Friday, October 27, 2017

Cynsations News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith,
Gayleen Rabakukk & Robin Galbraith
for Cynsations

Author Interviews

The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast by Samantha M. Clark from Watch. Connect. Read by Mr. Schu. Peek:

"Reading is how we learn, explore, experience, escape. When I was little, I moved around a lot....And with each move, I became a little more quiet and shy. But with stories in books, I could be anyone in any place. My world got so much bigger..."

A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork from Latinxs in Kid Lit. Peek:

"... if the story is to pull the reader into its world, then there must be something in the characters and something in the adversity which speaks to or touches the reader in a personal way. Often this is a recognition that what the characters are experiencing is something that the reader has experienced also."

Author Interview: Louise Hawes by Jacqui Lipton from Authography. Peek:

"Creativity is everywhere. It’s a giant river with tributaries leading off in countless, fascinating directions: for instance, I’ve always written poetry, just not necessarily for publication. I usually write a poem as an emotional touchstone for every chapter in my novels—it’s another form of free writing."

Malinda Lo and Stephanie Perkins On Genre Hopping, Slasher Films, and More by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek from Stephanie Perkins:

“But in a slasher, plot always comes first. There was no getting around that. So this was the first time that I had to outline the entire story, chapter by chapter, before writing a single word.”


Looking Back: Musings On Diversity and Identity In Hispanic and Latin American Children's Literature by Alma Flor Ada from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: "When My Name is María Isabel (Atheneum) was published in 1993 I was delighted to see that many school...recognized that the significance that students’ names, whichever their origin, be respected...I had hoped (it) would be read as something that happened in the past, not currently. Unfortunately, this is not the case."

Top 10 Signs of Hope for Own Voice Poetry by Margarita Engle from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: "Statistics from the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books are still dismal, but even though the quantity of diverse books has not increased much, the quality is exquisite. Pending debuts, such as The Poet X by Elizabeth Azevedo, are breathtaking."

5 of the Best Children’s Books About Disabilities by Jaime Herndon from BookRiot. Peek: “Did you know that more than 12% of the U.S. population has a disability? While its not always easy to explain disability to children, books have a way of illustrating what really matters, and bringing it to their level.”

Writing Craft

What Interiority Is and Why It Matters by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek: "I define the term 'interiority' as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation."

Three Tips for NaNoWriMo by Kim Ventrella from Middle Grade Minded.  Peek: “Don’t be discouraged by the crappiness of your writing. It happens to everyone all the time, even writers who have already sold books. NaNo is about getting that first (or fifth) novel under your belt.”

Describing Your Character: How To Make Each Detail Count by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Readers need a way to connect with characters and the story. But like everything else with writing craft, it’s all in the how. If we don’t choose details with care, we will miss an opportunity to draw readers deeper into the story, and our writing can come across as bland or boring."

10 Rules for Book Editors by Jonathan Karp from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Whether the work is fiction or nonfiction, readers respect authors who deeply understand their subject. It’s apparent when a writer is in command, and this command is the surest justification for asking readers to devote hours of their time to a book."

Using Dysfunctional Behavior to Reveal Characters’ Emotional Wounds, by Angela Ackerman from Jane Friedman. Peek: “Showing the impact of the past on a character’s psyche is best done through action because after a wounding event, behavior changes—sometimes drastically.”

Chasing Dreams, Literary Magazines, and Why Not Now? by Nova Ren Suma from Distraction No. 99. Peek: "...I discovered something: We don’t have to be helpless, especially when we work together and put our hearts into it....So I did three things: I removed my social media from my phone, logged out, and will not have to log in to those accounts until winter except if/when there is news to share."


7 Questions For: Literary Agent Jennifer March Soloway by Robert Kent from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek:  “Writing stories is all about asking questions and solving problems—for better or worse—and there are so many directions a story can go. If something isn’t working, think about the other possible outcomes.”

When Your Publisher Closes Their Door by Amie Borst from From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek: “The point is, even though things got rough, you didn’t give up. You explored your options. And you made the choice that was right for you. And only you get to decide how to measure your success.”

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally - Cynthia

This week, I'm especially thrilled to welcome Robin Galbraith as the newest Cynsations intern. Meanwhile, Gayleen Rabakukk will continue on as an author intern, too.

Peek from Robin's terrific first post, Giving Yourself Permission to Write:

"Writing wasn’t just for me; it showed my kids that women have dreams, too. I took writing classes and joined several critique groups. As my kids grew up, I carved out more time to write and encouraged my children to write their own stories."

Wow! It's an honor to be highlighted (that's me, second from the left) on the double-page spread celebrating Austin in 50 Cities of the U.S.A. by Gabrielle Balkin, illustrated by Sol Linero (Wide Eyed Editions, 2017).

Congratulations to Laney Nielson on the release of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes (Sky Pony, 2017)! Laney was the 2014 recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award from Austin SCBWI.

Congrats to Dr. Sylvia Vardell, recipient of the Alida Cutts Lifetime Membership Award, USBBY-IBBBY in recognition of her many acommplishments in connecting young readers (and their champions) to poetry. See a video interview with Sylvia from Reading Rockets.

Gayleen & Rebekah
More Personally - Gayleen

On Sunday I was thrilled to help Rebekah Manley celebrate the second anniversary of her blog, Brave Tutu. It's mission is to "Take courage in delight. Discover power in small moments."

All week guest authors have contributed Brave Tutu posts. Timing by Anne Bustard particularly touched me.

We're all on this miraculous journey of life together and sometimes changing our plans brings rewards we never even considered.

Personal Links - Cynthia
Personal Links - Gayleen

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Guest Post: Sarah Albee on Brain Training: How Writers Must Learn to Shift Gears

By Sarah Albee
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

If you write for kids, chances are you are working on several things at the same time.

 Most writers of books for kids don’t have the luxury of working on one project for years and years. We are short-order cooks, juggling multiple tasks at multiple stages.

So how do we shift gears between projects?

To answer this question, I thought I’d start by giving you a tour of what’s on my own highly-organized and tidy desk today:

My laptop, which includes:
  • a first draft of a book for first graders about gorillas (just completed and sent to my editor—Boo-yah! That’s now off my desk.) 
  • A proposal for a new book that I’m readying for my agent 
On my actual desk:
  • Several books about female pirates (research for a new project). 
  • Copies of sketches for the Level Two I Can Read (History) book I wrote about Alexander Hamilton (Harper Collins, 2018). Fun fact: Unlike fiction picture book authors, who are usually not involved in the art phase of their books, we nonfiction authors get to review sketches for “historical accuracy.” 
  • My latest book, Poison (Crown Books for Young Readers), which came out Sept. 5. 
  • A hard copy of a manuscript I wrote about the California Gold Rush, just back from my editor. It’s covered with supportive and admiring editorial notes. I mean, I haven’t yet read her notes, but I’m sure she’ll tell me it’s practically perfect—and that I just need to sprinkle a little fairy dust on it. #sendfairydust 
  • “Third pages” for my book, Dog Days of History, coming out next March with National Geographic. I’ve looked at these images about 27 times by this point, as have platoons of people over at Nat Geo. And yet I just noticed “an issue” with the prehistoric cave painting on page 8. It shows hunters with their dogs, but it turns out those large stick-like things protruding from the hunters’ midsections are not swords. #heartfailure #pictureswap 
  • A folder entitled “Fall School Visits,” containing letters, contracts, and book order forms that I’m arranging with all the schools I’ll be visiting soon. 
  • A box that was just delivered, containing sixty pairs of spectacles and a large stuffed green beetle. Props for my fall school visits. 

So how do we shift gears from reviewing sketches, to writing proposals, to promoting our books, to visiting schools, to hopping on Twitter, to coming up with ideas, to entering that Deep Thinking Zone where we actually get our writing done? Let alone juggling family responsibilities and basic life-maintenance?

It happened for me only after years of training my brain. I’ve learned not to wait for environmental conditions to be perfect. If I did, I’d never get a thing written.

I’ve trained myself to enter the Deep Thinking Zone no matter where I am. I’ve written in bleacher seats. I’ve written in parking lots. I’ve written in airports.

Which is not to say I don’t get sidetracked. Heaven knows I do. But that’s the beauty of our job. Distractions can turn into books.

I usually get my best ideas for new books while I’m immersed in research for a different book. I’ll stumble over some cool fact or event that pulls me away from whatever I was researching. I’ve taught myself to harness those ideas, to write them down for later.

For instance, as I was researching my book, Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up (Bloomsbury, 2010), I was struck by the fact that so many so-called “filth diseases” were vectored by insects: malaria, typhus, yellow fever, bubonic plague, etc.

And I thought, “I should write a book about how insects changed human history.”

Which led to my next book, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, illustrated by Robert Leighton (Bloomsbury, 2014). And while I was researching that one, I discovered the fascinating history of cochineal scale insects, which were the source of the color red, a color that made Spain a world power in the seventeenth century.

And I thought, “I should write a book about the historical conditions that led people to dress the way they did.”

Which led to a book about the history behind what people wore, Why’d They Wear That? (National Geographic Books, 2015)

As for my latest book? Poison has been a lifelong fascination for me. There’s poison in practically all of my books. My challenge was deciding what poison tales to include in the book and which ones had to get cut. Luckily, there are great editors in the world. Also, I turned those extra stories into videos, like this one:

Oh, hey guess what. My email just plinked. It’s from my editor, and the subject line says: “re: first draft gorillas.” He wants revisions. It’s back on my desk.

Off to go look for that fairy dust.

Cynsations Notes

Watch the book trailer for Poison:

Booklist gave Poison a starred review and said, "While there are shocking and disgusting facts aplenty, Albee also discusses the rise of toxicology and forensic science, and the much-needed emergence of food and drug regulation. Her light tone makes this morbid, well-researched study a sinister indulgence."

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 100 books for kids, ranging from preschool through middle grade. Recent nonfiction titles have been Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections, Notable Social Studies Trade Books, and winners of Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Awards. These days she writes primarily nonfiction, and especially loves writing about topics where history and science connect.

Prior to being a full-time writer, Sarah worked at Children’s Television Workshop (producers of "Sesame Street") for nine years. She played basketball in college, and then a year of semi-professional women’s basketball in Cairo, Egypt.

She lives in Connecticut with her husband, who is a high school history teacher and administrator, their three kids, and their dog, Rosie.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Guest Post: Karen Leggett Salutes the Children’s Africana Book Awards

By Karen Leggett
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Brenda Randolph, founder and director of Africa Access, was raised in the segregated schools and libraries of Richmond, Virginia.

“I was an avid reader, but I never encountered crude racism in children’s books," she said. "I remember being irritated by some comments, but I never came upon viciously racist sentiments or characters. I think my African American librarians protected me by careful book selection.”

Randolph’s awareness jumped dramatically a few years after college. An African American mother strongly objected to The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle (by Hugh Lofting, J.B. Lippincott, 1922) at an elementary school in Brookline, Massachusetts where Randolph had recently been hired.

“Lofting’s book was full of the crudest racism I had ever encountered," she said. "As a result of this incident, I read every book in the library that focused on Africa. I also read books about African Americans, Native Americans, Indigenous Australians and other people of color. I quickly discovered deep racism and ethnocentrism in many books, including award winners."  

The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle was withdrawn for reevaluation from the Brookline school and Randolph was transformed into an activist librarian. She has devoted her career to making sure children, librarians and teachers have access to high quality books about African countries and people.

After graduate school in African Studies at Howard University, Randolph founded Africa Access to help schools and libraries build quality collections on Africa. 

Brenda Randolph
In the early 1990s, Africa Access launched Africa Access Review, a free online database, of scholarly reviews of K-12 books on Africa.

Today the Africa Access database has over 1500 annotations and reviews of children’s and young adult books.

 Africa Access also provides online bibliographies of recommended picture books, chapter books, award winners and new adult books – “accurate, balanced books that can change and expand what we know, think and feel about Africa.”

Additionally, one can also find links to lessons and other resources for teaching and learning about Africa on the Africa Access website.

In 1991, Africa Access in collaboration with the African Studies Association Outreach Council created the Children’s Africana Book Awards (CABA) to recognize authors and illustrators of outstanding books on Africa for young people. 

The first award was presented in 1992 to David Anderson and illustrator Kathleen Wilson for The Origins of Life on Earth, A Yoruba Creation Story (Sights Production, 1991). An image from that book became the seal for CABA. 

 African studies and children’s literature scholars make up the selection committee for CABA.

The judges read 30 to 40 books a year, nominated by publishers and copyrighted in the year preceding the awards ceremony.

Eligible books must be available in English in the United States. Books with content primarily about African Americans and other parts of the African diaspora are not eligible. The awards are presented in two categories: Young Children and Older Readers.

The CABA competition is open to authors and illustrators of all ethnic backgrounds.

The selection juries (which always include Africans and African Americans) evaluate books on the basis of accuracy, balance, and authenticity.

“Research is key,” Randolph said. “CABA juries are looking for books that reflect in-depth knowledge of places and people in Africa.”

The number of awards varies each year depending on the quality of what has been published. In 2015, there was only one winner. The following year there were four winners. This year there are seven.

Award judges ask the same questions teachers or librarians should ask when reviewing titles.
  • Do stories and history reflect African agency?
  • Are the details of holidays, festivals and culture presented respectfully, or are they “quaint” and “exoticized?”
  • Are country distinctions recognized? “Africa is not a country!” Randolph insists, frustrated that authors often give country-specific titles to their books, only to have publishers change to generic “Africa” for marketing purposes.
  • Does the book avoid offensive, inaccurate or biased terms, e.g. using house rather than “hut,” ethnic group rather than “tribe.”
  • Are the illustrations balanced and varied reflecting the typical rather than the rare (i.e. showing animals that Africans actually see birds, dogs, goats rather than lions and elephants)?
  • Are problems (e.g. poverty and war) presented in global and historical contexts?
“CABA juries particularly appreciate books set in urban areas,” Randolph said. “By 2025, more than half the population of Africa will be urban. More books should reflect this fact.”

“Instead of recycling colonial and exotic images of Africa,” Randolph suggested “sharing books that emphasize typical social groups (farmers and office workers) and typical activities (soccer and shopping).

"Good choices are My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa Mollel, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Clarion, 1999) which features a boy saving money to buy a bike and Desmond and the Very Mean Word: A Story of Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams and illustrated by A.G. Ford, (Candlewick, 2013) which promotes forgiveness.

“We are also eager to evaluate more books from Africa publishers. The challenge is making sure the books are available for purchase in the U.S. Schools and libraries need to be able to purchase these titles with ease. African Books Collective -- an African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet -- is an important partner in this regard.”

This year CABA is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a collection of more than 90 award-winning books that “do a much better job of representing Africa’s diversity,” said Randolph.

This year’s CABA 2017 winners provide choices for kindergarteners through young adults, with two best books for young readers.

Gizo-Gizo! A Tale from the Zongo Lagoon by Emily Williamson (Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2016) is a folktale with a modern setting that tackles the universal problem of water pollution.

Graduate student Emily Williamson worked with local teachers in Cape Coast, Ghana, to teach students about local water and environmental concerns. The book is the result of their dialogue, performances, art and writing exercises. 

The Storyteller by Evan Turk (Simon & Schuster, 2016) tells about a little boy who discovers the
power of storytelling in Morocco. 

Best Book for Older Readers, Amagama Enkululeko! Words for Freedom: Writing Life Under Apartheid (Cover2Cover Books, 2016) is an anthology of both famous and forgotten writers on the history of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa.

Honor books include Aluta by Adwoa Badoe (Groundwood, 2016), Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan (Putnam, 2016) and The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti's Eye by Manu Herbstein (Manu Herbstein, 2016) and one notable title, The World Beneath by Janice Warman (Candlewick, 2016).

The 25th anniversary CABA celebration includes an award dinner Nov. 3 in Washington, D.C., that brings together new winners with almost a dozen past winners and honors CABA founder, Brenda Randolph.

The following day, a free family CABA Book Festival will take place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Events include book signings, art activities, storytelling and food.

Cynsations Notes

Karen Leggett is a journalist who spent many years as a news broadcaster in Washington, D.C., reviewing children’s books before writing them.

She is the author of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books, illustrated by Susan L. Routh (Dial, 2012) which won a CABA award in 2013 and Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words, illustrated by L.C. Wheatley (StarWalk Kids Media, 2014).

Karen has led Skype sessions between American and Egyptian children and presented workshops for teachers and librarians on using picture books to build global awareness. She is a former president of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Survivors: Alex Flinn on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Alex Flinn.
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 (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

My first five books were realistic "problem" fiction. This was very much in vogue when my first two were published, but it became less "hot" as my career went on.

I feel like, in the early years of YA, it was assumed that YA fiction would mostly be sold to schools. But, as time went on, there were these books that sold in bookstores, and it wasn't good enough just to sell to school and library.

They were not genres I wrote. They were mostly two genres, chick lit and fantasy. I have no real ability in chick lit, and I'm not a high fantasy person either, though I like light fantasy, the type of books that take place in the real world, but something magical happens.

At one point, I asked my publisher why my books weren't being promoted, and they said they only promoted chick lit and fantasy to bookstores because they were the types of books that sold in bookstores. I was frustrated, but when I had an impulsive idea for a fantasy book (a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in modern times, from the Beast's point of view), I embraced it.

Thus, Beastly (HarperCollins, 2007) was born.

I feel that this is what kept me going. Most of my fellow authors who strictly stuck to one genre aren't publishing anymore. It was sort of scary to make this switch, because I had a following in realistic, and my editor was really surprised, but I feel like I would not still be published, had I not switched at that point. I think it is important to have a "brand," like don't write one mystery and one romance and one little kid book, etc., but once you have a few, you can branch out.

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

I would not worry so much about individual reviews of my books. I used to obsess over them. I would know that, if you write something provocative, not everyone is going to like it. It's sort of like comedy -- you have to be willing to offend someone.

My first review of my first book, Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001), was really awful. The standout line was, "Teens may overlook its major flaws."

I was devastated. But, know what? They did overlook those flaws. That book did really, really well. It was embraced by teachers and librarians and even bookstores. It is still published and assigned in schools almost seventeen years later, and I still get mail about it. Hundreds of young women have left their abusive boyfriends because of Breathing Underwater, so yes, Anonymous Reviewer Whom I May Not Even Realize I've Met, they did overlook those "major flaws."

I love getting reviewed, love that people care enough to review my books -- thank goodness! But I think sometimes, a reviewer just won't be the right reader for your book. They won't get you.

Like, maybe that reviewer didn't know what to make of me because I was writing about dating violence from the abuser's viewpoint.

As an author becomes more established, I think publications know, "Hey, this reviewer loves Alex Flinn's books, so we will give it to her," which is why more established authors are more likely to get a good review. But, even then, that reviewer may get upset if the author writes something different (such as switching genres, which I did).

As long as the book gets reviewed and isn't all bad, you're probably okay. I've had books that got so-so reviews and did well or got great reviews and did so-so.

In any case, it is something beyond my control, so if I had it to do over again, I wouldn't sweat it. Sometimes, what makes someone dislike a book is what makes another person like it.

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?

Learn mroe about Beastly -- the novel & film.
Well, as I said, the shift from realistic, "edgy" fiction to more fantasy and science fiction (especially vampire novels and dystopian triologies), then back to realistic fiction but maybe not as issue-oriented as it used to be.

Also, school and library has become less all-encompassing, not so much because those institutions are buying fewer books but because teens are buying more in bookstores, too.

I think it is all good because there is definitely the potential to sell more books overall than there was when I was starting. I feel like YA is more important, as a genre, than it used to be. But it is important to be aware of those changes and, if not anticipate them, at least try not to be blindsided by them.

I know several authors who were not able to budge at all on the type of books they wrote, whereas authors like Nancy Werlin keep going because they have changed.

My current books have a lot of the same "realistic" issues that my earlier books had. For example, my most recent book, Beheld (a collection of linked stories based upon fairy tales), had a teen pregnancy, peer pressure, body issues, parental drug use, etc., but just in a more historical fantasy context instead of being a problem novel.

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

Advice I already took: Follow your heart, but be willing to reinvent yourself.

Read and be aware of your surroundings.

Maybe be realistic about your capabilities.

One of my great inspirations as a writer is Richard Peck, who was a huge YA writer when I was a kid, and is a big children's book writer still.

I had the good fortune to be able to meet him when I was pre-published, and he is someone who has always really known the market. When he was younger, he wrote mostly realistic "issue" YA fiction, suicide, peer pressure, rape.

He may not have invented the "problem" novel, but he was probably its biggest contributor (I do not consider the term "problem novel" to be pejorative at all).

As the world has changed, and so has he, he switched to younger kids' books, but he has still managed to include issues about which he feels passionate, such as gay marriage in his latest novel, The Best Man (Dial, 2016).

Richard is 83 and has been a published author since 1972, with his latest book coming out in 2016. He has published a book just about every year of that time, and I think it was that mid-career switch that allowed that to happen.

I can see where he has done as I said and wrote something that was maybe just an impulse (a book about mice or a zombie novel, for example). Those impulse novels can keep you going.

This is a career I really admire, and I aspire to have. He has won every major award, Newbery, National Book Award finalist, ALAN Award, Edgar, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award, which is given for a body of young adult work.

There are other authors where I also see their ability to genre-jump and admire that. E. Lockhart and David Lubar are two I really admire. I feel like the abilities to be flexible and work hard are very important. Also, as Nemo said in the movie, "Just keep swimming."

It is important to continue to publish, as it shores up the older books. I guess sometimes, it is necessary to take five years between books, but it would be bette r not to.

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

I hope the market will continue to grow.

I hope there will still be brick and mortar bookstores. I love indies, and we are fortunate to have a great indie in Miami, Books & Books, but I also pray for Barnes and Noble because not every town does have a great indie (I grew up near mostly crummy mall bookstores that were nowhere near as good as either BN or Books and Books), and those big bookstores carry a lot of books and have a lot to offer readers as well.

Books and Books, whose flagship store coexists maybe a block from one of the three remaining BNs in Miami, sort of shows that it is possible for these stores to fill different needs for different (or even the same) readers, but I think brick and mortar stores are important.

I did a great event this past weekend at a Barnes and Noble in Kendall. It wasn't well-attended because it was shortly after Hurricane Irma and, therefore, people had other things going on, but the teens who showed up were really excited about reading and books.

It was inspiring really!

I just hope for more opportunities to get books to readers, and I hope schools will have money to do that as well.

Oh, and libraries. I hope that politicians will stop assuming no one uses libraries just because they, personally, do all their reading online.

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

At the "Beastly" premier.
Keep being published, keep being relevant, keep connecting with readers and getting letters from them.

I got a letter last week from a girl who says she wouldn't have survived middle school without Beastly, and that is always great.

I've been that kid, and I've raised that kid too, so that's the dream.

I'll admit a secret ambition to win the Margaret A. Edwards Award someday. I don't know if any single book of mine is necessarily going to be the standout book of its year, but I hope that, over time, my books will continue to illuminate young adults' lives.

I'm also hoping Breathing Underwater makes it twenty years because I am really proud of that book and the influence it has had on young people, especially young women.

So, basically, just keep swimming.

Alex Flinn, Marjetta Geerling & Debbie Reed Fischer at an SCBWI conference

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.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Cynsations Intern: Robin Galbraith on Giving Yourself Permission to Write

Would-Be Kid Writer Robin
By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I tried to write my first story when I was in second grade. My family was gathered around the TV like every night. While “M*A*S*H” played in the background, I stared at my blank paper and dreamed up what I thought was a hilarious story of a girl who used every possible excuse to avoid going to bed—a subject I knew well.

During the commercials I excitedly told my mom my plans.

“Oh, hon,” my mom said. “It will never be published. We aren’t writers. That’s just something our family wasn’t born to do. Stop showing off!”

I now understand my loving mom meant well. She was just 21 years old when she had me. As the daughter of an alcoholic father and overworked mother of six, my mom was taught to “know your place.” She worked hard to care for her family and thought she was protecting me from disappointment.

However, as a child, what I heard was that writers are born, not made. I was like Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby, stubborn and curious, so I dreamed of secretly writing stories without my mom knowing. But how I could write them if I was a terrible speller?

Ramona Quimby Is Saved By Her Teacher

I was in the lowest reading, spelling, and math group until Miss Rowe, my fifth grade teacher, took an interest in me. She instructed my young mother to read me novels at bedtime, suggested I be given a journal to write in every night, recommended math workbooks for vacations, and advised my mom to use my love of acting and plays to improve my reading.

 My mom followed my teacher’s instructions with gusto. By eighth grade, I was addicted to journal writing and reading series fiction. I was even put in a few honors classes and began to see learning as something that took effort, not talent. I continued to tell myself stories in my head but never wrote one word of those stories on paper. I was too afraid I’d discover I wasn’t a writer.

Reading: The Gateway to Writing

In high school, I was a TV addict who proudly wore a t-shirt declaring, “I’d rather be watching ‘General Hospital.’” I performed skits with my friends and created novels in my head, but still didn’t have the courage to write a single story on paper.

A neighbor encouraged me to become an elementary special education teacher because I was good with kids. I loved my students but came home exhausted each day.

My mom had discovered audiobooks, now that she was an empty nester, and peppered our phone conversations with details of her reading.

Inspired, I recovered from teaching each afternoon by reading authors like Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Milan Kundera before I turned on the TV.

Within a few months of regular reading I was itching to write. I still wrestled with the fear that I was “showing off,” but my urge to write was so strong I finally defied those nasty whispers inside my head and wrote my first story when I was 27 years old.

Rules for Recovering TV Addicts

When I was pregnant with my first child, I read The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin Books, 2013) and vowed my children would grow up in a home of books and writing. I slowly weaned myself off constant TV watching by making a series of rules:

  • I can’t watch TV until 8 p.m. 
  • I can only watch pre-recorded shows. 
  • I can only watch one hour of TV a day.

These rules not only gave me time to read and write, they made me a story critic. I began to analyze the stories that won my coveted one-hour slot. What captured my attention? The characters? The dialog? The plot?

A Woman’s Place Is in the Study

Tragically, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was only 52 years old and died in 2012 when she was just 69. As I grieved for my mom’s shortchanged future, I thought about the lessons I was teaching my two kids.

Writing wasn’t just for me; it showed my kids that women have dreams, too. I took writing classes and joined several critique groups. As my kids grew up, I carved out more time to write and encouraged my children to write their own stories.

My writing wasn’t showing off, it was modeling good habits.

Techniques of the Selling Writer

While my stubborn streak pushed me to finish a draft of a middle grade novel, my next obstacle was learning to write well. The feedback I received from my critique group was politely positive, but I began to suspect they were holding back their criticism. I didn’t push for more honest feedback because I was afraid they’d tell me I’d never be a writer.

Ten years after I had been writing, I got up the courage to submit my work for a professional critique at a local SCBWI writing conference. My critiquer did not have any problems with politeness; she was blunt. I was taken aback at first, then I realized this was good. She took my writing seriously. She didn’t say I had no business writing. She told me what I needed to improve as if this was possible.

One of the conference speakers recommended a book on how to write scenes. I ordered Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) as soon as I got home. It was a 300-page how-to manual on writing scenes with showing, not telling.

 On my first reading, I was overwhelmed. On my second reading, I took detailed notes. For the third reading, I applied the principles to a fan-fiction story for the TV show, “Veronica Mars.”

My critique group loved my new writing style!

I now had proof that you can learn to write with hard work.

Take Joy

Just when I became comfortable with writing, I fell ill with a series of baffling symptoms that left me practically bedridden. I visited doctor after doctor, desperate to figure out what was wrong. In 2014, a physician figured out my complicated set of thyroid, parathyroid, and autoimmune issues and scheduled surgery to remove my parathyroid tumor.

That same month, I applied to the Vermont College of Fine Arts to study writing for children and young adults. The lesson I had learned from my mom was that life is too short to “know your place.”

When I studied at VCFA I met an entire community that believes in writing. My first advisor had me read Jane Yolen’s Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft (Writer’s Digest, 2006). Instead of seeing writing as a struggle, Yolen sees working on craft as a pleasure, an attitude that changed the way I looked at writing.

Four semesters later, I read my humorous young adult short story for my graduate reading to a sea of laughter and was glad I had given myself permission to write.

You matter. Your stories matter, and the journey you take to learn to write them down will be the adventure of your lifetime!
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