Seizing that ‘some day’

KU alum follows her ‘Eternal’ dream and gets a best-selling surprise

Upon learning her latest young adult novel, “Eternal,” had earned the No. 5 spot on The New York Times best-seller list a couple weeks ago, Cynthia Leitich Smith reacted like one of her young protagonists.

“I literally gasped,” Smith laughs. “I’ve always read that: ‘She gasped,’ and I thought no one ever really does it. But, apparently, yes, if you make The New York Times best-selling list for the first time and you had no idea it was going to happen, you will gasp.”

Smith, a 1990 Kansas University journalism graduate from Lenexa, has been writing adventures for children, teens and young adults since a national tragedy shook her world and her life’s aspirations.

“I had graduated from law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and moved to Chicago, because my husband had taken a job there,” she says. “I was doing a clerkship for the Department of Health and Human Services in downtown Chicago. It was interesting, but it wasn’t my dream.

“I was really longing for some clarity in language, so I started wandering back into the children and teen sections, rereading a few favorites, like ‘The Witch from Blackbird Pond.’ I had always been an avid reader as a child, and I was enjoying having the freedom and time to read something else besides case law, again. I became completely captivated by the books and started scribbling stories on my lunch hour.”

Then, on April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed.

“I have strong ties to Oklahoma. My mother and her family are from there, and my uncle was actually on his way to that building that morning — something about his Social Security — when it exploded.” Smith recalls.

“It was a wake-up call. I was from a long line of ‘some day’ people, wonderful people who worked hard for money and supported their families and said, ‘Some day, I’d like to open a flower shop’ or, ‘Some day, I’d like to move to the mountains’ or, ‘Some day, whatever it might be.’ That incident was a reminder that some day could be now.”

Opening the door

So, with her husband’s encouragement, Smith quit her day job. The couple moved to Austin, Texas, and Cynthia dug in to the tricky terrain of writing for young readers.

Seven books and several short stories later, she has tackled topics for the wee picture book set to the “upper YA” audience, which is typically ages 14 and over.

“Much of it is the age of the protagonist and subject matter. If you have a 7-year-old girl gathering jingles for her regalia so she can dance at the upcoming powwow, that’s probably a picture book. If you have a teenage girl who’s been infected with a demonic strain and becomes a serial killer, that’s a YA novel,” she says, chuckling.

One of her titles for ages 10-12, “Rain is Not My Indian Name,” is set in Douglas County and includes KU grads among the cast.

Caitlin Curry, young adult reference assistant at the Lawrence Public Library, says the title is popular among local readers.

“There is a very low number of books written for teenagers about Native Americans,” Curry says. “Books like ‘Rain Is Not My Indian Name’ are very important to the youth of Lawrence.”

Smith started making the leap to writing gothic short stories and novels in 2001.

“It was right after I had completed a chapter book for 7- to 9-year-olds, so it was a really big jump for me to go to upper YA, and to go from realistic fiction to fantasy. I studied folklore from around the world and the old gothic masters. Then I got stuck on Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’

“At this point, there weren’t really other people writing gothics for teenagers,” Smith says. “Then this very charming and affable character, Harry Potter, came across the ocean and, suddenly, publishers that had been saying, ‘Kids are too sophisticated for fantasy!’ are saying, ‘Wow! Kids still love fantasy!’ and that threw open the doors to other fantasists.”

English author J.K. Rowling was turning the publishing world upside-down with her magical characters of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Smith recalls thinking, “If we’re doing wizards, we’re going to be doing monsters soon. And I love monsters! Monsters are such a great metaphor for adolescents, especially shape-shifters. If you look at adolescents, their bodies are literally shape-shifting with all those uncontrollable hormones. When you’re thinking about apocalyptic-toned fiction for young readers, talk to the average 15-year-old girl and you will find that many, many things feel like the end of the world.”

Role models

The best-selling “Eternal” is Smith’s second stab at the genre. The first was “Tantalize,” a story about a young girl and her werewolf-hybrid first love.

“Eternal” tells the tale of a young vampire princess and the guardian angel who failed to save her life.

“It’s a love story, but it’s also a quest for redemption,” Smith notes. “It’s comedic. It’s a bit horrific. It has a love story, but it’s not what you’d call a genre paranormal romance. If I had to compare, it’s probably closest to ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ than anything else.”

Curry, who has read both “Tantalize” and “Eternal,” and notes the books are almost always checked out, says, “The male/female relationships in these books are more healthy than those in other vampire books that feature controlling guys and completely dependent girls. Cynthia’s books feature strong independent female characters that are good role models.”