Interview with Kelly Yang about FINALLY SEEN

Anne: Hello, Kelly, and welcome to MG Book Village! You’ve written many books for middle grade readers, and I love that you’re here today to talk about your most recent one: Finally Seen, recently out from Simon & Schuster. Would you please give readers a short summary of the action?

Kelly: Sure! Ten-year-old Lina Gao arrives in Los Angeles, having not seen her parents and little sister in 5 years. She is a “left behind” child, as they are called in Asia. She’s been living with her grandmother in Beijing, waiting for her parents to send for her. Finally, her parents are ready for her to join their fabulous life in America! But it’s not exactly like the postcards they’ve sent. At school, Lina feels no one can possibly understand what she’s going through… until she picks up a book. It’s a graphic novel that makes her feel seen. When that book gets challenged, it takes all of Lina’s courage to choose a future where she’s finally seen.

Anne: Great! On your website, you mention that you came to America when you were six years old. Did you base any moments in Finally Seen on your own immigrant experience?

Kelly: Absolutely! I based Finally Seen on my early days in this country, trying to learn English, and bonding with my ESL teacher and librarian. Those are some of the most emotional moments of my childhood, and I tried hard to bring them to life in this book. I also based the book on my own heart-wrenching experience having my book Front Desk get banned.

Anne: Oh, that is heart-wrenching. (I hope the ban led to you getting even more readers!) I love the “Imagination Hotel” scenes in which characters dream big dreams as a way of coping with disappointing and/or difficult circumstances. Where did you come up with that idea?

Kelly: First of all, I just love hotels, lol. I love the idea of parents taking kids on an imaginary vacation—to the future. And them checking in to better circumstances. The parents in Finally Seen don’t have much. But they have their imagination and they have hope… Hope can be very powerful. As I often say to kids, if you can picture it, you can make it happen!

Anne: So true! And look at what the family makes happen: you show Lina’s mom starting a business selling handmade “bath bombs”—fizzy balls that dissolve in water, releasing fragrances. In order to write this book, did you have to learn to make bath bombs? Did you try freezing them, like Lina did? What research did you do to get the details right?

Kelly: My daughter and I both love bath bombs. We love watching them dissolve and seeing the various combinations of colors. I remember being at a friend’s house and seeing her make bath bombs. That’s when I thought, wouldn’t it be cool for Lina and her mom and sister to have a side hustle business on Etsy doing this? I did try my hand at it, eventually, and they are a lot harder to make than you think!

Anne: Ha! I can only imagine. Now, let’s talk about the adults in this story. In some cases we see adults lying through their teeth, and in other scenes, those same characters reveal quasi-good motivations behind some of their, uh, let’s call them “bad behaviors.” Tell us about your decision to craft the adult characters the way you did.

Kelly: I really enjoy crafting complex adult characters because I think in real life, people are multi-layered and multi-dimensional. That’s what makes them interesting. You might meet someone who is extraordinarily kind and giving in one way, but shockingly cold in another. And you wonder, huh, I wonder why that is. So you start exploring and you start having conversations, and trying to understand. I want kids to always be curious. To dig deep so they can understand. So they can really see life, people, and the circumstances around them and come to their own conclusions.

Anne: Always curious. Yes! The story is more serious than funny, but there are plenty of funny lines, such as references to the TV show The Simpsons, and Finn trying to serve as Lina’s translator when the only Chinese words he knows are names of foods. When you started writing this story, did you know you’d include humorous moments, or did you work them into the story later, during revisions? How long did it take you to write—and revise—Finally Seen?

Kelly: My rule in life is a day without laughter is night! As any of my kids will tell you, I love to sprinkle in jokes at dinner. Even when I’m talking about serious stuff, I’ll suddenly make some sort of funny noise. So it’s always my goal to put in as much humor as I possibly can in my books. As for my drafting process, it usually takes me a few months for one draft, and Finally Seen did take a few drafts.

Anne: You’ve written a bunch of books for middle grade readers! Do you have plans for a new MG story? What are you working on now?

Kelly: I am excited for Top Story, the 5th Front Desk book, coming out in September! I’m also super excited for Little Bird Laila, my newest picture book. After that, I don’t have anything announced yet but I’m always working on new middle grade stories for my readers.

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

Kelly: You can learn more at and follow me on Twitter and Instagram at kellyyanghk and Tiktok at kellyyangauthor for hilarious videos of me trying to juggle books, kids, and puppies!

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a heartfelt story about one girl’s experience of immigrating to America!

Kelly: Thank you so much for having me!

Kelly Yang is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Finally Seen, New from Here, the Front Desk series, and two young adult novels. Kelly immigrated to America when she was 6 years old and grew up in Southern California. After law school, she gave up law to pursue her passion of writing and teaching children writing. She is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, a leading writing and debating program for kids in Asia. Kelly has helped thousands of children find their voice and become better writers and more powerful speakers. Before turning to fiction, she was a columnist for the South China Morning Post. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She is the Honorary Chair of the American Library Association for National Library Week. She has three children and lives in Los Angeles.

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

Interview with Polly Holyoke about SKYRIDERS

Shari: Hi Polly! Welcome to MG Book Village! I’m thrilled to chat with you today about your new fantasy novel, Skyriders!  I absolutely love this exciting story and its fantastic characters!  What were some of your inspirations for this book?

Polly: Thank you so much, Shari! I’ve always been fascinated by the Pegasus Myth, in part because when I was little, my parents gave me a picture book of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s re-telling of the myth which included gorgeous illustrations of Pegasus. Bellerophon tamed this fierce winged horse, and the two went on to slay the chimera, a terrible three-headed monster laying waste to Lycea. I’ve also been intrigued by the American Pony Express. During the short time it was in operation, brave young riders raced across the West to deliver the mail and connect the far reaches of our huge country. The two ideas came together in my mind, and I imagined a brave young courier on a flying horse delivering the mail across a vast empire. But then the dreaded chimerae return, and my heroine Kiesandra Torsun is one of the very few who knows effective ways to fight these monsters. But will people in power believe her? 

Shari: Let’s talk about this cover!  It is so dramatic and stunning – very eye-catching! Can you tell us about the artist, and your favorite details in the art?

Polly: Brandon Dorman created the cover, and he is such a talented artist! He also created the cover art for The Land of Stories and the Fablehaven books. I love the way he depicted the chimera. It’s even scarier-looking than I imagined. I’m also thrilled with his depiction of a triwire, the weapon my heroine Kie whirls over her head as she charges the huge monster. I actually made up that weapon while I was trying to figure out how someone on a skysteed could possibly triumph over a chimera. It’s seriously cool to see a weapon I imagined depicted in such vivid detail on the cover!

Shari: Kiesandra is the main character of Skyriders.  While readers will love Kie, she has difficulty making friends and lives a pretty solitary life between her uncle’s farm and her Sky Courier route. Why is she such a loner, and how is that important in the story?

Polly: At the start of the story, Kie is definitely a loner. She is respected by her fellow sky couriers, but she is not close to them. Her skysteed N’Rah is always encouraging her to be more outgoing and to build a herd of her own. That’s hard for Kie to do because she endured several terrible years at her town’s school. Kie is dyslexic, and in her world and in her time, no one understands why certain students have so much trouble learning to read. Because bullies at her school teased her unmercifully, Kie has had problems letting her guard down and letting people get close to her ever since.

She does love her eccentric Uncle Dugs, even though he is always pestering her to practice skyfighting. He is quite convinced that the terrible chimerae that once ravaged Prekalt are going to return again. When the monsters do reappear, Uncle Dugs is horribly wounded fighting to defend his village. He makes Kie promise to take his great- grandfather’s manual on skyfighting tactics to the capital before it’s too late. Although it’s a huge challenge for her, Kie must make friends and allies in her effort to get people in power to pay attention to her and the most effective ways to fight chimerae, before it’s too late.

Shari: I loved the special bond between skyriders and skysteeds, especially between Kie and N’Rah. What makes these two such a perfect pair?

Polly: Well, N’Rah is definitely much more outgoing than Kie is, and he’s a bit more optimistic in his world view. He helps Kie learn how to trust others, and she helps him be a little more settled and focused. They support each other and give each other the confidence to tackle impossible tasks like fighting chimerae and trying to get commanders in the Imperial Sky Force to listen to them.

Shari: The worldbuilding in Skyriders is so detailed, without feeling like it takes over the story. What do you think are the most important aspects of worldbuilding, and were there any elements that you created for this world but didn’t end up in the finished book?

Polly: I frequently teach world building workshops because I love the process of creating fictional worlds so much! I usually start with the geography of my imaginary world. I think about the land and the climate and how those factors shape people’s lives and their livelihoods. I also like to think about social classes and cultures, and who has power, and who doesn’t. How is status obtained in a world? What happens when a person rebels against the mores and rules of their society? Most of all, it’s vital to figure out in a fantasy novel if there is magic, and how that magic functions. Does everyone have it, or do just certain people? How powerful is that magic and what are its sources and limits? You have to set up rules for magic, and then your characters must abide by them. 

In terms of what I had to leave out… I did want to explain why there is so little magic left in my Empire of Prekalt. Three hundred years ago mages could weave powerful spells, but the evil mage who created the chimerae purposely did everything he could to corrupt and destroy anyone possessing magic over the centuries. In the end, I decided I needed to leave most of that backstory out, but I will put it to good use if Viking Children’s Books buys the third book in my Skyriders series. Here’s hoping!

Shari: Research is always a significant part of any writing. What were the most interesting things you learned in your research for Skyriders?

Polly: I had to spend quite a bit of time researching and thinking about aerial combat. How could young riders on skysteeds effectively fight and kill chimerae? Early on I figured out that my chimerae wouldn’t be able to breathe fire. Bellerophon used a magic shield to protect himself and Pegasus from a fire-breathing chimera. But I couldn’t see my sky couriers flying around carrying heavy shields, and they don’t possess magic. So instead, the sand dragon head on my chimerae is terribly poisonous, and the young prince in my story gets bitten by one. I could describe that sensation quite accurately because I was bitten by a rattlesnake ten years ago (not a pleasant experience)! I also learned a great deal about the tactics pilots use when dogfighting.

Shari: What do you hope readers keep in their hearts after reading your book? (Credit to Rebecca Balcárcel for this question!)

Polly: I seem to write about the theme of found family quite often in my books. I’ve had to move frequently in my life, and I have so valued the wonderful friends I’ve made around the United States and in other countries. By the end of Skyriders, shy Kie has created a supportive herd of her own, and she’s learned to trust and share with her new friends. I also hope readers will remember that kids can be incredibly wise, and we as adults should do a better job of listening to what they have to tell and teach us.

Shari:  Can you tell us what is up next for Kie and her new friends, and for you?

Polly: I’m very excited about the next book in my Skyriders series. The Sky King will be available September 5. I like to say it explains the origin story of the skysteeds. Kie and her companions must find a way to forge an alliance with the wild ones and their leader, the bitter Sky King, before the chimerae return in force and doom all Prekalt.

This spring and next fall, I’ll also be doing lots of school visits. Because my Neptune series made so many state lists, and because I was a teacher and can actually teach during an author visit, I’ve already presented at over 350 schools. In my assembly presentation, I urge students to read, write, unplug and daydream, and in my writing workshops, I get students fired up about their writing.

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

Polly: They should definitely head to my website: https // Because of my teaching background, I made sure there are educational guides and activities there for ALL of my books, along with information on the various school and writing programs that I offer. 

Shari: Thank you so much for joining us today, Polly, and sharing about your fantastic new book!

Polly: Thank you so much for hosting me, and thank you for everything that you and the MG Book Village do to promote middle grade fiction!

Polly Holyoke is the award-winning author of the middle grade sci/fi Neptune Trilogy (Disney/Hyperion) and the new children’s fantasy series, Skyriders, from Viking Children’s Books. Polly grew up in Colorado and enjoys skiing, hiking, and camping in the mountains. A former classroom teacher, she believes kids need to read, write, unplug from their gadgets and spend more time… daydreaming!

Interview with MaryLou Driedger about SIXTIES GIRL

Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, MaryLou! I’m so glad I have a chance to chat with you about your upcoming book, SIXTIES GIRL, which comes out April 11th from Heritage House. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?

MaryLou: Thanks for having me Kathie.  I’m a big fan of MG Book Village and I’m so excited you wanted to talk about my new novel with me.

Sixties Girl has two narrators, Will and his grandma, Laura.  Will is a nearly twelve-year-old boy whose parents have decided he needs to spend Wednesdays after school at his grandmother’s apartment. Will is not happy about this arrangement. But when his grandma starts telling him stories about her childhood in the 1960s, he is intrigued. Will is experiencing friendship troubles at school and Grandma’s stories just might inspire him to find a way to work them out.

Kathie: Will’s grandma shares several stories with him throughout their Wednesday afternoons. Is there a story that your own family enjoys hearing about your childhood?

MaryLou: One favourite story is about how an aunt of mine responded when she encountered a mouse during a family holiday at my grandparents’ lakeside cottage.  Another is about a big April snowstorm we had in Manitoba when I was ten years old. I wrote a report about it as a class assignment and my grade five teacher submitted it to the local paper and they published it! It was the first time I felt like a real writer! I use bits of both of those stories in Sixties Girl.

Kathie: I really loved reading local references and related to many of the details from Laura’s early life (so much has changed!!) What are some ways you think we can make historical fiction engaging and interesting for young readers?

MaryLou: I don’t think we need to worry kids won’t be engaged with stories from the past.  If we tell those stories in a direct and personal way, the very fact that so much HAS changed will intrigue children.  At the beginning of the pandemic when we couldn’t see our two grandsons in person, my son asked my husband and me if during our FaceTime chats we would tell the boys stories from our childhoods.  We couldn’t believe how interested and attentive our grandsons were as we shared our memories. Even now, three years later, they still often mention those stories because they made such an impression. I was working on Sixties Girl when the pandemic started and our experience with our grandsons affirmed my hunch that kids might be really interested in stories from half a century ago.

Kathie: Will’s relationships with his friends and his grandma grow stronger by the end of the novel. What do you hope that middle-grade readers take away from that?

MaryLou: Will has come through some really bad experiences with friends in the past and that has led him to doubt his own ability to make new friends and keep them. I want readers to know they can always make new beginnings with new friends who will appreciate them.

I’m hoping the book might prompt kids to ask their own grandparents to tell them stories about their childhood and that sharing those stories will provide a meaningful way for the generations to connect.

One other thing I hope kids learn is that relationships with older relatives aren’t necessarily exclusive. In the book, Will’s friends end up having a great relationship with Grandma Laura too.

Kathie: What can you tell us about the book’s cover, and were you involved in the design process?

MaryLou: The cover was designed by Setareh Ashrafologhalai. Although she is not the same designer who created the cover for my first novel, Lost on the Prairie, the team at Heritage House wanted to maintain a similar kind of look and feel for the Sixties Girl cover since some characters in the two novels overlap. I did get to have some involvement in the design process. Initially, the cover showed Laura holding a stack of books in her arms. I asked Setareh to replace the books with a suitcase since each of the stories Laura tells her grandson Will are associated with an object he chooses from a suitcase filled with his grandma’s sixties’ souvenirs. I think Setareh did a great job of giving the suitcase a real Sixties look.

Kathie: You mention a teaching/reading guide on your website for educators to use. Can you give us an example of one of the ideas we’d find in it?

MaryLou: One of my suggestions is making a book bento. In the study guide for Sixties Girl, I share some of the terrific teaching ideas I’ve discovered while visiting classrooms where students and teachers were using my first book Lost on the Prairie for novel studies.  One class at John W. Gunn Middle School in Winnipeg had made a book bento for my novel.   A bento is a Japanese lunch box with the food items arranged creatively in different sections.  You make a book bento by selecting objects that are meaningful to the story and placing them artistically around a novel. Students nominate objects and then debate which four or five best convey the events and themes of the story.  They design a book bento with the winning objects.

Kathie: What’s something Will would want me to ask him about this book if I was interviewing him?

MaryLou: What did you learn about your Grandma Laura from her Sixties stories that you never knew before?  How did hearing those stories change the way you thought about your grandma and thought about yourself? After hearing your grandma’s stories, are you glad you live in 2023 or do you think it would have been better to live in the 1960s? In what ways is your childhood the same and in what ways is it different from your grandmother’s?

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

MaryLou: I have a website for my books but I also have a daily blog called What Next?  You can find it at  It has sections for both my first novel Lost on the Prairie and for Sixties Girl. I am also on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Kathie: Thanks so much for telling us more about SIXTIES GIRL, and all the best with your book’s release.

MaryLou: Thanks so much for inviting me to be included in the MG Book Village and thanks for all these great questions Kathie.  They really made me think about my book in new ways.

MARYLOU DRIEDGER’s curiosity and love of learning have taken her to some fifty
destinations across the globe. As an educator, she has taught in three different countries and
is the recipient of a Manitoba Teacher of the Year award. She is the author of Lost on the
Prairie, and has been a columnist for Winnipeg Free Press and The Carillon. Her freelance
work has been published in numerous periodicals, anthologies, travel guides, institutional
histories, and curriculums. MaryLou chronicles her adventures on her popular daily blog,

Interview with Shawn Peters about LOGAN FOSTER AND THE SHADOW OF DOUBT

Anne: Hello, Shawn! Welcome back to MG Book Village to chat about The Unforgettable Logan Foster and the Shadow of Doubt, the sequel to your 2022 debut.

Shawn: Thank you so much for having me back. I’ve been looking forward to talking about Shadow of Doubt since we first discussed Logan a year ago.

Anne: Our 2022 interview was so fun! Here’s the link to it. Now let’s get to Shadow of Doubt. Such a crazy-fun story! Could we start with you giving readers a hint as to what it’s all about?

Shawn: Absolutely. The sequel catches up with Logan only three weeks after the events of book one, when he is starting to settle in with his foster folks, Gil and Margie (who are secretly the superheroes UltraQuantum and Quicksilver Siren). They are now living on a houseboat in Marina Del Rey, California, several miles from their original home. MASC (The Multinational Authority for Superhuman Control) has given them new identifies and told them to lay low to avoid being noticed by Necros, the super-villainess who is searching for Logan because he’s got the entire database of the planet’s superhumans contained in his one-in-a-billion brain.

Logan wants to make new friends, get closer as a family, and work on his life skills, including riding a bike to visit his best friend Elena Arguello, who is now a MASC superhero-in-training. But he is a magnet for superhuman conflict. When he learns the history of MASC and Necros, Logan realizes his own story may be tied up in a terrible event that was erased from thousands of minds… possibly including his own. That leaves him doubting whom he should trust and searching for answers in dangerous places.

Anne: Thank you. Dangerous placesyes! Lots of them. Poor Logan.

And here we are in April, which is Autism Acceptance Month. One of Logan’s unique traits, possibly related to his autism, is his eidetic memory—his ability to remember everything—which helps him defeat the story’s supervillains, of course. In addition, he uses the ability to calm himself when he’s nervous. For example, in one scene he launches into reciting the state birds of all fifty states. (Too funny. Really.) And my question is: what about you? When you’re in a tense situation, what do you do to calm yourself down?

Shawn: Logan and I are different in key ways, but I think both of us are in the process of learning how to handle tension. Logan is on the autism spectrum, and when emotions and tensions get high, he is prone to “stimming” which is an involuntary behavior that feels soothing to him. So, when he’s very nervous, Logan’s brain dumps lists that his mouth recites in a way that’s totally out of his control. The act of reciting them is his form of regulation. He engages in physical versions of that too, such as rubbing his hands on his pant legs when his feelings of frustration or anger get the better of him. 

As for me, I don’t identify as neurodivergent, but I do live with anxiety as a daily challenge, so my coping tactics are a bit more intentional. Mostly, I focus on my breathing… but honestly, at times I wish I had some fail-safes like Logan, because I’m still not great at always finding calm when I need it.

Also, this might be a good place to point out that Logan’s eidetic memory might not be a trait of his autism. While there is a lot of evidence that autism and certain memory abilities (like remembering facts and events) are linked for many neurodivergent people, Logan gets a sense that his memory might have been altered by something in his past, specifically on the day he became an orphan. This thread ties into the deeper theme of Logan wanting to learn more about his own “origin story.”

Anne: Right. He’s forever searching for his younger sibling and birth mom. (The story pulled on my heartstrings, just saying.) The plot is an epic showdown between superheroes and supervillains, but you go deeper than a good vs. bad trope, such as when a character tells Logan, “you’re not like other people. You’re honest, you’re real, and you’re not trying to be anyone but who you are…” (page 296). I love Logan! What do you love most about him?

Shawn: I love him too, and for so many reasons. I think he’s funny, both when he means to be and when he doesn’t. I think he is curious, which I believe is one of the core traits that leads to growth at any age. But most of all, I love how he is (in many ways) the least judgmental person on the planet. He believes in facts and whenever possible, he waits until he has facts before making decisions, which is something I aspire to. Like when he meets Connie, he sees how kids in his D&D club react to her vibe, and his reaction is different. He really listens to her, and he judges the veracity of the things she says independent of the tone with which she says them.

Writing Logan feels like getting to be a version of myself I’d like to be more often.

Anne: Oh, that’s great! Love it.

Now, the book is full of puns, such as the “Great Dane who likes to smell everything… even though he nose it’s not okay.” Groan. Hahaha. Okay, so where do you get your puns? When you’re with friends, do you drop puns as much as your character Gil does?

Shawn: In terms of my puns, I do not plan them in advance. I guess you could say they are not premeditated crimes. They arise naturally in the flow of writing, just like they do in my everyday life. I do not pun with most of my friends… which is why they are still my friends. But around my father and a few other folks who are similarly afflicted by the pun curse, the wordplay comes from listening to what’s said and playing off what’s heard. It’s about the sounds of words. Once you’re tuned in, you “hear” puns in conversation before they’re actually said. If that sounds odd or annoying, I understand it’s both.

Anne: Hahaha. Yes, sure, puns can be odd or annoying, but mostly they’re funny.

Now tell me about the element of Logan’s autism called “alexithymia” — the inability to identify or describe one’s own emotions. We see Logan trying to name his emotions and slowly improving in this area. What made you want to incorporate alexithymia into the story?

Shawn: A few times in Book One, Logan mentioned being unsure about what he was feeling. Also, he was honest about the fact that he found it challenging to read other people’s emotions; his own were often pretty elusive too. I did a bit more research on what that experience was called, and when I realized there was a term for it, I thought, “Logan would know that term and use it.” Logan’s alexithymia is also a significant way for me to avoid the autistic savant trope of being emotionless or robotic. Logan is neither. He is deeply, emotionally invested in his missing sibling, and over the course of the books, his feelings for Elena, Gil and Margie grow. It’s just that his emotional intelligence doesn’t function at the same speed as his “book smarts.” But then again, I believe that in certain situations, all people have a hard time knowing what they’re feeling and why. So while alexithymia is a big word, I don’t think it’s a hard concept for young readers to grasp.

Anne: A lot of the book is super funny, but when you get serious, you go all-in. My heart broke when Logan said, “the worst kind of lonely is when you feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by other people.” Tell me about crafting that moment (page 105) in the book.

Shawn: Yeah, because Logan is so logical, when he speaks an emotional truth like that, I hope it hits different. That moment is one that I couldn’t have written into the first book because Logan wasn’t ready to admit it. In my debut, he has convinced himself that he’s fine being othered and alone, since it’s all temporary. He believes he’ll soon meet his mystery sibling. He’s out of touch with his emotions and likes it that way. But a hundred-plus pages into Book Two, he has people enriching his life and accepting him for who he is, and he can’t deny that he used to feel lonely, especially when he befriends a “new kid” who puts up a pretty good front of not needing anybody. So yeah, if that moment makes you want to give Logan a hug, I’m glad.

Anne: Yeah, it was a good moment. And now that you’ve finished two Logan Foster books, what’s next? Do you plan to write a third story featuring Logan? What are you working on?

Shawn: If Harper Collins decides they want one, I’d love to write a third Unforgettable Logan Foster book. There’s more than one lesson I’d love him to learn, and there are a few juicy bits of backstory that readers want to uncover. But until then, I’m working on something so different, I might have to author it under a different name. It’s not funny or light, but it’s MG. It’s a book that tackles a big subject in a way that will appeal to young readers while also empowering them to make changes that the generations before them haven’t been brave enough to tackle. Let’s just say there won’t be puns in that one.

Anne: Ooooh, you’ve made me curious. Sounds really good. Okay, let’s end by telling readers where they can go to learn more about you and your work.

Shawn: Well it’s always good to start on my website,, or follow my twitter or instagram (@shawntweeters on both platforms). Also, if you happen to be reading this in the state of Illinois, The Unforgettable Logan Foster has been nominated for two different readers’ choice awards — The Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Award and The Bluestem Awards — so spreading the word throughout the Land of Lincoln would be deeply appreciated.

Anne: Great. Hear that, Illinois readers?

Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a fun (and surprisingly informative) story for young readers!

Shawn: I always love talking books with you and connecting with all the generous teachers, librarians, readers and writers who make up MG Book Village. I hope we get to do it again soon, both because it’s fun, and because it would mean I have more books coming out in the future.

Shawn Peters has written a little bit about a lot of things in a lot of places. Ads for huge premium cable networks and all kinds of small businesses. Movie ideas that ended up on the shelf and domestic date-nights that ended up in the newspapers. Columns about fantasy sports and finally, a pair of books about a neurodiverse hero in the making. Shawn lives in Massachusetts with his wife who is a real superhero (aka a public school teacher), as well as their two children, a dog, and a cat that made him retype this bio by walking across the keyboard. Shawn’s debut MG adventure novel The Unforgettable Logan Foster was published on January 18, 2022 by HarperCollins, and the paperback was released on November 8, 2022. It’s currently nominated for The Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Award and The Bluestem Award.  The sequel The Unforgettable Logan Foster and the Shadow of Doubt is out now as well.

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

COVER REVEAL for Last Summer In Outer Space by Joshua Levy

Kathie: Hi Josh, and welcome back to MG Book Village! I’m so glad we get to be a part of the cover reveal for LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE, the third and final book in the Adventures of the PSS 118 series, which will come out on August 1st with Carolrhoda Books. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?

Joshua: Absolutely! Thank you so much for having me back. Trying (as always) to be non-spoilery about it: LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE continues the story started in SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY and sequel, EIGHTH GRADE VS. THE MACHINES. The series is about kids in the future who attend a “public school spaceship” (the PSS 118!) caught up in a galaxy-wide adventure. They have to find their way home; and help others find it too.

LAST SUMMER picks up where EIGHTH GRADE left off: Main character Jack has been taken somewhere. (BUT WHERE???) And his best friends Ari and Becka are somewhere else. (WITH WHO???)

They’ll reunite (obviously!), but not everyone is the same as they were when the previous book ended. And rediscovering the rhythm of their friendship is only the one of many challenges on the road to stopping the villainous Minister and rescuing their lost friends and family.

Kathie: Did you know from the outset that this series would be a trilogy, and did this book change a lot from your initial concept to the final draft?

Joshua: Oooh. Good question. I always knew it would be a series of sorts, and that a trilogy was the most likely form the series could take. The first book (and the second!) end on pretty harrowing cliffhangers, and I had to wrap them up. There’s absolutely stuff in this book that I’ve been planning since the very beginning and I’m delighted I get to close out this story on what I think/hope is a really satisfying note.

Kathie: What’s something you got to explore in this book that’s new for the series?

Joshua: It was important for me to wrap up the plot, of course. (And I do, mostly?) But I really wanted to give all the characters (big and small) the send-offs they deserved. Getting to explore who these kids (and grown-ups) are at the end of this adventure was a real joy. What is Jack’s relationship to his parents? How do Becka and Ari resolve? Is Principal Lochner very proud of the kids? Or, like, super very proud? WHAT DOES THE SHIP DO NOW?!

Kathie: Is there anything new you discovered about your characters in this book that surprised you?

Joshua: I’ll give a specific example—and then not explain it at all! J I always had a sense of where Doctor Shrew (a character’s stowaway pet hamster) would end up. But the specifics of it, well, that has been a blast to sort out. Buckle up (even if the kids have a hard time remembering to wear their safety belts on the bridge of a spaceship). It’s gonna be a bumpy ride for ol’ Doctor Shrew.

Kathie: Let’s talk about the book’s cover – who designed it, how does this one differ from the previous books, and can you point out any Easter eggs that might be visible?

Joshua: Kim Morales from Lerner was the book designer (on this book and the previous two!). And this time around, the cover itself was illustrated by Mariano Epelbaum. He did a fantastic job echoing the style of the previous two covers, while still taking things in a fresh (and awesome) direction. (I particularly love the coloring.)

As always, the three protagonists (Jack, Becka, and Ari) are on the cover, each with their distinct expressions—this time outside the ship! Doctor Shrew is here too. With something of an upgrade. The background features the PSS 118 being chased by some of the Minister’s forces, as well as the Minister herself (and another character we’ve encountered before and who—at the end of the last book—made some pretty big trouble). I think my favorite Easter eggy element of the cover this time around is the largest element in the background: Jupiter, with a larger moon looming in front of it. You can tell the moon is populated, lit up. It’s the kids’ home: Ganymede. Where the adventure started. And where it ends.

Kathie: Drum roll, please; here is the cover for LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE!

Kathie: I love how bold and eye-catching it is! Can we see all three series covers side by side?

Joshua: Absolutely. I’d love nothing more.

Kathie: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about this book, or your May 2023 release, THE JAKE SHOW?

Joshua: Always more to say. For now:

On LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE (coming out on August 1, 2023 from Lerner/Carolrhoda), I suppose I’d add that, when I started the series, I set out to write books that I’d have loved reading as a kid. Fun, funny, fast-paced, character-driven, with heart. I’ve tried to stay true to that all along.

And yes, before that book comes out, I’ve got THE JAKE SHOW (May 23, 2023 from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books). It’s got all those things too: The fun. The heart. But it’s…a lot closer to my lived experience (alas, I’ve never been to space). THE JAKE SHOW is about a contemporary Jewish kid with divorced parents, trying to navigate very different sides of his family. One very religious, the other not.

I’m so happy this year will see both books in kids’ hands. I feel very fortunate.

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

Joshua: I try to keep my website semi-updated:

I’m also kinda around on Twitter: @JoshuaSLevy

Kathie: All the best with your launches this year, Josh, and we look forward to seeing what you’ve got coming up next.

Joshua: Thank you so much! I really appreciate your time—here, and on everything else you folks do for our middle grade book community!

Joshua S. Levy is the author of several middle grade novels: SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY and EIGHTH GRADE VS. THE MACHINES, as well as the upcoming THE JAKE SHOW (May 2023) and LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE (August 2023). He lives with his wife and children in New Jersey, where he practices as a lawyer. Visit him at or on Twitter @JoshuaSLevy.

COVER REVEAL for Game Face by Shari Green

Kathie: Hi Shari, and a big welcome to MG Book Village! I’m so happy to hear you have another book coming our way. Can you tell us about GAME FACE, which is coming out with Groundwood Books on September 5th?

Shari: Thank you so much, Kathie! I love MG Book Village, and I’m so happy to be here! GAME FACE is a novel in verse about thirteen-year-old Jonah. Jonah’s got big dreams, but he’s also got a secret he keeps from everyone but his best friend. The secret? Jonah worries. And his worst worry is that he’s destined to have his life controlled by anxiety, just like his dad does. To prove to the world—and himself—that he’s not like his dad, Jonah is determined to succeed in a role that requires significant chill: goalie for his hockey team. 

Kathie: What about the idea for this story compelled you to write it?

Shari: After many years as a “hockey mom” and decades as a hockey fan, I wasn’t surprised to find a hockey story brewing. I was excited to tell a story that included this sport I love, but it wasn’t until I got to know Jonah and realized the impact anxiety had on him that I felt compelled to write GAME FACE. I’ve got so much compassion for that kid—his dreams, his sorrows, his struggles—and I’ve also got some seriously strong feelings about the stigma surrounding mental health and the huge potential for harm that carries. So really, how could I not tell Jonah’s story? 

Kathie: Can you tell us a bit about Jonah, and what five words would you use to describe him best?

Shari: In many ways, Jonah is a typical eighth-grade kid, with big-league hockey dreams, a best friend, and weekends full of homework, video games, and team practices. But there was a significant loss in his past that has an ongoing impact on both Jonah and his dad. And he’s plagued with worries that he’s gradually realizing are a sign of something bigger—something that might be too big to handle on his own.

Five words for Jonah: determined, anxious, loyal, hopeful, conflicted.

Kathie: I love that you address the topic of anxiety and how it affects Jonah both on and off the ice. Can you tell us a bit more about that and what kind of research you did for this book?

Shari: One thing about having anxiety is that you don’t get to decide when it’s going to make an appearance. So yes, Jonah’s anxiety affects him both on and off the ice. He knows being a goalie forces him into high-pressure situations that can make his anxiety worse, but it’s those exact situations that he believes he must master to prove to himself that he’s “okay.”

Jonah’s anxiety came out of my own experience, although Jonah’s anxiety is more severe. As a starting point, I drew from my experience and from the stories others shared with me. Then I was off to the library, of course! I researched anxiety in children and teens, and I read personal stories of mental illness in competitive athletes. I also connected with a school counsellor and a physician. And then I put myself in Jonah’s shoes (skates?) and let him experience anxiety in his own unique way, trusting that the background research I’d done would ensure Jonah’s experience felt authentic to others with anxiety, even if the situation and the particular symptoms/effects were different for them.

Kathie: I love the recent conversation I heard on Twitter about “sports books” not being just for kids who love sports. What are your thoughts about this, and what sort of reader did you have in mind when you wrote this book?

Shari: Definitely not just for kids who love sports! Just as sports aren’t only about the actual sport or game (they’re also about things such as how we work together, how we complement one another, and how we support one another, and they’re about things such as motivation, goals, commitment, dreams, and competition, and how all that plays out differently in different people), sports books are also about so much more. GAME FACE is a hockey story, yes, but it’s also a story of a boy and his dad, a story of a friendship strained to the breaking point, a story of the impact of mental illness on families and individuals, a school story, an Oma-loves-you story, a make-a-new-friend story, a you’ll-be-okay story. 

What sort of reader did I have in mind? Anyone who loves realistic fiction. Anyone who loves novels in verse. Anyone who loves upper-middle-grade stories with heart.

Kathie: Let’s talk about the cover! Who designed it, and what struck you most when you first saw it?

Shari: The cover artist is the wonderfully talented Julien Castanié, and I have to say, seeing my Jonah there, perfectly captured by Julien, was amazing! It was such a cool process, seeing this character move from my imagination into story and poems and pages, and then into something visual through Julien’s art.

Kathie: OK, let’s show readers what it looks like!!

Kathie: I love the way the reader is drawn to Jonah’s face. Can you share one element of significance that you love?

Shari: I love the way it captures so much of Jonah’s heart and mind. When I look at it, I feel like I catch a glimpse of Jonah’s big dreams, but then I blink, and I feel the weight of anxiety on him, the alone-in-the-darkness feeling that comes from all he’s dealing with.

Kathie: What else would you like readers to know about this story?

Shari: There are some delicious foods in the story that I absolutely had to test out in my kitchen (all in the name of research, of course! haha). Also, one fun fact is that I wrote this book during the 2018-2019 school year, when I was a “mentor” for a grade 4/5 class in the #KidsNeedMentors program. I gave the class regular updates on my progress, and in turn, they gave me a wonderful supply of enthusiasm and motivation.

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

Shari: I love connecting with other MG lit fans! They can visit my website for info ( or connect with me on social media. (I’m mostly on Instagram @shari_green and twitter @sharigreen.)  

Kathie: Thanks so much for letting us be part of your cover reveal today, Shari, and I anxiously await the opportunity to read it!

Shari: Thank you so much, Kathie! Thanks for the great questions, and huge thanks to you and everyone at MG Book Village for sharing my excitement about GAME FACE!

Shari Green is an award-winning author of novels in verse, including Missing Mike, Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, and Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles. Her books have been included on international “best of” lists and nominated for multiple provincial and state readers’-choice programs. When she’s not writing or reading, Shari can often be found wandering the beaches or forest trails near her home. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, BC, on the traditional territory of the Laich-Kwil-Tach people. Visit her online at

Interview with Aya de León about UNDERCOVER LATINA

Anne: Hello, Aya! I’m thrilled you could join us to talk about Undercover Latina, your recently released novel for older-MG and YA readers. The fast-paced action is awesome! Would you please give us a super-brief synopsis of the story?

Aya: Sure! Andréa is a homeschooled 14-year-old Latina in a family of spies going on her first solo mission. She must press her hair and pass for white to infiltrate a high school in Arizona to befriend the estranged son of a white supremacist terrorist. Shenanigans ensue!

Anne: Yes, they do! And as part of her spy mission, Andréa must learn a card game reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Also, she attends a convention similar to Comic-Con. What about you? Are you into Magic and cosplay, or did you have to do research to develop this plot?

Aya: While I tend to write in the crime genre, my partner and my kid are both hardcore into sci-fi/fantasy. My partner used to play Magic a lot, and my kid loves cosplay. Meanwhile, I have been going to my local AfroComicCon for years—I was even their keynote speaker in 2019! I started going to the Con supposedly for them, but I was just loving the imagination and the uprising of women, people of color, and other marginalized folks demanding that we be part of our culture’s collective vision of the future.

In the book, when it was time to have my main character befriend this other kid in her mission, she needed to pretend to share his interests. What could be more fun than making him a nerd who was into comics, gaming, and cosplay? And for me, as someone who mostly writes contemporary, realistic fiction, it was a way to create a world-within-a-world where I could play around with sci-fi/fantasy and fandom.

Anne: Fun! And beneath all that fun, your characters deal with some tough issues ranging from racism and colorism to privilege and white supremacy. I loved insights such as “white people…don’t have the same natural danger radar and vigilance that teens of color have,” and “a lot of the ideas in the US Constitution had come from the Iroquois Constitution [but that’s not taught in our schools].” This is an educational thriller, and it’s oh, so much more readable than a textbook! My question is: when you sat down to write Undercover Latina, which came to you first—the espionage intrigue or the justice issues? Where did you begin?

Aya: It all began with Ally Carter and Robin Benway. I read their spy girl books over a decade ago, and wondered what teens of color would bring to the spy girl genre. My first muse was Amani, who appears as the colleague in Undercover Latina. In particular Benway’s book ALSO KNOWN AS has a spy girl protagonist, whose family works for an independent spy agency. She’s homeschooled and goes to high school for the first time as part of her first solo mission. I LOVED the setup, and that was how The Factory was born, an international spy organization whose mission is to fight racism and protect people of color around the world. So, really, the politics and the espionage developed in tandem, but in response to these two other authors.

As an author, I am always thinking about my books for young people (and adults!) as tools of political education. And once my protagonist is in a school, there needs to be conflict in the scenes. So I’m going to use that opportunity to comment on education, and look critically at what she’s being taught.

Anne: That’s great. I loved your comments on education. Now, tell me: which character did you most enjoy writing, and which was the hardest to write? Do you see yourself in any of the characters?

Aya: I really enjoyed writing all of them. My heart is closest to the girl spies, and Amani has more of me than anyone, except maybe Andréa’s mom, because that issue of wanting your daughter to be bold, but also wanting to protect her is REAL. Probably the most difficult character to write was the white son of the terrorist, because he didn’t have a super strong personality. I needed him to be quiet, and a hard nut to crack, without boring the reader. There’s a twist a little ways into the book that made him more interesting to me, and put his inscrutability into a context that made him more relatable.

Anne: Yes, he grew through the course of the story. Such a great mix of characters!

Before Undercover Latina, you wrote a number of suspense novels for adults. Why did you decide to write for young readers, and how was writing MG/YA different from writing for adults?

Aya: First of all, when I read Benway and Carter, it was only a matter of time before I tried my hand at spy girl fiction. But also, my books for adults are very much adult. They’re sexy beach reads, as well as political thrillers, and as a mom, it was as if I had this big thing I was doing that I couldn’t share with my kid. As she got older, I wanted her to be part of my writer’s life. So I began writing an upper middle grade series so she could be part of that journey. And it’s been amazing. When I go on the road, she comes with me. We go to conferences of kid lit and they give out ARCs (advance reader copies) of all the new books. She can take whatever she wants and is in heaven. She’s a big reader, particularly of graphic novels.

Ultimately, I’m obsessed with the same issues in adult fiction as in MG/YA: race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomics, and the climate crisis. My adult books just have more gritty realism and my kid’s books handle the topics more lightly. Undercover Latina is like Yikes! White nationalism! But also skateboard chases! Teen romance! Cosplay! I think the biggest difference is that in the adult books, I’m writing characters who have heavy trauma histories, and the character development is about working through those histories. With the YA/MG protagonists, I’m writing characters who don’t have big trauma in their early lives. They have intact families. No abuse/neglect/adverse life events. So their developmental arcs are about growing up and experiencing agency in their teens for the first time.

Anne: What do you hope young readers will take away from Undercover Latina?

Aya: I have the world’s longest author’s note. I really think of the book as a fun rallying cry for everyone (particularly in the Latine community) to join the fight to end racism.

Anne: Awesome. I’m European American and would love for more white folks to join in the fight, too. And let me just say: your author’s note isn’t that long! You got me thinking about people who have—as you put it—a “proximity to whiteness”: a light-skinned experience of racism. I’m glad you included it.

I’ve heard that a sequel to Undercover Latina is coming out. What can you tell us about it?

Aya: Yes! Actually, more of a prequel. Untraceable comes out this October (2023).

Amani and her mom go on the run when someone comes after them and burns down their house in LA. They decide to hide in plain sight, moving from a white prep school to a Black public high school. As a plus-sized Black girl, Amani gets body image whiplash when she goes from being romantically invisible to being sexually harassed. Also, she’s totally in the dark about what’s going on with her family, and why they’re on the run. So she begins spying and shenanigans ensue!

Anne: Love it. Finally, where can we go to learn more about you and your writing?

Aya: My website is I’m on twitter @ayadeleon and Instagram @ayadeleonwrites, and all my books are at Bookshop.

Anne: Excellent. Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village today!

Aya: Thanks for inviting me!

Aya de León teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. She is the acquiring editor for Fighting Chance Books, the new climate justice fiction imprint at She Writes Press. Aya has published award-winning climate fiction with Kensington Books, including SIDE CHICK NATION (2019), A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE (2020), QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY (2021), and THAT DANGEROUS ENERGY (2022). Aya’s YA/MG books include UNDERCOVER LATINA (Candlewick 2022) and THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM 3 (free online on Orion Magazine). Aya’s work has also appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Ebony, Guernica, Bitch Magazine, VICE, The Root, and Ploughshares.

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

Interview with Karuna Riazi about A Bit of Earth

Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, Karuna! It’s a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you about your upcoming book, A BIT OF EARTH, which comes out March 14th from Greenwillow Books. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?

Karuna: It is such a pleasure to be here – thank you so much!

Absolutely! A Bit of Earth is a contemporary retelling of the classic The Secret Garden, told with warmth and hope in a blend of poetry and prose. To borrow from the official synopsis: “Maria Latif is used to not having a space of her own. But what happens when she feels the sudden urge to put down roots in the most unexpected of places? Karuna Riazi crafts a tender coming-of-age story about friendship, family, and new beginnings. A Bit of Earth is a reimagining of the classic The Secret Garden, perfect for fans of Other Words for Home and The Bridge Home.”

Kathie: I had a chance to read an eARC of your book, and I love how you reimagined The Secret Garden. What was it about this particular book that inspired you to rethink it?

Karuna: I have always loved The Secret Garden, since I first read it around seven or eight years. As a rather grumpy and opinionated girl myself, I felt seen in Mary Lennox, and was raptly absorbed in her quest for acceptance in spite of that prickliness, for friendship, and for a peaceful garden to call her own. However, even as Mary made me feel seen, the also present elements of ableism and racism deeply embedded in the plot prevented me from fully calling the story my own – an experience I’ve found I am not alone in sharing, as I’ve discussed A Bit of Earth with friends, family and readers over the past few months. My hopes with A Bit of Earth is to honor and the classic and all it meant to me, while exploring the previously overlooked and rich cultural South Asian background and heritage that is also a part of the original legacy, and that this title – in the words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop – will open a new mirror, window, and sliding door that will only further The Secret Garden’s timeless messages and themes.

Kathie: Maria grew up in Pakistan and moved to the United States to stay with her parents’ friends after being bounced around among family members following their deaths. There are many richly detailed cultural elements in the story. Is there a section you most enjoyed writing?

Karuna: One of my favorite scenes to write was definitely the religious gathering, or milaad, that Maria is invited to attend at a new Bangladeshi-American friend’s house. I grew up attending milaads myself, being of Bangladeshi heritage, and being able to add in both a cultural and nostalgic touchstone of my childhood was a highlight. 

Kathie: The reader letter you included at the front of the book really influenced how I looked at Maria as a character. Can you tell us how you’d describe her and what life advice you might give her?

Karuna: I would describe Maria as pricky and grouchy, yearning for a place that will recognize the deep-set grief that results in those reactions and suspicion of the world, and for a found family to support her and love for who she is (and I am so glad that she is able to receive that found family, and a place where she is recognized and invited to start healing, by the end of the book). 

I’m not sure what life advice I would give Maria except for “Keep being who you are.” She’s doing pretty awesomely at being herself, and expecting respect and acceptance for who she is!

Kathie: You wrote the story in prose and verse, which I think worked very well. Why did you choose to tell it this way?

Karuna: It has been such a wonderful journey of discovery toward the inclusion of verse in this story – beginning during my second semester in Hamline University’s MFAC program, when I told my advisor (incredible middle grade author Laurel Snyder) that I wanted to rediscover the poet within me that had so feverishly loved and written verse over my high school years. When A Bit of Earth wasn’t hitting the emotional arc I wanted as a strictly prose novel, Laurel encouraged me to pursue the little verses I was writing from Maria’s perspective in the margins of the first draft. From there, when the book sold to Greenwillow, my wonderful editor Martha Milhalick recognized that the verses were introspective, intimate and emotional insights into Maria’s perspective, and the prose was invaluable in moving the plot forward. The rest is history. 

Kathie: Gardening plays a prominent role in the book. Is it a hobby that you enjoy?

Karuna: At the moment, the only gardening I do is tending to three house-plants, and virtually through farming sims like Stardew Valley – but I want the opportunity to garden more in the future!

Kathie: Relocating from one place to another is such an eye-opening experience. If you could choose one place to live for a year, where would it be and why?

Karuna: I would love to do a year-long artist residency somewhere with a view, preferably in the forest or maybe near the sea. I’ve always wondered if Prince Edward Island (famously home of one of my other favorite childhood heroines, Anne Shirley) offered a residency, or another of Canada’s remote, quiet islands – that would be beautiful, and probably very productive in terms of getting writing done!

Kathie: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you want readers to know about your book?

Karuna: I cannot think of anything else at the moment, and only hope that readers – both those who are familiar with the original Secret Garden, or are being introduced to the story for the first time – feel welcomed, seen and loved by A Bit of Earth, and are able to find a home within its pages that will allow them to set down roots and bloom into their own bright, beautiful potential.

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

Karuna: Readers interested in finding out more about me and my book are invited to visit my website, I can also be found on Twitter and Instagram under @karunariazi! 

Kathie: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today, and I wish you all the best with your book’s upcoming release.

Karuna: Thank you, Kathie! I appreciate your time and your support, and am so honored that you’ve read and enjoyed A Bit of Earth!

Headshot credit: S. Uddin

Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. She holds a BA in English Literature from Hofstra University, an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University, and is an online diversity advocate and educator. She is the author of The Gauntlet (S&S/Salaam Reads, 2017), The Battle (S&S/Salaam Reads, 2019), Ghostwriter: The Jungle Book (Sourcebooks Wonderland/Sesame Workshop, 2019), and A Bit of Earth (HarperCollins/Greenwillow Books, 2023).

Interview with Sydney Dunlap about IT HAPPENED ON SATURDAY

Anne: Hello, Sydney! I’m so glad you’re here at MG Book Village to chat about your novel It Happened on Saturday, which hits shelves tomorrow, February 21. It’s such a gripping story! Timely and relevant. Without revealing any spoilers, could you tell readers a bit about the story? What’s the basic setup? 

Sydney: Hi Anne! Thank you so much for having me! I’m thrilled to be here.

This is the story of 13-year-old Julia who is in a tough spot because two good friends have moved away, and her BFF has come home from camp with a boyfriend. She begins eighth grade feeling lonely and left behind. After she convinces her older sister to give her a makeover, then posts a picture of herself online, she hears from Tyler, who says he’s in tenth grade at a school across town. As the two DM more and more, it seems that Tyler “gets” her in a way her family never has. But things aren’t always what they seem.

Anne: Thank you. Kids are repeatedly told about online dangers, but everyone thinks, “I’m careful. It won’t happen to me!” Your book is a cautionary tale. How did you come to write about this topic?

Sydney: This story grew out of my work with child trafficking survivors. I noticed that there was very little for young readers on this topic, even though eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are an especially vulnerable group. I decided to write an age-appropriate, character-driven story incorporating this subject matter in order to reach kids before or during the time they most need to know this information.

Anne: That’s great. In the opening scene, Julia is at a rescue barn, caring for a horse named Brandy. Later, when Julia feels distraught, she gets comfort from Brandy. I loved Julia’s relationship with Brandy as well as with other animals in the story. Are you a big animal lover? Do you ride horses? Do you have many pets?

Sydney: I’m so glad you liked the animals. The barn scenes were my favorites to write! I am a huge animal lover. At one point, we had so many pets that my home was “one animal away” from being declared an animal shelter! My family always has several dogs and cats, and I ride horses whenever I get the chance. Like Julia, my first job was at a barn taking care of horses in exchange for riding lessons.

Anne: Love it. In addition to animals, friendships play a big role in this story. You depict the messy complexity of Julia struggling to get along, fit in, and find her way. Middle school can be a tough time! What was middle school like for you? How much of your writing process involved tapping into your memories of those years in your life?

Sydney: Back in fourth grade, I met a wonderful friend who has been my BFF ever since. We lived on either side of a very long road, our homes separated by a busy intersection. My main memory of that time is standing at the corner with my friend, talking about everything and nothing for hours as cars whizzed past us. The bus dropped us off after school on that corner, and the time just flew by. But I also remember feeling shy like Julia when my small elementary school fed into a giant middle school, and there were few familiar faces in my classes. I was able to tap into those memories to understand how Julia felt, and how important her relationship with Nori, her BFF, was.

Anne: The story has nail-biting tension both in the lead-up to a traumatic event and in the follow-up afterward. I loved the absence of a simple “happy ever after” ending, and I resonated with these words from one of the characters: “It takes time to learn to live with a traumatic event.” Julia’s story feels real. Could you tell us a bit about your process in crafting her story? How many revisions did you have to do to get it right? How long did it take you to write this novel?

Sydney: I appreciate that Julia’s story rang true for you! When I first wrote it, the intense scene at the midpoint was the climax of the book, and there was a little about the aftermath, but not much. I chopped off a good bit at the beginning and added a lot at the end. During the time I was writing, I underwent trauma recovery training through Traffick911, an anti-trafficking organization, and I learned a lot that I put in the book. An early reader suggested making the book accessible to anyone who has experienced trauma, and I thought that was a wonderful idea, so I added the counseling center. As far as revisions, I didn’t keep track exactly (I revise constantly, as I go along), but a ballpark figure would be about seven major rewrites. Each big draft took at least a few months, so I probably spent around two years on it, with breaks in between.

Anne: In the epilogue you mention a quote Julia saw on a poster: “Courage doesn’t mean you don’t feel afraid. It means you don’t let the fear stop you.” That’s a great line, an excellent theme. When you began writing this novel, did you know you’d end with that quote?

Sydney: I’m glad that line resonated with you! I can’t remember where I found it (I’m a bit of a collector, and it was on a list of quotes that I love), and I didn’t know I’d end with it until I was writing the last scene. I’d thought about ending the story at the barn with Nori, but my editor suggested adding a final scene with Julia alone, so I did.

Anne: Did your experiences as a teacher inform your writing process? How do you think this novel could be used in schools?

Sydney: I taught ten-year-olds for many years, and as I was writing, I wanted to make the story relatable and accessible to kids in that age group and slightly older. Currently, I tutor kids of all ages, and a twelve-year-old student served as one of my beta readers. Since many schools now have internet/online safety awareness Standards of Learning, and states are mandating anti-trafficking curricula, it’s my hope that It Happened on Saturday can be a helpful resource. Along with tie-ins from those areas and novel-study in English classes, I hope Julia’s social/emotional journey and experiences learning about trauma recovery and stress management can serve as useful resources in the health curriculum.

Anne: What do you hope readers will take away from It Happened on Saturday?

Sydney: Being introduced to a topic in a fictional story allows for a more meaningful understanding than just being told about it. I hope that experiencing the events along with Julia will provide young readers an awareness that will help them stay safe when they go online. Also, I hope they enjoy a fast-paced story that has the heart and familiarity of a middle grade novel, but incorporates elements not usually seen in books for this age group.

Anne: It’s definitely fast-paced, and you’re right—I haven’t seen this topic for this age group before.

Finally, please tell us where we can go to learn more about you and your writing.

Sydney: Sure! Here you go:

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such an intense, realistic, and timely novel!

Sydney: It is an honor to have my story featured here. Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions and kind words!

Sydney Dunlap is a former elementary school teacher who has worked with at-risk youth in a variety of settings. She enjoys reading and writing heartfelt, hopeful fiction that expands young readers’ awareness of tough topics. She is a published poet and has also written for a newspaper. A lifelong animal lover, Sydney lives with her family in a home where the dogs and cats outnumber the people.

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

Interview with Torrey Maldonado about HANDS

Shari: Hi Torrey! Welcome to MG Book Village! Since seeing the cover of Hands, I have been so excited to read it and talk to you about it! Please tell our readers about this powerhouse of a book!

Torrey: I’m excited too to talk about Hands and for it to be released everywhere in two weeks. The same aged readers who have enjoyed my other books, who say they should be turned into movies and graphic novels, say Hands is about themes in my other books: friendship, family, choices. I returned to those themes in Hands because these are constant themes in all tweens’ and teens’ lives. Hands is a middle grade book that follows a sixth grade main character, and I’m also getting lots of great feedback from fourth through eighth grade kids saying, “I read Hands in one day” and that it’s the closest thing to a tween/teen Creed–the boxing movie with Michael B. Jordan (who also plays Kilmonger in Black Panther). They agree that Hands is a story about responsibility, promise, questioning what strength is, and comparing how much can be achieved by one person to how much more can be done with a team. Trev is like many young people I’ve taught over the last twenty five years. He sees muscles as strength and feels responsible to help solve family problems but feels alone to solve them. A problem is he wants to protect his mom and sisters from his stepdad because when he left he threatened Trev’s mom. Trev’s getting messages from media, friends, and his neighborhood about “throwing hands” so he thinks he needs to learn to fight to protect his family so he trains to box as good as Muhammad Ali and Creed on his bedroom wall’s posters and others. Here’s the thing, even though he puts on lots of muscle and is almost six feet tall and gets so nice with his hands that he could do what you see Jake Paul or Tyson do, Hands puts you right in his heart and mind as he wonders if boxing hand-skills is what’s best. Because Trev has talent as a comic-book artist and he has uncles who’ve used fists as weapons and they tell him that drawing could help him build a better future. They say school is the best way for him to keep his promises to protect and help his family. Trev’s really torn–feeling east-west, which is a phrase I invented that repeats in Hands

Shari: I love that phrase – it so perfectly describes that inner struggle that all readers can connect to! Trev is a conflicted character with complex emotions. How were you able to get into his head so well to convey his emotional tug-of-war? 

Torrey: I got the chance to narrate the audiobook of Hands and, after recording a few pages, the recording director and engineer said the same thing: “Trev is you–you can hear it in your voice”. And you know that camp song, “Everywhere we go/ people always know . . .”? Well, anywhere I go, people know Trev is younger me. I was in a Brooklyn library when a teacher who’s doing a gradewide read of Hands told me, “Trev is you. Isn’t he?”. So it’s great that I’m not hiding that fact, true? And the feedback from educators on social media is that it’s obvious that many young readers are Trev too–they share his feelings, struggles, and situations.

Shari: I will definitely be checking out the audiobook as well! Trev’s family and friends are of utmost importance to him, to the point he feels compelled to defend them. Why do you think it’s so important for young people to find their “village”? 

Torrey: We all feel how Trev does. There are two tweens who do book reviews and they never met but they both like the Maya Angelou quote that repeats in Hands, and they both say they share the same trait as Trev. A sixth grader named Rahul says in his blog “Rahul’s Playing with Words”, “One scene that was incredibly impactful in Hands was when Trev looked at the quote above his uncle’s sofa. The quote says, ‘Be a rainbow in someone’s cloud’. I connected to this quote because just like Trev, sometimes I feel responsible for taking care of my family, especially my younger sister . . . I wish that my actions could help bring some light to a person’s gloomy day.” In his review of Hands, E Train explains he feels that is one of his new favorite quotes. So many young readers are similar to Trev and they just want to add light to other people’s cloudy days and make them feel light when they feel heavy. In their starred review, School Library Journal says, “readers will feel a sense of the real community Trev has beyond his immediate family. They will also appreciate the complex supporting characters and feel hopeful”. For me, the two words that pop out in that are “community” and “hopeful”. It’s so important for Trev and young people to find their “village” because it means seeing who has our backs. Plus, people in our village are mirrors because we try to be a rainbow and shine light on them and they also shine back light on us that makes us feel hopeful and other great things. 

Shari: For such a “tight” book, the characters just leap off the page. Are any of the characters in Hands drawn from real life?

Torrey: Some of the characters in Hands are drawn from real life. I’m Trev because as a boy I used to draw how he does. There’s a scene in Hands where Trev’s oldest sister is amazed by a drawing Trev did of The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, as Black Adam. He wishes he was as strong as Black Adam. As a boy, I saw Black Adam in comics and I’m a HUGE fan of the movie Black Adam and The Rock. Trev’s friend and neighbor Pete—the 12-year-old who Trev learns how to box with—is inspired by kids I’d box with. His Rec Center is the one I trained in. Readers love Trev’s uncles and I’m lucky because there were men around my neighborhood who looked after me better than some family. Trev calls them uncles, and I did too. And Ms. Clark knows who she is. Yours is a question I bet I’ll be asked when I do author-visits for Hands so I’m curious what characters audiences will want to know are based on real people.

Shari: What types of readers do you hope will read Hands, and what message would you want them to take from it?

Torrey: I hope kids all over our globe read Hands. As a boy, I had stories in me that I wanted to share with the world because I believed in my heart that other kids had to feel how I felt. Now that I’m an adult I still hope my stories travel the world because my heart still believes that other kids feel how my characters feel. Another person who feels that way is Pernille Ripp, who lives in Denmark, and she’s in charge of The Global Read Aloud. About Hands, she said, “This needs to be translated into Danish for all the kids that need it here too.” She thinks kids all over the globe should have Hands read aloud to them. So, Hands is for kids all over the world. Its setting is New York and New Yorkers feel that it’s so true about New York and New Yorkers that both a Bronx  middle school and a Brooklyn middle school are doing a whole school read. While Hands is for middle graders, it’s also for fourth and fifth graders because educators like Patrick Andus in Minnesota who teaches 4th grade recommends on his blog that Hands is for fourth grade and up, a Brooklyn teacher is reading Hands to all of the fourth graders and fifth graders, and Rochelle Menendez in Texas says it’s a book that all of her upper elementary students would grow from and love.

Shari: I completely agree – let’s get this into ALL the kids’ hands (and grown-ups too)! How was writing Hands different from Tight or What Lane? 

Torrey: Writing Hands was the hardest book I’ve ever written. Some of Trevor’s story is about overcoming perfection. He learns it’s not about being perfect–it’s about NOT being perfect and figuring out what works and what’s helpful. While writing Hands, I put a pressure on myself to write the shortest of all of my books and I wanted it to be the perfect book. My chapters are super short–like two paragraphs short. The longest chapter is maybe two pages. So I’d compare my two-paragraph chapters to other author’s chapters of many pages and I’d doubt myself, Two paragraphs? But, I kept trying to be like Trev and stay open-minded to a page setup and poetic style of writing that isn’t “right” for everyone, but feels right to me and to my students. Being open-minded and accepting Hands as the book it became led to people accepting it in phenomenal ways. Recently, Matthew Winner had me as a guest on his show called The Children’s Book Podcast and he told me, “You have a beautiful, beautiful way of writing these micro chapters, these, these quick “Oh, I can just read a chapter and then put it down. I’ve got time to read a chapter”, and then you find yourself reading multiple”. About the poetic style of writing, Adam Gidwitz, Newbery Honor–winning author says, “Gorgeous and gripping, Hands is a poetic page-turner.” So writing Hands differently than my other books is appreciated by others in ways that remind me to trust myself.

Shari: Speaking of short chapters… Torrey, I am amazed at how you always tell such powerful stories in so few words! Why is this important to you, and how do you do it?

Torrey: It’s important I tell a story in as few words possible for the same reason that roller coasters aren’t long rides. In their starred review of Hands, School Library Journal says Hands offers an unputdownable story that’s a fast rollercoaster of short thrilling chapters. So I hoped Trev’s story is a rollercoaster ride and offers thrills to readers, especially when school or life feels slow or boring. No one quits what’s fun. If it’s fun, we keep doing it. I don’t want readers quitting my books so I try to keep my books fun and fast-paced so readers keep saying, “I want to read more Torrey Maldonado books”.

Shari:  As an educator, how do you find time to write books? More importantly, how does your teaching influence your writing? 

Torrey: Sometimes, I lose sleep. I have these stories in me that I have to get out and, if there aren’t enough hours in the day, I’ll stay up late or wake up early to write. I’ve been teaching for over 25 years. I’ve gone from when a lot of these comic book movies were just comic books to seeing them on the big screen, which is great because I teach and I like to help young people realize that they are super heroic. So much of teaching is storytelling. I storytell in every class, all day long. My challenge is after a long, exhausting workday to tell myself, “Okay, find time for you to storytell about what you and students experience, but, this time, storytell as you type and turn it into a book”. As a teacher, I see that students hold a tremendous amount of power in their hands but don’t realize their power. That’s one reason I titled my book Hands. Students have a firmer grasp on things than they think. So, with Hands, I show through Trev how we spot areas where we have a little grip on what matters and turn it into a stronger hold on things.

Shari: I love that! Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your books?

Torrey: Readers can find me on social media at @TorreyMaldonado. You could also find me at my website, I’m excited about my website because I just added a page for Hands. There are things there that I can’t say in interviews that I hope give readers more windows into seeing Trev’s story and how it mirrors many of our stories.

Shari: What other new or upcoming books would you recommend for our readers?

Torrey: Colby Sharp just came out with a list of “Ten Must Read 2023 Books For Kids” where he chose Hands and calls it “130 pages of gold.” There are so many great books on that list. I recommend books in a blog I did for The Children’s Book Council. We partnered for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which happens two days after Hands publishes–January 26th–and the blog is a giveaway of a signed copy of Hands and a spotlight of eight sports-themed books that help readers win in sports and win in life . This is a giveaway that readers here can join too so I hope everyone tests their luck. Good luck because the giveaway winner might be reading this.

Shari: Thank you so much for joining us today, Torrey, to share about Hands! I already have it on order for my library. I can’t recommend it enough, and look forward to seeing it out in the world!

Torrey: Thank you and, since a theme in Hands is boxing, I hope that I gave knockout answers.

Shari: You absolutely did! Readers, do yourselves a favor and preorder Hands today! You can even get a signed copy by preordering from Greenlight Bookstore.

Torrey Maldonado was born and raised in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects. He has taught in New York City public schools for over 25 years and his fast-paced, compelling stories are inspired by his and his students’ experiences. His popular young readers novels include What Lane?, which won many starred reviews and was cited by Oprah Daily and the NY Times for being essential to discuss racism and allyship; Tight won the Christopher Award, was an ALA Notable Book, and an NPR and Washington Post Best Book of the Year; and his first novel, Secret Saturdays, has stayed in print for over ten years. His newest book, Hands, publishes on January 24, 2023, is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, won a starred School Library Journal review, and amazing reviews from Horn Book, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. Learn more at or connect on social media @torreymaldonado.