Cynthia Leitich Smith: Children’s Book Author Interview

Cynthia Leitich Smith face graphic

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Here’s another in my series of kidlitosphere blogger interviews. Today I report on my interview with children’s books author and blogger Cynthia Leitich Smith (abbreviated “CLS” below), who blogs at Cynsations.  Cynthia is a New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author, and is a member of the faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. Program in Writing for Children and Young AdultsCynthia’s official author website was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer’s Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her blog, Cynsations, was listed as among the top two read by the children’s/young adult publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column.

The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent websites in the kidlitosphere. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Cynthia’s blog (links above), her fantastic website, and the other children’s books resources she mentions in the interview. Cynthia Leitich Smith, ladies and gentlemen!

Q: How and when did you become interested in writing children’s books?

CLS: I’d just graduated from law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and took a clerkship at the Department of Health and Human Services in the loop in Chicago. I’d been haunting local bookstores and begun reading children’s and YA books.

Then after the Oklahoma City Bombing, I re-evaluated.  I have strong ties to Oklahoma—both in terms of family and tribe, and I’d lived in the state when I was younger.  The tragedy made me reconsider my priorities.  I wanted to do something positive, something that could make a difference.  I couldn’t think of anything better than writing for young readers.

Q: Tell me about your writing.

CLS: I have sort of three bodies of work.  I publish Native American fiction for all ages. My first three books, Jingle DancerJingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000), Rain Is Not My Indian NameRain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001), and Indian ShoesIndian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2002), all draw on this tradition. I’ve also published related YA short stories. My latest sale is: “Mooning Over Broken Stars,” co-authored by Joseph Bruchac, in Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls (Chronicle, spring 2012).

I also publish funny, boy-friendly picture books like Santa KnowsSanta Knows by Cynthia Leitich Smith, co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith [AMM: Cynthia’s husband], illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006) and Holler LoudlyHoller Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010).

Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith

But I’m best known for my YA Gothic fantasies—TantalizeTantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith (2007, 2008), EternalEternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (2009, 2010), and BlessedBlessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Jan. 2011) (all Candlewick). They’re suspenseful, humorous, romantic, and occasionally really scary.

I’ve also done short stories in this area like “Cat Calls,” which appeared in Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and MagicalSideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2009), and I’m working on graphic novels, too. The first will be Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, Aug. 2011).

In addition, I write realistic short stories like “The Wrath of Dawn,” co-authored by Greg Leitich, which appeared in Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd HerdGeektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd (Little, Brown, 2009).

At the moment, I’m excited about Holler LoudlyHoller Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith, an original southwestern tall tale which is new out this fall. It’s the story of a very, very loud boy. He’s so loud that the pecans fall from the pecan trees and the prickly pear cacti sprout more needles, so loud that every hound dog rolls up his ears and tosses back his head to bay. It’s a blast reading the book with kids.

I can also hardly wait for the release of BlessedBlessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith next month. It crosses over the casts of TantalizeTantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith and EternalEternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith and picks up right where TantalizeTantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith leaves off. It brings Quincie’s main arc to a close and says so much about how she defines herself. This novel also gave me a chance to mouth back at Abraham Stoker while paying tribute to him.

Q: Are there themes that you seem to return to in your writing?

CLS: Family, especially intergenerational relationships; self-empowerment; diversity; gender equity.

Q: How and when did you start your blog?

Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith

CLS: I began working on Cynsations in July 2004. I shared two posts that day, the debut about having a short story read over the school intercom when I was a first grader and the next about the death of Paula Danziger. My thought was: “the world is no longer as vivacious.”

My theory at the time was that, through blogging, I could feature time-sensitive information like award or event news that I didn’t want to bother uploading and then deleting from the main site. It’s grown into its own beast since then.

Q: What is the content of your blog, and what are your goals for it?

CLS: Cynsations is a place of information and inspiration. The core target audience is writers, but a lot of other folks are regular readers.

On most week days, I offer guest posts and interviews featuring authors, illustrators, editors, agents, publicists, librarians, educators, and a host of other folks connected to children’s/young adult books.  On most Friday’s, I provide a round-up of related links, book trailers, giveaways, and other nifty stuff.

I also include breaking news of my own work—new sales, releases, events. Most of these go in a “more personally” section of the Friday round-up. Occasionally, if it’s something huge, I’ll do a dedicated post (maybe four times a year).  The emphasis is always on the uplifting and the useful.

The main blog is at Blogger, but I also mirror the content at LiveJournal, and MySpace.  I also syndicate to JacketFlap and Facebook, and tweet the links on Twitter.

Q: I understand you also maintain a website apart from your blog.  Tell me about that.

CLS: September 1998 marked the launch of Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s Literature Resources. It began as a resource site, arising out of my desire to tap into the growing wealth of information about children’s books on the Internet. As my own books have been published, the site expanded to include them.  More recently, my writing has reached towards the young adult audience as well, so you’ll also see that emphasis in my latest works and on the online pages.

The goal is to provide both information and resources for visitors interested in me as an author, in children’s/young adult literature more broadly, and especially in the craft of writing and business of publishing.

Q: How does your “life on the web” mesh with your writing?

CLS: Basically, it’s my way of staying connected to my readers, writer pals, and industry contacts. Beyond that, I do a fair amount of research on the Web, though, in fairness, I do a fair amount of research everywhere.

On the flip side, it’s a competing force for time and attention.

Q: What’s the hardest thing about writing children’s books?

CLS: A picture book is like a puzzle, getting just the right combination of words and elements.

A novel is more like an endurance trek, uphill in the rain, carrying a rhino on your back.

I love both.

Q: Tell me about your Muscogee heritage, and how it has influenced your work.

CLS: I’m a citizen of Muscogee Nation, which is based in Oklahoma. My earliest books and, of late, the occasional short story have been influenced by my heritage both in terms of story ideas and a feeling of responsibility to make a contribution where there is a need for more voices.

Q: Tell me about your work in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich SmithBlessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith

CLS: The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a low-residency program based in Montpelier. Faculty and students meet there for two residencies, in January and July respectively, which are made up of lectures, readings, and workshops. From there, I work one-on-one with five graduate students over the course of the semester on their creative and critical writing and/or speaking.

At the moment, I’m on leave because of the deadlines associated with having an ongoing young adult book series.

Q: I understand you do some public speaking related to children’s books.  What is your favorite topic to speak on, and why?

CLS: I’m especially passionate about addressing the link between classic novels and present-day young adult books. I adore the idea of an ongoing conversation within the body of literature, each generation nodding to the past and making a fresh contribution.

Q: What advice can you give to beginning writers of children’s books?

CLS: Realize that you’re pursuing something that can be taught and learned, but beyond that, it’s largely a matter of courage to reach your own true potential.

Make community a cornerstone of your craft. Become involved in writing groups in your area and the larger world of children’s writing and literature on the Web.

Take classes and workshops and dare mighty things.

Accept help from your mentors. Pay it forward when the time comes.

Read until your eyes bleed. Reading counts as writing time.

Write and finish and then write something else. Repeat forever.

Q: Who is one of your favorite children’s book authors, and what do you especially like about her/his work?

CLS: I adore R.L. LaFevers, who writes what I tend to think of as fun books that appeal to smart kids and reluctant readers as well. Her TheodosiaTheodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers series (Houghton Mifflin) in particular is one of my favorites.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work around children’s books?

CLS: I love losing myself in the story—when the characters take over and I’m typing faster than the keys can strike because I have to know what happens next.

Q: If you were standing on a soapbox full of children’s books, what would you say to your audience?

CLS: Thanks for letting me work for you!

If you enjoyed this interview, or found it helpful, why not “like it” (button at top of interview), or post it on Facebook or Twitter? The “Share/Save” button below makes posting it easy. Thanks!  For the previous kidlitosphere blogger interview in this series, click here.

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4 thoughts on “Cynthia Leitich Smith: Children’s Book Author Interview

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  3. I loved this interview. It is important to lose yourself in a story when building a children’s book. The children can usually tell when passion is used to write a book. Thanks for the tips for beginner authors as well!

  4. Pingback: Children's Literature Website

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