Making a Book: It Takes a Village

As I previously wrote on this site, I spent seven years writing my debut novel, THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO, out from HarperCollins on January 28. During that time, I sometimes thought about agents, and even met and talked to some. And I knew, theoretically, that there were editors out there who would look at manuscripts like mine and sometimes buy them and turn them into books.

Then I got an agent. And she sold my book to an editor. And I discovered that I had no idea, really none at all, about how vast and complex the publishing world was, and how many hands my manuscript would pass through as it made its way from being a Scrivener document on my computer to a real, beautiful book.

Did you know, for example, that there’s a book designer?! I didn’t.

And a whole team of people who market the book to school and libraries? I didn’t know that either.

I wanted to recognize all of those folks who work so hard to bring books to life, so I interviewed four people who were “behind the scenes” in the making of my debut novel.

They are:

Oriol Vidal, the cover artist.

Courtney Stevenson, my amazing editor.

Cat San Juan, the book designer

and Katie Dutton, my contact on the HarperCollins School & Library Marketing team

Enjoy reading!

Oriol Vidal

1. In a Tweet (186 characters) or a haiku (5/7/5 syllables), describe your professional journey. How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?

I always liked drawing since I was a kid. I watched a lot of cartoons on TV & was very influenced by them. I had the chance to get a fine arts degree & after started my career as an illustrator. My hobby became my profession.

2. Describe your work space. What do you need to be productive? Music or no music?

I try to have a tidy workspace, with not too much things around. I always listen to music, or radio programs. And a cup of coffee next to me!

3. What is your drink of choice while you work?

Coffee! And I’m a chocolate croissant addict

4. Where do you get inspiration?

From films, mainly. When a project comes in, I Google a lot for references (art pictures, illustrations, photographers… but with a strong film background sense)

5. What do you for fun or in your off hours that is completely different from your professional work?

I try to go out for a walk, into some forest path, or simply going to the park with my daughter.

6. What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

The Happy Hollisters

7. Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

I grew up with a friend from kindergarten until university. And we are still in touch from time to time!

Courtney Stevenson

1. In a Tweet (186 characters) or a haiku (5/7/5 syllables), describe your professional journey. How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?

Never stopped reading children’s books, so knew early that’s what I wanted to do: bring stories into the world. (Got my start editing a friend’s Green Day fanfiction.) 6 internships and 2 jobs later, I’m living the dream!

2. Describe your work space. What do you need to be productive? Music or no music?

Have to have space to spread out—as long as the chaos is at least organized into piles! Music with lyrics for paperwork, soundtracks/lo fi for reading, editing, or copy writing. Ideally no email.  Sadly, I do my best focusing after work hours!

3. What is your drink of choice while you work?

Builder’s tea: strong, black, milk and sugar. Or, a froofy Starbucks drink with an extra shot of the good stuff.

4. Where do you get inspiration?

Reading really awesome books (of course). Also, watching all the masterful TV shows that are out now—some incredible storytelling and relationships.

5. What do you for fun or in your off hours that is completely different from your professional work?

I used to be part of a Highland dance troupe! 

6. What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

So many! I’ve been a Harry Potter nerd from the beginning. I also bought every single book in the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer. Jacky was bold and bright and funny, and I loved her on all her wild adventures.

7. Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

I had the same best friend all through elementary school; we started to grow apart after I moved schools in seventh grade (nightmare time).  I went to her wedding a few years ago, and we text every now and then.

Cat San Juan

1. In a Tweet (186 characters) or a haiku (5/7/5 syllables), describe your professional journey. How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?

I went to university for journalism but later took up graphic design. In the end, I graduated with both under my belt. I always knew I would work with books one day.

2. Describe your work space. What do you need to be productive? Music or no music?

My desk is decorated with art prints and mini figures and plushies of various pop culture fandoms. A meticulously neat workspace makes me feel productive. Depending on what I’m working on, I listen to music and true crime podcasts if I’m on autopilot. I like silence when I really need to concentrate.

3. What is your drink of choice while you work?

Grande White Chocolate Mocha to get me through the morning. Any fruity drink (particularly strawberry) to get me through the rest of the day.

4. Where do you get inspiration?

Nature, films, music, video games, Pinterest, mom and pop bookstores, watching other people hone their craft, artist alleys at conventions.

5. What do you for fun or in your off hours that is completely different from your professional work?

I like to cosplay characters from my favorite comics/anime/games at cons.

6. What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

7. Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

We lost touch after going to different high schools. LinkedIn tells me she’s a lawyer now.

Katie Dutton

1. In a Tweet (186 characters) or a haiku (5/7/5 syllables), describe your professional journey. How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?

BA in English. Nanny turned teacher. MA in Children’s Lit. Now I get to combine my passion for KidLit & literacy in a profession where I put books in the hands of teachers & librarians.

2. Describe your work space. What do you need to be productive? Music or no music?

Lots of books! I also like to surround myself with little inspirational reminders – I have a few framed cards sent to me by good friends, photos of my family, a gorgeous flower bouquet made from recycled book pages, some succulents… my work space is not nearly as tidy as it probably should be, to be honest. Music when I need to be in the zone; no music when I want to participate in the conversations around me.

3. What is your drink of choice while you work?

I’m one of those people who constantly has at least two beverages in front of them, and at work it’s usually some combination of coffee, water, and Diet Coke in an endless rotation.

4. Where do you get inspiration?

Teachers and librarians are the most creative, innovative, hard-working, knowledgeable people in the entire world. They’re out there fighting in the trenches every single day to make the world a better place for their students, and they’re the ones I’m always keeping in mind when a new book comes across my path.

5. What do you for fun or in your off hours that is completely different from your professional work?

I love a good game night with friends. I also take krav maga classes as often as I can, which is an amazing (and fun!) way to learn practical self defense while getting a workout in at the same time.

6. What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster & illustrated by Jules Feiffer; From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg; and The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (I’ve always been horrible at choosing just one favorite!)

7. Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

In 7th grade I became best friends with a girl named Kimberly, and we remained best friends all through college. We’re not as close today as we used to be, but we still try to get together whenever we can! She’s a high school teacher in Ohio now.

Cathleen Barnhart has been writing her whole life. She wrote her first story she she was seven. It was called “Aunt Ant.” Later, she majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University and then got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has held more jobs than she can count, including process camera operator, waitress, perfume salesperson, college writing instructor, and middle school teacher. She is married and has three mostly grown children, an excitable rescue dog named Zeke and a Machiavellian cat named Scout. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Zeke in the woods, Cathleen fosters kittens and does CrossFit because it’s important to be sensitive and strong. That’s What Friends Do is her first published novel.

5 Tips for Writing About Difficult Topics for Middle-Grade Readers

Writing about emotionally difficult topics for the middle-grade audience can be tricky. How do you introduce tough subjects to young readers in a thought-provoking way without minimizing the event, compromising authenticity, and distressing your readers?

I encountered these challenges when writing my debut middle-grade novel, Crushing the Red Flowers. The book takes place in 1938 Germany over the pogrom known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). Writing about one of the most disturbing periods of history was no easy feat and I learned a great deal. Whether you are planning to take on a painful historical event or a weighty contemporary issue, below are five tips that will help you tackle difficult topics for middle-grade readers.

Tip 1 – Set Objectives by Establishing a Baseline of Kid Knowledge and Questioning Your Motives

The first step is to understand what kids already know. You may be surprised to learn that your target readers have major misconceptions or aren’t even aware of the topic. Find out if the topic is part of school curriculum. Read message board discussions on the subject. Talk to educators and other relevant professionals. And of course, ask your target readers what they know.

When conceiving ideas for Crushing the Red Flowers, I asked 4th and 5th graders about the Holocaust after it was introduced to them in school. I ascertained that little was understood about the factors that led up to the war and that there were misunderstandings about why Jewish people did not leave Germany earlier and about the nuanced nature of German resistance.

A children’s writer must be certain of their intentions when undertaking a highly charged subject, so it’s necessary to question your motives from the start. What do you want your readers to internalize? Are you writing to reach those affected? Are you writing to educate the masses? Asking these questions and establishing a baseline of kid knowledge helped me focus my main objective—to provide middle-grade readers a solid introduction to the holocaust—as well as set secondary objectives.

Tip 2 – Define Parameters

After setting objectives, designate parameters specifically for the middle-grade audience. This could mean narrowing a time period, selecting point-of-view, or choosing a setting. For example, a book that takes place in the pre-war years is very different from a book that takes place during the war years. Choosing third person point-of-view over first person point-of-view may soften the content. A sympathetic omniscient narrator could work well to tie fragmented points-of-view and more gently guide the reader through upsetting events. And a story set close to the action is not the same as one set in a neutral location.

I chose to confine Crushing the Red Flowers to 1938 and center it around Kristallnacht. Keeping the story within 1938 allowed me to authentically write about the period and reach middle-grade readers without compromising authenticity or minimizing the events. Given the misconceptions my target readers held, I also decided to alternate perspectives between two twelve-year-old main characters, a German Jewish boy and a boy in Hitler’s Jungvolk. 

Tip 3 – Get the Facts Right

Because you’ve committed to writing about a difficult topic for children, you’ve committed to giving them the best you can give. Diligent research is your foundation. When writing Crushing the Red Flowers, I used a three-layer approach to research.

First, the big stuff. Identify primary sources. I conducted interviews with people who lived through the era and read everything I could get my hands on about 1938 Germany: Non-fiction, fiction, academic articles, and credible online sources.

Next, the details. As I wrote, questions emerged. What was the weather in Hannover on certain dates? What foods were hard to obtain in 1938? What did 1930s wallpaper look like in Germany? I researched through library sources and also reached out to historians, like Myrna Goldenberg, professor emerita of Holocaust history at Montgomery College, and Dr. Patricia Heberer-Rice from the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Last, the minutiae. Even after specific questions were answered, I continued my research to gain a general sense of German styles and mood in the 1930s. I watched movies from the time period, browsed through family portraits housed at the Center for Jewish History, watched old political video clips, and inspected hundreds of interiors at the New York Public Library Picture Collection. Sometimes I found a new detail to weave into my writing, but sometimes I just verified an element already in my novel.

Tip 4 – Write a Stellar Discussion Guide

A discussion guide is a list of questions found at the end of a book that foster conversation. Discussion guides work very well for middle-grade books. They provide educators and parents a manual for encouraging rich conversations. Discussion guides offer a safe stage to talk about difficult elements, help discussion leaders link the material back to children’s everyday lives, allow conversations to flow in greater detail, and help discussion leaders make sure that readers understood the material.

Ideas are freshest on your mind when you are writing, so I recommend adding a few questions to your discussion guide after writing each chapter. Ask about characters’ feelings and reasons for their actions. Incorporate other art forms, like sketching pictures or creating book trailers. And ask plenty of questions that have readers link back to their own lives.

Tip 5 – Take Emotional Breaks

Difficult topics aren’t just difficult for kids. They are difficult for everyone: writers, parents, and educators. Prioritizing self-care is a must. Crushing the Red Flowers took me years to write. That’s a long time to live in 1938 Germany and it was especially taxing because my book is based on true family experiences.

I suggest taking occasional breaks. If it becomes too much for you, it’s okay to step away for short periods. This will not only improve your well-being, it will allow you to see the bigger picture, ensure that you are working towards your objectives, and ultimately improve your ability to connect with middle-grade readers.

Jennifer Voigt Kaplan is an award-winning author of children’s fiction. Her debut children’s novel, Crushing the Red Flowers, will be published November 19th, 2019 by Ig Publishing. The manuscript was endorsed by James Patterson was recognized in six literary contests before its publication, including earning a Letter of Merit for the SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant and winning the middle-grade category of Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize for Fiction. Jennifer was born in Germany, raised in Philadelphia, and now resides in the New York City area. 

Book Review: GREEN LANTERN: LEGACY, by Minh Lê and Andie Tong

“Legacy.”  This word has the power to weigh down young and old. Often attached to legacy are the expectations of those before us that we knew and love, but that may have radically different views on life and what dreams and goals are worthy pursuits.  The responsibility of carrying on a legacy not chosen by us, or harder yet, to forge a new one, can be overwhelming.

Green Lantern: Legacy by Minh Lê, illustrated by Andie Tong,  discloses from the very title that Tai Pham’s story would not be just his own, it would be laden with expectations from the past.  Lê doesn’t let readers get fully comfortable, he barely allows us to enjoy Tai and his Ba Noi’s (Vietnamese for paternal grandmother) funny banter, when BAM!, in the characteristic action-packed-fast-paced style of superhero stories, an event of vandalism takes place that offers the reader two important keys to understanding Chi Dao, Tai’s Ba Noi: she doesn’t run from a fight, and she has superhuman abilities. The pace continues to move rapidly, with a few panels slowing down the action enough to let readers learn about Tai’s personality and history, catch their breath, before rolling back into action.

Tai’s story can be considered an origins one. In the world of the Green Lanterns, there’s not just one individual charged with protecting the Earth and it’s innocents, but rather an army of Lanterns.  When one Lantern extinguishes, a successor takes their place, effectively beginning their story as a superhero. One of the pulls of Tai’s origin story is his age, he’s only thirteen when he has to step up to a responsibility that should have come later in life, making him a contemporary to his readership.  Lê develops Tai with nuance. If you’ve ever been around a 13 year old, or if you are a 13 year old, you will attest to how age appropriate Tai’s behavior, maturity, and playfulness are.

Superhero or not, Tai’s loss of his grandmother, a steady and strong presence in his daily life; well known and liked billionaire, Xander Griffin, taking an interest in Tai; and having his friends, Serena and Tommy, prove their loyalty by questioning his decisions, are all turning points in Tai’s already complicated Green-Lantern-legacy situation. Readers will find a mirror in Tai’s handling, and sometimes mishandling, of these events. Meaningful conversations about what “having your back” really means, and the possibility of readers redefining friendship and what it means to be a friend, will be made possible thanks to Lê’s care in showing rather than telling, through the interactions and actions of Tai and his friends, what healthy friendships look like.

As a reader, when Lê’s first installment of Green Lantern was close to culmination, I was caught up in the action, the battle, the outcome, reading as fast as it was unfolding, when Tai made me halt mid page turn, as he voices the realization of the gifts legacy brings. I had to shake my head to try and clear it. It felt like I had been driving over the speed limit and came to a sudden, immediate stop. Lê offers readers the opportunity to redefine the power of legacy, and I had no other option but to pause and let it sink in.  

For the past few years the word diversity has been flung so often in the world I live in (education) and the world I frequent (publishing) that it seems to echo indefinitely in the social media universe, in educator conferences and publishing marketing campaigns, but the TRUTH is in the numbers: in 2018 only 23% of Kid Lit books published included diverse characters.* I like to think that Lê’s legacy with Green Lantern, as well as with his picture book Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat, is forging a diverse book world where our children of color and marginalized communities witness that their stories, their culture, their diversity is valued because they frequently see themselves on the cover of books and in stories that are loved and shared by all. Lê’s Green Lantern offers diversity in so many forms. It’s a model for a true diversity trend that will be worthy of being read by all our children: 

  • #OwnVoices author and illustrator 
  • a superhero that is a person of color from a marginalized community 
  • set in a diverse neighborhood portrayed as a tight-knit community 
  • a storyline that pauses to include authentic customs and language of the character’s culture 
  • engaging, action packed story  

May you enjoy Green Lantern: Legacy, and may author Minh Lê continue to enrich our children’s lives with diverse stories.

Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX.  After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.

Connecting Kids to Authors: That’s What It’s All About

As a middle school librarian for 23 years, I have spent much time searching for books that kids will love and then helping kids discover those books.  But, I’ve always felt that there is a deeper connection that can be made between reader and book – the connection to the author!  I’ve been privileged to attend conferences and meet many authors – but how often do young readers have that opportunity? It rarely happens for young readers, especially tweens. Authors do come through town on book tours, but most of the tours are for adults and young adults.  We do have a book festival in Utah, but again – the audience is adults with some YA mixed in.  Occasionally there is a picture book author, sometimes a middle grade author – but those chances are the rarest of all.

So here comes my dream – a book festival in Utah just for those kids in the middle.  It took me several years to screw up my courage, but with the help of a few friends, I am taking the plunge into making this a reality.  The inbeTWEEN Book Festival will take place on Monday, February 15th (President’s Day) in West Jordan, Utah.

Now begins the hunt for authors of books for kids from grades 4-9 – the ages in the middle. All the information for author submissions is on our website: http://www.utahtweenfest.org.

We are looking for authors of middle grade books who want to talk face-to-face with their readers.  We are also looking for sponsors, exhibitors, and will be applying for grants so that hopefully no one will be doing this on their own dime.

If you have questions, feel free to email me at cindy.utahreads@gmail.org.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Shannon Doleski

Hi Shannon, and welcome to MG Book Village. Thank you so much for taking part in our Fast Forward Friday feature. Can you introduce yourself to our readers, please?

Hi! I’m so excited to be here! I am Shannon Doleski, the debut author of the upper MG, Mary Underwater. I live in west Texas with my husband, our three kids, and our two rescue dogs. I used to be a middle and high school English teacher and swim coach. My husband is a social worker in the Air Force, and we move around the world. 

Your debut book, MARY UNDERWATER, will be released on April 7th by Amulet Books, and I hear that it’s inspired by Joan of Arc. Could you tell us a bit more about that, please, and give us a brief synopsis of your story.

Mary Underwater is about a fourteen year old girl, inspired by Joan of Arc, who builds a submersible and pilots it across the Chesapeake Bay.

I remember camping in Santa Fe, with a half-done first manuscript about a sad girl who builds a sub, and thinking it needed something else. Mary Murphy, my Catholic school protagonist, needed an internal hero. She needed something to shield her from her abusive family. And I knew it had to be a saint. At first, I thought I could pick a whole bunch of girl saints and rattle off facts like a Catholic school kid would. But then it became apparent that Mary needed one heroine, Joan. I was, like Mary, pretty obsessed with the superheroes of the religion when I was a middle schooler, and Joan was such a perfect fit. Two teens on epic quests. 

If there’s one thing you hope young readers will take away from your book, what would you like it to be?

This is a hopeful story. We are captains of our own ships (we are pilots of our own subs 😉 So the one thing that I want young readers to know is that they are worthy. Worthy of love and happiness and joy and success.  

What has it been like for you to publish your debut book?

It’s wild. I still can’t believe it’s happening. Maybe it’s not! Maybe it’s all a beautiful dream. No, I am so lucky to have a wonderful agent and editor and team who believe in me. I can’t wait for kids to get their hands on my book.  

If readers want to find out more about you and your writing, where can they go?

I have a website: www.shannondoleski.com and a pretty good Instagram (if I do say so myself) @shannondoleski. That’s my favorite, but I’m also available on Shannon Doleski Author Page on Facebook and Twitter @shannondoleski.

Thank you again for taking time to chat with us, and I hope your debut year is a successful one!

Thank you so much for having me! Meant the world to me 🙂 🙂 🙂 

Shannon Doleski was born and raised in Cazenovia, New York. After graduating from Niagara University with an English Education degree, Shannon was an English teacher and swim coach in New York and Maryland. She lives with her husband, three children, and rescue dogs wherever the Air Force sends them (currently West Texas). Visit her author website at shannondoleski.comMary Underwater is her debut novel.

Seven Lessons I Learned in Seven Years of Writing One Book

I spent seven years writing my debut novel. Yes, seven years.  Writing one novel. Not writing and then finding an agent and then getting a contract; just writing. I think that may be some kind of record.

I know there are people out there who have written entire first drafts in a month (thank you NaNoWriMo), and then revised and had something to send out to their agent a couple of months later. I am not one of those people. I don’t think I ever will be, although I’m on track to have a decent draft of novel number two in only four years, which feels like a kind of victory.

I don’t regret the seven years it took me to write and revise and polish THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO because I learned so much — about myself and about writing.  Here are seven lessons I learned during my writing journey, one for each of the years I spent writing my debut.

  1. You are the writer you are. Don’t sell yourself short (or out) because you don’t write the way you’re “supposed” to. I have been writing since I was seven years old, but for much of my life I didn’t see myself as a writer because I didn’t write the way I thought “real” writers did: I didn’t write every day, I was (and still am) a lousy journal-keeper, and I hated most “literary” fiction. It took me a long time to come to terms with the way I wrote, which is for a few hours a day, and completely alone. I can’t write in coffee shops, or on vacation, or when my kids are in the house. I can sometimes write when my husband is around, if he confines himself to another room and doesn’t talk to me at all. I know there are writers who write while they’re cooking dinner, or helping their kids with their homework, or, although I cannot imagine it, with music playing. I am not those writers. But I am a writer. And you are too.
  2. Write what you love, not what’s hot, or selling. Write what you love even if everyone is saying there’s no market for it, because the market will change. When I first began showing my manuscript around to agents, MANY of them said a version of the following: “you’ve got an interesting story, but I’m not sure anyone will publish it. It’s not Middle Grade material.” I kept going because I wanted a completed draft of something, even if it was “unpublishable.” Then a presidential candidate bragged on camera about touching women inappropriately, and that got played on the news. And the Harvey Weinstein story broke. And #MeToo became a rallying cry for women around the world. Suddenly, publishers were interested in a Middle Grade novel with a #MeToo moment at the center.
  3. Writing groups are better than chocolate. Writing is actually revising. And revising means re-seeing: seeing the words you’ve brought forth in a new light, or from a new perspective. But re-seeing is hard. That’s where your writer’s group comes in. Find a writing group, or a critique partner, or both. I’ve been lucky enough to have three writing groups over the course of my seven-year writing journey. One met every Thursday, and read parts of my novel in 10-page chunks. One meets once a month, and reads anything from partial manuscripts to complete drafts (they have a draft of novel number two as I type this). The third group meets once or twice a month, and we all write short pieces based on a writing prompt.
  4. All chocolate is delicious, but some chocolate is better than other chocolate. And some critique group members will have advice or suggestions that will resonate with you, while others may make suggestions that feel wrong. Keep an open mind and an open heart, but also remember: it’s your vision. Trust your instincts.
  5. The Society of Children’s Book Writers is the jam. I met the folks in my monthly writing group at the SCBWI winter conference cocktail party. I’ve gotten amazing feedback from several agents at other SCBWI conferences I attended, where my socks were also knocked off by some phenomenal workshops. I mean Laurie Halse Anderson talking about how she does research for her historical fiction books?! Priceless. Also, I connected with my agent through an SCBWI First Pages sessions.
  6. Everyone’s journey is different. Once I finally was ready to send start querying agents, I expected to be at it for years. But about six weeks after I sent my first queries, I signed with my agent. Less than six months after that, I had a contract with HarperCollins. My friend C. signed with an agent more than a year before I signed with mine, and has four fabulous manuscripts, but is still waiting for that first contract. There’s no pattern, and there are no guarantees.
  7. Writing is not a sure path to financial freedom. Most of the published writers I know do other things: they teach, they do party planning, they clean houses or write computer code. These days, I tutor, and for many of the seven years I was writing THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO I did freelance editing work as well. I also have a patron of sorts in my husband, whose income means I don’t have to have a full-time paying gig. I know a lot of rich people. None of them are writers. There are a handful of rich writers, and some other writers who are making a decent living off of their books (they tend to be the prolific ones), but there are many, many more published writers who aren’t able to pay the rent just with their writing. Write because you love it, because you have to, because it feeds your soul. And figure out what else you can do to pay the rent.
Cathleen Barnhart has been writing her whole life. She wrote her first story she she was seven. It was called “Aunt Ant.” Later, she majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University and then got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has held more jobs than she can count, including process camera operator, waitress, perfume salesperson, college writing instructor, and middle school teacher. She is married and has three mostly grown children, an excitable rescue dog named Zeke and a Machiavellian cat named Scout. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Zeke in the woods, Cathleen fosters kittens and does CrossFit because it’s important to be sensitive and strong. That’s What Friends Do is her first published novel.

Crafting a New Chapter Book Series

As a young girl, who lived in a rowhouse in South Philadelphia and played Wiffle ball in the street, I loved no book more than Anne of Green Gables. Anne was an orphan who was adopted by a pair of siblings who initially had wanted a boy to help them manage their farm. Instead, they got a spunky, red-haired, intelligent girl who stole their hearts. Though she was poor, Anne roamed through the woods and ran through the green fields of Prince Edward Island, a place that was far more beautiful than the paved streets and narrow alleyways of South Philadelphia.

As the daughter of immigrants, who often felt isolated among her American friends, I connected with Anne who was also an outsider in the town of Avonlea; people tended to think the worst of her because she was an orphan, and she dealt with their judgement fiercely. And her imagination and her loneliness often combined in ways that brought tears to my eyes, such as this sad moment when she faces being returned to the orphanage: “I’ve just been imagining that it was really me you wanted after all and that I was to stay here forever and ever. It was a great comfort while it lasted. But the worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop and that hurts.”

I’ll say that later, as an older child, I realized that all the books I was reading starred white children; that bothered me more and more, because I could imagine myself in anyone’s shoes (that’s the power of readings, after all), but couldn’t there be a book that met me halfway? A book that, while I stretched my imagination to connect with it, simultaneously reached out to me?

Therefore, when I finally decided to write a children’s book, I wanted to carefully craft it so that it would reflect my values and my ideals. Therefore, I decided four things:

First, my main character would be a Palestinian American girl. Like me. Like my own daughter. It would be an #ownvoices book. I named my protagonist Farah [which means “joy” in Arabic] and gave her some fun traits — she’s funny, she’s smart, she’s curious, and she can be stubborn. She speaks Arabic at home with her parents and English at school with her teachers and friends, and I included a glossary of Arabic terms in the back of the book.

Second, Farah would be working class. This was very important to me, because many times, the characters we see in #kidlit books tend to be privileged kids. Money is never discussed because the reader is supposed to assume the character is financially comfortable. Farah’s family, however, struggles financially — her parents work hard, but they’re always pinching their pennies, and like any lower-income kid, Farah is acutely aware of this. It’s a testament to my own upbringing; I was raised in a family that was often short on money but had an abundance of love and affection.

Third, this book would be the first in a series. For example, as a kid myself, I read Anne of Green Gables several times before I saw, in a Scholastic flyer, that there was …  a second Anne novel? Indeed, Anne was a character who spanned an entire series:  Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, and more. The story didn’t end at the closing of the first novel. I realized, with a thrill, that I never had to lose Anne. At its core, this is the appeal of the book series: the joy of finding a good book and realizing there’s a whole bookshelf at the library or bookstore with the Boxcar Children, Ramona Quimby, the Sweet Valley High twins, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. Later, I became a big Agatha Christie fan and followed Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.

The fourth thing was that Farah’s story would be a chapter book. I didn’t want to write a picture book, nor did I want to pen a novel for older, more advanced readers. I wanted kids in the younger grades as well as older kids who were still emerging readers to meet Farah Rocks. This was a deliberate decision because very little attention is given to the chapter book, one of the hardest-working genres in children’s literature. A chapter book, loosely defined, is a book targeted towards readers who have graduated from picture books [although, in my opinion, nobody should ever “graduate” from picture books] but who are not yet ready for novels. The chapter book is a happy medium — a long story, broken up into shorter chapters, lightly illustrated throughout.

The chapter book is a victory for the emerging reader. It’s a “real book”, as my own kids used to say, with just enough pictures to break up the text but not so many that the prose is de-emphasized. Finishing a chapter book makes a young reader feel like a big kid, and it creates a positive vibe around the experience of reading independently.

I’m excited to see where Farah goes on her adventures, but no matter what, I’m glad that she, and the series, reflect my values and my commitment to my readers.



Susan Muaddi Darraj won an American Book Award in 2016 for her novel-in-stories, A Curious Land. She teaches creative writing in the graduate programs at both The Johns Hopkins and Fairfield Universities. Her #ownvoices chapter book series, Farah Rocks, debuted in January from Capstone Books.