Friday, October 02, 2015

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Cindy Pon on the release of Serpentine (Month9Books), "a sweeping fantasy set in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology." From the promotional copy:

"Lush with details from Chinese folklore, Serpentine tells the coming of age story of Skybright, a young girl who worries about her growing otherness. As she turns sixteen, Skybright notices troubling changes. By day, she is a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a very wealthy family. But nighttime brings with it a darkness that not even daybreak can quell.

"When her plight can no longer be denied, Skybright learns that despite a dark destiny, she must struggle to retain her sense of self – even as she falls in love for the first time."

More News

Music Meets Military History by M.T. Anderson from Peek: "I pictured telling this story to those kids I’ve met who are so passionate about music (any kind of music!) or the arts – the drama kids, the band kids, the writing kids, the painting kids … or, for that matter, the military history nerds out there who, like me, love poring over maps of battle plans and hearing about the specs of Stuka diver-bombers." See also The Music That Brought Hope to a Besieged City: an audio interview with M.T. Anderson from Robin Young at Here and Now at Boston NPR. Highlight's Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (Candlewick, 2015).

Reading While White: Allies for Racial Diversity and Inclusion in Books for Children. Peek: "We are learning, and hold ourselves responsible for understanding how our whiteness impacts our perspectives and our behavior."

How to Talk to Kids About Racism in America -- With a Picture Book by Colton Valentine from The Huffington Post. Peek: "...the book traces Parks’ journey from Fort Scott, Kansas, to Washington, D.C., as he nurtured his interest in photography as a way to document and expose oppression in the United States."

It's Not All Death, Dystopia & Disaster: YA Novels to Tickle the Funny Bone by Joy Fleishhacker from School Library Journal. Peek: "Filled with memorable characters and laugh-out-loud moments, these entertaining tales of friendship, love, and self-discovery explore coming-of-age themes..." Note: bibliography of recommendations.

Rejecting Rejection with Author Paige Britt from the Writing Barn. Peek: "Writing taught me that the 'product' of my writing was not my manuscript. It was me. I was not the same person I was when I sat down at my computer all those years ago. Writing had transformed me."

Shorter Focus = Successful Writing by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "Small steps don’t look overwhelming. They look simple and do-able, if you’ve made them small enough. And we don’t have to be speed demons either."

The Opposite of Colorblind: Why It's Essential to Talk to Children About Race by Stacy Whitman from Lee & Low. Peek: "Teaching children to be 'colorblind' has led children (and adults) to believe that it’s rude or racist to even point out racial differences—even kids of color. This makes it exponentially harder to have frank discussions about racial issues when they need to be had."

Cordelia Jensen and Skyscraping from The Launch Pad. Peek: "There was a fair amount of difficulty. But the two hardest parts were probably my editor requesting that I cut all the dialogue out of the book (keep in mind, this is a verse novel) and the second was cutting out a few characters I felt attached to."

Surviving Santiago: A Conversation with Lyn Miller Lachmann from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "When I was in Chile, I saw that among my friends who had spent more than a decade fighting the dictatorship, and once the elections were over and they were seen as having 'won,' it was hard to find a new role."

Author Varian Johnson by Sara Zarr from This Creative Life podcast. Peek: "Varian’s ten years as a published author and how he has weathered the disappointments and triumphs along the way, including an almost-quitting incident that his agent tricked him out of."

Transformers: Reimaginging a World by Malinda Lo from The Horn Book. Peek: "I realized that I didn’t need to write a coming-out story. Ash was set in a fantasy world, and there was no need for same-sex love to be taboo there. I made the creative decision to let it be entirely normal, and Ash got to have her happily-ever-after."

Tales Out of School: An Interview with 2015 Margaret A. Edwards Award Winner Sharon Draper by Deborah Taylor from School Library Journal. Peek: "I had a student who didn’t like to write, who grumbled at me from the back of the room, 'Why don’t you write something sometime? You’re always making us write.' He gave me a crumpled-up copy of Ebony Magazine’s short story contest...."

Does a True Artist Care What His Audience Thinks? by Adam Kirsch from the New York Times. Peek: "Art is a form of communication, and communication cannot be totally autonomous, just as there can be no such thing as a private language."

Newbery Winner Laura Amy Schlitz on Women, Writing, History, and Hired Girls by Kiera Parrott from School Library Journal. Peek: "Part of me is green with envy when I hear about writers who have an outline, because that would take so much of terror out of the process. But it would also take some of the suspense out of the process."

Best Times to Post for Retweets and Likes by Devin Coldewey from NBC News. Peek: "New research has some straightforward advice for you."

Transgender Children's Books Fill a Void and Break a Taboo by Alexandra Alter from The New York Times. Peek: "This year, children’s publishers are releasing around half a dozen novels in a spectrum of genres, including science fiction and young adult romance, that star transgender children and teenagers." See also Middle School Pride: LBGTQ + Tweens in Literature for Youth by Kelly Dickson from The Hub and How to Talk to Your Children About What "Transgender" Means by Charlesbridge Editor Yolanda Scott from CBC Diversity.

Go Global: We Are The World by Veronica Grijalva from CBC Diversity. Peek: "Educators might worry that young readers would be hesitant to read stories that aren’t set in their home country but, if a child can enjoy stories set in fantasy worlds, their unfettered imaginations can imagine and enjoy fantastic experiences set half a world away."

Author School Visits: Preparing for Your First by Donna Galanti from Project Mayhem. Peek: "As my anxiety ramped up I was informed of my one goal (according to my son): Do not be boring."

Size Acceptance in YA: "examining bodies, shape, and size in YA literature."

Kamik's First Sled by Matilda Sulurayok and Qin Leng: a recommendation from Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature. Peek: "Through Kamik, Jake, and his grandparents, kids learn about Inuit life, and they learn some Inuit words, too."

The Importance of Psychological Development in Character Growth by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Understanding where your characters are developmentally is the beginning to writing them consistently and creating realistic arcs for their growth and development."

Industry Q&A with Editor Liz Szabla from CBC Diversity. Peek: "I’d rather ask honest questions than assume I understand something that I’m not familiar with. I don’t want to push my sensibility on any author or any character. It’s an intuitive, creative process that is difficult to explain."

Mirrors and Windows: Conversations with Jacqueline Woodson by Renee Watson from Rethinking Schools. Peek: "My biggest fear would be to be dishonest to myself, to live a half-life, to not tell the stories I was put here to tell."  

Cynsational Giveaways

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Terrific News! Violent Ends, edited by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon Pulse, 2015), is now available, and I'm honored to be a chapter-contributing co-author. The book is set around a school shooting and told in alternating point of view, by alternating authors, from characters connected to the tragedy. See excerpt.

"The storytelling is wonderfully intense and distinctive on such a difficult, tragic topic. Readers will be captivated, not wanting to put the book down, but also needing a break due to the extremely engaging, emotionally charged content of characters' feelings and thoughts."
–VOYA, starred review

What's more, I will be featured at the 20th Anniversary Texas Book Festival on Oct. 17 and Oct. 18 in Austin. I look forward to joining Ann Angel and Varian Johnson in discussing the anthology Things I'll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick, 2015).

Want to read something spooky? The electronic edition of Diabolical (Candlewick), is on sale this month for $1.99!

Congratulations, Debbie!
Congratulations to VCFA alum and former Austin SCBWI RA Debbie Gonzales on her first trade sale, Play Like a Girl, to Charlesbridge for publication in fall 2017. It's "a non-fiction picture book about courageous female athletes from 1827 to present day and the eventual passing of Title IX."

Congratulations to Austin SCBWI's own Donna Janell Bowman on receiving the SCBWI nonfiction work-in-progress grant for Tomboy: The Daring Life of Blanche Stuart Scott and the SCBWI book launch award for Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Taught the World About Kindness (Lee and Low, 2016).

Link of the Week: The Deepest Gift by Marion Dane Bauer from Just Thinking. Peek: "The advantage of being, by anyone’s measure, an old woman is that so much falls away. So much of the need for attention. So much of the desire for my work to be seen as better than. . . . "

Don't miss the We Need Diverse Books and School Library Journal book-talking kit! See also WNDB Announces Internship Recipients from Publishers Weekly.

Personal Links:

TV show from YA author Rob Thomas.
Barbie Is Getting More Real
Religious History in Ethiopia
Speaking While Female 
Mt. McKinley Will Be Renamed Denali 
Jefferson Davis Statue Comes Down at the University of Texas
Do "Casual Fridays" Suppress Creativity?
Japan's Worst Day for Teen Suicides
Tribute to Christopher Lee 
Horror Film Director Wes Craven Dies at 76
Female Wolverine?
James Wan to Direct "Aquaman"
Black Canary Artist Annie Wu
"Star Wars" on "Feminine" Armor
Spaceports and Sky Farms
Humans Will Be Tech Hyprids by 2030
Baby Gorilla Plays Peekaboo with Little Boy
Elephants Have a Secret Language
Newborn Snow Leopards at Brookfield Zoo (Chicago)


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Guest Post: Christopher Cheng on Australia's 2015 Children's Book of the Year Awards

By Christopher Cheng
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The 2015 Children's Book of the Year awards were announced Aug. 21. The theme this year was "Books Light Up Our World," and there were many lights shining this year in schools, homes and bookshops all over Australia.

We have awards in five categories: Picture Book of the Year; Younger Readers. Early Childhood; Older Readers; and Eve Pownall Award for nonfiction.

Author Libby Gleeson won two of those categories, Younger Readers and Early Childhood, and for the very first time an illustrator, Freya Blackwood, received the Book of the Year award in a record breaking three categories, Younger Readers, Early Childhood and Picture Book of the Year.

Never before has a single creator won three times in the same year. And these two amazing people are friends as well as book creators and have worked together on many titles.

Libby says:
"Like so much of the work I have written for younger children, this book has come from the children I have lived with, the way that I have learnt of the rich imaginations that little children have.

"I am so lucky to have Freya Blackwood as the illustrator for this book. Some years ago, when I first began working with Freya, I said that I had enormous admiration for her work and that I felt in the book we then did that there was a wonderful marriage of words and images. My admiration has grown stronger and I think her success today tells us what a force she now is in Australian picture book illustration."

Read more of the award speeches.

And later that evening Libby was also announced as the recipient of the 2015 CBCA Nan Chauncy Award, a biennial award created to honour individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the field of Australian Children's literature.

See the list of winning and honoured titles.

Cheers from a very bright Australia.

Cynsational Notes

More on Chris Cheng
With more than 35 titles in traditional and digital formats, including picture books, non-fiction, historical fiction, a musical libretto and an animation storyline, Christopher Cheng is well experienced in Australian children's literature.

He conducts workshops and residences for children and adults and holds an M.A. in Children's Literature. He is a board member for the Asian Festival of Children's Content and on the International Advisory Board and co-regional advisor (Australia and New Zealand) for the SCBWI.

A recipient of the SCBWI Member of the Year and the Lady Cutler Award for services to children's literature, Chris is a devoted advocate of children's literature, speaking at festivals worldwide.

Christopher will be covering the children's-YA book scene in Australia, New Zealand and across Asia for Cynsations. Read an interview with Christopher.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Guest Post: William Alexander on Alien Astronauts & Nomad

By William Alexander
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

"In Teothuacan, artists made masks with no breathing places, forms, neither practical nor descriptive, yet exciting to behold. And the architects took up the building of the great form that does not exist in nature, the pyramid. They invented the order of cities, always mind-made, not following the existing course of a river or a rut. In Teotihuacan the architecture and urban design were as devoted to form as the mathematical depictions of the pattern of the solar system."

I have written about ancient alien astronauts. This was, quite possibly, a terrible idea. But the concept is so deliciously brain-tickling. What if starships visited our planet long before we had the telescopes to see them coming? What consequences might have followed a prehistoric first contact?

Sadly, this kind of thought experiment usually unfolds with all the nuance and subtly of that embarrassing scene in "Return of the Jedi," the one in which C3-PO hovers over prostrate Ewoks—or the more recent and equally embarrassing scene of Enterprise-worship in "Star Trek: Into Darkness."

This is the single story, the cliché and condescending story we always tell about first contact between cultures with different relationships to tech. But it isn't the only story.

When Ishi, last of the Yahi, saw an airplane for the first time he did not fall to his knees. Instead he asked if there was a white man in that thing.

His friend said yes.

Ishi shook his head, laughed, and went on with his day.

It doesn't help that the most famous and popular proponents of ancient alien contact are Erich von Däniken (author of Chariots of the Gods and convicted fraud), Utz Utermann (editor, co-author of Chariots of the Gods, and actual Nazi), and that guy from the History Channel.

It also doesn't help that proponents of this notion give aliens credit for our ancient accomplishments. The human architects of Teothuacan were very good at math, astronomy, and building huge, beautiful things out of stone. They did not require aliens to teach them their business, thanks very much.

But what if alien ships did come calling, and were impressed by those same accomplishments? What if this resulted in open dialogue and diplomacy rather than a condescending lesson in pyramid construction? What if an ancient Mexican city joined a fleet of nomadic starships? What sort of spacefaring civilization might result, thousands of years later?

These are, I hope, more interesting questions than "What if aliens built our pyramids?"

The best answers I know how to give are in Nomad (McElderry, 2015), the sequel to Ambassador (McElderry, 2014).

No aliens are worshiped in either book.

Cynsational Notes

Also, Will wears Batman socks.
William Alexander writes fantasy and science fiction for kids. He won the National Book Award in 2012 for his first novel, Goblin Secrets (McElderry, 2012), and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song (McElderry, 2013), was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. His third, Ambassador, was a Junior Library Guild Selection, finalist for the International Latino Book Award, and a winner of the Eleanor Cameron Award.

Will studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop. He teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Cynsational Return: What I Did On My Summer "Vacation"

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome to fall, Cynsational readers!

How was your summer?

Mine was, in a word: Busy.

In June, I taught the VCFA alumni mini res and sampled maple creemees.
Then it was on to the ALA annual conference in San Francisco (with Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani).
In July, I returned to the VCFA summer residency (with my winter 2015 MFA students).
Fellow faculty Kathi Appelt, Shelley Tanaka and Rita Williams-Garcia
Congratulations, graduates!
At the end of July, I joined the GeekyCon crew in Orlando.
August took me to Richardson (Texas) Public Library to lead a writing workshop.
And to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to teach via A Room of Her Own.
And to East Texas Book Festival in Tyler (with Michelle Newby)
And to Mansfield (TX) Book Festival (with E.E. Charlton-Trujillo and Kwame Alexander)
Meanwhile, I did my best to write when I could, where I could!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Cynsational News, Giveaways & Summer Hiatus

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Thanks so much for being a Cynsational reader! 

I appreciate your enthusiasm for and interest in the world of books for kids and teens.

Breaking news: Effective immediately, Cynsations is going on summer hiatus until September. 

In the meantime, you can keep up with children's-YA books news on my author facebook page and @CynLeitichSmith on Twitter.

See y'all in the fall!

More News  

Recommended on the We are the People List
We're the People Summer Reading List of 2015 from Facebook. Peek: "Are you looking for books to add to your summer reading list? Ones written or illustrated by Native Americans or people of color? Ones that include characters that are Native? People of color? Disabilities? LGBTQ? Take a look at these!" Note: Download a PDF (list of titles; annotated list) to take with you to the store of library.  See more information about the list from Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature.

Romanticizing Mental Illness by L. Lee Butler, S. Jae-Jones and Alex Townsend from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "Ideally there would be plenty of stories within and outside of the perspectives of mental illness. Because lots of outsiders don’t really relate until they hear a story from the outside perspective."

Mary E. Cronin's Workshop on Gay (LGBT) & Questioning Characters in Middle Grade from Lee Wind at I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? Peek: "There may be GLBT people in the character’s family, or they may have no role models or reference points at all. These factors will have a huge impact on a character’s trajectory."

The Mystery of the Hardy Boys and the Invisible Authors by Daniel A. Gross from The Atlantic. Peek: "If writing seems like a lonely profession, try ghostwriting children's books."

How to Secure a Traditional Book Deal by Self-Publishing by Jane Friedman from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "By far, the No. 1 consulting request I receive is the author who has self-published and wants to switch to traditional publishing. Usually it’s because they’re disappointed with their sales or exposure; other times, that was their plan all along."

What Makes a Picture Book a Mega Hit? by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: "With that in mind, today I’m going to talk about some of the top picture book blockbusters to come out in the last ten years. Please note that I’m avoiding picture books with TV or other media tie-ins. These are the folks who got where they are on their own merits."

Interview: Jackie Morse Kessler on the Riders of the Apocalypse Series by Katherine Locke and Alex Townsend from Disability in Kid Lit. Peek: "I’m a former bulimic, and I still have self-image issues. The protagonist Lisabeth is inspired by someone I knew when I was younger; she’d been a very close friend, and she was the one who introduced me to bulimia." Note: This series is highly recommended.

The Connection Between Emotional Wounds and Basic Needs by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "...she still feels the pain associated with the loss of her esteem and will subconsciously take steps to meet that need or make sure that it isn’t threatened again. Maybe she’ll throw herself into education, sports, or the arts as a means of gaining recognition for herself, since she feels unable to compete physically."

Emotional Wounds Thesaurus: A Parent's Abandonment by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "This negative experience from the past is so intense that a character will go to great lengths to avoid experiencing that kind of pain and negative emotion again. As a result, certain behaviors, beliefs, and character traits will emerge."

One Tweet Reminds Us Why Judy Blume Was the Sexual Revolutionary We Needed by Kate Hakala from Connections.Mic. Peek: "The children and teens of Blume's books didn't only normalize sexuality for so many young kids, they illuminated the more embarrassing, secret parts of sex — the blood, the touching — that many readers were too afraid to bring up in school or to their parents."

Industry Q&A with Charlesbridge Editor Alyssa Mito Pusey from CBC Diversity. Peek: "When I was recently looking up Asian and Asian American biographies, I was shocked all over again at how little there is out there—Lee & Low seems to be the only publisher consistently putting out these books."

Children's Book Council to Receive BookExpo America's Industry Ambassador Award by Yolanda Scott from CBC Diversity. Peek: "While this is the first year that the award is being bestowed on an organization in place of an individual, BEA show organizers note that the Children’s Book Council’s work is both personal and special for its dedication to fostering literacy, diversity and education, making it eminently qualified to receive the award."

Case Cracked: The Process of Editing Mystery Novels by Stacy Whitman from Lee & Low. Peek: "...we discussed how the inciting incident—the moment that gets Claire to veer her course to investigating whether her father and her stepdad ever knew each other—might be complicated and how those complications would have a ripple effect that would improve multiple other plot points, and increase the pacing." See also: Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Valynne E. Maetani by Stacey Hayman from VOYA.

The Godzilla Effect: How Climaxes, Twists, and Turning Points Work (and How They Don’t) by Harrison Demchick from Project Mayhem. Peek: "The climax, then, is the inevitable result—eventually, the effect—of that incident two hundred or three hundred or however many pages ago. It needs to be an organic development of the story."

Six Tips from Six Years of School Visits by Chris Barton from Bartography. Peek: "If you’ve got multiple books, don’t assume that your host wants you to focus on your newest one. Your host might not know much about it, and in fact may have led their students to expect something else."

Breaking Barriers: Alvina Ling, Editor-in-Chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers from Peek: "...ideally we have a nice balance between books that may have award potential, and books that are more commercial and have bestseller potential (although books that are both are even more ideal!). We also don’t want to have all fantasy books or all historical fiction, for example, so I help guide our acquisitions process and identify needs and gaps to our editors to keep in mind as they are reading submissions and acquiring."

Cynsational Awards

2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winners from School Library Journal. Peek:

"The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee (Simon & Schuster) has won the 2015 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for best picture book, while Katherine Rundell’s Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms (Simon & Schuster) took best fiction title and Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Russia (Schwartz & Wade) was named best nonfiction book." See honor books and more information.

2015 South Asian Book Awards:

See honor books and more information.

Cynsational Giveaways
The winner of a set of signed books by Claire Legrand was Christina in Kentucky.

See also a giveaway of an author- and illustrator-signed copy of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate (Eerdmans, 2015) from Fat Girl Reading.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

My Memorial Day view of Highway One; hang in there, Texas & Oklahoma!
At "Pretty in Pink" with authors Cory Putnam Oakes, P.J. Hoover & Mari Mancusi at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.
Happy Summer! Congratulations to spring 2015 graduates!

As all y'all can tell from my events listed below, I'm going to be coming and going for the next few months. I hope to see many of you on the road or here in Austin, and online you can catch up with me at my author facebook page and @CynLeitichSmith on Twitter.

So embrace the summer. Read, write, illustrate, champion books for young readers, and with each new day, remember to be the heroes of your own life stories.

Thanks again for being Cynsational readers! 

Link of the Week: How Insane Amount of Rain in Texas Could Turn Rhode Island Into a Lake by Christopher Ingraham from The Washington Post.

Central Texans! Summer Road Trip Release Party: Join Margo Rabb (Kissing in America) and Liz Garton Scanlon (Great Good Summer) at 2 p.m. May 30 at BookPeople in Austin.

Personal Links

Now Available!

Cynsational Events

Join Cynthia at 11 a.m. May 30 in conjunction with the YA Book Club at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Cynthia will serve as the master class faculty member from June 19 to June 21 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. June 28 on an Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) program--"We Need Diverse Books: How to Move from Talk to Action Panel"--at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.

Learn more!
Cynthia will teach on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts from July 8 to July 19.

Join Cynthia from July 30 to Aug. 2 at GeekyCon in Orlando, Florida. See more information.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will lead a YA Writing Retreat for A Room of Her Own Foundation from Aug. 10 to Aug. 16 at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Cynthia will lead a breakout session on "Diversity in Children's and YA Literature" Aug. 22 at East Texas Book Fest at the Harvey Hall Convention Center in Tyler, Texas.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 29 at Richardson Public Library in Richardson, Texas.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

New Voice: Laura Woollett on Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Laura A. Woollett is the first-time author of Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth (Chicago Review Press, 2015). From the promtional copy:

Big Top Burning investigates the 1944 Hartford circus fire and invites readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence

The fire broke out at 2:40 p.m. Thousands of men, women, and children were crowded under Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s big top watching the Flying Wallendas begin their death-defying high-wire act. Suddenly someone screamed “Fire!” and the panic began. 

By 2:50 the tent had burned to the ground. Not everyone had made it out alive.

With primary source documents and survivor interviews, Big Top Burning recounts the true story of the 1944 Hartford circus fire—one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. 

Its remarkable characters include Robert Segee, a 15-year-old circus roustabout and known pyromaniac, and the Cook children, Donald, Eleanor, and Edward, who were in the audience when the circus tent caught fire. 

Guiding readers through the investigations of the mysteries that make this moment in history so fascinating, this book asks: Was the unidentified body of a little girl nicknamed “Little Miss 1565” Eleanor Cook? Was the fire itself an act of arson—and did Robert Segee set it? 

Big Top Burning combines a gripping disaster story, an ongoing detective and forensics saga, and World War II–era American history, inviting middle-grades readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence and draw their own conclusions.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Laura at the circus
When I wrote the first draft of Big Top Burning, a nonfiction account of the 1944 Hartford circus fire, I had only dipped a toe into the giant pool of research that was to inform the final book.

I began the project in graduate school as an independent study in writing nonfiction for young people. That summer, I researched and wrote the entire first draft!

Of course, this was before I was married, before I owned a house, and before I had a child. My research consisted of reading the three (at the time) nonfiction books for adults on the subject, and reading every newspaper article on the fire from 1944 to date that I could find – mostly from the "Hartford Courant" and the now defunct "Hartford Times."

The best thing I did was to interview a few survivors of the fire. They’d been children at the time and were so gracious in sharing the stories of their narrow escapes.

The interviews were gold. However, the newspaper articles, while primary sources, often held inaccurate information. The disaster happened quickly, and as reporters rushed to get information to the public, all sorts of false information found its way into their stories. And the adult books were secondary sources. I needed to form my own conclusions about the tragedy and the mysteries that surrounded it.

Then in 2009, I won the SCBWI Work In Progress grant for nonfiction, and that gave me the inspiration to keep going and to dig deeper. I used the money to travel to Hartford where I discovered the extensive circus fire archives at the Connecticut State Library. I spent several weekends at the library, diving into boxes of police records and witness statements, looking at crime scene photos, and even listening to a tape-recorded interview with the suspected arsonist, Robert Segee.

I’d be immersed for five hours at a time, and when I left I was exhausted, hungry (no food allowed in the archives area), and feeling victorious every time. I truly felt like a detective, collecting the clues to form a complete picture of the events that happened at the circus that day. Thank goodness for the librarians who collected and cataloged boxes and boxes of materials on the circus fire. It’s really due to them that authors like me are able to write such complete accounts of the tragedy.

As I continued to revise and send my manuscript to various agents and publishers, I interviewed more survivors. Interestingly, they seemed to appear wherever I went.

At the Boston Public Library, a gentleman who saw my research materials spread out on a table stopped to tell me his tale of survival. When my father was recovering from heart surgery at Hartford Hospital, he discovered his roommate was a survivor. My high school chemistry teacher (who always told us to keep our backpacks out of the aisles) shows up in one of the photos in my book. And I was able to interview my fifth grade teacher, who had been in the hospital having his tonsils out when they brought the first burn victims in.

I feel honored to be entrusted with their stories and proud to have written a book that will pass on the story of the Hartford circus fire to future generations.

Memorial to the Hartford circus fire victims, built on the former circus grounds. The bronze medallion indicates the location of the center pole of the big top tent.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

When I sent out my manuscript on submission, I had done my research. (I’m a member of SCBWI after all!) I began by querying agents who represented nonfiction authors, and I looked specifically at those who had worked with narrative nonfiction for older readers. I got some great feedback but no takers.

I turned to querying editors directly, trying all my contacts through writer friends and through SCBWI. Still lots of lovely rejections.

But I had my eyes open. I snoop in the backs of books to find out the names of the author’s agent and editors, which are often listed in the acknowledgements. I read quite a few blogs about writing and books for kids and always make note of agents or editors who publish work similar to mine, or work I think I’d like to write in the future.

It was on Cynsations that I found a New Voices post by editor Susan Signe Morrison, who with author Joan Wehlen Morrison, wrote Home Front Girl (Chicago Review Press, 2012), a diary of everyday life of an American girl growing up in the years leading up to WWII.

Because the book was for an older audience, nonfiction, and about the same era as mine, I thought I’d query her acquiring editor, Lisa Reardon at Chicago Review Press.

Two months after my query, Lisa sent me an offer letter.

After this experience I truly believe that if you write a good book, you will find a home for it—you just have to keep your eyes open and stay persistent. I wrote the first draft of Big Top Burning in the summer of 2005 and just a mere ten years later, I’m incredibly proud of its debut in 2015!

Cynsational Notes

For more information on the Hartford circus fire, visit circus fire historian, Mike Skidgell.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Giveaway: Kissing In America by Margo Rabb

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win Kissing in America by Margo Rabb (HarperCollins, 2015). Author sponsored. U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

In the two years since her father died, sixteen-year-old Eva has found comfort in reading romance novels—118 of them, to be exact—to dull the pain of her loss that's still so present. Her romantic fantasies become a reality when she meets Will, who understands Eva's grief.

Unfortunately, after Eva falls head over heels for him, he picks up and moves to California without any warning. Not wanting to lose the only person who has been able to pull her out of sadness—and, perhaps, her shot at real love—Eva and her best friend, Annie, concoct a plan to travel to the West Coast to see Will again.

As they road trip across America, Eva and Annie confront the complex truth about love.

In this honest and emotional journey that National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr calls "gorgeous, funny, and joyous," readers will experience the highs of infatuation and the lows of heartache as Eva contends with love in all its forms. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Guest Interview: Helen Wang on Children's Book Translation

Wenxuan's Bronze and Sunflower, translated by Wang
By Avery Fischer Udagawa
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

What do old coins, the British Museum, and Chinese novels have in common?

Helen Wang.

Wang is Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum and also translates Chinese literature into English. Among her works are the middle grade novels Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi (Egmont, 2012) and Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (Walker Books, 2015).

Wang has discussed these books in a virtual school visit, an essay, and an in-depth chat with Playing by the Book. Bronze and Sunflower is current Book of the Month at A Year of the Reading the World.

Helen Wang e-conversed with me for Cynsations about how she came to translate, and about the challenges of rendering two very different middle grade titles.

How did you cultivate the skills needed to translate from Chinese?

I did a B.A. in Chinese at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in the 1980s. I’d done French, German and Spanish A-levels in secondary school, and was thinking about archaeology or art history, but ended up doing Chinese instead. As for translation skills, those came later. I translated some short stories in the early 1990s, but then started working at the Museum and earning a Ph.D. (in archaeology) and having a family and didn’t really have time for translating fiction until a few years ago.

Translation is different from research or everyday communication in another language. Recently, I was one of the judges for the U.K.’s Writing Chinese Translation Competition, and there were 88 entries! The best were those in which the translators had got inside the story and understood exactly what the author was trying to do, and then conveyed this in sharp, crisp English in a consistent and appropriate style. It takes time and effort to get to that level and to maintain it.

Let’s talk about your middle grade novels. Jackal and Wolf is a 282-page novel focused on a female jackal. Her prey alone includes crab, cobra, swan, deer, muntjac, bharal, chicken, boar, partridge, rabbit, mouse, frog, porcupine, gazelle, and vole—and these are just some of the animals in the book! Did you spend lots of time researching animal names, traits and terms in order to translate it?

Cover art by Chen Wen
I did spend some time on the animals, trying to find out precisely what kinds of noises they make and double-checking that I was using the right verbs for the various actions. A good friend who knows a lot about wild animals read through an almost final draft and made some very helpful suggestions.

Did you find you had to add details about less-known animals, or were the fascinating explanations part of Shen’s original? (“Now snow foxes are smaller than jackals, and don’t have their sharp claws or teeth, nor their courage.”)

It’s very much Shen Shixi’s style to explain these things as he goes along. I don’t think I added any details. If anything, I reduced them a bit, to prevent repetition and to avoid saying that the females of a species were “always” smaller and weaker than the males, for example. I toned these down because it’s not “always” true, and because the impact is probably more sexist in English than Shen consciously intended in the original Chinese.

In Jackal and Wolf, the jackal Flame forms a bond with a sworn enemy: a wolf named Sweetie. What did you think of the ties and interactions in the story?

Although this is an animal story, and there are plenty of episodes and descriptions of animal life, there’s also a lot of human behaviour in the story too. Some of the fighting scenes are quite graphic and intense, but it was the psychological behaviour that I found more disturbing, especially where Flame tests a potential suitor.

How did Jackal and Wolf come to be published? Will more of Shen Shixi’s works be translated?

Egmont had a project to publish Jackal and Wolf —and another book, An Unusual Princess by Wu Meizhen, translated by Petula Parris Huang—in eight different languages and to launch them at the London Book Fair in 2012, when China was guest of honour. So Petula and I translated from Chinese into English, and our English versions were then translated into Russian, German, Polish, Turkish, Czech, Swedish and Bulgarian. I don’t know of any plans to publish more of Shen Shixi’s animal stories in English, but he’s written a whole range of bestselling animal books. It would be wonderful to see them translated.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan is set in rural China as well, but features humans: a boy and girl coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution. How did the translation come about?

Cover art by Meilo So
Bronze and Sunflower is a modern classic in China, and the French edition was very well received. Walker Books won a PEN Translation Award to publish it. The PEN awards support the publishers: when publishers apply to English PEN for an award, they have to submit a copy of the original book, which is then read by an expert in the source language, who writes a report to the English PEN committee, who choose which titles to support. So, a huge amount of work went into the English PEN endorsement on the front of Bronze and Sunflower! Someone recommended me to Walker Books, probably because they knew I had translated Jackal and Wolf.

Bronze and Sunflower unfolds in a small village called Damaidi, and begins when a city girl, Sunflower, needs a country boy, Bronze, to save her from danger. Bronze is mute yet possesses vast knowledge and strength. Was it hard to render him faithfully without seeming to overdo it?

When I first read the book, I was more concerned about Sunflower being too good than about Bronze’s credibility. Sunflower is a sweet-natured child and almost too kind, helpful and thoughtful to be true, especially when we consider the trauma she’s experienced in her short life: her mother died of illness, she was uprooted with her father to move from the city to the countryside, her father is presumed drowned but his body is never found, she has to wait under a tree being gawped at by the entire village until Bronze’s family eventually takes her in, and so on.

Bronze may be the only son of the poorest family in the village, but his family is incredibly strong and resourceful. Instead of going to school, he has spent his formative years with his grandmother, a very determined old lady, and as soon as he was old enough, he was out grazing the family’s water buffalo. He’s used his eyes and his ears and knows his environment better than most of the villagers.

This novel, too, must have required research—on everything from the feel of reed shoes, to the look of cogongrass, to the appeal of arrowhead corms. How did you explore new objects and concepts?

It’s brilliant to be able to go online and look things up. Google Images is a godsend! For things that are completely new to me, I’ll play around online and do quite a lot of cross checking to make sure I’ve understood. If I can’t work it out for myself this way, or if I don’t feel I’ve understood it properly, then I’ll ask for human help.

Helen Wang
For example, when a photographer comes to Sunflower’s school in Damaidi, and she knows the family can’t afford to buy her portrait, she tries to hide her disappointment behind a little song. This song is essentially about a married woman with an elaborate hairstyle, and an unmarried girl with a childish hairstyle, who are role-swapping and having fun. But there are so many complex cultural references packed into the four lines!

I found lots of amazing pictures of Chinese hairstyles with elaborate names (e.g. these), but it would have been impossible to explain them in four short rhyming lines in English. I must have tried a hundred variations. None of them worked. To keep the song short, I needed to cut some of the detail.

But I needed to know how far I could go. If the song was as well known as a nursery rhyme in English, then I needed to know which parts I absolutely had to keep. So I asked around, and I learned that it was more of an obscure old song than a popular nursery rhyme. I grew confident enough to improvise a song that would work in a similar way for the English reader—without drawing undue attention to the complex historical terms for hairstyles.

What was it like to translate suffering in the story: a locust plague, near-starvation?

My main concern was to convey in English what Cao Wenxuan was saying in Chinese. Those particular scenes brought home how cut-off the villagers were and how self-reliant they had to be. They were also a poignant reminder that this is what famine is like for people across the world when crops have failed.

You carve out time for translating children’s books from a busy life. What do novels in translation bring to young readers of English?

Good novels are good novels whichever language they were originally written in! But the world is a much more diverse and contemporary place than most English-language bookshops and libraries suggest. Young people all know this, and it’s wonderful to see campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks gathering pace. I translate children’s books in the hope that it makes a difference, and also because I enjoy it!

Cynsational Notes

Helen Wang maintains a profile page at Paper Republic and co-tweets with translator Nicky Harman as ChinaFictionBookClub: @cfbcuk.

Avery Fischer Udagawa contributes to the SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog and is SCBWI International Translator Coordinator. She translated the historical middle novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani.
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