Interview with Karla Manternach

Hi, Karla! Thank you so much for joining in today to tell us a little bit about your upcoming book, NEVER FEAR, MEENA’S HERE! (March 24, 2020 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). Before we talk about your new book, can you tell us about your debut book, MEENA MEETS HER MATCH, that came out in January 2019?

Sure! Meena Zee is a scrappy, imaginative third grader who wants to make the best Valentine box in her class. She especially wants to beat Sofía, who was her best friend until Sofía inexplicably stopped playing with her at recess. Meena starts scavenging in the neighborhood recycling bins for supplies, but when an unexpected seizure sends her to the ER, her parents and teacher won’t leave her alone long enough to work on her big idea. The scarier Meena’s diagnosis looks, the more frantically she works to create the winning box. But she can’t see how her trash-picked project can compete–or how she’ll ever outshine Sofía if her own body is a mess.

Did you know you were going to be writing a sequel at that time?

I wrote the first book as a stand-alone, but when Krista Vitola at Simon & Schuster made an offer on the book, she asked for a second one, too. I was thrilled for a chance to follow Meena on a new adventure and see what she got up to next!

I just had the opportunity to read NEVER FEAR, MEENA’S HERE!, and I truly enjoyed it. I love that Meena is so headstrong and spirited, and yet there is some truly important subject matter covered as Meena accepts what it means to have epilepsy. How would you describe this book in your own words?

In the new story, Meena finds an unusual object that seems to give her superpowers. She spends a lot of time trying to figure out what her powers are and how to use them. She’s also starting treatment for epilepsy, and she sees that as a weakness. I’d say it’s a story about Meena confronting her sense of grandiosity. On the one hand, that’s a quality I love about her. She is single-minded and fearless in going after what she wants. On the other hand, she needs to learn to learn to think about how her actions affect other people and to consider her friends’ feelings instead of bulldozing over them. She also needs to learn that her medical condition won’t stop her from doing great things–but that sometimes small acts of kindness and solidarity have the biggest impact of all.

I love the cover of this book. Can you tell me a bit about the design team?

Tom Daly at Simon & Schuster designed both books. I love the playfulness and exuberance of his vision! Rayner Alencar illustrated the first book. He has a very eye-catching, anime-inspired look that was the perfect way to introduce readers to Meena as a character. Mina Price illustrated the new book. She did an amazing job of creating something that is faithful to the original yet still very much in her own style–and in a way that hints at the story to come. I feel very fortunate to have hit the illustrator jackpot twice!

I know the subject matter of the book is close to home for you. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this series?

My daughter Amelia started having seizures when she was nine years old. It was a scary time for our whole family, especially at the beginning while she was being tested for a possible brain tumor. Amelia taught me a lot during that time about how young children deal with fear and uncertainty. They feel and think about it deeply, but they also find ways to cling to their “kid-ness.” I really wanted to explore that in the first book.

In the second book, I wanted to develop the sibling relationships, especially between Meena and her little sister, Rosie. I’m a middle child myself. I have an older sister, and I am an older sister, so I feel like I have insight into both experiences. My daughter Mara is the little sister in our home. I wrote the second book for her. Even though Rosie isn’t the title character, I wanted to give her a chance to shine and to help Meena grow and learn something about herself. Completely by coincidence, the book comes out on Mara’s birthday. I couldn’t have planned that, but to me it’s perfect.

If there’s one thing you’d like our readers to know, what would it be?

I’d like them to know that the new book expands and develops Meena’s whole web of relationships. We get to know all the other characters better, especially Sofía, Rosie, and cousin Eli. I’d also like to keep reminding everyone that books about girls are not just for girls. I think that might be an adult hang-up even more than it is for kids. When I go to book signings, most adults bring their daughters and granddaughters and nieces along. I love that they do. I’m grateful they think the girls in their lives will connect with the book. But I want them to know that boys do, too. When I go to schools, the boys I meet are every bit as enthusiastic about Meena’s story as their female classmates.

Are there more Meena stories on the way, or do you have another project on which you’re working right now?

I don’t have plans for another Meena story right now, but I’d love to revisit her world some day. I spent the last year working on a new middle grade novel. It’s a middle-school friendship story and deals with some tough themes related to real life versus virtual life and our need for connection versus the importance of standing on our own two feet. It is very much the book of my heart. I can picture the cover so clearly that it almost hurts. I hope I get to see it in print some day!

Some helpful links: media handle: @mskarlam (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram)

Thank you so much for joining us today, Karla!

Karla Manternach grew up in small-town Iowa, a grubby kid in tube socks who once stopped a parade by running in front of a fire truck for candy. When she was older, Karla detasseled corn, read Star Trek novels, and studied languages nobody speaks anymore. Today, Karla lives with her family in small-town Wisconsin where she creates books for young readers and works as a freelance writer. She is currently at work on a new middle grade novel.

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