Earlier this year, Austin SCBWI member Cynthia Leitich Smith was named to SCBWI’s Board of Advisors. We recently interviewed her about her new SCBWI role and what the organization has meant to her over the years.
Congratulations on becoming a member of SCBWI’s Board of Advisors! Can you tell us a little about the board’s role in the international organization? (And any specific roles you might have on the board?)
Thank you! The SCBWI Board of Advisors is a sounding board for new programs, offering advice and insights to the Executive Committee. We bring deep knowledge of the artistic craft and the publishing industry as we consider various initiatives and reflect on whether they feel right for our members and the overall organization.
In conjunction with that, SCBWI is committed to diversity, inclusion and equity, which is likewise a priority of mine. I’m honored to work on an active committee of fellow board members striving to support and facilitate continued growth in those areas.
You’re one of the founding members of Austin’s SCBWI chapter. Where were you in your career at that time? Do you remember the first meeting you attended?
Technically, I’m a second-wave Austin SCBWI chapter member. Founding credit should go to the folks who participated in a local workshop taught by legendary author Kathi Appelt back then in the mid ‘90s. I came on board soon afterward.
It’s been so long ago…. I initially joined SCBWI Illinois in Chicago, which was a well-established chapter, and then moved to Austin, which was a startup chapter, shortly afterward.
I think my first Austin meeting was either at St. Edward’s University or a branch of the public library—I don’t recall for sure.
My first clear memory is Meredith Davis, our original regional advisor. She was 20-something, bubbly, talking-ten-miles-minute, and one of the most impressive, luminous people I’d ever met.
We were a small but mighty band of creative folks. We had so much chapter building to do—just the idea of inviting a published author to speak was new to us. But there was this tremendous optimism, hope and collaborative energy.
Meredith still embodies all of that, and I’m so wowed that Austin SCBWI has grown into one of the strongest regions around the globe.
What has SCBWI meant to you over the years?
SCBWI offered professional guidance, a clear sense of direction for my dream. In addition to the craft development and career information, the organization also provided a nurturing, supportive community.
Many of my fondest memories and dearest friendships arose from my SCBWI experience.
In 2014, our chapter began the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award because you’ve been so generous in sharing your time and knowledge with fellow writers. Who were some of your writing mentors and what role has mentoring played in your career? (both as a mentor and a mentee)
Early on, I was blessed with the opportunity to take classes at Kathi’s family ranch in La Grange, Texas; and that helped to cement my writing craft and creative life. Author Jane Kurtz also provided professional guidance online.
More personally, author Anne Bustard was a tremendous source of wisdom and friendship. In addition to her acclaimed writing, she’s a former award-winning teacher-librarian-bookseller. Anne was tremendously gracious and generous in providing a larger context for how books spring up and move through the world to eventually reach kids. She’s a consistent and inspiring model for kindness, for how to live—heart first—as a creative person.
On the flip side, I honestly don’t think of what I do as mentoring per se. It’s more about participating in the conversation of craft and career with up-and-comers who deserve every opportunity and success, defined broadly. I don’t have all the answers, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have been around for a while. Sometimes I can at least point folks in the right direction and/or offer some sustained encouragement and perspective. I’m happy to do it.
My writing life continues to be full and rewarding. This summer my short story “Girl’s Best Friend” appears in a middle grade anthology, The Hero Next Door, edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (Random House), and this fall, I have poems appearing in two picture book anthologies.
“Stories for Dinner” is featured in Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, edited by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Marlena Myles (Millbrook), and “Amazing Auntie Ann” appears in the upcoming I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins (Lee & Low).
Meanwhile, short-form fiction has been a cornerstone of my craft development, and so I’m especially honored to be editing a middle grade contemporary powwow anthology for HarperCollins. The book will showcase well established, up-and-coming and new Native voices. I’m also writing a middle grade fantasy for Harper.
It’s funny. When I first began my apprenticeship, I dreamed of becoming a middle grade novelist. I am published in the YA novel and MG short story (among other formats and age markets), but I’m just getting around to fulfilling that initial goal now.
That said, my latest young adult novel, Hearts Unbroken, which Candlewick published last year, will be available in paperback next spring. I’m also delighted to be working on a new fiction project with the house—the Blue Stars series of middle grade graphic novels, co-authored by Kekla Magoon and illustrated by Molly Murakami.
All of this is to say, it’s still quite a rewarding creative and professional journey, filled with challenges and surprises. I feel grateful to be in such wonderful company.
SCBWI—especially my regional chapter here in Austin—has remained critical to my progress along the way. I’m honored to serve on the Board of Advisors because it’s an opportunity to both give back and look forward as a member of the international community of children’s-YA book creatives.