Interview: Jamie Sumner

Hi there, Jamie! Thanks for swinging by the MG Book Village to talk about your new novel, TUNE IT OUT! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the book?

I am so very happy to be here, Jarrett! I’m a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve written articles and essays for the New York Times and the Washington Post, but my heart lies in middle grade fiction. Before I was a writer, I taught high school English for over a decade and before that I worked in New York at a small publishing house in Chelsea. The love of language has carried me through all my jobs.

TUNE IT OUT is my second middle novel. My first, ROLL WITH IT, came out last year. TUNE IT OUT is the story of twelve-year-old Lou Montgomery who has the voice of an angel and a mother who wants to make her a star. The catch is, Lou also has an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder that makes performing nearly impossible. Sounds and crowds overwhelm her. When Child Protective Services separates the mother-daughter duo, Lou is sent to live across the country with her aunt and uncle. This is where she finally attends school regularly, makes her first real friend, joins the theater class, and begins to understand her SPD. This is Lou’s journey to find her own voice and take ownership of what she lets define her.

Music and musical theater play a big role in the book. Have they played a big role in your own life?

I love musical theater (she says with jazz hands)! It’s where I first found my home and my people in high school. I tended to stick backstage and worked as assistant director on all the plays. My senior year, I did an independent study where I wrote a one-act play that I was able to cast, direct, and put on for the entire school. It was epic. And it was all due to my theater teacher, Paula Flautt. She took a risk on me and I am so grateful. This book is dedicated her.

I think there’s something about music and theater both that open you up to parts of yourself you might never have recognized. They allow you to explain the unexplainable through movement and sound. Everyone has a favorite song that the minute you hear it, you think, yes, this is me, this is my experience and I couldn’t have said it better myself. I believe really great books do this as well. They make you feel a truth you knew deep down, but never recognized until the moment you read it on a page.

Do you listen to music when you write? Or do you need quiet? Or can you listen to music during some parts of your creative process, but not others?

I need quiet while I write. Well…I’m home writing with three kids, so I need whatever level of quiet I can get. However, I listen to music as I’m plotting and also when I get stuck. I have certain songs and styles of music that I associate with each of my characters and if I don’t know where to go next or I start to feel disconnected from a character, I’ll put something on that reminds me of them. Lou’s music was an eclectic mix of Patty Griffin, Dolly Parton, and Pink. She’s tough and also heartbreakingly vulnerable and these women know how to rock that complexity.

Lou, TUNE IT OUT’s main character, has a sensory processing disorder. Can you share with us exactly what it is?

Thank you for asking this. The best way I can explain it is to think of a sensory processing disorder as a traffic jam of the senses. Sounds and touches and tastes, even light, collide in a way that overloads the brain. It’s too much to process and can make the world feel unbearably overwhelming at times. Each case is different. Some people have difficulty with certain fabrics on their skin. Others are sensitive to loud or sudden or specific sounds. Some need firm versus light touch, like a hug or a handshake instead of a pat on the shoulder. Unfortunately, as is the case with many invisible disabilities, SPD is often misdiagnosed or misunderstood. I hope this book can spread some understanding of it.

Can you discuss your relationship with sensory processing issues, and why you were compelled to create and write about a character like Lou?

My son, Charlie, has both cerebral palsy and a sensory processing disorder. The SPD diagnosis came later in his life when we noticed his sensitivity to particular sounds. Vacuums, hair dryers, razors, lawn mowers – they all brought him to tears. He was terrified of them. It wasn’t something you could rationalize him out of because this is how his brain works and his brain is wonderful and he deserves to be understood. As a teacher, I also came into contact with students with sensory issues and I watched them struggle to explain something that no one else could see. In TUNE IT OUT, I wanted to create a character that might help bring awareness to and empathy for their situation. Lou’s story is ultimately about how she grows brave enough to speak her truth to the people in her life who need to accept her for who she is. I think middle school kids are so much better and braver than adults at this and I hope they cheer her on as the story unfolds.

What sort experiences did you call upon and what sort of research did you do before and while crafting Lou’s story? Did you use sensitivity readers?  

My priority in writing Lou’s story was to portray her experience as authentically as possible while fully acknowledging that is not my experience. To do that, I called upon sensitivity readers with sensory processing disorders as well as occupational therapists who work with those with SPD. A judge and a social worker also read early drafts to make sure Lou’s experience with Child Protection Services was accurate.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from TUNE IT OUT books?

Middle school is tough. You are just beginning to peel yourself away from the identity your parents and teachers place upon you and figure out who you really are apart from those labels. I hope this story helps readers feel brave enough to voice their wants and needs and to dive headfirst into who they want to be, no matter what anyone else says.

When can readers get their hands on TUNE IT OUT, and do you have any other exciting appearances or events around the release?

TUNE IT OUT is available on September 1st, 2020 wherever books are sold! Personally, I’d say order it from your favorite independent bookstore, because they need us as much as we need them right now. I’m having my launch party/live Facebook chat with Parnassus Books here in Nashville on September 2nd at 6 p.m. (CST). If you want to “tune in” (pun intended), you can find all the info here!

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

The best place to find me is my website: If you’re a teacher and looking to schedule a Zoom/Skype visit, this is the best place to contact me!

I’m also on:


Instagram: @jamiesumner_author

Twitter: @jamiesumner_

Jamie Sumner is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, ROLL WITH IT (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, October 2019). Her second middle-grade novel, TUNE IT OUT, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and the School Library Journal, will be coming out September 1st, 2020. She has written for the New York Times and the Washington Post as well as other publications, and is the reviews editor at Literary Mama. She loves stories that celebrate the grit and beauty in all kids. She and her family live in Nashville, Tennessee. Connect with her at

Interview: Fleur Bradley

Thank you for joining me today, Fleur. I’m really enjoyed your upcoming MG novel, MIDNIGHT AT THE BARCLAY HOTEL (releases August 25th with Viking Books for Young Readers). Can you tell our readers what it’s about, please?

MIDNIGHT AT THE BARCLAY HOTEL is the story of JJ, Penny and Emma, three kids who think they’re tagging along with their respective grownups for a fun weekend at the (reportedly haunted…) Barclay Hotel. Only when they arrive, the butler announces to the guests that hotel owner Mr. Barclay is dead, and that he orchestrated for the adult guests to be there as suspects.

JJ in particular is shocked, because his mom is a suspect in Mr. Barclay’s murder too—and all he really wanted to do was spend the weekend ghost hunting. Now, with the help of his new friends, Penny and Emma, JJ has to track down a killer, clear his mother’s name… And he even meets a ghost or two along the way.

I’ve heard your book compared to THE WESTING GAME meets ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY meets the CLUE movie. Are these the types of books you liked to read when you were younger, or where did the inspiration from the story come from?

Actually, I grew up in the Netherlands, so the books I read were different ones. But I was such an avid reader, by age twelve or so, I’d worked my way through most of the children’s department at my library. And there was no YA section at the time… A nice librarian (I wish I could remember her name) pointed me toward the mystery section—Agatha Christie in particular. I started with the ABC Murders, and I’ve been hooked on mystery ever since.

Midnight at the Barclay Hotel is a bit of a nod to Agatha Christie. I love the quirky characters, the slight sense of humor, and the twisty mysteries she wrote.

Can you tell us 3 interesting tidbits about this story or its journey to publication?

1. The Barclay Hotel is modeled loosely after the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado—of the Shining. I visited the hotel and even went on one of the ghost hunting tours, that was so fun. The Barclay Hotel is an over-the-top fictional version of the Stanley: it has a carousel, a bowling alley, a pool… All fun stuff I imagined loving as a kid.

2. It took a long time to find a home at Viking Children’s! But my editor Aneeka Kalia really understood how to make the story better. I’m lucky to be there.

3. I was not expecting the book to be illustrated, so when the illustration came in, I was floored. It was like the illustrator (Xavier Bonet) looked right into my brain and put the characters to the page.

How did the process of writing this book differ from any of your previous books?

My previous books (the Double Vision trilogy, a spy adventure series) were all sold based on a partial, so I worked together with my agent and editor(s) to develop the books very early on. For Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, I wanted to take the time to develop the book, characters, and story so it was exactly where I wanted it to be before sending it out into the world.

It took me about a year to feel like the book was ready, then once it was acquired at Viking, I had to trim the book from 50K words to about 35K…! The original manuscript had many chapters written from the adult characters’ perspectives—I think the book is more accessible now, with the illustrations and tighter narrative.

It was a long process, but I’m really proud of how Midnight at the Barclay Hotel turned out. I can’t wait for the kids to read it!

Which character was easiest for you to write, and why?

Penny, without a doubt. Penny is a bookworm, but wants to be brave. She’s smart, kind to her grandpa (the detective in the book), and is a little bit of a sceptic when it comes to the existence of ghosts.

Penny is probably the closest to a twelve-year-old me.

Are you currently working on another writing project?

Ah, it’s top-secret! Well, not really, but it’s still in the early stages of writing and plotting. All I’ll say is that it has a cool setting, a mystery, and some spooky stuff. Stay tuned…

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

My website: There’s more information on author visits, a teacher guide, downloadable activities… And pictures of me when I was a kid, and of my cats, of course.

Thanks for dropping by the Village today, Fleur, and all the best your book’s launch.

Fleur Bradley is passionate about two things: mysteries and getting kids to read. When she’s not active in her local SCBWI chapter, she’s doing school visits and is speaking at librarian and educator conferences on reaching reluctant readers. Originally from the Netherlands, Fleur now lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and two daughters, and entirely too many cats.

For more information on Fleur and her books, visit, and on Twitter @FTBradleyAuthor.

12 BOOKS SET ON THE FARM by CJ and Elza from Middle Grade Carousel

Today at MG Book Village we’re featuring a great list of middle grade recommendations for August all about the barnyard from CJ and Elza from Middle Grade Carousel.

Hello from Middle Grade Carousel! We’re CJ and Elza, a mother-daughter blogging duo who love all things middle grade.

Although we’re both readers, CJ and I don’t always want to read the same book. This inspired us to start our own reading challenge, where we pick a theme and run with it! In looking for books that fit our challenges, we often discover new books that maybe we wouldn’t have noticed or tried before.

Today, we’re here to share a dozen books inspired by our theme this August. From prize-winning pigs and powerful poultry to fields of creepy scarecrows and crops with a mind all their own, farms hold plenty of possibility for everyday adventures, extraordinary discoveries, and creature comforts. We hope you’ll read and explore along with us!



Sharon Creech

Lower Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction/Novel in Verse

When their family moves from the big city to rural Maine, Reena and her brother, Luke, are recruited by a kooky neighbor to help care for her menagerie, including a stubborn beltie cow named Zora.



Kelly Jones

Middle Grade, Magical Realism

Sophie and her family inherit Blackbird Farm from her recently deceased great-uncle. Moving in and learning how care for a farm is more work than they expected. Especially when Sophie realizes Uncle Jim’s chickens are far from ordinary.



Tamara Bundy

Middle Grade, Historical Fiction (1940s)

Pixie feels she’s been cursed with bad luck. Her family’s been torn apart by loss and illness, and she’s not getting along with her classmates at school. With no one else to turn to, Pixie takes to caring for the farm’s newest resident, a runt lamb named Buster.



Liesl Shurtliff

Middle Grade, Fairy Tale Fantasy

Jack gets into trouble when he’s bored, which means he’s in trouble a lot. Life on the farm isn’t very exciting. That is, until his father is carried away by an unusual force of nature. With the help of his sister, Annabella, Jack takes on the adventure he’s always wished for.



N.D. Wilson

Middle Grade, Portal Fantasy

When his parents go missing, Henry York is taken in by his aunt, uncle, and many cousins in rural Kansas. A bump in the night leads to a mysterious discovery in the farmhouse attic that tuns his quiet new life upside down all over again.



Katherine Arden

Middle Grade, Speculative/Horror

Upon rescuing an old book and receiving a cryptic warning, Ollie reads a chilling tale of feuding brothers and a mysterious “smiling man”. Her class’s field trip to the farm reveals spooky similarities to the story, but when their bus breaks down on the way home, it’s too late to get out before nightfall.



Kathleen Van Cleve

Middle Grade, Magical Realism

Polly Peabody lives on a magical rhubarb farm where jewels appear in the soil, bugs can talk, and rain falls every day at precisely 1:00 P.M. without fail. When things go awry and the rain stops falling, Polly decides to investigate.



Cindy Baldwin

Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Della Kelly’s family is struggling. The farm is in trouble, and mama’s condition is taking a turn for the worse. In hope of finding a cure, Della decides to ask the Bee Lady for a jar of honey rumored to work like magic.



E. B. White

Lower Middle Grade, Classic/Magical Realism

Born a runt of the litter, Wilbur was raised by the farmer’s kindhearted daughter, Fern. Moving into the Zuckerman’s barn is a big step for the little pig, but he soon befriends the other animals, including an intelligent spider named Charlotte.



Joy Cowley

Lower Middle Grade, Humor/Magical Realism

Semolina is a sassy and spirited chicken, but only Josh knows she can speak. When eggs begin to go missing from the henhouse, Semolina has a birds’ eye view of the culprit, but Josh has a hard time convincing anyone to listen to her advice.



Jacqueline K. Ogburn

Middle Grade, Magical Realism

When Eric Harper encounters Chinaberry Creek’s much-rumored “white deer”, he discovers the magic that’s been hidden away right next door. What was once his grandmother’s farm is now a veterinary hospital for magical creatures, and Dr. Brancusi is willing to share its secrets with Eric.



Betsy Hearne

Lower Middle Grade, Magical Realism

A careless wish turns Louise Tolliver’s brother, Willie, into a pig. Unfortunately, this isn’t their first—nor last—brush with trouble. With her father missing, neighbors conspiring, and magic mixing everything up, Louise and her mother must keep their wits about them while searching for a spell to make everything right.

If you’re ready for more farming fun, join us at Middle Grade Carousel. Our reading challenge for the month of August is Barnyard Bookshelf (!

Elza Kinde is a designer of graphics, writer of fiction, reader of Middle Grade, nerd for words, and maker of bad puns. She celebrates her many hobbies and passion for creativity on her personal blog at (

C. J. Milbrandt is a lifelong bookworm with a love for fairy tales, far-off lands, and fantasy worlds. Her family-friendly stories mingle humor and whimsy with a dash of danger and a touch of magic. She is a moderator on the Great Middle Grade Reads ( group on Goodreads. You can also find her at (

Together, this mother-daughter duo run Middle Grade Carousel, a blog designed to make reading fun with a variety of games and challenges for middle grade readers of all ages. Learn more at (!


Hi Lorelei! Thank you for stopping by MG Book Village to talk about your upcoming debut novel, THE CIRCUS OF STOLEN DREAMS (releases September 1, 2020 by Philomel Books). I love the sound of this story, can you share the synopsis with everyone, please?


After Andrea’s brother, Francis, disappeared, everything changed. Her world turned upside down, and there was nothing she could do to right it. So when she discovers a magical dream world called Reverie in the woods near her home, Andrea jumps at the chance to escape her pain and go inside. But the cost of admission is high: Andrea must give up a memory in order to enter. And she knows exactly which memory she’d like to give up.

Once inside, Andrea discovers tent after tent of dreams come alive; she can fly on a gust of wind, brave swashbuckling pirates and search for buried treasure, reach for–and wish on–a tangible star, and much, much more. But Andrea soon realizes that not all of Reverie’s dreams are meant to delight, and the Sandman behind the circus tents seems to have plans of his own. When Andrea finds a tent in which her brother’s darkest nightmare has been brought to life, she realizes the dark truth: Reverie is not an escape; it’s a trap.

Will Andrea and her new friend Penny have what it takes to find Francis, figure out what’s really going on in Reverie, and break free from this nightmarish dream world?

What was the inspiration behind this story, and was there an aspect of it that came to you first before the rest?

Many of my story ideas come to me first in the form of a very sharp image or idea. THE CIRCUS OF STOLEN DREAMS began when my then six-year-old daughter showed me a picture she had drawn that brought me to wonder what would happen if a world of dreams started to creep into and impact real life. I immediately knew that I wanted to play around with the idea of the dream world being a circus and it took a lot of work to flesh out all the details and get things right, but it was so very much fun.

Was there a character that you enjoyed writing the most? What about the one that was the most challenging for you?

Oh my goodness, I’m not sure I could pick a favorite! Each character has grown so very special to me in their own way. But, I think I’d have to say that my antagonist, the Sandman, really does hold a special place in my heart. Creating an antagonist who is both working actively against Andrea, the main character, but who has wounds of his own that echo Andrea’s struggles (and also has magic at his fingertips to boot!) definitely stretched me as a writer. Figuring out the Sandman’s story was one of my most significant challenges while writing this story, but it also was the most rewarding when I finally figured it out.

So, in the end, I think the answer to both of those questions is the same: The Sandman!

Can you tell us 3 things you’d like readers to know about this book?

1- This story is meant to feel like a hug to any kid who has ever walked a difficult road, who loves to immerse themselves in magic and wonder, and who dreams of being brave.
2- As a kid whose parents divorced and who didn’t see much representation of the child experience of divorce when I needed it most, I hope that this story will find kids who may be walking through that journey & who may benefit from feeling less alone.
3- I’d also like readers to know that this book is the product of about 100 rejections over the span of two years, and is a testament to resilience and continuing to pursue one’s dreams, even when it’s hard.

What has surprised you about the journey to get this book published?

Through this journey, I have learned so much more about patience! There are a lot of quiet periods and periods of waiting at every stage of the process to publication. It takes time to get a story right, it takes time to wait for feedback, or to get a chance to send an agent your full manuscript, and then to receive an offer. It takes time to get it ready for submission, and then to hear back from an editor, and then to revise it again. And the waiting continues, even now! I’ve learned to be a lot more patient and willing to accept that things will happen in the right way at the right time. 

So many writers have found it challenging to write over the past few months. What is one technique you use to keep the words flowing?

Having a deadline for my book two edits has definitely helped! But I’ve given myself a heaping helping of grace, too. I’ve used this time to really reflect on the kind of stories I want to bring into the world, which is helping me hone future story ideas. I’ve read a bit, or watched TV a bit, or sat outside a bit. Whatever allowed me to refresh and recharge. I also think that now, with so much uncertainty in the world, that stories are as important as they ever were, and I’m so thankful that I get to write stories for kids. We make sense of the world through stories. Stories affirm that the world can sometimes be a scary place, but that there is also hope and love and joy and magic to be found in sometimes the most surprising of places. To paraphrase Chesterton, stories teach us that dragons exist, but that they also can be beaten. Focusing in on the value of my work has helped me continue to be creative even now. 

Are you working on another project now that you can share with us?

I am! I am contracted for a second book, due to be released in Fall 2021. It’s another creepy, magical story, this time inspired by The Secret Garden! I can’t wait to share it with the world soon.

Where can our readers go to find out more information about you and your writing?

Lorelei: You can find me at I’m also @loreleisavaryn on Twitter, loreleisavarynauthor on Instagram, and on my author page on Facebook at

Thanks for spending time with us today, Lorelei, and I look forward to seeing your book in the hands of young readers soon!

Thank you so much for your hospitality, Kathie, and for inviting me to chat about my book!

Lorelei Savaryn is an author of creepy, magical stories for children. She holds a BA in creative writing and is a former elementary teacher and instructional coach. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time amidst the beautiful chaos of life with her husband and four children outside of Chicago.

Cover Reveal: THE SHIP OF STOLEN WORDS, by Fran Wilde

Hi, Fran! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to reveal the cover for your new book, THE SHIP OF STOLEN WORDS! Can you tell us a bit about the book?

Hi Jarrett! So happy to be here — I’m a huge fan of MG Book Village and @MGatheart!

The Ship of Stolen Words is about Sam, a fifth grader who can’t wait for summer to begin. But when his favorite get-out-of-trouble word is stolen, and then his sister’s is as well, Sam and his sometimes-best-friend Mason have to track down the thieves. Sam’s entire summer depends on getting those words back! Sam discovers that goblins are sneaking into our world and collecting overused and mis-used words when he meets Tolver, a goblin boy, and Tolver’s word-hunting pigs. This kicks off an adventure across two worlds where humans and goblins race to recover Sam’s words before goblin prospectors invade Sam’s neighborhood… using flying pig ships called word hogs.

There’s a lot of magic in this book, and I’m so excited for readers to meet Sam, Tolver, and their families (and some of the prospectors too!). 

Word hogs?! WOW. I can’t wait!

What do you hope your readers — especially the young ones — will take away from the book?

I hope they have a lot of fun with the book, and also take away the feeling that words are pretty magical!

I know that the book originally sold with a different title. How did you feel about the switch?

I love the new title a lot. The original title was focused on the first word that was stolen, and this title, which my brilliant editor Maggie Lehrman and her family came up with, really captures the adventure of the book.

You write fiction, non-fiction, essays, and poetry. What do you love about fiction in particular? Is there anything about Middle Grade fiction that you find especially exciting to write and/or read?

What I love about fiction is that imagination can take the lead. If you’d told me, when I set out to write this book, that it would end up where it did, I would have been so surprised… and that’s part of what’s so great about fiction: the more surprises, the better. 

My excitement for Middle Grade goes all the way back to reading The Phantom TollboothEarthsea, and The Westing Game as a kid — the way that wordplay and adventure mixes, and a new discovery seems to be on every page. I love reading what’s happening in Middle Grade fiction now as well — so many adventures! Some of my favorites lately include Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret, Carlos Hernandez’ Sal & Gabi Break the Universe, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, Molly Brooks’ Sanity & Tallulah, Laurie Morrison’s Up for Air, Kate Messner’s Chirp, a series called Enginerds (you might have heard of it!), Lamar Giles’ The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, and Kate Milford’s The Thief Knot

At the same time, Middle Grade can engage both serious and silly topics, and I love that too. My debut Middle Grade – Riverland – was about a very serious topic, and used portal fantasy to allow two sisters to work out a solution to a problem they — and others — had been trying to conceal.

I couldn’t agree more. And what a great list of books! Thank you! Okay — let’s get to the cover. Were you at all involved in the creative process? If so, how so?

My main involvement with the cover development was screeching with delight. The first cover comps were among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Maggie Lehrman had asked me about what I’d like to see, and I’d given some general guidelines, but I’ve also worked with so many great cover artists over the past five years that I know they’re the masters of their craft.

Artist Shan Jiang (website) did an amazing job – the colors and the motion on the cover makes me want to jump right into the story.

All right — let’s take a look!

My word. It’s magnificent!

What did YOU think when you first saw the cover?

Honestly, my first thought was: FLYING PIGS!!!!

Hahaha! So, when can readers get their hands on THE SHIP OF STOLEN WORDS?

The Ship of Stolen Words comes out June 1, 2021, and Riverland comes out in paperback on May 11, 2021 — both are available for preorder at Abrams Kids and Amazon— and soon, everywhere. You can also mark it as “want to read!” at Goodreads.  And Riverland is also available for paperback preorder:

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

You can find me at and on instagram (along with my dog, Luna, and a lot of summer garden vegetables) at

Kickstarter Creators Photo by Bryan Derballa

Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been finalists for six Nebula Awards, a World Fantasy Award, three Hugo Awards, three Locus Awards, and a Lodestar. They include her Nebula- and Compton-Crook-winning debut novel Updraft, and her Nebula-winning debut Middle Grade novel Riverland. Her short stories appear in Asimov’sTor.comBeneath Ceaseless SkiesShimmerNatureUncanny, and Jonathan Strahan’s 2020 Year’s Best SFF. (Bibliography.) Fran directs the Genre Fiction MFA concentration at Western Colorado University and writes nonfiction for publications including The Washington PostThe New York Times, and You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at

Interview: Victoria Bond

Welcome, Victoria! Thank you so much for stopping by our site to talk to us about your work. Let’s get right to it. Can you share a bit about the ZORA & ME trilogy as a whole? Where did the idea for the trilogy come from?

First, hello and thank you! I deeply appreciate the access to this community and its support! Middle grade novels meet readers, well, in the middle of so many things: growing up, trying out new ideas, figuring out who they are, and deciding what values they stand for. I feel a responsibility writing for an audience that consciously recognizes that they are in the midst of a huge, life-altering shift. That’s true of all of us all the time, of course. Especially now, in the middle of both the pandemic and the efforts to call out and end white supremacy and systemic racism, it’s hard not to confront some of the hard realities we’re surrounded by. In the Zora and Me books, we’ve wanted to discuss some of those hard realities, but in the context of community, hope, and true friendship.  

The series was literally born in a universe far away called 2007. I had just finished writing a novel that was horrible. Tanya Simon, my friend and Zora and Me co-creator, read my first post-MFA book, and agreed that it didn’t work. But she mentioned that she liked the young people characters. I said I enjoyed writing them. Not too long after that, Tanya invited me over to her house for lasagna and told me her idea about a middle grade series starring Zora. In this NYT piece, Tanya discusses some of her motivations, which are personal and political. She wanted to create a spunky, mystery-solving Black heroine for her own daughter who she was pregnant with at the time. She also wanted to create that genius Black girl heroine for all kids. Because Tanya has a background in anthropology, in part, Zora was already in her mind as a specific kind of iconoclastic embodiment. Clearly, I jumped aboard! I was always deeply compelled by Zora’s writing and her hometown, Eatonville, Florida, the first all-Black incorporated town in the US.  As much as these books are about Zora, they’re also about an early 20th century Black community. For me, in so many ways, that’s been an intellectual joy to explore and something I’m deeply grateful I’ve had the opportunity to do.

I’d love to hear more about your working relationship with T.R. (Tanya) Simon. You two co-wrote the first book, she wrote the second book, and you wrote the final one — THE SUMMONER, which publisher this October. What has the experience been like?

For years, Tanya and I tried to settle on a story for the second novel. There were elements of each other’s outlines that we liked, but whenever either of us would try to wrench those elements into a single novel, in at least two drafts, the work was just not coherent. We decided to divide those ideas out into the final two installments and I am so pleased with where we landed, and how connected and cohesive each volume remains to the first. More than that I’m relieved that Tanya and I remain friends and such proud co-creators of this series!

Do you remember when you first discovered the work of Zora Neale Hurston? What did it mean to you then, and has that changed over the course of working on these books?

I was a sophomore in high school when my godmother gave me the collection of Zora’s work, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…and Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive, edited by Alice Walker. I was bookish and a theater kid and people were always telling me that I spoke too loudly, or that they loved the way I dressed, or that I looked weird, that I was really smart one day, and a complete idiot the next. Like many of us, as a result, I internalized truck-loads of self-doubt. The Zora anthology though started to chip away at it. Those writings forced me to think about what I thought about myself and how I would choose to articulate my self-respect irrespective of what voices were coming at me daily. This was a huge leap for me personally, one I continue to take, and I have my godmother, Alice Walker, and of course Zora herself to thank. Zora modeled the Black woman as a fearless intellectual force committed to recording the life of her community. If Zora could do all that, I started to feel like “Who cares if people think I’m weird? I have to figure out what I want to do!” 

What sort of research did you do before and while writing these books? Is the research process one you enjoy?

I’ve reread Hurston’s novels, stories, plays, essays, and autobiography. I’ve read Valerie Boyd’s wonderful biography of Hurston Wrapped in Rainbows a few times. I’ve also returned to the work of Hurston’s contemporaries such as Langston Hughes and Jessie Redmond Faucet who are two of my favorites. At the beginning of the series, I found that considering the preoccupations of some of Hurston’s contemporaries seeded in me things I ended up using. That became less true as time went on because my interests shifted. 

In the 1930s, Zora photographed a woman named Felicia in a hospital courtyard who had been thought to be years dead before she showed up at her family’s farm, broken, bewildered, and for the most part without speech. The family had buried the woman and now here she was; there was no denying her identity. Zora was in Haiti at the time doing anthropological work, heard about Felicia’s case, and went to visit her. Zora took this photograph of Felicia, and Zora as a photographer fascinated me almost as much as the photo itself. These are points that I ended up working into The Summoner. Before I started working on the novel though I was familiar with the idea of the zombie being rooted in the history of enslavement. But as I kept digging, forgive the pun, for information on graveyards and grave robberies, the issue of medical racism started to loom large. In many places in the US, the use of white cadavers for medical research was banned, looked down upon, or made illegal. This means that historically a lot of medical research done in the US was conducted on Black bodies and our biological matter. The Henrietta Lacks case, for example, is one of the most high profile instances of racism and white supremacist erasure continuing after death, and for Henrietta into immortality. Yes, the reach of racism extends beyond the grave. By including in this novel the history of what scholars call “postmortem racism” I wanted to say to middle grade readers, You think racism is a crazy, evil, atrocity? Well, here’s more evidence to add to the case. 

Was there anything you learned in your research that didn’t make it into the books, but that you wanted to include?

What a good question! This is not something that I learned researching necessarily, but it was a historical element that I kept trying to work into The Summoner that in the end was edited out for streamlining purposes. In every draft, except for the published one, there’s a passage about the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the north and midwest. I kept thinking that Zora and Carrie would have known or at least heard of families that made this journey. I’m a little sad the passage didn’t make it to the final. 

Why do you think it’s important for kids to explore history – and this history in particular? What sort of role does fiction have in that exploration?

Another good question! I think it’s so easy for kids and all of us really to think that history, especially difficult ones where violence and oppression feature prominently, as it did in the Jim Crow south, don’t have anything to do with us. We’re not those people in that strange, far away place who did those horrible things, or could endure living such-and-such way. What fiction does is undermine all the pomposity, safety, and security we feel in being who we are now. And it puts words and ideas in our bones that transport us to a then where we care about what happens to people who are not us because we’ve imagined and inhabited their lives, in their times, in their way. And that’s all to say that stories like the ones I’ve written should give us insight into how the history we think is so far away is actually uncomfortably close. While writing this book I would sometimes think about Michael Brown’s lifeless body left in the street in Ferguson for four hours. I would also think about Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old, left to bleed in the street alone as his sister wept and begged police officers to comfort her brother in his last moments. The grim spectacle of Black death has permeated our lives. In The Summoner I used the idea of the zombie and the history of medical research to get at that point another way.  

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from the ZORA & ME books?

I just hope readers enjoy the books and want to hug their friends a little harder after reading them, which many of us are desperate to do anyway because of the pandemic. 

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 ZORA & ME books to their classrooms and libraries?

Zora Neale Hurston is truly an extraordinary historical figure. What our series tries to do is build out the extraordinary and ordinary world that contributed to who Zora became with historical realities intact. Some of what these books are about includes gender, race, white hostility and racially motivated violence. But they’re also about family dynamics, friendship, and love. I wrote this last book thinking about the election of 2016. Irrespective of what happens in our democracy in 2020, The Summoner makes an interesting vehicle for thinking through civic communities and why exactly people cast their vote for one candidate over another. There’s a lot to explore in these books! The times are begging for teaching opportunities like the ones this series provides. Teachers, librarians: go for it!    

When can readers get their hands on THE SUMMONER?

October 13, 2020! Order/pre-order the entire series NOW!!

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

I’m in the middle of putting together a website! The address is My fingers are crossed it will be up by the time this interview posts. Thanks again!! 

Interview: Aliza Layne

Hello, Aliza! Thank you for coming to the MG Book Village to talk about your debut graphic novel, BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES! Before we get to the book, would you like to introduce yourself to our site’s readers?

Hello!  I’m Aliza and I write silly books very seriously.

BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES is your first graphic novel, but you have been making and sharing comics for a long time. Can you talk about your background in comics?

I started seriously teaching myself how to draw when I was around 17, back in 2010, and by 2013 I was making Demon Street, which is my longform fantasy-horror webcomic that’s free to read online. In 2014 I wrote the first story with Beetle and Blob Ghost as a kind of Halloween special and I couldn’t put the characters down, so as everything else continued to develop I kept sending Beetle around to different people and working on developing it out, first into a storyboard and then some years later into a book pitch. In the meantime I did a bunch of anthologies and shows and built Demon Street out into the 600+ page monster it is now.  

Did you read comics and graphic novels as a kid? What do you say to those parents, teachers, and librarians who still don’t consider comics and graphic novels “real” books and the reading of them “real” reading?

I read almost everything I could get my hands on! I think my first really in-depth reading of a graphic novel was probably Jeff Smith’s Bone, which I still think the world of. I think everyone has come a long way in seeing comics as real reading, but I would say that the lack of an idea of comics as literature comes back to a dearth of scholarship about them. I think it trickles down from academia. Even though we generally don’t study film in k-12 in the US, you’re not going to see very many people saying that it isn’t real art, because we have broad scholarship about film and film theory in a way we don’t about comics. Graphic novels as literature may be present in an average college as a single elective class, but it just isn’t a branch of study the way film or literature are right now. But this is a unique art form with a unique language that’s separate from aping the conventions of any other media, it’s just under-studied. So I think we’re already moving in the right direction by shifting culture towards scholarship about GNs, parents and teachers who are traditionalists are naturally going to follow academia’s lead. You see a similar issue in other “low art,” like games.

Fascinating! I hope you are correct!

All right, let’s get to Beetle, Gran, Kat, and Blob Ghost! Was your creative process at all different knowing that these characters’ stories would one day be in a physical book?

So, a physical book is written in a slightly different language than webcomics. You have a finite number of pages to work with that have a specific size, and you also have to consider the gestalt of the two-page spread as well as the action of page-turning as opposed to scrolling or clicking. It forces you to tell your story tightly, similar to the way that a film works as opposed to a TV series, so you end up squeezing everything you possibly can out of every little moment. This might have been twice as long as a webcomic! There’s certainly enough material I could have added!

Can you tell us a bit about what BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES is all about? 

It’s about Halloween jokes and high adventure, but it’s also about being a kid with only one friend and what that feels like. It’s about running around your neighborhood during the week where summer turns into fall for real. I didn’t know it when I wrote it, but it’s about giving the Halloween adventure feeling to kids who might not be able to do Halloween this time around!

I know BEETLE began as a much shorter comic. Can you discuss how the idea evolved? How did you decide to plant such a magical story in, of all places, a mall?

Most immediately I thought the juxtaposition would be funny, which is why the short I did in 2014 has the long title “Goblin Witch and Blood Ghost hang at the mall.” But the joke of mixing the Halloween-spooky with the mundane is a very old one. The Addams family is absolutely this joke, I’m just doing it with a very earnest heart that loves magical coming-of-age. But I’m also framing it around a kid’s experience of the world, especially young kids and how they think when they’re brought into a huge, strange, completely artificial space. There’s a fairyland quality to that. The escalator has teeth and it’s scary and it could suck you down into it and chew you and that’s how you die—we all remember thinking stuff like that. So that beast is real here. And because a lot of malls around the country are sort of decrepit and crumbling, there’s an eerie quality to the space that I’ve talked about a lot. I was 13 when the global financial crisis began in 2007 and I watched the doing-just-fine commerce around me fall apart. Kids now are growing up in a time that’s even weirder! So I think if we’re going for a kind of magical mundane, why not talk about the very real spooky feeling of seeing a place you used to be into sag in on itself until it collapses?

BEETLE is at times touching, at times exhilarating – and almost always hilarious. What role does humor play in your creativity? How do you make sure you are balancing all of these emotional notes in your storytelling?

Oh, they aren’t kidding when they say it’s harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I love jokes but they take so much craft! After that everything is smooth sailing. If I can make you laugh, the hardest thing in the world, I can certainly make you care. The rest of it is all about having characters who you can really believe in as a writer. You want to be able to just put them in a scene and keep in mind their current mental state and figure out how they would bounce off each other, that gets you most of the way there!

Are there any comic-makers or any particular graphic novels you’d suggest to readers who become fans of BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES?

Please look forward to Dungeon Critters coming soon from Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter, it’s a fantasy adventure/mystery by way of Captain Underpants and Redwall! Check out Ethan M. Aldridge’s Estranged and its sequel! For older readers I highly, highly recommend Ariel Slamet Ries’ Witchy.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from the BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES?

That really depends on the individual person and what they need! I hope this makes someone out there feel less alone, or believe that they can help others or ask for help themselves. Or I hope it makes someone out there feel less self-conscious about their creativity. I hope people take things away from it that I haven’t thought of yet!

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 BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES to their classrooms and libraries and/or recommend the book to their students?

Just that I see a lot of really vibrant, fascinating, textually dense creative work being done in comics right now, so I hope you’ll look forward to this continued renaissance of graphic novels in the future! I love this medium, and I hope more and more people learn how to read stories this way and examine them in depth!

When can readers get their hands on BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES?

You can ask for it at your local bookstore (for contactless pickup if you’re reading this in 2020) or from any online book retailer! I suggest using indiebound or bookshop, since they support local bookstores!

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

I have a kids’ website at and a website with my entire portfolio at! That website has all my social links.

Thank you so much again for stopping by the site, Aliza! It was great to chat with you!

Aliza Layne is a cartoonist, illustrator, and storyteller. She is the creator of Demon Street, a long-form fantasy webcomic for all ages. Her Halloween costumes have elicited the phrases “theatrical,” “don’t you think you’re going a little overboard,” and “oh, we remember you from last year.” Beetle and the Hollowbones is her first graphic novel. Visit Aliza at