Shoes…and Thoughts on Point of View

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about shoes. Not as in, those cute fringed boots I bought this past fall, but as in, can we truly ever walk around in another person’s shoes? Is it actually possible to experience and view a situation through someone else’s eyes? I have to admit, with so much divisiveness and disagreement in our country right now, I fear the answer is no, not really.

And this worries me. Sometimes keeps me up at night. I reason with myself in the dark as I toss and turn: well, if we aren’t able to be in another person’s shoes, feel what they feel, we can at least listen, and try to empathize as best we can, right? But not only have many people stopped listening to each other these days, more importantly, it seems we’ve forgotten how to compromise. And what worries me most is that our kids are witnessing this. What kind of example are we setting?

Several years ago, I got an idea for a middle grade novel that would eventually become Ethan Marcus Stands Up (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin 2017). A super-fidgety boy who’s fed up with sitting in school all day (he gets Sponge Bob butt) attempts to invent a device so kids can stand at their classroom desks. He’s never invented anything, and that’s not his skill set, but he’s determined and perseveres in spite of numerous fails. The idea was initially sparked when I was helping my son review for a science test. He needed to jog around our family room while answering questions because, as he told me, his brain works better when he’s moving.

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Anyway, I dove right in and started writing. In the first ten or so drafts, I narrated the story solely from the main character Ethan’s point of view. But draft after draft, something was missing, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it right.

I grew frustrated. I tried everything I could think of to fix the story, and almost abandoned the project. But one day, while procrastinating on social media, I got caught up in reading people’s argumentative back and forth comments on a particularly volatile post. It struck me how strongly, how vehemently, each person had interpreted the exact same situation in a completely different way. And sadly, no one was even attempting to understand anyone else. Their way, their opinion, was the way it was. I felt utterly disheartened. This is what we’ve become. Everyone firmly in their own shoes.

But then I remembered one of my favorite passages from To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s when Atticus says to Scout:

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 

Talk about words of wisdom. That sat with me for a while, and then – lightning bolt. Not to make the leap from To Kill A Mockingbird to my measly little middle grade novel draft, but I suddenly knew what was missing. Shoes. Skin. Ethan shouldn’t tell the whole story, because he can’t. Each character needed to interpret situations from their own lens, and I realized I wanted this to be a pivotal theme of the story.

I put aside every previous draft and started fresh, writing the novel with five alternating points of view, sometimes with several or even all of them in one chapter. I drew from the back and forth commentary on social media posts (without the nastiness), having each character give his or her take on the same events and experiences.

In the first chapter, Ethan stands up during language arts and protests the agonizing constant sitting because, “It felt like if I didn’t get up that very second, I was going to explode. I thought about trying to explain (to Mr. Delman but) I knew my reasons wouldn’t matter to him. Stuff like that doesn’t matter to a row kind of guy.”

Ethan’s sister Erin (in the same class) has a completely different analysis “My brother’s gone insane. That’s the only explanation I can come up with. Out of nowhere, Ethan stood up and started arguing with Mr. Delman, saying something about a protest. I almost dropped my mechanical pencil. Let me clarify here that Ethan got a C-minus in social studies last year. I’m willing to bet that he never read the chapter on the famous demonstrations in history, so how could he even know what a protest is?”

Their friends Brian and Zoe have different takes on the experience, too. Through the book, one of the most interesting aspects is how everyone assumes mysterious Wesley is a bully. Rumors abound about his past, he looks mean and gives off a menacing vibe, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He has secrets. All the kids do. But they see what they think they see in each other, and make judgements based on that.

I knew I wanted to illustrate that part of each character’s journey would be to realize, understand, and finally, appreciate that not everyone draws the same conclusions, even if they were in the same place together, watching the exact same scene unfold.

I carried this theme further in the sequel, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, released last month (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). I added narration from Marlon, a genius and also on the spectrum. His literal, black and white observations are simply how he makes sense of the world around him, but they are misinterpreted by Erin, and she fumes every time he’s near. He told her that boys are better than girls at science because at the previous year’s school invention day, three boys won. He was referring to one instance, but she took it as a blanket statement. Marlon and Erin. Those dang shoes again.

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Throughout the first, and more completely the second book, both Ethan and Erin, as well as the other characters, learn to accept each other’s opposing outlooks and thrive because of them, eventually realizing they have way more similarities than differences. At the end of the second book, that’s what helps the kids finally succeed at making their invention.

I couldn’t help but include some shoe references in both books. Erin wears her mom’s too-big heels to an invention camp, believing she’ll look more professional, but then she trips and falls, smashing into Marlon and creating a huge, embarrassing scene. Another character, Connor, has a giant hole in the toe of his sneaker, which Erin is initially annoyed by, but Connor’s the one who calmly gathers the group and mediates their disagreements.

In this season of giving, my wish is that we all learn to better understand and appreciate each other’s different viewpoints. It may be difficult to truly experience the world from another person’s shoes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying. I have a new pair of cute, fringed boots if anyone would like to give it a try.

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Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Calli Be Gold, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (both Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books), Ethan Marcus Stands Up, and Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark (both Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). Find her on Twitter @MicheleWHurwitz, and on Instagram @micheleweberhurwitz. Her website is micheleweberhurwitz.com. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and three children. Ice cream is always welcome.

STEM Tuesday Spin Off: Recess Edition

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Today we continue the  STEM Tuesday Spin-Off guest blogger addition to the MG Book Village blog. As you will recall, members of the STEM Tuesday group at From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors will share a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) post that ties middle grade STEM books, resources, and the STEM Tuesday weekly posts to the familiar, everyday things in the life of middle graders.

We’ll look at the things in life we often take for granted. We’ll peek behind the curtain and search underneath the hood for the STEM principles involved and suggest books and/or links to help build an understanding of the world around us. The common, everyday thing will be the hub of the post and the “spin-offs” will be the spokes making up our wheel of discovery. As  STEM Tuesday Craft & Resources contributor, Heather L. Montgomery often says, we’ll “Go deep!” on a common subject and take a look at its inherent STEM components.

For this second post, we will take a closer look at something that hopefully every middle grader gets to experience once a day and why it’s important:

Recess!

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The Hub: Recess

Spoke #1:  Get Outside/See the World

School is a great place to learn all kinds of interesting things about STEM. Topics might include how earthquakes occur and how mountains are made (plate tectonics), information about the newest Mars Lander, and even a peek into the world of nanotechnology. But sometimes the best type of learning for STEM is hands on. Recess is a great way to experience science up close and personal.

Take a look at the ecosystem around your school. How would you classify it? Is it a forest? A grassland? A swamp?

Here is a great resource to check what you find:

Type of Environmental Ecosystems by Sciencing.com

Check out this book for information, too.

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The Wondrous Workings of Planet Earth by Rachel Ignotofsky

To get more info about the science outside that is all around you (and above you), maybe try one of these books:

Spoke #2: Being Healthy

Being active means being healthy. Moving about and exercising is a great way to stay active. Recess is the perfect time to run, jump rope, do cartwheels, or just walk around. When we exercise, our heart rates increase and blood pumps just a little faster throughout our body, giving us energy and increasing our lung power. Movement allows your muscles to stretch and bend, keeping them toned and fit. Exercise creates lots of chemical interactions within your body, which of course, is part of life science.

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Website resource:  The Many Benefits of Exercise on KidsHealth.org

Other books that might inform/inspire you to exercise:

 

Spoke #3: Sports and Games

Let’s face it, recess is all about the games! Whether you play soccer, volleyball, or even tag, you are moving about and having fun.  Studies show that many kids love playing sports. Sports teach us a lot about how to interact with others. It helps with coordination and fitness, and sports are just plain fun. What is your favorite sport to play?

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Website resource: Sports Illustration Kids

Sports books that will fascinate you with fun facts and cool kid athletes

 

 

Spoke #4: Olympics

If you want to take the sports topic even further, take a look at one of the ultimate worldwide sporting competitions: The Olympics! These athletes spend their entire days training for their specific event. It might be running, skiing, sledding, or even table tennis. Working hard to meet and athletic goal is a great quality. And you’d be surprised how much science goes into all that training (or maybe not. After all, you probably understand by now that science is ALL around you!)

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Here’s a great resource for those interested in the science behind the Olympics

Science of the Olympic Winter Games by NBC Learn

Check out these books for more about the science and the people behind the Olympics:

Spoke #5: Helps You Relax

Even if you can’t get outside for recess, because of the weather, it’s still good to take a break during the day. I find myself writing for hours at the computer. Then when I get up, it’s hard to move because my muscles have been still for so long. Moving about, even if you aren’t running or jumping, is still a good thing. But recess, is not just good for your muscles, it’s also good for your brain to take a break. Maybe you just stretch in place. Or perhaps you do some yoga poses. Give it a try.  Close your eyes and clear your mind. Take a deep breath and let it out. Do you feel yourself relaxing? You should.

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Website resource: Science Shows the Meditation Helps Children’s Brains and Behaviors 

Spoke #6:  Physics/Forces and Motion

Movement at recess is related to one of the most basic ideas in the universe: physics. Physics, specifically forces and motion, comes into play every time we move. Remember Newton’s Laws? Those three statements that tell you how every object behaves? They totally apply to recess. You get on the swing and start moving your legs back and forth. That causes your body to go forward and backwards. Yep. That’s Newton’s Law #3, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Why do you keep swinging when you stop moving your legs? Newton’s First Law: An object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.  I told you, science, is EVERYWHERE.

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Website Resource: A whole host of blog pages on how Forces and Motion work by Physics4Kids.com 

A fun look at physics and how it affects us:

Wrap-Up

As we can see by taking a closer look at an everyday event like recess, STEM is ALL around us. Next time you go outside, walk down the hallway, or just sit in your classroom take a look at your surroundings. I bet you will find TONS of science, technology, engineering and math in your sight. You are even sitting on an object created by STEM right now (hint: your chair!)

So Be Curious.. and observe… and you will see that STEM is EVERYWHERE! Don’t forget to check out STEM Tuesday for more great STEM book and activities ideas!

Jen Author Photo-2017 Jennifer Swanson is the creator and administrator of STEM Tuesday blog. She is also the award-winning author of over 35 nonfiction books for kids. When not writing, she spends her day at the beach, chasing her dog in the waves and looking for science amidst the sand. You find more information about Jennifer and her books on her website www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com

 

Happy Birthday to the MG Book Village!

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Can you believe it?! It’s our first birthday! The MG Book Village has been around for one full year!

The site has grown in ways we never could’ve imagined, thanks in large part to the input, feedback, and contributions of YOU — the members of this wonderful kid lit community. We just wanted to take this opportunity to thank every one of you, and to once again encourage you to get involved. You can send thoughts, suggestions, and ideas to us at mgbookvillage@gmail.com or on social media. We look forward to continuing to celebrate and discuss all things Middle Grade in the coming months and years.

The Electric Eighteens’ 2018 Mega Year-End Giveaways

As 2018 draws to a close, this year’s MG and YA debuts wish to thank the teachers and librarians who have been such important friends during our debut journey. We’re giving away a full set of 25 middle grade debuts and 44 young adult ones, each to a lucky classroom or school library. All you have to do is follow the requirements for the giveaway you’d like to enter (no purchase necessary, just social media stuff). Thank you for being there with us!

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Click here for more information about the MG giveaway!

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Click here for more information about the YA giveaway!

#HappyPottermas Part 1, A Conversation Across the Pond: Books Between, Episode 63

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone! And welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to books they will love for a lifetime.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two tweens, a 5th grade teacher, a Ravenclaw, and celebrating all things Harry Potter this month! I believe in the power of stories to give us the language and situations to help us identify and make sense of what is wonderful in our world. And give us the words and the way to fight against the injustices we see. And few books do that better than Harry Potter. Across generations parents and educators who grew up inspired by Rowling’s stories are sharing the books with the children in their lives.

In today’s episode you’ll hear some short clips from a variety of librarians, and parents, and educators, and authors about how much the series has meant to them.  And the special moments in their lives that were made a little more magical by Harry Potter.Ds2bST1XcAABnFm

And then I’ll share with you a lenghtier conversation from across the pond where I chat with two of the founders of #HappyPottermas – Annaliese Avery from Suffolk in the UK and Lorie Barber from Chicago in the U.S.

Defintely check out #HappyPottermas on Twitter and all the Monday night #MGBookChat topics throughout December will be all about Harry Potter! And I really would love to hear YOUR thoughts about Harry Potter as well So, if you are interested in being featured on this podcast later in December, just check out the link posted in the show notes, which includes very quick and easy instructions on to submit an audio clip to me. And I can’t wait to hear from you!

Main Topic – #HappyPottermas Audio Submissions

 

 

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Josh Funk’s Harry Potter wedding cake!

Annaliese Avery & Lorie Barber – Interview Outline

Our special guests this week are Annaliese Avery and Lorie Barber – two of the founders of #HappyPottermas!  We talk about Harry Potter inspired advocacy, the challenges of friendship trios, and the our thoughts about the new Fantastic Beast movies.

Take a listen…

Topics we chatted about

  • Introductions
  • How Harry Potter first came into our lives
  • The origins of #HappyPottermas
  • Harry Potter ushering in a golden age of children’s books
  • Harry Potter fueled activism
  • Flawed characters & friendship trios
  • Teaching Harry Potter
  • Complicated characters in Harry Potter
  • The Crimes of Grindlewold / The Fantastic Beast movies
  • The Harry Potter books vs. the movies
  • The Cursed Child
  • Sorting in Schools
  • Harry Potter in the UK vs. Harry Potter in the U.S
  • Looking at Harry Potter through a critical lens

Some pics from Lorie’s classroom!

Links:

Annaliese Avery on Twitter – @AnnalieseAvery

Lorie Barber on Twitter – @BarberChicago

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Jess Lifshitz on Twitter – @Jess5th

The Harry Potter Alliance

A Monster Calls

The Harry Potter books

The Cursed Child

Pottermore website

Closing

Okay, that wraps up our show this week!  Remember to check out #HappyPottermas throughout December for some magical fun and remember to send in your own audio submission for a future episode.

If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Books Between is a proud member of the Lady Pod Squad and the Education Podcast Network. This network features podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit edupodcastnetwork.com

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org. And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher so others can discover us as well.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!

 

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Great New Titles for Tweens or Teens!

During our first year running this site, the MG Book Village team has had a number of goals. One of them has been to help spread the word about the work of debut authors — those new-on-the-scene creators who are actively trying to build an audience and get their books into readers’ hands. Another goal has been to actively respond to the needs, wants, and wishes of YOU, our community members.

Recently, both here and, even more so, over on Twitter, there’s been talk of the need for more so-called “Upper MG” books, or novels that are appropriate for MG-aged kids but that tackle issues or explore situations that have been traditionally reserved for YA. For that reason (and because we know that many of you are educators, and that your former students often come back to you to ask for book recommendations, and that many the librarians among you have teenage patrons!), we figure it can’t hurt to now and again venture outside of our MG world and see what’s going on in YA.

When Diane approached me with the idea for this post — to highlight some of the November and December 2018 MG and YA debuts — I was excited, because it helps accomplish a number of our goals at once. It also recognizes that the six authors featured below are debuting at a particularly difficult time, when many end-of-the-year lists have already been compiled and readers are pushed to start looking forward to next year’s books. But hold off just a little longer, and don’t miss the last of what 2018 has to offer!

~ Jarrett

. . .

We debut authors get a lot of jitters about how our books will be received. Fortunately, most of us have at least several months during our debut year to connect with teachers, students, and other readers. During those months, being a published author becomes a reality. But for authors whose works are published near the end of the year, there are no extra months. December 31 feels like the end of the end, and the celebration of being an author is short. I’m proud of my fellow debut #kidlit authors, and I wanted to give a shoutout to our November and December authors and their incredible books so we can help them feel beloved, like the rest of us. Read on to learn more!

—Diane Magras (The Mad Wolf’s Daughter)

Middle Grade

Love Like Sky, Leslie C. Youngblood

November 6, 2018, Disney-Hyperion

In this expertly-voiced, heartfelt middle-grade debut, a young girl copes with her new “blended-up” family and her little sister’s sudden illness.

Review: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/leslie-c-youngblood/love-like-sky/

Website: www.lesliecyoungblood.com

The Prophet Calls, Melanie Sumrow

November 6, 2018, Yellow Jacket

Gentry lives in a polygamous community among God’s chosen, but when the Prophet’s revelations put her family in danger, she must decide whether to adhere to his terrible demands or discover what it truly means to be free.

Review: https://bookpage.com/reviews/23294-melanie-sumrow-prophet-calls-childrens#.W_XtrS2ZNp8

Website: www.melaniesumrow.com

Young Adult

Synchro Boy, Shannon McFerran

November 6, 2018, Arsenal Pulp Press

Bart Lively, a 16-year-old competitive swimmer, is wooed over to the synchronized team. But things get complicated when he falls for his female duet partner – and crushes on a guy on the diving team.

Review: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/shannon-mcferran/synchro-boy/

Website: shannonmcferran.ca/synchroboy.html

Outrun the Wind, Elizabeth Tammi

November 27, 2018, Flux

When the legendary huntress Atalanta discovers her parentage, she and her handmaiden must devise a dangerous game to avoid marriage to dreadful suitors, and find a way for them both to reclaim their independence.

Article: https://news.mercer.edu/junior-elizabeth-tammi-to-host-book-signing-for-debut-novel/?fbclid=IwAR3TrF3jk_M4zUQ6ryQ8EaL9bE48PJnX2m1bavUeFrTBcvUgPU_DFiggeIA

Website: elizabethtammi.com

Paper Girl, Cindy R. Wilson

December 4, 2018, Entangled Teen

A girl who hasn’t left her house in over a year falls in love with a homeless boy and discovers that she’s the only one who can battle her own demons.

Review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2582819081?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

Website: www.cindyrwilson.com

The Disasters, M.K. England

December 18, 2018, Harper Teen

When hotshot pilot Nax fails out of Ellis Station Academy on his first day like a champ, his life is as good as over… right up until he gets blamed for a horrific crime, crashes a spaceship, and pulls a daring heist with his fellow rejects to hopefully stop an intergalactic terrorist group. Maybe. If they live long enough.

Review: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/mk-england/the-disasters/

Website (with preorder prizes!): http://www.mkengland.com/

 

Gender Empowerment and Risks: A Conversation Between Diane Magras and Laura Shovan

The ranks of strong girls in middle grade fiction is growing. (Thank goodness for that!) These girls come in all forms: tough, spunky, wild—and occasionally soft and gentle but with a core of steel. They’re fantastic models for girls (and boys) to see diversity in how girls are represented. And often, these days, they have male sidekicks who play the time-honored role of helper. It’s a nice transposition of gender roles in books. And I applaud that.

But I applaud even more books where the boys who are helping out the girls and taking risks to do so. These books are models that the world needs to see: It’s important for boys and men to back up girls and women and hear their voices, especially when the easier choice would be to turn away and pretend they never saw or heard what’s happening.

If readers of this post have read The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, my debut novel, you may have noticed that Emerick and Tig (my two primary male characters) listen to, support, and rely on Drest (my female protagonist). Her brothers and father also believe in her unquestioningly; hers is a world where she knows her voice matters. And Emerick and Tig risk much to follow her, in the end their very lives.

I was delighted when I read Laura Shovan’s newest book Takedown to find some of these themes as well. The risks Lev takes to support Mikayla’s wrestling show how hard it can be in today’s world for a boy to support a girl, and indeed, he doesn’t at first. But the way he does, and his final acts of support, are magnificent. Part of this book is about finding yourself and having the courage to be yourself, but also the courage to stand up for someone else.

And here’s Laura Shovan to tell you more about that! Laura, I’d love to know how you began thinking about writing these kinds of themes.

Laura: Diane, so much of what you’re saying here resonates with me. I grew up in a family that said strong women were valued, while making it clear that men came first. As a kid, writing was a way to make my voice heard, a place where I could be strong without bucking the system or feeling unsafe. Using writing to speak about injustice became a major theme of my first novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Unlike Drest, Mickey’s experience is closer to my own. She is fighting against labels like “little sister” and “girl wrestler.” Her voice is all about getting others to see her as a whole person.

Early notes for Takedown were poetic sketches jotted down during my son’s wrestling practices. It was always going to be a book about a boy, Lev, and his nemesis on the mat. One day, I drafted a scene about Lev meeting a girl wrestler. Almost as soon as Mickey appeared, Takedown became a book told from two points of view, hers and Lev’s.

I think of wrestling as a type of setting in this story, a backdrop against which Lev and Mickey are struggling to figure out who they are in a traditionally male sport. Mickey is fiercely determined to keep her sense of “girlness” even though she’s a wrestler. She emulates her two older brothers, who are both in the sport, but she doesn’t want to become them. It’s important to her to keep her sense of self. Lev struggles with almost the opposite problem. He’s realizing that he’s lost an important part of himself in his desire to man-up and be a tough, competitive wrestler. In helping Mickey, he begins to rediscover a gentler part of his personality.

I see that aspect in The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, too. In forming a close friendship with Emerick and Tig, Drest begins to examine who she is. Not her role in her father’s war band, or how her brothers see her, but something deeper. How do Emerick and Tig draw this new, more mature view of herself out of Drest?

Diane: Tig has a clear perception of who Drest is: a hero, an extraordinary being, different from what he’s always heard warriors were like. When he tells her she’s a legend, he’s drawing her apart and above her brothers. Drest isn’t comfortable at first thinking of herself as “better” than the rest of the war-band; in her own mind, she’s nearly as great as they, and will be as great when she gets older. To be “better” than a man was not something any girl of the period was told (even Drest). Tig quite literally puts his life and safety in her hands, and proves that he means his compliments.

Emerick influences Drest’s understanding of herself in a slightly different way. At first, he despises her as an enemy. And to start, it’s both his disparagement of her but also his helplessness that give Drest a choice: to see him as an enemy and act accordingly, or to follow her instinct toward mercy. Once she does the latter, she continues. Emerick is deeply affected by her generous moral character, but also by her fearless nobility. He’s grown up with the expectation of chivalry, and here he finds the daughter of his worst enemy, of all people, exemplifying that tradition. He challenges her, encourages her, and gently teases her—just as her brothers might, except his ways have a gentleness that subtly place her in control. In many ways, that’s the most powerful technique both Emerick and Tig use to draw out Drest’s true character: to willingly put her in charge of their journey, a life-and-death situation for each of them. (While her family has always loved and trusted her, they’ve never trusted her that much.)

Emerick and Tig discover much about their own identities and strengths and weaknesses through their friendships with Drest. By giving her a voice, they find their own, and it’s not quite what they’ve always been told they must be. I notice that you’ve done this with Lev, as you describe above. And Mickey certainly redefines her wrestling ambition as something greater than being in line with her two brothers thanks to Lev’s friendship.

I love to see characters transcend gender stereotypes through this kind of mutual support, especially when the support is hard and characters risk giving up (or literally give up!) something for it. Lev takes some major risks (he feels), but also Mickey does too. What do you feel were the biggest risks they thought they were taking, versus the ones that they really saw?

Laura: The biggest risk that Lev takes in supporting Mickey is stepping out of the circle of men and boys. There’s a scene in Takedown where all of the boys on the team are trying on their new singlets — the one piece wrestling uniform. There’s not much modesty in a wrestling room and, as the only girl, Mickey opts to change in the bathroom. When Lev’s best friends on the team follow her to the bathroom, he realizes that they have crossed the line between ignoring Mickey and bullying her. He knows standing up for her might mean losing his friends or being bullied himself. It’s similar to what you said about Drest and Emerick, except Lev is the one who has to stop seeing Mickey as an enemy. That’s the major shift in Lev’s character, the moment when he puts his morals above the need to be one of the guys. What he doesn’t realize is that this decision, this risk, is the start of some serious self-examination for Lev. He begins to ask himself: What kind of man do I want to be? It’s important that his bar mitzvah ceremony is not too far off. In Lev’s religious tradition, he will be considered a man soon.

For Mickey, the biggest risk is continuing to wrestling after her best friend, Kenna, quits. She’s been rejected by her brothers’ youth coach, and finds herself on the Gladiators, a team where she knows no one and is the only girl. Her family’s support is lukewarm at this point in the story. They’re worried about her physical and emotional safety and are unsure of her commitment to the sport. Mickey doesn’t realize how lonely she will be until she steps into the Gladiators’ wrestling room for the first time. This is something I heard about in interviews with parents of female wrestlers and from women who compete in traditionally male sports like jiu jitsu. Until they earn the respect of the guys, it can be a very isolating experience. Mickey really needs Lev’s friendship. He’s the one who widens the circle to include her. And in being Mickey’s partner and friend, Lev grows enormously as a person.

We haven’t talked yet about how both our girl characters, Drest and Mickey, have grown up being socialized by boys and men. Mickey’s mom is in the picture, but she tends to support traditional gender roles and excuses her sons’ behavior as “boys will be boys.” How does the journey with Tig and Emerick help Drest to confront that kind of thinking in her family?

Diane:  Drest grows up in total isolation with men! She doesn’t even meet a single woman until her journey. And yet even though her father and brothers are brutal warriors and believe that women need protection, they break the mold of medieval male stereotypes: Not one of them has ever doubted that Drest, the youngest and the only girl, can do what they do. Each of her brothers trains her, challenges her, and believes in her utterly. How often has any girl in our world grown up knowing that every man in her life respects her and thinks she’s capable of doing literally anything? The only time Drest’s family shows concern about her abilities is in the beginning, and it’s all tied to her youth, not her gender.

When Drest starts meeting other women and girls, she can’t quite believe that they’re not weak and feeble and need protection (one of her family’s moral codes is all about that). She notices ways in which they’re just like her—and in the companion book (which will be out on March 5, 2019), she adds her own line to that family moral code with a dose of gender empowerment. To Drest, a woman’s role is to be herself. And that’s something I want my readers to really feel: no matter what box anyone tries to stick them into as girls or boys, who they feel they are is who they are, and it may not link one bit to any predetermined gender role.

I loved your book, and I love books where girls are leading the action and boys are supporting them in powerful ways. One of my recent favorites is The Eye of the North by Irish author Sinéad O’Hart. In this fast-paced fantasy adventure, a timid girl named Emmeline finds her adventuresome scientist parents abruptly and mysteriously gone, and then is kidnapped by a villainous scientist who is planning to raise a creature from the deep to gain world domination. Emmeline may be timid, but she’s self-sufficient (especially with her satchel of inventions), and decides to take her safety into her own hands right before the kidnapping, when she’s traveling by steamship to her new guardian. She meets and befriends a young stowaway named Thing—and when she’s kidnapped, he spends his part of the novel doing all he can to help her escape. There are secret societies, steampunk contraptions, and a lot of heart in this book.

And there are some great subtle gender role twists. I loved how Thing understood Emmeline’s situation and went after her, at great risk to himself, for no other reason than to further her goal. He’s the classic sidekick, and takes actions pretty much only for Emmeline. There are also plenty of very powerful women (including the villainous scientist’s nemesis) supported by a whole cast of men, which brilliantly shows readers that women and girls can certainly take the lead in adventures. What’s one of your favorite books that challenges gender roles like this?

Laura: I just finished reading the ARC of Padma Venkatraman’s The Bridge Home, which comes out in February. The narrator is an Indian girl named Viji. Because of domestic violence at home, Viji is determined that she and her older, developmentally disabled sister Rukku must run away. Life as a homeless child in the city of Chennai is difficult and dangerous, but the sisters find stalwart supporters in two boys, Arul and Muthu. Instead of competing for resources, the boys teach Viji how to survive. The four children form a makeshift family. Through Arul and Muthu, Viji even realizes that she’d had some limiting views about Rukku’s capabilities. When Viji blames herself for a terrible turn of events, it’s the boys who help her see the good in herself.

Viji is a strong, and sometimes headstrong, character. When she and Rukku leave home, it is Viji who steps into the role of leader. When she meets Arul and Muthu, she has to learn how to negotiate and share the leadership of their small group. I loved how the two boys accepted and encouraged Viji and Rukku. When Viji doubts herself most, they are the ones who remind her what a strong, caring person she is.

Diane: That’s a wonderful example of what middle grade fiction is doing these days: expanding the notion of who’s allowed to lead the action.

Most of the books I grew up with had girls who needed to be rescued or were the noble love interest or were simply lesser and more feeble than their male companions. While I loved many of those books, it was hard to repeatedly read about submissive, helpless girls, especially since such gender biases were present in my real life too. Having a voice and being believed in obviously changes the way a person will think of themselves, and it’s something that most boys have always had in both the imagined and real worlds. It’s a relief to find so many girls in today’s middle grade fictional landscape with that voice, with boys taking great risks to listen to them. And the real world is starting to follow.

Diane-Magras_ABOUT-DIANE

 

Diane Magras is author of the NYT Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, which came just before The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. All things medieval fascinate Diane: castles, abbeys, swords, manuscripts, and the daily life of medieval people, especially those who weren’t royalty. Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son and thinks often of Scotland, where her books are set.

 

SAMSUNG CSCLaura Shovan’s debut middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, was an NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the year, and won a Cybils Award for poetry. It was named the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices honor book in 2018. Laura’s second children’s novel, Takedown, is about the first girl to join an all-boys wrestling team. Laura lives with her family in Maryland, where she is a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council.