National Sister’s Day: Celebrate the Holiday with Sisters/Co-Authors Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski

HEIDI: Happy National Sisters Day! In honor of this made-up but still absolutely valid holiday, Kati and I thought we’d chat a little about what it’s like to write with your sister. And if you stick around, we’ll be giving away a few books at the end. 😉

KATI: Most people are surprised when I tell them I cowrite with my sister. Usually they want to know how that works, and how we don’t kill each other by the end of the book.

HEIDI: I can’t say we never have any heated . . . um, discussions.

KATI: That’s one of our writing rules. They’re never fights, they’re always “discussions.”

HEIDI: Exactly. 😉 And since we both liked most of the same books and shows growing up, and are interested in a lot of the same themes, writing together has worked out really well. Our brains overlap quite a bit.

KATI: That is a terrifying image.

HEIDI: A little bit! As kids, Kati and I used to play pretend together all the time, so writing a story together felt almost like that. It was really fun. And then somewhere along the way, we realized that we actually thought our story had the potential to make it. So once we finished our first extremely rough draft, we decided to take it more seriously.

KATI: And we’ve been serious ever since!

HEIDI: So serious. ;D

KATI: Our third and final book in the Mystic Cooking Chronicles, A Pinch of Phoenix, just came out last month, but we’re already working on a new series together. This one will have aliens and ghosts and other supernatural creepiness. So it’s very fun to write.

HEIDI: Speaking of fun, here’s a fun fact in honor of National Sister’s Day: one of the villains in our Mystic Cooking Chronicles trilogy is loosely inspired by our older sister.

KATI: We love you, Rosi! But maybe you should have been nicer to us when we were little. ;D

HEIDI: We haven’t actually written any sisters books . . . yet. But we both love stories where those relationships are portrayed. One of my recent middle grade favorites is Prisoners of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren. Valor purposely gets herself sent to an impossible-to-escape prison in order to try to break her sister Sasha out. It’s a wonderful fantasy adventure, very action-packed, and I loved the relationship between sisters Valor and Sasha. I tore through this book in a day.

KATI: One of my recent favorites is actually young adult . . . Stephanie Garber’s Caraval. In it, sisters Scarlett and Tella would do anything to help each other, which is the driving force behind the whole story. At the same time, their relationship is a little complicated, just like most sisters. Plus there’s the fantastic world building, romance, and excitement.

HEIDI: So today, Kati and I want to give away a “sisters bundle” of a signed copy of our complete Mystic Cooking Chronicles trilogy, plus a hardcover copy of Ruth Lauren’s Prisoner of Ice and Snow, and a signed hardcover copy of Caraval.

KATI: And since we’re always looking for more good sister stories, please comment and tell us any you’d recommend so we can check them out!

. . .

To enter the giveaway, head over to the MG Book Village Twitter account!

MG at Heart Book Club’s August Pick: PIE IN THE SKY, by Remy Lai

A poignant, laugh-out-loud illustrated middle-grade novel about an eleven-year-old boy’s immigration experience, his annoying little brother, and their cake-baking hijinks! Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang!

Recipient of FIVE starred reviews!

“Pie in the Sky is like enjoying a decadent cake . . . heartwarming and rib-tickling.” ―Terri Libenson, bestselling author of Invisible Emmie

When Jingwen moves to a new country, he feels like he’s landed on Mars. School is torture, making friends is impossible since he doesn’t speak English, and he’s often stuck looking after his (extremely irritating) little brother, Yanghao.

To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she’s at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they’ll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama.

In her hilarious, moving middle-grade debut, Remy Lai delivers a scrumptious combination of vibrant graphic art and pitch-perfect writing that will appeal to fans of Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Real Friends, Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, and Jerry Craft’s New Kid.

A Junior Library Guild selection!

The Middle Grade @ Heart newsletter will go out on August 19th, with the Twitter chat to follow on August 27th!

Princesses, Pink, and Physics – Breaking the Mold of the “Typical” STEM Character

When I began writing the first book in the DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS series, including a science element came organically. After all, my main character is a princess whose entire family has magical weather powers. You can’t have weather without science! As the book started coming together, I realized I had been given a fantastic opportunity to counter stereotypes about girls and STEM.

As an engineer and a longtime science-lover, I remember having a hard time reconciling the many facets of my identity as I was growing up. Society and mass media often sends girls messages that STEM is only open to people who look a certain way, dress a certain way, and enjoy “typical” STEM stuff. I remember suppressing my femininity when I was younger because I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or “too girly” to excel in the STEM activities I enjoyed. The reality is that STEM is for everyone – including children who love dress-up and tea parties.

We know that girls begin dropping out of the STEM pipeline around middle school. It’s not because they aren’t good at it. If girls believe that pursuing STEM conflicts with their identity and vision of their future selves, they are more likely to leave STEM behind.

With DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS, I wanted to write characters who are unabashedly awesome at STEM and also enjoy all the trappings of “traditionally feminine” pursuits. The characters came naturally because they are modeled off many girls I know in real life (including my own daughters!). These girls enjoy and excel at so many different things – including STEM.

Lina and her best friend love dancing, sleepovers, and science.

Happily, more books for young readers are now being published that celebrate STEM heroines who are multi-faceted and complex – just like the actual girls who will read them. Here are some of my favorite chapter books and middle grade novels that feature STEM-loving girl characters:

Little Robot by Ben Hatke – This graphic novel is nearly wordless, but tells a full and stirring story of friendship and perseverance. A little girl who seems very much on-her-own stumbles upon an adorable robot whom she must protect from other sinister robots. Even though the girl is quite small, she is also resourceful and knows her way around a wrench set. To save her new friend, the heroine employs all the ingenuity and problem-solving of a top-notch engineer.

Jada Jones, Rockstar by Kelly Starling Lyons– This is the first book in a wonderful series about a fourth-grade girl navigating relatable challenges with friends, school, and family. Jada loves rocks – but she loves her best friend even more. When the book starts out, Jada’s BFF has moved away and she has to find a whole new group. Jada’s interest in STEM feels reflective of real kids I know. Yes, she loves geology, but that’s just one facet of her total personality. By the end of the book, she finds a creative way to include everyone in the class in her rock appreciation.

Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray by Jess Keating – Nikki Tesla is a genius. I love that this is stated matter-of-factly and unapologetically right off the bat! But even though Nikki never downplays her supreme smarts, she has a hilarious self-deprecating sense of humor about all the conundrums she gets into. Author Jess Keating has an infectious love of science and curiosity about the world, which shines through in her videos and web resources for kids. It’s great to see another series from her that’s sure to inspire more girls to follow in her STEM footsteps.

Lights, Music, Code! by Jo Whittemore – This third book in the Girls Who Code series reminds me of the Babysitters Club with a STEM twist. The main characters are friends who are working together to code the music and lights for their school’s winter dance. I love that the book shows both the challenges and triumphs of a group of girls working together on a project. Many stereotypes of people who work in STEM is that they’re loners, toiling away in a lab. In reality, one of STEM’s greatest perks is getting to collaborate with awesome people!

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi – This middle grade novel counters the stereotype that people who love STEM are purely analytical. Ebony has an imagination so vivid that the lines often blur between reality and her make-believe worlds (as someone who spent most of third grade imagining she had been kidnapped to an alternate dimension, I can relate). Ebony loves science fiction, a passion shared by her grandfather, who was one of NASA’s first Black engineers. When Ebony moves to Harlem for the summer, others try to push her to fit in this or that box, but she stays true to her unique and awesome self.

Photo by Sam Bond.

Christina Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town with her nose stuck in a book. She is very proud of both her Thai and her Texan roots, and makes regular trips to both Weatherford and Bangkok to see her beloved family members (and eat lots and lots of Thai food!). In addition to being an author, Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science. She is passionate about STEM (science, technology engineering, and math), and loves learning new things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat.

Interview: Jess Redman

Hello, Jess! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village during your debut week! We’re very excited to have you here to chat about THE MIRACULOUS!

Thank you so much for having me! I love MG Book Village, and I’m so pleased to be here.

You’ve been here before — last month, when you shared the teaching guide for THE MIRACULOUS, as well as some how-to tips for authors interested in creating their own guides – but I don’t believe you shared much about YOU. Would you care to tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

Sure! I was raised in a house of readers, and I am a lifelong book nerd. I’m married to an English teacher, who is considerably better at grammar than I am, and we have two wonderful young children.

I’m also a therapist and an adjunct professor of psychology, although I’ve stepped back in both of these roles. As a therapist, I’ve worked with kids in the foster care system, in community mental health centers, and in private practice with girls and young women.

Has your work as a therapist and psychology teacher influenced your writing or the stories that you tell?

I think so. When I was first getting started as a therapist, I had a position as an intake counselor at a mental health center. In that position, I got to sit with literally hundreds of people in crisis and listen to their stories. That was pretty much my whole job—meet someone new and find out what brought them to us, what their life was like, how they were feeling, what they needed. Then I would go and think about that story and write up a report.

The hard thing about that position was that I didn’t get to spend much time with each person—sometimes just that initial visit. But the wonderful thing was that I was able to meet so many people and hear so many, many stories.

Recently, I’ve been talking with groups of therapists about the power of stories and literature, and it’s a topic I’m very passionate about. Therapy is about story just as much as literature—the story the client is telling in that moment, and the movement toward the story they want to tell.

Truthfully, I was drawn to the therapy field because I was already someone who was interested in emotions and big questions. But being a therapist has, hopefully, helped me understand those emotions and questions a little better, and that, also hopefully, shows up in my writing.

THE MIRACULOUS is your debut. Can you tell us about your journey to the printed page?

Reading and writing were my only hobbies when I was a kid, and I was fully devoted to them. I wanted, with all my heart, to be an author when I grew up, and I filled up notebook after notebook with stories.

From teenagerhood on, I assumed that I would end up writing Very Serious Adult Literature. But then I found myself working on a middle-grade fantasy while I was pregnant with my first child. And it became clear to me, very quickly, that middle-grade was where my heart was.

Then there was querying which brought much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, but finally I queried something that agents wanted, and I signed with my extraordinary agent, Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties.

The story that Sara signed me on, however, did not sell right away (although I have high hopes for it in the future). So while I was waiting and biting my nails and bemoaning my fate, I wrote another book and that was THE MIRACULOUS.

Sara loved THE MIRACULOUS, and after two weeks of submission, I was on the phone with editors, and shortly after MIRACULOUS found a home with FSG/Macmillan. I was very lucky to end up with my editor, Janine O’Malley, who connected with the story and brought much-needed clarity and new perspective.

And that is the nutshell story of how my biggest dream became a reality!

Do you have any tips for authors debuting either later this year, in 2020, or just generally in the future?

There is so much that you can do as a debuting author, and the vast majority of it is optional. I think debut year is like starting a really awesome new job—you will make mistakes and feel confused and uncertain, but you’ll also learn so much and feel exhilarated and wonderful.

Just know that there is a learning curve, like any new venture, and do the things that you know you’ll enjoy. Like, if you’re me, make three book trailers! Why not?

Also, join a debut group! My debut group, the Novel Nineteens, has been an incredible resource for me. I ask questions—where did you get those gorgeous stickers? Are you doing a cover reveal? What should I even be doing right now?—all the time.

Now, let’s get to the book itself. Can you give us a brief summary of THE MIRACULOUS?

THE MIRACULOUS is the story of a miracle-collecting boy named Wunder and a cape-wearing girl named Faye—two kids who have recently experienced great losses. Both are drawn to the mysterious DoorWay House in the woods where an old woman has recently appeared. The old woman—who Faye is convinced is a witch—sends the two new friends on a series of sometimes-magical quests. These quests take them through graveyards and forests, to police stations and town halls, by bike and by train. It’s a journey filled with friendship, healing, magic, and miracles. This book trailer that I created introduces with the cut-outs from the incredible cover illustration by Matt Rockefeller: 

THE MIRACULOUS is the story of my heart. It’s a story about grief and belief, about friendship and community and searching for truth and about how there is brightness to be found no matter how dark the darkness.

The book’s central character, Wunder, keeps a journal, and is an observer and recorder of the world around him. Setting aside plot-related reasons, were there any other reasons you included this element in the book?

I kept a lot of journals as a child, although I threw away most of them in my late teens. I was a pretty intense kid, and my journals definitely reflected that, and I was always petrified that someone would read them.

I did salvage a few recently, and it showed me how much I have always used writing and reading to understand the world and myself. Writing, to me, is so closely tied to the search for goodness and truth. I would love for readers to be inspired by Wunder and to journal, to observe, to search on their own.

Why do you think it’s important for kids’ books to tackle tough topics?

The truth is that kids are already tackling these topics, even if adults like to imagine they’re not. During those middle-grade years, kids are interested in absolutely everything. They are just starting to look out and beyond themselves. What children’s books can do is provide language and new perspective for these explorations that are already beginning to happen.

I don’t think that kids need to be exposed to everything, of course. I’m very careful about what my young children read and watch. But stories can be opportunities. Stories can begin conversations. Stories can frame some of the realities of the world in a way that can give kids confidence and tools, in ways that can promote healthy coping and grow empathy.

Another author, Marcie Colleen, once told me during an interview that she typically doesn’t read books for audiences older than MG, because she prefers books that end with at least some note of hope. I’m curious to hear what you make of that.

I love this! For me, this speaks to what makes middle-grade literature so special. There are tough topics addressed in middle-grade, to be sure. But there is also wonder and hope and a belief in the goodness and creativity of humanity. When I read and write middle-grade, I do feel like I am the best version of myself, and it is easier for me to love this world and the people in it.

I think it also speaks to knowing yourself. Here’s a little story: When I was around 10, I got my hands on LORD OF THE FLIES. I felt very grown up reading it—until the “hunt” got out of hand and they almost killed poor Robert. I was horrified and sick to my stomach, and I took the book to the basement and buried it at the bottom of a hamper of dirty clothes. Who knows, maybe it’s still there to this day.

I wasn’t ready for that book.

I think that kind of self-monitoring can come naturally, but I also think it’s something we can help teach kids. When you’re 10 years old, you don’t always know what you need or what you’re ready for. I think that’s where parents and teachers and librarians and other adults who know and care about the reader can help.

Where can readers find you, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

My website http://www.jessredman.com is a great place to learn more about me, THE MIRACULOUS, and my next book, QUINTESSENCE. The teaching/discussion guide, book trailers, and pre-order campaign info (just a few more days left!) are all there.

I’m also on Twitter quite a bit at @Jess__Red and on Instagram less often at that same handle. I love hearing from readers!

Jess Redman has wanted to be an author since age six, when her poem “I Read and Read and Read All Day” appeared in a local anthology. It took a little while though. First, she did things like survive middle school, travel around the world, become a therapist, and have two kids.

But then finally, her childhood dream came true! Her middle-grade debut, THE MIRACULOUS, will be published by FSG/Macmillan on July 30, 2019. Her second middle-grade novel, QUINTESSENCE, will be out on July 28, 2020. You can find her at www.JessRedman.com.

In the tradition of heartwrenching and hopeful middle grade novels such as Bridge to Terabithia comes Jess Redman’s stunning debut about a young boy who must regain his faith in miracles after a tragedy changes his world.

Eleven-year-old Wunder Ellis is a miracle-collector. In a journal he calls The Miraculous, he records stories of the inexplicable and the extraordinary. And he believes every single one. But then his newborn sister dies, at only eight days old. If that can happen, then miracles can’t exist. So Wunder gets rid of The Miraculous. He stops believing.​

Then he meets Faye―a cape-wearing, outspoken girl with losses of her own. Together, they find an abandoned house by the cemetery and a mysterious old woman who just might be a witch. The old woman asks them for their help. She asks them to believe. And they go on a journey that leads to friendship, to adventure, to healing―and to miracles.

The Miraculous is Jess Redman’s sparkling debut novel about facing grief, trusting the unknown, and finding brightness in the darkest moments.

Praise for THE MIRACULOUS

“Redman explores faith, the intertwined nature of sorrow and joy, and the transformative process of grief through Wunder’s eyes in a part-fantasy, part-realistic adventure with genuinely humorous moments…Layered, engaging, and emotionally true.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Redman’s gorgeous debut uses a cozy world of bright characters to tackle themes of death, grief, and doubt with gentle compassion and a light touch…a moving lesson for young people learning to cope with both the good and the bad that life has to offer.” —Booklist


“A stunning story expressing the complexities and mysteries of love and death in all of its light and darkness. A beautifully rendered and meaningful read for young readers asking deep questions.” —Veera Hiranandani, author of Newbery Honor-winning THE NIGHT DIARY

“Filled with longing, love, hope, and wisdom, THE MIRACULOUS is a small miracle of a book.” —Alison McGhee, author of SHADOW BABY and the NYT Bestseller SOMEDAY

“Exquisitely crafted, serious, yet woven through with wry humor, this story’s miracles are its fierce and tender characters. I loved this extraordinary debut.” —Leslie Connor, author of the National Book Award Finalist THE TRUTH AS TOLD BY MASON BUTTLE