relatable characters who encounter multiple layers of events and challenges can provide familiar entry points while also stretching students’ thinking. Intentionally crafted discussions can help students make the leap from thinking about their own lives to thinking about the challenges others face."

Teaching and Writing for “Inclusive Excellence” by Megan Dowd Lambert from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: "My work as an educator and an author toward 'inclusive excellence' (as it was termed in a faculty training I attended led by Romney and Associates at Simmons College) is undone if I fail to support and amplify the work of Native people and people of color. So, in my storytime and professional-development practice, I always include books by diverse creators."

Spotlight on Independent Publishers with Great Spanish Content by Christa Jiménez from Latinxs in Kid Lit. Peek: "We know that reading to our kids in their home language is the key to their academic success in that language, and that’s why Spanish-speaking parents continually seek out bilingual and Spanish books for our kids. What can get difficult is finding high quality, culturally relevant texts that support the home culture."

#Resist: 3 Nonfiction Titles on Social Justice by Della Farrell from School Library Journal. Peek: “As the word 'resistance' becomes more and more incorporated into everyday language, students are bound to be curious about past and present social justice movements. The following three titles explore the ways in which young people have rallied for change around the world and across time.”

Diversity Awards and Grants for authors and illustrators by Lee Wind from SCBWI: The Blog. Includes thirteen grants and awards honoring diverse books and their creators.

We Need Diverse Books MG Short Story Contest is open for submissions. Deadline: 5 p.m. EDT Oct. 31. Peek: "This anthology will focus on tales of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, and the individuals who just might be magic. These are the stories of the risk-takers, the friend-makers, the dreamers and doers. In ways big and small, their stories motivate, inspire, make us laugh, remind us of our humanity and our resilience. These are the stories of everyday superheroes in our midst, the ones in plain sight and those yet to be discovered."

Writing Craft

Tension — an Essential Element of Story by Sarah Blake Johnson from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "Tension is an imbalance. Stories will contain many layers of tension, and these imbalances creates a desire in the characters (and in readers) for the imbalance(s) to be corrected or rebalanced. Tension creates anxiety. It catches and maintains our attention while we turn page after page..."

How Writers Can Beat Imposter Syndrome by Nathan Brandsford from his blog. Peek: “As everyone from Eminem to Alexander Hamilton (okay, the fictional one) has said: You only have one shot. Don’t blow it. Make sure you fear throwing away your chance because you failed to go after your dreams more than you fear some random person denting your feelings.”

Brainstorming with a Partner by David Baker from Thinking Through Our Fingers. Peek: “The ground rules were simple: Listen to what I thought I had, and make suggestions based on two things: 1. How much the possible book idea would interest you as a reader. 2. How feasible the possible book idea seems to you as a writer.”

The Writerly Skills Test by Julianna Baggott from Writer unBoxed. Peek: "We lean into what we’re good at and we avoid our weaknesses....We fear our weaknesses. I get it. But if you’re naturally fearful – most writers are – you might enjoy my take that fear is a good sign. It’s an indicator that you’re pushing the work beyond your capabilities, which is a sure way to stretch those capabilities."

Commit or Omit by Mary Kole from KidLit. Peek: "One of the most difficult decisions you make as a writer is what you include in your novel or picture book. You can’t include everything. I often reference the image of a spotlight operator when I talk about this. It is, after all, your job to direct your reader’s attention to important elements..."

Why We Can't Talk About Diversity in KidLit Without Talking About Money by K-Fai Steele from Kidlit Artists: Tips, News and Resources. Peek: "If money is critical to success in kidlit, who can’t afford it and who can’t? Perhaps kidlit being a cost-prohibitive industry to begin with is one of the contributing factors to the lack of diverse books and diverse creators."


How Writers Can Best Optimize Their About Me Page by Hunter Liguore from The Writer. Peek: "It’s easy to compile a list of publications and other noteworthy achievements, but if you can take the next step and create a story about your writing life – one that reflects your work and unique philosophies – you might be halfway there to creating a presence that is friendly and relatable enough to connect with readers."

SCBWI Bologna Book Fair 2018 from SCBWI. See also How You Can Get Involved and Thoughts and Ponderings on Bologna. Note: March 26 to March 28.

The Accidental Translator by Lyn Miller-Lachmann from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "Translators are writers. We provide the words in English to a story written in another language, in a way that both captures the voice, story, and characters of the original and makes them accessible to readers from a different culture."

My Achy-Breaky Heart Over Agents by Christine Kohler from Read Like a Writer. Peek: "First, let me be clear: I have never sold a book through an agent....However, do I want an agent? Yes. Why? Increasingly, publishers are refusing to accept unsolicited submissions and contracts are getting more complex due to e-rights and advanced technology."

New MCPG Imprint Brings Workman Team to Macmillan by John Maher from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "The imprint, which Macmillan said is 'centered around imaginative and innovative books that inspire kids to explore, learn, and have fun while helping them develop the skills to do so,' will be led by publisher Daniel Nayeri, editorial director Nathalie Le Du, and creative director Colleen AF Venable."

Teachers & Librarians

How Teachers And Schools Can Help When Bad Stuff Happens by Anya Kamenetz from  nprED. Peek: "...the stress of children's daily lives doesn't go away with all that's happening in the world around us. The National Survey of Children's Health consistently finds that nearly half of American children experience at least one adversity such as physical abuse or food insecurity, and 1 in 5 experience at least two."

Local Heroes: Librarians Address Inequity Where They See It by Marva Hinton from School Library Journal. Peek regarding Iowa Tribal Librarian Sandy Tharp-Thee: "With donations from local businesses and other sources, plus more than 20 grants, she has transformed the library’s role in the community in many ways. The GED program she launched has benefited more than 80 people, ages 16 to 64, since 2010."


By Lindgren nominee Sarah Ellis
Announcing the Danziger Awards for Hilarious Kids Books by Elizabeth Bird from A Fuse 8 Production at School Library Journal. Peek: "Named after the great and very funny Paula Danziger, these awards break down into different categories per year." Includes picture book, fiction for older children, debut author, debut illustrator and memorial award, all for books published in 2017.

2017 Cybils Awards Publisher/ Author Submissions by Sheila Ruth from Peek: “Publishers, publicists, and authors: now that the public nomination period has ended, we are accepting submissions from publishers, publicists, and authors of books published within the last year.”

Congratulations to those nominated for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the 2018 Prizes for Excellence in Science Books!

This Week at Cynsations
More Personally - Cynthia

Still smiling! Last week was all about teaching "The Joke's On You! The Scoop on Humor, Middle Grade Through YA" with Uma Krishnaswami and our teaching assistant, Sean Petrie.

Thanks to the Highlights Foundation, all of our terrific students and special guest speakers, Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown Ltd. in New York.

This week I'm back to writing fiction, focusing on a middle grade contemporary realism short story.

Link of the Week: Top 10 Signs of Hope for #Ownvoices Poetry by Margarita Engle from Nerdy Book Club.

More Personally - Gayleen

This week I've been leaning in to the Pomodoro Technique after hearing Sarah Aronson and Bethany Hegedus discuss it on the Writing Barn's Porchlight Podcast.

I'd written in short bursts (25 minutes) before, but had fallen out of the habit. Setting a timer and focusing my attention on the story at hand boosted my daily word count and reignited my passion for these characters. 

Personal Links - Gayleen

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on Fault Lines in the Constitution

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution.

Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced—then they offer possible solutions. 

Think Electoral College, gerrymandering, even the Senate. 

Many of us take these features in our system for granted. But they came about through haggling in an overheated room in 1787, and we’re still experiencing the ramifications.

Each chapter in this timely and thoughtful exploration of the Constitution’s creation begins with a story—all but one of them true—that connects directly back to a section of the document that forms the basis of our society and government. 

Most middle grade nonfiction is either biography or focuses on a particular event. Here you're examining the structure of our government and highlights of United States history since 1787. What inspired you to take on this monumental task?

The short answer to your question is that my editor, Kathy Landwehr, at Peachtree Publishers “inspired” us to write it by asking my husband, Sandy, a legal scholar, and me if we would. She had given her father a copy of one of Sandy’s previous books that critiques the Constitution—he writes for law students and faculty as well as adult readers in general—which he had found interesting. In talking about it, Kathy realized that there is no book like it for kids.

In a bigger sense, this question is really interesting because, even though I’ve published five nonfiction books (and written many more!), I’ve never thought about this distinction between biography, on the one hand, and event, on the other, as a way to organize nonfiction. It generally works, though it leaves out some science books. 

Melissa on Building Nonfiction Manuscripts
Melissa Stewart, an amazing author, researcher, and presenter on science topics, proposes another way to categorize the genre: narrative and expository. 

Your question has made me realize that Fault Lines in the Constitution contains some of all of these—biographies, events, narrative stories, and exposition of facts.

In that way, it does sound monumental! But, actually, because of the way the book is organized, it didn’t seem monumental while writing it (well, for the most part it didn’t). And we hope it doesn’t come across that way to readers.

You’re right that the scope might appear huge because we drop in on events in American history from the Revolution through this past summer. There probably aren’t many books that mention both the Continental Congress convening in a tavern in New Jersey and the fate of undocumented aliens under President Trump. 

Yet, Fault Lines is not a textbook. We don’t march through either American history or the Constitution. Every story and every event is closely tied to and illustrates a problem—or, fault line—in the Constitution.

You co-authored Fault Lines In The Constitution with your husband. Tell us about the collaboration process and how the book came together.

Fault Lines was very much a collaborative process. It is definitely ours, not his or hers. 

We had already joined forces in writing an article together for Cobblestone Magazine titled “Calling the Constitution’s Bluff,” in which we had ticked off three of the fault lines.

So, when we started on the book, I naively thought that I could re-read Sandy’s previous works—especially, Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) (Oxford University Press, 2006)—mine them for ideas, issues, and stories, and then summarize them. Done! Ha!

Though they’re persuasive in laying out his concerns about the Constitution, these books don’t tell the kinds of stories that draw in young readers. 

Also, Sandy’s writing style is, um, fluid and, because he’s so knowledgeable, digressive. Consistent structure and short blocks of text broken up by sidebars and illustrations are not his forte. (Nor, given his usual audience, do they need to be.) 

Furthermore, even though I had often heard him urge people to “follow the dots” from problems in the Constitution to political dilemmas today, I felt that the dots in his books needed clearer highlighting. Suddenly, I could see why our daughters, both of whom had written journal articles with him, asked me if I was really sure I wanted to take on this job!

For our middle-grade audience, I realized we had to start from scratch, and I laid out ground rules for the sections he would draft:

• No sentences longer than three lines or with more than one dependent clause.
• No extraneous words or vague phrases, like “indeed” or “in the grand scheme of things.”
• No adverbs.
• No parentheticals.

None of these ground rules was met! Here’s one brief example from an early draft of Chapter 4, which is about the filibuster:

Fortunately, as Sandy says, he has no pride of authorship. He does not mind being edited. You can see us working together in the photo. Note that I’m the one holding the red pen!

As a result, we managed to write the book in one voice. There is one exception, though: In writing the last chapter, we disagree and openly debate each other.

I'm also curious about the timeline - how long did it take to write, what was the editorial process was like?

I never know how to answer the question about how long it took me to write a book, partly because I work on several things at different stages simultaneously and partly because there are the inevitable lulls. 

In this case, the lull lasted a full year. We started sometime in 2013, and Fault Lines was supposed to come out in September 2016. But I had to postpone it when I was asked me to write a biography, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016), which had an obvious deadline. That delay turned out to be fortuitous, as the book evolved after the election of President Trump.

Kathy Landwehr, my editor at Peachtree Publishers for We’ve Got a Job (2012) and Watch Out for Flying Kids (2015) did her usual exemplary, thoughtful, and indefatigable job. 

She did not hesitate to take out her red pen, too! In fact, we wrote three entire stories for the book, including a moving one about a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns, all of which got axed for various necessary reasons. We recycled the story about Burns into a blog post.

One of the aspects I found most fascinating is that each chapter opens with a contemporary anecdote - the college student who successfully changed the Michigan constitution regarding public university admission seems particularly relevant to students. How did you find those stories? And, how did you decide which ones to use in the book?

Sandy knew about many of the events, including the opening one about the lynching of a black man named Richard Puckett in South Carolina in 1913. This tragic act leads to a discussion of the first fault line, bicameralism—the need for both houses of Congress to pass a bill before it can become a law. 

Through my experience writing for kids, I was able to turn historical artifacts into gripping stories. And, with additional research, I added moving details, including the fact that Puckett’s niece attended the ceremony in 2005 when 80 (but not all 100) senators apologized for the Senate’s inability to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Other stories popped up in the news. The situation you mention is a recent legal case related to direct democracy, which some state constitutions—but not the U.S. Constitution—allow. Another uses the jailing of a nurse who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa in 2014 to show that our Constitution is out of date. 

Cynthia and Gayleen at TLA conference
The ARC I received at the Texas Library Association conference in the spring had a sticker on the cover noting the date the text was approved, "but this is a book inherently influenced by current events." 

Less than a week later, the Senate voted to change the filibuster rules. You and your publisher have a blog dedicated to posting updates to the book. 

Is the United States government changing faster now than it has in the past?

I doubt that the government is changing faster now than in the past. Conservatives who want a smaller role for government and lower taxes would argue that it changed vastly during President Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office when he pushed 15 major bills through Congress.

That perspective is a large part of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act, passed under President Obama. It is true, though, that the Trump administration is undoing this so-called “deep state” very rapidly.

Publishers Weekly called Fault Lines “exceptionally topical.” To keep up with the times and to show how much the Constitution influences current events, we blog every two weeks.

So far, as you can see in the picture, we’ve written about gerrymandering, Texas Boys State (which voted to secede!), the shooting of Republican Congressmen and problems with continuity in government, and the under-funding of the 2020 Census, among other topics.

We invite readers to join the conversation!

Given current events, I'm guessing this book has a lot of crossover appeal for adults. Have you noticed that with the events you've had so far?

Everyone tells us that! We’ve been invited to almost two-dozen radio interviews and talk-shows, and grown-ups are as engaged in our presentations as kids. School Library Connection even said, "While written for students, the book is a worthwhile read for adults as well.”

Cynsations Notes

Cynthia Levinson
photo by Sam Bond Photography
A discussion guide for Fault Lines in the Constitution is available from the publisher. The book has earned four starred reviews, from Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.

Cynthia Levinson holds degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University and also attended the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she is the author of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), along with Watch Out for Flying Kids (Peachtree, 2015), Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and The Youngest Marcher, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

She has also published articles in Appleseeds, Calliope, Cobblestone, Dig, Faces, and Odyssey

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

New Voice: Jonathan Rosen on Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Jonathan Rosen is the debut author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies (Sky Pony Press, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. 

Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. 

Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.

That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. 

Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever?

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I was a kid, the big thing for me was when my parents took me to the bookstore. Back then, there were bookstores in all the malls--sometimes two--Waldenbooks and B.Daltons. And every time we went, we’d stop in one, or more likely, both.

My parents would let me buy a book or two every single time, because I read them so fast. I always loved that excitement of buying a new book. There was nothing like it to me. My favorites, were the Choose Your Own Adventure Series (Bantam Books, 1979-1988).

Even back then, I remember thinking how great it would be to see my name on a book.

When I started writing, I wanted to try and recapture some of the magic of those stories that I loved.

I wanted kids to get excited about some of my stories because I still have vivid memories of going in and picking up favorite books. I dabbled in it, until my kids started to get to reading age, and then I made it a serious endeavor. I wanted my kids to love my stories.

My youngest has read Cuddle Bunnies a few times, and I love watching her do it.

I coach a girls softball team and they’re always telling me what books they like. And now, they’re all excited about mine.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This one, has kind of convoluted answer. I had wanted to do something fun, with a kind of dark humor. The movie "Gremlins" kept coming to mind. It was one of my favorites as a kid. I love the idea of these sweet-looking things containing a dark side, and that’s where Cuddle Bunnies came in.

At around the same time, I had just come at two different houses with a previous manuscript. Both places eventually turned it down for one reason or another, but both said they loved the humor in it.

So, while this evil stuffed animal book was fresh in my mind, I decided to go ahead and write the funniest book that I could. Evil stuffed animals were very funny to me.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

There were so many ‘worst’ moments, that I could write a book just about those. This isn’t an easy field. You have to brace yourself for a lot of rejection. Not everyone is going to like you and your work, so you just have to accept that.

Funny enough, some of the very worst moments were after I was at the point where I felt good enough to be published, and it didn’t happen. I got so close that when I went to the brink at those two houses and then got turned down, it kind of felt like it might not ever happen.

The best, was when I signed with my agent, Nicole Resciniti. It was real validation that someone in the industry believed in my work. It wasn’t too long after that when she told me that we had an offer. Soon, we signed the contract. That was the overall, best moment, so far!

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

I like to remain heavily involved in the children’s writing community as well as the larger literature community. Besides being in a regular critique group, I go to as many SCBWI events as I can and read blogs to keep up to date with what’s going on in the industry.

Jonathan's critique group, The Tuesdays
I think it’s important to know what people in the industry are looking for, who’s working where, what types of books are selling as well as just maintaining friendships within the community.

It’s always good to support others and know you have like-minded individuals, who you can confide in and who share similar experiences.

As much as writing seems like a solitary endeavor, it isn’t really. It’s very tough to make it alone.

It’s good to have people who can pick you up when you’re down. To critique your work and offer opinions. And discuss what’s happening in the writing world.

I also look all the time to see what new books are released. There’s nothing like digging into a new middle grade book!

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

I wish I could give some eye-opening, insightful, new piece of information that’s never been given before, but I’m saving that for my pay-per-view special. Truth is, my advice has been given over and over again, but it’s so true. Never give up.

Seriously, it’s so easy to give in to the rejection. Most of the time, that’s what you get.

Remember, that’s what will separate you from those who don’t get published. They gave up. Keep going. Work on your craft. Always try and get better.

And one of the most important things: don’t be stubborn when someone offers opinions or advice. Take note of everything and use what works for you. If it doesn’t, then you don’t have to follow it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen.

Cynsations Notes

Jonathan Rosen is a teacher and freelance writer who spends his “free” time being a volunteer coach for his daughter’s softball team and a chauffeur for all of his kids.

Jonathan was born in New York and is of Mexican descent. He contributes to From the Mixed Up Files...of MG Authors and Tuesday Writers.

A sequel to Cuddle Bunnies, From Sunset Till Sunrise is now available as an e-book and will be released in print in August 2018 from Sky Pony Press.

Jonathan lives with his family in sunny South Florida.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Guest Post: Carmela A. Martino on Pulling a Novel From the Drawer & Playing By Heart

By Carmela A. Martino
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

If I’d known how long and difficult the path to publication would be for my new young adult novel, Playing by Heart (Vinspire Publishing, 2017), I might never have started down this road. The journey began when I set out to write a picture book biography of a little-known 18th-century female mathematician.

Long before entering the Vermont College MFA program, I’d been a computer programmer, and my undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Computer Science. Yet I’d never heard of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history.

Born in Milan, Italy, Agnesi was fluent in seven languages, some say by age eleven. Later, she wrote the first math textbook that covered everything from basic arithmetic to the new-at-that-time science of calculus. The textbook brought her acclaim throughout Europe.

Intrigued by Agnesi’s story, I began working on a picture book biography of her around 2002. 

After Candlewick published my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola in 2005, I submitted the biography to my editor there. We went through several revisions. Unfortunately, not much remains of Agnesi’s writing besides her textbook. My editor felt there wasn’t enough information about Agnesi’s life and personality to write a nonfiction book that would engage young readers. 

She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by Maria Gaetana and her younger sister, Maria Teresa, a composer who was one of the first Italian women to write a serious opera. The Agnesi sisters both struggled to please an overbearing father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness.

I took my editor’s advice and began writing a historical romance based on the Agnesi sisters. Researching not only their lives but the culture of Milan in the 1700s was rather daunting. 

I finally finished a rough draft in January 2009. 

The story was from the younger sister’s point of view. Having changed the family name to Salvini, my original title was "The Second Salvini Sister." After numerous revisions, I finally sent a polished manuscript to my Candlewick editor in September 2011. Unfortunately, she turned it down.

I kept revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. The manuscript took second place in the YA category of the 2012 SCBWI Midsouth Conference. I continued to revise, eventually changing the title to Playing by Heart.

The novel did well in several more contests, including first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest.

The contest success meant several editors and agents read the full manuscript, yet none of them were interested in publishing or representing the novel.

The feedback I kept hearing was that Playing by Heart was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”

I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer. I focused my efforts on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually come back in vogue. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014.

Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for the Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference, which included pitch sessions with publishers. I’d planned to pitch my biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Given her religious devotion and service to the poor, I thought a Catholic publisher might be interested. 

As it turned out, not all the publishers were Catholic, but none were a good fit for the biography. However, Vinspire Publishing was there accepting pitches for YA fiction. With nothing to lose, I pulled Playing by Heart out of the drawer.

Dawn Carrington, Vinspire’s editor-in-chief, liked my pitch and asked for the first three chapters. In April 2016, she requested the full manuscript. Less than three months later, Dawn emailed to say she wanted to publish the manuscript!

Before signing a contract, I did my due diligence regarding the publisher. 

Vinspire is a small press based in South Carolina. They publish only paperback and ebook editions and they typically don’t pay an advance. They are not a Catholic publisher, but, as it says on their website: “. . . we are a family-friendly publisher, we do not allow extreme violence, any profanity, drug use or references to drug use, smoking, or the use of alcohol by minors, or sensuality or sex in our books.” 

After weighing the pros and cons of working with a small press, I signed the contract.

My experience with Vinspire led me to pitch the article “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” that will appear in the 2018 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (Writer's Digest Books).

For the article, I interviewed three award-winning authors who share their advice and experiences working with small presses. Two of them are fellow VCFA alums Laura Atkins and Nancy Bo Flood.

When I held a copy of Playing by Heart for the first time, it really didn’t matter that it was published by a small press.

The book was beautiful.

That’s when I decided it had been worth the journey after all.

Cynsational Notes

See an interview with Carmela's editor, Dawn Carrington, at Teaching Authors.

Carmela Martino’s middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola (Candlewick, 2005) was her creative thesis for the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. The novel went on to be named a Booklist “Top Ten First Novel for Youth.”

After the novel went out of print, she reissued a new edition with a revised cover and a Discussion Questions section. The new edition recently received a Catholic Press Association Book Award in the “Children's Books” category.

She founded TeachingAuthors, a blog by six children’s authors who are also writing teachers, with several fellow Vermont College alums. She has taught writing classes at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL since 1998. Her current co-bloggers include alums Mary Ann Rodman, JoAnn Early Macken, and Bobbi Miller

Carmela’s credits for young readers also include short stories and poems in magazines and anthologies. Her articles for adults have appeared in such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Catholic Parent, and the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (CWIM). She will have two articles in the 2018 CWIM: “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better” and an interview with bestselling author Carolyn Crimi, a member of Carmela’s Vermont College class. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Survivors: Margaret Peterson Haddix on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's-YA Author

Learn more about Margaret Peterson Haddix.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Oh, I did so many things wrong!

A lot of my struggles in the beginning were just about having the confidence to think that it was possible to be published.

And I was so green and stupid and ignorant, starting out. I think I expected everything to be easier after that—because then I would know what I was doing. And I certainly do know more than I did back then, but every book is like starting over, with its own challenges and struggles. And its own opportunities.

I think one thing that helped me was that I had worked as a newspaper reporter and copy editor before writing my first book. That forced me to learn how to write (and edit) consistently and on deadline, and to have a thicker skin about people criticizing my work. (I’m not sure I ever developed a thick enough skin for journalism, but it gave me some perspective and definitely helped in the kinder world of children’s publishing.)

I was also very, very fortunate in many ways with things that weren’t exactly under my control. I worked hard (counting books that aren’t out yet, I’ve written 43 books in 26 years) but it was what I wanted to do. Some people want to be writers so they can say they’ve written a book, and some people want to be writers because they like to write, and I was lucky/blessed that it’s almost always been the writing itself that I’ve enjoyed most.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been plenty of days when I think all my ideas are stupid and I delete more than I write and I question whether I even know English and I wonder why I didn’t go into an easier field, or at least one where I could know for sure if I was doing things right, instead of endlessly flipping back and forth between multiple choices. (Should it be “and” here, or “but”? Or maybe “so”? Arrrgggghhhh!)

But overall, I am still just having fun. And I was lucky that my books (overall—not every single one) did well enough that I could just keep writing.

I was lucky that the agents and editors who pushed my career along were a lot savvier than I ever was about a lot of publishing issues. (The credit here goes mostly to Tracey Adams at Adams Literary and David Gale at Simon & Schuster, both of whom I’ve worked with the longest.)

Beyond that, I have been lucky with a lot of issues that affect a writing career in less obvious ways. I was lucky that I had health insurance through my husband. I was lucky that the emergencies/crises/day-to-day problems in my family and personal life were the type that could be handled alongside a writing career, instead of supplanting it.

 I was lucky that I’d grown up on a farm, and seen my father manage being self-employed with all its ups and downs and everything that’s good and bad about being your own boss, and so I had a good role model for that. (That farm background was also good because, no matter how much I can tie my brain into knots agonizing over some writing problem, this is still a much, much easier and more pleasant job than shoveling manure or many of the other chores I did as a kid.)

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

It’s tempting to say yes, of course if I could go back, I would learn from my mistakes and do better the second time around. But there’s that lesson of time travel (which I’ve thought about a lot, having written an eight-book time-travel series): if you eliminate a problem, you might also eliminate all the good results.

I’d like to say that I would be less stressed and obsessive, but I’m not sure I can stop being that way going forward with my career, let alone going back. I think it’s a basic personality trait for me, and being stressed and anxious and slightly obsessive pushed me through the difficult parts of just about every single one of my books. There were a few years that were crazy because I’d over-committed and agreed to too many tight book deadlines, along with too much book-related travel, and it would have been wise not to have done that. But I’m not sure which book I would want to have not written.

I do wish I had not been so intimidated and shy the first, oh, let’s say ten to fifteen years of my writing career. I think I missed out on the opportunity to get to know a lot of interesting, thoughtful people in the publishing world back then, as well as a lot of wonderful educators, librarians, booksellers, and other authors.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The biggest changes are because of the internet and social media, and now the ever-presence of smartphones. Like most technological advances, those are all mixed blessings.

In the early years, even when I was writing a book under contract, most of the time it felt like I was just playing around with my ideas on my own, in total isolation. And then I would go to a school or library or bookstore or conference, and it was always a little stunning to me: Wait, these people know my characters, too? And… they like them? Amazing!

In many ways it is wonderful now to be able to interact with readers (and others in the publishing world) over social media, and to get feedback on a regular basis. It’s not so wonderful when the feedback is negative or outright vitriolic (or abusive). I’ve read articles about how damaging it is to kids and teens to have so much of their self-esteem tied to an online world and the Pavlovian effect of seeking likes on social media. Adults should be able to keep perspective better, but I’m not sure it’s healthy for any of us.

If nothing else, social media and constant connectedness take a lot of time and energy. And among my other worries about society and the future, I worry that we’re all going to be reduced to having the attention spans of gnats, which of course would be terrible for the future of books.

The other big change recently is the emphasis on diversity in children’s books and the children’s book world, and I applaud the opportunity for everyone to learn more about one another, and for kids from a variety of backgrounds to see themselves more in books. And for authors who would have been automatically discriminated against in the past to get more attention.

 I know we are a long, long way from an ideal situation, but I want to believe we are making progress. I am trying to listen and learn and read more widely myself.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

That’s a little mind-blowing to contemplate. I think, though, that I’d give the same advice for a first book or a fortieth, or for any career in general. Do your best with what you can control, and let go of what you can’t.

Of course you want your book to succeed, but understand that timing and luck can play a huge role; sometimes good books fail, and sometimes mediocre books succeed.

If your book is a success, of course rejoice and be happy, but remember that that success doesn’t actually define your worth as a person. And if your book fails (or just doesn’t live up to expectations), then of course mourn for that book and the impact you wanted it to have, but even more than with a success, don’t let that failure define your worth as a person.

Be glad if you have friends and family members who don’t know or care anything about your book, except for knowing and caring about you.

And have I managed to follow all that advice myself? Sometimes. Not always.

I could do better. I have managed to follow another part of the advice I’d give, which is to then focus on writing the next book.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

This is a selfish wish, because I am a reader, too: I wish to see a lot more great books from other writers! And beyond that, I would wish for every kid to find at least one book (and hopefully many, many, many books) that speaks directly to him or her.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I am still figuring that out!

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children's-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

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