Hi Terry! Thank you so much for allowing us to be part of your cover reveal. Can you please tell us about your upcoming release, and when it will be published?
Rescue at Lake Wild is about Madison, a 12-year-old girl, and her two best friends, who rescue a pair of orphaned beaver kits and then must keep them a secret. There is a poaching mystery to solve, a town’s beaver population to save, and a helpful, slightly food-obsessed dog named Lid. Expect lots of beaver mayhem. It comes out June 1, 2021 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I’d love to know where the idea from this story came from?
I worked with a wildlife rehabilitator one year in Kenora, Ontario and was astounded at her stories of caring for beaver kits. She gave me an insight into the hidden life of a beaver. Fast forward years later, I’d been wrestling with writing a novel about my job as a game warden, but couldn’t find the right kid-friendly approach. Then I saw a special on the Nature of Things about beavers, and the idea for this book was born.
Did you have any input on the cover, and who is the illustrator?
The illustrator is the amazing Maike of Front Desk fame. She gave us several sketches to choose from, and they were all fantastic. I’m lucky that my publisher has always asked for my input on my covers. What I really appreciated in this process was how Maike was able to capture the tone of the story in her art, since she had taken the time to read the book! Truly a wonderful experience for an author to have the illustrator get you! She also created a fun map!
Of course, I thought the art style looked familiar! OK, it’s time for the big reveal!
Wow, this is an amazing cover, Terry! It’s so bright and colorful.
And I’m double lucky in that this book also has wrap art. Here’s the whole work of art.
I LOVE the beaver and tree on the spine. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?
As with all my books, the wild animals in the story are as realistic as possible. To ensure the beaver kits’ behavior was true to life, I interviewed several wildlife rehabilitators, including one who told me an incredible personal story with a beaver she cared for. That story is depicted on the cover. I toured a wildlife rehab center and also visited beavers at a wildlife education facility, where one of the good-natured beavers allowed me to touch him so I could write accurate details. It’s fun being an author!
I highly recommend our readers check out your other middle grade titles if they’re not familiar with your writing. Where can they go for more information on you and your books?
Thanks for chatting with us today, and all the best with your book’s release. I cannot wait to read it!
I so appreciate everything you do for the MG community!
Terry Lynn Johnson writes middle grade adventures based on her experiences living in northern Ontario, Canada. She might have fallen through ice a time or two, been dragged by a dog team, and chased a bear with a chainsaw. She owned eighteen sled dogs, but now owns one border collie which is about the same amount of work. Her books have been recognized by Bank Street College Best Books, ABA Best Books, ILA Children’s Choice Book Award, Canadian Children’s Book Center Best Books, and been nominated for eighteen state Young Reader Book Awards. Rescue at Lake Wild is her tenth novel.
Welcome to MG Book Village, Gracie! I’m so happy that you could be part of our Fast Forward Friday feature. Your debut novel, Welcome to Superhero School, comes out this Tuesday, April 28th. Could you please let our readers know what it’s about?
Thanks for having me! Welcome to Superhero School is about a group of teenagers with superpowers, who all attend Superhero School. One day, they find out an evil organization called Vork is threatening their very livelihood. The teens must work together through perilous, life threatening situations to save not only themselves, but also the world.
Wow! That sounds exciting. I love a good action adventure novel, and who can resist one that involves superheroes? This is the first book in the Vork Chronicles series. Are you working on the next one, and are there any details you can share with us?
Yes, I am working on the next book in the series. The sequel features the same group of friends as Welcome to Superhero School, plus a few new characters. They’ve been selected to compete on a game show but aren’t aware yet of an underhanded twist lurking behind the scenes.
I’ve also written a short prequel, called Journey to Superhero School, featuring twins Oliver and Jessica Fletcher. If you would like to learn when Oliver and Jessica got their powers or how they were selected to go to Superhero School – this prequel is for you! You can download it on Amazon Kindle.
That’s a lot of writing! You are a high school student, right? How do you fit in time for writing with schoolwork and extracurricular activities?
Yes, I am currently a Junior in high school. I mostly write whenever I have free time during my classes or study halls. I wrote the entirety of Welcome to Superhero School on my school computer. Now with staying at home due to coronavirus, I have a lot more time for writing.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned on your writing journey?
The editing process is grueling! When I first started to edit Welcome to Superhero School there were so many edits to go through, even though I thought the book was ‘done’ at the time. Editing really opened my eyes to mistakes that I had made and to information I could add to help my story develop. Then, after finishing the first round of editing, I had to go back through a second round, and a third round, and many more rounds. Editing took much longer than I had expected but it was worth it in the end. I’ve learned that to be a good writer requires a lot of patience, flexibility, and editing.
What advice do you have for aspiring teen authors who read this interview?
Just go for it! Don’t let anyone or anything hold you back. Be yourself and write about what you love. If you get stuck, take a break. Something will come to you if you are passionate about it.
Don’t feel like you must have every detail of the whole story planned out to get started. I know some authors write that way, which is great, but believe it or not, once I had the basic plot I wrote the entirety of Welcome to Superhero School by letting the story evolve as I went along.
However, if you make things up as you go along, remember what you wrote previously to avoid plot holes. In fact, I keep a chart going as I write. The Welcome to Superhero chart includes information on all the characters, such as their powers, the order in which they appear, and where they were at certain moments in the story while I focused on another character. Also, if you are writing a book or novel with a larger number of main characters, remember to give each of them time in the spotlight throughout the story, so the reader doesn’t forget who they are.
I see that you are donating a portion of the proceeds from each book sold to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International? I love that you are giving back with your debut novel. What inspired you?
I really love animals. They are a big part of my life. In fact, they are such a big part of my life that I put one of my dogs, Snowball, as a character in the book. I love that people buying my book can also help animals all around the world with their purchase.
The characters in your book all have superpowers. If you could choose a superpower, what would it be?
Super agility – because agility includes strength, resistance and speed.
If you could say one thing to your readers, what would it be?
Don’t be embarrassed about your differences. The things that make you different also make you special. For example, I have ADHD and it has become one of my superpowers. Embrace who you are!
Where can people go to find out more information about you and your writing?
You can also follow my dogs on Instagram: @Sandy_and_Snowball
Thank you again for joining us today, Gracie, and best of luck with your book’s release!
Thank you for having me!
Gracie Dix is a high school student and author, who has been writing since she could hold a pencil. When Gracie isn’t writing, she can be found singing, creating art, in the theatre, volunteering, or playing tennis. She loves travel and is a loyal friend. Gracie lives in Dallas, Texas with her parents, brother, and her beloved dogs, Snowball and Sandcastle “Sandy.”
The best part of being a writer is getting letters and email from my readers. Middle grade readers particularly are so passionate about what they read. They tell you they are quite sure they are the biggest fan of your book that you’ve ever had. They tell you how much their life mirrors that of the main character’s. One young reader of my book, A DOG’S WAY HOME, assured me she will take excellent care of her copy because she plans to read it to her children one day.
But hands down, for me the best letters are the ones that tell me my book helped them see things in a different way. My 2012 book, THE DOGS OF WINTER, was inspired by the true story of a child in Russia who lived homeless with a pack of wild street dogs for two years. It’s not an easy book, emotionally. I didn’t sugar coat anything. But that book, of all the ones I’ve written, prompted the longest, most heart-felt letters about. As Gabby wrote to me after her class read THE DOGS OF WINTER, “It makes you think and question and realize things about the world you didn’t notice before.”
My new book, STAY, is starting to get its own fan letters. STAY is the story of Piper and her family who are experiencing homelessness. Piper’s story intersects with that of a little dog named Baby and his person, Jewel. They too are homeless. But because shelters don’t allow animals, Jewel and Baby must live in a city park. Again, a tough subject. But gratifyingly, readers say, “This book really opened my eyes,” or “I will never look a homeless person the same since reading your book.” And best of all, “Now I want to do something to help. To make a difference like Piper did.”
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines compassion as, “sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with the desire to alleviate it.” I also think of compassion as the ability to see things and people differently through an open heart. “Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” as my mother often instructed us.
Story is a great way to develop a sense of compassion in kids. I was a passionate reader as a kid and teen. I was particularly drawn to stories—both fiction and nonfiction—about people dealing with challenges I could only imagine. The biographies of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, BLACK LIKE ME, by John Howard Griffin, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHIN, by Jean Craighead George, and of course, Anne Frank’s THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL. These books not only opened my eyes and my heart, they helped me become the kind of author who writes to widen that circle of light which is compassion.
I believe kids search for connection, are still open and curious enough to embrace “other.” And I believe kids truly want to make a difference. Whether it’s making masks for health care providers, donating lemonade stand money to animal shelters, or writing letters to soldiers overseas, kids want to feel empowered to alleviate distress.
Several months ago, I had the good fortune to connect with a remarkable young person named Roby Summerfield. Roby lives in a small mountain town about forty-five minutes from where I live. The town of Bakersville has fewer than five hundred people. Being the passionate reader that she is, Roby decided to establish the Bakersville Little Free Library. Roby’s goal is to fill the tiny library with books for young people featuring books on subjects she’s passionate about: empowerment of women and girls, cultural diversity, disability visibility, and environmental awareness. But, as she explained to me in her email, “The overall theme is kindness and compassion.” You bet I not only donated a signed copy of STAY for her library, I persuaded several other children’s authors to donate signed copies of their books too. “The role of being a library steward,” Roby says, “has enabled me to connect with my community, and feel that I am making a difference close to home.”
Six years ago, I taught at a writer’s conference on Sanibel Island in Florida. I was the only children’s author on the faculty. When asked why I choose to write for kids rather than adults, I said it’s because the books we read as kids—particularly between the ages of seven and twelve—that have the ability to shape who we become as adults. We carry them with us in our hearts, and often in our way of seeing, into adulthood. Middle grade authors are in the unique and humbling position to write stories that open hearts and widen the circle of light. Something needed now more than ever.
Bobbie Pyron is the author of seven award-winning, critically acclaimed novels including A DOG’S WAY HOME, THE DOGS OF WINTER, LUCKY STRIKE and her latest novel, STAY. Bobbie lives in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband and their dog, Sherlock. You can find out more about her and her books at bobbiepyron.com.
To find out more about Roby Summerfield’s Bakersville Little Free Library, visit her Facebook page facebook.com/bakersvillelittlefreelibrary, and her Go Fund Me page, Kindness & Compassion Through Books.
Like everyone, I’m stressed, worried, hoping, praying, and longing for things to please go back to ‘normal.’ Literally the whole world is trapped in a Pandemic. But it’s just a moment in time. It too shall pass. Or so I try to remind myself when tears threaten. When everything seems like too much.
And though the current state of the planet is a whole other level, to be honest, I’ve been dreaming of normal and falling short to some extent my entire life. Every problem, every insecurity, always standing in the way of the idyllic normal in my head. I think maybe we all do this, at least a bit? Particularly in middle school—a time beset by so much physical and emotional change under even the best of circumstances. A time when perhaps many of us wanted so badly to just feel normal. To fit in with friends. To be understood by our families. To like what we saw when we glanced in the mirror.
The pre-Pandemic, contemporary world of my upcoming MG debut THE DREAM WEAVER is very different than the current one we suddenly find ourselves in. Yet twelve-year-old main character Zoey still longs for normal there too.
Zoey wants to put down roots. But her dad keeps dragging his kids around the country in pursuit of impulsive, often irresponsible career changes. Zoey wishes she had a solid group of friends. But constantly moving around makes it hard to build and maintain friendships. Zoey longs to dress like other girls her age. But she isn’t sure how to go about figuring out fashion yet. Typical junior high worries mixed with heavier ones. Then, at the beginning of the story, Zoey’s dad dumps her indefinitely at grandpa’s house while her big brother prepares to head off for college, and Zoey’s future is abruptly more uncertain than ever as those she loves most slip away.
But Zoey adapts. She grows closer to grandpa. She makes friends, has fun hanging out at the beach, and resourcefully plots to save grandpa’s boardwalk bowling alley. She finds her backbone and where she belongs. By the end of the story, Zoey is living a ‘new normal’ too—one in which she’s thriving, despite not having everything she wanted at the beginning of the book. Some things are better, others worse, a few remain to be seen. And that’s life. Adjusting to new normals all the time. Doing our best. G-d Willing, when we’re finally able to do all the fun summer stuff Zoey does in THE DREAM WEAVER—normal things like going to the beach or hanging out with loved ones in person—I bet it will all feel extraordinary.
But, for now, happy reading!
Reina Luz Alegre lives in the Miami area with her family. She’s dreamed of becoming an author since the second grade, and grew up to work on various other professional dreams—including as a freelance journalist and lawyer—before debuting her first novel, The Dream Weaver, which comes out June 23, 2020 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. When she’s not writing, Reina loves to read, sing, and salivate over baking shows. Follow her on Twitter at @ReinaLuzAlegre and read more about The Dream Weaver at https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Dream-Weaver/Reina-Luz-Alegre/9781534462311.
Welcome, Tanya! I’m so excited to be part of the cover reveal for your upcoming middle grade book ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE. Can you tell our readers a little bit about it?
Hi Kathie! I’m thrilled to be here at MG Book Village a second time around. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be sharing more about my next book, ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, scheduled to be released, March, 2021. As you can tell from the title, which of course includes a fun bread pun and a musical reference, there will be lots of bread baking and music weaved into the plot. My main character, Alba is sent off to Barcelona, Spain to live with her estranged grandmother, in order to escape an abusive home situation in New York City. At first, she finds the transition jarring, but as she begins to settle in, she meets her mother’s childhood best friend, Toni, who owns the neighborhood bread bakery. He takes her under his wing as a sort of father figure, and teaches her the art of sourdough bread baking. As she gets to know her estranged grandmother, Abuela Lola, and makes new friends and a found family, she’ll start to heal, and find her true self. Below you’ll find the official teaser:
Twelve-year-old Alba doesn’t want to live with her estranged grandmother in Barcelona.
But her mother needs her to be far, far away from their home in New York City. Because this is the year that her mother is going to leave Alba’s abusive father. Hopefully. If she’s strong enough to finally, finally do it.
Alba is surprised to find that she loves Barcelona, forming a close relationship with her grandmother, meeting a supportive father figure, and making new friends. Most of all, she discovers a passion and talent for bread baking. When her beloved bakery is threatened with closure, Alba is determined to find a way to save it—and at the same time, she may just come up with a plan to make their family whole again.
From the author of How to Make Friends with the Sea comes a heartfelt story of finding one’s chosen family, healing, and baking.
I can’t wait to read it, I love your writing and it sounds fantastic!!! How did writing this book compare to writing your debut novel, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, which just came out a few weeks ago?
Both books were similar to write since they were partially inspired by my own childhood experiences. Because I was using a lot of my own memories to form the plot, setting and character arcs, I was able to draft relatively quickly, in 3-4 months. I would say that the big difference between writing my debut novel, and this second book, is that I had so much more on my plate that I had to juggle while drafting this second time around. I think what was key to the success of a debut author’s juggling act is being able to identify those moments when you have down time, and use those opportunities to write the next book. For me, the best time seems to be while I wait for notes from my editor, or while I wait for copy-edits.
Are you a bread baker, and where did the idea for this story come from?
I am a bread baker, more specifically a sourdough bread baker. I took it up a couple of years ago, and found it to be a hobby that worked really well with my writing, since there are long waits during fermentation. The average loaf can take 6-8 hours to ferment, so I can get a lot of writing done, as well as do my daily chores and errands. As someone with anxiety, I also found sourdough bread baking to be really meditative; it’s helped my mental health tremendously, so I thought it would be the perfect passion to give to my protagonist, Alba.
As I stated above, part of this story was inspired by my own childhood experiences. When I was seven, I moved to Barcelona to live with my grandparents, while my parents were going through their divorce. I combined that, with my love of sourdough bread baking. Additionally, I also decided to make Alba, non-gender conforming like my own daughter, because I felt there was a void in MG literature when it comes to representation like hers. Both my daughter and Alba, identify as she/her, but they do not conform to the traditional mold of what a girl is supposed to be. Like my daughter, Alba chooses to wear clothes she finds in the “boy” section of stores, and wears her hair short.
My daughter asked me why none of the girls in the books she was reading were like her, so as a mom and an author, I decided to do something about it myself!
I’m so glad you did this, I’d love to see more non-gender conforming characters in middle grade stories.Did you have any input on the cover, and who is the illustrator?
I did have a bit of input on this cover, but it was mostly in the minor details, such as choosing the kinds of breads and pastries for the display and cake stand. Early on, my editor sent me samples of Zhen Liu’s work, and I was so impressed by how she depicted all sorts of people, and how she used color and architectural elements to create such gorgeous scenes. I’m also extremely fortunate to be working with Cassie Gonzales, who is an amazing book designer at Macmillan. She really brought everything together, including the title font, which I adore. But what I love the most about this cover, (besides all the delicious breads and pastries), is how Zhen really captured Alba, physically and mentally. The way she looks is exactly how I envisioned her, and the expression on her face and body language is just perfect.
OK, it’s time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for….
What a wonderful cover! I love the bright colors, and its got such kid appeal.
Thanks so much! I really, truly love this cover so much and I couldn’t be more thrilled with how it came out. I hope others will love it as much as I do.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?
Yes, I definitely want to highlight the fact that Barcelona as a setting is very much a character in its own right. While the story mostly takes place in the Gothic Quarter, where Alba’s grandmother lives, there are many scenes that take place in neighboring areas such as El Raval (where a lot of Filipino immigrants live), Barceloneta and El Tibidabo. I hope to inspire readers to travel to Spain someday, and discover some of the places I feature in the story.
What is the release date for ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, and where can people go to find out more about you and your writing?
Right now the release date is set for March 30, 2021, almost an exact year since my debut, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, came out. Hopefully that won’t change, but I’ll make sure to update everyone if it does. Please visit my website, and make sure to add, ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE to your Goodreads TBR lists!
Thanks again for letting us be part of your cover release, Tanya. I look forward to reading it.
Thanks again, Kathie! As usual, it’s a joy to work with everyone here at MG Book Village!
Tanya Guerrero is Filipino and Spanish by birth, but has been fortunate enough to call three countries home–the Philippines, Spain, and the United States. Currently, she lives in a shipping container home in the suburbs of Manila with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of rescued cats and dogs. In her free time, she grows her own food, bakes bread, and reads.
When I was ten years old, I lived in a neighborhood that seemed perfect from the outside. The grown-ups came and went in their cars. The kids walked to school. We rode our bikes around the block. In the summer, we caught toads and fireflies, and in the winter, we built forts. Everyone seemed happy and well-adjusted. If you look at pictures of me from back then, you would think I was happy too. There was one of me as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz with the ruby slippers we dipped in red glitter. (I remember there was glitter on the kitchen table for weeks). There was one of me sitting on the lawn with my dog. Just a goofy neighborhood kid you thought you knew. No different than any other ten-year-old.
You never would have guessed that I was suffering in secret. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD takes many different forms. Some people who have it experience a fear of germs or feel a compulsion to wash or disinfect. Other people have rituals that stave off the feeling of disaster. My OCD mainly expressed itself in the repetition of intense and constant worries about ideas that disgusted or terrified me. Once a bad thought entered my head, I became consumed by it. I was completely unable to stop focusing on it for months at a time, and the thought would grow bigger and bigger until it became very difficult to do anything else besides worry. Most of my obsessive thoughts had to do with death, probably because my father was very ill when I was a child. I would think about AIDS or heart disease or terminal cancer or senility. Sometimes I would think about what would happen if one or the other of my parents were dying. Sometimes I would worry that I myself was dying. I would imagine my death bed, I would imagine being buried alive. I would imagine murder scenes.
Each of these worries would cycle continuously through my mind every moment of the day, growing in intensity from the time I woke in the morning, until I went to bed in the evening. It was a kind of constant existential pain. No matter how I tried to distract myself, I could still feel the worry clawing in my chest and my belly. When my obsessing was at its most desperate, and I became physically unable to keep the thoughts a secret any longer, I would begin to ask people around me if the things I worried about could possibly be true. But no matter what the person said in their attempts to soothe me, I would always doubt. Asking for reassurance doubled or tripled my anxiety, inspiring new questions that could never be answered. “Are you sure I can’t catch AIDS from a water fountain? Completely sure or just a little sure? Are you just saying this to make me stop asking, or do you really mean it? Will you always tell me the truth? How can I know you are telling the truth now?” I would ask and ask until my poor friend or family member would become so exhausted from my questions that they would eventually find a way to escape and I would turn inward, disgusted with myself, but still completely unable to stop.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness asserts that today, one in five adolescents suffers from some sort of serious mental health issue (NAMI, 2018) but because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, many teens suffer in silence as I did. When I was a child, I didn’t know there was such a thing as OCD. I didn’t know there was a name for what was going on inside my head. I didn’t know that there were other people whose brains got stuck in the way mine did, or that a careful combination of therapy and medication would one day, finally, help me live a normal life. It was not until I was in my twenties that I finally became brave enough to seek help.
I wrote Trowbridge Road, so that children living in families with mental illness might see a reflection of their own experience and realize that they are not alone. In Trowbridge Road, June Bug discovers how harmful and exhausting it can be to keep secrets. She forges an unusual, imaginative and powerful friendship with a strange neighborhood boy named Ziggy, and discovers that she is not the only child in this neighborhood whose life is imperfect. She is not the only one who keeps secrets. She is not the only one who has been suffering in silence. Little by little, as trust grows between them, both children eventually feel safe enough to tell each other the truth for the first time, and in telling, they realize that sometimes when your own family is shaking you can find someone from the outside who can feed your spirit and even save your life. I wish that when I was eleven years old, someone had put a book like Trowbridge Road into my hands so that I could see that there was no such thing as a perfect neighborhood. Maybe I would not have waited so long to get help. There are many reasons why Middle Grade literature is powerful, but I think one of the most important is the ability to provide mirrors for children who have never seen themselves in literature before and windows for children who are the perfect age for empathy and connection. I hope Trowbridge Road finds its way into the hands of someone like me, who needs to know that what she is feeling can be put into words. I hope it gives some young person courage to find help if she needs it or to find hope in the promise that there are people out there who will feed your spirit and hold you until you are no longer afraid.
Marcella Pixley teaches eighth grade Language Arts at the Carlisle (MA) Public Schools. Her poetry has been published in literary journals such as Prairie Schooner, Feminist Studies, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review and Poet Lore, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Ms. Pixley has written three acclaimed novels for children: Freak, Without Tess, and, Ready To Fall. Freak received four starred reviews and was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year; Without Tess was a School Library Journal selection, and Ready To Fall was named a best books of 2018 by Bank Street Society of Children’s Literature. Ms. Pixley lives in an antique farmhouse in Westford, Massachusetts with her husband, two sons, and a ridiculous shaggy dog named Mango. She is a graduate of Vassar College and Bread Loaf School of English.
I made up my mind to become a writer in high school, a playwright. A Broadway playwright. That sure didn’t work, though there were flickers of interest. Reluctantly (believe or not) I took up cartooning. By then I had a son. He liked to climb on my lap and ask for a story. I’d always tell him to choose the subject. “A garbage truck.” “Rain.” With such prompts I invented stories.
Around the same time a picture book editor saw my art work, and urged me to write a book. “I’m an artist, not a writer.” She said “Then write a book and illustrate it.” I did. In quick time the art was ditched but the stories remained. My first book, Things That Sometimes Happen—consist of those stories I told my son. It was published in 1970. A rewritten version of it is still in print. Writing that book reminded me how much I loved kids’ books. There’s your beginning.
When did you start writing novels?
By the time I had my own kids I needed a stable income. I became a librarian, working first at the NY Public Library. Then I became a librarian at what has become the State College of New Jersey. When there, my son—the same one mentioned above—had a costume party: super hero stuff. (One kid came dressed as Snoopy!) The third book I wrote was No More Magicloosely based on what happened at that party and the town in New Jersey where we lived. It was nominated for the Mystery Writers’ annual award. By then there was no turning back. I was a writer of children’s books.
And the historical fiction?
In 1947 Simon and Schuster published A History of the United States, the first truly pictorial history of the USA. I must have read it a thousand times. I still own that very book. It made history vivid and utterly absorbing for me. At the University of Wisconsin, I had two majors: Theatre and History. My early plays were historical dramas. I still read history for fun.
After I wrote No More Magic, I wrote Captain Gray, a novel set in the post-Revolutionary war period.
People often reference your historical knowledge and detail. Where does that come from?
That’s the librarian in me. At the college where I worked I taught students how to do research. I find it wonderfully exciting, endlessly fascinating. Recently, writing about a famous event, I learned (when doing research) that there was an almost full moon that night two hundred years ago. No wonder it happened at that time! Serendipity is candy for writers.
Writing the just published Gold Rush Girl there is a vast library about San Francisco at that time. People lived in tents. But I learned they also lived in Bamboo house imported from China, and iron house shipped in from New York City. Best of all there was this vast fleet of abandoned ships—abandoned because the crews went off to search for gold—with this wonderful name “Rotten Row.” How could I resist such stuff? Rotten Row became the core of the book. But of course, the story comes first. Still all that detail enabled me to invent a wonderful rich—as in detail—tale about people who came alive.
But–shortly after it was published I came upon a collection of Daguerreotypes (an early form of photography) of gold rush San Francisco people. And there she was: my heroine, Tory Blaisdell, looking and dressing exactly as I described her in the book, even to a Bowie knife in her belt! It was a wonderful confirmation of my research, my exploring Tory’s character, and the story I had written. Except as I looked at the picture, I had this eerie thought: maybe I was not writing fiction. Maybe it was channeled–a true story! Tory’s tale!
What is your writing process?
In two words: endless rewriting. Endless. That includes reading it aloud to my wife, and to kids in a favorite local school. There is no such thing as a perfect book—not by me anyway—but I do try. A story has to flow from start to finish with no speed bumps. In one sense a novel is a logical revelation, logical in the sense that is must all be linked, cause and effect. Or, as I like to say, I can’t write a good opening line of a book until I’ve written a good last line.
What is the role of an editor for you?
A good editor helps you discover (and deliver) the book you are writing. Working with an editor who is smart, who challenges me, who has wit, who has a sense of fun, of whom you grow fond —is one of the great joys of my writing life.
What advice would you give would-be writers?
Read. Read. Read. And read some more. And more. And more. In time—hopefully—your thinking will be like writing. Thus my mantra: “Writers don’t write writing. They write reading.”
Welcome to MG Book Village, Alex! I’m so happy that you could be part of our Fast Forward Friday feature. Your debut book, EMBLEM ISLAND: CURSE OF THE NIGHT WITCH, comes out on June 9th. Could you please let our readers know what it’s about?
Thanks for having me! Curse of the Night Witchis the first book in a series set on Emblem Island, a world where everyone is born with markings on their skin that determine their fate and talents. Tor Luna is born with a leadership emblem, like his mother–but he doesn’t want to lead anyone. So, on the annual Eve celebration, where Emblemites can make a wish in hopes of it being granted in the new year, Tor wishes to be gifted a different emblem. Instead, he wakes up cursed. To reverse the deadly curse, he must cross Emblem Island for the first time in search of the wicked Night Witch, with only ancient legends as his guide–and creatures from those same myths in his path.
I was lucky to read an eARC of your book, and it’s a great fast-paced, high stakes adventure based on the stories that your abuela used to tell you. Can you tell us a bit more about the inspiration for the story?
My abuela always used to tell my twin sister and me cuentos (or stories) before bed. These were always legends that had been passed down generations–and were definitely too dark and scary for kids! One of my favorites featured a girl that was gifted a special marking for following the rules, and a sister who was given horns for breaking them. The idea of earning emblems based on behavior, and how that affected their lives really stuck with me, and helped inspire the world of Emblem Island. Many of the monsters in the book are also inspired by Latinx myths, including La Patasola, La Ciguapa, and La Llorona. Since legends played such an important role in developing my creativity during childhood, I wanted to make them a focus of Curse of the Night Witch. So there are actually Emblem Island myths in between each chapter (the same ones the characters use to find the Night Witch) so it’s almost like a book within a book!
This is the first book in the Emblem Island series. Are you working on the next one, and are there any details you can share with us?
Yes! I’m almost finished with it, actually. Though the first book is set completely on Emblem Island, the second is set in the waters surrounding it.
Which character was the easiest for you to write? What about the hardest?
The easiest character to write was definitely Melda, because I can relate to her the most (always trying to control the situation, working really hard to get good grades, being a little too obedient). The hardest was actually Tor! His entire arc revolves around not really knowing who he is, or why he wants what he does, and I’ve never really felt that way. I knew I wanted to be an author when I was Tor’s age (twelve), so having my book come out soon is definitely a long time coming, and very exciting 🙂
The characters in your book are born with marks that determine their futures. If you could choose a mark for your younger self, based on what you know about yourself now, what would it be?
I grew up in Florida, went to college in Philly, and ended up in NYC. I didn’t really anticipate living so far from home as an adult, so I definitely would want a teleportation emblem (which plays a role in the book!). That way, I could see my family as often as I wanted. I never really realized how badly I would miss them until I was hundreds of miles away.
Where can people go to find out more information about you and your writing?
My new website, asterverse.com! There, you can preorder Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch, read about the main characters, and even take a quiz to see which emblem you would be born with on Emblem Island!
What advice do you have for aspiring authors who read this interview?
My first book to be published was the sixth I had ever written. It took millions of words and countless rejections to get here, and I’m truly grateful for the journey. Rejection and “giving up” on manuscripts is difficult, but truly, you want your first published work to be the best you can possibly produce, and that only comes with practice and time. Keep writing, be patient, and good luck!
Thank you again for joining us today, Alex, and best of luck with your book’s release!
Thank you so much!!
Alex Aster recently graduated from The University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English with a Concentration in Creative Writing and Consumer Psychology. She currently lives in NYC, a few blocks away from her twin sister, and is the author of the upcoming MG fantasy Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch.
NOTE: This is a difficult time to introduce a new book series to the world. Kathie MacIsaac, an administrator of MG Book Village, recognized this and reached out on Twitter to authors with soon-to-be-released books with a gracious invitation to contact her. Gratefully, I did. Ms. MacIsaac offered me this chance to share my news and insights here on the MG Book Village blog. I couldn’t be more appreciative. So here goes…
Adventures in Writing a Chapter Book Series: The Making of A DOG’S DAY
A phone conversation with my editor ultimately led to the project I am proudly announcing today…
Introducing the new A DOG’S DAY chapter book series, debuting with two titles, illustrated by the amazing Francesca Rosa. Each book highlights a dog that performs an incredible job or service (and loves the work, to boot):
Jax, a dog that fends off wild predators to protect his flock!
Ava, a dog that rescues people from avalanches!
As I observe the April 1st release, I’m sharing here a bit about choices made, things learned, and joyful discoveries that came to light while bringing these stories to the page.
Why Dogs? Why Me? Why Dogs and Me?
Going to the Dogs It’s pretty obvious that lots of kids adore chapter books about dogs. Detective dogs, time travelling dogs, famous dogs – there are series for young readers featuring all kinds of set ups with canines. The dog-themed chapter books I’ve spotted in the library are often dog-eared (yes, I said it) and appear well circulated and well loved.
I’m drawn to these lovable, loyal creatures, too. So as I began to embark (yep, did it again) on writing a dog series, I set out to present a new take on this favorite subject within the boundaries of a fresh framework. As discussed with my editor, each A DOG’S DAY book will:
Star a fictional dog with a job that canines perform in real life
Be presented from the dog’s point of view
In keeping with the series’ name, will cover only one day in that dog’s life. As in, just 24 hours or less.
That last bit – that perhaps has proven the most challenging.
Pups and Past Works Most of my previous published works have been picture books. Still, some aspects of this new series fall into somewhat familiar territory. I had earlier published a middle grade chapter book, THE TERRIBLE SECRETS OF THE TELL-ALL CLUB, that was named a Scholastic Instructor magazine “Teacher’s Pick.” Working on that book taught me much about this format.
And then there was Barnaby. He was the sweet, whiskered hero of my earlier picture book, BARNABY THE BEDBUG DETECTIVE, about a dog with the power to sniff out a sneaky pest. While writing the Barnaby book, I witnessed a special performance, courtesy of a local exterminator – I had the chance to see an adorable and determined little dog enthusiastically do this detecting job.
Through that experience, I gained new insights and bits of information that became a part of the story. So as I began this new series, I made it my mission to meet every kind of working dog I write about.
Bringing Pups to the Page
Ruff (But Not Rough) Research What I found to be true with the Barnaby picture book proved true as I researched my other dog books – people who work with dogs (like the exterminator) are the kindest, friendliest, BEST people in the world. I guess that’s not a big surprise. And they love to talk about and show off their amazing dogs!
My research led me on excursions around the country to meet with working dogs and their people. A livestock guardian dog expert I contacted invited me to visit the great Pyrenees on patrol at his parents’ Texas ranch. I witnessed an avalanche rescue dog demonstrate her scenting skills at a snowy Utah ski resort. For upcoming books, I have met an actor dog in Atlanta, and taken part in a search and rescue canine training session in the California desert.
My advice to anyone conducting research for any kind of project is this – don’t hesitate to contact the experts about your subject matter. Visit settings if you can, too.
While experiencing a location, one may notice rich details that can add something special to a story. In Utah, I saw a sign stuck in the snow inviting guests to that day’s avalanche dog demonstration. This sign, along with other details I observed, became part of the book.
Writing With Rules Before setting out to write this series, I considered length, number of chapters and something else – the rules of my fictional dogs’ world. For example, in some books, dogs can speak to each other or other animals or even humans. They can sing Happy Birthday or grumble to the cat. Since this new series realistically portrays many aspects of a working dog’s day, I am sticking with the rule that my canine characters can’t talk to humans, except through the usual doggy methods – tail wags, snuggles, etc. And they cannot speak directly with other animals, but can respond to and interpret the meaning of another animal’s actions.
Presenting a story within the confines of a 24 hour or less time period is another rule. Featuring flashbacks in which dogs recall their puppyhoods, however, offers a way to include scenes of past training and other experiences that shaped my canine heroes.
Relating to the Reader In a realistic story about dogs with big jobs, there will usually be an adult handler involved. Still, I try to be sure the dog has at least one encounter with a child character that is similar in age to the young reader. This, I hope, brings the protagonist a little closer to the reader and provides an opening for children to imagine themselves interacting with the dog in the story.
Something to Ponder Finally, while aiming to tell an exciting story, I look for ways to illuminate ideas young readers may not have considered before. For example, what does it mean to coyotes and other wildlife when livestock guardian dogs, rather than other possible safeguarding methods, are used to prevent predation of sheep? (Hint: it may ultimately save the predators’ lives.)
I’m excited about these new titles, and wish to all the experience of creating something that brings true happiness. I am indebted to my editor and designer at Albert Whitman, as well as illustrator Rosa Francesca. And I want to express my appreciation to all the dogs and the dog people I’ve met who’ve enriched my journey with memories that will last fur-ever (sorry, had to leave you with just one more).
Catherine Stier is the author of the new A DOG’s DAY chapter book series, which received a starred review from Kirkus and debuts April 1, 2020. She is also the author of several honor-winning children’s books, including IF I WERE PRESIDENT. Stier holds an MA in Reading and Literacy and has served as a magazine writer, newspaper columnist, writing instructor and a children’s literature researcher. Born in Michigan, she now resides in San Antonio, Texas
Twelve-year-old Stephen can’t be pigeonholed into any one lane. He is more than the Black kid who hangs out with his white friends watching Into the Spiderverse or Stranger Things, the same kid who sometimes also hangs with his Black friends but never the two groups at the same time. He’s more than the biracial kid whose mom sees him as mixed while the rest of the world only sees him as Black. He’s more than someone’s son, adored by his parents while also being considered a threat or troublemaker in the eyes of those who accept the images and narratives that prevail in the media. Stephen can be wavy in any lane he chooses and when he finds his voice and the courage to stand up, the sky’s the limit.
Stephen is in middle school now and he is dealing with things that he has never experienced before. He’s starting to notice how he is being treated differently from his white friends. He asks his dad a very important question, “Dad, why is racist stuff happening to me all of a sudden? I mean, in elementary it wasn’t like this…” and his dad’s response is one I imagine can be heard in the homes of many families who are trying to have The Talk with their sons and daughters. He says, “…You are not a little boy anymore. People outside are starting to see you differently and a lot of white people see boys with your height and they don’t see your age. They see what they imagine or what the media teaches them to think about Black men – maybe that we’re threats or troublemakers.”
His dad shares advice with him that certainly echoes conversations we’ve had with our own son. He tells him that “We can’t do everything our white friends can. You have to think twice before you act once.” And much like Stephen, I think my son used to think that we were overreacting when we would say things like that to him. It breaks my heart that there are people who would look at my son whom I love, the twenty-year-old who still loves his momma, who is oftentimes still his goofy self while being every bit brilliant, as any sort of threat or someone to fear. I remember breaking down in tears over this very conversation in grad school in front of a room filled with white classmates. We watched so many videos that were meant to “school us on the struggle” and when I rose to speak, by the time I was finished, I wasn’t the only one with tear-filled eyes.
Torrey Maldonado knocked it out the park with What Lane?! It is down-to-earth real and addresses racism candidly in under 200 pages. I can only imagine what this book is going to mean for every reader. For the young Black boys who will read it and see their experience between the pages. For the conversations it will spark in the classrooms that will read this book aloud with their students. For those who are or will soon become allies, as well as those whose eyes will be opened and how the removal of blinders will change lives. The publisher recommends this book for 5th grade and up but you know your learning community and may want to consider reading it to your 4th grade students as well. I look forward to adding a copy of this book to our collection when it releases this spring (May 2020). I will also be nominating this as a 2020-2021 Project LIT Book Club selection.
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.
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Being a librarian gifts me the ability to build relationships with my elementary readers that span multiple years. I have come to expect with trepidation the abrupt transformation many 4th graders go through over the summer. They come back to school as 5th graders, with a new outlook on decision making, one that I cannot comprehend. I’ve tried talking, walking them through their previous choices for as long as we’ve known each other, but it has been difficult for them to put into words what exactly is behind the choices they are currently making, leaving me without ideas on how to best stand by them.
Looking for answers, for understanding, I turn to books, I read stories about kids their age, I read diversely and widely and yet, had not gained much insight until I fell into Torrey Maldonado’s stories. Maldonado’s latest book What Lane? has taken me the closest I have ever been to understanding my kids. It’s hard to explain exactly what I glean, maybe I’m not meant to understand completely, maybe I’m not capable, but I feel a fleeting tickle in my brain, like I’m getting it, I’m understanding my boys and girls. Maybe, what Maldonado offers adult readers, who are invested in supporting their students through the middle grade age, is empathy, hope, a flutter of wings in our hearts that the kids we’ve known for so long, that we look at now and wonder where exactly the kid we knew has gone to, is that they are still there, figuring themselves out and needing us to believe that they will figure out what they need to keep of who they are, what they need to change and grow into, to make their lives as amazing as can be.
What Lane? introduces to readers’ lives, Stephen, an 11- year-old biracial boy, his mom is white and his dad is African American. Stephen has bought into the philosophy of Marshall Carter, his favorite basketball player, that believes that the world is his lane, there is no lane he cannot ride. Stephen believes this about himself, there are no lane limitations for him, he can ride in any and all lanes. Middle grade readers will absolutely eat this up, after all they have adults in their lives that tell them things like “You can do whatever you put your mind to!”, “The sky is the limit!” “You can do anything! You can be anything!” but through Stephen’s journey they’ll explore how this is not life’s reality, especially if you are a black or brown child, a trans child, a differently abled child.
Maldonado uses pop culture references (for example: Miles Morales Into the Spiderverse, Stranger Things, Harry Potter ) and preteen and neighborhood slang, to draw middle grade readers into Stephen’s world. It’s one parallel to their own which sets up readers to see themselves in the situations Stephen and his friends and classmates are experiencing. Stephen’s best friend, Dan, is white. They have a strong bond and an honest friendship, they care for each other, keep each other in check, and have a wider, diverse group of friends they interact with. Stephen is at an age where he no longer looks like a little boy, and with this change, comes the realization that adults in his community no longer see him as the kid they’ve always known. Through different incidents, and the forced presence of Dan’s cousin, Chad, who has recently moved to their neighborhood and is determined to drive a wedge between Stephen and Dan, Stephen begins to realize that the world is not his lane, the world does not allow a black, brown, or biracial boy to ride every available lane.
What Stephen invites readers to explore is the possibility of not bottling up the visceral feelings he is experiencing as he notices that the world around him has decided he is a threat, he is up to no good, he is a troublemaker; as he feels the sting and fear prejudice and racial profiling is causing. Stephen puts into words all that he is feeling and thinking as best he can, in conversations with his dad. His father offers clarity and also the harsh truth that people are now viewing him differently, not because he has changed, but because he looks more like a young man and less like a child. Being brave in sharing what is happening is a path that helps Stephen deal with all of these feelings, find answers and also advise on how to cope with this new reality.
Stephen’s absolute trust in his friend Dan leads him to point out how they are treated differently. At first Dan doesn’t want to accept that because he is white his actions are always viewed as innocent, whereas Stephen’s exact actions are viewed as transgressions. Maldonado offers middle grade readers a model of what a healthy friendship should feel like. Stephen and Dan are honest with each other, listen to each other, and because of this Dan finally admits that maybe he should notice things more. Future incidents are met with Dan acting as an ally to Stephen and pointing out the injustice that adults are committing. This is a powerful model!
As the story progresses, Stephen encounters more racial profiling, peer pressure from Chad, and the realization that his motto “What Lane?” might not be one he can live by because of the color of his skin and the world we live in. This is a painful realization but with it also comes the clarity, that there are lanes Stephen doesn’t ever want to ride, and trying to ride them only brings regret, such as trying to meet every dare Chad throws his way. Maldonado doesn’t tie this realization up with a pretty bow, and frankly he might just undo some of the damage us well-meaning adults, have done by parroting ideas that equate to the What Lane? philosophy to our children, because it’s just not possible for anyone, even more so for children of color and marginalized communities.
One lane Stephen questions is if as a brown boy he should be so tight with a white boy. This made my reader, educator, and mom heart worry, I’ve seen this issue come up in real life; if you’re Latinx, you should surround yourself with Latinx friends, if you are African American you should hang out with African American friends. Painting our world with just one color is a dangerous proposition for any group, and Stephen faces this when Wes, a classmate who is also his friend and African American, points out they don’t spend much time together anymore and resents it. Wes wakes up Stephen to the Black Lives Matter movement, makes Stephen aware of lives lost to police brutality, such as young Trayvon Martin and others, and questions whether he should be spending so much time with Dan. Stephen toys with choosing, should he choose to spend his time with Wes, who understands the prejudice and fears he is experiencing, or should he continue spending his time with Dan, who cannot completely empathize with him because he doesn’t suffer the racism Stephen is subjected to constantly. I won’t share how this evolves, but I will say, knowing Maldonado’s writing, my heart had nothing to worry about in the first place.
What Lane? is a story that all middle grade readers should have access to. As with all books that explore the social justice issues & inequality that our children face today, adults should provide scaffolding support and an open invitation to conversation without judgement about what readers need more information on.
Torrey Maldonado’s What Lane? is a necessary story for everyone, not for certain “insert label here” readers. Living through Stephen and Dan’s relationship, what true friendship looks and acts like, is necessary. Understanding the prejudice and profiling a child of color is subjected to and how reaching out to caring adults is an avenue worth exploring, is necessary. Understanding white privilege and what being an ally looks like, is necessary. Understanding that the claim that you are “color blind” is an excuse to not take action against racism, is necessary. Understanding our world’s social justice issues, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the events that led to its need, is the first step to recognizing the injustice we are living in and how it is everyone’s responsibility to change, is necessary. What Lane? is definitely a lane all our children should ride if we want them to grow up to be changemakers and socially responsible humans, and who doesn’t want that for their children and students?
Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX. After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.