I’m an author, a reader, a counselor (in a school setting), and a mom. I learn so much by watching (and reading) the books my kids pick up. My two middle boys beeline it to anything with illustrations. Based on what I’m seeing in kidlit circles and school classrooms, they’re not alone. Graphic novels and illustrated novels have huge appeal amongst this generation of readers.
Interestingly, my oldest son was a new reader before this wave of graphic novels really surged. So as a middle grade reader, his book choices were often traditional text. I wondered if there was a way to write a novel with traditional text, but that incorporated a graphic novel thread. My hope was to increase appeal to additional readers.
My character, Blake, arose from this thought. He’s a unique learner, a bright student, talented artist, but a student for whom the traditional classroom environment is sometimes challenging. There are so many types of learners in today’s classrooms. I’m impressed by the skill I see in teachers who find a way to reach a variety of different learning styles. I wanted a forum to weave this skill into my storyline.
Having Blake illustrate his entries brings a new element to the storytelling process. The brilliant illustrator, Gina Perry, was able to convey a range of emotions and themes through her artwork. See below for an example.
The emotions speak volumes. I hope this additional modality of story sharing can reach more readers, and that some readers can use Blake’s storyline as a window (for some) and a mirror (for others).
I’m a huge fan of illustrations and their power on the reader. I sit in awe and wonder, because my pencil doesn’t do that. I’m indebted to the skill, time and heart that illustrator Gina Perry put into her work for this project. It’s . . . Frog-tastic! And she’s pretty Frog-tastic too!
Sarah Scheerger is a school-based counselor in Southern California, helping students figure out who they are, and who they want to be. Her middle grade debut, Operation Frog Effect (Penguin Random House) releases in February but is available for pre-order now. Keep an eye out for her new picture book, “Mitzvah Pizza” (Kar-Ben) which launches in April. In addition to MG and PB’s, Sarah also writes YA. To learn more, visit www.sarahlynnbooks.com.
Jarrett: A wise (and funny) person once said that “humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” And so, today, on the book birthday of my new and hopefully humorous novel, Revenge of the EngiNerds, I thought it might be fun to ignore this sage advice and do some dissecting. Thank you, Kathie and Corrina, for bravely taking part in this ill-advised endeavor!
Kathie: I appreciate the opportunity to be part of the conversation, however ill-advised it may be!
Corrina: Oh my — LOL! A pleasure to be here!
Jarrett: Humor has always been important to me. In a way, it’s what got me hooked on books and reading in the first place. I still remember every book that my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Lombard, read aloud to our class — novels like The BFG and There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom — and some of my most vivid memories are of listening to him read aloud. Mr. Lombard chose a wide variety of books as read alouds, but all the books contained humor to some extent. And when he came to a humorous part, Mr. Lombard would laugh… and laugh and laugh and laugh. And he had one of those infectious sorts of laughs, and so sooner or later, the whole class was laughing along with him. For me, such experiences drove home just how joyful books could be, and also how reading could be a total blast, and how it could bring people together.
I’m curious: what are your relationships with books that might labeled humorous — as kids, as adults, as a librarian and a teacher?
Kathie: I don’t remember reading a lot of humorous books as a kid. I missed many of the classics by authors like Roald Dahl when I was growing up, and so I didn’t come to humorous books until I was an adult. I had a preconceived notion that funny books equaled potty humor, slapstick comedy, or miserable adults making life hard for children, and had little depth (yeah, I know it’s harsh and unjustified, but it’s what I thought). I just didn’t think funny books were “my thing”, but I challenged myself to read 10 of them last year to see if those stereotypes held up. Boy, was I wrong! There are some absolutely wonderful humorous books out there for young readers, full of depth and tackling real topics and issues in less serious ways. Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe was the first book that convinced me that yes, I actually had a funny bone, I just need to find the kind of books that tickled it.
I ALWAYS use funny books at preschool storytime, because I have no fear of being silly, and it helps to bring little ones of their shells.
Corrina: The humor reading that I did as a young child was mostly comic strips. I had all the Calvin & Hobbes collections, and when I visited my uncle’s house, I’d often snag all his Garfield and Far Side books and curl up in a corner reading while the adults talked (and talked…).
I never sought out what I considered “silly” books, but loved books like Superfudge that had a lot of heart and humor wrapped up in a realistic story. As a teacher, I love sharing a read aloud that will get my students (and myself!) laughing! We’ve read selections from Funny Girl, Fenway & Hattie, and picture books like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.
Jarrett: As a book-creator and someone who works with kids, I also find that humor can be such a powerful tool both for getting kids reading and then keeping them reading.
Kathie: Books such as Captain Underpants or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series are HUGELY popular in my library (and I can’t remember the last time I saw our copy of EngiNerds on the shelf because it’s constantly being checked out!). They are the most reread titles, and kids keep coming back to them over and over. Sometimes it’s the only books certain kids will pick up, and I tell parents to let them keep reading them. I also find humorous books are wonderful for dominant or developing readers, because they’re playful and don’t feel like as much “work” to read as some other book for kids who don’t yet love to read.
Corrina: Absolutely! Books with a lot of humor, especially graphic novels and those with a lot of illustrations like Dog Man or Frazzled are HUGE hits with my 5th graders. And I’ve found that kids will often read a funny book in between longer, more serious books as a “palate cleanser.” And for kids who are going through a tough time, humorous titles can offer a mental break.
Jarrett: Yes! Though at the same time, humor can be so much more than a momentary laugh. Humor is, I think, a lens — a whole way of looking at the world. And it’s the authors who have that humorous lens who I tend to gravitate toward, whose work I fall in love with. And this doesn’t mean their stories are lighthearted — far from it. I find that some of the funniest books are often the darkest and most severe. Geoff Rodkey’s upcoming We’re Not From Here is a great example. It’s premise — that Earth gets blown up and the majority of humans move to Mars, where they live (barely) on borrowed time as they search for a new permanent location elsewhere in the galaxy — is perhaps as dark and dire as it gets. But it’s hilarious.
Kathie: Sometimes, those serious topics need to be viewed through the lens of humor so that they’re not so intense, and can be more easily processed. Humor also injects hope into dark subjects. You address some serious topics in Revenge of the EngiNerds, such as feeling different from others and like you don’t belong, but the way in which you do so doesn’t feel judgmental or preachy, partly due to the tone.
Jarrett: Exactly! Humor is the HOPE tucked into darker, or even just more serious, subjects. In the EngiNerds books, I tackle some “bigger” issues surrounding friendship. If you care for someone, do their problems become your own? What do you do when a friend is set on doing something wrong? How do you navigate a disagreement that splits a group of friends? Can two people grow up without also growing apart?
I think these are all important, productive questions for kids to consider, both within the space of a book, regarding fictional characters, and also in their own lives. But there are kids out there who wouldn’t be game for such consideration and reflection without there being a hefty dose of humor involved. Though don’t get me wrong — I definitely don’t think of humor as the sugar that makes the medicine go down, or anything like that. I mostly write humor for humor’s sake, because I love it, and believe in it. Really, humor is the only way that I, as a writer, can approach bigger, tougher topics myself.
Corrina: We’re Not From Here is incredible! And some of the most loved books in my class are a mix of dark and light – like Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, Restart, Ghost, or Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus.
Jarrett: I think the darkest situations actually contain the most comedic potential. Lots of creators know this, and use it to their advantage. Humor is the great leveler — it can quickly and effectively create common ground, and can reduce the distance we feel between ourselves and others. Think about it. Have you ever been in public, and something funny happens, and you share a laugh with a stranger? It creates a connection. A bond, however fleeting. After that shared laugh, you’re far more likely to strike up a conversation with them. You’re closer to them. Humor is disarming, both in real life and in books. It makes us — as people, as readers — open ourselves up a bit wider, feel comfortable being a little more vulnerable than before. If they’re smart, an author will hit you with something decidedly unhumorous after going for a laugh. You’ll feel it that much more. Jerry Spinelli is a master at this, and more recently, Dusti Bowling — and Corrina, I’m sure your students who are fans of Cactus will agree with that! Her books can be as hilarious as they are heartbreaking, and I think they’re heartbreaking in large part because she is so deft with her use of humor.
On another level, I think that searching for the humor (or lightness) among the darkness is a profoundly hopeful, important act — whether you do it as an author or just as a person in your everyday life.
And that, I think, is a pretty good note to close on. Thank you again, Kathie and Corrina, for joining me to talk about all this. I can’t think of a better way to spend my book birthday!
. . .
Jarrett, Kathie, and Corrina are administrators of the MG Book Village. You can learn more about them here.
One of the trickiest challenges writers face when beginning a new project is figuring out the main character’s voice. Will the narrative be told in first person or third? Past or present? How will the narrative sound? What will the tone be?
One technique writers can use is giving their narrator an audience: thinking through who their narrator is “talking to” and how that audience can shape the narrative in interesting ways. Veera Hiranandani uses this technique beautifully in her Newbery Honor winning novel The Night Diary, our February Middle Grade at Heart pick.
In The Night Diary, which is set in 1947, twelve-year-old Nisha, who is half-Hindu and half-Muslim, tells the story of what happens to her and her family after India splits in two, so that Hindus have to live in India and Muslims have to live in what has become Pakistan. Each night, Nisha writes in her diary, addressing each entry to her mother, who died giving birth to her and her twin brother. The choice to frame Nisha’s story as nightly diary-letters to her mother is effective for many reasons, and we’ll look at a few of those reasons here.
1.) The narrative structure leads to a very intimate tone that draws readers right in. Take a look at this passage in which Nisha directly addresses her mother:
But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you, and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.
Consider the vulnerability and urgency in this passage. It’s impossible not to love and understand Nisha because we get invited so deeply into her heart and mind. This intimate tone would be very difficult to achieve if Nisha’s mother were not her imagined audience. All of Nisha’s complicated, tender feelings toward her mother imbue the storytelling with such beautiful emotion.
2.) The narrative structure fits Nisha’s character and the novel’s themes. Nisha has a very hard time talking to most people. Her struggles with speaking up are an important element of her story. That means that the narrative structure doesn’t feel at all like a gimmick; it enhances the story’s plot and emotional arc, and it feels right. The fact that Nisha can be so articulate in her diary-letters makes it all the more devastating when she is unable to form the sentences she wants to say in the scenes she describes. We learn a lot about Nisha and what she needs when we see how relieved she is when she is able to write about her often traumatic experiences every night; we see how desperately she needs a certain type of connection and we long for her to get it.
3.) The diary format highlights the timeline of the book. Because Nisha is writing in dated entries, we see just how quickly huge changes are happening. Veera Hiranandani is also able to emphasize how traumatized Nisha is (but in a gentle way that is very appropriate for middle-grade readers) by showing that sometimes days pass and Nisha is unable to write because she needs time to begin to recover from horrific events.
We’d love to know what else you notice about the impact of this narrative structure as you read The Night Diary, and we’d love to know about any other books you love that use a diary or letter format effectively! Our newsletter about The Night Diary will go out on February 25th, so be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already, and our Twitter chat about the book will be on Tuesday, March 5th at 8pm EST. We hope you can join us.
Josh: I’m so excited about this—for so many reasons, including the reality that this is a conversation the three of us are always having, in one way or another: Why and how three people from such different professional backgrounds now find themselves on this journey together. There’s so much I want to know and share about why and how Rajani and Chris find themselves here. But we should probably begin with the most important thing: Our books. Rajani, wanna start us off?
Rajani: MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM (out June 4, 2019) is a middle grade mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking shows in which eleven-year-old Mimi dreams of winning a celebrity chef-judged baking contest, meets a mysterious boy in the woods, and stirs up all sorts of trouble with her baking. Squabbling sisters, rhyming waitresses, and culinary saboteurs all play a role in the story. In the process of setting things right again, Mimi learns that in life as in baking, not everything can be sweet.
Chris, what about your upcoming novel? Can you tell us what it’s about?
Chris: Sure, my novel in verse, ALL OF ME (out June 11, 2019), is about middle schooler Ari Rosensweig who just wants to look in the mirror and not see a fat kid. Teased, bullied, and an outsider for most of his life, Ari is a geek who loves cryptozoology and role-playing games. He navigates the confusing worlds of his mother, a self-absorbed artist, and his father, a con man who disappears just as Ari prepares for his already-late Bar Mitzvah.
After a brutal bullying incident before summer break, Ari decides he’s had enough. He’s got to lose the weight before high school starts. With the family in turmoil, Ari’s mother moves the two of them out of San Francisco to fix up and open an old gallery at the beach. With the help of a few unexpected friends, Ari starts his quest to reinvent himself no matter what it takes, and when he begins the perfect Diet Revolution, everything changes.
Josh: Awesome. And as you both know, SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY (out March 5, 2019), is a middle grade sci-fi novel about a “public school spaceship” in the future that gets mysteriously attacked and catapulted across the galaxy. Aliens. Lasers. Spacey shenanigans. (The #MGBookVillage was kind enough to run my cover reveal here.)
Now to the conversation at hand: Why do we write middle grade? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts, Chris, given how personal your story seems: How did you come to middle grade? And how did you come to this story? Then what about you, Rajani? How “close to home” does your story hit?
Chris: Josh…it is really personal, and I think that is part of why I care so much about writing middle grade. Stories have always been a source of shelter and inspiration for me. I think I have been writing about this story since I started writing at all. Growing up for me was a combination of 1) a fairy-tale childhood growing up in an artist’s family in New York City and all kinds of other places, and 2) struggling with difficult family dynamics and the identity of being a Jewish kid, an overweight kid, constant diets, negative comments and teasing from family and friends. Honestly—I thought I was really happy—but people kept telling me I wasn’t.
For ALL OF ME, I needed to tell the story of a kid, Ari, who is told that it is wrong to be who he is—that it’s all his fault somehow—and how he works through that in a difficult but positive way. I think so many middle grade kids relate and even connect to feeling like an outsider because of their weight or their religion, their family dynamics, you name it. There are so many rites of passage happening at this age, and I wanted to tell an honest story about how childhood magic, innocence, identity, family challenges, and religion all mix together and what comes out the other side.
One last thing about how I came to this story: My own family. Seeing my own children grow up—their daily wonders, joys, triumphs and tragedies—they really do inspire.
Rajani: The spark for MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM came from one of my own childhood memories. My dad didn’t travel much for work, but when he did, he sometimes went away for a week or two. When he returned, I’d sometimes wonder what it would be like if the person who returned wasn’t really him, but an imposter who looked and spoke exactly like him (creepy, right?). I devised some “tests” to make sure it was my dad, and luckily, it always was. When I was brainstorming novel ideas, I wondered what it would be like if a girl noticed something odd about her dad…and she was right.
My husband had an imaginary friend when he was little. He spoke to him, played with him, read stories with him—everything. I started wondering about imaginary friends, and what might happen if someone “imaginary” turned out to be quite real. Given my love for Shakespeare in general and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, the next step wasn’t that big.
And, like Chris, so much of this story was inspired by my own children, about being a young person in a world filled with “experts” (some of whom are related to you), of dreaming big dreams but not knowing whether you have the talent or the brains or the grit to make it. And my children, like Mimi, have sometimes surprised themselves with their own brilliance, and with their big hearts and hours of work and refusal to give up even when all seems lost. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM speaks to kids (and adults) who have set lofty goals for themselves and wonder whether they can ever achieve them. Because the payoff is sweeter when the struggle has been hard.
Josh: First, you are both amazing. You know I think that already (we’re friends IRL, after all). But I can’t say it enough.
In a sense, mine is a lot less personal than either of your stories. I don’t conceive of SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY as much of a reflection of my own life. If I had any guiding light in writing it, it was: Make this fun. Make this the kind of thing you would have wanted to read when you were younger (and still do).
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t “personal.” I wrote a book that middle school Josh would have wanted to read. He knew well that feeling of being a lonely kid, huddled up with a story that took me far away. I found escape in all sorts of fantasy/sci-fi as a kid. I consumed every Star Wars novel they gave me and loved every page. And I’m overjoyed at the possibility that SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY might bring a few kids some of the same comfort and enjoyment.
Frankly, this whole endeavor is a bit of an escape for me. Like you, I have a professional life that is separate from publishing. There are links between my “writing life” and my “lawyer life,” sure, but they’re not always obvious. And I’d love to know more about the connections in your lives. How is your “doctor life” (Rajani) and your “professor life” (Chris) threaded into your writing life?
Put aside the years of training, the long hours, the many frustrations, and the need for support in both professions (although honestly, writing involves MUCH more rejection). Ultimately, both writing and the practice of medicine are about people— wonderful, horrible, pathetic, amazing people in all their imperfect glory. Both medicine and writing involve listening to others’ stories, and writing our own. For me, medicine and writing inform and amplify each other. And when one gets to be too much, I get to delve into the other, and it feels like a treat.
Chris: I have the privilege of working at San Diego City College, an urban, extremely diverse, Community College where I teach Creative Writing and direct the writing center. There are many connections between my job and my writing life—especially writing and publishing poetry. In many ways, it was my students who got me to the point of writing ALL OF ME. Every semester, I find my mostly working class students, veterans, transfer-minded students really drawn into narratives that connected and related to their lives, providing escape, but also giving new language to the more difficult aspects of life. Students always tell me they wished they had read books in High School and MIddle School that dealt with more serious issues head on. Every chance I get I try to connect them with books, graphic novels, poems, any story that might speak to them. Working with my students over the years has given me the courage to explore deeper issues in my own work. Not long ago, wrote what I considered to be a “risky” poem called “Heavy Water,” about an overweight boy feeling awkward and alone at the beach while other kids seemed so carefree. I got asked to read it a spoken word event. It was after the reading, when so many of them shared with me that they wanted to hear a story about a character dealing with these issues, that I had one of the first sparks for ALL OF ME!
So Josh, to be fair, and no complaints, and the work is hard. There is a lot of grading, committees, and the introvert in me struggles sometimes, but my job gives a lot of flexibility and room for creativity. But what about your profession as a lawyer? We have talked about the fact that you do A LOT of writing, but what connections do you make between your legal writing and your creative writing? And if nothing else, how do you find the time?
Josh: Great questions, Chris. I’ll work backwards: First, time. I tend to assume that all of us “day job” writers (as well as all writers, generally) are playing a zero sum game. It’s not that “something’s gotta give.” It’s that at any given moment, something is always giving. Priorities compete with one another. What helps me keep perspective are the positive implications for which I’m so grateful: That I have a good job. That I have a wonderful family. That I’m publishing a novel!
And yeah, while my legal writing and my creative writing efforts are very different, I’m also grateful that I get to spend so much of my time doing something I really, genuinely enjoy, no matter the context: Writing. Working out puzzles of language and argumentation. “Is that the right word?” “Does an em-dash belong here?” “Does this aside serve the narrative?” These are questions I get to ask myself in both worlds.
And you, Rajani? HOW DO YOU DO IT?! How do you balance the demands of your job and the pull of writing—and everything required to facilitate the success of both?
Rajani: Well, I could ask you both the same, right?
I think the real answer is…we all make choices every day about how we want to spend our time, and our priorities show through. For me, family comes first, but my children are older now and although they don’t need me less, they need less of my time, if that makes sense. They’ve got their own goals and projects, and they spend most of their time working on those. But I still treasure our meals together, and spend time planning trips or taking walks with them and just soaking up their presence. I also get more time alone with my husband, who is my biggest support in every part of my life. I also happen to love taking care of my patients, and even on the worst day at work, I feel like I have at least helped a few people.
But with writing…it’s not really a choice anymore for me. Characters and situations keep popping up in my head, and their voices can be really annoying if I don’t write them down! I can definitely get out of rhythm if I don’t work on a particular project (particularly a novel) for a while, but once I go through the exercise of “making” myself work on it, a little bit each day, I eventually get back in the groove.
All of this to say: How do I do it all? I don’t. I struggle and muddle through everything, just like everyone else. I show up and put in the work and try to enjoy the good times, and put my head down and deal with the difficult times. And through it all, I try to hold on to the incredible fact that in the end, I am writing things that will be read and enjoyed by children. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?
Kathie: I’d love to know how ARCs (advanced reader copies) work. Do you have a set number given to you for free? Are you able to make many changes between the ARC and finished copy?
Jarrett: Every publisher does things a little bit differently, but it seems there’s one thing that’s consistent across the industry — authors never get as many ARCs as they want! For both of my books so far, I’ve gotten just a couple, and then requested more and gotten a few more, and then begged for more and gotten a few more… Regarding changes — it depends, again, on the publisher, and on the timing of things for each individual process. For Revenge of the EngiNerds, I got my ARCs along with my final proofs, which I had a chance to make very minor changes to (basically just typos and inconsistencies). I think that timing is fairly typical, and is why ARCs always come with that “do not quote” warning on them.
How do you normally go about getting ARCs?
Kathie: I will occasionally ask an author for an ARC, and sometimes they reach out to me as well. I also belong to a Canadian ARC sharing group, #bookportage, so I get some that way. I use both NetGalley and Edelweiss+, which are sites that provide e-copies of ARCs to members (usually book reviewers, bloggers, librarians, booksellers). You can request the ARC in which you’re interested, wait for publisher approval, then download a copy onto a device. The advantage is there’s no cost, and with NetGalley, the more you read and review, the more you build your profile and it’s easier to get publisher approval. Some publishers will even auto-approve, which means you can automatically download their books. The disadvantage is the book selection is limited, and the formatting of eARCs can make them very difficult to read. I will read an eARC if I’m really anxious to get my hands on a book, but I do find they can affect my enjoyment of the book. An author may think there is limited interest in their book based on the eARC response, but it’s not a good indicator as I’m definitely not the only reviewer I know who feels this way. I still get declined for books on both sites, so it’s not a guarantee that a request will lead to an approval.
Jarrett: I’m glad you’re sharing all this, because I think it’s something that a lot of authors don’t know about it. I knew next to nothing about such sites when my first book came out, and I wish I had, as I could’ve pointed people requesting ARCs there. And I’ve seen some photos of improperly formatted eARCs — they can be really messy! Physical ARCs can have such problems too. For Revenge of the EngiNerds, I went through each of my ARCs and penned in edits. I know that might’ve taken readers out of the story a bit, but I couldn’t send those books out with errors in them.
On social media, I often talk about ARCs as “sneak peeks.” They’re sort of like attending a rehearsal before the big show. I know flawed formatting can affect your enjoyment of a book, but I wonder, do you generally approach reading an ARC differently? Does it feel different than cracking open an officially published hardcover? If so, how does that seep into your reading of it?
Kathie: Interesting questions! Yes, I would say that reading an ARC feels different. For instance, I read an ARC of The Land of Yesterday by K.A. Reynolds last year, and really enjoyed it, but the final copy had artwork and a beautiful dark blue font that wasn’t in the ARC. The finished copy of The Frame-Up by Wendy McLeod MacKnight has the gorgeous artwork photos at the front of the book, which adds SO much to the story when you can see these paintings that are coming to life. Little errors don’t bother me too much. If I have a choice, I’d prefer to read a hardcover over a paperback, so maybe that plays a role as well. So yes, the fact that ARCs are not a finished product is in my mind when I read them.
I frequently see authors asking for reviews of their books. Is there a place that’s best to leave reviews?
Jarrett: Anywhere other readers might see a review is a good place to leave one — Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Amazon and Goodreads are great because they’re up there permanently, for anyone to see. But someone will only usually find those reviews if they already know about the book and are on the book’s page looking for information about it.
Social media is more effective, I think, for introducing new readers to a book. I don’t think any one platform is better than the others — it depends on a person’s audience. I’m not super active on Facebook, for instance (though I’m trying to be better!), so if I were to write about a book on there, it probably wouldn’t get much traction. Sharing it on Twitter and Instagram will get more eyeballs on it. That being said, I almost always cross-post my reviews on ALL of these sites/platforms.
Where do you, as a librarian and a reader, learn about new books? Where do you go to learn more about books that you’ve already got on your radar? Do you like to know a lot about a book before you start reading? What about its author?
Kathie: I get many of my ideas for books to read from social media as well. I spend a lot of time researching what people are reading, checking out reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, and I have a document at work with release dates for new books in a series, or books that I know my patrons want. I will almost always check the ratings on Goodreads before I purchase a book, but recommendations from readers I trust can easily convince me to try something regardless of the reviews. I also have some authors whose books I’ll pick up regardless of what it’s about (such as Jonathan Auxier), but it’s important to me to support debut and Canadian middle grade authors, too.
OK, now can you please explain the magical 50 Amazon reviews thing to me?
Jarrett: Ha! Supposedly, once you have 50 reviews on Amazon, your book is assigned some better algorithm that gets it in front of more people. But I don’t really know if that’s true. I think a lot of authors embrace it and push for it because it’s a tangible goal, and easier to energize people to leave reviews with that goal in sight.
Kathie: Incidentally, I somehow got banned from writing Amazon reviews, so reviewers need to make sure they are following the review policies. Until I can straighten that out, the only place I’m posting them right now is Goodreads.
Jarrett: You shared this with me a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe it! Whoever (or whatever) is doing the banning over there at Amazon needs to get better at their job! The fact that YOU — an incredibly knowledgeable and thoughtful reader and reviewer — can’t share your thoughts but someone saying “This book looks stupid — 1 star” can is ABSURD!
But… I have to admit that it is sort of delightful thinking about YOU getting banned from something, Kathie! I like imagining you sipping from that mug of yours with the Michael Moore quote about librarians being subversive, quietly plotting the revolution. Maybe the robots over at Amazon are just on to you!
Kathie: Ha, ha, my secret controversial and revolutionary double life, so secret even I don’t know about it!
I often hear authors say that it’s uncomfortable to promote their own books, and they limit how often they talk about it. As a reader, I expect to hear an author discussing their work, and I probably follow them so I do hear about it. I know social media can feel like a big time commitment, but do you feel like your books have made more connections because of the investment you make in connecting with others?
Jarrett: Social media has been HUGE for me. It has opened doors that I wouldn’t have otherwise even known had existed! And in addition to being responsible for getting my books in front of more people and keeping me in the loop about upcoming opportunities and things like that, it has enriched my life in many other ways. I’ve made wonderful friends. I’ve found fantastic creators and their fantastic creations. It’s brought me all sorts of joy and inspiration.
I think all of this has to do with my not viewing my time on social media as “promotional,” as something I HAVE to do. Because, yeah — I’m uncomfortable promoting myself as well. I think the key is to be genuine, and to share your excitement about whatever you’re excited about. I talk about other people’s work a lot because I am sincerely excited about it. And I talk about my daughter because I am excited about her, too. When I share all these sides of myself, I think it’s more comfortable for me to ALSO share about my work. But the truth is that that’s only one part of me. I read as much as I draw and write. And some days, I sing silly songs with my daughter more than I do ANY of that.
I’ve heard some authors toss around ratios — like, post three times about someone else’s work for every time you post about your own. And if you need to view it like that in order to make sense of it, that’s obviously fine. But my best advice would be to just be yourself, and share ALL the sides of yourself that you are comfortable sharing. I really think you can sense authenticity. And if you want to view it in terms of promotion, every post or tweet you put out there into the world, whether it’s explicitly about your work or not, has your name on it, and is, in a way, promotional.
How has connecting with authors been for you on social media? What do you respond positively to? Is there one form or another of self-promotion that seems better than another?
Kathie: I love every part of connecting with authors on social media! I genuinely want to help get good books into the hands of other readers, and so I’m happy to spend time promoting authors and books. I recently asked the question on Twitter if authors wanted reviewers to approach them to request ARCs, and the response was a resounding yes. I think both reviewers and authors are nervous about approaching each other because of the imposter syndrome where we don’t feel “qualified” or “good enough” to reach out and ask for something, but both parties benefit from these interactions. I love hearing about the inspiration for a book, the process involved, and yes, I actually love hearing about kids and everyday life because it makes the author feel more approachable. I’d say don’t be afraid to share whatever you’re comfortable, but it doesn’t all have to be book-related. I’ve connected most with the authors who’ve shared their lives beyond their writing.
Wow, we covered a lot of ground in this post! I hope both readers and authors learn something from it, and it helps break down some of the barriers between them.
Jarrett: Agreed! Let’s do it again soon!
. . .
Click here to read Kathie and Jarrett’s first conversation, “What Happens When You Don’t Enjoy A Book”
1. When I wrote my first novel, Annie’s Life in Lists, I had no idea if anyone would ever read it besides my family. (I didn’t have an agent yet, and certainly not a publisher. I hadn’t even met most of my current writing group members.)
But by the time I wrote my second novel, The 47 People You’ll Meet in Middle School, I had a two-book deal and a squad of incredible early readers: an editor, an agent, and four priceless critique partners!
This was very exciting. (Yay! This time I know I’ll get feedback from brilliant real-life publishing whizzes!) It was also somewhat terrifying. (Yipes. Brilliant real-life publishing whizzes are definitely going to be reading this manuscript. They will surely ask for more edits than my husband does.)
2. My first novel was written entirely as a series of lists. Writing lists was challenging but fun, and as you can see, it’s a format I got used to. In fact, I even started writing many of my emails in list form, and so did my critique partners. The Kristin Listin, we call it.
With the second novel, I was somewhat relieved to discover that I can still write in regular prose (although the book is sort of like a long list since each chapter introduces a new character).
3. The main character in the first book, Annie, is a lot like me when I was in fifth grade. She’s usually quiet and respectful of her elders, and she remembers all kinds of tiny details about people that she keeps to herself.
Gus, the main character in my second book, is definitely a bit bolder. (She yells at her parents! She gambles! She steals her teacher’s breath-freshening spray!)
I loved writing both of them, but I may have had a little more fun being inside Gus’s head, just because her relative insouciance is something I’ve often aspired to. (Something else I’ve aspired to: casually using words like “insouciance.” Check!)
4. With Annie’s Life in Lists, I usually “pantsed” it (i.e., flew by the seat of my pants and worked with a good idea and a pile of notes but no real outline).
For The 47 People You’ll Meet in Middle School….I pantsed it again. Some things don’t change. Apparently I’m just a pantser.
5. On a good day, pantsing is exciting, and writing feels almost like reading a great book as the adventure unfolds. (“Ha! That brother is hilarious!” or “Oh no; I can’t believe her mom said that!”)
On a bad day, pantsing it is not so fun. My thoughts on those days are more like “Ugh, why can’t this author make up her mind about the next plot point?” and “Oh wait; the author is me.” Those are the days I think often of the Dorothy Parker quote “I hate writing, I love having written.”
6. After the launch party for Annie’s Life in Lists, I saw Amy Sedaris in the bookstore. (This was a coincidence; she wasn’t there for my launch. But still, exciting. Even though my brother wouldn’t let me say hello to her. Or tell her that I’m a fellow North Carolinian. Or give her a copy of my book to pass along to her brother.)
I just felt like mentioning this; it really has nothing to do with writing my second book. Or does it? Now that I know anything is possible, maybe I’ll see a famous native of my current home state at my next book event. Paging Mr. Springsteen.
7. Every step of the process was a marvel to me both times. I couldn’t wait to see the covers, and I love them both. Annie was depicted beautifully by Rebecca Crane and Gus’s world is wonderfully captured by Hyesu Lee. I remain in awe of editors, illustrators, copy editors, and designers.
8. Hands down, my favorite thing about having Annie’s Life in Lists published has been hearing from readers. There’s nothing better than hearing that your book was the first novel a 9-year-old was able to get through, or that a fourth-grade book club is clamoring for a sequel. Those are definitely the comments that have me walking on air for the rest of the day. (And I get a giggle from readers’ probing questions like “Can I see the pencil-lead mark you got on your hand in third grade?”)
The jury is still out on Book Two, but I can’t wait to hear from readers once it’s published in August! Early buzz from the middle-graders in my house includes “This book was great, Mom!”, “Why aren’t there any characters named after me?” and “Do we have any good snacks?”
1. Grew up in North Carolina, where she always knew she wanted to be a writer
2. Now lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and a goofy dog
3. Can be found online at http://www.kristinmahoneybooks.com, @KMcMahoney on Twitter, and @kristinmahoneybooks on Instagram
It’s time for another edition of STEM Tuesday Spin- Off! In this relatively new addition to the MG Book Village, members of STEM Tuesday (blogging for From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors) examine everyday items in a middle-grader reader’s life from the perspective of science, technology, engineering & math.
Picture a wheel. The common, everyday item will be the “hub” or main idea of the post and the “spin-offs” will be the STEM spokes in our wheel of discovery. We’ll peek behind the curtain and search underneath the hood for STEM connections, and suggest books and/or links to help build an understanding of the world around us. According to STEM Tuesday contributor Heather L. Montgomery, we’ll “Go deep!” on a common subject and take a look at its inherent STEM components.
This month author Patricia Newman takes a closer look at snack foods, particularly POTATO CHIPS. Who doesn’t love potato chips, right? Their crispy, saltiness opens a Pandora’s box of STEM concepts.
Hub: Potato Chips
Spoke 1: Where Food Comes From
Do potato chips really start with potatoes? What are those other ingredients on the label? This spin-off gets kids thinking about where food comes from (before it arrives in the grocery store, that is). Everything we eat has its own story. Where are our apples grown? Did the salmon on our plates ever swim in the ocean? What pesticides are on our veggies? Let’s Eat: Sustainable Food for a Hungry Planet by Kimberley Veness uncovers the secret lives of our food (think the science of agriculture).
Establishing a small garden is another great way to reinforce the science between food and the environment. Start with The Nitty Gritty Gardening Book. This title also introduces the idea of composting (think decomposition) to reduce the impact of food waste on the environment.
Spoke 2: Palm Oil
Virtually all snack foods are made with oil. Palm oil is the most popular variety in the world. But palm oil plantations destroy rain forest habitat, which endangers its inhabitants such as orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos. Who knew eating a single potato chip could ripple all the way to the rain forests of Asia (think food chains and human impacts on the environment)?
In the “Treetop Teachers” chapter of Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, I follow Dr. Meredith Bastian from Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. Meredith studies how habitat loss affects orangutans. Her stories, both fascinating and tragic, make us wonder if we really need that potato chip after all.
Mission Tiger Rescue by Kitson Jazynka brings readers up close and personal to tigers–their habits, the challenges they face, and how we can help them.
Spoke 3: Cooking
Eating too many snack foods can lead to childhood obesity. But why is snack food more fattening? What is a healthy diet (think human biology)? And by golly, how can I make vegetables taste as good as potato chips?
Cooking is an excellent STEM activity (think chemistry and math) to make healthy food more exciting. For ideas, consider the global focus of Food Atlas: Discover All the Delicious Foods of the World by Giulia Malerba and Febe Sillani. Or perhaps you want to jump to the kitchen with simple home cooking. Kid Chef by Melina Hammer includes many healthy eating suggestions that kids can prepare themselves.
Another way to emphasize healthy eating is to uncover the dirty secrets the fast food industry uses to reel us in. Eat This! How Fast Food Marketing Gets You to Buy Junk by Andrea Curtis and Peggy Collins approaches STEM from a different perspective—the science of persuasion.
Spoke 4: Trash
Once our chips are gone, we throw away the bag. But where is “away?” Garbage: Follow the Path of Your Trash with Environmental Science Activities for Kids by Donna Latham and Tom Casteel does a great job answering this question (think processes and engineering solutions).
Your chip bag is most likely made of plastic. In many cities, including my hometown of Sacramento, only rigid plastic containers may be recycled. Soft plastics such as chip bags goes to the landfill (if they don’t blow out of the trash truck and onto the side of the road first). But what happens during recycling anyway? And why can’t ALL plastics be recycled (think different kinds of plastics and upcycling vs. downcycling)?
Spoke 5: Marine Debris
You might wonder why I didn’t include marine debris in the Trash spoke. I want to emphasize that all pollution is ocean pollution. What gets tossed out on land (especially if it’s not in the proper waste can) makes its way to the ocean via our watershed.
Read these two books to understand the way ocean currents work to transport trash and how bad ocean plastic really is.
Spoke 6: Activism
The previous spokes also lead to this last spin-off—the idea that reading about STEM topics can inspire us to change our behavior. After all, what’s the point of all this learning if we don’t reach our potential? Challenge kids to try the following:
Audit your trash either at home or in the classroom. Brainstorm ways to reduce your single-use plastic consumption.
Find out what kinds of plastic your community recycles. What’s left out? Are there any alternatives where you live? Check this website for recycling some soft plastics (but unfortunately NOT chip bags).
Create a piece of art with waste plastic to raise awareness of our single-use plastic epidemic. Check out Washed Ashore for some amazing ideas.
STEM is synonymous with inquiry and kids are natural question factories. Questions lead to discovery and discovery leads to learning. Challenge the kids in your life to ask questions and find connections. I’ll wager those connections will lead to science, technology, engineering, or math—and learning that engages as it empowers.
Other stuff you might want to know about Patricia: Her award-winning books show kids how their actions can ripple around the world. She is the author of Robert F. Sibert Honor Book Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem; as well asNSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation; Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book; Green Earth Book Award winner Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; and Neema’s Reason to Smile, winner of a Parents’ Choice Award. Newman hopes to empower kids to think about the adults they’d like to become.