Interview: Thomas Taylor

Hello, Thomas! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new book, MALAMANDER.

Hi, Jarrett. Thanks for inviting me.

Before we get to the new book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

UK edition of Harry Potter, with Thomas’s art.

I’m an author and illustrator of children’s books, based in the UK. I started out as an illustrator, and my first ever commissioned project was the cover art for a book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which, er, some of your readers may have heard of. At the time though, the book and the author were entirely unknown, so I got the job, straight out of art school. After that I worked mostly on picture books, edging further and further into writing, until I realized that what I really wanted to do was write fiction.

Ha, yes! I think it’s safe to assume some of them have heard of that one! Now, as you’ve said, you are both an author and an illustrator, and you do it all – from picture books to YA and most everything in between. I’m curious if there’s anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?

Actually, I haven’t written a picture book, or illustrated one, for a long time. These days I’m very much committed to writing middle grade fiction, which I love. I have written a YA novel too — Haunters, which was published in 2012 — but I think the tone and scope of middle grade suits me best. There is a great freedom in writing for children — freedom to write about wonder and curiosity and hope — which seems to fall away the closer to an adult readership one approaches. Children aren’t cynical or weary of the world, and this makes them a joy to write for. 

Okay – let’s get to the new book. Can you tell us what MALAMANDER is all about?

Malamander is about a strange seaside town, that becomes even stranger out of season. It’s about a boy called Herbert Lemon — Herbie to his friends — who helps a girl called Violet Parma to find her parents, even though they vanished in peculiar circumstances when she was only a baby. It’s about things being lost, and things being found, and about strange things being washed up on the beach. And it’s about strange tales, told around the winter fireside, of something extraordinary that some swear they have seen creeping in the mists at low tide. It’s a story about stories, and about wishes and friendship, and fish & chips!

Beachcomber’s mantelpiece.

You do such a great job setting the scene, and, thanks to your evocative prose, really insert the reader into Eerie-on-Sea. What inspired you to create this creepy locale?

I didn’t plan on writing Malamander. It began to grow in my mind as I walked the beach of the English seaside town where I live, something I have to do in all weathers and seasons for the sake of my very energetic dog.

Alpha, Thomas’s beach buddy and lead researcher.

This is how I discovered the pleasure of beachcombing, and some of the things I found on the beach — often very strange and mysterious things — informed the story that I soon began writing. I was also inspired by the people I met, especially out of season, when the weather is awful and only people with a good reason (or a very bad one) would visit the town. And then there are the tales and legends that seemed to attach to every headland, sand bar or lighthouse. Before long, as I walked on that winter beach, I was joined by a cast of characters, by the sense of a fictional town only a little eerier than my own. And behind it all, lurking in the mists, the legendary malamander itself…

Erwin, the Book Dispensary Cat, as found by Thomas on the beach.

Loss plays a large role in MALAMANDER, as does the act of finding. It seems every character has lost something or other, and every one of them is hoping to find something, too. What drew you to these themes? Did you set out to write a book about them, or did they reveal themselves to you as you explored Eerie-on-Sea and the characters you populated it with?

In a way, beachcombing is the key to this. I find things on the beach that have clearly been lost or discarded at some point, and I can’t help wondering about the story behind them, and what it means now that I have found them again. Perhaps these are things that had no real value to start with, but which have been transformed by the power of nature into something collectable, as is the case with sea glass.

Imagine, many years ago, a family has a picnic on the shore of my little seaside town, and afterwards they leave their empty lemonade bottle behind. Back then the bottle would have been made of glass, and considered worthless. The sea took the bottle and smashed it, and rolled the fragments tide after tide after tide. Decades passed until eventually — maybe 70 years later — the remains of that bottle are now just a few rounded glass gemstones, gleaming in the shingle.

Sea glass gems, found by Thomas and his dog.

Then I happen along, dragged by my dog, and I find one of these pebbles, glowing green or aqua or ruby red with reflected sunlight. I pick it up and marvel at how beautifully frosted it is, and at how it seems to hold the light in its heart. I remember that according to legend, sea glass is said to be the frozen tears of mermaids. I remember my friend who makes wonderful jewelry from pieces like this. I slip it in my pocket, pleased to have found a treasure. And as I do, I can’t help wonder about the hidden story that led to it being there.

So my interest in things being lost and found began there, and I pushed the theme as far as I could in Malamander.

Much of your work has a creepy-yet-comic quality. What did you read as a kid? What are you a big fan of now? If kids read and love MALAMANDER – and many, many no doubt will! – what other books would you suggest they check out?

I was slow to come to reading as a child, but once I had found my way into books, I read all the time. I loved comic books, mostly Tintin and Asterix, and read The Three Investigators, Sherlock Holmes Stories, and Tolkein, Pratchett, and Terry Brooks. These days there is so much choice it’s hard to even know how to start offering recommendations. I’m reading The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan right now, and it’s brilliant. Readers of Malamander would probably also enjoy the Nevermoor books of Jessica Townsend and the fabulous adventures of authors Vashti Hardy and Abi Elphinstone. Or Kieran Larwood. Or Julian Sedgwick.  And have you read The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius? Aah, so many books…!

We spoke before about how you’re an illustrator, as well – and a very accomplished one! You’ve worked with other illustrators before, I believe, but what was it like working with Tom Booth on this book?

I haven’t actually met Tom Booth yet (the Atlantic Ocean is quite wide!) but I enjoyed working with him at a distance. He has captured that mixture of mystery, creepiness and fun that I aimed for in the writing really well, I think. I’ve sent over some sketches of my own at times, when I felt it was important to convey something visually, but for the most part I’ve been happy to leave him the freedom to imagine the world of Eerie-on-Sea his own way. Sometimes this has resulted in a few surprises — for example, I imagine Mrs. Fossil to be rather large, but Tom has depicted her tall and skinny — but there’s nothing wrong with this.  The US edition looks fabulous.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from MALAMANDER?

I hope readers will enjoy reading Malamander, not just for its story, but as a book. I worked hard to make it as effortless a read as possible. A love of books and reading is a great treasure, and I’m worried that children are finding it harder than ever to find their way into books. I hardly dare imagine how my life would be now if I had given up on reading, as I nearly did, early on.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add MALAMANDER to their classroom libraries?

I just hope, as in my previous answer, that children will love reading my book, and be drawn in to the imaginary world of Eerie-on-Sea. A lot of teachers have begun using the book in school here in the UK. I hope it finds a home in American classrooms too.

When can readers here in North America get their hands on MALAMANDER, and do you have any exciting events coming up to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

Malamander should be found lurking in all good retailers once it is published in the US on September 10th. There is also an audio book version, both on CD and as a download. As ever, don’t forget your local independent bookshop if you would like to order a copy; they can get it for you, and probably recommend something else at the same time. As for events, I have been doing these in the UK since the book came out here in May, but I am planning a promotional trip to the US early next year.

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

I can be found and contacted on Twitter (@ThomasHTaylor), and I have a facebook page as well as an Instagram account. My website —  www.thomastaylor-author.com — is pretty sleepy these days, but worth a visit if you want to find out about more about me. For most things Malamander though, please go to www.eerie-on-sea.com. If you dare…

Thanks again for inviting me, Jarrett, and for asking such great questions. Good luck to you and your readers!

Book Review: DRAGON SLIPPERS, by Jessica Day George

Do you like dragons? Do you like fantasy? Do you like embroidery? Do you like adventure? Do you like kingdoms? Do you like betrayal? Do you like cliffhangers? Do you like slippers? 

If you answered “Yes” to all of these, then the book Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George is right for you! (…Due to this book being about dragons, fantasy, embroidery, adventure, kingdoms, betrayal, cliffhangers, and slippers.)

In this book, a girl named Creel gets sacrificed to a dragon by her aunt, who was hoping that a handsome noble would rescue her, slay the dragon, and pull the family out of poverty. That was the opposite of what happened, however.

The dragon ate her.

Just kidding! That would have made the book too short. Creel made friends with him, and in exchange for not ratting him out got to choose any pair of shoes from his collection. Instead of choosing the sandals or the brogues, she chose some exquisite light blue ones and set off for the capital of Feravel: The King’s Seat. Little did she know that choosing the exquisite light blue ones instead of the sandals or the brogues also set off one of the biggest disasters in Feravelean history… 

This book is great because it reveals what one of the biggest disasters in Feravelean history was. However, this book also uses cliffhangers, is quite funny in some parts, and has a wide variety of characters that almost anybody could relate to. I like how Jessica Day George got right to the point in some chapters, but also hid in a lot of description and really built up the plot. Due to all of this, I would give the book a 4.8 out of 5!

So go and read it!

Self-portrait by Isaac.




G’day! My name’s Isaac, and my hobbies other than reading include video editing, music creating, drawing, and writing. I am eleven years old, live in Wisconsin, and have extremely poofy hair.  

Interview: Hena Khan

Hi there, Hena! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new novel, MORE TO THE STORY.

Thank you for having me. I’m honored!

Before we get to the new book, would you care to share a bit about yourself and your previous books?

Sure! Although I started writing for kids with Scholastic book clubs about space and spies, when I became a mom I couldn’t find any books that represented my son, so I set out to change that! I was an avid reader as a kid, but never saw myself in books, and realized how important it is. I’ve written a few picture books that highlight Muslim traditions and culture, like Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Under my Hijab. And I loved delving into middle grade fiction with my debut, Amina’s Voice and my personal favorite, a series called Zayd Saleem Chasing the Dream about a kid who is obsessed with basketball modeled after my husband and sons.

You write picture books, chapter books, and – like MORE TO THE STORY – Middle Grade novels. Is your process and/or approach different for each format? Do you usually know the shape a story will take before you begin writing it?

Yes, it’s definitely different for each! I find writing picture books to be like working on an imaginary puzzle. I keep the page flow and turns in mind as I write, and try to make sure there is something to inspire the art on every page. For my chapter books and novels, I always outline first and know where I want the story to go. But once I start writing, I often veer off the path as the story takes shape and my characters become real to me—and sometimes don’t end up behaving the way I initially intended! I’ve also written choose-your-own path style novels and those are a different beast altogether, with elaborate flow charts, word count, page tracking, and more.

Is there anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?

So many things! I love that middle grade readers are so thoughtful, open, and curious about the world. And while they understand a lot and are pretty aware, they still have a lot of innocence and natural empathy. I remember how the books that I read and loved when I was that age managed to live in a corner of my heart somewhere, where they still remain today! And the idea that something I write could have a special place in a reader’s life is incredible to imagine. I still enjoy reading middle grade fiction more than any other genre—I appreciate that it’s usually really great storytelling without getting too complicated.

Okay – let’s get to the new book. What’s MORE TO THE STORY all about?

It’s centered around Jameela, a girl living in Georgia, who is part of a big loving family, and passionate about being an award-winning journalist someday. She’s thrilled to be selected as Feature Editor for her school paper, but disappointed to learn the editor-in-chief is a kid who she butts heads with and who always shoots down her ideas. Jameela’s life gets a welcome addition when Ali, a cute family friend from London, moves to Atlanta, but turns upside down when her dad has to take a job overseas, her sister becomes seriously sick, and she has to learn what matters most to her.

One thing that I loved about the book was your frank exploration of anger, in particular the positive, healthy ways in which that energy can be harnessed and used. Is this something you thought about a lot while crafting Jameela’s story?

Thank you! It’s something I think about in general, because it’s something I grapple with myself. Like Jameela, my default emotion when I’m stressed, frustrated, or scared is anger. And it’s something that I’ve had to recognize and work on over the years, and still haven’t mastered yet! I liked the idea of Jameela confronting her anger and learning to recognize that it isn’t the best way to react to things.

Another thing that MORE TO THE STORY tackles head-on are microaggressions. Why do you believe it’s important to get your young readers learning, thinking, and talking about them?

I thought it would be helpful for readers to understand that microaggressions are often unintentional, but that they can still hurt people or make them feel bad. Many people experience them in day-to-day life, including my own kids, and I think it helps to know that there is actually a name and a category for the little things that people say and do that make us feel icky, or misunderstood, “otherized,” or less in some way.

You’ve said elsewhere that this novel was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN. Would you care to talk about what that book meant to you as a young reader, what it means to you now, and the role it played in the creation of MORE TO THE STORY?

Yes! I was obsessed with Little Women as a child and teen, and I read it and reread it over and over, and even had parts memorized. Jo was in many ways my idol, and I found aspects of my personality in each of the sisters (as much as I didn’t want to associate with Amy, I’m pretty sure my older sister would say I was a lot like her!). And apart from the characters and losing myself in their daily dramas and relationships, I think I understood and could even relate to some of the societal and gender norms they faced as a child of Pakistani immigrants.

I always thought the story lent itself well to a retelling from a Pakistani American perspective, and I initially envisioned writing a story that would be more of a remix. But in the end, the story I wrote, which I aged down to middle grade, is inspired by the classic but very much its own story. Readers who loved Little Women like me will find parallels, but those who haven’t read it will hopefully grow to connect with another multifaceted and strong family. I consider More to the Story a love letter to my favorite book!

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from MORE TO THE STORY?

I hope they are inspired by the love Jameela has for her family, and her sister in particular, along the passion she has for getting people to care about things that matter. I hope readers feel a strong connection to the Mirzas and can relate to them, the way I did to the March family and other characters I grew up with. And I would love for them to recognize and appreciate that while Jameela and her family are connected to a different culture that is a part of their daily lives, and to their Muslim faith, they are as American as anyone else.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add MORE TO THE STORY to their classroom libraries?

Most of all, THANK YOU! I can’t tell you how much it means to me to hear that middle grade teachers are sharing my books with readers. There’s really no bigger compliment. I’m especially grateful at a time when people seem more divided than ever, for a chance for stories to bring us together and help us to see the positive in everyone. I know many teachers are committed to inclusion and representation, and to providing windows and mirrors, and I love that my stories are among the ones chosen to offer to kids. And I especially appreciate teachers who are mindful of choosing a variety of books and balancing heavier issue books about marginalized groups with regular stories about their daily lives. Also, I want to share that I have wonderful educator guides available for all of my books! You can find them and download off my website: www.henakhan.com.

When can readers get their hands on MORE TO THE STORY, and do you have any exciting events or upcoming blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

Today is pub day! I am excited to be traveling a bit this fall to celebrate the release with readers around the country. I’ll be doing several book launch events. If you’d like to attend and connect in person, please check out tour details on my website and social media, where I’ll be updating!

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



My website has details about my books, school visits, and events: www.henakhan.com. Plus you can find me on instagram, facebook and twitter: @henakhanbooks. I’d love to be connected!

Thank you so much for chatting with me!

MG at Heart Book Club’s September Pick: HURRICANE SEASON, by Nicole Melleby

The September MG@Heart Book Club pick is….

HURRICANE SEASON, by Nicole Melleby!

For Fig’s dad, hurricane season brings the music.

For Fig, hurricane season brings the possibility of disaster.
 
Fig, a sixth grader, loves her dad and the home they share in a beachside town. She does not love the long months of hurricane season. Her father, a once-renowned piano player, sometimes goes looking for the music in the middle of a storm. Hurricane months bring unpredictable good and bad days. More than anything, Fig wants to see the world through her father’s eyes, so she takes an art class to experience life as an artist does. Then Fig’s dad shows up at school, confused and looking for her. Not only does the class not bring Fig closer to understanding him, it brings social services to their door.
 
As the walls start to fall around her, Fig is sure it’s up to her alone to solve her father’s problems and protect her family’s privacy. But with the help of her best friend, a cute girl at the library, and a surprisingly kind new neighbor, Fig learns she isn’t as alone as she once thought . . . and begins to compose her own definition of family.
 
Nicole Melleby’s Hurricane Season is a radiant and tender novel about taking risks and facing danger, about friendship and art, and about growing up and coming out. And more than anything else, it is a story about love—both its limits and its incredible healing power.

A 2019 Skipping Stones Book Award Winner

“Melleby’s debut offers a tender, earnest portrait of a daughter searching for constancy while negotiating her father’s sickness and the social challenges of tween girlhood, including her first crush on a girl.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Father and daughter find their way back to each other in this moving novel, and readers will root for Fig every step of the way.”
Bookish 

“Melleby doesn’t shy away from how terrifying it is to watch someone in a dangerously manic state, but the narrative never tips into melodrama. A thoughtful portrayal of mental illness with queer content that avoids coming-out clichés.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Melleby deftly tackles weighty topics—mental illness, child protective services, single parenting, sexuality—while effortlessly weaving in elements of the life and works of Vincent van Gogh, creating a thoughtful, age-appropriate and impressive novel.”
Shelf Awarenessstarred review

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