Special Halloween Cover Reveal: RISE OF THE ZOMBERT, by Kara LaReau — Plus: “Ten Creepy Things About Me,” by Kara LaReau

Hello, friends — and Happy Halloween! I hope you’re downright infested with holiday spirit. I’m in an especially spooky mood because I have a dark, creepy new middle-grade trilogy in the works, called the ZomBert Chronicles. The first book in the series, Rise of ZomBert, doesn’t come out until July 2020, but I thought today would be just the right time to reveal the cover!

Illustrator: Ryan Andrews. Editor: Sarah Ketchersid. Designer: Amy Berniker.

I also thought I’d share a few things about myself to really get you in the Halloween mood. Without further ado…


1. A Stephen King Connection

When people think of master of horror Stephen King, they automatically think of Maine, where many of his books are set. BUT Stephen King actually spent several years of his childhood in Connecticut…in my home town, Stratford. In fact, King has said that the setting for IT, Derry, Maine, is based on his memories of Stratford. The town of Lambert in the ZomBert Chronicles is also based on my hometown; you won’t find any clowns in the sewers in my books, but you might find something just as unsettling.

2. Horrifying Hometown Happenings

In case you think my home town is only fictionally creepy, allow me to acquaint you with some of Stratford’s real creepy happenings. In 1651, Stratford was the site of a witch trial and execution, 40 years before Salem’s infamous witch fever took hold. When the accused woman, Goodwife (or “Goody”) Bassett was taken to the gallows, it’s said she grabbed on to a boulder and left fingernail marks on it. It came to be known as Witch’s Rock, though no one knows where it is now. Stratford was also home to the Phelps Mansion, which was known for some serious poltergeist activity (sadly, it was torn down 40 years ago).

3. Ghostly visitors

One of my high school friends lived in a haunted house in the older part of town. He and his family experienced all sorts of eerie happenings, and even saw what seemed to be a young boy in old-fashioned clothes; at one point, their family even brought in some sort of medium to assess the “presence.” As a result, my friends and I were inspired to attend a talk given by famous ghosthunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, who lived in the town next to ours. Unfortunately, Ed and Lorraine weren’t very convincing, but we continued our interest in all things paranormal.

4. Ouija board

My friends and I would often try to conjure spirits using my Ouija board; one night, when we were teenagers, we really thought we’d made contact with someone, though now we’re sure it was all in out heads. (Or was it?)

5. Horror movie marathons

As a teenager, I also enjoyed hosting horror movie marathons at my house. I don’t know how or why my typically-overprotective mom allowed this, especially as some of the films were pretty dark and gory! One of the movies we watched, The Stuff, is one of the inspirations for my ZomBert trilogy.

6. The Truth is Out There

As I got older, I continued my interest in all things weird and spooky, so you can imagine how I felt when I first watched The X-Files. I was obsessed. I’ve never been one to collect things, but I still own quite a bit of X-Files memorabilia. (My favorite episodes? Season 2, ep 20, aka “Humbug,” and Season 4, episode 2, aka “Home.” The weirdest ones, of course.)

7. Queen Shirley

I still love Stephen King, and I’m now a big fan of dark, spooky mystery novels by authors like Kate Atkinson, Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Ruth Ware. But the queen, for me, is Shirley Jackson. One of my favorite books of all time is We Have Always Lived in the Castle; I aspire to write a middle grade psychodrama in that vein one day.

8. Little Terrors

When I was pregnant with my son, I had all sorts of cravings, including guacamole, pineapple, and horror novels. I actually binged horror novels for the entire 9+ months I was incubating him! Among others, I re-read all the Stephen King classics, then read Ray Bradbury, H.P Lovecraft (who was born and lived in Providence, where I live now), Ira Levin, and Robert Marasco. My son is six years old now and loves guacamole and pineapple; time will tell if all that horror reading transferred to him as well!

9. Cousin Joyce

Everyone’s family is a bit…dysfunctional and weird, right? Well, I’ve come to realize that one story about my grandmother is particularly off. You’ll have to head to my website to read about it. (WARNING: it’s not for the faint of heart!)

10. Freaky Felines

Confession: I’m not a dog person, AT ALL. I love cats. In a way, my ZomBert trilogy is a love letter to all the cats I’ve known. The first cat I ever had as a pet, when I was about three, was named Lullabye. He was an outdoor cat and quite the hunter, and had a penchant for leaping into the air to catch dragonflies, which he’d then leave all over our lawn; I actually have a dragonfly tattoo in his honor. Another cat, Josie, used to leave headless frogs on our front doorstep, seemingly as trophies for us. I never truly appreciated these “gifts” at the time, but I’ve managed to incorporate them into the ZomBert Chronicles, along with all sorts of other freaky feline behaviors I’ve witnessed over the years. Cats really are the closest thing we have to aliens — as far as we know, anyway *cue X-Files music*

I hope this list has creeped you out in the best possible way, and that it’s gotten you excited to read Rise of ZomBert. Though the book doesn’t officially publish until July 2020, you can still preorder it now; if you preorder from my local indie, I’ll personalize and sign your copies when they’re ready! Just leave the personalization info in the Comments section of your order.

ALSO…a lucky few of you might just win an ARC of the book; head on over to my Twitter feed (@karalareau) to learn how to enter my ZomBert giveaway!

Kara LaReau was born and raised in Connecticut. She worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press, and now works as a freelance editor through her own company, Bluebird Works. Kara is the author of picture books such as UGLY FISH, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and Good Night Little Monsters, illustrated by Brian Won; an award-winning chapter book series called The Infamous Ratsos, illustrated by Matt Myers; a middle-grade trilogy called The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, illustrated by Jen Hill; and a new middle-grade trilogy called the ZomBert Chronicles, illustrated by Ryan Andrews. Kara lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and son and their cat.

Book Review: THE DRAGON THIEF, by Zetta Elliott

Kavita has a new pet named Mo. It’s a dragon and it breathes fire! She deftly acquired it recently from a witch’s apprentice who really should have been paying better attention to all three of the magical creatures in his charge. That apprentice was Jaxon, her brother Vik’s best friend. It was Jaxon’s job to deliver the dragons back to the realm of magic and when one went missing, he thought it might have been flying around Brooklyn, but it was actually with Kavita and she was desperately seeking a way to keep it out of sight. Hiding the dragon, however, was becoming more difficult by the minute. What once fit inside a mint tin had now grown to the size of a cat!

While Kavita receives some help from an unlikely hero, Jaxon and his friends go on a mission to locate a working gateway back to the realm of magic – but they have to do it without Ma. Oh, she’s around, but she appears to be under some sort of strange sleeping spell that she has yet to wake up from. This would be Jaxon’s chance to prove that Ma was right to choose him as her apprentice, but he had to do more than just believe in magic, he had to believe in himself. That’s what his grandfather would tell him. If he believed in himself, the possibilities would be endless.

The adventure continues in this second installment of what I hope might one day become a trilogy. The Dragon Thief picks up right where Dragons in a Bag left off-with a missing dragon! It is clear that Kavita has the dragon and the one person who can help her seems to have a rather unique interest in doing so. In the process, she grows so much closer to a family member who up until this point, she hadn’t really known too much about – unlocking a trove of family history. Kavita knew that her family was from India but she did not know that their roots could be traced to Africa too because of the enslavement of Africans from Zanzibar who were brought to the southernmost parts of India.

Zetta’s ability to go beyond entertainment to educate readers while unearthing hidden historical gems has made me a fan of her work. I would highly recommend both Dragons in a Bag and The Dragon Thief for middle grade readers (ages 8-12).

Christina Carter is an Elementary School Librarian (K-5), Wife to a Most Magnificent Husband, and Mother to 3 Beautiful teen and young adult Blessings, and yes, she loves to read! 

The 2019-2020 school year represents her 7th year serving as a school librarian (Library Media Specialist); spreading the love of reading, encouraging exploration and discovery through research, and engaging students in lessons that spark their creativity. When she think back to her childhood, these elements were what made the library a very special place for her. She believes it is a launchpad by which we get to discover and pursue our dreams. Every day that she opens a book, she opens up a world of possibility.

Christina is active on social media (mostly Twitter & her blog) and is a member of #BookExcursion, a group of educational leaders who read, review, and promote books through social media and in their communities with an express purpose of sharing their love of reading with the families they serve. You can find her on Twitter at @CeCeLibrarian.

Book Review: DRAGONS IN A BAG, by Zetta Elliott

Facing imminent eviction, Jaxon is left in the care of a woman who his mother calls Ma but who is until this day a stranger to him. The two become quickly familiar however when a mysterious package she receives from Madagascar begins to move on its own. Whatever’s inside is alive! You see, Ma’s line of work is unique. She’s charged with the care of some very special critters and she could use some help. What starts out as a day filled with uncertainty, turns out to be one that will change Jaxon’s life forever because what he first thought to be lizards, turned out to be dragons!

There’s magic in Brooklyn! Well, there used to be. Brooklyn has changed. Ma says she, “Used to know the name of everyone in my building – and they knew mine. Now I don’t know half the folks on my floor. They move in and act like strangers, not neighbors.” Brooklyn used to be home to all manner of creatures. They were safe there but Brooklyn lost its magic. Not everyone is of the mind that it needs to be restored though. Some think that magic has no place in our world, which is why Ma and Jaxon are on a mission to ensure safe transport of these dragons back to their realm. The problem is, one of the dragons has gone missing and it’s up to Jaxon to find it. He travels between dimensions, through time and space, meets magical beings, and unlocks some family secrets in the process. Will Jaxon be able to find the missing dragon? Or will it be loose in Brooklyn, disrupting the balance between the two realms?

I am so here for this! Brooklyn may not be my borough but I grew up in Long Island and in either location, never in my childhood did I experience magic in the literary canon in a manner that included Black and Brown children as the main characters – as though fantasy was not a genre that we could have a prominent role in. Our stories aren’t all about the struggle y’all. Seriously. Magic is at the center of this story but much like what I’ve come to appreciate from Zetta’s writing in other books of hers that I’ve read, she also weaves in historical gems about supercontinents like Gondwana, for example, and current events like the impact of gentrification on the community. Zetta is an expert storyteller and is an author you need to add to your collection.

Dragons in a Bag is a middle grade book that is recommended for ages 8-12. It arrived in my recent book order for my K-5 library and I can’t wait to book talk it to my students. I first read it in the 2018-2019 school year and then re-read it this September (2019). I am thankful for the “you might also like” feature that our public library systems have. Dragons in a Bag popped up as a recommendation for me because the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was not available at the time. I read the summary and knew that it was a book that I needed to read. I have since also read Cin’s Mark (which I can’t wait to re-read) and The Dragon Thief, which is the much-anticipated sequel to Dragons in a Bag. I am also currently working on and writing my way through her book Find Your Voice: A Guide to Self-Expression. It’s a resource that I think would be helpful for students’ creative writing expression. Have you read any of her books?

Christina Carter is an Elementary School Librarian (K-5), Wife to a Most Magnificent Husband, and Mother to 3 Beautiful teen and young adult Blessings, and yes, she loves to read! 

The 2019-2020 school year represents her 7th year serving as a school librarian (Library Media Specialist); spreading the love of reading, encouraging exploration and discovery through research, and engaging students in lessons that spark their creativity. When she think back to her childhood, these elements were what made the library a very special place for her. She believes it is a launchpad by which we get to discover and pursue our dreams. Every day that she opens a book, she opens up a world of possibility.

Christina is active on social media (mostly Twitter & her blog) and is a member of #BookExcursion, a group of educational leaders who read, review, and promote books through social media and in their communities with an express purpose of sharing their love of reading with the families they serve. You can find her on Twitter at @CeCeLibrarian.

Cover Reveal: HELLO FROM RENN LAKE, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Have you ever heard a lake? Sensed its thoughts?

Might sound a little crazy, but twelve-year old Annalise Oliver, the main character in my upcoming middle grade novel, has.

Maybe it’s because she was abandoned near one when she was a baby. Or maybe it’s because when she’s next to that very same lake, her worries float away as she watches the water ripple and sway, sparkling when it catches the sun.

Whatever the reason, Annalise and Renn Lake share a deep, mystical, almost unexplainable bond. It’s been that way since she was three years old and first heard the lake say hello. And Renn has always been a source of comfort and calm for Annalise, especially when she’s upset or sad.

But this summer, when a small patch of algae quickly becomes a harmful bloom and the lake is closed, Renn goes silent.

Annalise is devastated. Her happiest times are working alongside her adoptive parents, whose family has owned and run cabins along Renn Lake, Wisconsin for generations. While the authorities debate and discuss and disagree about what to do, Annalise gets frustrated, and then angry.

Finally, she decides she can’t wait for them to act. After she and her friends – confident babysitter Maya and science nerd Zach – learn about an innovative treatment for harmful algal blooms, they take a risk to save their beloved lake. But this means that Annalise must confront her deepest fears and most troubling questions. There are secrets about the night she was left, and Renn Lake was the only witness.

This book, my fifth middle grade novel, is very close to my heart. I love lakes, and the entire culture that goes along with them – cabins and canoes and jumping off a rickety old pier into refreshing, cool water. As a lifelong Midwesterner never living near an ocean, I’ve spent many summers enjoying the lakes around me – in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It’s been distressing to see the rise in harmful algal blooms in lakes and other bodies of water, which occur when blue-green algae grow out of control. Blooms can have many negative and sometimes dire effects on people, plants, fish, and animals, not to mention interdependent ecosystems and aquatic habitats. This past summer, some dogs died after swimming in lakes that had algal blooms.

Scientists think the increase in blooms is related to warmer temperatures, heat waves, and other extreme weather events. Runoff is a big cause too – rain or melting snow that picks up debris, chemicals and pollutants and flows over sidewalks, driveways, and streets into lakes and rivers. If an algal bloom grows large enough, it can create a dead zone, covering the surface of the water and blocking sunlight. No oxygen gets through and aquatic life disappears.

The impacts of climate change are terrifying. It’s clear to me that we need to address our environmental problems now, before it’s too late and the damage is irreversible. I’ve been impressed and heartened to see kids protesting, speaking out, and urging policymakers to act. Their signs have brought tears to my eyes: “There is no planet B.” “What future?” “Sea levels are rising, and so are we.”

Every single one of us can help in some way. We can do small things, big things, even just one thing. As the kids in my novel come to realize.

Not only is Hello From Renn Lake a story of community, the power of youth activism, and fighting for the things you love, it’s about the strong connection between humans and nature. I firmly believe that nature has a voice, and we need to listen to it. The bond between Annalise and Renn Lake is the emotional core of this story. The girl and the lake heal each other.

I’m thrilled to debut the cover on MG Book Village, one of my absolute favorite sites for all things middle grade. I love Celia Krampien’s illustration, with its nod to a vintage postcard. She beautifully captured the sentiment of the story as well as Annalise (front and center), Zach, Maya, and Annalise’s spunky little sister Jess. You can see more of Celia’s work here: http://www.celiakrampien.com/

Writing a novel is a leap of faith in so many ways – trusting yourself to tell the story that’s in your head, but worrying about getting it down and getting it right. Pushing away those constant doubts, and listening to your heart. I took a big leap in the narration of this book, which alternates between the perspectives of Annalise and Renn Lake. I think (I hope) I got it right.

Hello From Renn Lake dives into the world on May 26, 2020 from Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books. Michele is also the author of Ethan Marcus Stands Up and Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin) and The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold (Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books). She lives in the Chicago area, near Lake Michigan.

HELLO FROM RENN LAKE is now available for preorder. Links to do so from your preferred bookseller are below!

Indie Bound


Barnes & Noble


Writing the Familiar in the Future: A Creative Writing Exercise

One of the things we love about Seventh Grade Vs. The Galaxy by Joshua S. Levy is how familiar the setting feels.

I mean, sure, none of us have actually been anywhere near space, let alone on a space station near Ganymede, and yet we instantly connect with the run down school, the gym run low on supplies, the corny principal, the bored lunch ladies, and the boring end of year assemblies. In fact, at the very beginning of the book, it feels like the only thing that’s changed for middle school between our time and Jack’s, is the potential for the artificial gravity to go out.

However, even though it all feels very familiar at first, and like nothing has really changed except the tech, Levy takes us on a rollicking adventure, mixing the old familiarity of junior high with the new possibilities of space, robots, and aliens. It’s something that takes a lot of imagination and a whole lot of remembering the real world, too.

So here’s the writing prompt. Have your students write a story about a day in the year 2019 that starts off perfectly ordinary…but there’s a twist. Something that we have now…was never invented. What would our world look like if, for instance, cars were never invented? Or phones? Or television? What about books? Pens? The piano? Have them brainstorm beyond just the obvious and immediate lack of that thing. What would the far-reaching domino effect be? What else might be lost if that thing is gone?

We hope their writing is as fun and full of possibility as the future!!

Book Review: GUTS, by Raina Telgemeier

I knew as soon as I finished Guts by Raina Telgemeier that I needed to write about it. It was a highly anticipated book, partly due to the success of her other graphic novels. Now you may have been like me, where you are excited for kids to want to read any book, but you had no intention of reading it yourself.  However, once I saw just how popular it was, I decided I needed to read it myself, and I’m so glad I did.

Guts is a memoir about a 5th grade girl, Raina, who is going through your average friend drama, but is also dealing with her own personal issues with anxiety. She is very lucky in that she’s got parents that are very supportive and try to get her the help that she needs. Raina also discovers that being honest with friends can be helpful in dealing with those sorts of issues, because sometimes you realize you’re not the only one dealing with stuff.

The thing that got me so excited about this graphic novel that centers on what anxiety can look like is that you actually get to see what anxiety looks like, and for young people this is so important. Just being able to give feelings like that a name is something that many 5th graders may not be able to do. I know there are other wonderful Middle Grade books that deal with the same or similar topics, but there is something about the graphic novel format that makes the anxiety in this book so much more accessible for so many more kids, and that makes my heart so happy.

I myself am a strong believer in kids reading graphic novels, and this story is a great example of why. So if you haven’t read Guts, hopefully I have given you some motivation to do so, or at least some motivation to recommend this book to a child you think might need it.

Deana Metzke, in addition to being a wife and mother of two, spent many years as a Literacy Coach, and is now an Elementary Teacher Instructional Leader for Literacy and Social Studies for her school district. In addition to occasionally sharing her thoughts here at MG Book Village, you can read more of her thoughts about kid lit and trying to raise children who are readers at raisingreaders.site or follow her on Twitter @DMetzke. She is also a member of #bookexcursion.

Cover Reveal: PREMEDITATED MYRTLE, by Elizabeth C. Bunce

“Covers are always a surprise for the author—seeing how someone else will envision your characters. My agent leaked the news that Brett Helquist (cover artist for A Series of Unfortunate Events and so many other great works) might be working on Premeditated Myrtle, so I had to pretend for months that I didn’t know! I knew his work, of course, but what really sold me were his illustrations for A Christmas Carol. There are no ghosts in my Victorian mystery, but Brett did an amazing job capturing Myrtle’s determined energy—and even more importantly, Peony the cat! We went back and forth on a couple of sketches for hair and clothing, but what never changed was Myrtle’s perfect expression. The scene he chose to illustrate was one of my favorites to write, so it’s been great fun watching it come to life in full color.”

~ Elizabeth C. Bunce

Twelve-year-old Myrtle Hardcastle has a passion for justice and a Highly Unconventional obsession with criminal science. Armed with her father’s law books and her mum’s microscope, Myrtle studies toxicology, keeps abreast of the latest developments in crime scene analysis, and Observes her neighbors in the quiet village of Swinburne, England.

When her next-door neighbor, a wealthy spinster and eccentric breeder of rare flowers, dies under Mysterious Circumstances, Myrtle seizes her chance. With her unflappable governess, Miss Ada Judson, by her side, Myrtle takes it upon herself to prove Miss Wodehouse was murdered and find the killer, even if nobody else believes her — not even her father, the town prosecutor.

With sparkling wit and a tight, twisty plot, Premeditated Myrtle, the first in a series from an award-winning author, introduces a brilliant young investigator ready to take on hard cases and maddening Victorian rules for Young Ladies of Quality in order to earn her place among the most daring and acclaimed amateur detectives of her time or any other.

Elizabeth C. Bunce grew up on a steady diet of Sherlock Holmes, Trixie Belden, and Quincy, M.E., and always played the lead prosecutor in mock trial. She has never had a governess, and no one has ever accused her of being irrepressible, but a teacher did once call her “argumentative”—which was entirely untrue, and she can prove it. She lives in Kansas City with her husband and their cats. Premeditated Myrtle is her first book for middle-grade readers. You can find her online at elizabethcbunce.com.

Cover Reveal: THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ, by Adrianna Cuevas

I am so THRILLED to introduce you to Adrianna Cuevas, and reveal the cover for her debut middle grade book, THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ. This is one of my most anticipated debut reads of 2020. Adrianna, please introduce yourself to our readers and tell them a little bit about yourself.

Hola, readers! I’m so excited to introduce my book to you. I’m a first generation Cuban-American who grew up in Miami, Florida. I now live outside of Austin, Texas with my husband and son. I taught English for Speakers of Other Languages and Spanish for 16 years. I’m completely obsessed with books and stories and could talk about them all day. But when I’m not doing that, I love watching silly YouTube videos with my son and attempting new baking recipes to varying success. 

Can you give us a brief synopsis of your book?

It’s about Nestor Lopez, who wants nothing more than to live in one place for more than a few months and have dinner with his dad, an Army sergeant deployed in Afghanistan. When he and his mother move to a new town to live with his grandmother, Nestor plans to lie low, and he definitely doesn’t want anyone to find out his deepest secret: that he can talk to animals.

But when animals in his new town start disappearing, Nestor’s grandmother becomes the prime suspect after she’s spotted in the woods where they were last seen. As Nestor investigates the source of the disappearances, he learns that they are being seized by a tule vieja- a witch who can absorb an animal’s powers if she bites it during a solar eclipse. And the next eclipse is just around the corner…

It’s up to Nestor and his extraordinary ability, along with his new friends, to catch the tule vieja- and save a place he just might call home. 

What inspired you to write this story?

This book is truly a family story. Nestor’s interactions with his father are based on my experiences when my husband was deployed in Iraq as a military policeman. Nestor’s obsession with animal trivia comes from my son, who used to sit on my bed with a huge animal encyclopedia and regale me with random facts. Finally, Nestor’s grandmother and his Cuban-American heritage come from my own background. It was important to me that my son see himself as the hero of the story and for all readers to see that children from diverse backgrounds can save the day. 

Did you have any say in cover or its design, and please tell us who illustrated it?

My cover is illustrated by the amazing Andrea Galecio. She also illustrated the cover of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez, one of my favorite books, so I was excited when she signed on to illustrate NESTOR. I actually had more say in the cover design than I thought I would. I was able to send my editor pictures of prickly pear cactus, live oak trees, and mesquite bushes, as well as photos of the Texas hill country landscape. Andrea’s final design definitely captured the Texas setting of the book as well as the energy of the story. 

OK, let’s show everyone what it looks like!

This is SO cool! I love the way the cover looks like it’s illuminated by the flashlight beam!

One of my favorite parts is that the ‘O’ in Nestor is an eclipse! I love that Nestor is wearing his father’s dog tags and I’m glad my favorite character, Cuervito the snarky raven, got his proper recognition on the cover. And if you look closely, you’ll see some clues about the tule vieja…

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?

Among all the talking animals and witches, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez is about finding a home. It’s my hope that readers find a home in my story, even just for a little while. Whether they’re graphic novels, poetry, comics, or prose, books are always there to welcome us and give us a means of escape and a way to see ourselves. I hope my story does just that. 

What is the release date for THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ, and where can our readers go to find out more information about it, and you?

Adrianna: The release date is May 12, 2020. Readers can find out more about me, my book, and school visits at my website adriannacuevas.com. 

Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. After teaching Spanish and ESOL for sixteen years, she decided to pursue her passion for storytelling. Adrianna currently resides outside of Austin, Texas, with her husband and son, where they enjoy hiking, traveling, and cooking lots of Cuban food.

Interview: Sarah Jean Horwitz

Hey there, Sarah! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new novel, THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE. Before we get to the new book, would you care to share a bit about yourself and your previous books?

Hello! Thanks so much for having me. I’m a middle grade fantasy author. My first two books, THE WINGSNATCHERS and THE CROOKED CASTLE, are steampunk adventure books about a magician’s apprentice named Carmer and a one-winged fairy princess called Grit who solve magical mysteries together. My most recent novel is THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE, which just came out in early October from Algonquin Young Readers. 

And what is this new book of yours all about?

THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE is about a young girl, Clementine Morcerous, who has been raised since birth to be an Evil Overlord. When her father, the current Dark Lord, succumbs to a witch’s curse, Clementine must take over his official evildoing duties much sooner than expected and try to find a cure for the curse. The problem is, Clementine isn’t even sure she wants to carry out all the required Dastardly Deeds that Dark Lords are supposed to do. As she take her first steps out of the sheltered world she’s grown up in, Clementine starts to question the family legacy she’s trying so hard to save. 

I’m curious to hear what it was like for you to write outside of the Carmer and Grit universe, where you were for your first two novels. Scary? Exciting? A relief? All of the above and more?

It was very exciting to write outside of the Carmer and Grit universe. I was very energized by the opportunity to explore new characters, a new story world, and a fresh voice with Clementine. I’ll always miss my first imaginary kids, but I was glad of the opportunity for a fresh start! 

Can you tell us about the gestation for Clementine’s story? Where did the initial idea and inspiration for it come from? How did it develop from there?

As strange as it sounds, I have two babies to thank for the idea for THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE. The first is my friend Brooke’s niece, whom she nicknamed “the Dark Lord.” Ha! I’m sure little Fallyn will appreciate that when she’s older. The second is my old high school English teacher’s daughter, whose name is…Clementine! Yup. A few years ago, I was playing with baby Clementine with some friends, and we were trying to get her to make the sounds of her toy farm animals. We’d say, “What sound does the pig make, Clem? Does the pig go ‘oink oink’? Does the cow go ‘moo’?” But Clementine just sat there stoney-faced, not humoring us at all, which I thought was so funny. And so I put on this scary voice and said something like, “The animals say nothing. All of the animals are silent. They are always silent.” And everyone cracked up laughing, and I remembered Brooke’s nickname for her niece, and it occurred to me that The Dark Lord Clementine and Her Silent Farm would be such a fun title for a book. So it started this sort of running joke with my friends, but then I started thinking…what if it really was a book? And the whole idea spiraled from there. 

Amazing. And just goes to show that stories really can come from anywhere and anything! And speaking of humor — there were moments in this book where you really seemed to let your silly side come out to play. Was it a conscious choice to do so? Or did that come about naturally, as a necessity for the story?

The humorous tone and dark humor in the book came very naturally right away. I think that started from the contrast that’s inherent in the title – whoever heard of a Dark Lord named Clementine?! And then as I kept writing, I thought the humor was a good way to temper some of the more serious and emotional elements in the book. I hope I struck that balance in a way that serves the story. 

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE?

I hope they can see that opening one’s heart to love and friendship and new experiences is always worth it, even if you get hurt sometimes. I hope they also see how liberating it can be to follow your heart and be true to yourself. 

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 THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE to their classroom libraries?

In this moment in particular, I think it’s more important than ever to examine how evil becomes normalized, and how it has always embedded itself in our institutions. We learn from a very young age to take the suffering of others as a give-in. When the oppression and pain of others is built into a system that benefits us, just as Clementine benefits from being a Dark Lord’s daughter, it can be easy to turn a blind eye, or to accept this as just “the way things are.” But just as Clementine realizes that her status quo situation is not normal, so can we. Books are one of the most powerful tools we have to foster empathy for others and explore the complexities of right and wrong in a safe way (with plenty of unicorns and magic!), and I hope THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE does that in some small way. 

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

Readers can find me online at www.sarahjeanhorwitz.com, where they can read more about me and check out some extras for all of my books, like Pinterest boards and playlists, as well as some guides to the world of Carmer and Grit. I’m also on Twitter @sunshineJHwitz, on Instagram @sunshineJH or on Facebook @SarahJeanBooks.

Sarah Jean Horwitz grew up in suburban New Jersey, next door to a cemetery and down the street from an abandoned fairy-tale theme park, which probably explains a lot. She attended Emerson College in Boston, MA as a film student, where she discovered her love of writing in her first screenwriting class.

Volunteering with the Boston Teen Author Festival sparked her interest in writing for children and young adults, and Sarah began writing the book that would become her debut novel, THE WINGSNATCHERS, in late 2012. A handful of odd jobs and a few continental US states later, this first book in the CARMER AND GRIT series was published by Algonquin Young Readers in 2017. THE WINGSNATCHERS was a Spring 2017 Kid’s Indie Next pick and a Junior Library Guild selection. THE CROOKED CASTLE, the second book in the series, was released in April 2018. Her most recent book is the standalone middle grade fantasy THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE.

Sarah’s other passions include feminism, extensive thematic playlists, improvisational movement, tattoos, and circus arts. She currently works as an administrative assistant and lives with her partner near Cambridge, MA.

Cover Reveal: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, by Claire Swinarski

Hi Claire, and thank you so much for giving MGBookVillage the opportunity to do the cover reveal for your debut middle grade novel, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hi, Kathie! Thank you so much for featuring my cover reveal. I live in Wisconsin with my husband and two toddlers. When I’m not working on books for kids, I’m hosting the podcast MAKING A MIDDLE GRADE, learning how to bake bread, and perusing my local library. I’m a summer girl through and through, so the fact that the leaves are starting to change is bumming me out a bit. 

Can you give us a bit of a description of your book?

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT is the story of 12-year-old Abby dealing with her older sister’s mental illness and her own place in her busy family. Ballerina-in-training Blair has always been Abby’s best friend, but when she’s sent away for the summer to an in-patient eating disorder treatment center, Abby feels like she’s floating away among the stars that she loves to study. When a world-famous astronomer happens to rent one of her family’s cabins and enlists her help to find a missing telescope, she throws herself headfirst into his quest, hoping to distract herself from Blair–but becoming closer to her sister than ever through the process. 

Think: sisters, STEM, and the northwoods of Wisconsin!

This sounds really intriguing, I look forward to reading it! What is it about the subject matter that inspired you to write a book about it?

I don’t know how to not write about siblings. As one of four kids, I’m used to being in a loud, boisterous family, and the different tensions and scenarios that play out when one member of the family is having a difficult time. So the relationship between Abby and her sisters was very natural for me to write. I was also really inspired by the eclipse in the summer of 2017, and how it took up so much attention and media coverage. I started daydreaming about a girl who was super into the stars, especially because of how small they make her feel, particularly at a time when she’s trying to find out where she fits into the universe.

Did you have any input on the cover design?

Yes! I’d always heard authors didn’t get a lot of say in their cover, but I’m so thankful that HarperCollins asked for my input and took it really seriously. I suggested a blueish cover with a night sky…and that’s exactly what we got! I’ve been a big fan of illustrator Pascal Campion for ages–his Instagram feed is one of my favorites. So when I asked if we could reach out to him and HarperCollins said yes, I was over the moon!

It’s time for the big drum roll, here it is!

I LOVE the cover, and the way the letters in the title look like constellations!

Thank you so much, Kathie. All of the credit goes to Pascal. Seriously–I am in awe of his art and the way he was able to play on the subjects in the book. It reminds me of a summer night, which is actually what I dreamed of!

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?

Abby is a huge Star Wars fangirl! If there are any young girls out there who can’t wait for The Rise of Skywalker, have binge-watched every episode of The Clone Wars, and have a poster of Princess Leia in their room, this is the book for them. Also, the library + it’s kindhearted manager play a central role in the mystery of the story. 

I certainly love a book with great library staff featured in it! What is the release date for WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, and where should we go to find out more information about your writing?

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT takes place in the summer, so its release day is at the start of my favorite season–May 19, 2020. It’s available for pre-order now. Readers can learn more about me and bringing me to their school or library at www.claireswinarski.com! But the best place to stay in touch with me is my newsletter, which you can hop on the list for at claireswinarski.com/newsletter

Thank you so much for doing your book reveal with us, Claire, and all the best in your debut year.

Thanks for having me and for all of the work you do sharing MG books with the world!

Claire Swinarski was born and raised in snowy Wisconsin, where she still lives with her husband and two kids. In addition to writing books for kids and the grownups who love them, she hosts two podcasts, writes content for businesses, and is learning to bake a mean sourdough loaf. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, her debut middle-grade novel, will be published by HarperCollins on May 19, 2020.