FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Alex Aster

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 Witch is 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

ADVENTURES IN WRITING A CHAPTER BOOK SERIES, by Catherine Stier

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

Double Book Review: WHAT LANE?, by Torrey Maldonado

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.

. . .

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.