Author Spotlight: Cynthia Argentine
May 13, 2022
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
I’ve been writing ever since I learned to read. Even as a little girl, I sometimes had poems or sentences form in my mind in the early morning hours before I was fully awake. I’d try to memorize them so I could fall back asleep, which was generally not effective, and eventually, I realized it was best to keep paper on the nightstand and jot the words down! It’s a habit I still keep for those occasional moments of morning inspiration.
I began to pursue writing for children when my three were young and I was taking time off from being an environmental consultant. Reading to my kids, I saw that children’s books were a pathway to discussion and connection. I wanted to pursue this! So, I signed up for the “Writing for Children” correspondence course through the Institute for Children’s Literature. Nonfiction author Linda Skeers was my one-on-one teacher. That course opened my eyes to the world of writing for children, and after a handful of assignments, I started selling articles to magazines. I contributed regularly to Odyssey: Adventures in Science and ChemMatters. I enjoyed writing about a variety of STEM topics and having regular deadlines and bylines.
But one day, I came across a little-known figure whose story deserved more than an article: Her story deserved an entire book. Picture books and chapter books are quite different from magazine articles. I learned how to write in these new genres by writing this woman’s story many different ways—with different hooks, different points of view, different word counts, and for different age levels. Happily, I sold that story a couple years ago (it should be out by 2024). The more I write for kids, the more I appreciate the creative possibilities this art form offers. Brevity, illustration, poetry, heart, humor, fun facts, deep themes—it’s fantastic stuff to work with and toward!
Congratulations on your recent book, Night Becomes Day: Changes in Nature! Tell us about it and what inspired you.
Thank you very much! I’ve always loved the outdoors and been fascinated with nature. As a kid, I spent a lot of time climbing trees and playing by the tidal creek in my backyard. I still like to hike, garden, and explore. In college, I studied environmental science, digging deeper into biology, chemistry, and geology and all the changes they present. So, it seems inevitable that nature would inspire my writing. 😊
Night Becomes Day: Changes in Nature sprouted as I contemplated amazing transformations in nature. There were giant changes, like the carving of canyons, but also little changes, like ferns unfurling outside my window. As I considered these and other changes, I realized that everything in nature is transforming. Structuring a book around cycles and opposites could communicate the patterns and variety of these changes. The manuscript grew from there! Earlier this year, I was delighted to see Night Becomes Day receive recognition from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Bank Street College of Education. It was an SCBWI Golden Kite Finalist in the category of nonfiction for young readers and one of Bank Street’s “Best Children’s Books of the Year.”
If a phrase, concept, or interesting juxtaposition comes to mind, or I read a fascinating fact, I make a note of it. I have LOTS of ideas. It’s hard for me to read Smithsonian magazine or talk to a scientist or artist without getting more ideas! So, it’s really an issue of which topics to prioritize and work on first. For that, I consider a couple things. One, how passionate am I about the topic? If the research draws me in and I want to keep learning more, that topic may move to the top of my list. That happened with a picture-book biography of an artist I wrote in 2020. I loved this artist’s work and her story! (That manuscript is going out on submission soon.) The other thing I consider is how many layers or how much depth the topic has. If it has a great hook for kids, connects to school curricula, and represents a larger theme that is meaningful to me, then it’s probably layered enough to connect with many readers, too.
One particularly helpful “layer” for a nonfiction topic is originality. For STEM or history topics, originality often springs from connecting a fact or historical incident to something seemingly unrelated. For example, another manuscript of mine pairs a set of interesting animal adaptations to a social blunder kids deal with from time to time. Think about books like Melissa Stewart’s No Monkeys, No Chocolate—it’s the pairing of the chocolate with the monkeys that creates the originality and the hook. Right from the title, we want to read on to figure out the connection.
As for research tips, I’ll suggest three. First, internet searches are great to start with but not to end with.
Second, interviews are golden. Find and talk with an expert on your topic, and you will gain a new appreciation for it. Even if you never quote them, having their perspective in the back of your mind will enrich your manuscript. I’ve interviewed several professors at Purdue University and other institutions—on topics from nanotechnology to cybersecurity—and they generally are thrilled that someone new is taking an interest in their professional research.
Third, site visits help you shine. For an upcoming biography, I took a detour while driving to a family vacation in order to spend some time in my subject’s hometown and on her college campus. So helpful! (And my family was so patient!) That visit allowed me to write accurately and descriptively about small details, such as what her walk to school would have been like.
What projects are you working on now?
In addition to ones I’ve mentioned above, I have a poetry collection and a short rhyming fictional book in the works. And I just did a work-for-hire book on working dogs! I really enjoy variety—in both subject and style.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Keep writing, even if it’s harder than you expected. Finish projects, even if you’re not sure they’ll be good enough. Get to the point where you have several complete rough drafts. It will be fun to revise or re-envision them once you have the raw material—that first draft—in place! Participate in a critique group. I wouldn’t write nearly as well or have nearly as much fun without my critique partners.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
Since my first career was in environmental science, many colleagues don’t know that I’m also a piano teacher. Years ago, when some neighbors with young children found out I was a musician, they asked me to teach their kids to play the piano. I had studied piano throughout college and had a lot of accompanying experience. So, I got involved in the local piano-teaching events and associations. I love seeing kids discover what they are capable of, and I love to share the joy of making music.
Where can people find you online?
My website! It’s https://cynthiaargentine.com. There are links there where you can sign up for my quarterly newsletter and a monthly blog. I’m on Twitter and Instagram regularly. I’m also on Pinterest, where I’m building boards that teachers, students, and librarians can use to find books, resources, crafts, and classroom activities that connect to my books and related topics, such as biology, geology, cybersecurity, and STEM biographies. Check them out! I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn from time to time as well.