Interview with Leigh Lewis about PIRATE QUEENS

Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, Leigh, and congratulations on the recent release of your new middle-grade nonfiction book PIRATE QUEENS: DAUNTLESS WOMEN WHO DARE RULED THE HIGH SEAS (released by National Geographic Kids). I just ordered a copy of it for my library, and I can’t wait to read it! Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Leigh: Hi, Kathie! So thrilled to be here. And thank you for ordering Pirate Queens!

This is a book about forgotten bad guys of the biggest magnitude. Specifically, about six forgotten female bad guys, pirates who ruled the high seas, yet didn’t make it into the majority of the history books. Each swashbuckler has a riveting story that’s shared in the book, and it’s packed with fascinating details about their lives like what ships they sailed and weapons they used. Also, Pirate Queens is loaded with gorgeous, edgy, full-color illustrations, so it feels almost graphic-novel-like.

There’s Sayyida al Hurra, a Muslim pirate who dedicated her life to avenging the exile of her people during the Reconquista. And Sela, a woman driven to piracy over hatred of her brother, King Koller of Norway. And Artemisia of Caria, the first known female Naval commander and betrayer of the King of Persia, known for flying an enemy’s flag to lull them into complacency, then ramming their ship and stealing all their goods. Each woman’s story is more compelling than the next, and I’m so excited to play a part in expanding kids’ (and adults’) knowledge about who was there and what took place in real-life piracy throughout the ages.

Kathie: What piqued your interest in this topic, and can you share a bit about your research process?

Leigh:  Once I first read about Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate who was the most successful pirate in history, based on the size of her fleet and the people in her control, I was hooked. Ching Shih ruled 80,000 men. When I ask kids if they can name a pirate, it’s almost always Blackbeard they shout out first. Blackbeard ruled 400 men in his heyday. 400 vs. 80,000! And just about no one has ever heard of Ching Shih. It felt like such a clear example of gender bias, and it really bothered me.

Soon thereafter, my kids were “walking the plank” off the diving board at the pool one day, and it made me think of Ching Shih, so I asked them to name all the pirates they knew. It was a very short, very white, very male list. That did it. I set off to write Ching Shih’s story.

Lucky for me, Ariane Szu-Tu at National Geographic loved the poem I wrote about Ching Shih, and suggested we make a larger book, one that covered a variety of female pirates. That sounded like the best idea I had ever heard, and I asked if I could write each of their stories in a different verse form. Ariane loved that idea, and Pirate Queens was born.

For research, I began where I always begin—at the library. I read everything I could get my hands on about these women, and quickly realized that I needed a larger research library to access primary sources and other, more obscure sources not found at my local library. Luckily, I’m not far from The Ohio State University, and their reference-only section can’t be beat. For instance, I was able to lay eyes on Gesta Danorum, the Danish history book that references Sela and her pirating exploits.

And another tip of the hat to OSU in researching poetry. I identified verse forms that I felt were a solid fit with each pirate, but needed to tap into poetry experts to ensure that there was nothing I missed. There were poetry professors at Ohio State who were as generous with their time and knowledge as you can imagine, and who not only gave suggestions about the verse forms, but provided expert feedback on the poems themselves.

Kathie: If you could have joined any of the pirates you talk about in your book on a high seas adventure, who would you choose and why?

Leigh: Joining any of them would have been an incredible and terrifying adventure, to be sure, but I’d have to say Grace O’Malley. She was such a character, and her exploits are epic.

After O’Malley had robbed the English at sea for years and years, they had just about caught up with her. They had murdered one of her sons, held another captive and took nearly all of her possessions. She was the focus of obsessive Sir Richard Bingham, who had been tasked with bringing in the legendary Grace O’Malley. She wrote to Queen Elizabeth and requested (and received) an audience. Once there, though O’Malley was all but penniless, she presented herself as Queen Elizabeth’s equal, and asked that the Queen call off her seadog, Sir Bingham, and stated that she herself would stop attacking English ships. Queen Elizabeth was so impressed by her presence and her boldness, she agreed. Sir Richard Bingham was livid when he was told to leave Grace O’Malley alone, but he did. Fast forward a couple of months, and newly free Grace O’Malley broke their agreement and went right back to pillaging English ships,

My favorite Grace O’Malley story is that she gave birth below deck, and hours later, her ship was attacked by Turkish pirates. The crew begged her to come fight, so she set down the baby and took up arms. She successfully helped ward off the attackers, but not before angrily screaming at her crew, “May your lives be seven times worse off this time next year, that you cannot do without me for one day!” I love that. The new mom, exhausted from childbirth, has to go up and fight the pirates, all the while screaming, “Can’t you do ANYTHING without me???” Somehow, it feels so relatable. I mean, if I were a pirate.

Kathie: Why do you think young readers continue to love learning about pirates?

Leigh: Let’s see… treasure maps, chests of gold and jewels, pirate speak, parrots, making your enemies walk the plank, wild adventures at sea…. You have to admit that life of the Hollywood pirate sounds amazing! But even when you dig into the real story, it’s almost always a fascinating one. Add knife-fights and sneak attacks and betrayal and terrifying villains, and you can see why kids are hooked. It’s literally the opposite of everyday life in childhood. Land vs. sea, rules vs. no rules, parents vs. no parents, humdrum days vs. non-stop action and adventure. It’s easy to picture yourself in the thick of it, even if you’d never actually do anything like become a pirate in real life. That’s the fun of it, for kids and adults.

Kathie: What’s one thing you learned about writing middle-grade nonfiction that you didn’t know before publishing this book?

Leigh: Everything! I mostly write picture books, and have a few out on submission right now. I envisioned the Ching Shih story as a picture book initially, until my editor rightly suggested that Pirate Queens made more sense for an older crew. This was my first foray into middle grade, so it’s all been a steep learning curve.

I know this is a unique book, and that this experience is certainly not a universal one, but in the case of Pirate Queens, National Geographic hired pirate experts to gather up a dossier on each pirate to present to Sara Gómez Woolley, the illustrator. I was just blown away and so grateful for the commitment to historical accuracy in the illustrations. Each folder included extensive details on things such as the length of the handles of swords that would have been used in each pirate’s country during the times they fought. Or the number of sails on a ship they would have sailed on. Or what would have been prized in their culture or was prized by their family, in order for Sara to design a crest for each pirate. I never imagined that it would be such a group effort, or how many people it takes behind the scenes to make a book like this come together.

Kathie: Is there anything, in particular, you’d like readers to know about this book?

Leigh: Yes! Pirate Queens is a great blend of entertainment and education. In it, each pirate’s story is told in a different verse form, so aside from the hidden history/ female empowerment/ pirate hooks (no pun intended), there’s exposure to six various poetry types. My favorite primary source in researching this book was the Articles of Interrogatory, which were the 18 questions that Grace O’Malley had to answer in a letter to gain an audience with the Queen of England. It made sense to have her story told in an epistolary poem, or a verse letter. For Sayyida al Hurra, her story is told in a ghazal, an Arabic poem with strict rules that enable a beautiful poetic expression. Anne Bonny was a fighter from birth, and she never stopped being a wild thing. I was thrilled to write her story in free verse, because she didn’t seem to be one who would abide by anyone’s rules.

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

Leigh: Please come find me at and @leighwriting on Twitter and Instagram! I feel so lucky to have landed in the middle grade community, which is a warm and wonderful place to be.

Kathie: Best of luck with your book’s voyage into the world, Leigh!

Leigh: Thank you, Kathie! I’m such a huge fan of MG Book Village (and especially of #MGBookChat)!

Leigh Lewis is a children’s writer whose middle-grade debut, Pirate Queens: Dauntless Women Who Dared to Rule the High Seas (National Geographic Kids), spotlights six fierce female pirates, telling each of their stories in verse. Leigh’s adventures on the high seas have enabled her to call many places home, including Turkey, Greece, England, Japan and Russia, and she eventually navigated her way back to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Leigh spends her time there dreaming up stories for kids of all ages, buoyed by an amazing crew—her Turkish delight of a husband and their three swashbuckling daughters.

Goal Tending – Put Yourself in the Path of Luck by Nancy Tandon

Hello and thank you to the MG Book Village for hosting me at a very exciting time: the launch day of my debut novel, The Way I Say It!

The Way I Say It (Charlesbridge) is about a sixth grader named Rory who can’t say R sounds (and therefore can’t say his own name). He thinks that’s his biggest problem until an accident forces him to confront conflicted feelings about a former friend. The two boys struggle to reconcile old wounds as they navigate their new normal with the help of speech therapist Mr. Simms, heavy metal music, and Muhammad Ali.

Many authors have ‘bumpy road to publication’ stories, and I am no different. In fact, it took five years to get from first contract to holding my first copy. (It was a frost-heave, pothole filled path!) And even before those detours, I had been journeying for six years on back roads where I’d garnered close to 200 combined rejections across multiple manuscripts.

It is said that writers and illustrators who pursue publication need more determination than is reasonable. I have to say that’s probably true. It’s not reasonable: eleven years, 200 rejections, with more to come. What in the world possessed me to keep going? Where was this persistence coming from?

What is going to keep you going toward your 2022 goals?

You may have heard this saying from British Novelist and Philosopher Iris Murdoch (it’s one of my favorites):

Here’s my spin:

 “One of the secrets to a successful writing life (or any big endeavor!) is continuous small encouragements.”

If you are going to have more determination than is reasonable, you will also need an arsenal of support. Here are some of my best suggestions for setting up your creative life in a way that ensures that the nearly incessant encouragement you’re going to need is never far away.

Encouragement from outside sources can be a huge lift to anyone in a solitary endeavor, and contests and awards are a great way to put your work out there. In 2014, I entered a picture book text and won a Tassy Walden Award (for unpublished writers in Connecticut). One of the smartest things I did, in hindsight, was to spend a portion of the winnings on a decorative mirror I’d had my eye on. We were a young family with a pile of bills, and the purchase felt like an extravagance. But, I bought the mirror, and I hung it in a spot that I’d pass by frequently. And on my worst days, when rejections were piling up and discouragement was nudging me to give up, this is what I’d see.

Every time I saw it, that dang mirror seemed to be saying: You’re not giving up. You’re an award-winning writer. You have the mirror to prove it!

Now, you don’t need to buy anything or start talking to your reflection like I did, but I do encourage you to have a physical object somewhere in your living space that will say to you daily: keep writing. Keep drawing. Keep creating. Keep going.

Another way to secure your daily dose of encouragement is to find your people and speak your goals out loud to them. There are writers and readers just like you, longing to connect and geek out about kidlit at the drop of a hat. Middle Grade Book Village is a perfect example of that type of community! Reach out in real life and on social media to connect. These are your people, we are your people, ready and waiting to encourage you, and looking forward to the gift of your support in return.

And finally, focus on what’s fun. There’s plenty of frustration and discouragement in life. You don’t need to give those any extra time. Give your attention and energy to the joy of doing the work, and to the fabulous people your particular journey has brought and will bring into your life.  

Look for any opportunity to give and receive continuous small encouragements so that the creative, amazing human you already are can continue to grow and reach toward that next goal.

Give it space. Give it time. And Don’t Give Up.

Nancy Tandon is a former speech/language pathologist and author of two middle grade novels, The Way I Say It (Charlesbridge, 1/18/22) and The Ghost of Spruce Point (Aladdin, 8/2/22). Her short story, Finders Keepers, was published with Heinemann for the educational market. Nancy lives in Connecticut with her family and is a fan of popcorn, reading, and literacy outreach programs of all kinds.

To find out more, or to get in touch with Nancy:

Twitter @NancyTandon

Instagram @_NancyTandon_


Order a signed copy of THE WAY I SAY IT

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Writing Fiction About True History, by Shirley Reva Vernick

Back (way back) when I was a student, history was presented to me as a string of loosely knit factoids. Studying felt like a mind-numbing slog through dates, battles and maps. It was cold, impersonal, distant—and not much fun to read, research or write about. That’s why I never took an elective history course. I even avoided the temptation of art history classes, because I didn’t want to spend a semester knee-deep in faceless names and arms-length artistic movements.

Then as a college sophomore, I serendipitously learned that Real History had happened in my own hometown, a remote village on the Canadian border. My sociology professor had sent us off for fall break with an assignment: identify a local conflict, past or present, and write a paper analyzing it. So I asked around and learned that a blood libel had occurred in my town in the 1920s. A small Christian girl had disappeared (in truth, she’d only gotten lost while playing in the woods behind her house), and a Jewish youth was accused of murdering her and taking her blood for a ritual sacrifice. The whole Jewish community was targeted with interrogations, property searches, boycotts, and threats of physical harm. A few years after that, Hitler would use the blood libel as part of his attack on Jews.

I immediately knew that this local hate crime would be the subject of my first novel one day. Years later, The Blood Lie debuted (Cinco Puntos Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books). It went on to become an ALA Best Fiction Books for Young Readers pick. It also won the Once Upon A World Book Award from the Museum of Tolerance, earned a director’s mention in the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction, and took home honors in the Sydney Taylor Awards, the Los Angeles Unified School District Awards, and the Skipping Stones Awards.

Learning about the local blood libel was a turning point for me. It showed me that history is made of real, three-dimensional people, some of whom are a lot like me, others of whom are very different. It proved that seemingly isolated incidents are often part of a complex web of issues. And it demonstrated that the past ripples into the future, into the now.

I quickly became hooked on history-focused books, podcasts, magazines and websites…both for my own personal interest and in search of that next nugget of history to share with young readers.

For my next historical novel, I decided to explore the xenophobia triggered by the Jack the Ripper spree. But how to tell the story in an age-appropriate, engaging way? I needed (and wanted) to stay away from the gore. And, after writing a first draft as a straight historical novel, I decided that a modern sensibility would be more meaningful and appealing to readers. Upshot: a time-travel story in which two contemporary classmates get whisked to the slums of Victorian London, where the Ripper lurks. Ripped Away will be released on February 8, 2022 by Regal House Publishing.

My appetite for history led to a strong interest in WWII, so naturally I had to write a book set during that time too. I read and researched and read some more, hunting for a true but lesser-known story involving children. Finally, I learned about the balloon bombs that Japan sent across the Pacific to North America. Falling Stars (Lee & Low Books, summer 2022) follows youngsters in both Japan and the U.S. as they experience the balloon bombs—and the war—in very different ways.

Thankfully, the teaching of history today is worlds ahead of when I was memorizing factoids. I’m forever grateful that my own children have an integrated sense of global history, as well as a recognition of its relevance. For this, I credit their excellent classroom instruction and the availability of fine children’s historical literature.

Shirley Reva Vernick is the award-winning author of five novels for young readers. A graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars, she is committed to creating stories that inspire hope, tolerance, and a love of reading. Shirley also mentors incarcerated individuals with their writing via the Prisoner Express program. Please visit her at

Interview with Maleeha Siddiqui about BARAKAH BEATS

*We welcome Anne (A.B.) Westrick, author of the older-middle grade novel Brotherhood, to the MG Book Village Team! You can learn more about her at

Anne: Thank you, Maleeha, for stopping by MG Book Village to share a bit about your debut novel, Barakah Beats, which just came out in October from Scholastic. Could you start by giving us a super brief summary of the story?

Maleeha: Hi Anne! Thank you so much for having me. Barakah Beats is about a 12-year-old Muslim girl named Nimra Sharif and in the beginning of the book, she transfers to public school for the first time after spending her entire life in Islamic school. Nimra faces a number of challenges when she starts the 7th grade, namely the fact that her best friend starts to ignore her around the other kids and Nimra suspects it has something to do with her hijab. To get her friend back and fit in at her new school, Nimra joins her school’s popular 8th grade boy band and grapples with questions about faith, family, and friendships.

Anne: I was fascinated to learn that in Islam, music is hotly contested. I enjoyed reading your Author’s Note about the wide variety in Muslims’ preferences and allowances related to music and musical instruments, and in light of that, your decision to feature a Muslim boy band seems courageous. Why did you decide to make the band central to the plot?

Maleeha: Because of the way that I was raised, I faced a similar challenge that Nimra is facing in the book. Middle school was when my boy band obsession was at its peak, but I was never allowed to go to concerts or dance at events, even though my other Muslims friends’ parents did allow their kids to do both things. Because music is such a huge topic of discourse in the Muslim community, I wanted to show that there are many sides to it since we typically only see one side in mainstream media. Plus, what middle school kid doesn’t want to be asked to join a boy band and look cool to their peers? I thought the idea was fun!

Anne: Your protagonist Nimra experiences a number of humiliating moments in her new school. For example, because she wears a hijab, others assume she can’t speak English, can’t do sports, and hasn’t learned American history. To what extent did these moments come from your own experience, or from the experiences of others in your family?

Maleeha: Quite a few, sadly. In the past, I’ve gotten some strange questions and assumptions from people because I started wearing hijab at a young age. The question that bugged me the most and still rings in my head to this day is when I walked into school wearing hijab for the first time and someone went, “WHOA! What happened?” Like…I’d done something bizarre by putting it on in the first place.

Anne: The dynamic between Nimra’s parents and grandparents highlights generational tensions in her family. Why was it important for you to include the many scenes in which she observes her parents’ struggles with their parents?

Maleeha: I guess to show that we all have disagreements with our parents regardless of what generation we grew up in, and those of us that go on to have families of our own always have in mind the ways we want to raise our kids differently to make up for the things that we feel like we lost out on. Nimra is who she is because of the way her parents raised her. She has more emotional support and fewer insecurities about herself than her parents did growing up as first-generation immigrants.

Anne: I loved the sprinkling of Arabic through the story, such as, for example, “making wudu” (cleansing before prayer) and “Barakah” (divine blessing). Did you ever consider adding a glossary either to the book or your website? (I’m kind of a word-nerd, and would’ve poured over a glossary, if you’d given me one!)

Maleeha: I didn’t consider it because I briefly explain what the words mean within the text. Plus, they’re easy to Google! Readers will find far more information that way than if I provided a glossary.

Anne: What do you hope readers will take away from Barakah Beats?

Maleeha: I want one of the big takeaways from Barakah Beats – for young readers especially – to be that one’s faith can be uplifting and can motivate people to live their best, authentic lives while also respecting other people’s opinions and boundaries. Faith doesn’t always diminish down generations. Sometimes, it becomes stronger. Just because someone chooses to live a different way doesn’t mean they’re any less happy with the lives that they are leading.

Anne: Finally, Maleeha, where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?

Maleeha: Readers can follow me on Twitter or Instagram. My handle is the same for both: @malsidink. They can also visit my website at

Anne: Thank you for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such an engaging story!

Maleeha: Thank you so much for asking such thoughtful questions. I had so much fun with these!

Maleeha Siddiqui is an American writer of Pakistani descent who loves to tell unapologetically Muslim stories for all ages. By day, Maleeha works as a regulatory affairs professional in the biotech industry. She grew up and continues to reside with her family in Virginia. When she’s not working, reading, or writing, she likes to try new food and snuggle cats. Barakah Beats (Scholastic 2021) is her debut novel.