Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #34:
The Kidlitosphere’s Sweetheart, Cynthia Leitich Smith

h1 June 25th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

Last week’s Summer Blog Blast Tour was really fun, and it is fitting this Monday to return to our blogger interview series with a chat with, arguably, the most beloved presence in the kidlitosphere, author Cynthia Leitich Smith, since Cynthia’s most recent novel is a YA one.

Cynthia is an author of YA gothic fantasy novels, children’s books, and short stories (who quit her government law day job over ten years ago to write full time for children and teens); a member of the faculty of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults; and a speaker who has a passion for connecting with readers and a vibrant online presence. Her primary blog, Cynsations, offers — through the blog itself and through links to her main author siteinterviews, reading recommendations (organized by age and genre), publishing information, writer resources, information on literacy advocacy, children’s and YA literature resources, children’s and YA literature bibliographies, an extensive list of “diverse reads,” information on awards, and news in children’s and young adult literature. Her author site also contains “teacher / librarian / researcher resources related to multicultural literature, represented communities, Native American literature, and books related to war and peace.” Really, Cynthia’s site and blog are must-have resources (we here at 7-Imp have linked to Cynsations many a-time, particularly for her informative interviews). She says below in our interview that this is her “way of fulfilling the author’s natural role as youth literature ambassador.” We are glad she does so and provides such a valuable resource to the kidlitosphere.

In February of this year, she also began mirroring her posts in a LiveJournal presence and included posts of interest to YA readers at her MySpace site. And we can’t forget spookycyn: “quirky, thoughtful, joyous, fangs-friendly musings on gothic fantasy, horror, comedy, mystery, romance, suspense, and all things life and book from an author who finds her heroes in the sunshine and in the shadows.” As Cynthia told Kelly Herold in this February 2006 interview at The Edge of the Forest:

{W}hen I feature an author/illustrator interview, I’m not only highlighting that book creator and hoping their insights educate and inspire, I too am being educated and inspired. Beyond that, when I quit my law job to become a children’s/teen writer, my commitment was not only to my own work but to youth literature and literacy as a whole. Cynsations is an extension of the Children’s/YA Literature section of my Web site . . . offering the opportunity for me to spread the word that great books matter . . .

With all the information Cynthia has to offer at her site and multiple blogs, it’s no wonder that School Library Journal said about Cynsations, “if you’re going to read only one blog, this is it!” You will also notice at her author site that it has been recognized among “Great Web Sites For Kids” (in the category of “Authors & Illustrators”) by the American Library Association and listed among “Useful Online Resources” in the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market by Alice Pope (Writers Digest, 2007). (And if you want to read even more interviews with Cynthia herself — and, trust us, there are many out there — her site lists them comprehensively in various spots and on various pages. She’s got it all there!) . . .

Cynthia’s most recent novel, Tantalize (Candlewick, February 2007), is a dark YA gothic fantasy novel, about which Cynthia writes at her site, “{it} is a genre bender that draws its inspiration from the old-school gothic masters but with a contemporary and southwestern twist.” The novel is about seventeen-year-old, orphaned Quincie, who — when multiple murders in Austin, Texas, threaten the grand re-opening of her family’s vampire-themed restaurant — worries that her best friend-turned-love interest, Keiren, a werewolf-in-training, may be the prime suspect. The Horn Book wrote in their review, “Smith juices up YA horror with this intoxicating romantic thriller,” and Kirkus Reviews described Smith’s storytelling as “elegant” and the novel as one that “will hold infinite appeal to the vampire-loving crowd” (more print review excerpts can be read here at Smith’s site).

Santa Knows, co-authored with her husband, Greg Leitich Smith, and illustrated by Steve Björkman (Dutton Books, 2006) — reviewed by Jules last year — is the story of one cynical boy’s attempt to disprove the existence of Santa Claus to his younger sister. Not only does Noelle keep the faith, she retaliates by asking Santa for a nicer brother. Santa shows up to settle the issue, and makes a believer (and a nicer brother) out of Alfie.

Cynthia has also authored a trio of books featuring Native American characters. A tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, she has developed a reputation for depicting “contemporary Native Americans as people who live in modern houses, hold down jobs, have pets, take on environmental issues, and honor their own cultures in specific ways” (Mendoza). 
Jingle Dancer

Indian Shoes with illustrations by Jim Madsen (HarperCollins, 2002) is a collection of short stories for younger readers about Ray (a Seminole/Cherokee boy) and his grandfather, living in Chicago and going through the usual challenges of being a kid: baseball, art contests, pet sitting, etc. School Library Journal said, “with its unadorned portrayal of urban Indian life, Shoes is a good book for any elementary-aged reluctant reader, and a necessity for indigenous children everywhere.”

Rain is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) is the story of a 14-year-old girl who explores her Native American heritage in the wake of her best friend/boyfriend’s death. After Galen dies in a car accident, Rain withdraws from family and friends, but is eventually drawn out by an assignment from the local paper to photograph the Indian Camp. In doing so, she becomes involved in the city’s debate over whether to cut its funding. According to School Library Journal, “there is a surprising amount of humor in this tender novel. It is one of the best portrayals around of kids whose heritage is mixed but still very important in their lives. As feelings about the public funding of Indian Camp heat up, the emotions and values of the characters remain crystal clear and completely in focus. It’s Rain’s story and she cannot be reduced to simple labels. A wonderful novel of a present-day teen and her ‘patchwork tribe.’”

Jingle Dancer (Morrow Junior Books, 2000) is about Jenna, a girl of Muscogee/Ojibway heritage, who wants to dance like her grandmother at the next powwow. She visits four of her older female relatives to borrow the jingling tin cones to sew on her traditional costume, and when she finally dances she proves that, modern suburban girl that she is, she can ably carry on their traditions. Publishers Weekly said that Cynthia “convincingly juxtaposes cherished Native American tradition and contemporary lifestyle in this smooth debut,” and School Library Journal states that “this picture book will not only satisfy a need for materials on Native American customs, but will also be a welcome addition to stories about traditions passed down by the women of a culture.”

Cynthia has also written several short stories that have been published in various anthologies and journals. You can find the list on her website here. There are some new projects in the works, too, which you can read about in the interview…

May we introduce: Cynthia Leitich Smith.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: How long have you been blogging?

Cynthia: Since 2004.

7-Imp: Why did you start blogging? Why do you continue to do it?

Cynthia: My author site is at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com. It launched in September 1998 and, in addition to featuring information about my work and writer resources, it includes a section about children’s and YA books. The focus is broad, though I make a particular effort to highlight genre fiction, multicultural books, and my fellow Texas authors and illustrators. I also have to add that it’s beautifully designed, and the credit for that goes to the talented Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys.

Early on, I did the HTML work myself, and it was this sort of awful shade of blue with fuzzy, slow-loading button links. I did the best I could, though, and I was thrilled to do it. My commitment was both to my own craft and to the body of youth literature as a whole.

At the time, I fretted all the talk of budget cuts, closing bookstores, and shrinking shelf space. As a writer, I worried about our collective future. As a reader, I wanted to herald new voices and innovative mid-list authors and bestsellers and living legends and those, like me, who were from communities historically underrepresented in the field.

I began adding two pages of interviews each month and announced them along with a few annotated links in an e-subscription newsletter that in time went out to a little over a thousand people.

In 2004, I discontinued the subscription announcements and began blogging as an integrated effort to keep my Web offerings more current.

As the scope had grown, it became burdensome to upload and download time-sensitive information on the main site. By its journaling nature, the blog was more accommodating of one-time posts about, say, award announcements, writer conferences, giveaway contests, and the like. Some were later cross-posted to the main site; others weren’t.

The technology made it feasible to do more interviews, too, and I expanded those featured to include not only children’s book creators but also editors, agents, publicists, librarians, university professors, and other literary professionals.

In spring of 2006, Cynsations overtook Google as the biggest feeder URL for the main site, and that year it attracted 1.6 million unique visitors. While full-time book people are a big part of the audience, the majority are parents, teen readers, and other enthusiasts. It’s my way of fulfilling the author’s natural role as youth literature ambassador.

7-Imp: Which blog or site would you take to the prom to show off and you love it so much you could marry it?

Greg Leitich SmithCynthia: Given the phrasing of the question, it’s in my best interests to choose my very cute husband’s blog. I will say though that my latest crush is Readergirlz.

7-Imp: What are your other favorite things to do, other than writing and reading and blogging?

Cynthia: I love to play fetch with my four kitties and eat sashimi and walk on my treadmill and watch summer blockbusters and go on ghost tours and teach writing and stay at historic hotels and visit museums and dress in costumes and sing to the soundtrack from “Teen Witch” and lunch with my pals and pre-write and write and rewrite and give presents.

7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Cynthia: There was a model of the Starship Enterprise on the groom’s cake at my wedding.

7-Imp: Now for a few author-questions . . .

How gratifying has it been to have such favorable reviews for Tantalize? And how difficult was it to write such a “genre bender” that includes a bit of suspense, mystery, romance, gothic fantasy, and even comedy?

Cynthia: I’m honored by the enthusiasm. It means a great deal to me when someone who cares about books and knows them well recommends one I’ve written.

The genre bending, or perhaps blurring, came naturally. We tend to talk about fantasies like they’re separate beasts from realistic fiction. But a fantasy must do everything a realistic novel does, plus earn its fantasy element in a thematically resonate, logical way. Suspense is inherent in the gothic, and it’s the unanswered question—the mystery—that fuels the suspense. You’ve got to have true love, or at least I do. What stakes are more compelling? True love trumps even life and death, especially if part of the cast is dead already. And it’s humor that saves all this drama from sliding into melodrama—I hope.

I stay open as a manuscript evolves to opportunities for experimentation and growth. Tantalize offered the chance to craft an unreliable first person narrator. Actually, all first-person narrators, all people are unreliable to some degree. You see it in the legal system with eyewitnesses. But writing (and reading) a story told from a narrator of waving reliability demands more critical thinking than a more straightforward telling. It tests readers. I did it because it followed naturally from the story, knowing that would put the book at the far upper end of YA (the incoming mail is from strong middle school readers, even more high schoolers, and a surprising number of adults). I think it’s an important skill, though, assessing the reliability of a speaker whether in fiction, in every day life, or in, say, trying to gauge political candidates.

7-Imp: Can you tell us what new projects might be in the works — novels, short stories, picture books, or even any presentations or appearances any time soon? Do you have any plans for any more writings, by chance, that have Native American themes, characters, etc.?

Cynthia: I’m pleased to say that Dutton, the publisher of Santa Knows (2006), has picked up another of my comedic, rollicking, boy-protagonist picture books. This one is an original tall tale {entitled Holler Loudly, according to this page of her site}, and I’ll be sure to make an announcement when I know the illustrator and publication date.

In addition, my forthcoming works include a young adult short story to appear in an anthology called Boy Meets Girl, Girl Meets Boy edited by Kelly Milner Halls and Terry Davis (Roaring Brook, 2008). Mine is a companion to a short story by Joseph Bruchac, and the pairing features Native characters. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Joe. He’s a gracious gentleman, and we clicked well creatively.

At the moment, my focus is on revising a book set in the same universe as Tantalize. My plan is to continue an overarching storyline in at least one more title. The current manuscript is under contract with Candlewick, and it’s in revisions right now.

7-Imp: What has been the most surprising thing about teaching? What have you learned about yourself as a teacher of those who want to write for children and YAs? Do you feel like it improves your writing, by chance?

Cynthia: I’m a member of the faculty of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I’ve also taught a number of private workshops and mentored beginners.

Because I came to writing as a voracious and lifetime reader, I would draw from that in an almost instinctive way. Teaching has forced me to more clearly articulate the process, an exercise which not only benefits my students but also allows me to better understand and employ my own process. I also appreciate the chance to play a more active part in encouraging the next wave of exciting voices.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith7-Imp: What was it like to collaborate with your husband on last year’s Santa Knows? Do you all have plans to collaborate professionally again? Did you get to choose Steve Björkman as your illustrator, or did you all luck out in him being assigned to your wonderful text?

Cynthia: Greg and I have always been each other’s first readers. We wrote Santa Knows over much cocoa, some wine, and a great deal of laughter while listening to Christmas carols. I can’t imagine writing a novel together, though I know people who do it. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see another double byline on a shorter project in the future.

Matching Steve with the text was the brainchild of our editor Mark McVeigh. He’d had a drawing of Steve’s, which featured a grumpy Santa, tacked to his office bulletin board when the manuscript came in.

Mark is fond of saying that he wasn’t looking for holiday books or picture books generally, but the humor and strong story arch spoke to him. Plus, he looked down at the text, up at Steve’s Santa, back at the text…! Kismet (my favorite word).

7-Imp: You have such a strong and beloved online presence and more than one blog. You touched upon this above, but . . . do you feel a responsibility toward your readers to provide all the great resources and information you provide, or do you do it for fun (or both)?

Cynthia: The online landscape has changed so much since I was a pup! Amazing sites and blogs abound. I’m in awe of what’s out there. As for me, I continue to blog because I adore the community and because I love taking part in the conversation of books. Now that I’m publishing for young adults, I also find that it’s a way of connecting with those readers, who seem to half live online. In short, it’s a pleasure!

The Pivot Questionnaire:

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Cynthia: “Kismet.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Cynthia: “Urchin.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Cynthia: Water, music, darkness.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Cynthia: Over-scheduling.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Cynthia: Newsroom bustle.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Cynthia: 6 a.m. garbage truck.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Cynthia: Literary agent.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Cynthia: Switchboard operator.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Cynthia: “I loved your vampire novel.”

*******

Normally this is where we might put together a little bibliography of links to reviews, interviews, articles, etc. But honestly, Cynthia’s website is so utterly thorough, we recommend you just spend an hour or two there exploring all the links.





5 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #34:
The Kidlitosphere’s Sweetheart, Cynthia Leitich Smith”

  1. Cynthia: Teen Witch rules. I recently learned that “Polly” is now yoga teacher to the stars. Who knew?

    Thanks for thinking of readergirlz!


  2. Hooray for another great interview!


  3. That is now my official favorite answer to the final Pivot question!


  4. Yhanks you66f678ff30eca2b2f8a3d32bf29ab2f7


  5. i love anal sex(:


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