FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Alysa Wishingrad

Kathie: Hi Alysa! It’s my pleasure to spend some time with you today talking about your debut MG novel, THE VERDIGRIS PAWN, which will be released on July 13th by HarperCollins. I just finished it last night, and I have so much I want to know! Let’s start by asking you to tell our readers a little bit about it, please.

Alysa: Hi Kathie! It’s such a pleasure to be here with you, thank you so much for having me.

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is the story of Beau, heir to the ruler of the Land, a man so frightening, people only dare call him Himself. Raised isolated and alone, Beau has no idea of the brutal tyranny Himself unleashes upon his subjects, and how hated and feared their family is.  

This all changes when he meets Cressi, a young servant, who opens his eyes to the realities of life in the Land – especially about Mastery House, a terrible and brutal place where the children of the poor are sent to be raised and trained to be servants in exchange for payment of their family’s taxes.  

This discovery of the truth sets Beau off on an epic adventure along with Nate, a runaway, as he tries to undo the poisoned legacy of his family. But in order to restore fairness and equality to the Land, Beau must think of things like a real-life game of Fist (a board game similar to chess!)  

Although, when you’re reviled throughout the Land and false heroes lurk around every corner, leading a rebellion is easier said than done. 

This is a story about how appearances aren’t always what they seem and how real power can come from the most unlikely places. 

Kathie: This was such a unique story, and felt like a mix between historical fiction and fantasy. I’d love to know if you had a time period in mind for when it was set, and what kind of research you did to help you create the setting and characters?

Alysa: I think the best way to describe the time period of THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is quasi-medieval. I was inspired to create a pre-industrial world that might look like something we recognize from history, but that also allowed me the space to play and not to be burdened by the need to be accurate. What was important to me was that the world feel both somehow familiar and new to the reader.

As for research, I love nothing more than getting lost for hours and days chasing down details about how people lived, what foods they ate, how medicines were made, what garments they wore. And sensory details are so important to me as well. The pre-industrial world did not smell or sound the same as it does now. I love digging around for those facts. While I always want to understand the big picture of a time period, fundamentally it’s the details of daily life that fascinate me most.

Many of my characters could, I think, live in any time period. There are always those who will have isolationist tendencies, and the power hungry have existed since time immemorial. But in building Himself, I dug deep to really understand how despots can come to power, how they maintain their hold, and what are the conditions that can lead to their downfall.

Kathie: Was there ever a point when you thought about telling the story from the perspective of a different character, and what was it about Beau that drew you to his side of the story?

Alysa: This was always Beau’s story from the very beginning. I was really taken with the idea of turning the trope of “the chosen one” on its head. What happens when the chosen one doesn’t want to be chosen? And further, do the privileged have the right to spurn their privilege because they either don’t want it or think themselves unworthy of it?

But mostly I fell in love with this boy, who, even though he’s woefully ignorant about the realities of life around him and who has been raised with such cold-hearted judgement, never lost his gentle and open heart.

And yet, Cressi’s voice and POV are so vital to this story. In many ways she’s the true heroine here, the driving force for change in Beau, Nate, and the Land. I loved spending time in her POV chapters and travelling along with her as she comes into her own power. I suppose if I could have told this in two books Cressi would absolutely have gotten her own volume!

Kathie: I really loved the character development, and how each of the three main characters went through tremendous growth and coming into their own as individuals; it felt like all three of them had been gone from the Manor for much longer than a few days. Is it hard to keep the details straight when so much happens in a short amount of time? Do you have to plot it carefully to keep track?

Alysa: Absolutely! There are several plot lines that all eventually converge, but until they do, I had to balance who knows what when along with what the reader knows.

I know several writers who have wonderfully organized systems of charts and graphs to keep track of timelines. I don’t do so well with charts. My method is a bit messier and involves writing out the story of the story by hand, diving into character notes, and keeping a lot of it in my head.

Once great advantage of having two parallel POVs was that I could read all of Beau’s chapters as one story, then read Cressi’s to make sure neither one was getting ahead of the other.

And yes, you’re right an awful lot happens to these characters and the Land over the course of a few short days. But as I think we’ve all seen in the last year, change really can happen overnight.

Kathie: What was one of your biggest challenges writing this story? 

Alysa: Oh gosh, where to start? I’ll begin by saying that writing this book was not a speedy process, it took many years to get this story right and working.

But specifically, getting to know Beau was a challenge. I had made several assumptions about him, who he was and how he’d respond to certain situations. Yet the deeper I went the more he surprised and delighted me with his compassion, honesty, and willingness to learn. I in turn had to learn to listen and learn from him.

Building in the backstory was also a challenge. I needed to fold in the history of the Land and several of the characters without it feeling heavy handed or too expository. In so many ways telling this story was like making a bed. You smooth the sheet in one section only to realize that you’ve created a few wrinkles further down. But I hope the history and backstory enriches the reader’s experience.

Kathie: Did you have a favorite section to write?

Alysa: It’s not so much a section as an element. There are a great many things and people who are not what/who they appear to be in this story. Holding back the truth and letting it drop out ever so slowly was a great challenge, but also fantastically fun.

Oh! And developing the game of Fist also presented me with an incredible challenge.

Kathie: What’s one thing you’d like our readers to know about The Verdigris Pawn?

Alysa: I know some folks have been uncertain about how to pronounce Verdigris. I’m happy to say that you have two options, both of which are correct. You can pronounce it either VER-duh-grees, or VER-duh-gris.

And for those readers who might not know, verdigris is the chemical reaction that occurs when bronze and copper are oxidized. The Statue of Liberty is an example most everyone can call to mind.

Much like copper and bronze Beau, Cressi, Nate and the Land all get tested and transformed into something new over the course of the novel.

Kathie: Are you working on another writing project at the moment, and do you like short bursts of time or long uninterrupted stretches in which to write?

Alysa: I am working on two other books actually, neither of which I can say much about yet though.

I tend to work in phases. There are times where I can sit and work for hours on end, when the words just flow, and I know where I’m going. Other times, I have to break my day up into chunks and leave myself time to think and not think. I call that thinkutating— a mix of thinking and contemplating – meaning leaving space for the answers to come when you’re not looking for them.

Since both of my kids are fairly grown now, I can work pretty much uninterrupted – although my dogs have very strong opinions about how often I need to get up and go for a walk with them.

Kathie: Where can readers go to connect with you and find out more about your writing?

Alysa: Readers can find me on twitter and Instagram talking about books and food, and they can visit me at www.alysawishingrad.com.

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN will be out July 13th – all the pre-order links are here on the HarperCollins page. And if anyone would like a signed pre-order and some pawn-ish swag (pawn-shaped stickers and bookmarks) they can order from either of my two of my favorite local Independent Booksellers:

Oblong Books, and Postmark Books

Kathie: Thank you so much for talking with me today, Alysa. I’m so happy to know your book will be out in the world for young readers to enjoy very soon.

Alysa: It’s been such a delight chatting with you, thank you so much for having me, Kathie. And thank you for all you and Middle Grade Book Village do for readers, writers and lovers of Middle Grade Literature!

Alysa Wishingrad once had a whole different career working in theater, film and TV, but nothing could be better than building worlds for middle grade readers. When she’s not writing, she’s probably out walking the dogs or getting back to seeing as much theater as she possibly can. Alysa lives in the Hudson Valley of NY with her family, three cats, and two demanding dogs.

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN, her debut novel will be out July 13 from HarperCollins. Visit her at www.alysawishingrad.com.

Book Review: PIZAZZ and PIZAZZ VS. THE NEW KID, by Sophy Henn

Everyone knows that kids love graphic novels. But for some young readers, there may be something even better: the so-called “hybrid” novel. “Hybrid” books can, and often do, contain anything and everything. Prose, spot illustrations, full page illustrations, comics strips and long-form comics — you name it. One of the things I love about books that use such a variety of forms is that each one is totally different. For young readers, that leads to a wildly exciting reading experience, as they really don’t know what to expect next, both in terms of the content of the story and the form in which it will be delivered.

Pizazz and Pizazz vs. The New Kid, both recently released from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin and both written and illustrated by Sophy Henn, are excellent additions to the hybrid Middle Grade space. The story is about and told by Pizazz, a reluctant superhero who comes from a large family of them. Why is Pizazz reluctant? There’s the embarrassing outfit, for one thing, plus the humiliatingly superhero she’s been saddled with (it’s not revealed until late in the first book, so I won’t spoil it for you here). Not to mention the fact that it seems every time Pizazz is hanging out with her friends, she has to dash off to somewhere or other and save the day. It all keeps Pizazz from leading a normal life — and that’s all she really wants.

Sophy Henn does a great job juggling the out-of-this-world excitement of Pizazz’s superheroics with more down-to-earth themes and conflicts — ones that every kid, whether or not they’ve got superpowers, will be able to relate to. Add in a boatload of humor and all the bold, exciting illustrated elements, and you’ve got yourself books that kids won’t be able to put down. But Pizazz and Pizazz vs. The New Kid (and no doubt the third book in the series, out September 7) are worth adding to your collection for other reasons, besides. With its mix of text and art, the books can serve as great “bridges” for a number of readers — including those who are beginning to read longer chapter books on their own (the Pizazz books are about 200 pages each) and those who prefer, or are more comfortable with, either full-text books or graphic novels and want to explore the other.

You can meet Sophy Henn and get a sneak peek of the first book in the series here:

For more information, head to the individual Pizazz book pages on Simon & Schuster’s site (here’s the one for Pizazz) or follow Sophy on social media (here’s her Twitter)!

. . .

Review by: Jarrett Lerner

Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerds, Revenge of the EngiNerds, The EngiNerds Strike Back, Geeger the Robot Goes to School, and Geeger the Robot: Lost and Found, as well as the author-illustrator of the activity books Give This Book a Title and Give This Book a Cover. Jarrett is also the author-illustrator of the forthcoming Hunger Heroes graphic novel series and the forthcoming illustrated novel in verse A Work in Progress (all published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He cofounded and helps run the MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instragram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his family in Medford, Massachusetts.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Jessica Speer

5 Questions with Author Jessica Speer About Her Middle-Grade Debut – BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships

Thank you so much for having me, Kathie, and for your unwavering support of debut authors! It’s such an honor to be part of Fast Forward Friday.

  1. What was the inspiration for BFF or NRF?

When my two daughters entered the preteen years, friendship struggles started to emerge. This reminded me of my experience as well as the stories of so many others. So I got curious.

I’ve got a background in social sciences and have always been fascinated with human relationships. I dove into books and research on the subject. I also started a friendship program for elementary school girls. This program and the stories of girls shaped this book from start to finish.

  1. Why are friendship and social struggles common in the preteen years, especially for girls?

When we explore everything going during this phase of life, it’s not surprising that social struggles happen. Girls’ confidence drops between the ages of 8-14. Some studies find that confidence dips as much as 30% in girls, leading to self-doubt, social anxiety, and risk avoidance.

At the same time, preteens are becoming more reliant on peers. Friendships begin to replace family as tweens’ primary source of identity and support. Preteens also start exploring their own identity. Who their friends are, what they wear, what activities they do.

All of this happens alongside the physiological changes of adolescence. So yeah, social changes and struggles are common in the preteen years! In my friendship programs, the notion that change and struggle are normal was a huge relief to girls. This is emphasized in the book too.

  1. The pandemic and social isolation added even more change to our social lives. Did this impact your writing or your book?

Yes, for sure. My book was initially scheduled for release in 2020. It was delayed due to the pandemic, which allowed me to edit it one more time. I’m grateful for these final edits because I was able to add additional content that I hope will support girls as they reenter their in-person social worlds.

Many girls are feeling isolated and unsure of where their friendships stand. I hope that BFF or NRF serves as a supportive guide as girls rebuild relationships.

  1. BFF or NRF has interactive components, like quizzes and fill-in-the-blanks. Why is that important?

It can be tough to navigate social issues the moment they happen. The book’s interactive nature gives readers a chance to reflect when they are not right in the moment. The activities help girls learn more about themselves as well as others. Something magic happens when we put words on paper or on screen. Quizzes and activities give girls a chance to think about who they are, how they want to behave, and how they might respond in challenging situations.

5. Can you tell us where to find out more about you and your writing, please?

Absolutely! For updates, you can find me on @jessica_speer_author on Instagram and @speerauthor on Twitter. For book-related news and articles on social-emotional topics, you can visit my website, www.JessicaSpeer.com.

Thank you so much, Kathie! I’m honored to be a part of MG Book Village and the Fast Forward Friday series. Your support for the book means the world!

Jessica Speer’s book, BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships grew out of her friendship program that strengthens social awareness and helps kids learn to navigate common struggles. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and explores social-emotional topics in ways that connect with pre-teens and teens.