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for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I took pause for a moment when my lovely friend and mentor, Cyn Leitich Smith, asked me to write about what it’s like to be at this stage in my career.

“You know,” she said. “You’ve got a foothold but you’re not a new voice or (yet) a grand dame.”

The truth is that she nailed it exactly. Like so many authors—most of us in fact—I’m somewhere in the middle.

Finding Paris (Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins, 2015) will be my sixth book, following on the heels of two paranormal series. It will be my first darker contemporary YA, which is very exciting.

Next spring, I’ll follow it with It Wasn't Always Like This, a wildly romantic novel coming from Soho Press, about an immortal girl in search of her long lost immortal true love. Tuck Everlasting meets "Veronica Mars."

To many of my writing colleagues, this means I’ve made it. And in some ways, I have.

Seven published books on shelves is wonderful. It’s more than I ever dreamed of when I was first starting out. I began this career later than some, which makes me even more grateful for how it’s turning out.

I have been toured around the country and presented on panels at various book festivals in various places. I have a new world of author and publishing friends and colleagues. I teach writing as a working writer now, and schools and libraries ask me to visit and often pay me nicely. I’ve been invited to give keynotes and workshops and have had panels accepted at conferences of all sorts.

My first novel, Dreaming Anastasia (Sourcebooks, 2009), is in its fifth or sixth printing. Fairy tale fans continue to find and embrace the series, which is awesome.

I get fan letters. Well, emails, but still!

My family and ‘civilian’ friends and former English teacher colleagues think I’m a rock star. I have stopped trying to tell them otherwise. It’s me in dirty yoga pants typing, I say.

The trade reviews have been lovely for Finding Paris. Really lovely. It’s a genre shift for me, a foray into darker contemporary after five paranormal books, and so this is good to hear. My editor sends me happy notes. The risk reward of trying something new has been worth it.

But.

My career is still not a sure thing. I have written for three different publishers—which is common, but also means that the power of my backlist is sometimes lessened. But not always. I have to work a little smarter to wrangle invites to events. I’m not generally the first name my publicists think of when they’re pitching for panels. Sometimes I am.

The top tier events are still a club that sits just out of reach, at least most days.

I don’t have the luxury of saying, as we’d all like to say: My only job is to write better and better books. (Well, actually most authors except for the elite few worry about publicity and promotion. It’s part of the job.) I really do love reaching out and making my own opportunities.

But mid-listers have to hustle a little harder. Yes, hustle. I know it’s word all fraught with connotation, but I don’t know a better one right now.

In an article on “Top Ten Spring Books You Should Look For,” I might appear in the scroll down as “other titles we’re excited about.” My buzz is a little softer.

Another truth: It’s just less thrilling to promote the breakout of the seventh book. Or the tenth. The splash of the debut is generally the more exciting story. So much so, that I recently saw a very brilliant YA author break out after a number of titles and still be mistakenly referred to as a debut.

It is often easier to trumpet the miracle than it is to promote the norm, which is that after writing a body of work of increasing substance and value, we write the one.
Do you know the actor J.K. Simmons? He just won an Oscar for his role in "Whiplash." He has been a working actor for a very long time, the guy whose face and voice you know but whose name probably escaped you until this year.

He was the police psychiatrist on "Law and Order SVU," Peter Parkers’s boss in the Spider-Man movies. He does tons of commercial voice over work and all those Farmer’s Insurance commercials and cable series like "Oz."

But Whiplash—for whatever reason—that was the breakout. The role that got people talking. A full and varied body of work over many years until it was his turn.

Anyway. I am thrilled about Finding Paris. It’s a more serious platform for me, about blind spots and secrets and how hard it is to find our way, and the imperfect people who love us, even if they don’t know how to help us. I am so excited to talk about this book!

I am fortunate beyond measure to get to make a living (at least part of one!) doing something I love. I am lucky to work with amazing people who love books as much as I do and grateful to everyone who has been so kind on this journey, particularly my wonderful and clever editors and my readers who keep coming back for more. All of these people have allowed me to stay in the game.

And when the breakout moment comes, I will look up J.K. Simmons’s Oscar speech.
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

From the promotional copy of They Call Me Alexandra Gastone by T.A. Maclagan (Full Fathom Five Digital, 2015):

When your life is a lie, how do you know what’s real?

Alexandra Gastone has a simple plan: graduate high school, get into Princeton, work for the CIA, and serve her great nation.

She was told the plan back when her name was Milena Rokva, back before the real Alexandra and her family were killed in a car crash.

Milena was trained to be a sleeper agent by Perun, a clandestine organization from her true homeland of Olissa. There, Milena learned everything she needed to infiltrate the life of CIA analyst Albert Gastone, Alexandra’s grandfather, and the ranks of America’s top intelligence agency.

For seven years, “Alexandra” has been on standby and life’s been good. Grandpa Albert loves her, and her strategically chosen boyfriend, Grant, is amazing.

But things are about to change. Perun no longer needs her at the CIA in five years’ time. They need her active now.

Between her cover as a high school girl—juggling a homecoming dance, history reports, and an increasingly suspicious boyfriend—and her mission in this high-stakes spy game, the boundaries of her two lives are beginning to blur.

Will she stay true to the country she barely remembers, or has her loyalty shattered along with her identity?

Find T.A. at Facebook, Tumblr & Twitter
As a book cover art aficionado (I have a Pinterest page of covers I fan girl over – yes, I’m that much of a book nerd), I headed into the cover design phase of my publishing journey with both excitement and trepidation. I wanted a cover that I could love so badly, but knew that authors don’t usually get much input on cover design.

I was both surprised and thrilled, however, by how open Full Fathom Five was regarding the whole process. They asked me for my thoughts at the start, and then after each cover that came in, until we found the perfect one! It really felt like a journey we took as a team. Yeah, I know how cheesy that sounds, but it’s true nonetheless.

My initial idea for the cover was a close-up face shot of Alexandra that emphasized her heterochromia (two different eye colors), but with the rest of her face being a bit hazy.

With the book’s title being what it is, I thought Alexandra needed to be staring out at the reader and as her heterochromia is a pivotal component of the book, I also felt that should be emphasized. I liked the idea of the rest of her face being a bit hazy because Alexandra struggles with her identity as the story unfolds and the haziness, I thought, could allude to that struggle. In addition to her face, I pictured a Washington D.C. skyline in the background, and a two-headed swan at the base of the cover (a symbol from the book).

As you can see from the final cover, which was the fourth iteration, some of my ideas made it onto the cover while others didn’t and thankfully so, because when I was thinking of cover design, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of book marketing.

With Full Fathom Five being generous about including me in the cover design process, I was able to learn quite a bit about what goes into making a successful cover. What I didn’t at first realize is that the cover should not only represent the book but also represent the genre.

For They Call Me Alexandra Gastone, that is spy fiction, in general, and YA spy fiction, in particular. This is something my original vision for the cover didn’t take into account. When someone looks at your cover, they should know what kind of book they are looking at. With They Call Me Alexandra Gastone, I doubt anyone would think anything other than spy with the red and black color scheme and the riflescope. The red and black practically screams spy. Just look at these covers for popular spy novels...(photos of spy book covers).


The style of the cover is also in keeping with advertising for one of my favorite TV show, The Americans, which is also about sleeper agents living in the United States. My first drafts of They Call Me Alexandra Gastone were written before "The Americans" hit the airwaves but some of my later editing was definitely influenced by the dynamics of the relationships on the show.

So I find it fitting that there’s some resemblance between Alexandra’s cover and advertising for the show as I believe the book, despite being YA, could easily cross over into the adult market and would appeal to fans of the show.



As far as representing the YA spy genre, broadly speaking YA spy books fall into two subgenres, the “lighthearted adventure” subgenre, and the “darker, more serious, suspense” subgenre. These two subgenres have very different styles of covers.

Books like Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series (Hyperion), Robin Benway’s Also Known As series (Walker), and Jennifer Lynn BarnesThe Squad (Laurel Leaf) are all very popular YA spy books that fall into the “lighthearted adventure” category and as such they all have similarly styled covers.


Because They Call Me Alexandra Gastone doesn’t fit into this subgenre, it was important the cover didn’t, in any way, resemble this cover style. Instead, the cover for They Call Me Alexandra Gastone is much more in keeping with books like Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Hyperion) and Lindsay Smith’s Sekret (Roaring Brook) from the “darker, more serious, suspense” subgenre—note the use of red on both covers.


After the cover designer nailed the color scheme and spy vibe, we faced one last hurdle. The model featured on the cover was used in every cover version we saw and looks very much like how I envisioned the character. That said, we were struggling a bit with her expression as the cover designer zoomed in for the third cover attempt. It looked too flat. That’s when the riflescope idea came into play. With the scope overlaid across her face, her expression morphed from flat to defiant.

As Alexandra is a kick butt kind of girl, this last minute addition to the cover, sealed the deal for me and gave me a cover I’m more than a little proud to have as the face of my debut!

Cynsational News & Giveaways

for Cynsations

Interview with Anne Ursu About The Real Boy by Corrine Duyvis from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "Oscar isn’t labeled as autistic or having any kind of special needs in the book, and it’s been interesting to see who picks up on his autism. And many readers don’t. I’ve found that it tends to be people who are closely associated with autism in some way or another who see it." See also The Joke's On Me! Humor & Autism by Lyn Miller-Lauchmann.

Hand-holding in Dialogue Tags by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "The star of dialogue is the dialogue itself. Holding the reader’s hand through each snippet of dialogue says to me that you don’t quite trust yourself to communicate the scene in a way that the reader gets it."

Interpreting César Chávez's Legacy with Students by Jill Eisenberg from Lee & Low. Peek: "His remarkable achievements towards social justice and human rights serve as an excellent example to young people of how vital their voices are in bringing about change and championing causes that are as relevant today as they were in his day."

Word Count Intimidation by Deborah Halverson from DearEditor.com. Peek: "First, be done with numbers. Pledge not to count words until you type 'The End' on the final scene."

Showing Emotion: Moving Beyond the Face by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "The face is the first thing we notice in real life, and the focal point during any conversation."

On Writing & Self-Censorship in Writing for Young Readers by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "Aren't all stories containers for worldview, messages, and morals, even if it's the view that the world is morally uncertain?"

How I Got Into Publishing by Faye Bi, publicist at Simon & Schuster from CBC Diversity. Peek: "A love of books is not enough to work in publishing. Some candidates can’t afford to accept an unpaid internship to get their foot in the door, let alone three. Some need to consider higher paying industries to pay off their loans or take care of their families. Others don’t live near New York, or have any publishing companies near them."

Children's Literature for Math Awareness Month (April) by Jennifer Schultz from ALSC Blog. Peek: "Even if you don’t have a special program planned for Math Awareness Month, you can easily mark it with a counting-themed story time or display."

Ten Children's Bookseller Challenges and How Stores Solved Them by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Every bookstore faces obstacles, but the way that it overcomes them can make the difference between being a so-so store and being a great one."

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of a signed copy of Silence by Deborah Lytton (Shadow Mountain, 2015) was Rachel in Arizona.

YA Fantasy Cover Survey from Teenreads.com. Once you complete the survey, you'll be able to win a fantasy book or a $100 gift certificate to the bookstore of your choice. Note: for readers age 12 to 29.

This Week at Cynsations
More Personally

With Michelle Knudsen, Texas librarians & Candlewick peeps at Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill!

Colorful Canon panel at the Texas Library Association Conference, featuring Jeanne Devlin (Roadrunner), Lee Byrd (Cinco Puntos), me, Don Tate and Marina Tristan (Arte Publico), Keri Rabe (moderator). My enthusiastic thanks to all!

Novelists Lindsey Lane, Brian Yansky and Katherine Catmull at the Austin SCBWI Monthly meet at BookPeople.

Local Authors Leading Campaign for More Diverse Books by Sharyn Vane from the Austin American-Stateman. Peek: "Quick, check your kids’ bookshelf: How many characters look just like them? The answer likely depends on what race they are. And that’s a reality that many in the literary community — including key players from Austin — are working to change." Note: requires registration to read in full.

Personal Links




Cynsational Events

This morning Cynthia will appear on the panel "Let's Hear Their Stories: American Indians, Arabs and Arab Americans" from 10 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. in Convention Center Room 10 C, Level 3 at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Texas Library Association in Austin. Peek: "Representing American Indians and Arabs/Arab-Americans in library collections is an important component of diversity. The panel of authors and library science specialists surveys the availability of children's and YA books about these groups and will point out ways librarians can evaluate books for accuracy, fairness and freedom from stereotype." Panelists also include: Nancy Bo Flood, Janice L. Kowemy, Elsa Marston, and Loriene Roy.

Join Cynthia from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. May 2 at Saratoga Springs Public Library for a celebration in conjunction with Saratoga Reads! at Saratoga Springs, New York. Note: Cynthia will be presenting Jingle Dancer (2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001) and Indian Shoes (2002)(all published by HarperColllins).

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 May 2 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from June 25 to June 30 on a We Need Diverse Books panel at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.

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 appear Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

The Children’s Book Council (CBC), the non-profit trade association for children’s book publishers in North America, and grassroots nonprofit We Need Diverse Books™ (WNDB) today announced their partnership on educational programming and resources for interns selected for the WNDB Internship Program, launching this summer.

The program is designed to open up the children’s book publishing industry to talented job-seekers from diverse backgrounds, providing them with an invaluable opportunity to learn about the industry through professional guidance and hands-on experience.


As part of this effort towards creating a more diverse children’s book publishing industry, the CBC will offer WNDB Publishing Interns:

  • Exclusive educational opportunities, including a luncheon with the CBC Diversity Committee, comprised of children’s book editors and publicists at top publishing houses

  • Inclusion in the CBC Early Career Committee’s summer event, connecting the interns with publishing staffers in their first five years in the industry
    Invitation to a CBC Forum, a CBC-member event which provides information and discussion on current publishing trends and issues

  • Invitation to a CBC Diversity Panel, a CBC-member opportunity which brings together voices within and outside of children’s publishing to communicate the challenges they face in selling and promoting diverse books, and to work together to develop solutions.

  • Tip sheets for getting jobs in the publishing industry and making the most of their internships
    CBC-member exclusive multimedia content, including videos and recordings of educational programming

  • Access to the CBC Early Career Committee’s ECC Newsletter, featuring interviews with mid-level publishing staffers, industry job moves, & member-exclusive news, opportunities, and invitations

  • Access to Diversity in the News, the CBC’s monthly newsletter rounding-up relevant news in children’s books and diversity


Ellen Oh
“The Children’s Book Council has been a dedicated champion of diverse books and voices since the launch of the CBC Diversity Initiative in 2012” said CBC Executive Director Jon Colman. “We are excited to team up with WNDB to further the work of creating an inclusive and representative children’s book publishing industry.”

WNDB President Ellen Oh says of the collaboration: “We are thrilled to be partnering with the CBC on our pilot internship program. Not only do we need diverse books, but a diverse and dedicated workforce.”

Apr. 16th, 2015


The Children’s Book Council (CBC), the non-profit trade association for children’s book publishers in North America, and grassroots nonprofit We Need Diverse Books™ (WNDB) today announced their partnership on educational programming and resources for interns selected for the WNDB Internship Program, launching this summer.

The program is designed to open up the children’s book publishing industry to talented job-seekers from diverse backgrounds, providing them with an invaluable opportunity to learn about the industry through professional guidance and hands-on experience.


As part of this effort towards creating a more diverse children’s book publishing industry, the CBC will offer WNDB Publishing Interns:

  • Exclusive educational opportunities, including a luncheon with the CBC Diversity Committee, comprised of children’s book editors and publicists at top publishing houses

  • Inclusion in the CBC Early Career Committee’s summer event, connecting the interns with publishing staffers in their first five years in the industry
    Invitation to a CBC Forum, a CBC-member event which provides information and discussion on current publishing trends and issues

  • Invitation to a CBC Diversity Panel, a CBC-member opportunity which brings together voices within and outside of children’s publishing to communicate the challenges they face in selling and promoting diverse books, and to work together to develop solutions.

  • Tip sheets for getting jobs in the publishing industry and making the most of their internships
    CBC-member exclusive multimedia content, including videos and recordings of educational programming

  • Access to the CBC Early Career Committee’s ECC Newsletter, featuring interviews with mid-level publishing staffers, industry job moves, & member-exclusive news, opportunities, and invitations

  • Access to Diversity in the News, the CBC’s monthly newsletter rounding-up relevant news in children’s books and diversity


Ellen Oh
“The Children’s Book Council has been a dedicated champion of diverse books and voices since the launch of the CBC Diversity Initiative in 2012” said CBC Executive Director Jon Colman. “We are excited to team up with WNDB to further the work of creating an inclusive and representative children’s book publishing industry.”

WNDB President Ellen Oh says of the collaboration: “We are thrilled to be partnering with the CBC on our pilot internship program. Not only do we need diverse books, but a diverse and dedicated workforce.”
Browse-able Excerpt from Epic Reads
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

I.W. Gregorio is the first-time author of None of the Above (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2015). From the promotional copy:

What if everything you knew about yourself changed in an instant?

When Kristin Lattimer is voted homecoming queen, it seems like another piece of her ideal life has fallen into place. She’s a champion hurdler with a full scholarship to college and she’s madly in love with her boyfriend. In fact, she’s decided that she’s ready to take things to the next level with him.

But Kristin’s first time isn’t the perfect moment she’s planned—something is very wrong. A visit to the doctor reveals the truth: Kristin is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy “parts.”

Dealing with her body is difficult enough, but when her diagnosis is leaked to the whole school, Kristin’s world completely unravels. With everything she thought she knew thrown into question, can she come to terms with her new self?

Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I never would’ve been published if it weren’t for my critique group. Writing a book, like the process of development for any craft, is such a marathon. You need people cheering you on and passing you water and nourishment in the form of thoughtful, constructive critique. You need to have people who push you to become the best writer you can be.

Most importantly, if you’re going to be publishing a book that is going to be read by the world, you need to help yourself by giving your book baby to kind readers first, because not all critics will be kind. Which is okay - literature is a highly subjective art.

That’s why my critique partners Abigail Hing Wen, Sonya Mukherjee (The View From Gemini (Simon and Schuster, 2016)) and Stacey Lee (Under a Painted Sky (Putnam, 2015)) are the first people I mention in my acknowledgements after my agent and editor.

So where does one find critique partners? Like many, I first met Abby, Sonya and Stacey through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

SCBWI was essential to me because it taught me the nuts and bolts of the publishing process, dispelling some of the mystique. There’s nothing like running into a famous editor in the restroom to help you realize that editors and agents aren’t mysterious deities.

L-R Stacey Lee, Sonya Mukherjee and Abigail Hing Wen and I.W.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

I’m a big fan of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, 1995) because it’s funny and honest and generally inspirational.

It’s title also sums up the one trusim of writing advice: Books only get written if you write. Even if you only take one step a day, you’ll eventually finish that marathon.

For writers who have completed their novel but want to polish it, Renni Brown and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How To Editor Yourself Into Print (William Morrow, 2004) is an excellent primer that offers really specific examples of ways to polish your writing on a sentence level.

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?

Research was an enormously important part of my story because I’m not intersex myself (a biological condition in which a person’s chromosomes, internal or external sex doesn’t fit the typical definition of male or female). It was so very, very important for me to hear the voices of actual intersex people, rather than treating the topic of intersex as a writing exercise, or curiosity.

So I did a lot of reading, scouring medical libraries and the Internet for first-person accounts. Then I took a deep breath and cold-emailed some support groups. There was silence at first, but I tried different people, and followed-up, and eventually someone agreed to read my manuscript. One one person had read it and vetted it, she invited me to a conference where I met more intersex women and men who wanted to read it.

HarperCollins was gracious enough to provide over a dozen ARCs of None of the Above which I sent to members of the intersex support group. Many of them were kind enough to offer advice and edits that I implemented as late as my second-pass pages (just before the book went to printers)!

Ilene at the AIS-DSD Support Group Conference (Credit: aisdsd.org)

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

This is the question. When I wrote None of the Above I was working full time and had one child. Because the hours between when I come home and when I put my daughter to bed were sacred, I squeezed writing after we tucked her in, typically opening my computer at around 8:30 p.m. and then reluctantly going to bed myself shortly before midnight. Luckily my husband has a career in the arts too (he’s a musician) so he understood the urge to create, and didn’t feel snubbed if I wanted to write instead of hanging out with him.

The day after I sold my debut, I had my second child. Six months after that, We Need Diverse Books was born.

Both of these worthy “babies” have taken up a lot of my time in the past year! It’s been harder and harder to eke out the time to write - I’d say that my window has shrunk to a period from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.. But throughout the day during quiet times, I’m mulling over my plotline, trying to get angles on my slowly developing characters. Bird by bird, as Annie Lamott says.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I actually met my agent, Jessica Regel at Foundry Literary + Media, at a New Jersey SCBWI conference! I was actually in the middle of revising my novel from dual narrative to single point of view, and wanted to test drive the manuscript with some critiques.

The conference also offered a pitch session with agents, so I surveyed the list of participants and was delighted to see Jessica on the list because she represents emily m. danforth, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins, 2012). The book is a thematically perfect analogue to None of the Above with its LGBTQI+ theme, so I thought Jessica and I would be a good fit.

I was lucky enough to have my first critique right before the conference, and I was so happy when the editor I was paired with loved it and wanted to see None of the Above on submission.

Of course, I had to explain to her that I wasn’t done with my revision yet, and that I would have to query, etc. I asked her what agents she would recommend. When she mentioned Jessica, I mentioned that I had a pitch session with her the next day.

“Oh, great,” she said. “Tell her that your manuscript is the one I talked to her about.”

I’m pretty sure my response was “!!!!!!!!”

The next day at the pitch session, Jessica asked for the partial manuscript, read it in her subsequent two hour break, and offered representation that afternoon. Afterward, I took some time and actually got two more offers on the partial manuscript, but had to choose Jessica because of her enthusiasm, her representation of a book I adore, and her general professionalism. She sold my book within a month to Alessandra Balzer at Balzer + Bray (who happens to also be The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s editor!) and the rest is history!

Agent Jessica Regel and I.W.

The long and the short of it is: I would recommend that you look closely at the acknowledgments section of books that you love, and try to discover who represented them. Go to conferences not because they’re the guarantee of an offer, but because they can give you a sense of who you might click with as a person. And keep trying! You only need one.

Cynsational Notes

I. W. Gregorio is a practicing surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night. After getting her M.D., she did her residency at Stanford, where she met the intersex patient who inspired her debut novel, None of the Above (Balzer & Bray / HarperCollins).

She is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books™ and serves as its V.P. of Development.

A recovering ice hockey player, she lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Find her on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram at @iwgregorio.
From Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear this week at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Texas Library Association
in Austin.

Cynthia will speak on the panel, "A Colorful Canon: Building Diversity in Children's Literature from 2 p.m. to 3:50 p.m. April 14
in Convention Center Room 10 C, Level 3. Peek: "Small presses offer a powerful response to the cal for diverse children's literature. Learn how small publishing houses and authors are contributing to an important conversation about books that help children see themselves in the books they read." Panelists also include Lee Byrd, Jeanne Devlin, Don Tate and Marina Tristan.

Cynthia will sign Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2015) and other titles from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. April 15 in aisle 12 of the author area.

Greg Leitich Smith will sign books from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. April 15 in aisle 4 of the author area.

Cynthia will speak on the panel "Let's Hear Their Stories: American Indians, Arabs and Arab Americans" from 10 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. April 17 in Convention Center Room 10 C, Level 3 Peek: "Representing American Indians and Arabs/Arab-Americans in library collections is an important component of diversity. The panel of authors and library science specialists surveys the availability of children's and YA books about these groups and will point out ways librarians can evaluate books for accuracy, fairness and freedom from stereotype." Panelists also include: Nancy Bo Flood, Janice L. Kowemy, Elsa Marston, and Loriene Roy.

Cynsational Notes

Cynthia also will be appearing at additional select teen, librarian and publisher events in conjunction with the conference. Keep an eye out and come say, "Howdy!"



Linda at Cliffs of Moher
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

You're a writer and an agent. Let's start with Writer You. How did you come to literature for young readers?

When I was in middle school, I was obsessed with YA, like R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series (St. Martin's Griffin), Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High books (Bantam), and L.J. Smith’s Night World series (Simon Pulse).

The YA section used to be a lot smaller, so I think I burned through most of them at Walden Books way back when! I tried my hand at typing up my own stories set in the wilds of high school, but never finished them.

I soon moved into the adult section of the store, and years later, got my first job on the adult side at Penguin. I enjoyed my time there, but one day I found myself going through my childhood book collection and wondering why I hadn’t even considered children’s book publishing. I loved the books I was working with, but children’s books were more special to me. Once that train of thought started, there was no stopping it!

After much job hunting and waiting, Random House children’s books called and I made the jump.

Describe your apprenticeship and the types of stories that call to you.

My tastes are broad and I have a varied background at different houses. My first job at Penguin was in production under the Berkley/Jove/Ace/Riverhead imprints, so that was a healthy dose of genre fiction with some literary fiction. After some time, I left Penguin when I briefly toyed with the idea of law school. I missed publishing, however, so to get back in, I interned and rotated through the departments at Dorchester, Simon and Schuster, Random House, and Writers House literary agency.

Luckily, Random House children’s eventually took pity and hired me to work on marketing picture books all the way through young adult titles, which is where I’ve been the last five years.

I have to say, I do skew toward darker books, ones that reflect the human condition in all its ugliness and beauty. Ones that make my heart pound or tear it right out in the telling. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls (Walker, 2012), Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (Wendy Lamb, 2004), Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone (Henry Holt, 2012), and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (Knopf, 2006), come to mind as examples.

You are a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Why did you pursue an MFA?

I knew I wanted to get my graduate degree in something I was really passionate about. I considered getting my MFA to continue building my editing skills, but wasn’t interested in pursuing one at a program that denigrated genre fiction (which, unfortunately, most do).

It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt (Front Street, 2006) that I noticed her author bio mentioned the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I then started seeing that VCFA name in the dedication pages of other books, a few of which Random House published. I reached out the admissions folks, and after that, VCFA was the only place I wanted to go. It was a happy day when they accepted me!

What did you gain from the experience?

Like all writers, I was a reader first. I had a gut instinct for what worked in a story, especially as I got hands-on experience in the publishing world; however, I wasn’t always great at articulating those impressions. VCFA really pushed me me to pinpoint what was working (or not) in a manuscript.

It was an intensive two years of craft boot camp. I became much stronger in providing editorial feedback—not to mention, I became a much better writer in the process.

Beyond that practical aspect, I made the most wonderful colleagues and friends at VCFA, ones that I know will be with me for the rest of my life.

What would you say to someone considering an MFA in writing for young readers?

Depending on your goals and means, I would encourage it. Is an MFA necessary for publication? Definitely not. If publication is your only aim, I’d steer clear of the MFA.

If, however, you’re also looking to improve your craft and/or teach writing, I highly recommend it.

And if you didn’t already have it, you’ll gain a supportive writing community and build confidence in yourself as a writer.

In terms of financial means, I found the low-residency format beneficial because I could continue working while I studied. Some programs offer financial assistance and scholarships, so potential applicants should reach out to admissions to learn their options.

How about Agent You? What inspired you to take on this additional career?

I did an internship at Writers House years ago and that was the beginning, really. Before that, I had only been interested in editorial (like many people trying to break into the industry).

I didn’t know much about agenting, but boy did I learn! I took any job I could to get my foot in the door and learned so much about the different publishing departments, but ultimately, I always knew I would settle into an editorial/agenting role. Agenting feels like a better fit for me because I’m not tied to an imprint like editors are. I can acquire anything that catches my eye.


Could you tell us about the history of the Prospect Agency? How has the agency changed over time?

Emily Sylvan Kim is the owner who, after working six wonderful years at Writers House literary agency, decided to hang up her own shingle. Her mission was to provide top-notch representation and a warm community for authors and illustrators, and she has certainly done that these past ten years.

Prospect Agency has grown tremendously and I anticipate that upward trajectory continuing.

What types of clients do you represent—in terms of body of work, art vs. text, age levels, genres and more? Are you looking for a certain kind of book that says “Prospect” or for a widely diversified body of work from your client base?

Prospect is very open-minded in terms of representation, so I’m looking for a high quality, diversified body of work. My tastes range from picture books to young adult, from clean and lighthearted contemporary to edgy and dark fantasy. And I’d love to see diverse stories of all types (ethnicity, disability, sexuality, etc.).

My focus is on genre fiction (romance, horror, fantasy, realistic, light sci-fi, and graphic novels), namely in the middle grade and YA age ranges. I’ll also be taking on literary fiction with commercial appeal (à la Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion 2012), I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (Dial, 2014), or When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb, 2009)), along with very select picture book projects (both writers and illustrators).

I’m not looking for early readers/chapter books or standalone short stories.

To get a better idea of what I like, on my Prospect Agency page, I’ve included a list of titles that are dream representations.

What makes Prospect different from other literary agencies?

Prospect is a boutique agency of six women who really do embody Emily’s mission statement of creating a warm community. The agents not only advocate strongly for their clients, but they do so in a positive way.

When the editors at Penguin Random House learned I was going to be an agent at Prospect, I only heard wonderful things said about the agents there. And that says a lot—not only are they successful, but they’re actually a pleasure to work with.

Why should an unpublished but competitive writer consider querying Prospect (and you specifically)?

Linda's Bookshelf
Prospect Agency is staffed with publishing professionals who are very experienced and open to a broad range of genres. They all have either big five publishing experience or Writers House experience (owner Emily Sylvan Kim used to be agent there).

I’m a new agent, but I’ve been in the business a decade and am being mentored every step of the way.

I’ve seen publishing from just about every angle—publicity, marketing, production, editorial, writing—and it will help me advise my clients about the process.

Want to know what goes on in an acquisitions or launch meeting? Want to know what a standard marketing plan is? Want to know about NetGalley, metadata, or the annoyingly complicated process of cover reveals? If so, I’m your girl! I can give them the inside look at what occurs even beyond the editorial and marketing screens.

How about established authors who, for whatever reasons, finds themselves without representation?

I’d repeat everything I said above. It really depends on what an established author is seeking out of their next partnership, but I’m flexible and can devote the time in helping take his/her career to the next level.

From my years in publishing, I have many editor friends to whom I can already reach out personally, so I’m not coming into this without support.

There was a time when children’s-YA authors and illustrators debated the need for an agent at all. Do you think that time has passed? Why or why not? What considerations should be weighed?

Lucy
It’s understandable that children’s-YA authors and illustrators used to question the need, especially since they might wonder if agents are worth the 15% domestic commission. I would advise getting an agent, especially if an author would prefer to be traditionally published.

At the big publishing houses, editors don’t generally accept manuscripts that aren’t submitted by an agent (there are exceptions, but even if it results in an offer, you’d need to go back and get an agent to proceed with publication).

An author can certainly score a publishing contract at an indie press without an agent, but is he sure that he’s getting the best deal possible when signing on the dotted line?

Publishing houses aren’t actively trying to take advantage of authors, but they are part of big business and do want to get the best deal possible on their end, sometimes to the detriment of the author.

Now, an agentless author can hire a publishing attorney to look over the contract for each deal. If the author wants to do it that way, there isn’t anything wrong with it. It’s just that (and clearly I’m biased) a good agent is a counselor/manager that can help guide the author throughout the course of his career.

A good agent can also be the bad cop who crosses the I’s and dots the T’s while the author gets to be the good cop who smiles and focuses on the creative aspects.

Still, there are those authors who are more hands on and want to handle every single aspect of their career and publishing process. If that’s the case, I encourage smart self-publishing and indie press publishing. It might work better for some than others (I would say that it works best depending on genre—romance writers do better with this, at least on the self-publishing end.)

Personally, if I ever decide to publish, I’m getting an agent of my own. But that’s because I know my own needs. Authors and illustrators need to know themselves as they figure out the best course to take. Word of caution, though: No agent is better than a bad agent. so do your research!

To what degree do you do career framing and consultation with your clients?

Sweet treats from Linda's pantry!
I anticipate working closely with my clients, so beyond editorial feedback and submission check-ins, I’m absolutely available for career consultation. I’m ideally taking on a client for the course of his career, not on a project-by-project basis. I’m available for project brainstorming sessions, marketing tips, and encouragement as they traverse the wilds of publishing.

Do you promote your client list? If so, how? Or do you think that the agency should be more behind the scenes? Why or why not?

I’m on Facebook and Twitter, so I would be promoting my clients on those platforms. Other than that, I’m not in this business to be a star. My clients are the stars and I’m there to support and foster them in the background.

We've corresponded about your strong interest in the current discussion around diversity in youth literature. What are your thoughts about where we are now, where we're going, and how we can best get there? How do you see yourself fitting in the conversation?

I’m so excited about the ongoing discussion! I’m aware that it isn’t a new one, but it’s really cresting and I’m proud to be part of the wave of diverse people in the publishing realm. Things are improving, slowly but surely (and certainly not without a few missteps), and I remain optimistic about the future.

It’s a complicated issue with no clear cut method of engagement, considering that the disparity affects industry folks and consumers at every level—the writers, agents, editors, marketers, publicists, production staff, sales reps, booksellers, readers, and everyone else in between. Still, so long as there is increasing awareness about the lack of diversity, steps can be taken and matters can only improve.

There really needs to be recruitment outside of the typical channels (nepotism or people in the know) and outreach to people in diverse communities. I’m a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx and I never had any exposure to writers or publishing people. And I was a big reader who frequented the library constantly!

Still, I was completely unaware of publishing as a career. Even in college, I didn’t quite connect my love of reading into a job beyond writing, and even that didn’t seem feasible. If a human resources person (a person of color and fellow Cornellian) hadn’t taken an interest and steered me towards publishing, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Matt
To be clear, I understand that diversity goes beyond ethnicity. It spans religion, sexuality, gender, and physicality, extending to anyone who finds himself underrepresented in the stories being told.

As a matter of fact, my masters thesis was related to my desire as a plus-sized woman to see characters of size portrayed without the stereotypical weight loss journey, titled “The Anti-Ugly Duckling Tale: Fat Protagonists Who…Stay Fat?”

I’m looking to get even more diverse writers published, so I’m keeping a weather eye out for those narratives. And they don’t need to be issue books. As Matt de la Peña wondered in his 2014 CNN.com article “Where's the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss,” that’s what I’d like to know!

How do Writer You and Agent You inform each other?

Before my MFA program, my marketing brain dominated.

Now, though? I have more sympathy for the difficult writing process and better comprehend the need to tell the story you’re burning to tell. As I read submissions, I’m not only asking myself: Will this sell? That’s an important question I do take into account, but it it’s no longer the question since I’ve already turned down some marketable projects.

An even bigger question for me is: Do I love it?

Trends change with the wind, but the projects I love? Those grab hold of me for good.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

for Cynsations

Q&A with Rita Williams Garcia by Sue Corbett from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "I am a product of the Great Migration. My grandmother, my mother, and my father all came north from the south. We did not spend a lot of time home-going, but that didn’t stop me from imagining what it would be like." See also Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth 2015 from Booklist.

New Award for Historical Middle Grade Fiction or Nonfiction from SCBWI. Peek: "A new book award, The Grateful American™ Book Prize, has been established to honor children’s books of fiction and nonfiction that feature the events and the people that shaped the history of the U.S. The Prize was co-founded by author and publisher David Bruce Smith..."

The Troubling Debate of Autism as a Fad by Jessica Mulqueen from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "The objections to literary critics complaining about autistic characters are obvious. Despite the increase in the number of portrayals, autism is still underrepresented and highly misunderstood. Such remarks are not only misleading, but discriminatory."

2015-2016 Boston Public Library Children's Writer-in-Residency Program from Children's Book Council. Peek: "The Associates of the Boston Public Library is currently accepting applications for the 2015-2016 Children’s Writer-in-Residence fellowship program. The fellowship offers an emerging children’s author a $20,000 stipend and an office at the Boston Public Library to complete his or her work of fiction, nonfiction, dramatic writing, or poetry for young readers."

Capstore Sponsors Residency for Children's Authors and Illustrators by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Beginning this summer, Capstone will select one artist annually to participate in a month-long residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minn. Fellows will be provided with room and board, as well as space in which to work."

How We Talk (Or Don't Talk) About Diversity When We Read With Our Kids by Matt de la Pena from Brightly. Peek: "We’re mixed kids. Half Mexican, half white. Back then you never found 'mixed' dolls, so my mom would opt for the 'Latino' doll, or, more commonly, the white doll. But here she was, staring down at three African American Cabbage Patch Kids." See also The Color of Character from Nikki Grimes.

Writing Humor: The Lighter Side of Writing Is Heavy Stuff by Michael McDonagh from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: "Without an unexpected outcome or high degree of contrast between the situation and the actor’s response, there is no joke."

Interview: Agent Tina Wexler by Lee Wind from I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? Peek: "More stories where the kids babysit or have a job at the DQ or struggle to complete their homework while putting dinner together because both parents (or the remaining parent) work outside the home, overworked, underpaid and put on wonky shifts that aren’t conducive to helping with homework or making a wholesome dinner (or any dinner) at night."

Agent Heather Flaherty of the Bent Agency Defines Voice and Shares Her Wish List from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: " So many famous authors actually wrote anywhere between four and seven books before getting nabbed."

Fallacy: The Primer for Surprise by Ron Estrada from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "Story surprises happen not when a reader lacks important information that leads to the correct conclusion about story events, but rather when, through the abundance of misinformation, the reader is forced into wrong conclusions."

Canadian Children's Literature: Damaging to Black People? by Zetta Elliott from Media Diversified. Peek: "In 2011, I began to compile a bibliography on my blog and discovered that since 2000, on average, only three Black-authored books for children were published each year. And, in that time, of the nearly thirty middle grade or young adult novels featuring a Black protagonist, only two depict Black children living in contemporary Canada."

Cynsational Screening Room

Vlog: Austin SCBWI Regional Conference (Day 2) by Ariane Felix from A Writer's Life.



Cynsational Giveaways



The winner of Things I'll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015) is Linda in Virginia.

The winners of How to Surprise a Dad by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf, 2015) are Becky in Utah, Jane in South Dakota, Rachel in Arizona, Jacqui in Illinois and Vanessa in New Jersey.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Jerri Romine and Paige Britt perform a reader's theater at last week's launch of The Lost Track of Time (Scholastic, 2015).


From Sara's Sweets in Austin!

Talking Craft, Diversity & Genre Hopping with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Joy Preble. Peek: "Choose yourself. Don’t wait for the publisher to promote your book to lead title. Don’t wait for your head to be graced with a crown or your slippers to be buried in laurels. Raise that chin and vow to do this..." Note: Thanks to all who shared this link. I'm honored by your support and enthusiasm.

The Bulletin of the Center of Children's Books cheers Things I'll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015): "There are even two fantasies, one by Cynthia Leitich Smith about a guardian angel who has fallen in love with a human boy, and another by Katy Moran that owes much to the story of Bluebeard.... The secrets’ often mature content raises the moral question of whether a thing is secret because it’s shameful or shameful because it’s secret, making this a thought- provoking collection."

Thank you to author-illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson for her first-rate service as assistant regional advisor of the Austin chapter of SCBWI. Most appreciated! Now P.J. Hoover takes over the mantle. Lucky us!

Personal Links

Behold my snapdragons!


Cynsational Events

Cynthia will appear from April 14 to April 17 at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Texas Library Association in Austin.

Join Cynthia from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. May 2 at Saratoga Springs Public Library for a celebration in conjunction with Saratoga Reads! at Saratoga Springs, New York. Note: Cynthia will be presenting Jingle Dancer (2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001) and Indian Shoes (2002)(all published by HarperColllins).

Join Cynthia and representatives from We Need Diverse Books for a panel and (free) writing workshop from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. May 12 at BookPeople in Austin. Register here.

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 May 2 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from June 25 to June 30 on a We Need Diverse Books panel at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.

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 appear Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.



TLA Con Schedule & Latest News!

See more info & RSVP!

Interview: Freelance Editor Francoise Bui

for Cynsations

How would you describe yourself? A writing coach? Freelance editor? Independent study instructor?

Definitely a freelance editor. I'm not a writing teacher. I love to work on manuscripts that I feel have the potential to be published--ones where my feedback can help a writer shape his/her characters and story.

You're a former Delacorte (Random House) editor, with a history of publishing children's-YA books across age markets and genres.

Could you tell us more about the insights you gained through this experience?

I love editing books for all ages--picture books, chapter books, middle grade and YA novels. The variety keeps things interesting. I find it especially liberating that middle-grade stories do not include romance, something that's largely a must in YA novels. In terms of insights, I guess it's that marvelous storytelling exists in every age group and in all genres.

Of the titles you edited, which stand out in your memory and/or might serve as models of study for writers interested in working with you?

In middle grade:


--Paperboy by Vince Vawter (Delacorte, 2013) received a 2014 Newbery Honor. I'd never encountered a protagonist with a speech impediment. It's told in a memorable first-person voice that makes you feel what it's like to be a stutterer. Plus, there are so many rich plot threads to the boy's coming-of-age story.


--Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea (Delacorte, 2010) features seven very different kids in the same third-grade class. Pure fun, very kid-friendly, with a lot of heart. Each character is so well defined.
In young adult:



--Orchards by Holly Thompson (Delacorte, 2011) is a gorgeous novel in verse. Beautiful, spare language. It's also a multicultural and multi-generational story.




--The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab is a rich family drama, with a mystery at its core. Very textured narrative that is both absorbing and thought-provoking.

All the books I've mentioned stand out for their memorable voice(s), compelling characters, layered storytelling, and emotional pull.

All the books also happen to be examples of realistic fiction, which I have an affinity for. But I love a new twist on a fairy tale (Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier (Knopf, 2007)), not edited by me), thrillers (All Unquiet Things by Anna Jarzab (Delacorte, 2010), which I edited), and all-around page turners (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2006) and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2010), both very different and edited by others).

What kind of writer would be best suited to your working together on a freelance basis?

I prefer to work on a complete manuscript. It's easier for me to assess and give constructive feedback on.

What can you tell us about how you approach a manuscript?

I read with an eye toward sufficient character development (protagonist and secondary cast), plot structure, setting, and overall pacing.

How would you describe your feedback style?

I am honest--what's working, what's not--and I do my best to suggest ways to rethink the weaknesses so that the revision gets the story to the next level. I try to be constructive.

What would be the logistics? How should writers get in touch with you? What would happen from there?

I can be reached at fbui.editor@gmail.com. I'd like a short note, saying whether the manuscript is middle grade or YA and a brief synopsis. Please attach the first chapter so that I get a sense of the story and voice. Then I'll decide whether I can be of help.

My fee depends on page count and what is required: general feedback only; revision letter and possible mark-up of manuscript; a line edit, etc.

I'm happy to answer questions.

Do you have any interest in joining writer conferences or workshops as a critique (or other) faculty member?

Francoise (center) with authors Mari Mancusi (left) and April Lurie (right)
I'd be happy to offer critiques as a guest editor at writers' conferences.

More globally, what should writers consider in choosing a freelance editor?

It's helpful to see what types of books a freelance editor published when employed at a publishing house. A shared sensibility goes a long way.

FYI: I'm about to create a website, so a more comprehensive list of the books I've edited will appear there.

More and more writers are seeking the assistance of a freelance editor before submission or publishing independently. For the latter, the reason is fairly obvious (they want to ensure a professional-level book). But why do you think agented and trade published writers seem more predisposed of late to take this route?

It's something I've encountered in recent years only, but it's becoming more common. Editorial staffs have shrunk and editors are overburdened. Because publishing schedules have to be met, there isn't necessarily the flexibility to work on every manuscript until each one is truly at its best.

A freelance editor can devote the time to multiple rounds of revision. So I guess agented and trade published writers now seek out freelancers to ensure that their manuscripts are strong enough for acquisition, as well as thoroughly polished for reviewers.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you for this interview, Cynthia. I look forward to editing some wonderful stories.

about me & cynsations

Cynthia is a New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of fiction for young readers. Graphic novelist. Fond of cats, comics, and cocoa.

Cynsations is a source for conversations, publishing information, literacy and free speech advocacy, writer resources, inspiration, news in children's and teen literature, and author outreach.

Note: via various means and mirror sites, Cynsations has about 6,000 regular subscribers and averages 80,000 page views a month.

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