Welcome to MG Book Village, Sarah! Thank you for agreeing to be part of our Fast Forward Friday feature. I really loved WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF, your debut MG novel coming out on March 31, 2020. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Hi, and thank you so much! I’m honored to be here! STARS is about a twelve-year-old girl named Libby, who was born with Turner syndrome. When her big sister announces she’s pregnant, Libby is absolutely thrilled, but also nervous because she knows about all the things that can go wrong. Things like heart problems and missing chromosomes. So Libby makes a deal with the universe and her favorite female scientist, Cecilia Payne, who discovered what stars are made of. If Libby can keep her end of the bargain, then the new baby will be born safe, healthy, and perfect.
I was so touched by the relationship between Libby and her sister, Nonny. Where did the inspiration for your characters come from?
I’m such a sucker for brightly earnest characters, and while I knew I wanted to write a character who has Turner syndrome, I wanted that to be just one part of her whole, joyful, optimistic character, and not the central focus. Libby developed from there! As for Nonny, I wanted an older sister who really got Libby, who loved and supported her without question, so that Libby could feel so strongly about trying to love and support her sister in return. I don’t have any older sisters, but I do have seven younger siblings, and maybe that’s why I often tend to write sibling stories!
I’ve never read a book about a character with Turner syndrome, and I assume most young readers haven’t either. Why is this an important topic for you, and what do you hope readers will learn from it?
That’s exactly right, I have never read or found a book that has a character with Turner syndrome either. I was born with Turner syndrome myself and wanted to finally see that story represented. For all those kids who feel on the fringes of normal, I want them to discover that they are the bright, shining stuff stars are made of, just as they are.
What’s one interesting tidbit about writing or publishing this book that you could tell us about?
I started this book in my masters program at Brigham Young University, and had the incredible fortune to work with author Martine Leavitt. (Everyone should read Calvin, it’s absolutely genius.) I wrote the first bits of this book in her workshop, and she was instrumental in helping me figure out how all the puzzle pieces fit together!
It’s been a long journey for you to get to this publishing milestone. Can you share one piece of advice you’ve received along the way that’s been helpful?
Oh man, long journey indeed! STARS is my fourth book, and I’ve been querying this and other books since 2012. Several books and hundreds of rejections later, I can honestly say that things worked out exactly the way they needed to. I feel much more prepared to launch a publishing career now than I would have been any earlier, and it is absolutely right that STARS is my first book.
The best advice I’ve been given on this journey is that the two things you really need are grit and friendship. Everything else will come if you have those two things. Find your inner-grit and learn to finish projects. Learn to keep working and moving on to the next one even when you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Hold to grit in the face of inevitable rejection (you’ll be facing that your whole career, if you’re in this for the long haul.) And find friends who are with you on this writing journey. Find writers at your same level, and follow and learn from authors who are a few steps ahead. If you can, find writers who are able to mentor you. Keep working, make friends, and you’ll get there.
If our readers want to know more about you and your writing, where can they find that information?
Indeed I am! I’ve got another book coming out with FSG in 2021 (also a sisters story!) and I can’t wait to share more about it!
Thank you so much for sharing with us today. I look forward to adding your book to my library’s collection.
Thank you so much for having me, and giving Libby such a warm welcome into this world!
Sarah Allen is the author of WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF. She has been published in The Evansville Review, Allegory, and on WritersDigest, and has an MFA from Brigham Young University. She’s a major lover of Pixar, leather jackets, and Colin Firth.
Early in the morning, when my kids are asleep, I’m a writer of science-fiction novels for middle-grade readers. My first book, IN THE RED, will be out on March 24 from HarperCollins. It’s the story of two kids living on Mars who get stranded during a solar flare and have to find their way back home.
Once the sun is in the sky, though, I’m an engineering manager at Roblox, which is a platform for middle-grade kids to make their own video games and play each other’s games. (If you’ve never heard of Roblox, ask a ten-year-old; after they roll their eyes at you, they’ll explain in great detail). One surprising thing I’ve learned after over a decade of working in the video game industry is that writing a novel and designing a game are pretty similar activities that require a lot of the same skills.
Don’t believe me? Read on…
Any video game has a setting: think of the strange world of bricks, turtles, and walking mushrooms from Super Mario Brothers, or the kooky science-fiction universe of Overwatch. Similarly, a big part of writing fantasy or science fiction is coming up with an imaginative setting. In both cases, the goal is to transport the audience to a different world—one that feels strange but somewhat familiar, exciting and yet in some ways predictable, and vivid but also believable.
IN THE RED takes place on Mars in the twenty-second century, when life there is normal enough that kids grow up there not knowing anything about what it’s like to live on Earth. As I was coming up with the story, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what life would be like for those kids. I imagined that while early colonists would probably have lived underground for protection from solar radiation, eventually people would create large domed cities with shops, neighborhoods, schools, and parks. Everything inside the domes would feel pretty normal.
Except, of course, that it’s not normal at all. After all, you’re on Mars, which means that as soon as you leave the dome you have to deal with a deadly atmosphere, harsh solar radiation, and temperatures colder than Antarctica. And that’s all on a good day!
That intriguing world where inside is perfectly safe, outside is OMG YOU’RE TOTALLY GOING TO DIE planted some of the seeds that eventually became the idea for the novel.
Ah, rules. Kids hate them, don’t they?
Except, as every parent knows, there are no rules, your kids will be more bored than ever. Sometimes my kids spend more time making up the rules for their games than they actually spend playing them: “Okay, you’re totally dead if two nerf bullets hit your torso or one hits your head, but you’re just wounded if a sword hits you, except if you’re touching one of these three bases, and no close-range shots because they hurt, and also…”
Video game designers devote a lot of time to the rules of their games. In a sense, all gameplay is rules. Do this and you succeed. Do this other thing, and you fail. One of the fun things about games is that the rules can be extremely arbitrary and imaginative. Why does eating fruit make Pac-Man invincible? Dunno, but it’s fun!
Rules are the core of world-building for novels, too. They define what the characters can and can’t accomplish. The rules of THE HOBBIT dictate that Gandalf has many powers. But the rules also say that he’s not capable of just teleporting everyone to the Lonely Mountain, because otherwise the book would be about four pages long. Trolls are dangerous at night, but if you keep them out until the sun rises, they turn to stone. Bilbo is a master burglar, but even with his magic ring, Smaug the dragon can smell him.
With middle-grade and young-adult novels in particular, the rules are heavily shaped by parents and society. Stories for preteens usually involve bending rules that are well-meaning but flawed: CHARLOTTE’S WEB is about persuading the adult world that Wilbur deserves to live. Books for older teenagers are often about taking those stupid rules, throwing them in the trash, and then blowing up the trash can for good measure. The characters in THE HUNGER GAMES break every one of the rules of that world, and we cheer them on the entire time.
Part of the storyline for IN THE RED deals with kids going out onto the surface of Mars, where you can be killed by a hundred different things. When I started writing, I wondered what the rules for that sort of world would be. In California we require you to be sixteen years old and pass an exam before you can drive a car. Maybe there would be something similar for kids of Mars, where they have to demonstrate that they know how to operate a space suit? That was an intriguing thought. What would kids think of an exam like that? How would they feel about passing or failing?
And what about parents on Mars? Do they set their own rules for their kids? (surely.) Do kids hate those rules and bend them any chance they get? (yes!) Do they sometimes go outside onto the surface in the middle of the night, just for the thrill of sneaking out? (they’re kids, aren’t they?)
Answering these questions helped add the details that made the setting for IN THE RED something that middle-grade readers could connect with.
One of the most fun things about video games is that you get to step into the shoes of a character: a sword-wielding ninja, a star quarterback, or a frenetic hedgehog. In a sense, every video game is written in the second person, where you are the hero or heroine.
Even though modern video games can show you that ninja in high-definition detail, there’s still an element of belief. You need to connect with that character in some way. The character needs to feel powerful in some way, or else it won’t feel possible to win the game. On the other hand, the character needs to be vulnerable, or else there’s no way to lose the game. On top of all of that, they need to be sympathetic and admirable, or else why would you want to be them?
Books usually aren’t written in the second person. Instead, they let a narrator or the protagonist themselves tell you what is happening. But if the story doesn’t connect the reader with that character, then no matter how whiz-bang the special effects plot and description, the reader isn’t going to be reading that book for long.
In particular, the main character needs to have something called agency, which is the power to affect the story through their actions. Can you imagine how boring it would be to read a book where the plot unfolds regardless of the choices the characters make? In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker is recruited by Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he has to make his own choice to leave Tattoine. If he were dragged across the galaxy whining about power converters, nobody would care about him at all.
Video games are great at agency. They are agency machines. Absolutely nothing happens unless the player does something. Writers have to worry about making sure characters make choices; game designers have the luxury of knowing that agency is built into the concept of video games.
IN THE RED focuses on a boy named Michael who has something called environment suit anxiety disorder, which means that he has a panic attack any time he puts on a helmet and goes out onto the surface. Now, if I were living on Mars with that condition, I’d just stay inside where it’s safe. But of course, Michael isn’t satisfied with staying inside. He isn’t satisfied with his diagnosis. He feels something is definitely wrong, but whatever it is, it’s not with him.
He takes the environment suit test even though his parents have forbidden it. He sneaks outside with his best friend at night. They drive hundreds of miles in the middle of the night to see his father, even though there’s a powerful solar storm going on. These choices are his, and they drive the story forward.
Of course, just because they’re his choices doesn’t mean they’re good ones—which goes to show that kids should always listen to their parents unless they want to unwittingly embark on life-or-death adventures.
The motto of NASA Mission Control during the Apollo Moon landings was “failure is not an option.” It’s a great quote that sums up how much they were willing to do anything to make the missions successful.
But of course, if failure weren’t an option, then they wouldn’t need that motto. There was a huge risk of failure, and which is exactly why they invested massive amounts of time in preparation, planning, and redundancy. The possibility of losing the astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission is why the story of their return is so good.
All novels have the possibility—the likelihood—of failure. Think of any gripping story and evaluate the hero or heroine’s chances of success. One in ten? One in a hundred? One in a thousand? Or, like one of the pilots in STAR WARS says about getting a proton torpedo into the ventilation shaft of the Death Star, one in a million?
Furthermore, the consequences of failure in any story need to be devastating. If heroes and heroines fail, bad things happen. People die, or the bank reposesses their farm, or they lose their best friend and get laughed at by the entire school and they spend the night of the big dance at home playing Jenga with bad-breath Aunt Marge. Whatever it is that might happen, the protagonist of the story cares deeply about it not happening. They tell themselves that failure is not an option, and we silently cheer them on.
This isn’t to say that characters don’t suffer failures and setbacks. Readers don’t want to see a nice clean journey without any roadbumps. Smaller failures raise the stakes and add to the difficulty. Any time the characters in a movie have a plan to solve their problem after only thirty minutes, you know that plan is going to fail.
As anyone who has watched me play Madden on my kids’ XBox can attest, failure is a huge part of video games. It’s built into the system. You start out unable to meet even the smallest challenge. You fail over and over, until your skills start to improve. Then the game gets harder and you fail some more. The risk is always there. Why would you play a game that didn’t have the risk of failure?
Video game designers know all of this because they learned it from writers.
Michael, the main character of IN THE RED, begins by feeling the emotional risk of being rejected and ostracized because his panic attacks prevent him from going out onto the surface. His choices in the story lead to more risks. By choosing to sneak out, he takes the known risk that he might end up grounded till he’s thirty years old. But he also runs into the unknown risks of Mars itself. A massive solar flare knocks out all of the planet’s communication and navigation satellites and Michael and Lilith end up stranded out on the surface. They can’t go out onto the surface during the day for more than a few minutes without being killed by radiation. As they try to find their way back, more risks emerge: collapsing glaciers, man-made volcanoes, dust storms. If it weren’t for the risks (both emotional and physical), there literally wouldn’t be a story to tell.
We all need excitement in our lives. But we also need down time. We need rest; we need moments with our families and friends; we need time to reflect.
Game designers know this very well. No game sets a single pace and keeps it throughout. They’re always broken up into levels and missions that give the player some quiet time to take a breath before heading out into the excitement again.
And where did game designers get this idea? From writers. Friends, writers invented pacing. Thousands of years ago, when we first gathered around campfires, the first storytellers taught themselves how to pace their stories. Beowulf, the Odyssey, and other epics enshrined patterns for structure and pacing. Heroes and heroines venture out—they suffer setbacks—they regroup—and they journey again.
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE is a good example. The book contains a series of exciting encounters: a fight with a troll, a Quiddich match, a visit to the Forbidding Forest. But each of these is separated by quieter scenes where Harry and his friends are given the time to process the crazy things that are happening.
Can you imagine if those quieter scenes weren’t there? Would the book be anywhere near as good if it were jam-packed with TROLLS WIZARDS DRAGONS CENTAURS VOLDEMORT GO GO GO GO…?
I had to be very conscious of pacing with IN THE RED. When Michael and Lilith arrive at his father’s research station, they find it mysteriously abandoned. As they try to figure out what has happened there, the two of them have a little time to feel the emotions that all of the risks have brought on. This gives the reader time to pause and regroup as the story builds up again. And then, of course, Michael and Lilith discover the reason everyone has fled the station. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.)
Video games are the same way. Pick any single-player game and you’ll see small challenges that lead to big challenges that lead to a final confrontation. Even positively ancient video games like Pac Man, Galaga, and Donkey Kong do this: they apply some pressure, they increase the risk, and then they give you a chance to rest for a moment before throwing you back into more challenges.
So far none of my kids has said to me that they want to be a writer when they grow up. That’s fine—I’ll be happy and proud of them no matter what they do. But they do tell me, quite often, that they think they’d like to design video games. In response, I nod sagely and give them a supportive hug.
And then I hand them a book to read.
Christopher Swiedler is an author and software engineer who lives with his wife and three children in California, where they’re under constant threat from earthquakes, tsunamis, and the occasional Martian dust storm. His goal in life is to win the Newbery Honor (not the medal itself) because he believes being a runner-up builds good character. He is represented by Bridget Smith of JABberwocky Literary Agency. His debut novel, IN THE RED, will be published by HarperCollins in March 2020. He can be found at https://christopherswiedler.com
For almost a decade, I’ve considered myself a children’s author who writes funny books about serious topics. While the stories I’ve published feature silly magical creatures, over-the-top embarrassing situations, and plenty of goofy puns, they also touch on more emotional elements such as bullying, chronic illness, and divorce. I’ve become used to thinking of humor as my “in” into tougher stories, a way to make the subject matter more accessible to myself—and to readers.
However, when I set out to write my newest novel, The Wonder of Wildflowers, which deals with the complex issue of immigration, funny just wasn’t cutting it. No matter how many times I tried to infuse humor into a story inspired by my own experiences as a young immigrant acclimating to a new, seemingly magical world, it just fell flat. I was ready to abandon the project and move on.
Then one day, I had an epiphany. What if my character wasn’t navigating a new world that only seemed magical to her because of where she’d come from? What if this new home really was magical? Perhaps it was the only country in the world to have access to magic. Once I knew that, the rest of the story fell into place fairly quickly. It turned out that magic was my “in” this time.
Now, whenever I approach a new project, I consider what my strongest “in” will be. Perhaps it will, once again, be humor or magic. Or maybe it will be a certain relationship that I’m curious to explore or a specific type of setting that I’m excited to depict. Knowing your “story in” can help you decide what to emphasize in your narrative, and it can also motivate you to keep going if you get stuck. And, ultimately, it can help keep you—and your readers—engaged in the story you’re telling.
Anna Staniszewski is the author of over a dozen books for young readers, including the novels The Dirt Diary and Secondhand Wishes, as well as the picture books Dogosaurus Rex and Power Down, Little Robot, and the Once Upon a Fairy Tale early chapter book series. She was a Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library and a winner of the PEN New England Discovery award, and she currently teaches in the MFA Writing for Children Program at Simmons University. Visit her at http://www.annastan.com.
Hi Julie, and welcome to MG Book Village. I’m delighted to have you here today as part of our Fast Forward Friday feature. Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, please?
Thank you so much for having me, Kathie! MG Book Village has been a go-to place for everything middle grade, so I’m excited to be here.
I was born in Japan and grew up in California and Virginia, spending many summers with my grandparents in Chiba, Japan. Nowadays, you can find me behind my computer working for my day job or… also hidden behind my computer, working on my stories. For fun, I like to bake bread in the shape of animals and travel.
My love for writing started with my love for books. When I was younger, I was the stay-up-all-night, reading-under-the-blankets kind of kid. And I moved around a few times, so it was tough to find the best friend that I always wanted, but books never let me down.
After college, I started working but I was missing something… the books I’d loved. I started reading again, and that inspired me to try writing. Over time, I realized publication was a true dream of mine, and I seriously started writing. I tried writing all kinds of stories, but when I began writing EVA, my debut, something about it felt so right.
Your debut book, EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH is set to be released in August 2020 by Little, Brown Young Readers. I’d love it if you could describe it in your own words, and tell us what inspired it.
EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH is about a 12-year-old girl with a pinch of magic who’s determined to pass her witch’s test… or she’ll lose her powers forever.
A few years ago, I was querying a young adult contemporary novel that was a bit dark, and something about it made my heart so heavy every time I worked on it. Querying itself is a difficult process, and I had begun to lose hope. Then I thought of this story of a girl without a lot of powers but determined and full of hope. Writing EVA uplifted me, and I pulled in so many things I love, like Eva’s companion, Ember, who is based on my best furry friend, and tasty food like cloudberry popcorn (I love popcorn!) and contomelon rolls (based off of melon pan, a tasty Japanese bread).
I also wrote about things that scare me… I was in Japan during the 2011 Great Tohoku earthquake. It hit with a magnitude of 9.0 off the coast of Japan, when I was on a train with my mother and grandmother. I thought the train was derailing, but when I looked outside the window, everything was rippling. We couldn’t get home that night and had to stay with a family friend but… we were definitely the lucky ones.
Seeing Japan torn apart by the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdowns trickled into my story, and my wish that I could’ve done something to fix things, even in the face of impossible disasters, is also something that Eva feels when she fights the dangerous storm that looms over her realm.
What do you hope young readers will take away from your book?
I want readers to feel like they’ve snuggled up to a flamefox and their heart is a little warmer from following Eva’s adventures. Most of all, even when things get tough, I want them to have hope and to believe in themselves.
Can you share one thing that has surprised you about publishing your debut book?
The joy of art! As writers, we naturally focus on the written word, but I love seeing the art that Shan Jiang, the cover artist for EVA, has come up with. He’s also working on art for the beginning of each chapter of EVA. He’s capture the essence of Eva and her adventures so well—it’s real-life magic! (You can find Shan on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/shanjiang790/)
I also celebrated my debut book deal by commissioning art by the talented Mariana Avilez (https://www.instagram.com/mavilezart/)! It’s been so much fun to make stickers and buttons of my characters, and I can’t wait to share these with future readers!
These are so cool! Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?
Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and best of luck during your debut year.
Thank you so much, Kathie!
Julie Abe is the author of EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH, releasing in 2020 (Little, Brown Young Readers), and the second book in the series, releasing 2021. She has lived in Silicon Valley, spent many humid summers in Japan, and currently basks in the sunshine of Southern California with never enough books or tea. Keep up her latest books and adventures on Julie’s Instagram at www.instagram.com/julieabebooks.
Nic Stone is a New York Times Best Selling Author whose work I first experienced when I read her debut YA novel, Dear Martin in 2017. It became a book of my heart. One that I spoke of and shared widely because, for me, Justyce McAllister was just like my son and through its pages, Dear Martin echoed the cries of my heart for social justice and change. That’s what Nic does. She has a way of telling a story that pulls the reader in deep, to the point where they are fully engrossed as the journey unfolds; making the reader an intimate friend living out the experience alongside the characters.
In Clean Getaway the reader gets to buckle up as a passenger aboard G’ma’s RV with her grandson William “Scoob-a-Doob” Lamar, as the two venture off on an impromptu road trip with a grip of money, a treasure box, and a whole lot of family secrets. They’re sort of off the grid and William’s Dad grows more worried by the hour but G’ma is on a mission, crossing multiple state lines to see it through to the end. Along the way, Scoob learns about the Green Book and how it was once used to help keep Black travelers safe. They visited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, made a stop by Medgar Evers home in Jackson, Mississippi, and made it as far as Texas before anyone could ever catch up to them. It may not have entirely been the clean getaway that G’ma was hoping for, but it was a trip that William “Scoob-a-Doob” Lamar would never forget.
Nic Stone nails Middle Grade and I am grateful to Jason Reynolds for inspiring her to go for it. Clean Getaway is relatable, funny, and heart-warming. The relationship G’ma and Scoob shared made me smile. I also appreciated the historical nuggets that are peppered throughout for our students to glean from. The chapters are short and at only 223 pages, it is the perfect length. Some Middle Grade books can be incredibly long and while there are many students who do borrow lengthy books from our library, most of my students are inclined to pick up the shorter reads. And with the cover art and interior illustrations by Dawud Anyabwile, this is the sort of book that they will be compelled to pick up. I will quickly add this book to our collection for our students to enjoy.
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.
Hi Lee! I really appreciate you stopping by MG Book Village today to tell us about your upcoming book, THE GUARDIANS OF ZOONE (release date: Feb 25, 2020). I’m a HUGE fan of this series, but for those who aren’t familiar with the first book, THE SECRET OF ZOONE, can you give them a bit of a synopsis, please?
The Secret of Zoone is a story about a boy named Ozzie who feels stuck in his life—that is until a giant winged tiger (a skyger!) guides him through a door located in The Depths of his apartment building and takes him to the bustling nexus of Zoone, where a thousand doors lead to a thousand worlds in the multiverse.
One problem! The portal collapses behind them, which means Ozzie is stuck again . . . though, if you’re going to be stranded anywhere, it might as well be Zoone. As Ozzie figures out a way to get home, a new threat looms over the nexus—and it might just be up to Ozzie and his new band of friends to save Zoone and the entire multiverse.
Did you know when you wrote THE SECRET OF ZOONE that it was going to be a series, and do you have an idea of how many books there may be?
Actually, I first started this project by world-building the nexus of Zoone and populating it with different characters and creatures. I didn’t actually have a plot in mind at the very beginning. The plot grew as the world grew. I thought if I could build a compelling location, then it would be easy enough to run around in it. Because there are so many different worlds connected to Zoone, there is a lot of potential for adventure.
How did writing Book 2 differ from writing Book 1?
I find every book presents its own challenges, but Book 1 required a lot of groundwork in terms of the world building and also for me to figure out and establish a certain narrative style and voice.
Book 2 was easier because I knew my voice and characters really well. The challenge becomes what to do with those characters. I think readers want each book in a series to be similar enough to the first one so that they can have that sense of revisiting—but they don’t want the same old thing again, either. So, it’s a challenge of making the story significantly different and taking the characters in a new direction. Readers want to see characters grow, from book to book.
That’s certainly what I tried to do with The Guardians of Zoone. One of the main things I wanted to explore in this book is the relationship between Ozzie and his Aunt Temperance.
One of the things I most enjoy about this series is the creative world-building, and how Zoone is a gateway into many other worlds. Where do you find your inspiration for these worlds?
For me, writing has a broad definition. Many people think writing is just slaving away at a keyboard—but for me, that’s just one part of the process. I spend a lot of time in my brainstorming journal, doodling, mapping, diagramming, and sketching. I’m a very visual person, and have some illustrative background, so I find it easier to write once I’ve developed my characters visually.
I also build a lot of props. I imagine so many different things for my worlds—suitcases, creature eggs, keys, potions, jewelry—and I want to bring those things to life. So, I build a lot of props to go with my worlds. I think this helps me create more unique and interesting details for my books and, quite frankly, building and drawing is good thinking time for me. How many people have told me that they’ve worked out a plot problem while doing the dishes? For me, it’s while sculpting a dragon egg!
I also take a lot of inspiration from travel. As a writer, I am always “on.” When I travel, my brainstorming book and camera go with me everywhere and I just record whatever I find interesting (even if I don’t know WHY I find it interesting at the time, I still record it . . . because I know it will serve as fuel for me down the road).
Do you have a favorite character or relationship in this story?
A central part of Guardians is the relationship between Ozzie and his Aunt Temperance. In Book 1, she gets left behind and most of the things we learn about her are through Ozzie’s memory or perspective. In Book 2, his beliefs about that relationship—and about her, actually—are challenged. It was a lot of fun to explore that relationship and the character of Aunt Temperance in particular. If I had to pick a character that I’m most similar to, it would be her. Where she’s at in her life during the events of this book is inspired by the challenges I faced when I was in my late 20s. I was never in the circus like Aunt Temperance (just the circus of life!), but I did have major life decisions and crises to face during that time.
What is the most interesting feedback you’ve had from young readers about your writing?
I find that my characters and worlds tend to inspire artistic expression. I receive a lot of fan art from readers or I see a lot of photos of kids who decide to dress up as my characters. This past Halloween, a girl went as Fidget (the princess with inappropriately purple hair), which I thought was amazing. It’s great in general when kids choose to dress as any book character (as opposed to one from a movie)—and when it’s my own character, it’s very humbling. There was also a class that performed scenes from one of my books, which was also very exciting.
In a way, it feels full circle—because I begin the writing process by drawing and building, and that’s how readers respond.
Do you have a new project on which you’re currently working?
I may return to Zoone at some point, but right now I’m working on a new book that is due out with HarperCollins in Fall 2021. There is not too much I can reveal at this point, but I can say what I’ve already mentioned on Social Media, which is that it’s a book about magic brooms. Most people think fantasy plus brooms equals flying, but, in my book, brooms do what they are meant to do—sweep. It’s just that they sweep up a very particular thing . .
I’m so excited to hear about this, I can’t wait to read another story from you!
Now I’m going to ask a question near and dear to my heart because tomorrow is I Read Canadian Day: how do we spread the word about the wonderful authors and stories being created in Canada?
One of the great things about Canada is that we’re a tight-knit community. I see this in the kidlit author community— seems like everyone knows everyone—and if you don’t know someone, it’s only two degrees of separation. So, in that way, it’s easy to let the entire community know about an event like I Read Canadian Day, so that we can cross promote.
The bigger challenge is letting people in the general public know about all of our great Canadian books. So, my advice would be to embrace, shout about it, celebrate it as much as possible. Or, to put it another way: “Be like Kathie!” I so admire your devotion to and promotion of Canadian authors. If we keep talking about Canadian lit, then maybe we can get through to the general public.
I do think an important part of this is the perception of Canadian lit content. I have this feeling that the average person tends to hear the words “Canadian literature” and thinks of books that are overtly “Canadian” or are cherished classics, like Anne of Green Gables. Of course, these books should be continued to be celebrated—but Canadian kidlit has so much more!
In my opinion, a Canadian story isn’t one necessarily set in Canada, or one that expressly covers an aspect of Canadian history or culture (though, once again, I will emphasize that these types of books are important). To me, a Canadian book is one that is simply written by a Canadian—these books are automatically invested with our particular Canadian sentiment. For example, Jonathan Auxier’s GG-winning book, Sweep: A Story of a Girl and Her Monster takes place in Victorian England, but I think it really captures a Canadian sense of values. I think we need to keep promoting the diversity of Canadian literature that already exists—diversity of cultural voices, diversity of genres, diversity of types of story.
Personally, I’m passionate about I Read Canadian Day—and it’s not just because I’m a Canadian author, but because I also work as an educator and I want my students to learn about these great books. I am the co-founder and lead mentor for a creative writing program for kids (it’s called CWC) and as part of our weekly classes we have lit circles. To help celebrate I Read Canadian Day, our organization is asking all of our mentors to put Canadian books on our lists for the month of February. Of course, our classes routinely feature Canadian authors, but this is our way of drawing special attention to it.
What a fantastic answer, I’m so glad I asked you the question!
Where can our readers find you if they want to know more about you and your writing?
I’m on the main social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) and I also have my own website, leefodi.com, which features a lot of content for readers—especially librarians and teachers. There are book trailers posted there, along with teacher guides with some fun activities that can be rolled out in the classroom. Since I’m an educator myself, I take pride in my fun activities! I also have a newsletter that you can sign up for on my website—each newsletter features an activity, with handouts, that can be used in the classroom.
Thank you again so much for joining us today, and best of luck with your book’s launch. We should also let people know that THE SECRET OF ZOONE just came out in paperback, so if they haven’t picked up a copy yet, they can do so now.
Thank you so much for your support. I love the MG Book Village community. Writing can be a lonely enterprise, and MG Book Village provides one more way for me to connect with the larger creative world.
Lee Edward Födi is an author, illustrator, and specialized arts educator—or, as he likes to think of himself, a daydreaming expert. He is the author of The Books of Zoone and the Kendra Kandlestar series. Lee has also illustrated several picture books for other authors.
When he’s not daydreaming himself, he teaches kids how to put their own daydreaming to good use at schools and libraries, and through workshops with the Creative Writing for Children (CWC) society, which he co-founded in 2004. CWC was started to help immigrant kids to express their creativity through writing, and Lee is really proud of the work he does with students, helping kids from a range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to tap into their creativity.
During his free time, he’s a traveler, adventurer, and maker of dragon eggs. HeI especially loves to visit exotic places where he can lose himself (sometimes literally!) in tombs, mazes, castles, and crypts. He lives in Vancouver with his wife, Marcie, and son, Hiro.
Hello, Deborah! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your work! Before we get to your books, please introduce yourself to our readers.
I am thrilled to share with readers of the MG Book Village blog about my books and writing process.
I am an insatiable reader. I was born in Philadelphia and spent countless hours in the Free Library of Philadelphia growing up. One summer I set out to read every book in the children’s section. I remember that whenever I was deeply immersed in a book, which was nearly always, I did not hear anything around me even when my family kept telling me it was time for dinner!
I started writing in college at Cornell University. I had once wanted to be a United Nations translator, but after college I discovered that I was good at, and loved, writing about science topics for nonscientists. My work as a science writer and children’s author, including in my award-winning books Beauty and the Beak and Scientists Get Dressed, is like being a translator. My job is to translate complex concepts for the public, especially kids. One of the best things about what I do is that I am always learning, and each book opens up new worlds of discovery for me—which I can then share with readers anywhere.
This year marks 30 years since my first children’s book, The People Who Hugged the Trees: An Environmental Folktale, was published. I wrote it for my then infant daughter, to tell her a story of a brave girl who grew up to protect the environment. To this day it is read around the world. Just in the last two years, it has been included in school reading collections in South Africa and France.
And 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of my book Into the A, B, Sea: An Ocean Alphabet which has sold a quarter million copies. I wrote it for my son when he was learning to write alphabet letters in the sand, on a beach by the Pacific Ocean. I am crazy about ocean animals and to me, the ocean and the alphabet each offers vast combinations of life and language.
Kids always want to know what my favorite children’s book is. Ever since I was in the middle grades, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web has been my favorite, and still is! I remember to this day how the school librarian first showed us the book and started reading it to us. The book let me travel in my imagination to a world so different than my own growing up. The book also has many factual pieces of the natural world woven into its fictional story about the power of friendship and the power of words.
I didn’t realize then—and kids, teachers and librarians are often surprised when I tell them now—that the character of Charlotte the spider is a writer. She works a lot like I do. She thinks a long time before she writes, she writes when everyone else is asleep, she gets help from her friends, she checks her spelling, and she shows her words in the best light possible. Most importantly, she uses her words for good, to save the life of a friend. Her story reminds me again and again that words are powerful. They can teach, inspire, comfort, entertain, and change someone’s life.
You write both fiction and nonfiction. Is your process very different for the two? What are the similarities?
When I write fiction, like The Spelling Bee Before Recess, I can be silly and play with the facts, but in writing nonfiction I’m more serious. A similarity is that ideas for both fiction and nonfiction often come to me when I least expect them. Then I have to run to get a pen or get to the computer and put down the words pouring into my mind. I do a huge amount of research for both kinds of books. The more I know, the more I can weave into the story. My factual research helps me launch and build a story, whether nonfiction or fiction.
How do you typically choose a topic—and once you land on one, how do you decide whether to approach it via fiction or nonfiction?
Mostly it seems like topics choose me! I have had book ideas unexpectedly triggered by a single photo, or a sound, or a sentence in an article. The idea for Scientists Get Dressed came when my 9-year-old great-niece showed me a family photo of her mother Dr. Lucy Rose. In the photo her mother, a freshwater chemist, was wearing chest waders and standing in an icy stream to check her pollution testing equipment. “This is what Mommy does?” I asked in astonishment.
I began thinking about many other scientists I knew and had worked with, and what they wear. I had been fascinated that Janie Veltkamp, my raptor biologist coauthor of Beauty and the Beak, wears puncture-proof gloves for her work with sick and injured wild birds of prey. I discovered through further research that all scientists get dressed for the specific work they do and the places they do it. Scientists Get Dressed is about so many different, real scientists—and facts are so critical to their work—that the book had to be nonfiction.
Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle is a true story, but to recreate Beauty the bald eagle’s life before any humans came into contact with her, I had to borrow facts about bald eagles in the wild and use them to recreate Beauty’s experiences. One reason I wrote Beauty and the Beak is because it’s not just about a single rescued bald eagle, but also about how bald eagles were an endangered species, brought back from near extinction on the U.S. mainland by environmental conservationists and scientists. Because of their heroic efforts, kids across the country can see bald eagles soaring in the wild or even nesting in kids’ own neighborhoods!
You are here, primarily, to discuss a pair of your recent nonfiction books—Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak—so let’s chat more generally about nonfiction. What does your process look like for creating a nonfiction book?
To create nonfiction I talk to lots of people about my topic. That’s one of my favorite parts of doing a book. For Beauty and the Beak, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to coauthor the book with Janie Veltkamp, who led the team that engineered Beauty the bald eagle’s pioneering, 3D-printed prosthetic beak. Janie has encyclopedic knowledge about eagles, and Beauty’s story was Janie’s own scientist story too.
To create fiction I draw a lot on memories, things I see, my senses, words of all kinds, and my imagination. I don’t talk to a lot of other people about fiction I’m writing until I’m almost finished. I have a lot of fun working through fiction ideas inside my own head. I take it as a very good sign if I laugh out loud while I’m writing fiction!
How do you conduct your research? Does it change from book to book?
One thing that doesn’t change is that I gather way more research than I can use for each book. But it’s amazing how all that research may contain one fact that my editor suddenly wants me to include, or facts that an illustrator can use for visual storytelling to go with what I write.
I do my research by reading, watching videos, looking at many, many photos, and listening to interviews, in addition to talking to experts. For Scientists Get Dressed I was in contact with scientists and photographers around the world. They could tell me about their firsthand experiences, from collecting frozen snow samples on a glacier to gathering burning lava samples on a volcano. Their excitement and insight helps me make reading my nonfiction books a richer and deeper experience for both kids and adults.
Do you have any general tips for young, aspiring nonfiction writers?
Photographs are a fantastic source of ideas and research. Nonfiction is so huge, you can write about almost anything that grabs your interest and imagination. Making sure your facts are correct can be challenging. You can’t just trust all the information you see on the Internet. Always try to use more than one source for your research, and compare your sources to see what they say that is the same or different.
Whenever I talk to kids at schools, I tell them they don’t have to write the beginning of a book first! If an idea comes to me that might be best in the middle or the end of a book, that’s OK. I do not start writing all my books at the beginning of the story.
Advice that kids and teachers really like: If you get writer’s block, change what you’re doing. If you’re sitting, stand up. If you’re staring at a computer screen, go take a walk instead. Make a drawing of your ideas first and then try to turn them into words. If you can’t think of a word, look through the dictionary or a thesaurus. Try writing with a writing partner. Hug a tree, bake cookies, listen to birds singing, read a book…All these can help you write. I know, because I have done ALL of them!
And my best advice for the writing itself— USE STRONG VERBS.
Now, let’s get to the books. Can you tell us briefly about Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak?
Scientist Get Dressed looks through the unique lens of scientists’ clothing to spotlight how scientists—including some who are also engineers—suit up, gown up, gear up, and even dress up in costume to make new discoveries, save lives, and save the planet.
Beauty and the Beak is a true story capturing the STEM innovation and human compassion that gave Beauty the bald eagle a new, 3D-printed, prosthetic beak after her real beak was shattered by a poacher’s bullet.
Both of these books combine multiple STEM disciplines in unique ways—scientific concepts and scientists as people in the one, and engineering, 3D printing technology and wildlife rehabilitation in the other. Was this a conscious choice? Or is this a reflection of how the real world works?
Both books are reflections of how the real world works, and both look at the world of real scientists doing extremely challenging jobs. Scientists Get Dressed is built on the foundation that science as a whole is not just random facts, but connected knowledge discovered through human endeavor. Beauty and the Beak grows from the real life of an extraordinary animal rescued by an extraordinary scientist harnessing state-of-the-art technology.
Was there anything that didn’t end up being included in either of these books that you want to share with readers here?
Scientists Get Dressed was published just a few months before the first all-woman spacewalk in 2019. I would have loved to include photos of those two astronauts together, getting dressed for their historic work in space. Luckily, my very next book WILL include them! The book is titled Astronauts Zoom! and it will be published in early fall 2020, in plenty of time for the 20th anniversary, on November 2, of astronauts living continuously on the International Space Station.
What do you hope your readers—especially the young ones—take away from your books, particularly Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak?
Kids often learn a lot about STEM without ever meeting a scientist or engineer, or seeing images of how and where STEM professionals do their amazing work. I want young readers to see in Scientists Get Dressed, Beauty and the Beak and Astronauts Zoom! that real people make the discoveries and progress that are changing our lives. And I want young readers to imagine themselves someday doing important and rewarding work.
Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians. Is there anything you’d like to say to them—in particular those who may consider adding your books to their classrooms and libraries?
A lot of my books have been in print quite a while, so I know they have a long shelf life! In light of this, I work especially hard to write my books so they are relevant and empowering not just today but in the future. I craft my writing so children can listen to, read from, learn from and be inspired by my books for multiple years as they are growing up. I also know that adults read children’s books, with kids and on their own. I read so many children’s books to my own kids—I want the books I write to engage adult readers as well.
Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
My author website www.deborahleerose.com includes free educational guides, interviews, a contact form and much more.