Cynthia Leitich Smith: “This Book is For You”

Guest Post by Austin Author Cynthia Leitich Smith

This is the second week in a series of author guest posts about diversity in children’s literature and the BookPeople Modern First Library initiative. For more about BookPeople’s Modern First Library initiative, and for more recommendations of wonderful new and classic picture books to read, visit 

Previous posts in this series:
Chris Barton: A Modern First Library List
Chris Barton: Loved, valued, unique? Yes. Center of the universe?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Books as mirrors


I’m a proud Austinite and devoted BookPeople customer. I have only one negative memory of the store.

This is what happened: I was in the children’s section spying on a boy shopping with his mother.

(Yes, spying. I’m a children’s book author. Trade secret: We spy on kids all the time.)

The boy was about five years old, and he’d picked up a picture book biography about a famous writer. He was hugging it. This pleased the writer in me.

His mother asked to see the book her son had picked out, and he proudly showed it to her.

Then she said the worst possible thing: “That book is not for you.”

She took it away from him and put it back on the shelf and, instead, picked out a book that had a face on the cover that looked more like theirs, by which I mean a face that suggested their racial background.

I can’t say for sure. Maybe she didn’t want her son to grow up to be a writer. I’ll grant, for all its blessings, it’s not always an easy life. Rejection is frequent…money, uncertain…critics, fickle at times.

Who am I kidding?

“That book is not for you.”

How does that translate in a young mind? Does it also suggest, “This friend is not for you.”?

Actions speak even louder. What books do we choose? Which ones do we leave on the shelves?

When we imagine the books our children will hug, what do the covers look like? The heroes?

What do heroes look like?

A better approach: “This book is for you. And this one and this one and this one.”


Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Feral series, which includes Feral Nights and Feral Curse, as well as the Tantalize series, which includes TantalizeEternal,BlessedDiabolical. Two graphic novels, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story and Eternal: Zachary’s Story, both illustrated by Ming Doyle, complete the Tantalize series.

These adventure-fantasies are originally published by Candlewick Press in the U.S., Walker Books in the U.K. and Australia/New Zealand, and additional publishers around the globe. Her series are often noted for their diverse protagonists, humor, social conscious and compelling action.

Cynthia is also the author of several children’s books, including Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu; Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Indian Shoes, illustrated by Jim Madsen; all originally published by HarperCollins.

8 thoughts on “Cynthia Leitich Smith: “This Book is For You”

  1. As a public librarian, I saw that scene played out over and over, and it’s heart-breaking. And then we wonder where kids get their negative attitudes toward people who don’t “match” them. And you see it not only with race, but with gender and age level (As in “That book is too easy for you.”)

    But then there are scenes that restore faith. Here’s one: when my nephew was three he had his first school library experience at his preschool. As his teacher was turning him over to his mother at the end of the day, she said: “We had library day today, and the book Jack chose may surprise you. But it’s the one he wanted.”

    When my sister read it to him that night, she was indeed surprised. It was a quiet, introspective story set in Canada about a Native boy taking an overnight camping trip in late Fall with his father (Last Leaf, First Snowflake to Fall, if you know it). It was about as far away from the day to day experience of this squirmy Florida city boy as you could get. But he sat and listened to the whole story.

    “Why did you choose this book?” my sister asked him when she finished reading it to him.

    “Because it was the tallest one,” he replied. To this three year old, that’s what mattered most. And that led him to check out one of the best picture books in the library.

  2. youngjuny, I hope so, too!
    Smorgasbord, I strongly agree!
    KT, thank you for sharing! I love that story! I’m not familiar with the book, but I’ll look it up. And I’ll keep kids like your nephew in my mind and heart as I’m writing.

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