Interview: Lyla Lee

Hello, Lyla! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village as part of your blog tour celebrating the launch of the first two books in your Mindy Kim series! Would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi! I’m Lyla, the author of the Mindy Kim series for younger readers, as well as I’LL BE THE ONE, a young adult novel that comes out in June. After working various jobs in Hollywood and studying Psychology and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, I now live in Dallas, Texas. When I’m not writing, I’m teaching kids, petting cute dogs, and searching for the perfect bowl of shaved ice.

The Mindy Kim books constitute your debut. Can you tell us a bit about your journey to the printed page?

My journey is a REALLY long one but it all began in fourth grade, when I had a really great teacher that inspired me to become a writer through her own stories. I was an avid reader all throughout my childhood, mostly because I moved around a lot as a kid and books were my only constant friends. In eighth grade, I finished my first book and started submitting it to literary agents. I finished and queried four more (out of many more incomplete manuscripts) books off and on from 8th grade to college. The last of these books was a novel adaptation of the script I wrote for a final project in my university screenwriting class. This book got me my agent three months after college graduation. Unfortunately, my journey wasn’t over then. In the next two years, two of my books got rejected by publishers. I wrote two more books, and the second one was a middle grade book I tried writing on a whim. It sold in a few days. That was MINDY KIM AND THE YUMMY SEAWEED BUSINESS, the first book of the Mindy Kim series.

What do you hope your readers — especially the young ones — take away from the Mindy Kim books?

I hope readers (especially young ones!) learn the value of open-mindedness and friendship. Mindy is all alone and sad in the beginning of the book, but ONE friend takes a chance on her and that makes all the difference. Mindy herself is scared of the kids at her new school at first but she finds the courage to actively seek out the other kids’ friendships. The other kids gradually take a chance on her as well, despite the fact that she isn’t like them. And that makes the world of a difference for Mindy. We really need more open-mindedness like this in our society today.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians. Is there anything you’d like to say to them — in particular those planning to add the Mindy Kim books to their classrooms and libraries?

The Mindy Kim books are fun to read aloud to kids as it has really cute illustrations. At its core, the series entails the slice of life family adventures of a second grader navigating through life in a new town with her father, but it also has lots of fun aspects of Korean culture like yummy food and games that can be played in a classroom setting. We pitched the series as FRESH OFF THE BOAT meets JUNIE B. JONES. The third one is coming out in May and there’s another one coming out this fall.

Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

Readers can visit me at my website: lylaleebooks.com! There, I have a contact page where readers can reach me. I am also on Instagram and Twitter (@literarylyla), if more grown up readers would like to contact me through there.

Meet Mindy Kim: the plucky protagonist of a new chapter book seriesthat is like Fresh off the Boat meets Junie B. Jones. Mindy Kim tackles the everyday experience of millions of Asian-American kids—sorely underrepresented in chapter books—with tenacity and heart.

Mindy’s first day of school goes awry in MINDY KIM AND THE YUMMY SEAWEED BUSINESS (Aladdin | On Sale 1/14/20). Mindy’s grateful when her new friend Sally is able to make her initially unpopular dried seaweed snacks seem totally delicious to her new classmates. But when someone tries to sabotage Sally and Mindy’s Yummy Seaweed Business, Mindy wonders if she’ll ever fit in. Starting a new school is hard for any kid, but for Mindy, who finds herself at a school without any kids who look like her for the first time, starting anew means finding the courage to stay true to oneself even when it seems like no one can understand. Kirkus Reviews gave this “lovingly authentic debut” a star, raving that “Lee takes on a number of issues with a new school, microagressions, friendships, and grief, and she manages to artfully balance it all.”

In MINDY KIM AND THE LUNAR NEW YEAR PARADE (Aladdin | On Sale 1/14/20), it’s Mindy’s first Lunar New Year without her mom and she’s determined to enjoy the day. When Mindy decides to make traditional Korean New Year food to celebrate, things don’t go according to plan. But with the help of her family and friends, Mindy finds a way to celebrate her old traditions and create new ones along the way, discovering that she can find her own way of being Korean-American.

This series is for every new kid, every kid missing a parent, every kid picking themselves up after facing a challenge—but it’s vital that Mindy isn’t just any kid. Korean-American author Lyla Lee writes Mindy from her own experience as the new kid at a predominately white school.

Mindy Kim speaks directly to Korean-American kids who have never seen themselves on the page, inviting readers to both express their cultural identity with pride, and celebrate identities unlike their own.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

LYLA LEE is a writer of many things. After working various jobs in Hollywood and studying psychology and cinematic arts at USC, she now lives in Dallas, Texas. When she is not writing, she is teaching, watching Korean dramas and other TV shows, and eating all kinds of good food. Visit her online at lylaleebooks.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @literarylyla.

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR

DUNG HO was born and raised in Hue, Vietnam, where she studied graphic design at the Hue University College of Arts. After graduating, she worked in the design and advertising industries before discovering a great passion for illustration and picture books and becoming a freelance illustrator. Currently, she lives and works in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. Ho draws inspiration from nature and the interaction between people and nature and especially loves to draw children. When not drawing, she enjoys cooking and watching movies. Visit her online at dungho.me and on Instagram @dunghanhho.

Cover Reveal: SCRITCH SCRATCH, by Lindsay Currie

Hi Lindsay! I’m so excited to be part of the street team for SCRITCH SCRATCH, your second middle grade novel that comes out on September 1, 2020. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Hi, Kathie! I’m thrilled to have you on the team, and thank you for hosting me today! I’d love to share more about SCRITCH SCRATCH as it’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written. My main character, Claire Koster, is really into science. Because of this, she often finds herself at odds with her father, who runs a ghost tour business in Chicago. While Claire tries very, very hard to have nothing to do with his ghost bus – Spirits – one evening she is required to ride along and help out because his normal assistant is ill. 

*Cue terrible things* 

Just when Claire thinks she’s survived the night without any serious problems, she sees a boy with a sad face and dark eyes at the back of the bus. There’s something off about his presence, especially because when she checks at the end of the tour… he’s gone. Claire tries to shrug it off (perhaps she’s letting her father’s ghost stories get to her), but then the scratching starts. Voices whisper to her in the dark. The number 396 appears everywhere she turns. And the boy with the dark eyes starts following her. Claire is being haunted. The boy from the bus wants something…and Claire needs to find out what before it’s too late!

It sounds SO good, I can’t wait to read it! What inspired you to write this story?

Great question! I’m very inspired by Chicago history – especially “forgotten” history. I like to research and occasionally, I’ll come across an event or legend that is so fascinating I have trouble forgetting it. While I can’t give away what specific event or story inspired SCRITCH SCRATCH, I can tell you that I think you’ll be inspired to do your own research into it when you’ve finished reading. I’ll be including an author’s note that will provide additional resources as well! 

Did you have any input on the cover, and who is the illustrator?

I did! Sourcebooks has been fantastic to work with so far. As a publisher, they seem genuinely invested in me, my career, and my happiness, so they’ve shown me everything along the way for thoughts/feedback/approval. The cover designer/art director is Nicole Hower, who I am grateful to have been paired up with because WOW. Her vision for the cover of SCRITCH SCRATCH is just perfect. Eerie with a hefty dose of Chicago and so many little details that you can hardly stop looking! 

OK, let’s show do the big reveal for everyone to see!

This is a SUPER creepy cover, and I love the colors! I think it’s really going to appeal to young readers.

Thank you! I agree with you and feel very fortunate to have been handed such a winning cover for this book. Did you notice the shadow on the bus and the eerie face in the moon’s reflection on the ground? Simply wonderful. 

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

LIndsay: Yes! This book is the first one I’ve ever written to get a map! It will be a wonderful tool for readers to cross-reference the clues in the book with the stops on the Spirits bus tour. I love the idea of readers having a way to actually research alongside my characters so they can try to unravel the mystery of who is haunting Claire, and this map (revealing soon!) should allow that. Stay tuned for an interactive version on my website after the book releases, too. 

Ooh, that’s great, so many young readers love maps! Where can readers go to find out more information about you and your writing?

My website is a great place to start! www.lindsaycurrie.com 

Thanks again for letting us be part of your cover release, and helping to spread the word about your book.

Thank you for hosting me, Kathie. I’m so honored! 

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Janae Marks

How Middle Grade Chose Me

Something readers are surprised to hear about my middle grade debut, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, is that I originally planned for it to be a young adult novel with a sixteen-year-old protagonist. In addition to the main plot about Zoe’s relationship with her incarcerated father, I’d planned a romantic subplot, and even a road trip with Zoe and her love interest. Before I started writing the book, I’d written three other contemporary young adult manuscripts. They hadn’t been the right stories to get me an agent or book deal, but I was still committed to publishing a YA novel.

So how did From the Desk of Zoe Washington become a middle grade book? It’s because middle grade chose me.

Early on in the drafting process, I gave one of my critique partners the synopsis I’d written for the manuscript, plus my opening chapter. They sent back amazing feedback, including that they felt my story would make a great middle grade book. They said they were convinced of it.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how right they were.

The Decision to Switch to Middle Grade

There were several reasons why it made sense for From the Desk of Zoe Washington to be a middle grade novel. For one, the back-and-forth letters between Zoe and her incarcerated father, Marcus, seemed more suited to a younger audience. Family relationships are commonly explored in middle grade literature, and I could see younger kids enjoying the epistolary elements of the book.

I also thought about the more serious themes in my book: incarceration and systemic racism within the prison system. At first, I wasn’t sure if this was okay for middle grade. Were these topics too serious for that age group? But I realized that many middle grade books have covered these kinds of topics before. All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor and Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin also feature incarcerated parents. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia discusses social justice issues. There are many more examples of upper middle grade novels tackling tough themes. I quickly realized that the serious themes in my book could work for middle grade, as long as I handled them correctly.

Another benefit of this switch was that Zoe could be more naïve about the injustices within the prison system. As a younger child with less exposure to the world, there would be more for her to learn on her journey into figuring out whether Marcus was innocent of his crime. This meant Zoe would have even more room to grow as a character.

Changing to middle grade wasn’t as simple as lowering Zoe’s age. I had to make several changes to the story and plot to make it work.

What Switching to Middle Grade Meant for My Story

Of course the first step was aging Zoe down. I decided to make her twelve because, with the heavier themes in my book, I wanted her to be on the older range of the middle grade spectrum. I also took out the romantic subplot I mentioned above, and changed it to a friendship storyline. Lowering Zoe’s age also meant that she’d have less freedom. She’d need to rely on adults more in her daily life than if she were a teenager with a driver’s license. For this reason, and also because adults are generally more present in middle grade, I made Zoe’s mom, stepdad, and grandmother bigger characters in the story.

I also had to make sure I nailed Zoe’s voice. Voice is so important in all books, but especially in middle grade. It’s also really hard to achieve. I didn’t want Zoe to sound too sophisticated or too innocent. It’s a fine line. To prepare to write, I read a lot of recent middle grade books, and also listened to actual kids speak.

The most challenging change for me was shifting the way I wrote about Zoe’s reactions to things. In YA, it’s common to have characters spend multiple paragraphs thinking about their feelings. In middle grade, kids don’t usually over analyze their thoughts. Their reactions are more immediate. Coming from writing angsty teenagers, this was an adjustment, and it took many drafts to get Zoe’s voice right.

Why I’m Glad I Made the Switch

I knew I’d made the right decision when the first draft of the book as a middle grade flew out of me. I wrote it faster than I’d written all of my previous manuscript. It just worked!

Since I also started reading more and more middle grade books, I remembered how much I loved stories for that age group. Readers at that age are so enthusiastic about books, and I’m excited for the chance to be able to connect with them—as well as teachers and librarians. I also love the middle grade writing community! I couldn’t be happier to be debuting in this space.

Looking back at my previous YA novels, all sitting in a drawer, I now know that I was meant to be a middle grade author all along.

Janae Marks has an MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Children from The New School. She grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and now lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter. From the Desk of Zoe Washington is her debut novel and is out on January 14, 2020 with HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books. You can find her online at janaemarks.com, plus on Twitter and Instagram @janaemarksbooks.

Book Review: CAMP CLIQUE, by Eileen Moskowitz-Palma

One of my recent reads was Camp Clique by Eileen Moskowitz-Palma, which is the first book of the wonderful new series, the Popularity Pact. In this debut, Maisy and Bea are off to summer camp, which is something Bea is thrilled about, because she’s done it for years with the same group of girls, and they work really well together as a team. However, poor Maisy is a newbie who was forced to go by her dad, really doesn’t even want to be there, and doesn’t have a ton of confidence when it comes to outdoor activities. To add to the drama, Maisy and Bea’s years-long super close friendship recently broke apart, and camp was the one place Bea was hoping she could find her peace away from Maisy.

Throughout most of the book, as I got more background on the girls and why their friendship ended, the eternal optimist in me wanted Maisy and Bea to work it out, and the author did a good job of drawing out the drama and keeping me turning pages to see if everything turns out okay. I was slightly concerned that as someone who has never been to an overnight outdoor summer camp that the setting might be a barrier to me, but that was not the case, simply because the girls were so relatable and I did not have any difficulty imagining the camp at all. Through this story, Moskowitz-Palma also gives readers a peek into how social media can negatively influence friendships and how prescription drug use can create tension and fractures in families.

The girls in the story have just finished 6th grade, but I think girls a tad bit younger will still enjoy and identify with Maisy, Bea, or one of their friends. This book has a release date of April 2020 and I think there are tons of readers that will identify with the drama these girls are going through, but will hopefully be able to resolve their issues just like Maisy and Bea.

Thanks to the author and her publisher for sharing an ARC of the book with the MG Book Village.

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.