Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award

The Austin SCBWI Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award honors one of the long-time members of our chapter.


Cynthia is an inspiration not only as an award-winning and best-selling author, but also as a champion of children’s book writers.

She hosts the informative and popular Cynsations blog, which is a must-read for anyone in the children’s book industry. Cynthia also is an extremely generous member of the Austin kidlit community, offering up her time and knowledge to help fellow writers whenever she can. She embodies the kind of writer we all try to be.

The award bearing Cynthia’s name follows her example and gives guidance to up-and-coming writers. Inspired by the Houston SCBWI chapter‘s Joan Lowery Nixon Award, the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award starts with the critiques at the annual Austin SCBWI conference. Critiquers nominate one of the manuscripts submitted to them for the award, if they feel the manuscript is of a high enough level. The nominated writers will make up the finalists, who will be announced after the Saturday sessions of the conference. The finalists’ work will then be submitted to the mentor, who will choose the winner, announced on our website after the conference.

Our 2023 mentor is the wonderful Jessica Lee Anderson.


Jessica Lee Anderson is the author of the novels Uncertain Summer, Trudy (winner of the 2005 Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature), Border Crossing, and Calli.

She’s published multiple chapter books and early readers for Rourke Educational Media to include such titles as Brownies with Benjamin Franklin, Case of Foul Play on a School Day, and Time to Move, Peacock. She’s published fiction and nonfiction with Capstone, Heinemann, Pearson, Seedling Publications, Six Red Marbles, and a variety of magazines including Highlights for Children. Jessica graduated from Hollins University with a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature, and previously instructed at the Institute of Children’s Literature and St. Edward’s University. She lives near Austin, Texas with her husband, daughter, and toothless rat terrier.

We’re lucky to also have these brilliant kidlit authors as mentors:

Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of many beloved books for kids, including the recent Would You Come Too?, the upcoming Frances in the Country, the Caldecott honored All the World, and many others. She’s also co-authored several books with her pal Audrey Vernick, including the hilarious Bob, Not Bob. Her next middle grade novel, Lolo’s Light, launches in fall 2022, and her chapter book series Bibsy Cross debuts in 2024. Liz is faculty co-chair of the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at the Vermont Faculty of Fine Arts, but lives here in Austin, Texas. Find more on her life and work at

Bethany Hegedus’ books include the forthcoming picture book biography Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as the award-winning picture book biographies Grandfather Gandhi and the newly released Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story, both co-written with Arun Gandhi, grandson to the Mahatma and illustrated by Evan Turk. The Grandfather Gandhi books join Bethany’s novels Truth with a Capital T and Between us Baxters in gracefully handling race, class and diversity issues. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults, Bethany is prior editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. Bethany is the Owner and Creative Director of The Writing Barn, a writing retreat, workshop and event space in Austin, Texas.

Varian Johnson is a Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate and faculty member. He is the author of nine novels, including Red Polka Dot in a World of Plaid, My Life as a Rhombus, Saving Maddie, and The Great Greene Heist series. Varian’s latest MG novel, The Parker Inheritance, is a 2019 Coretta Scott King Honor Book and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor winner, as well as being named to ten separate “best of 2018” lists. 

Christina Soontornvat is a storyteller, engineer, and STEM educator. She is the author of the fantasy middle grade series, The Changelings, and the early chapter book series, Diary of an Ice Princess. Her forthcoming books include the middle grade fantasy, A Wish in the Dark, and All Thirteen, a nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue. 

Jennifer Ziegler is the author of the Brewster Triplet Series for Scholastic — Revenge of the Flower Girls, Revenge of the Angels, Revenge of the Happy Campers, and Revenge of the Teacher’s Pets — as well as the young adult novels How Not to Be Popular, Sass & Serendipity, and Alpha Dog. Her books have been featured on the Lone Star List, the International Reading Association’s Young Adults Choice List, recommended on NPR’s “Tell Me More,” and optioned for film and stage. Visit her at

And the member that inspires us all, Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate and a New York Times bestselling author of books for young readers, including HEARTS UNBROKEN, which won the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award.

Her most recent releases are the middle grade anthology ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS, which received four starred reviews and was named an ALA Notable Children’s Book, and the novel SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA, which received six starred reviews. Both books were named to numerous “best of the year” lists. She looks forward to the spring 2023 release of THE BLUE STARS: THE VICE PRINCIPAL PROBLEM (Book One in THE BLUE STARS SERIES), co-authored by Kekla Magoon and illustrated by Molly Murakami.

Cynthia is also the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books, and serves as the Katherine Paterson Inaugural Endowed Chair on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cynthia is a citizen of the Muscogee Nation and lives in Austin, Texas.

You can find out more about Cynthia on her website. Her books are:

Picture Books

Jingle Dancer (HarperCollins, 2000)

Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006)

Holler Loudly (Dutton, 2010)

Middle Grade

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids (Heartdrum, 2021)

Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002)

Rain is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2011)

Sisters of the Neversea (Heartdrum, 2021)

Young Adult

Tantalize Series:

Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007)

Eternal (Candlewick, 2009)

Blessed (Candlewick, 2011)

Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick, 2011)

Diabolical (Candlewick, 2013)

Eternal: Zachary’s Story (Candlewick, 2013)

Feral Series:

Feral Nights (Candlewick, 2013)

Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014)

Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2015)

Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018)