I made up my mind to become a writer in high school, a playwright. A Broadway playwright. That sure didn’t work, though there were flickers of interest. Reluctantly (believe or not) I took up cartooning. By then I had a son. He liked to climb on my lap and ask for a story. I’d always tell him to choose the subject. “A garbage truck.” “Rain.” With such prompts I invented stories.
Around the same time a picture book editor saw my art work, and urged me to write a book. “I’m an artist, not a writer.” She said “Then write a book and illustrate it.” I did. In quick time the art was ditched but the stories remained. My first book, Things That Sometimes Happen—consist of those stories I told my son. It was published in 1970. A rewritten version of it is still in print. Writing that book reminded me how much I loved kids’ books. There’s your beginning.
When did you start writing novels?
By the time I had my own kids I needed a stable income. I became a librarian, working first at the NY Public Library. Then I became a librarian at what has become the State College of New Jersey. When there, my son—the same one mentioned above—had a costume party: super hero stuff. (One kid came dressed as Snoopy!) The third book I wrote was No More Magicloosely based on what happened at that party and the town in New Jersey where we lived. It was nominated for the Mystery Writers’ annual award. By then there was no turning back. I was a writer of children’s books.
And the historical fiction?
In 1947 Simon and Schuster published A History of the United States, the first truly pictorial history of the USA. I must have read it a thousand times. I still own that very book. It made history vivid and utterly absorbing for me. At the University of Wisconsin, I had two majors: Theatre and History. My early plays were historical dramas. I still read history for fun.
After I wrote No More Magic, I wrote Captain Gray, a novel set in the post-Revolutionary war period.
People often reference your historical knowledge and detail. Where does that come from?
That’s the librarian in me. At the college where I worked I taught students how to do research. I find it wonderfully exciting, endlessly fascinating. Recently, writing about a famous event, I learned (when doing research) that there was an almost full moon that night two hundred years ago. No wonder it happened at that time! Serendipity is candy for writers.
Writing the just published Gold Rush Girl there is a vast library about San Francisco at that time. People lived in tents. But I learned they also lived in Bamboo house imported from China, and iron house shipped in from New York City. Best of all there was this vast fleet of abandoned ships—abandoned because the crews went off to search for gold—with this wonderful name “Rotten Row.” How could I resist such stuff? Rotten Row became the core of the book. But of course, the story comes first. Still all that detail enabled me to invent a wonderful rich—as in detail—tale about people who came alive.
But–shortly after it was published I came upon a collection of Daguerreotypes (an early form of photography) of gold rush San Francisco people. And there she was: my heroine, Tory Blaisdell, looking and dressing exactly as I described her in the book, even to a Bowie knife in her belt! It was a wonderful confirmation of my research, my exploring Tory’s character, and the story I had written. Except as I looked at the picture, I had this eerie thought: maybe I was not writing fiction. Maybe it was channeled–a true story! Tory’s tale!
What is your writing process?
In two words: endless rewriting. Endless. That includes reading it aloud to my wife, and to kids in a favorite local school. There is no such thing as a perfect book—not by me anyway—but I do try. A story has to flow from start to finish with no speed bumps. In one sense a novel is a logical revelation, logical in the sense that is must all be linked, cause and effect. Or, as I like to say, I can’t write a good opening line of a book until I’ve written a good last line.
What is the role of an editor for you?
A good editor helps you discover (and deliver) the book you are writing. Working with an editor who is smart, who challenges me, who has wit, who has a sense of fun, of whom you grow fond —is one of the great joys of my writing life.
What advice would you give would-be writers?
Read. Read. Read. And read some more. And more. And more. In time—hopefully—your thinking will be like writing. Thus my mantra: “Writers don’t write writing. They write reading.”
Welcome to MG Book Village, Alex! I’m so happy that you could be part of our Fast Forward Friday feature. Your debut book, EMBLEM ISLAND: CURSE OF THE NIGHT WITCH, comes out on June 9th. Could you please let our readers know what it’s about?
Thanks for having me! Curse of the Night Witchis the first book in a series set on Emblem Island, a world where everyone is born with markings on their skin that determine their fate and talents. Tor Luna is born with a leadership emblem, like his mother–but he doesn’t want to lead anyone. So, on the annual Eve celebration, where Emblemites can make a wish in hopes of it being granted in the new year, Tor wishes to be gifted a different emblem. Instead, he wakes up cursed. To reverse the deadly curse, he must cross Emblem Island for the first time in search of the wicked Night Witch, with only ancient legends as his guide–and creatures from those same myths in his path.
I was lucky to read an eARC of your book, and it’s a great fast-paced, high stakes adventure based on the stories that your abuela used to tell you. Can you tell us a bit more about the inspiration for the story?
My abuela always used to tell my twin sister and me cuentos (or stories) before bed. These were always legends that had been passed down generations–and were definitely too dark and scary for kids! One of my favorites featured a girl that was gifted a special marking for following the rules, and a sister who was given horns for breaking them. The idea of earning emblems based on behavior, and how that affected their lives really stuck with me, and helped inspire the world of Emblem Island. Many of the monsters in the book are also inspired by Latinx myths, including La Patasola, La Ciguapa, and La Llorona. Since legends played such an important role in developing my creativity during childhood, I wanted to make them a focus of Curse of the Night Witch. So there are actually Emblem Island myths in between each chapter (the same ones the characters use to find the Night Witch) so it’s almost like a book within a book!
This is the first book in the Emblem Island series. Are you working on the next one, and are there any details you can share with us?
Yes! I’m almost finished with it, actually. Though the first book is set completely on Emblem Island, the second is set in the waters surrounding it.
Which character was the easiest for you to write? What about the hardest?
The easiest character to write was definitely Melda, because I can relate to her the most (always trying to control the situation, working really hard to get good grades, being a little too obedient). The hardest was actually Tor! His entire arc revolves around not really knowing who he is, or why he wants what he does, and I’ve never really felt that way. I knew I wanted to be an author when I was Tor’s age (twelve), so having my book come out soon is definitely a long time coming, and very exciting 🙂
The characters in your book are born with marks that determine their futures. If you could choose a mark for your younger self, based on what you know about yourself now, what would it be?
I grew up in Florida, went to college in Philly, and ended up in NYC. I didn’t really anticipate living so far from home as an adult, so I definitely would want a teleportation emblem (which plays a role in the book!). That way, I could see my family as often as I wanted. I never really realized how badly I would miss them until I was hundreds of miles away.
Where can people go to find out more information about you and your writing?
My new website, asterverse.com! There, you can preorder Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch, read about the main characters, and even take a quiz to see which emblem you would be born with on Emblem Island!
What advice do you have for aspiring authors who read this interview?
My first book to be published was the sixth I had ever written. It took millions of words and countless rejections to get here, and I’m truly grateful for the journey. Rejection and “giving up” on manuscripts is difficult, but truly, you want your first published work to be the best you can possibly produce, and that only comes with practice and time. Keep writing, be patient, and good luck!
Thank you again for joining us today, Alex, and best of luck with your book’s release!
Thank you so much!!
Alex Aster recently graduated from The University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English with a Concentration in Creative Writing and Consumer Psychology. She currently lives in NYC, a few blocks away from her twin sister, and is the author of the upcoming MG fantasy Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch.
NOTE: This is a difficult time to introduce a new book series to the world. Kathie MacIsaac, an administrator of MG Book Village, recognized this and reached out on Twitter to authors with soon-to-be-released books with a gracious invitation to contact her. Gratefully, I did. Ms. MacIsaac offered me this chance to share my news and insights here on the MG Book Village blog. I couldn’t be more appreciative. So here goes…
Adventures in Writing a Chapter Book Series: The Making of A DOG’S DAY
A phone conversation with my editor ultimately led to the project I am proudly announcing today…
Introducing the new A DOG’S DAY chapter book series, debuting with two titles, illustrated by the amazing Francesca Rosa. Each book highlights a dog that performs an incredible job or service (and loves the work, to boot):
Jax, a dog that fends off wild predators to protect his flock!
Ava, a dog that rescues people from avalanches!
As I observe the April 1st release, I’m sharing here a bit about choices made, things learned, and joyful discoveries that came to light while bringing these stories to the page.
Why Dogs? Why Me? Why Dogs and Me?
Going to the Dogs It’s pretty obvious that lots of kids adore chapter books about dogs. Detective dogs, time travelling dogs, famous dogs – there are series for young readers featuring all kinds of set ups with canines. The dog-themed chapter books I’ve spotted in the library are often dog-eared (yes, I said it) and appear well circulated and well loved.
I’m drawn to these lovable, loyal creatures, too. So as I began to embark (yep, did it again) on writing a dog series, I set out to present a new take on this favorite subject within the boundaries of a fresh framework. As discussed with my editor, each A DOG’S DAY book will:
Star a fictional dog with a job that canines perform in real life
Be presented from the dog’s point of view
In keeping with the series’ name, will cover only one day in that dog’s life. As in, just 24 hours or less.
That last bit – that perhaps has proven the most challenging.
Pups and Past Works Most of my previous published works have been picture books. Still, some aspects of this new series fall into somewhat familiar territory. I had earlier published a middle grade chapter book, THE TERRIBLE SECRETS OF THE TELL-ALL CLUB, that was named a Scholastic Instructor magazine “Teacher’s Pick.” Working on that book taught me much about this format.
And then there was Barnaby. He was the sweet, whiskered hero of my earlier picture book, BARNABY THE BEDBUG DETECTIVE, about a dog with the power to sniff out a sneaky pest. While writing the Barnaby book, I witnessed a special performance, courtesy of a local exterminator – I had the chance to see an adorable and determined little dog enthusiastically do this detecting job.
Through that experience, I gained new insights and bits of information that became a part of the story. So as I began this new series, I made it my mission to meet every kind of working dog I write about.
Bringing Pups to the Page
Ruff (But Not Rough) Research What I found to be true with the Barnaby picture book proved true as I researched my other dog books – people who work with dogs (like the exterminator) are the kindest, friendliest, BEST people in the world. I guess that’s not a big surprise. And they love to talk about and show off their amazing dogs!
My research led me on excursions around the country to meet with working dogs and their people. A livestock guardian dog expert I contacted invited me to visit the great Pyrenees on patrol at his parents’ Texas ranch. I witnessed an avalanche rescue dog demonstrate her scenting skills at a snowy Utah ski resort. For upcoming books, I have met an actor dog in Atlanta, and taken part in a search and rescue canine training session in the California desert.
My advice to anyone conducting research for any kind of project is this – don’t hesitate to contact the experts about your subject matter. Visit settings if you can, too.
While experiencing a location, one may notice rich details that can add something special to a story. In Utah, I saw a sign stuck in the snow inviting guests to that day’s avalanche dog demonstration. This sign, along with other details I observed, became part of the book.
Writing With Rules Before setting out to write this series, I considered length, number of chapters and something else – the rules of my fictional dogs’ world. For example, in some books, dogs can speak to each other or other animals or even humans. They can sing Happy Birthday or grumble to the cat. Since this new series realistically portrays many aspects of a working dog’s day, I am sticking with the rule that my canine characters can’t talk to humans, except through the usual doggy methods – tail wags, snuggles, etc. And they cannot speak directly with other animals, but can respond to and interpret the meaning of another animal’s actions.
Presenting a story within the confines of a 24 hour or less time period is another rule. Featuring flashbacks in which dogs recall their puppyhoods, however, offers a way to include scenes of past training and other experiences that shaped my canine heroes.
Relating to the Reader In a realistic story about dogs with big jobs, there will usually be an adult handler involved. Still, I try to be sure the dog has at least one encounter with a child character that is similar in age to the young reader. This, I hope, brings the protagonist a little closer to the reader and provides an opening for children to imagine themselves interacting with the dog in the story.
Something to Ponder Finally, while aiming to tell an exciting story, I look for ways to illuminate ideas young readers may not have considered before. For example, what does it mean to coyotes and other wildlife when livestock guardian dogs, rather than other possible safeguarding methods, are used to prevent predation of sheep? (Hint: it may ultimately save the predators’ lives.)
I’m excited about these new titles, and wish to all the experience of creating something that brings true happiness. I am indebted to my editor and designer at Albert Whitman, as well as illustrator Rosa Francesca. And I want to express my appreciation to all the dogs and the dog people I’ve met who’ve enriched my journey with memories that will last fur-ever (sorry, had to leave you with just one more).
Catherine Stier is the author of the new A DOG’s DAY chapter book series, which received a starred review from Kirkus and debuts April 1, 2020. She is also the author of several honor-winning children’s books, including IF I WERE PRESIDENT. Stier holds an MA in Reading and Literacy and has served as a magazine writer, newspaper columnist, writing instructor and a children’s literature researcher. Born in Michigan, she now resides in San Antonio, Texas
Twelve-year-old Stephen can’t be pigeonholed into any one lane. He is more than the Black kid who hangs out with his white friends watching Into the Spiderverse or Stranger Things, the same kid who sometimes also hangs with his Black friends but never the two groups at the same time. He’s more than the biracial kid whose mom sees him as mixed while the rest of the world only sees him as Black. He’s more than someone’s son, adored by his parents while also being considered a threat or troublemaker in the eyes of those who accept the images and narratives that prevail in the media. Stephen can be wavy in any lane he chooses and when he finds his voice and the courage to stand up, the sky’s the limit.
Stephen is in middle school now and he is dealing with things that he has never experienced before. He’s starting to notice how he is being treated differently from his white friends. He asks his dad a very important question, “Dad, why is racist stuff happening to me all of a sudden? I mean, in elementary it wasn’t like this…” and his dad’s response is one I imagine can be heard in the homes of many families who are trying to have The Talk with their sons and daughters. He says, “…You are not a little boy anymore. People outside are starting to see you differently and a lot of white people see boys with your height and they don’t see your age. They see what they imagine or what the media teaches them to think about Black men – maybe that we’re threats or troublemakers.”
His dad shares advice with him that certainly echoes conversations we’ve had with our own son. He tells him that “We can’t do everything our white friends can. You have to think twice before you act once.” And much like Stephen, I think my son used to think that we were overreacting when we would say things like that to him. It breaks my heart that there are people who would look at my son whom I love, the twenty-year-old who still loves his momma, who is oftentimes still his goofy self while being every bit brilliant, as any sort of threat or someone to fear. I remember breaking down in tears over this very conversation in grad school in front of a room filled with white classmates. We watched so many videos that were meant to “school us on the struggle” and when I rose to speak, by the time I was finished, I wasn’t the only one with tear-filled eyes.
Torrey Maldonado knocked it out the park with What Lane?! It is down-to-earth real and addresses racism candidly in under 200 pages. I can only imagine what this book is going to mean for every reader. For the young Black boys who will read it and see their experience between the pages. For the conversations it will spark in the classrooms that will read this book aloud with their students. For those who are or will soon become allies, as well as those whose eyes will be opened and how the removal of blinders will change lives. The publisher recommends this book for 5th grade and up but you know your learning community and may want to consider reading it to your 4th grade students as well. I look forward to adding a copy of this book to our collection when it releases this spring (May 2020). I will also be nominating this as a 2020-2021 Project LIT Book Club selection.
Christina Carter is an Elementary School Librarian (K-5), Wife to a Most Magnificent Husband, and Mother to 3 Beautiful teen and young adult Blessings, and yes, she loves to read!
The 2019-2020 school year represents her 7th year serving as a school librarian (Library Media Specialist); spreading the love of reading, encouraging exploration and discovery through research, and engaging students in lessons that spark their creativity. When she think back to her childhood, these elements were what made the library a very special place for her. She believes it is a launchpad by which we get to discover and pursue our dreams. Every day that she opens a book, she opens up a world of possibility.
Christina is active on social media (mostly Twitter & her blog) and is a member of #BookExcursion, a group of educational leaders who read, review, and promote books through social media and in their communities with an express purpose of sharing their love of reading with the families they serve. You can find her on Twitter at @CeCeLibrarian.
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Being a librarian gifts me the ability to build relationships with my elementary readers that span multiple years. I have come to expect with trepidation the abrupt transformation many 4th graders go through over the summer. They come back to school as 5th graders, with a new outlook on decision making, one that I cannot comprehend. I’ve tried talking, walking them through their previous choices for as long as we’ve known each other, but it has been difficult for them to put into words what exactly is behind the choices they are currently making, leaving me without ideas on how to best stand by them.
Looking for answers, for understanding, I turn to books, I read stories about kids their age, I read diversely and widely and yet, had not gained much insight until I fell into Torrey Maldonado’s stories. Maldonado’s latest book What Lane? has taken me the closest I have ever been to understanding my kids. It’s hard to explain exactly what I glean, maybe I’m not meant to understand completely, maybe I’m not capable, but I feel a fleeting tickle in my brain, like I’m getting it, I’m understanding my boys and girls. Maybe, what Maldonado offers adult readers, who are invested in supporting their students through the middle grade age, is empathy, hope, a flutter of wings in our hearts that the kids we’ve known for so long, that we look at now and wonder where exactly the kid we knew has gone to, is that they are still there, figuring themselves out and needing us to believe that they will figure out what they need to keep of who they are, what they need to change and grow into, to make their lives as amazing as can be.
What Lane? introduces to readers’ lives, Stephen, an 11- year-old biracial boy, his mom is white and his dad is African American. Stephen has bought into the philosophy of Marshall Carter, his favorite basketball player, that believes that the world is his lane, there is no lane he cannot ride. Stephen believes this about himself, there are no lane limitations for him, he can ride in any and all lanes. Middle grade readers will absolutely eat this up, after all they have adults in their lives that tell them things like “You can do whatever you put your mind to!”, “The sky is the limit!” “You can do anything! You can be anything!” but through Stephen’s journey they’ll explore how this is not life’s reality, especially if you are a black or brown child, a trans child, a differently abled child.
Maldonado uses pop culture references (for example: Miles Morales Into the Spiderverse, Stranger Things, Harry Potter ) and preteen and neighborhood slang, to draw middle grade readers into Stephen’s world. It’s one parallel to their own which sets up readers to see themselves in the situations Stephen and his friends and classmates are experiencing. Stephen’s best friend, Dan, is white. They have a strong bond and an honest friendship, they care for each other, keep each other in check, and have a wider, diverse group of friends they interact with. Stephen is at an age where he no longer looks like a little boy, and with this change, comes the realization that adults in his community no longer see him as the kid they’ve always known. Through different incidents, and the forced presence of Dan’s cousin, Chad, who has recently moved to their neighborhood and is determined to drive a wedge between Stephen and Dan, Stephen begins to realize that the world is not his lane, the world does not allow a black, brown, or biracial boy to ride every available lane.
What Stephen invites readers to explore is the possibility of not bottling up the visceral feelings he is experiencing as he notices that the world around him has decided he is a threat, he is up to no good, he is a troublemaker; as he feels the sting and fear prejudice and racial profiling is causing. Stephen puts into words all that he is feeling and thinking as best he can, in conversations with his dad. His father offers clarity and also the harsh truth that people are now viewing him differently, not because he has changed, but because he looks more like a young man and less like a child. Being brave in sharing what is happening is a path that helps Stephen deal with all of these feelings, find answers and also advise on how to cope with this new reality.
Stephen’s absolute trust in his friend Dan leads him to point out how they are treated differently. At first Dan doesn’t want to accept that because he is white his actions are always viewed as innocent, whereas Stephen’s exact actions are viewed as transgressions. Maldonado offers middle grade readers a model of what a healthy friendship should feel like. Stephen and Dan are honest with each other, listen to each other, and because of this Dan finally admits that maybe he should notice things more. Future incidents are met with Dan acting as an ally to Stephen and pointing out the injustice that adults are committing. This is a powerful model!
As the story progresses, Stephen encounters more racial profiling, peer pressure from Chad, and the realization that his motto “What Lane?” might not be one he can live by because of the color of his skin and the world we live in. This is a painful realization but with it also comes the clarity, that there are lanes Stephen doesn’t ever want to ride, and trying to ride them only brings regret, such as trying to meet every dare Chad throws his way. Maldonado doesn’t tie this realization up with a pretty bow, and frankly he might just undo some of the damage us well-meaning adults, have done by parroting ideas that equate to the What Lane? philosophy to our children, because it’s just not possible for anyone, even more so for children of color and marginalized communities.
One lane Stephen questions is if as a brown boy he should be so tight with a white boy. This made my reader, educator, and mom heart worry, I’ve seen this issue come up in real life; if you’re Latinx, you should surround yourself with Latinx friends, if you are African American you should hang out with African American friends. Painting our world with just one color is a dangerous proposition for any group, and Stephen faces this when Wes, a classmate who is also his friend and African American, points out they don’t spend much time together anymore and resents it. Wes wakes up Stephen to the Black Lives Matter movement, makes Stephen aware of lives lost to police brutality, such as young Trayvon Martin and others, and questions whether he should be spending so much time with Dan. Stephen toys with choosing, should he choose to spend his time with Wes, who understands the prejudice and fears he is experiencing, or should he continue spending his time with Dan, who cannot completely empathize with him because he doesn’t suffer the racism Stephen is subjected to constantly. I won’t share how this evolves, but I will say, knowing Maldonado’s writing, my heart had nothing to worry about in the first place.
What Lane? is a story that all middle grade readers should have access to. As with all books that explore the social justice issues & inequality that our children face today, adults should provide scaffolding support and an open invitation to conversation without judgement about what readers need more information on.
Torrey Maldonado’s What Lane? is a necessary story for everyone, not for certain “insert label here” readers. Living through Stephen and Dan’s relationship, what true friendship looks and acts like, is necessary. Understanding the prejudice and profiling a child of color is subjected to and how reaching out to caring adults is an avenue worth exploring, is necessary. Understanding white privilege and what being an ally looks like, is necessary. Understanding that the claim that you are “color blind” is an excuse to not take action against racism, is necessary. Understanding our world’s social justice issues, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the events that led to its need, is the first step to recognizing the injustice we are living in and how it is everyone’s responsibility to change, is necessary. What Lane? is definitely a lane all our children should ride if we want them to grow up to be changemakers and socially responsible humans, and who doesn’t want that for their children and students?
Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX. After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.
I’m so happy to have the chance to chat with you, Joy! I really enjoyed your upcoming middle grade book, A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST, which will be released by Atheneum Books on April 14th. Can you tell us a little bit about it, please?
Sure! Field Guide is a contemporary story set in Seattle, where I live, about two kids whose parents are dating each other. Sutton is into coding and science, and Luis is into stories imagination. They are both MUCH happier indoors than outdoors. But then their parents take them on a hike…
How did writing a middle grade book differ from other writing you’ve done in the past?
My debut novel was YA, but before that, I had written nine previous manuscript that did not sell, eight of which were middle grade. So it’s actually the place I feel most comfortable. The YA I write is on the darker side, so I really enjoy having middle grade stories with much more light and humor as a sort of counterbalance. The writing process is not really different from YA to MG for me, but more the emotional experience of the tone shift.
Do you tend to plot out a story ahead of time, or let it develop on its own?
I fall somewhere in between. I love the E.L. Doctorow quote about writing being like driving at night. You need to have a destination in mind, but you only need to be able to see as far as the headlights in front of you. Something like that. I never write out a full outline, but neither do I wing it completely. I tend to sort of outline (sometimes just bullet points) the first chunk of a story – maybe 50 pages. I’ll draft those, and then with what I’ve learned about the characters and the story I’ll know how to plan out the next chunk of the story. More important than planning the plot is doing pre-writing and pre-thinking about the characters—their flaws and wants and obstacles and stakes. I always do a bunch of work on that before beginning to write.
What did you find most challenging about writing this story, and what came easiest for you?
Honestly, the process on this story was incredibly smooth and such a delight. That is not to say it’s always like that! But Sutton and Luis were pretty immediately characters I knew really well; there’s a lot of myself and my kids in them. I’ve set it firmly in the town where I live.
There were no experimental things happening in the structure (a thing I tend to get myself into in YA). This is such a tiny thing, but I remember my editor gently pointing out my wild overuse of exclamation points in the early drafts. I think I was just so happy to be writing something happy!
As a mom of a child with a food allergy, it was really refreshing to see it addressed in a middle grade fiction story. Where did you find the inspiration for your characters?
I have a serious gluten allergy, and am also allergic to bees. My own kids don’t have food allergies, but I have seen through birthday parties and Halloween and playdates the struggles of some of their friends who do, and how isolating it can be to be a kid who can’t eat what most of the kids are eating.
If you could say one thing to a young reader picking up your book, what would it be?
I hope you love it! But if you don’t, let’s find you something else to read. There’s a book for every reader!
Do you have another writing project on the go at the moment?
Oh goodness, yes. In spring of 2021, I have two new books coming, including my second MG from Atheneum, which is called Across the Pond. It’s about an American girl whose family inherits a Scottish castle. The other is my second YA from Dutton, and we’re still circling the title, but it’s partially verse historical and partially prose contemporary. (There’s that challenging structure thing I mentioned before!)
Can you please tell us where we can go to find out more about you and your writing?
My website is joymccullough.com and I am going to get right on top of updating it so it doesn’t only list my debut novel! I am also on Twitter and Instagram as @jmcwrites.
Thanks for chatting with me today, Joy, and best of luck with your book’s launch!
Thank you so much for having me! For anyone in the Seattle area, the launch party will be at Secret Garden Books on April 18th at 3:00!
Joy McCullough is not outdoorsy and she has a terrible sense of direction. She did climb a Guatemalan volcano one time, and she has hiked through Discovery Park. But she much prefers to stay inside, writing books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her debut novel Blood Water Paint was longlisted for the National Book Award and was a William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist. Visit her at JoyMcCullough.com.
Hi Doug! Thank you for stopping by MG Book Village to talk about your upcoming debut novel, FINALLY, SOMETHING MYSTERIOUS, which comes out on April 14th. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?
Sure! Three 11 year old friends, Paul, Shanks, and Peephole, are desperate to solve real mysteries. They even have an official name for their detective team: The One and Onlys (because they’re all only children). But there aren’t really any good mysteries in their small town of Bellwood, until one day a crowd of rubber duckies appears out of nowhere on a neighbor’s lawn. The three friends launch their investigation, but as they track down clues about who is responsible for the duckies, the longer their suspect list becomes. Meanwhile, the biggest event of the year, the Bellwood Bratwurst Bonanza, is right around the corner, and the arrival of a new megastore promises to shake things up for Paul’s parents’ little hardware store. To make things more unsettling, a forest fire on the edge of the town is growing, threatening to change their little town forever.
I love a good mystery, and who can resist one that involves rubber duckies! Can you tell us how you came up with the idea for it?
Back in the 90s, an ocean liner spilled 28,000 rubber bath toys into the Pacific. The bath toys, many of them rubber duckies, started washing up on shores around the world, and people were perplexed. I read an article about this and was completely captivated with the image of a whole bunch of rubber duckies randomly appearing on somebody’s yard. I started with that image, and then built a town, characters, and ultimately a mystery around it.
Which character in your book is most like you, and why?
I am definitely most like Paul, the main character. He’s usually even-keeled and quiet, but he goes nuts for mysteries. I also grew up in a small town much like Bellwood, and I remember making up mysterious backstories for neighbors and acquaintances. I always suspected as a kid (and still do) that there is a lot of wonderful weirdness hidden just below the surface of the seemingly mundane world. Paul reacts to the duckies in the same way that I would have as a kid: with a sense of adventure and intrigue.
Can you tell us 3 things you’d like readers to know about this book?
First, it’s a lot of fun! I wanted to make sure that the town of Bellwood was filled with wonderfully strange people, so I think there’s a lot of humor in the book. Who says mysteries can’t be funny? Second, I’d like readers to know that it’s a mystery that they can actually solve if they’re paying close enough attention. My favorite mysteries are the ones that I can sleuth out along with the characters. And finally, I want the readers to know that, in addition to rubber duckies, there is bratwurst in this book. Lots and lots of bratwurst.
What’s one thing about your debut journey that has surprised you?
Writing a novel can feel like a solitary effort at times, because you’ll spend an awful lot of time living in your head and typing things onto a screen (or writing them into a notebook). I was surprised at how much this book became a collaborative effort. My agent, my editor, my publishing team, the cover artist…So many people were involved and lent their creative spirit and efforts to this book. It became so much more than just my manuscript!
So many writers have to balance writing with other parts of their lives. How do you fit writing into your daily life?
I wish I were able to say something like “I have a strict 5am writing routine that I adhere to everyday without deviation,” but that wouldn’t be honest. The truth is, with two kids under three and a full time high school teaching job, finding time to write is sometimes a difficult task. I nudge and scrap for moments here and there, and I’m always jotting down ideas for dialogue or for plot twists. I’ve learned that everybody writes differently, and that goes for routines too.
Where can our readers go to find out more information about you and your writing?
Thanks for spending time with us today, Doug, and I look forward to seeing your book in the hands of young readers very soon!
Thank you so much for having me!!
When he was a kid, Doug Cornett aspired to be an all-star point guard in the NBA. When he realized that probably wasn’t going to happen, he turned his attention to writing and never looked back. Now, in addition to writing middle grade mystery novels, he likes playing ping-pong, noodling on the guitar, and rooting for the Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers. He also teaches high school English and History at Northwest Academy. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two children. Finally, Something Mysterious is his debut novel.
First, let me say that parents and teachers are, of course, the most important and influential people in a child’s life, but I believe authors deserve a place in the triumvirate that serves to significantly impact our children on their path to adulthood. I felt this way long before I became an author myself, so this isn’t meant as a fluff piece. It is meant to recognize and sow respect for the significant and impactful role that books, and by extension the authors that write them, play in our child’s lives.
I have two boys who are currently ages twelve and nine. They are both happy readers who enjoy a plethora of styles and subjects from The Giver to Wings of Fire to Weird But True facts and a thousand others. Mostly, as I did when I was their age, they enjoy stories of the fantastical—books that spark their imagination and carry them beyond the boundaries of their own world, their own perceptions and suppositions into the possibilities of their mind’s eye. I mean, isn’t that one fun reason that we all read? Even when reading nonfiction, we’re looking for that kick to the imagination, right?
But an MG author’s job is not merely to tickle those neurons in an exciting way. Sure, some escapism can be a nice respite from the world—we all love that about books. But for MG’s, reading quite literally packs their brains more than any other period of cognitive development. It is a unique and important opportunity.
Explosive growth in neuronal connections occurs during the middle grade years. The gray matter of the brain thickens, branches reaching out and tying things together at a pace like never before, with almost no bounds at what sticks. This “process of thickening of the gray matter peaks at about age 11 in girls and age 12 in boys, roughly about the same time as puberty.” And after that, during the teen years, the gray matter thins and branches are pruned as the teen focuses in on what they enjoy, or more relevantly what they spend their time doing.
And this is exactly why middle grade books (and the authors who write them!) are so important. We supply the fodder upon which the mind grows, while having the advantage of working with a brain for which the possibilities of belief are endless. And, I might add, this is why writing for this age group is so FUN. We have no boundaries of how things “should” be. I’d argue our primary job is to instill a sense of wonder at how things “could” be. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
To boot, when a child explores a new book, they have an unmatched capacity for understanding, respect, and tolerance. It is during this period in the child’s life when they’re soaking up everything without pre-conceived judgement. This provides a critical developmental opportunity for encouraging empathy and kindness, as well as ambition and motivation.
It is during this time in our lives that we begin considering abstract concepts like love and justice and the duality of life — we can be two things at once. For example, in The Eye of Ra (my middle grade novel), the main character John can be skittish while at other times brave depending on the circumstance. And his sister Sarah shows a selfish disregard for others at some times, while she’s courageously selfless in key moments. The idea that people can contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said, is a concept best introduced to the middle grade audience.
Additionally, and this one can get loopy but it strikes at the heart of the middle grade experience, children in this stage of development can engage in metacognition — to think about thinking — as well as problem solving and deductive reasoning. They’re more aware of themselves, which is a part of decentration, the “gradual progression of a child away from egocentrism toward a reality shared with others.”
A reality shared with others—what an honorable and important realization to be a part of, as an author.
Speaking personally, I remember third grade almost like it is when my life started. I have a few memories prior to that, but third through fifth grade is much more filled in, more alive. I remember doing a Read Around the World challenge in third grade and I remember reading Tuck Everlasting and James and the Giant Peach and Journey to the Center of the Earth as key pieces of the mobile that is my life.
I still approach books with that same excitement of possibility. I mean, is there anything as thrilling as opening a new book? For middle graders, that thrill is the brain stretching to make connections and consider concepts it has never considered before. That thrill is growth. As educators and authors, our job is to feed that growth responsibly.
“Einstein on Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms” by Albert Einstein, Quote Page 97, Dover Publication, Mineola, New York. (This Dover edition is an unabridged republication of “Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms”, originally published in 1931 by Covici-Friede, Inc., New York)
Ben Gartner is the author of adventure books for middle graders and thrillers for adults. His writing for both audiences shares an ability to grab readers by their neurons for a thrilling ride, maybe even teaching them something in the meantime. Ben can be found living and writing near the mountains with his wife and two boys. He can be found at the following places: