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Inside the Writer's Studio with Cynthia Leitich Smith

Today we have such a big treat for our Inside the Writer's Studio series, that we are posting a day late. (Techno troubles over in Hegedus land--so thank you for being patient.) But, truly, today we have someone all of us in the field of children's and young adult literature know and love. The Cynsational, talented and triumphant, Cynthia Leitich Smith.


Drumroll…Cynthia Leitich Smith is the award-winning children’s author of Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (all HarperCollins). Her latest release for young readers is Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010).  (For a Cynsations interview with her talented illustrator, go here.) She’s also is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of Eternal and its companions Tantalize and Blessed (both Candlewick). In addition, Cynthia is a member of faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Her website at was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer's Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog at was listed as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column.

Now on to the interview…

Is there a story behind Holler Loudly that you wish to share? (Ie: the ah-ha or lightning moment where the story inspiration struck)

Holler Loudly was inspired by adult reactions to a little boy who was making too much noise at a restaurant. It got me thinking about the power of voice, of volume, and how it can be a negative or positive force.

When I do small workshops with kids, I tell them about my own work. I try to offer some context and inspiration, to let them know that real people write books. To let them know that, if they want, they can grow up to write books, too.

But what I really love is doing group writing exercises with the kids, empowering their voices.

Holler Loudly grew out of all of that.

How do you stay inspired to face the dreaded blank page? Is it something you dread? Look forward to? Share a bit about your writing process.

Inspiration is seldom a problem. Right now, I’m in the midst of a YA Gothic fantasy series that includes both prose and graphic novels, and I have a half dozen other manuscript ideas that I hope to get to…someday. When I sit down to write, I write. And I write regularly. I produce while holding myself to a high quality standard. It means long hours, though, and having to say “no” more than I’d like.

The challenge is time. Over the ten years I’ve been actively publishing, the marketing/business expectations that fall on authors have multiplied tenfold while we’re expected to produce books—of the same, if not higher, caliber—on a quicker and more predictable schedule.

I’m fortunate in that I enjoy the business of publishing and marketing. I was a news/editorial and public relations major in college. I went onto graduate from law school. I’m well prepared for this professional life. And I don’t bemoan it. One of my grandfathers was raised in an Indian boarding school during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and then went to war. My challenges are nothing compared to what he faced.

It’s simply what it is. I love to write. I believe good books matter. Heartfelt books matter. But I’m not a trust-fund baby, and I’m not writing for purely my own entertainment. So nothing is more pressing than the opportunities and limits of time.

If you had a writing mentor or teacher, in what way (s) did he or she keep you inspired during your apprenticeship? If you are now a writer-teacher, how do you balance sharing critical comments that will help your students take their work to a new level without plummeting them into the depths of writer despair? (Not that we writers’ are despairing folks.)

Early on, I had two main mentors—Jane Kurtz, who primarily offered career insights, and Kathi Appelt, whose focus, for me, was on the craft of writing.

In the late 1990s, I was one of the first children’s authors active online and found myself in an ongoing correspondence with Jane that I believe started on the children’s-writers list ( From there, she invited me to a list of established authors, and over time we’ve become colleagues and friends.

Back in the day, though, Jane offered encouragement, helped to demystify the publishing industry, and introduced me to my first critique partner, Toni Buzzeo, who’s gone on to become a successful picture book author.

More locally, I’ll never forget filling out an application to attend a weekend workshop that Kathi Appelt was teaching at her husband’s family’s limousine cattle ranch in La Grange, Texas. I’d newly relocated to Austin, and my new friends had raved about a previous workshop she’d led. I remember wanting her to know that, even though I was new to writing for young readers, I loved to write and could be edited. I think I tried to emphasize my journalism credentials.

Other than her signature, “write like your fingers are on fire,” it’s hard to pinpoint one specific piece of advice that stands out. When I think of Kathi, I think of warmth, ferocity, music, and poetry. It’s as though her very life force flowed into my art and helped me take it farther than I could’ve imagined.

Now that she’s a living legend, all I can say is, I’m not surprised.

Character. Tell us about the relationship between your protagonist and antagonist. How does this relationship grow and change throughout the work? What does your main character want? And how long did it take you to clarify those wants?

Holler wants to be accepted, but other folks (group antagonist) are put off by his loud voice. You see, Holler isn’t just loud; 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 in the county rolls up his ears and tosses back his head to bay.

He’s a tall-tale hero.

Because of the chaos that Holler’s voice causes, tension builds steadily between him and the townsfolk. Even between him and his loving family. In the moment where all hope seems lost, he reflects that nobody else is being asked to change (and it’s not like the other locals don’t have their quirks).

But then a threat looms from above, and it’s up to Holler to saves the day.

I once heard Deb Caletti say when asked how her life has changed since becoming a published author that she feels she is living the life she is meant to live. How has your life changed since you became a published author? Has it? What lessons have you learned that you’d care to share since becoming published?

Sometimes I think I was published too young. I began working with my agent and first editor in my late twenties. I’d graduated from law school only a couple of years before, so my time as an adult who wasn’t also a full-time student or published author was short.

To my advantage, though, I’d dived into journalism early, which introduced me to places and people I otherwise never would’ve met. I recall interviewing a Tony award-winning actress at a four-star hotel in Dallas, a civil-rights lawyer in his cramped office in Kansas City, and homeless people under a bridge in northeast Kansas.

I haven’t traveled as much as I’d like, but I have studied abroad in Paris, worked at a legal aid office in Hawaii, and clocked quality time in small towns throughout the mid- and southwest.

I don’t exclusively write what I know, but of course that makes up much of the story fodder available to me.

As for lessons…. Maybe it’s because 2010 marks the 10th anniversary of my debut book, Jingle Dancer, but I find myself reminiscing more of late.

With the caveat that everyone’s path is different, here are just a few:

Stretch yourself. You may want to establish a foothold in the market before jumping off, but changing formats or age levels or genres could do wonderful things for your craft and career. Being a novelist and picture book writer has helped me in writing my first graphic-format fiction. Being a short story writer gave me the opportunity to experiment with boy voice, humor, and connecting to upper-level YAs.

Stretch your readers. I took risks, using Native literary techniques in my early children’s books—Jingle Dancer, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), and Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002). Not everyone—including children’s literature experts—had seen anything like them before. But true diversity isn’t just about content, it’s also about context. How will non-Indians begin to fully understand our point of view if we consistently package our voices into their modes and comfort zones?

Pay it forward. I could never fully reciprocate to Jane or Kathi all they’ve done for me. But I try to offer encouragement, information and insights to now-beginning writers. I also do my best to raise awareness of new voices, in person and via my website, blogs, and social networks.

Writers love books; we love reading. What book do you turn to over and over again and why do you love it?

For most of my life, my favorite book was The Witch from Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Houghton Mifflin, 1958). I identified with Kit as a fellow booklover, as someone who reached out to others, and as a girl who felt she didn’t quite fit into her Puritan community. (Not that the suburban Kansas of my childhood was anywhere near as strict as Connecticut in the late 1600s).

My newest favorite is David Levithan’s Marly’s Ghost, illustrated by Brian Selznick (Dial, 2005). I adore ghost stories, love stories, and contemporary YA fiction that’s connected to classics (in this case, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)).

I could name other books that I admire for craft or have influenced my own writing—titles ranging from All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane, 2009) to Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause (Random House, 1997). But Speare’s and Levithan’s are two of my “heart” books.

Do you have a favorite craft book? If so, what is it? And what is your favorite take away?

I don’t know if this qualifies, but I’m fond of The Annotated Charlotte’s Web by Peter F. Neumeyer (Paper, HarperTrophy, 1997). It’s an intense look at the creative process behind and evolution of a classic. I’m fascinated by how great books came to be.

On a more nuts-and-bolts level, I encourage my graduate students to read Self-editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King with illustrations by George Booth (HarperCollins, 1994). The text is engaging, but really, it’s all about the exercises. I’m not an exercise person, but I worked through it during a long flight with nothing else to do. Very productive.

Inspired by the Actor’s Studio, what sound do you love? What sound do you hate?

Love: Eartha Kitt’s singing voice

Hate: ringing phones

Describe your main character’s favorite meal? And why do they love it?

Holler Loudly loves Frito pie. That’s one of the delicacies I was introduced to when I first moved to the southwest, and I’m still in awe of it.

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.

My potential as a figure skater was shattered by the fact that I couldn’t wrap my mind around jumping backwards off ice. Even now, it still seems like an intrinsically bad idea.


Thanks to Cynthia Leitich Smith for being here today. We gladly celebrate her for ten years of beautiful books, for championing many a young author, showcasing new talent, providing insightful interviews, and being a sensational human being. The Austin writing community, and the Kid Lit Writing community at large is cheering wildly for her first ten years in publishing and all Cynthia’s brilliant books that will keep us reading for the next ten.


For more from Cynthia herself, giving back to the community, on her 10th anniversary in publishing, see her Cynsations post where her readers ask her questions.


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Wonderful interview! Thanks, both of you. I'm going to add the link to my Holler Loudly review. :)

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