For Writers

The Cybils are Coming!

The Cybils are the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literacy Awards, and they recognize authors and illustrators whose books combine literary merit and popular appeal. For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege to serve as a Cybils judge for poetry. It’s been so much fun! The best part, of course, are the books. I’ve read some truly amazing poetry. As a second-round judge, I read only the books that the first-round readers selected for the second round. Last year, that meant we got to read Kwame Alexander, Nikki Grimes, David Elliott, Michelle Schaub, Chris Harris, Margarita Engle, and J. Patrick Lewis. Amazing, right?

Almost as fun as the reading, though, is the discussion. With a group of incredibly thoughtful and experienced poets, teachers, and librarians, we discussed the pros and cons of each book, eventually (with some hand-wringing and last-minute angst) working our way into a final selection. The final joy of the process is getting to shout from the rooftops about the winner, knowing that your efforts are going to help get a wonderful book in the hands of more kids. You can see a list of all the 2017 winners here.

Applications to become a Cybils judge will open later this month. Check the website or follow @Cybils on Twitter so that you don’t miss it. If you aren’t up for serving as a judge, though, you can still take part by nominating books for the award. Nominations will open in early October. There are categories for picture books, easy readers, middle grade, and young adult, in addition to poetry, and for non-fiction, speculative fiction, and graphic novels. Nominate books in as many categories as inspire you, as a broad selection of books only enhances the awards process. The book needs to have been published in English in 2018 in the United States or Canada. Full rules on nominating are here. It’s a great way to get the word out about a book you love. And as an incorrigible book pusher, I think you can’t get much better than that.

Kate Hillyer is a middle grade writer and occasional poet. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen, and has been known to interrupt perfect strangers mid-conversation so that she can recommend books to them. She served as a Cybils judge for poetry in 2016 and 2017. You can find Kate online at and on Twitter as @SuperKate. 

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Does this door beg you to open it? Are you curious what’s behind it? When I came across this door in a hidden corner of the library in a Scottish castle, I was intrigued. I turned the handle, but… Alas, it was locked.

Sigh… So I didn’t get to see inside. My imagination conjured up a secret stone staircase that led down, down, down to the dungeon deep underground (and yes, I did get to see the dungeon). Who knows? Maybe my invented spiral staircase was more exciting than what really lies behind that door. It could be a dusty, old broom closet. Or a safe to hide treasures from prying eyes.

I consider each doorway I see as a gateway for my imagination. You never know where that door will lead. Like all authors of middle grade novels, I need those doorways to jumpstart my creativity and imagination, and to invent stories.

What happens, though, when you struggle to come up with ideas or get stuck partway through a book you’re writing? I’ve found these methods helpful in beckoning the muse to return:

1. ) Do something mindless. Many writers say taking a shower, washing dishes, or taking a walk can help. I’ve found sewing on buttons, scrubbing the sliding door track with a toothbrush, or pulling out the toilet bowl brush (just the act of picking it up; no need to actually use it) all make me long to get back to writing.

Seven Stories, England

2. ) Sit in a new place. Changing your point of view can free the creative side of the brain. Would sitting in this chair do the trick? You can alter your setting by moving to a different place in your home or office. Or get out of your rut and go someplace unusual. Try a bookstore, library, coffee shop, park, or bus station. Eavesdrop, people watch, and take notes.

3. ) Use your other creative abilities. Even if you feel don’t have special talents, experiment with painting pictures, playing an instrument, dancing, etc. Any creative activity can stimulate the flow of ideas and help your writing.


4. ) Play. Have fun. Try acting out scenes, putting on costumes, using props. Have a sword fight. Be a princess, a knight, a dragon. Save the world. Escape from prison. Fly on a magic carpet. When you return to your writing, you’ll have some magical experiences to record.

5. )  Write something else. It should be a totally different project, a new genre, a journal entry, a letter. Or opt to skip the section or chapter you’re supposed to be writing. Go to the middle or the end of the book and write a scene. Choose whatever spot makes you feel energetic and excited. Writing a random scene or section will not only increase your word count, but often it will provide an incentive for finishing the earlier parts.

6. ) Take advantage of brain fog. Often the most creative time of day is when you first awaken, while you’re still in a hazy state. Writing from that state often makes you more productive. If it’s too late in the day for that, take a nap. Even a short cat nap will help.

7. ) Switch point of view. Tell the story or the chapter through a secondary character’s eyes. You can choose to keep it, insert it later in the story, or discard it. You might discover the new narrator is a better choice and rewrite. Another trick is to switch from third person to first, or vice versa.

8. ) Use a dictionary or random book. Pick up a book or a dictionary, and with your eyes closed, open it and point. Use the word or phrase you’re pointing to began writing randomly, then find a way to insert it into your work-in-progress.

All of these can help you come up with some fresh ideas or start a new project, but what about the dreaded writer’s block? The kind that totally makes you freeze. What can you do if you’re partway through a project and get stuck and none of the simple methods above work?

One of the main reasons for writer’s block is FEAR. It may be a voice in the back of your head whispering, “You’re not good enough,” or “No one will want to read this.” These warnings come from feelings of inadequacy. A related problem is perfectionism. You worry about making mistakes or doing things wrong. And although many writing books encourage you to write horrible first drafts, it’s not easy for those of us who are perfectionists to lower our standards enough to put anything less than our best on paper. And then we worry our best isn’t good enough.

All of these fears pale in comparison to the BIG, HIDDEN FEAR, the one that causes long-term writer’s block. The FEAR OF EXPOSURE. Often when you’re blocked, it’s because your facing a part of the story you don’t want to write because it’s too scary, too private, too gut-wrenching to deal with.

This is actually the best block of all because it means what you write is going to be real, raw, personal. You’re exposing yourself on the page, you’re digging into deep emotions. This is a painful process, so your mind tries to avoid it by blocking your writing. If you can move past this block, you’ll do some of your most powerful writing.

A few exercises that work best for overcoming this block are:

9. ) Try visual journaling. Open an unlined journal or sketchbook, or take two blank pieces of paper. Also get some markers, crayons, or oil pastels in a variety of colors. Close your eyes and ask yourself where in your body you’re feeling that fear. Once you’ve gotten in touch with it, open your eyes, and draw whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be a picture; it can be random scribbles. As soon as you’ve finished, pick up a pen and freewrite whatever comes to mind, whatever the drawing brought up. You can do it a few more times if needed, but usually once will unblock the deepest fears.

10. ) Write about a childhood smell. Close your eyes and remember a smell from when you were young. Try to flesh out the picture in your mind. What memories does it bring up? When you open your eyes, write about the experience without taking the pen from the paper. Keep going until you’ve explored all the thoughts, connections, and memories. Then ask how this experience connects with your book, and do another freewriting exercise.

11. ) Write a letter to your character or vice versa. Ask your book characters to explain why they’re refusing to act in your story. Or have your character ask you to explain why you won’t let him or her finish the story. Stream-of-consciousness writing can be a great help to unblocking you when you’re stuck.

These are only a few of the many techniques that can help to get your writing unstuck. We’d love to know what you do to come up with creative ideas or get past writer’s block. Please share them in the comments below.



Writing and Illustrating Muslim characters in children’s literature: Interview and Giveaway with Author Saadia Faruqi and Illustrator Hatem Aly

I am thrilled to interview Author Saadia Faruqi and Illustrator Hatem Aly and discuss their new book – Meet Yasmin!  Saadia and Hatem talk about their experience developing a story with a Muslim main character and why diversity in children’s books matters.


Saadia, Yasmin is a brave girl who has a big imagination and loves adventure. Why is it important for you to write/illustrate the story of an empowering ethnic minority character?

 Saadia: So far we’ve seen brown characters mostly in issues books. They typically face a problem – or issue – that directly relates to their identity. For instance a Muslim main character facing Islamophobia, or an African American main character experiencing racism. Although I do believe that those sorts of books are helpful to our understanding of critical social and political issues, it also means that minority groups are otherized further, they’re seen as different, or only viewed in the context of that issue. Yasmin is the antidote to this problem: a Muslim girl in America, a brown first generation American, who is perfectly normal and average, facing all the issues every child her age faces, and having the same happy disposition we expect to see from all our children. It was really important to me not to make Yasmin or her family “the other” – someone different because of their skin color or their religion or ethnic background. There is a sort of empowerment in that normalization that only minority groups can truly understand.


Hatem, was it important for you to take the author’s background into consideration while creating the illustrations in the book?

Hatem: It is important, However, I didn’t have to work so hard on being familiar with Saadia’s background since I can relate to many elements of her background already being brought up in Egypt and Yasmin’s family seems so familiar to me in a broader sense. I did work on bringing up some Pakistani visual elements but illustrating Yasmin went organically harmonized with the author’s experience and my own as well.


In the recent times, literary agents and publishing houses for children and young adult books have made an open call for submissions from Muslim authors and illustrators. Can you explain why it matters to include diverse characters in children’s and young adult literature?

 Saadia: It’s really crucial to have as much diversity in all sorts of literature, not just in terms of characters but also stories. I actually come from an adult literary background, and I see the same calls for diversity in that age group as well, and it warms my heart to witness these changes in publishing. The reason this matters so much is two-fold (and something we in kidlit talk about constantly): mirrors and windows. My children need a mirror. They need to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read. Growing up in Pakistan I didn’t have that. I read exclusively white stories, by white authors, and my worldview was shaped with an extreme inferiority complex because of that. I don’t want my children to have the same, and I know nobody else does either. Also, other children need windows. They should be able to read and enjoy books that show a different sort of family than theirs, a different culture than theirs. This is the only way we can have a younger generation that’s more empathetic and understanding and aware than our previous generations were.

Hatem: It is critically necessary to show diversity in literature of all ages and to express a wider range of life elements in people’s lives. In my work I sometimes pay attention to some things that bothered me as a child but also that I found intriguing. For example, I remember almost all comics and story books took place in a sort of a suburban –house per family- neighborhood and I felt strange finding nobody living in an apartment like myself and most of the millions of people in Cairo alone or at least everyone I know. So I felt alienated but amused from a distance longing for something I can’t define. It seemed to me there was a generic way of living that needs to be challenged and I couldn’t put my finger on the issue exactly until I was older. It’s important for children to see themselves and to see others as well in books.


How can parents, librarians, and readers help support books like Meet Yasmin?

 Saadia: The key is not only to read the book but to discuss it. You could use the back matter which has some really good discussion guides for students, and there is also an educator’s guide for teachers. Finally, and for me most excitingly, Capstone has some very cool downloadable activities based on Yasmin, which kids are going to love. I encourage parents, librarians and teachers to take advantage of those as much as possible.

Hatem: The best thing is to read the book, and share it with others! Personally I feel that the most powerful way is to read it to students or story time at public libraries as well as parents to their younger children. I find that helps building bonds between children and books.  I love libraries, so I ask everyone to walk into their local public library and suggest that they buy a few copies for their shelves. Most libraries have book suggestion tools for their patrons, either online or in person. The same goes for your child’s school library.


Who are your personal author/illustrator idols?

 Hatem: It’s more of an emergence of inspiration fueled by a mix of interesting people. Many names come to mind, and many I will forget. Some whose work I enjoy and admire are Bill Watterson, Tove Jansson, Maurice Sendak, Jon Klassen, Luke Pearson, Marc Boutavant, Sempé, Zep, Jillian Tamaki, Lynda Barry, Vera Brosgol, Hayao Miyazaki, Naoki Urasawa, Edward Gorey, Kate Beaton, Carson Ellis, Oliver Jeffers and many more.

Saadia: Some of my favorite writers are my own peers, because I believe writing is best done as part of a community. In early reader and picture books I admire Hena Khan who’s been a trailblazer as far as Muslim representation in kidlit is concerned, and really carved a space not only for herself but for others as well. In terms of illustrators, I’m actually a big fan of Hatem Aly, haha! I feel very blessed that he’s part of Team Yasmin because it’s so important for me to have a person doing the art who really understands what it means to be Muslim, and first generation, and sometimes “the other”. He really gets my stories in a way that I think another illustrator wouldn’t have, and I’m very grateful for that.


What can readers take away from Meet Yasmin?

Saadia: Readers will enjoy seeing themselves in Meet Yasmin, even if they are very different in superficial ways to Yasmin and her family. Yasmin is literally the every-girl, and her family is the same as every other family. With everything that’s going on politically in our country at the moment, I hope that Yasmin can help readers understand that Americans come in all colors, and that there’s beauty and worth in diversity, despite what they may hear in the news sometimes.

Hatem: I believe that readers will have fun with Yasmin and recognize similarities despite some superficial differences. They will be inspired to be curious, creative, and believing in themselves all the way even if things go wrong sometimes. There are a lot of lessons a child can learn, but there’s also a lot of entertainment which is so important to develop in this age group of readers.


For more about Saadia and her work, visit her website. You can also connect with her on Twitter.

For more about Hatem and his work, visit his website. You can also connect with him on Twitter.

Thanks, Saadia and Hatem!


Want to own your very own copy of Meet Yasmin? Enter our giveaway by leaving a comment below! 

You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on Wednesday, August 15, 2018 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.