The Narrative Neighborhood: Little Free Library Liberation and Story Scavenging During Quarantine, by S.G. Wilson

My neighborhood had achieved a state of peak Little Free Library years ago. By the start of 2020, it was headed for a full-scale borrowed-book market collapse. 

You couldn’t walk a block without bumping into one book-lending box after another on their curbside posts. So many of my neighbors had taken up’s nonprofit mission to share books and promote literacy that the glut had nearly robbed the whole endeavor of its magic. With practically everybody putting up a little free library, the little structures become so much background noise, like fire hydrants or post-911 yard flags circa 2003.

However picturesque they looked, the libraries stood there either empty (save for ancient tomes on marketing written before the internet, food-encrusted picture books spotted with cover mold, etc.) or saddled with the same boring stack of Barnes & Noble remainders everybody had already read or didn’t want to read. Day in and day out I’d pass these ghost libraries on the bike ride to my son’s school, rolling my eyes at the Tom Clancys and James Pattersons that never left the shelves, as if they were squatting there to keep books people actually wanted to read from moving in. I even watched one neglected Little Free Library rot and fall apart from disuse, a sight that traumatizes me to this day.

Then COVID-19 struck, and everything changed. Desperate for diversion like the rest of the world as we all sheltered in place, my neighbors produced sidewalk-chalk art, stuffed-animal hunts and lawn decorations as funny and uplifting as anything else you’d see on the internet. The world may have gone down the crapper, but the creative spirit of my neighborhood had come to life. And so had its Little Free Libraries.

The outdoor book shelves filled to bursting again, and the boring old titles finally moved on to make way for the new. I found novels I’d always wants to read, as well as fresh discoveries I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of, like a 1980s spiritual dieting book by Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. This blessed browsing filled a void that had opened in me since all the libraries and bookstores shut down.

I got so excited by all this quality time with books that I started making videos about the experience. With my son’s help, I fashioned them after the unboxing videos I used to deride, calling them my “Little Free Library Book Tour.” (Feel free to check them out here.)

Story Scavenging

Fun as it was to make a project out of my new hobby, I wanted to produce something that would contribute to this neighborhood renaissance I’d enjoyed so much. I found that something while walking around the next neighborhood over (which had generally proven to be a less creative neighborhood, but I’m biased).

“Which is the coldest planet?” the sidewalk asked us in chalk. Arrows pointed from the multiple choices: “Neptune” going one way and “Uranus” another. We could have just looked up the answer on our phones and headed back home. But this challenge was the most excitement I’d had during quarantine since discovering that Jim and Tammy Faye diet book (well, that and the impending streaming release of Hamilfilm). Never mind that when we made it around the block, the right answer had washed away from the pavement. Never mind that we wound up having to look it up on our phones (Uranus). All we cared about was that after weeks of isolating at home, for just a few moments there, we had an actual destination to reach.

I loved the way this sidewalk-chalk trivia challenge made people interact with the physical world in order to answer a question in their heads. It was kind of like Pokémon Go but with an actual reason to exist. I decided to take this basic format and give it my own spin: I devised a real-world Choose Your Own Adventure.

I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. If you’re not familiar, these books give readers a choice about where to go at the end of every section. “If you decide to attack the dragon, go to page 14.” “If you decide to talk with the dragon about the Republicans’ chances of holding on to their senate majority in the next election, go to page 50.” What I had in mind was something more akin to, “If you decide to attack the Dragon, go to the intersection of Dancy St. and Duval Avenue.”

Figuring everybody loves middle-grade books (again, I’m biased), I dug up a rejected novel my friend and podcast co-host Matthew Bey wrote years ago. When Monsters Attack, the tale of a boy protecting his school from an invasion of 1950s-esque B-movie aliens, lent itself to the conventions of a Choose Your Own Adventure once I boiled it down to seven parts told over a few paragraphs apiece. I made the story and its choice path super-simple, figuring the average pedestrian might get a headache from too many decisions, especially in the summer heat just around the corner.

I printed up signs, titled them “Story Scavenger: Navigate the Narrative,” and coated them using the lamination machine my son requested for his birthday (because he’s THAT kid, bless him). With the help of my other son, who prefers staple guns to lamination machines (because he, in turn, is THAT kid), we affixed them to utility poles within a five-block radius of our house.

I can’t say this experiment in interactive neighborhood narratives caused some sort of sensation, but over the course of several weeks, I saw a fair share of kids, families, hipster couples and other random folks try their hands at When Monsters Attack. One reader even fixed a typo.

At my site, I’ve made a set of these story signs with blank lines for filling in the directions in case you’re inclined to hang them up in your neighborhood. Still, I’d recommend making up your own Story Scavenger tale, if you’re so inclined. It’s a fairly straightforward process, but keep these points in mind as you go:

  1. Use second person. Stick with “you” instead of “I” or “he” or “she” or “they”. “You wake up in a cave in your underwear with no memory about who you are and a full-size bear is licking your face.” It’s a good way to immerse the reader in the story.
  2. Another way to maintain that sense of immersion is to not go into detail about the point-of-view character. Try to avoid mentioning gender, race and other details about the character if you can help it. Otherwise, it might remove them from buying into the story and feeling that immediacy when they’re making their choices. For When Monsters Attack, I left out most details about the character beyond the implication that they’re a middle school student with a knack for getting into trouble. Most people have been a middle-school student, so they can hopefully relate.
  3. Also, keep it concise. I didn’t write more than three or four paragraphs for any of the parts, figuring people reading the signs would want to get a move-on eventually.
  4. And while you’re at it, don’t complicate the choice path unduly. Too many choices and the reader (or in this case, the walker) might feel overwhelmed. In When Monsters Attack, I kept thing super simple: a choice to press forward with the story or an “out” to escape. However, the escape hatch choice bumps the reader to the conclusion, so it’s all tied together.

And one last piece of advice while you’re out turning your neighborhood into a story: wear a mask and keep a healthy distance from your readers!

S.G. Wilson is the author of the upcoming middle grade novel, Me Vs. the Multiverse: Pleased to Meet Me, due out Aug. 4. Alternate versions of S.G. from parallel Earths have worked as an Olympic shufflepuck commentator (Earth 24), food taster for Emperor Justin Bieber (Earth 101), stage manager for an all-mime version of The Sound of Music on Broadway (Earth 3), and many others. This Earth’s S.G mostly just writes stuff in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his partner, kids and cats. He’s worked as a magazine writer and editor and hosts a podcast called This Week in the Multiverse. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @SGWilson_Earth1.

. . .

S.G. Wilson is holding an Alternate Earth Giveaway for a free copy of ME VS. THE MULTIVERSE!

Me Vs. the Multiverse Alternate Earth Giveaway!

Everybody who enters gets: 

1. A “Greetings from the Multiverse” postcard (doubles as a bookmark)

2. A copy of “The Budget Guide to Traveling the Multiverse” (a zine)

3. The chance to win a copy of ME VS. THE MULTIVERSE!

To enter:

1. Think up an alternate Earth

2. DM it to me on Twitter or Instagram (bonus for follows): @sgwilson_Earth1

3. I’ll read out the entries at my online book launch have an the audience vote on the winner!

4. You don’t have to attend the launch by any means, but here’s the registration info just in case: Aug. 5, 4pm CST:

Cover Reveal for SPIRITS AMONG US, by Sherry Howard

Hi Sherry, and welcome to MG Book Village! We’re very excited to reveal the cover for your upcoming MG novel, SPIRITS AMONG US. Can you tell a bit about it, please?

Hi, Kathie, and thanks for having me. I’m excited to share information about SPIRITS AMONG US! It still feels a little bit unreal. SPIRITS is a mystery, but probably not a typical one. Scooter and her best friend, Harlan, are trying to connect with the spirit of her mother. Appalachian folklore (with author license) has it that if you don’t connect with a spirit within a year, you may never connect. Their search, while trying to connect with her mother, sends them spiralling into a search for the robber who’s using their family property for a personal loot locker. As the mystery unfolds, Scooter’s impatience nearly leads to a disaster.

I’m curious to know the inspiration behind your story?

Sometimes it’s hard to pin down one inspiration. In this case I think several inspirations converged. The original name, Paintball Asylum, was the inspiration for a setting. We have a local paintball park by that name that I was enthralled with! Every time I dropped off a teen I listened and looked, then asked them a million questions afterward. Then, I heard the voice of my grandmother with Appalachian roots, and had many talks with my mother about life in the hills. I also have a lot of baggage from spending time in my teen years in a hospital for crippled children, with severe scoliosis that included a tethered spinal cord. Put all that in a cocktail shaker, throw in a dash of the middle grades principal in me, and eventually a manuscript crept out of me.

Can you tell us three things you’d like people to know about this book?

I’d like kids to know that even when times feel dark, the sun is still in our world. I’d like parents to know that this book might help teens understand and process their own kinds of sorrow. I’d like writers to know that it was a journey of a few years before the book arrived at its present form.

How do you fit writing into your daily life?

I have a three-generation-home, so it’s always been very busy! Parts of this manuscript were written and revised in carpool lines. I fit writing into the corners of my world. Except… During major revisions, twice with this manuscript, I shut out my world, build corkboards and cards on my huge kitchen table, and tell everybody to leave me alone! They cooperate a little.

OK, let’s talk about your cover. Did you have any input on it, and if so, what was the experience like for you?

I didn’t have any input at all, which is typical, I think. I had to ask, for this interview, who the talented designer is. Reycraft’s in-house designer, Raquel Hernandez, designed this intriguing cover! My wonderful, crafty editor, Wiley Blevins, envisioned a direction, and she created this cover, which I LOVE SO MUCH!!! I looked at it over and over to try to discover all the story promise it held.

Let’s show everyone what it looks like!

Can you tell us about the illustrator, and what you thought when you first saw the cover?

I fell in love with it! I think it says so much about the story. The paintball and other hints are delicious.

What is it that you love most about writing for kids?

Most of all, I respect kids and their thirst for understanding their world. I love anything I can do to help reassure them or share what I’ve learned with them. The curious geek in me gets really excited to learn about tiny details and share them. For instance, I met a friend who’d owned a paintball field during the course of beta reads for this book. Loraine helped me get every tiny detail correct about a paintball field. Even for fiction, I research and get excited about tiny details!

What is the release date for SPIRITS AMONG US, and where can people go to find out more about you and your writing?

SPIRITS AMONG US releases in just a few months on October 22.

Thank you for allowing us to be part of your cover reveal, and all the best with your book’s release?

Thanks for having me! It was great to be part of your world!

I’m active on social media and love to interact with folks. I’ll drop my links:





Sherry Howard lives with her children, silly dogs, and a dragon in Middletown, Kentucky, a stone’s throw from the beautiful horse farms Kentucky is always bragging about. During her career in education, she served as a middle school principal in one of the largest metro school districts in the US; she and cat-herders share many common skills. Sherry loves to read, write, cook, and sit in the sand watching the waves when she can. Her picture book, ROCK AND ROLL WOODS, received a Kirkus star and represented Kentucky at the National Book Festival! She also writes for the educational market, and has completed around a dozen books for that market.


On August 5, the second book in the LAYLA AND THE BOTS series will be released! I wanted to tell you a little bit about why I wrote these books and give you a sneak peek into Book 2, BUILT FOR SPEED.

Covers for Layla and the Bots: Happy Paws and Layla and the Bots: Built for Speed, by Vicky Fang and ill. by Christine Nishiyama (Scholastic, 2020)

Before becoming a children’s book writer, I spent 6 years at Intel and Google designing technology experiences for kids. Through that work, I learned some important things. 

For example, did you know that girls start doubting their STEM intelligence by the time they are 6 yrs old [Atlantic]? Or that Black & Hispanic students have lesser access and exposure to CS resources [Google/Gallup Report]? Or that computer literacy and computational thinking skills are critical for everybody, not just computer engineers? [CMU]?

These are just a few of the reasons I was inspired to write STEAM books for kids. I wanted to create engaging and accessible stories to promote computer literacy. I wanted to share my love for technology and creativity. I wanted to feature strong protagonist girls of color that would inspire and empower kids in creativity, coding, and technology.

In case you’re new to the series, Layla is a rockstar/inventor with a band of bots, Beep, Boop, and Bop. They work together to solve problems in their town with their awesome inventions.

Credit: Scholastic Inc., Vicky Fang, Christine Nishiyama (2020)

In Book 2, they are performing at their local go-kart race and modify a go-kart for Tina, a girl who uses a wheelchair. As with every Layla and the Bots book, they embark on a product design mission, complete with investigation (research), ideation (brainstorming), implementation (building and coding), and iteration (debugging and revising). And as always, their inventions are fantastic and spectacular! But when the mayor refuses to allow the modified go-kart, Layla and the Bots must find a creative way to save the day – and Tina’s race.

Credit: Scholastic Inc., Vicky Fang, Christine Nishiyama (2020)

This story explores accessible design and the user-centric design process through a fun, jet-pack-fueled story. I hope these books help kids to see the awesome, imaginative, and meaningful possibilities of technology—And inspire them to rock out on their own!

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. Her goal is for her books to inspire computer literacy for a wide range of kids—while letting their imaginations run wild with the possibilities of technology! She is the author of INVENT-A-PET, as well as the LAYLA AND THE BOTS early chapter book series, and the I CAN CODE board book series. Find out more about Vicky by following her on Twitter at @fangmous or on her website at

Interview: Vong Bidania

Hello, Vong! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your debut chapter book series, ASTRID AND APOLLO! First, though, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Thanks so much for inviting me here, Jarrett! I’m a huge fan of middle grade books and therefore, a huge fan of MG Book Village. I am Vong Bidania (author name is V.T. Bidania) and I am the author of ASTRID AND APOLLO, which is a new chapter book series published by Capstone. ASTRID AND APOLLO stars eight-year-old twins Astrid and Apollo Lee, who are second-generation Hmong Americans living in Minnesota. This realistic fiction chapter book is the first series ever to feature Hmong American characters and I’m very excited to bring this much-needed representation to mainstream kidlit!

As mentioned above, these books constitute your debut. What was your journey to the printed page been like?

To be honest, it’s been a long and harrowing journey. I received my MFA from the New School many years ago—too many to say the number out loud—but once I started querying after graduation, I became extremely discouraged by rejections and didn’t write for a long time. I know all writers receive rejections, but mine felt particularly disheartening because the feedback I received was always the same. My manuscripts, which focused on the Hmong experience, “could never sell because there was no market for them” and “no one would read Hmong stories.” It was incredibly discouraging to repeatedly hear this and eventually, I stopped trying to get published.

A few years ago, after more diverse books were being published, I decided to try and submit my work again. This time I pitched one of many chapter book ideas that had been brewing in my head for years. I tried to be hopeful even though I had very low expectations. Surprisingly and fortunately, I found a publisher and then an agent who support my work. The chapter book I submitted is now ASTRID AND APOLLO. It’s been amazing to see the anticipation and excitement for the series—from readers and educators—and I’m happy to finally share my stories with the world.

I just really want Hmong children to see themselves represented; as a kid, I never saw myself in any books and I don’t want other children to have that same experience. Although I never expected my debut year would happen in the time of a global pandemic, the positive response so far has been so encouraging. I always knew there was a market for my stories even if I was told that market didn’t exist.

Can you tell us a bit about ASTRID AND APOLLO?

Readers will see Astrid and Apollo enjoying everyday adventures such as camping, fishing, and attending the Hmong July Soccer Tournament and the Hmong New Year Festival. Minnesota is home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the country, so it was fitting that the twins would reside here and participate in these special events that draw massive crowds to Minnesota every year. To me, the series is a celebration of Hmong kids and all kids in general. If you like reading about twins and siblings and families just having fun, this series is for you!

There’s a lot of outdoor activity in these books. Are you as outdoorsy as Astrid and Apollo?

Not in the least! I’m actually not an outdoorsy person at all, nor was I one as a kid. Here in Minnesota, there are lakes everywhere, which means there are mosquitos all over the place. I get mosquito bites all the time and I get sunburned easily too, so wearing a ton of sunscreen and covering myself with bug spray every time I step outside is a real pain. But many families who live in Minnesota love the outdoors and that includes a lot of Hmong families. I wanted to be sure Astrid and Apollo participated in the popular outdoor activities that so many Minnesotans enjoy. More importantly, I wanted the series to be an accurate representation of Hmong American children and families today. So while I am not outdoorsy, Astrid and Apollo are!

In ASTRID AND APOLLO AND THE STARRY CAMPOUT, there is a lot of talk about food – one of my favorite topics! In the book, we learn a bit about Astrid’s and Apollo’s preferences, but do you have a favorite Hmong food?

Sesame balls are my favorite treat in the whole world! Specifically, the kind with mung beans and coconut, which are excellent. Note that sesame balls are not specific to Hmong people and are enjoyed by people all over Asia. Sesame balls found in Chinese bakeries and restaurants—hello, yummy dim sum!—usually have red bean paste or lotus paste filling. Those are delicious too, but I love the Southeast Asian-style sesame balls that have yellow mung bean filling. Hmong delis and grocery stores sell these kind, which I prefer. And like Astrid, I am a fan of egg rolls. Hmong egg rolls are similar to Vietnamese egg rolls with thin, crispy outer layers and meat and vermicelli noodles as filling. Those are the absolute best!

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from the ASTRID AND APOLLO books?

I hope Hmong readers will see themselves, their families, friends, and stories reflected in the series. I hope non-Hmong readers will read the books and perhaps find that culture and race don’t have to be a barrier to relating to characters from a background different than theirs. I hope everyone will learn a little bit about Hmong culture, history, food, and language too (I include some Hmong terms in the books).

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add the ASTRID AND APOLLO books to their classrooms and libraries?

Hmong people are seldom represented in mainstream media or literature, but on the rare occasions that we are, the representation is inaccurate or outdated, and leans toward the painful, struggling war refugee narrative. The second- and third-generation Hmong children today are removed from that experience and might not relate to those stories. While it’s important that Hmong children know and understand our history and hardships, it’s also important that they see themselves in happy stories. It’s especially important that they see themselves as the stars of stories, and that their non-Hmong peers see Hmong children as lead characters and stars too. Diverse representation is more important than ever at this moment in history, and all kids deserve to read books with characters from diverse backgrounds. I hope you will share ASTRID AND APOLLO with your students so everyone can finally see Hmong children in authentic, happy stories and as the stars of stories.

What else are you working on now?

I’m finishing up the next set of books in the ASTRID AND APOLLO series coming Fall 2021. I’m also working on a middle grade novel that’s part historical fiction, part magical realism, which I’m very excited about, and I have some picture books in the works as well.

When can readers get their hands on the ASTRID AND APOLLO books?

All four books in the series publish August 1 and are available wherever books are sold. To get signed copies, please order from Moon Palace Books and Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis.

Moon Palace Books

Wild Rumpus

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

Readers can learn more about me at my website: I also have some fun launch events coming up that you can find more about here:

Please reach out to me anytime here:


Twitter/Instagram: @vtbidania

Thank you, Jarrett!

V.T. Bidania was born in Laos and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. When she was five years old, she wrote her first story about a frog that jumped over a pond and completed it with a crayon illustration. She has been writing ever since. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and received a Mirrors and Windows Fellowship from the Loft Literary Center. She once worked on a martial arts movie and can be seen in a one-second clip where she is fighting for her life—literally. She lives outside of the Twin Cities with her family.

Interview: Jess Redman

Hey there, Jess! Welcome back to the MG Book Village, and thanks for being willing to chat a bit about your upcoming release, QUINTESSENCE!

Thank you so much for having me back!

Before we get to the new book, I’d love to hear about how your year has been since your debut, THE MIRACULOUS, published this past summer.

Well…it’s definitely been a memorable year for everyone! And a very busy one.

THE MIRACULOUS came out on July 30, 2019. It was thrilling and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

It was also a lot of really hard work! I had copy edits for QUINTESSENCE due around THE MIRACULOUS’s pub date, and then I jumped into revisions on what became my third book.

I was chugging along pretty well though until—schools closed in mid-March. In so many ways, we’ve been very fortunate throughout this pandemic, but it has been a tricky balancing act for my husband and I working from home with two very active young kids. I’ve spent many nights working until after midnight, and I’ve had to make peace, over and over, with life as it is in this moment.

And now? I’m working on copy edits for my next book, THE ADVENTURE IS NOW! It’s a super fun, fast-paced story about magic and the environment and hidden treasure on a remote island, and I can’t wait to share more about it in the coming months.

We can’t wait, either! Now, what’s the new book, QUINTESSENCE, all about?

QUINTESSENCE is the story of twelve-year-old Alma Lucas and her quest to save a fallen star.

Alma and her family have recently moved to the town of Four Points. She is homesick and lonely and, worst of all, she’s been having panic attacks.

Then one afternoon, Alma is given a quintescope (a sort of magical telescope) and this message: Find the Elements. Grow the Light. Save the Starling.

That night, through the lens of the quintescope, Alma watches as a star—a star that looks like a golden child—falls into her backyard. Alma knows what it’s like to feel lost and afraid, to long for home, and she knows that it’s up to her to save that star.

But she’ll need the help of the enigmatic ShopKeeper and three new friends from Astronomy Club to do it. Together, they’ll have to gather the four classical elements—Earth, Wind, Water, Fire—and use them to create the fifth element, Quintessence. It’s a quest that will take a little bit of science, a little bit of magic, and their whole selves.

I’m curious about the title, QUINTESSENCE, as you seem to have a habit of using big, bold, single words for your novels’ titles – words that some of your readers might only have a slippery grasp on. Is there a reason behind this? How did you arrive at this book’s title?

I love words. I’m a bit of a word collector á la Felicity Pickle in SNICKER OF MAGIC, and quintessence was one of my favorite words long before this story. I guess miraculous was too, come to think of it. There are some words that just feel like magic, that feel powerful all on their own, and quintessence and miraculous are two of them.

Hopefully when kids read these titles, they think the same thing. And hopefully, even if they don’t know exactly what the words mean or how to pronounce them, they’ll want to find out more.

The protagonist of QUINTESSENCE, Alma, suffers from panic attacks. What led you to write a story in which you explored this?

The most direct connection is that I too was an anxious kid. In this story, Alma moves to a brand new town and begins experiencing panic attacks shortly after. When I was twelve, I moved from Philadelphia to Florida, and the anxiety I’d been dealing with for several years increased dramatically.

As an anxious kid, I read constantly. I gravitated toward protagonists who felt different and mixed-up inside, my favorite being Meg Murry. I know reading about a character like Alma would have been a revelation to me. I would have felt less isolated, less alone. I would have felt seen.

Another connection is that I am a licensed mental health counselor. Right now, my focus is on writing and being with my two little kids, but I’ve worked with many anxious clients—young and old—over the years.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from QUINTESSENCE?

First and foremost, I hope they enjoy the story itself. QUINTESSENCE contains so many things that I love—magical telescopes, astronomy, supernovas, curiosity shops, alchemy, unlikely friendships, plot twists, characters who are more than they seem, and lots and lots of kids biking around in the middle of the night on adventures. I hope readers want to find out who the ShopKeeper is, where the Starling could be hiding, which kid goes with which of the four elements, and how the story is going to end. The ending is, in my opinion, the best part.

Beyond that, I hope readers who feel anxious or lonely or overwhelmed connect with Alma and her friends. I hope seeing Alma shifting her negative self-talk, practicing breathing exercises, learning about anxiety, and seeing a therapist helps provide these readers with the language to explore what’s happening inside them and the reassurance that it’s okay to ask for help.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add QUINTESSENCE to their classroom libraries?

Teachers, you all have been on my heart, especially these last months as we’re faced with so much uncertainty with this coming year. I’ve been fortunate to get to know so many of you through conferences and social media, and I know how much you love your students and how passionate you are about connecting your kids with books.

Whatever form this school year takes for you, I hope you’ll consider adding QUINTESSENCE to your classroom library. It has short chapters, lots of action, magic, science, exploding stars, secret identities, elements that readers can “sort” themselves into, and lots of heart.

Also, it’s a story many of your students may need right now. Anxiety is the number one mental health concern in the United States, and I’ve heard from so many teachers already who were drawn to this story because of the rising anxiety rates in their classrooms. QUINTESSENCE will speak to readers struggling with anxiety and to anyone who has ever felt lonely or unsure about their place in the universe.

When can readers get their hands on QUINTESSENCE?

QUINTESSENCE will be sold in all the usual places, and you can find links on my Macmillan page here:

My personal recommendation? Order a signed copy from my independent bookstore, Books & Books! You can do that here:

And I’ll be doing a launch event with Books & Books on July 28th along with the amazing NYT bestselling author Natalie Lloyd (SNICKER OF MAGIC, THE PROBLIM CHILDREN series), so come spend some time with us! Details here:

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work? And do you have any events scheduled to help celebrate the new book?

A great way to connect with me right now is through Twitter & Instagram. I’m on both as @Jess__Red. There will come a day when I step back from social media to do more writing, but today is not that day.

You can also visit my website, to check out my pre-order campaign, book trailers, teacher’s guides, character quizzes, and other fun things. Like I mentioned above, I’ll be doing a launch with Natalie Lloyd, and then I have a whole series of virtual events coming up with super awesome middle-grade authors.

So follow me on social media, swing by my website, and come hang out at one of my upcoming events. I’d love to connect with you!

Jess Redman is a therapist and author of books for young readers with FSG/Macmillan. Her first book, The Miraculous, was a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2019, an Amazon Best Book of 2019, and was called “layered, engaging, and emotionally true” in a Kirkus starred review. Her second book, Quintessence, releases on July 28th.  The book was featured in OwlCrate Jr.’s subscription box and described as “a fanciful adventure with a rich emotional core and a fairy tale” by Publishers Weekly. Her third book, The Adventure Is Now, is scheduled for publication in May 2021. Redman currently lives in Florida with her husband, two young children, an old cat named SoulPie, and a fish named Annie. Visit her at or on Twitter and Instagram at @Jess__Red.

. . .

Three months ago, twelve-year-old Alma moved to the town of Four Points. Her panic attacks started a week later, and they haven’t stopped—even though she told her parents that they did. And every day she feels less and less like herself. 

Then Alma meets the ShopKeeper in the town’s junk shop, The Fifth Point. The ShopKeeper gives her a telescope and this message:

Find the Elements. Grow the Light. Save the Starling.

That night, Alma watches as a star—a star that looks like a child—falls down from the sky and into her backyard. She knows what it’s like to be lost and afraid, to long for home. And if a star really is stranded in Four Points, Alma knows she has to get it back up to the sky. With the help of some unlikely new friends from Astronomy Club and the mysterious ShopKeeper, she sets out on a quest that will take a little bit of science, a little bit of magic, and her whole self. 

QUINTESSENCE is a stunning story of friendship, self-discovery, interconnectedness, and the inexplicable elements that make you you.


“A wildly imaginative tale full of wonder and hope that is grounded in our everyday world and the very real problems that today’s children face.” —Megan Frazer Blakemore, author of The Story Web

A magical, wondrous book. . .The story is beautifully written and gave me chills almost constantly—with that magic-just-around-the-corner feeling.” —Gillian McDunn, author of Caterpillar Summer

“A fanciful adventure with a rich emotional core and a fairy tale flair. An emphasis on Alma’s mental health and circular thought patterns proves an effective complement to the story’s magical elements, as her new endeavor and friends grant her the resilience to navigate her needs. Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, this is a clever, entertaining story with its own distinct identity.” —Publishers Weekly

“…a cozy contemporary fantasy that balances fresh, cosmic world building with painful personal challenges…Short chapters and tight pacing keep things moving at a brisk clip, and readers will no doubt enjoy following Alma and her new friends on their fantastical treasure hunt of sorts. A warm, engaging adventure.” —Booklist

“Redman’s writing shines [in] the portrayal of Alma’s mental health and its effect on her sense of self and on those around her. . .Reassuring, especially to kids struggling to articulate their own feelings in the face of lingering stigma about mental health.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“As bright and magical as a falling star, Quintessenceis a beautifully told story that collided with my heart and set it aglow.” —Heather Kassner, author of The Bone Garden

“While firmly grounded in real-world issues, Quintessence shimmers with the perfect amount of magic. Redman’s deft, sympathetic portrayal of anxiety, a welcome and important addition to the middle grade canon, blends with scientific references to astronomy that are sure to engage young readers. Well-rounded, relatable, and resilient characters working together in a captivating setting make this the perfect read for fans of STEM and the stars.” —Sarah Baughman, author of The Light in the Lake

Interview: Taryn Souders

Hello, Taryn! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your new novel, COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP. But before we get to the book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Sure! I live in Florida, but I’m originally from Texas. We have three awesome kids and two mentally unstable cats (Mordecai and Sebastian). I’ve been writing for the past few years, and I’m represented by the amazing Sally Apokedak of The Apokedak Literary Agency.

You’ve written picture books AND middle grade novels. Does the process for them differ at all? Is there anything about writing for middle grade readers that you particularly like?

The process is similar, but you definitely have to dive deeper for novels. You can’t rely on illustrations for novels as you can with picture books. Illustrations carry so much of a story’s weight and help an author out with keeping their word count low. They do awesome things–like showing a character’s emotion or the setting or a total catastrophe unfolding. That’s not an option for middle grade. You got into the nitty gritty of description and emotion and so forth. Oddly enough, I find picture books harder to write!

I LOVE writing for middle grade readers. They are at the age where they understand a lot of different types of humor like wit, sarcasm, and even dry humor. Their conversations are the best to listen to! They are energetic and funny and up for anything!

All right, onto the MG novel we are here to discuss — COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP! Can you tell us what it’s all about?

I LOVE this book! Coop Goodman lives with his mom and his paternal granddad in Windy Bottom, Georgia. (His dad was a marine in Afghanistan who died when Coop was five.) Windy Bottom is a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. When the town council decides it’s time to renovate the old playground, a skeleton is found buried under the slide! The identity of the dearly departed shocks the town, and Coop’s beloved Gramps becomes the number one suspect. Coop takes on the role of detective as he tries to clear his granddad’s name—and discovers there’s more than just a skeleton buried in Windy Bottom . . . there are lots of secrets.

This is your fourth novel, but your first mystery. Have you always wanted to write a mystery? Did you read a lot as a kid? Do you now? How was writing this mystery different from writing your other books?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Very Different. Next question.

Just kidding. I have always wanted to write a mystery—mainly because I LOVE mysteries. They’re pretty much all I ever read as a kid. I devoured Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Boxcar Children, Encyclopedia Brown, and more. As I got older, I flew through Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, PD James, and so many others.

Nowadays I read middle grade mysteries—for a couple reasons. #1 They are super fun to read. #2 As an author, I think it’s important to read the genres and subgenres you write or want to write. I study them—see how other authors introduce clues, suspects, red herrings, etc.

Writing Coop Knows the Scoop was definitely different from how I approached my other books. Mainly because I HAD to outline everything ahead of time—and I was a pantser when it came to writing. So, writing “by the seat of my pants” was thrown out the window. The reason I needed to do that was I had to get all my clues and red herrings sorted out. I had to make sure I didn’t introduce someone or something out of order, which in turn, might screw up how the mystery was solved.

COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP deals with some heavy issues. Why do you think it’s important for kids’ books to address and explore such issues? Are there any benefits to doing so in fiction, as opposed to or in addition to non-fiction?

There’s a place in both fiction and nonfiction in dealing with heavy issues. Nonfiction can run the risk of being too “cold and clinical” in its deliverance of facts. However, facts are needed and are important. But sometimes we can lose readers if they can’t relate to what they’re reading—and that’s where fiction fills gap. Fiction allows the reader to believe there are other people in the world dealing with the same issues and/or feeling the same way they feel. Fiction builds relationship and empathy—which are also needed and important. So, yeah, I think a reader should read both fiction and nonfiction.

Some of the issues Coop deals with are the loss of a parent, deception and dishonesty from a “parental figure”, the loss of trust, drinking, gambling, and jealousy. I put jealousy in the “heavy issue” category because if it’s not dealt with it can lead to some pretty terrible things.

I know it was important to you to depict and explore the characters and culture of a small Southern town. Can you talk about the creation of Windy Bottom? How does setting more generally factor into your writing and storytelling?

Setting is super important to me and Windy Bottom was so fun to create! While the town is a character in and of itself, the citizens are the ones that show off its personality and quirkiness. I’ve lived in small southern towns and do they really do have a life of their own. As an author, it’s important to me that the reader be grounded in the story—to know where they are and what’s around them. If that can be accomplished, I believe the adventure or mystery or whatever, is enjoyed even more.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP?

The main theme of COOP is forgiveness. We all make mistakes, particularly when we’re young. Let’s face it, who we are now is not necessarily who we were “back then.” We’re constantly growing and changing—hopefully for the better. Fun fact: the original title of COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP was REMAINS TO BE SEEN. I loved this because it worked on two different levels. #1—Tabby’s remains needed to be seen in order for the truth to come out and for her to receive justice. #2—it echoed the theme of the story: who we ultimately become remains to be seen. We can learn from our mistakes of the past, but not let them hold us prisoner. The title got changed to COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP, which I also love, but the theme remains the same—and those concepts of redemption and forgiveness are what I hope readers take away.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP to their classrooms and libraries?

There are some great “extras” that Sourcebooks Kids offers. There is a free downloadable Activity Kit filled with all sorts of games and activities related to the story. There is also a fantastic Discussion Guide that can help facilitate classroom discussion. I recommended teachers, librarians, and parents check them both out! Just click on the links.

When can readers get their hands on COOP KNOWS THE SCOOP?

It releases July 7! Wohoo!!

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

They can visit me at my website: or find me on Facebook: Taryn Souders – Author, or on Twitter @TarynSouders.

Taryn has written both picture books and middle-grade novels. Her books have taken part in Battle of the Books, been named to state reading lists, including the Georgia Children’s Book Awards and the Sunshine State Young Readers Awards, and have been Crystal Kite Finalists. Her fourth middle grade novel, Coop Knows the Scoop, releases July 2020. Taryn is a member of both SCBWI and Word Weavers International, and is represented by Sally Apokedak of Apokedak Literary Agency. She currently lives in Sorrento, Florida with her husband, David, their three children, and two cats—an overly fuzzy Ragdoll named Mordecai and a polydactyl Hemingway named Sebastian—who like to terrorize flies (the cats, not her husband or children). While she’s somewhat decent at math, she is terrible at science and has an intense dislike of tarantulas.

Cover Reveal for ARIA JONES AND THE GUARDIAN’S WEDJA, by Malayna Evans

Hi Malayna, and welcome to MG Book Village! We’re very excited to reveal the cover for your upcoming MG novel, ARIA JONES & THE GUARDIAN’S WEDJA, which comes out on August 25, 2020. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Thanks so much for hosting me. It’s a pleasure to share my good news here with you—I’m a fan.

The book is about twelve-year-old Aria Jones and her trip through time. Adventurous by nature, Aria is happy to oblige when she and her big brother Jagger are summoned back to ancient Egypt. She’s missed the friends she made on her first trip to the past, during which she acquired a not-so-comfy superpower. But what she finds when she gets back isn’t the fun-filled reunion she expected. Turns out, her friends aren’t doing so well. So when the household god Bes passes along a puzzling prophecy, Aria has to battle old enemies, forge new alliances, and face her inner demons in order to restore magic, save her friends, and get back to Chicago with her big bro at her side.

Did you know that you were going to be writing a sequel to your debut novel, JAGGER JONES AND THE MUMMY’S ANKH, and how did writing this book differ from your first?

I had a three-book concept in mind from the outset. I’m an Egyptologist by training and when I started playing around with the idea of writing a book with a brother-sister duo, inspired by my own two kids, lost in ancient Egypt, an old blessing was stuck in my mind: ankh, wedja, seneb, which means (may you have) life, prosperity and health. I thought it would be fun to explore those themes in a trilogy, contrasting modern and ancient notions. As you can imagine, I was pretty ecstatic when I got a three-book deal.

What I didn’t know in advance was that I’d shift to Aria’s point of view for book two. To be honest, I tried sticking with Jagger but Aria just wanted to be heard. She’s nothing if not persistent. Once I made the switch, the story came more easily. Her voice was a lot of fun for me to write. While Jagger is cerebral and serious, she’s feisty and clever. And she taps a very different universe of resources to problem solve than her brainy brother.

Is there anything you learned about your characters while you were writing this story that surprised you?

Yes! I knew Aria was a cheery optimist when I wrote book one. But I didn’t realize her character arc would so closely mimic my own. She’s optimistic to a fault, which leads her to ignore problems and tell herself she just needs to be tough, keep going, and everything will be okay. Like me, she had to learn the hard way that pushing uncomfortable thoughts away doesn’t solve them, it only gives them space to grow bigger.

Writing has been difficult for many authors in the past few months. How have you managed to do edits and focus on your writing?

It’s been a stressful few months. But there’s inspiration in the chaos too. The breadth and depth and diversity of people standing up for equity is moving. It’s one of those moments that reminds me to stay teachable. That’s definitely true when it comes to writing—I still have a lot to learn. I wish I could say the months I’ve been locked in my house with my kids and dog were super fruitful on that front. But honestly, I’ve struggled to set the anxiety aside and focus. I did have a one-month stretch of productivity during which I pounded out a rough draft of a new MG manuscript. That’s unusual for me. Generally I set aside a few hours a day to work on my writing. But through this, I’ve written when the spirit moves me and ignored the task when it doesn’t. That’s not the way I usually organize my life—I prefer a steady pace—but like so many of us, I’m just letting myself just do what I can and forgiving myself for what I can’t.

Did you have any input on your cover, and if so, what was the experience like for you?

I shared a lot of opinions on Jagger’s cover. I’m lucky my publisher was so supportive and worked through multiple drafts until we landed on a cover we could all agree on. Comparatively, Aria’s cover was a breeze. I did suggest a few scenes I thought would work well on the cover. And they delivered an initial draft I loved the second I saw it. The creepy mummy shadows on the bottom are my favorite thing about Aria’s cover.

It’s time for the big reveal!

Oh wow, this is such a vibrant cover that immediately makes me want to read it!

Thanks, Kathie. I’m extra happy to see the sphinx here with Jagger and Aria. It’s one of the symbols of ancient Egypt people are most familiar with. Oddly, it wasn’t until book one was put to bed that I realized I’d incorporated loads of people and places and artifacts I’m fascinated by but I hadn’t brought many old, familiar favorites into the story. I tried to rectify that with book two, and the sphinx on the cover flags that nicely.

What is it that you love most about writing middle grade fiction?

The best, and most unexpected, delight of this journey has been visiting middle grade learners in real life and online to proselytize about ancient Egypt. I spent a good decade studying the culture. I wanted to be a professor but that didn’t quite pan out for me. So personally, it’s fun to finally put my education to use, although not quite as I expected to. More importantly, I think it’s important, maybe now more than ever, to remind folks that the human culture we share has diverse roots and, specifically, that this ancient African civilization gave us our writing system, various math concepts, our calendar, and so much more. That’s just not a thing I learned growing up—my education was entirely Eurocentric—so if a few kids read Jagger and Aria’s stories and appreciate the glories of ancient Egypt or learn about some of the the ways our daily life is still influenced by it, I’ll be a happy storyteller and historian.

Where can people go to find out more about you and your writing?

My website is a great place to learn more. I have educational resources, including an escape room style classroom activity and learning guides, for educators. You can check it out at and follow me on Twitter ( or Instagram (

Thank you for allowing us to be part of your cover reveal, and we look forward to following your publishing journey!

Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a treat to swing over and share my adventure with you. I wouldn’t dare speak for middle grade authors en masse about much, but I’m certain I’m not alone when I say many of us appreciate the work you do on MG Book Village. Keep up the good work—we appreciate you!

Malayna Evans was raised in the mountains of Utah and spent her childhood climbing, reading Sci-Fi, and finding trouble. She earned her Ph.D. in ancient Egyptian history from the University of Chicago. She’s used her education to craft a time-travel series set in ancient Egypt, inspired by her own children. Book one is Jagger Jones and the Mummy’s Ankh. Book two, Aria Jones and the Guardian’s Wedja, comes out in August of 2020. Evans lives in Oak Park, IL, with her two kids, a rescue dog, and a hedgehog. She’s passionate about coffee, travel, and visiting classrooms to proselytize about ancient Egypt. You can learn more about her resources for educators or schedule a class visit at