COVER REVEAL for Skyriders by Polly Holyoke

Kathie: Hi Polly! I’m so glad you asked MG Book Village to be part of your cover reveal for your first book in a new series called SKYRIDERS, out next March from Viking Children’s Books. Can you tell us more about your novel, please?

Polly: Skyriders is the story of brave young couriers on flying horses fighting terrifying three-headed monsters known as chimerae. My heroine Kiesandra Torsun and her loyal skysteed N’Rah love their work flying mail across the vast Empire of Prekalt, but then the dreaded chimerae return. Thanks to her eccentric Uncle Dugs, who has always believed the beasts would reappear one day to menace the Empire, Kie and N’Rah are the only ones who know how to fight these monsters effectively. But how can a shy frontier girl convince officers in the Skyforce, Imperial officials and the Emperor himself that they must listen to her, before it’s too late?

Kathie: How would you describe your main character, Kiesandra, and what quality does she possess that will help her most in this story?

Polly: Kie is brave and determined, and she has complete faith in her skysteed. Kie’s had to be determined because she has been running her family’s apple orchard since her father died. It also took tremendous determination for her to learn how to read despite being severely dyslexic because in her world, no one understands this relatively common learning challenge. 

Kathie: Kiesandra has a winged horse known as a skysteed with whom she can communicate through her mind. Where did the idea for N’Rah come from, and what is it about mythical creatures that draw kids in?

Polly: I’ve always been fascinated by flying horses and the Pegasus myth. I also had a wonderful picture book about Pegasus written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and illustrated by Herschel Levit that I spent hours reading when I was little. Because of their vivid imaginations, children love the idea of being friends with a mythical creature who can sweep them away to magical places. 

Kathie: The cover of this book is incredible! Can you tell us about the illustrator and if you had any input on the cover?

Polly: The amazingly talented Brandon Dorman (illustrator of the Fablehaven and Land of Stories series) created this cover, and I’m thrilled with it! I did mention to my editor that drawing horses is hard, and drawing flying horses even harder, and she reached out to the perfect artist to depict Kie and N’Rah and the terrifying chimerae they must battle.

Kathie: Let’s show everyone what it looks like!

Kathie: One of my favorite things about this cover is the balance between the light and dark; it’s definitely giving off good vs. evil vibes. Is there an element that stands out for you or that you particularly like?

Polly: I love how small and valiant Kie looks facing that monstrous chimera. I also appreciate the amazing palate of colors Brandon used, and how beautifully he has conveyed the sky and clouds.

Kathie: Is there anything you can share with us about the future of this series, or anything else you’d like readers to know about it?

Polly: Viking will be publishing at least one more book in my Skyriders series, but I have seven more novels all planned out, so here’s hoping the series takes off… so to speak! Also, Skyriders is already available for pre-order at: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/688093/skyriders-by-polly-holyoke.

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

Polly: I encourage teachers, librarians and young readers to visit my website: www.pollyholyoke.com. A former middle school teacher, I made sure to post plenty of useful information and activities based on my first children’s series, The Neptune Trilogy, which was published by Disney Hyperion. The Neptune Project, the story of young teens struggling to survive in the sea because climate change has ravaged their world, made several state lists and won the Sunshine State Young Readers Award. We are still in the process of creating teachers’ guides and a book trailer for Skyriders, but by the time the first novel is released March, 2023, I hope to have lots of good materials ready and waiting for educators.  

Kathie: Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Polly, and I look forward to reading your book.

Polly: Thank you so much for letting me share the cover of Skyriders with the wonderful teachers and librarians who follow the MG Book Village!

Polly Holyoke is the author of adventurous fiction for kids. A former middle school teacher, Polly loves doing school visits and lives in a small mountain town in Colorado with her husband and two rescue dogs. SKYRIDERS, her new series about brave young couriers battling chimerae on flying horses, will be available from Viking Childrens’ March, 2023.

Interview with E Train

Kathie: Hi E Train, and welcome to MG Book Village! I’m so glad I have a chance to sit down and chat with you today. You’re making a big impression in the middle-grade book world, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to get to know you and your current projects a bit better.

E Train: Thank you so much for having me today, Kathie! It’s an absolute honor to be interviewed for MG Book Village. I try to attend as many #MGBookChat and #VillagePageTurners discussions as I can!  I’m excited to share a little of my journey with you and your readers!

Kathie: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

E Train: I’m E Train, a book reviewer, podcast host, and author interviewer. I’ve loved books my entire life, in fact, I’m told I started reading at 2.5 years old and never stopped! Recently, I decided I wanted to do more than just read books, I wanted to review them, and share my reviews with the authors.  And thanks to the wonderful writing community, my dream has come true! From interviewing New York Times bestselling authors, to leading local book drives for underprivileged kids in my community, I want to do everything I can to not only inspire kids and adults to read but to help ensure that they have the OPPORTUNITY to read.

Kathie: How did you get started using social media to connect to middle-grade authors and readers? What platforms do you currently use, and where can we find you to follow what you’re up to?

E Train: When I was in fourth grade, I received an assignment to review all the books I read and share them with my class. Soon, I started sharing my book reviews with librarians, booth lovers, and other educators through Zoom book clubs. Eventually, I sent one of my reviews to a Michigan librarian, and she shared it with the author, who happened to be the amazing Lisa Fipps, author of the novel-in-verse, STARFISH! And, much to my surprise, Lisa posted my review on her Instagram page.

That got me thinking, maybe I can share my reviews on social media. At first, I only reviewed books on YouTube, where you can find me @ETrainTalks.  But soon, I shared them on Twitter @ETrainsWorld, on my podcast E Train Talks, on Instagram, which is also @ETrainTalks, and on my website at www.etraintalks.com. That’s where you can find my reviews, interviews, and more!

Kathie: Zoom has had a huge impact on your life. Did you use it before the pandemic, and what sort of opportunities has it given you?

E Train: Before the pandemic, I’d never used Zoom, so once Covid hit, it was a big adjustment. At the time, I didn’t even know if I was supposed to use headphones or not, but soon, once I had the techy stuff figured out, my mom scoured the internet, and many, many Facebook feeds, in search of virtual library book clubs for me to attend. Being stuck inside all day meant I needed to find ways to stay mentally strong and what better way than by reading books!

Attending zoom book clubs not only helped me discover some of my favorite reads, like “Starfish,” but also connected me with other kids. It was nice to know that other kids were in the same boat as me.

Soon, I was attending many virtual book clubs and each experience was better than the last. I ended up meeting many authors, whom I’ve stayed in touch with to this day.  And without these book clubs, I would never have become a fiction lover and I would’ve never come out of my reading shell. 

Virtual book clubs gave me the chance to talk about books and share my love of reading with others during a time when I would have otherwise been stuck at home alone. It’s funny to think that the pandemic is what led me to attend so many book clubs, which also ended up leading me to start my podcast and literacy advocacy journey! 

A5: I absolutely love sharing how my interviews got started.

Kathie: In addition to being a book reviewer you also have a podcast focusing on people in the book industry. How did that get started, and how can people contact you if they’re interested in being interviewed for it?

E Train: I absolutely love sharing how my interviews got started. I’d just created my podcast, E Train Talks, and it was a wonderful experience. I was reading and writing and sharing my reviews all the time and I was starting to connect with more and more authors.  But, deep down, I knew what I really wanted, I wanted to interview authors and other book enthusiasts. Not just because I’m in awe of them and want to one day work in the writing community,  but also because I wanted to help inspire kids to read, and what better way to motivate kiddos to read, than sharing my talks with authors themselves! 

Once I made that decision, things moved pretty fast. Much faster than I ever thought possible!  On March 18th, I made a post on Twitter asking if people in the book industry would like to be interviewed on my new book podcast. I expected maybe one or two responses from authors I already knew, but in one night, I received 50 inquiries from people in the book world, many were from debut authors, some of them are now my personal favorites, and I was overjoyed!! Like my mom keeps telling me, hard work really pays off, and I know that now. So, I’ve kept on working and have interviewed people like James Ponti, Jerry Craft, and Jarrett Lerner, just to name the J’s!

Kathie: This summer, you’ve been doing a book drive for kids in your community. I’d love to know more about that, please.

E Train: This summer, I started a book drive for underprivileged kids in my community. I don’t know where I’d be without books, and knowing that many kids don’t have access to books made me want to do something, and that’s why I started the book drive. My original goal was to sponsor a Title One middle-grade classroom, and with the help of the writing community, I was able to make that goal, and now, thanks to The Friends of the Sacramento Public Library community, and their generous book donations, I’m able to reach many more kids than I had originally planned! I also plan to continue collecting books to donate to kids and classrooms in need throughout the school year!

Kathie: What do you like to do when you’re not reading?

E Train: When I’m not reading I love performing on stage, whether I’m singing or saying lines in a play. I’m also a huge sports fan, like my dad. Whether it’s basketball, football, baseball, or golf, I will be on the edge of my seat, eating popcorn, and enjoying the amazing world of sports.

I’m also a pianist, I’ve been playing the piano since I was five years old. I enjoy playing contemporary songs like “Vienna” by Billy Joel. And, of course, playing with my friends is another one of my hobbies. When I hang out with my friends, we usually play everything from video games, to sports, to board games, and I always have a wonderful time! I think spending time with my family is probably my favorite thing to do, especially if I get to hang out with my cousins, And, of course, I always find time to read during my busy days!

Kathie: What’s something I didn’t ask you about that you would like our readers to know?

E Train: Well, when I was little, I was obsessed with “The Beatles” and I still am to this day. My mom said I started being totally interested in the Beatles after watching an episode of GLEE with her (she’s also a big Beatles fan too). My mom also recalls that I flipped through page after page of Beatles books and magazines, and I devoured all kinds of Beatles trivia. I know I sound like I’m in my 50’s or 60s when I say this, but I’m not a big fan of popular music today. Past eras of music are awesome. From guitar solos by Eddie Van Halen to hair bands like Bon Jovi.  And of course, the one and only Michael Jackson. 

I can’t go a day without singing “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, and “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles.

Kathie: Thanks so much for joining me today, E Train, and I look forward to seeing what you’re up to next!

E Train: Thank you so much for having me, Kathie! I look forward to keeping up to date with all of MG Book Village’s interviews and events! You and the whole crew are amazing, and I’m in awe of all that you do to promote middle-grade literature and everything books!

Interview with Shawn K. Stout about The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle

Anne: Hello, Shawn! I’m thrilled you could join us here at MG Book Village to chat about your newest novel, The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle.

Shawn: Hello! Thanks so much for inviting me to share my new book with MG Book Village!

Anne: It’s such a heart-warming story. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?

Shawn: The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle is about ten-year-old Cutie Grackle, who lives with her bewildered uncle at the top of a remote mountain in West Virginia. She knows almost nothing about her family history, but she has no trouble believing it includes a curse. It isn’t until five ravens start following her that she worries much about it, though. She’s too busy trying to trick her stomach into feeling full and keeping tabs on her uncle. But when those ravens bring her a trinket that pulls Cutie into a memory from her family’s past, the truth is impossible to deny. As other trinkets and memories follow, Cutie learns not just that the curse exists, but that it’s her destiny to do what her long-lost mother could not: break it.

Anne: Great. Thanks! Now, tell me about the protagonist’s name. What a curious name! Where did you get the idea to call your protagonist Cutie Grackle?

Shawn: Since ravens are such an important part of the magic of the story, and crucial to Cutie’s insight into her missing family, I knew that I wanted her last name, as well as the last names of her long-lost family, to be some sort of bird. I happen to love grackles. They are fascinating and resourceful. Did you know that grackles will follow closely behind a farmer’s plow so that they can catch mice in the fields? They will also pick leeches off the legs of turtles. Which is kind of gross, but also very cool. (Especially for the turtle, I’d imagine.) Typically, grackles are unafraid of humans, and for that reason, they often symbolize courage. (Which I thought fit Cutie’s character nicely.) Other characters in the book have bird names, too—Uncle Horace’s last name is Thrush, and Cutie’s great grandmother’s name is Pearlie Mae Grouse. (If you aren’t familiar, thrushes and grouse are different groups of birds.)

the common grackle

Anne: I love this! I didn’t know all of these details about birds. Good stuff. Now, what about Cutie?

Shawn: It took me awhile to settle on the name “Cutie.” I knew I wanted her name to be unique and endearing. But every name I came up with didn’t quite fit Cutie’s personality. And then I watched Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary, “Cutie and the Boxer,” which is about the life and marriage of Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. I knew then that Cutie was the name I’d been searching for.

Anne: Cutie feels hungry a lot. I love the sensitive way you introduce readers to some hard truths about food insecurity. What made you want to include poverty and food insecurity as part of the plot in this story?

Shawn: Raising awareness of childhood hunger and food insecurity is really important to me. About 13 million kids in the United States live in “food insecure” homes, which means that in those homes, there’s not enough food for each family member. Imagine that: a country as rich as ours, and millions of kids, like Cutie, don’t have enough food. Summertime, which is when my book takes place, is especially hard for kids who rely on free meals during the school year.

I grew up in a single-income household—my mom’s salary as an elementary school teacher supported our family of five—and we lived paycheck to paycheck. Although we weren’t considered food insecure, my siblings and I always understood that money was tight, and that no food was to be wasted. In high school, I volunteered at soup kitchens as well as helped to donate food to our local food bank as part of our church’s youth group. Today, I regularly support No Kid Hungry and their efforts to help communities feed children. There are a lot of wonderful organizations that are working to end childhood hunger, and if you’re looking for a way to help, here’s a great place to start: https://www.nokidhungry.org/ways-you-can-help.

Anne: Thank you. That’s a great resource.

Now I have another question about Cutie. A raven causes her to experience a vision of sorts, and I loved that as Cutie and the reader together try to make sense of what seems impossible, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the magic of this world. Did you know from the get-go that magic would play a big role in this story? How hard was it to craft the magical elements?

Shawn: For all of my books, I always start with a character. Basically, I have to know who the story is about before I knew what the story is about. Once I got to know Cutie and her predicament—alone on the mountain with no food, and no family to rely on—I knew that the ravens would become her family. And for that to happen, I knew there would be magic involved in some way.

Before Cutie, I’d never written a book with magic in it—all my previous books have been either realistic or historical fiction—so it was really challenging (in a good way…uh, mostly) for me to figure out how to weave the magic of the birds and the history of the curse into a contemporary story. I kind of got swept up in the magic, to be honest. In early drafts, I had written a very long, very detailed backstory of how the ravens came to the mountain and their complex involvement in the curse. Each raven had its own name and personality and feelings about the curse. It was a lot. As you might imagine, the magic got more and more complicated with each draft, until one day, my editor asked me, “Whose story are you telling?”  It seemed like such a simple question, but it forced me to recognize that Cutie had taken a back seat to the magic. You can’t have your main character sitting in the backseat of your story! Once I realized what I’d done, I deleted about 100 pages until I was able to bring her back to the front again.

Anne: Oh, my. That’s a lot! But I’m sure the process helped you shape the final story. In addition to weaving magic into the book, you had many references to fine art. Cutie’s uncle Horace loves the work of Claude Monet, a French Impressionist painter. I enjoyed your description of Monet’s paintings as “blurry and dreamy with lots of light and shadow.” Do you have a favorite Monet painting?

Shawn: Before I started writing this book, I read Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, which is a fantastic read. I learned so much about the difficulties Claude Monet faced in capturing the fleeting light, color, and water, and the torment he suffered in his later years as he began to lose his vision to cataracts. He chased the impossible—expecting perfection from himself—and drove himself mad by falling short. I don’t really have a favorite Monet painting, but if I had to choose, I might pick “La Grenouillère” because the baths look so inviting, and it makes me want to live inside the painting for awhile.

Anne: While reading, I learned a lot about ravens. Very fun! How much research did you have to do to weave in details about these very intelligent birds?

Shawn: I read a lot about ravens while I was writing this book. In particular, Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich gave me insight into how ravens communicate with each other, their posturing and calls, and how they work (and play) together. They are incredibly intelligent birds, with a strong social structure.

Anne: Speaking of learning new things, the character Galen suffers from fibular hemimelia—a condition I found fascinating. I’m sure it’s quite rare. How did you decide to include this condition in the story?

Shawn: When Galen’s character first came to me, I knew he had a limp. The more I got to know Galen and developed his character, I learned that he was born with a limb deficiency. Part of his fibular bone was missing, which resulted in a shorter leg. You’re right, it is a rare condition in this country, with about 100 kids born with fibular hemimelia each year. What I discovered in my research is that there is a procedure to lengthen the fibular bone so that it will be the same size as the other leg. The procedure usually involves several surgeries over a period of years with extensive physical therapy. I interviewed limb lengthening surgeons and read patient accounts to get a sense of what the child has to go through, not only with the condition, but how the choice to have the series of surgeries impacts the child’s life. In Galen’s case, he’s already had two surgeries, and he’s not sure he wants to have the third. He knows what’s involved, he’s afraid, and he feels as if his parents are making all the decisions for him, without asking him what he wants.

Anne: That would be tough to go through. I’m glad you included it in the story.

You’re already known for your historical novel A Tiny Piece of Sky, your Not So Ordinary Girl books, and your Penelope Crumb series. What are you working on now? Will you be writing more novels for middle-grade readers?

Shawn: Yes! Although I love reading young adult and picture books, my heart belongs to middle grade. I’m currently working on a new middle grade novel, Anatomy of Lost Things, which is about three characters who have each lost something very important to them, and whose lives intersect as they try to recover what they’ve lost. It’s slated to publish in Fall 2024 from Peachtree.

Anne: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?

Shawn: You can find out more about me, and my books, on my website: www.shawnkstout.com. Or you can see what I’m up to by following me on Twitter @shawnkstout and/or Instagram @shawnkstout.

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a great story for middle-grade readers!

Shawn: Thanks again, and happy reading!

Shawn K. Stout is the author of several acclaimed books for young readers, including the Penelope Crumb series, the Not-So-Ordinary Girl  books, and the historical novel, A Tiny Piece of Sky. Her newest middle grade novel, The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle, is in bookstores now. Shawn is a science writer at the National Institutes of Health and holds an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in a very old house in Maryland, where she hopes to be visited by ravens. (She sets out trinkets for them just in case.) Visit her at www.shawnkstout.com.

Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about her at the MG Book Village “About” page.

Interview with Jessica Speer about Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised

Shari: Hi Jessica! Welcome to MG Book Village! I’m thrilled to chat with you today about your new book: Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised,  which releases tomorrow!  What would you like to tell us about your book?

Jessica: Thanks so much for hosting me, Shari. It’s great to be back with the MG Book Village! Middle school drums up awkward and sometimes painful memories for many people. As a kidlit writer with a background in social science, this made me curious. I wanted to dive deep into exploring the middle school experience. I also wondered what today’s students wished was in a book about middle school. So I asked them. 

I visited classroom after classroom to gather feedback and listen. Through these discussions the top ten “trickiest things” rose to the surface. Combining humor, a dash of science, choose-your-own-ending stories, and the wisdom of students, my hope is to shed light on it all.

Shari: Just the idea of Middle School incites a reaction in most people, including adults! What was your experience in middle school like, and how much did that inspire your creation of this “survival guide”?

Jessica: Ah, yes. Just the mention of middle school causes a reaction in many people. My experience was pretty typical. Awkward moments filled with highs and lows plus a deep desire to fit-in and be liked by my peers. Middle school in a nutshell! 

Looking back, I realize I didn’t have the skills or confidence to navigate some of social dynamics of middle school. So yes, my experience, and the experiences of my kids, definitely inspired this book. 

Shari: You clearly did a lot of research to make this guide relatable and engaging for today’s readers. Would you describe your research process for us?

Jessica: Sure. As always, I started with kids. I was lucky enough to be invited into 7th grade classrooms to chat with students. I asked the question, “What is the trickiest thing about middle school?” This opened the flood gates. 

Once students helped me understand the top ten “trickiest things,” I revisited classrooms to learn more about their experiences. Their insights were honest, insightful and created the framework for this book. 

From there, I combined this with human behavior science to shed light on the “why” behind common middle-school experiences. Then, to make it fun, I added quizzes, random facts and choose-your-own-ending stories. 

Shari: One of the things that I loved about Middle School (the book, not the experience) was the comforting, personal voice that you used in your writing, which comes across as wise and caring without being preachy or parental. How difficult was this to achieve, and what helped you to create this delicate balance of humor and advice?

Jessica:  Thank you for sharing that, Shari. As a kidlit writer, I know how important it is not to come off as preachy. It is one of my top goals/fears, so I keep that in mind whenever I write. I also have some preteen beta readers that help me here. I use the voices and stories of kids as much as possible to share their wisdom too. 

Shari: If readers only take away one thing from reading Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised, what do you hope that would be? 

Jessica: Whatever happens in middle school does not define you or anyone else. We are all works-in-progress. 

Shari:  I love that! If readers enjoy Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised, what other books (fiction or nonfiction) do you think they will enjoy?

Jessica: Two books that I love because they are so funny are Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Middle School – Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts. Two books I love because they capture middle school social dynamics are All’s Faire in MIddle School by Victoria Jamieson and A Place at the Table by Laura Shovan and Saadia Faruqi.

Shari: What are you reading these days?

Jessica: I’m currently reading Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles and loving it. Next, I’m excited to read Let the Monster Out by Chad Lucas and Glitter Gets Everywhere by Yvette Clark.

Shari: Can you tell us about what you are working on next?

Jessica: I’m currently putting the finishing touches on my third middle-grade book, The Phone Book (releasing August 2023). I started this book during the pandemic as screentime peaked and the age at which kids’ get their first phone dropped. Like my first two books, The Phone Book is interactive with quizzes, secret codes and insights from kids.

Shari: What is your favorite question that readers have asked you? 

Jessica: My favorite question is why I write about awkward and tricky social stuff. I like to share that for me, shining a light on this stuff makes it a little less awkward. Just knowing others are going through these experiences makes us feel less alone and taps into our shared humanity. Let’s face it, we are all a little weird. 

Shari: Thank you so much for chatting with me about your new book!  

Jessica: Thank you so much for hosting me, Shari, and for the interest in my books. I appreciate all of the work you and MG Book Village do to get books in the hands of readers!

Jessica Speer’s books engage and entertain readers by combining the stories of preteens and teens with fun activities and practical insights. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and explores social-emotional topics in ways that connect with kids.

She is regularly featured in and contributes to media outlets on topics related to kids, parenting, and friendship. When she’s not typing away at her computer, she loves hiking, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.  She lives in the mountains of Colorado with her husband and two daughters.