Book Review: PARADISE ON FIRE, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Inspired by the real life Camp Fire in California in 2018, this middle grade survival story follows Addy, a young girl from the Bronx who’s headed to California to participate in a summer wilderness program. Haunted by her parents’ death when she was just four at the hands of a tragic apartment fire, Addy’s grandmother Bibi has enrolled her in this program to broaden her horizons and live up to her name (Aduago, which means daughter of an eagle).

Once she arrives, Addy surprisingly finds herself enjoying the outdoors and learns to camp, hike, rock climb, and most importantly, how to correctly start and put out campfires. Realizing Addy has a need to create maps to show escape routes, the camp’s owner, Leo, shows her how topographical maps work which helps her understand her new environment. As the summer days pass, Addy’s love and respect for the wilderness grows, and she learns to trust the other kids as they depend on each other for companionship and survival.

But when a wildfire approaches Wilderness Adventures, Addy is suddenly faced with the nightmare of her past. It’s up to her to her to lead her friends to safety, and she’ll need all the courage and knowledge she’s obtained to survive.

With flashback scenes to the fire that killed her parents and told in sections titled: 
Flying Blind
Discovery
Training
Trapped
Escape
Survive
Flying Home and
Epilogue, this middle grade story will spark discussions surrounding global warming and environmentalism among its readers.

Katie Reilley is a fourth and fifth grade ELA teacher from Elburn, Illinois, and a proud mom to two amazing daughters, ages 14 and 10 who has been married to a wonderful husband for 18 years. She’s a member of #bookexpedition, a group of teachers, librarians and authors who read and review ARCs and newly released middle grade books. She’s also happy to be part of the #classroombookaday community, and loves to learn alongside her students and fellow educators. She has been teaching for twenty-two years, and her passion is getting books into the hands of her students. You can find her on Twitter at @KReilley5.

Book Review: ACROSS THE DESERT, by Dusti Bowling

Twelve year old Jolene spends as much time as she can at the library watching a livestream of her favorite pilot, 12 year old “Addie Earhart.” Addie’s livestream, the Desert Aviator, shares her flights in an ultralight plane over the desert. Watching the livestreams keeps Jolene’s mind off what happening with her mom at home, who’s struggling with an addiction to narcotics.

During one of the livestreams, something goes terribly wrong, and Addie’s ultralight plummets to the desert floor as Jolene watches in horror. Knowing the Addie won’t survive long in the desert, Jolene decides to set out in hopes of saving Addie.

Told in both present time and past-tense messages, this is an incredible story of courage and friendship. I loved the way the author sprinkled in names and story snippets of real-life women adventurers, including Emma Gatewood, Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Valentina Tereshkova,  Lois Pryce, the Van Buren sisters, Bessie Stringfield, Sarah Marquis, Wanda Rutkiewicz and Ynez Mexia.

I can’t wait to share Jolene’s story with my middle grade classroom of readers.

Katie Reilley is a fourth and fifth grade ELA teacher from Elburn, Illinois, and a proud mom to two amazing daughters, ages 14 and 10 who has been married to a wonderful husband for 18 years. She’s a member of #bookexpedition, a group of teachers, librarians and authors who read and review ARCs and newly released middle grade books. She’s also happy to be part of the #classroombookaday community, and loves to learn alongside her students and fellow educators. She has been teaching for twenty-two years, and her passion is getting books into the hands of her students. You can find her on Twitter at @KReilley5.

Interview with Katherine Battersby about CRANKY CHICKEN

Hi Katherine! Thanks so much for stopping by the Village to chat about your latest book — the early graphic novel, Cranky Chicken!

Before we get to Chicken and Speedy, would you care to introduce yourself to our site’s readers?

Thanks for having me! I am the author and illustrator of a whole bunch of quirky picture books, like Trouble and Perfect Pigeons and the Squish Rabbit series. I’m also a fan girl of comic books, ice cream, mischief, tea, and travel. I grew up by the beach in Australia but now live by the mountains in Canada. I can be found most days either making books, reading books, or sharing books with my little girl (and occasionally even my dog).

Okay: let’s get to the book! I’ve read elsewhere that you are not (or at least were not) a fan of chickens. I believe you are (or at least were) SCARED of them. How did you end up creating a book all about one? (And are you still scared of them?)

Wow, you have done your research! Yes, I’m scared of chickens. Surely I’m not the only one who knows that ALL chickens are cranky chickens? They have beady little eyes and sharp beaks and you just can’t trust them (I have been chased by many chickens). But then I met this tiny girl during one of my author visits and she had the audacity to laugh at my fear. She said, “Chicken’s aren’t scary – they’re hilarious!” I couldn’t stop thinking about her. So I decided to spend more time drawing chickens to see if I could discover what she so loved about them. Cranky Chicken is what emerged. It turns out we’re both right: chickens are cranky AND hilarious.

As an illustrator, I strive for simplicity, and I was blown away by how economical and powerful your linework is. Both Chicken and Speedy are wonderfully expressive, yet so simply designed — I already know legions of kids are out there drawing Chicken and Speedy in their sketchbooks (and probably in the margins of their homework!). Can you share about the development of these characters?

Thank you! Whenever I design my characters, I always strive to make them as simple as I can. To use as few lines as possible. In part it’s because I like to leave lots of room in my art. Kids are incredibly clever and I want to leave space for them: space to think, space to imagine, space to put all the story pieces together themselves. Space to maybe even see themselves on the page. I also think emotion is the most important puzzle piece of any story and I love the challenge of trying to capture it with a single quizzical line or an arched brow. So much can be captured with so little.

It brings me great joy to think of kids drawing my characters, especially knowing their own personalities and quirks will shape the way they draw them. I used to obsessively draw Sandra Boynton characters as a kid. I can now see her influence in my work. There’s nothing quite so special as getting to become a small part of a child’s life through your stories.

When you’re creating a character such as Chicken, does the drawing come first, or the personality? Do they come together? Is it always the same, or is it different with every character/project?

As an author / illustrator, the process of writing and drawing for me are inextricably linked. It’s tricky to figure out which came first and I think that’s because they always happen together. I play with a character in my mind for many months (sometimes years) before I ever touch pen to paper. I watch them move, observe their quirks, see how they react and interact with the world — all in my mind. I watch them from every angle, refining their shapes and lines, so by the time I finally drew Chicken she pretty much came out the way she appears in the book: squat, unibrowed, and spectacularly cranky. But her softer curves do betray the fact that underneath that firm outer, she has a generous heart. So her form and her personality developed together, as I got to know her.

It’s a little bit different for each project, but typically I discover a character and follow them around my mind and then the page until I figure out who they are and what their story is. Some characters reveal themselves quite quickly. One rather elusive character I’ve been trying to figure out for over ten years. I’m glad Chicken didn’t make me wait that long!

I am a HUGE fan of cranky characters. Give me all the curmudgeons, crabs, and grumps — I think they are wonderfully fun to read about. Do you enjoy telling stories about Chicken? Why do you think it’s enjoyable to create and/or read about such ill-tempered individuals?

I love a good grump, too. Maybe we love cranky characters because they have permission to say and do things we don’t get to out in the world. Most of us have to be more polite, more thoughtful, more considered — and for good reason! But curmudgeons in literature can show the world exactly who they are and even be celebrated for it. Part of why Chicken so appealed to me as a character is that in stories we so rarely celebrate female grumps. I immediately fell for her — she was spectacularly grumpy and somehow more lovable for it, so I wanted to put her front and centre in a book that joys in all her cantankerous ways.

What made you choose to write about a pair of unlikely friends? And why did you choose to tell their stories in comics?

I tend to feel more like my characters find me, rather than that I create them. But I can see why I am particularly drawn to mismatched friendships. In many ways people are much more interesting when they bump up against others, especially those who are quite different to themselves. Chicken was intriguing on her own, but she only became real to me once she met Speedy worm. Suddenly I had a much more vivid sense of who she is and what she likes (and doesn’t!). The beautiful thing about friendships is they often challenge us to be more than we ever could have been on our own. In this way, Chicken and Speedy remind me a lot of me and my childhood best friend (we are still besties to this day!). We are so very different but our friendship is much richer for it.

As for why comics, would you believe I’ve always wanted to make a comic book? I grew up reading comic books and graphic novels and I never grew out of them. But I do remember realising at some point in my youth that all the comics I had access to were made by men. It was (and is) a somewhat more male dominated industry and I think in ways, at least subconsciously, I felt that world wasn’t for me. I’d published ten picture books before my agent asked me if I’d ever considered making a graphic novel and the question opened up a door insider me I didn’t even know was there. It was immediately clear I desperately wanted to make one! Then I just had to wait for the right idea to come along. As soon as I met Chicken, I knew she was it. She had the perfect comic energy to pull off a longer book and provided so many opportunities for physical humour and quirk and even a dose of heart. I had so much fun making this book. I hope I get to make many more.

All right, here’s the question everyone is wondering: are you more Chicken, or more Speedy?

I remember vividly back when I first discovered that, ultimately, … all my characters are me. Or parts of me. I was horrified. I recall thinking: do all readers of my books know this? I felt like everyone could SEE me. The secret inside parts of me. Now this fact just makes me laugh! So I am here to comfortably admit: I am Cranky Chicken. We are both introverts who need time to process the world. When confronted with new things, we frown (thinking takes a lot of energy). Anxious chicken brains are good at anticipating what can go wrong, so we see the flaws in every plan. Luckily, just like Chicken, I have plenty of upbeat Worms around me who make me laugh and help me see the more playful parts of life. To be honest, I have plenty in common with Worm, too. I smile. A lot. And I am very, very silly.

Please, please, PLEASE tell me there are more Cranky Chicken books on the way…

Yes! Your enthusiasm is delightful. I have already finished the second book, which comes out June 2022. AND I am writing the third book as we speak, which will be out in 2023. These characters are always getting up to mischief in my mind, often when I’m trying to do other things. I have reams of notes about their misadventures, so I would be happy to make many, many books about them.

Katherine is a fan girl of ice cream, tea, travel and all things papery. She is also the critically acclaimed author and illustrator of ten picture books, including Little Wing and the popular Squish Rabbit series, which have been published around the world. Her books have had glowing reviews in The New York Times, received starred Kirkus reviews and have been shortlisted for numerous awards. She is regularly booked to speak in schools, libraries and at festivals and she is a passionate advocate for literacy and the arts.

In another life, Katherine worked as a paediatric occupational therapist, specialising as a children’s counselor. She has also studied graphic design and loves typography, fabric and vintage teacups.

Katherine grew up by the beach in Australia and now lives in Canada with her poet husband, their book obsessed baby and a rather ridiculous dog.

Interview with Donna Barba Higuera about THE LAST CUENTISTA

Kathie: Hi Donna, thank you so much for joining me at MG Book Village today to talk about your new book, The Last Cuentista, which was released yesterday by Levine Querido. Can you tell us a little bit about it, please?

Donna: This book is about a girl named Petra Peña who is leaving for a new planet with her scientist parents as a comet approaches threatening to destroy Earth. Petra wants nothing more than to be a storyteller like her grandmother. Just her luck, the one upside to the journey that will take hundreds of years, will be a download of information. Petra hopes she can possess all of Earth’s folklore, mythology, and stories in her mind by the time they arrive to the new planet. But along the way a sinister collective of those monitoring the passengers begins to “purge” adults and erase the memories of the remaining children in hopes of starting over with none of Earth’s past mistakes or history to hinder their new plan.

But during this 370-year journey, when all the other children are reprogrammed, Petra’s defective download makes her alone the hidden bringer of Earth’s now forbidden stories and her grandmother’s Mexican folklore to a changing humanity.

Kathie: This book is based on the Mexican folklore that your grandmother shared with you. Why do you think oral storytelling is so important and leaves such a strong impression on children?’

Donna: In the oral tradition of storytelling, these tales are normally told to us by someone we trust. A teacher, a parent, a grandparent…so there is an added layer of trust compared to what we may read in a book. The storyteller can impart parts of their own personality or life experience, so it has the element of something more personal.

I think of my own experience as a child and how important sensory detail is. I could see my grandmother’s facial expressions. She could add a layer of tension with a quick jump. She could add sadness or humor to her tales with one look. That was something I couldn’t always get with the written word. She might give me a cup of hot chocolate with cinnamon beforehand. I could taste and smell the story. To this day, I add cinnamon to coffee and hot chocolate and feel like I’m back by a fire and my grandmother’s knees crack as she settles in to tell me a story. I sense those feelings of humor, fear, tension and love I had in those moments.

Kathie: I really loved Petra’s loyalty, and the way she cared about those around her. What quality do you most admire in her and why?

Donna: Well, there are two, but because they intertwine in a way, can I count them as one? The first quality is her tenacity. There was a point in the book where I tried to imagine what I would have done if I’d been in Petra’s situation at that age. I would have crawled up into a ball and quit. But Petra feels so strongly about the stories she carries with her and her purpose that she doesn’t give up. But even when helping others poses roadblocks to her end goal, she still carries a layer of nurturing she’s learned from her parents and grandmother that she transfers to the other children.

Kathie: This book could fuel many fantastic discussions! I had so many questions running through my mind, like if we could start over as humans, how could we make things different, and how we can value art AND science as we move into the future? What do you hope a young reader will take away from your book?

Donna: I suppose I hope young readers take away concepts to ponder. I don’t know the answers to all the questions this book raises. But it isn’t meant to give the answers. I hope young readers will take away issues to contemplate and will have discussions with others. Maybe they will consider those topics together and make the world better place, one in which we work to be more appreciative of the arts and sciences.

Kathie: I’d love to know what items you would take with you if you were relocating to Sagan?

Donna: Well, I just moved. And this is no joke. Three quarters of the boxes were books. If relocating to Sagan, this would certainly not be an option. My obsession with books is partially what gave me the idea for that part of Petra’s story. I asked myself what I valued most. What would I take with me if I were leaving for another planet and could take very little? The concept of being able to download all the books and stories of Earth into my mind felt like the most priceless item I could imagine.

But one physical item? I’d take my dad’s old tobacco-infused pipe. Anyone who’s had a father who smoked a pipe will understand.

Kathie: Can you share an interesting tidbit about how this story changed over the course of editing?

Donna: This book started as a short story from a writing prompt. “Take a traditional fairy tale and make it sci-fi. I think I had a one-thousand-word limit. I used Princess and the Pea, and created a character who’d been placed in cryo for hundreds of years, but never slept. When she was removed, the world, people and culture had all disappeared, and she was not valued for the things she once was. The concept was both fascinating and horrifying. I wanted to develop it into a novel.

The first draft of The Last Cuentista was mainly plot-based. In rewrites and revisions, the character came to life. She shared my love of story, folklore and mythology. I decided if Petra was a girl like me, then she would surely bring the tales she loved most. Those told to her that she loved on Earth. At first, I didn’t go into detail with the stories. They were just ghostly versions of the original. My editor at Levine Querido, Nick Thomas, asked me to expand on these stories, and let Petra tell them the way she would in that moment. He was so right. Once we made those changes, the stories sprung to life with Petra as the storyteller.

Kathie: Is there any chance of a sequel to this book? I would love to know what happens next for Petra and her friends.

Donna: I hope so. I think of Petra and the other children all the time.

I had to know what happens to her in her life, so I recently wrote (just for myself) the end of her story. It was the most fulfilling ending to a story I’ve ever written. I read it to my husband and we both cried. Perhaps one day it will make it into a book.

But I’m also thinking of others in Petra’s universe. What happened to those left behind on Earth? Did anyone survive? If so, what is Earth like now? So perhaps I will write that next.

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

Donna: On my website www.dbhiguera.com or www.donnabarbahiguera.comThey can also find me on Twitter @dbhiguera & Instagram @donnabarbahiguera

Kathie: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me today, Donna, and all the best on your book’s release.

Donna: Kathie, thank you! You’ve asked some amazing questions that allowed me to ponder things about my book I hadn’t yet considered.

And thank you for helping to welcome The Last Cuentista and Petra into the world.

Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration. 

Donna’s Young Adult and Middle Grade books feature characters drawn into creepy, situations, melding history, folklore, and or her own life experience into reinvented storylines. She still dreams in Spanglish.
Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs. Donna’s backyard is a haunted 19th century logging camp. (The haunted part may or may not be true—she makes stuff up.) She is a Critique-Group-Coordinator for SCBWI-Western Washington and teaches “The Hero’s Journey for Young Authors” to future writers.

Follow Donna on Twitter at @dbhiguera.

The Last Cuentista is available now to purchase, and you can find it at your closest independent bookstore here:

Interview with Karen Pokras about THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER

Kathie: Hi Karen, and welcome to MG Book Village! I’d love to know more about your upcoming middle grade book, THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER which is scheduled for release in November with Lerner/Kar-Ben. Can you please tell our readers about it?

Karen: Hi Kathie, and thanks so much for having me here!

The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler is about 11-year-old Danny, the only Jewish boy in his town in 1978.  When a local child goes missing, Danny’s convinced it’s connected to an old Bermuda Triangle theory involving UFOs. With his two best friends and their Spacetron telescope, Danny heads to his backyard to investigate. But hunting for extra-terrestrials is complicated, and it doesn’t help that his friend Nicholas’s mom doesn’t want her son hanging out with a Jewish boy. Equipped with his super-secret spy notebook, Danny sets out to fight both the aliens and the growing antisemitism in the town, in hopes of mending his divided community.

Kathie: I remember being fascinated by the Bermuda Triangle when I was a kid. Was it something you wondered about as a child, or did your interest in the topic come later?

Karen: Definitely as a kid! I remember spending a lot of time wondering about it. When I started brainstorming for this story and thinking of my own memories about growing up in the 1970s, my curiosity about the Bermuda Triangle was something that really stood out. There are a handful of scenes in this story that are pulled straight from my childhood, which made this book both fun and at times, cringe-worthy to write.

Kathie: Anti-Semitism was also a very real issue in the late 1970s (as it is today). Was there a reason you chose to tell this story during this period of history, and what do you hope your characters communicate about this topic?

Karen:  When I sat down to write this new story, I knew I wanted to set it in the late 1970s so I could tap into my own memories of being a middle grade child during this time period. While I’m not sure I set out originally to write about antisemitism, recent acts in my community as well as throughout the country, combined with memories I’d tucked away, quickly weaved their way into the pages. My hope is that my characters inspire conversations that continue long after the story ends, and that kids (and adults) recognize that antisemitism still exists, and that we still have so much work to do.

Kathie: Can you tell me about your main character, and what do you admire most about them?

Karen: Is it admirable to say Danny will do just about anything for a slice of chocolate cake? Danny is both typical and atypical. He is awkward and gullible. He is a loyal friend. He is curious. He is thoughtful. He can be quick to judge others. He is determined and ambitious when he wants to be. He has strong opinions and is often not sure when/how/if to filter them. He is (sometimes) willing to admit when he’s wrong. He loves Star Wars (and chocolate cake.) He’s not sure about girls and piano lessons. What I admire most about him though, is the way he listens.

Kathie: What would you most like young readers to know about your book?

Karen: While I know that antisemitism is a heavy topic, The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler also has light and funny moments. FYI, hunting aliens is tricky! So is trying to avoid your hairy-handed piano teacher. And did you know there are purple vegetables? You may learn a thing or two about cooking. (Hint: I include one of my grandmother’s recipes at the end of the story.) 

I also hope young readers come away from this story with the knowledge that their voice matters, and that we (as adults) are listening.

Kathie: What’s one thing you’ve learned about yourself as a writer during your publishing journey?

Karen: There’s been so much! I started writing later in life and with a background in law and finance, I had to learn everything outside of writing professional emails about taxes. Creatively, I have really learned how to slow down and be more patient with my process, taking some time off in between drafts and revisions. Every writer is different of course, but for me, I’ve found that taking this time helps me understand my characters and story better. Next up is patience everywhere else in the journey.

Kathie: Are you working on another writing project at the moment?

Karen: Yes! I have two middle grade projects in the works. One, about a science-loving girl who’s moved into a house that’s rumored to be haunted, is on submission, and the other, about ballet, is in revisions. I’m hoping to share more information about both of these soon!

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

Karen: ​​Visit my website www.karenpokras.com where you can learn about my books, sign up for my newsletter, and read blog posts.

I’m also on social media … my preferred platform these days is

Instagram: @karenpokras_author  

I can also be found on:

Facebook:  www.facebook.com/karenptoz

Twitter: @karentoz

Kathie: Thanks so much for taking some time to answer my questions today, Karen, and I hope you have a great response to your book.

Karen:  Thank you so much for having me, Kathie!

Karen Pokras is a daisy lover, cat wrangler, and occasional baker. She has been writing for children for over ten years, winning several indie literary awards for her middle grade works. Always an avid reader, Karen found her passion for writing later in life and now runs all of her stories past the furry ears of her two feline editorial assistants before anyone else. A numbers geek at heart, she enjoys a good spreadsheet almost as much as she loves storytelling. A native of Connecticut, Karen is the proud mom to three brilliant children who still provide an endless stream of great book material.  She lives with her family outside of Philadelphia. ​

Interview with Adam Borba about THE MIDNIGHT BRIGADE

Hi Adam! Thanks so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to share about your debut Middle Grade novel, The Midnight Brigade. Before we get to the book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Thanks so much for having me! I’m originally from the Bay Area, but grew up in Palm Springs, California. My wife and I now have two young children in Los Angeles. My day job is developing and producing movies for Walt Disney Studios, so I’m always reading, writing, or talking story.

Okay: The Midnight Brigade. What’s it all about?

It’s about a lonely, introverted boy named Carl Chesterfield who lives in Pittsburgh. Carl is an observer. He watches, he listens, he processes, he empathizes, but he has trouble speaking up. Trouble raising his hand when he thinks someone is about to make a mistake, or even to share his own opinion when asked. The kid worries he’ll say the wrong thing, so he often says nothing.

Soon after the story begins, Carl’s observations lead him to suspect that monsters might secretly be chewing on Pittsburgh’s bridges. He then finds a flyer for a mysterious group called “The Midnight Brigade” which seems to share his suspicions. Carl joins the group and makes a couple of friends: an odd boy named Teddy, and Bee, the loner daughter of a famous restaurant critic. Then our trio makes an incredible discovery: living under one of Pittsburgh’s bridges is a twenty-five-foot-tall troll named Frank.

The Midnight Brigade is about a lot of things – friendship, food, integrity, empathy – but at its core it’s about someone who wishes he had the courage to step up and find his voice (like so many young readers). And it’s a book about three outsider kids coming together to try to save a struggling family business and the city of Pittsburgh.

Why did you choose to set this book in Pittsburgh? Could it have been set anywhere else? Was there anything about the city that you wished you could’ve included, but that didn’t make it into the final book?

My wife is from Pittsburgh. I fell in love with the city on my first trip to visit her family. It’s a city with so much character and culture. And three major rivers run through it — because of that, it has four hundred and forty-six bridges (even more than Venice, Italy), which made it the perfect setting for this story.

Whenever I visit Pittsburgh, I discover something new, so I’m sure the next time I’m there I’ll be kicking myself about something incredible that would have been perfect for this story.

Have you always been fond of bridges? Most of us take them for granted, in our day-to-day lives, but when you stop to think about them, they are astonishing. At the same time, these (relatively) static structures don’t naturally lend themselves to exciting, Middle Grade storytelling. How did you go about imparting your own fascination with and excitement about bridges to your readers?

Honestly, I didn’t fall in love with bridges until I visited Pittsburgh. I can’t imagine going there and not be impressed by them. Firstly, they’re massive. Truly engineering marvels, spanning bodies of water, and made from tons of steel. And hundreds of cars drive across them all day every day. Secondly, they’re gorgeous. Like works of art. When I get excited about things, I research. So, Pittsburgh’s bridges sent me down a multi-week Google rabbit hole.

I think the scale of the bridges is what makes them exciting. These are huge structures, but if they weren’t built properly (or if something damaged them) they’d collapse. That idea adds a layer of drama to this story. This quiet, lonely kid – Carl – begins to think that something is happening to his city’s bridges that is making them unsafe. But his theory is so absurd that he isn’t sure who he can tell. Plus, he’s not exactly comfortable opening his mouth in the first place.

The Midnight Brigade is at once utterly real and wildly fantastical — you’ve got wonderfully relatable human characters side by side with… well, I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s just say, non-human ones. How did you balance these two things in your storytelling?

Thank you! While I believe there’s a way to make anything work in storytelling, for me, it’s easier to mix the real and the fantastical if you limit yourself to just one or two magical “buys” and play everything else completely straight — especially how the characters react to the fantastic. You identified one of the keys to balancing these elements in your question: relatability. For me, if characters are also dealing with everyday problems and concerns, they’ll feel more real and relatable to readers (or the audience). So, if we’re invested in Jenny dealing with classmates not pulling their weight in her group project, and being disappointed with her parents for not letting her go to a concert, we can also be invested in Jenny discovering that her best friend is an alien, as long as the complications feel real.  

You have done a lot of impressive, exciting work in the film world. Has your work and experiences there influenced your novel writing at all? If so, how?

Appreciate it! I draw on my film background quite a bit. While filmmaking offers the luxury of telling stories with pictures, it all starts with a screenplay, which is a document that’s usually only a 100 or so pages long by the time we start production (and those pages have a lot of blank space). Because scripts are so short, the storytelling on the page needs to be efficient. I try to take that approach with my writing: Cut out the boring stuff and anything that isn’t essential. I also try to be as clear and economical as possible with character arcs, so readers understand how and why a character changes and grows as cleanly and efficiently as possible.

Theme is also something I learned from filmmaking. When we’re developing a movie, one of the early goals we have is to get to a one sentence message. Something universal. Something that each scene in the movie builds to. Something that sums up what the movie is really about. It’s rarely a line that’s said out loud in the film, but it’s always something that my colleagues, the director, and the film’s writers have agreed to. A few examples from our recent films: “Everyone belongs somewhere,” “It’s okay to be different,” “Everyone grows up at their own pace,” “Everyone is deserving of love.” When I’m writing, I try to figure out the theme as early as possible, so I can tie it to narrative and character as much as possible.

Finally, structure is something I learned from film development. The rough drafts of my novels are fairly close to the traditional three act structure of a feature film. Because of that, my rough drafts are on the short side (like a screenplay). As I work with my editor to revise, my drafts become longer as subplots are added and we dive deeper into character. So, while the final manuscript isn’t quite a traditional feature structure, because I started that way, the story remains structurally sound for me.

What do you hope your readers — the young ones, in particular — take away from The Midnight Brigade?

Most importantly, I hope they have a good time. Like the stories I help make for Disney, this is one driven by heart, humor, and a little bit of magic. I hope it’ll transport readers to that special whimsical place that my favorite stories transport me to.

But if there’s one more thing they take away, I hope it’s the message that Frank the troll passes on to Carl: Be Bold. 

All right, I can’t not ask: if someone wanted to get the world’s best pierogi, where would you send them?

That’s easy! Go to my wife’s grandmother’s house. Just say I sent you. She’s a nice lady. Maybe bring a dessert?

The Midnight Brigade published on September 7th, so readers can already get their hands on it. But where can they go to learn more about you and your work?

You can order the book here: https://bit.ly/38Ln9R9, and at some point soon I’ll make a website (probably). But for now, I can be reached on Twitter @adam_borba and Instagram @adamborba

Thanks again for visiting and sharing with us, Adam. We hope you’ll come back soon!

Thank you! So glad you enjoyed the book!

Adam Borba is a film producer and son of bestselling author Michele Borba. He was labeled one of The Hollywood Reporter’s 2017 up-and-coming executive producers and exemplifies the title with his current filmography. He is one of the minds behind Pete’s Dragon (2016) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018), and is currently working on the live action production of Peter Pan & Wendy (2022).

Interview with H.S. Norup about THE HUNGRY GHOST

Kathie: Hi Helle, and welcome to MG Book Village! It’s a pleasure to chat with you today about the North American release of THE HUNGRY GHOST which comes out on September 28th. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, please?

Helle: Thank you, Kathie. I always enjoy #MGBooktober and the other chats you organise, so I’m delighted to visit MG Book Village.

I’m Danish, but I have lived most of my life outside Denmark. Currently, I reside in Switzerland with my husband and two young-adult sons. I have also been at home in the US (New Jersey and Georgia), the UK, Austria, and Singapore.

Whenever I’m not reading or writing, I spend my time outdoors. I love to explore new places and learn about other cultures and traditions.

So, I feel lucky that both my own corporate career and my husband’s have given us opportunities to live abroad and travel.

I’ve always been a voracious reader, but I didn’t start writing until I was in my thirties. At first, I wrote just for fun, then about ten years ago I started taking it seriously and finished my first manuscript. I was 49 when my debut was published—it’s never too late!

Kathie: This book was originally published last September in the UK. Can you tell us what it’s like to be promoting the book for a new audience, and if there are many differences between the UK and US versions?

Helle: It a difficult time to have a book published. Because of the pandemic, all promotion last year was purely online. My publisher had arranged a big blog tour, and I did virtual talks and school visits in the UK and Singapore. I was also lucky that both Financial Times and Singapore’s main newspaper, The Straits Times, reviewed THE HUNGRY GHOST.

On Twitter, I’m quite well-connected with UK teachers, librarians and MG authors, but it’s hard to know to what extent the online promotion results in book sales.

I’m less well-connected online in North America, and publicity from the publisher is limited, so promotion this time around is going to be even more difficult. I hope the fact that the book recently won a SCBWI Crystal Kite award will help.

There are no differences between the UK and the US versions. It’s even the same stunning red cover.

Kathie: I’d love to know about the inspiration for this story?

Helle: I began writing The Hungry Ghost, while I lived in Singapore. When we moved there, I was immediately fascinated by the mix of cultures and religions, and I wanted to capture the vibrant atmosphere in a story.

On my walks, early on, I noticed offerings on the pavements—little collages of food, joss sticks and candles—for ancestors and forgotten restless spirits. The focus on remembering and honouring ancestors fascinated me and gave me the first kernel of a story idea.

At times, when the busy city overwhelmed me, I found solace in parks and nature reserves. My favourite place became an old Chinese graveyard—the biggest outside China. It hasn’t been in use in fifty years, so the rainforest has turned it into a tropical wilderness, right in the middle of Singapore. On my long hikes there, I thought a lot about forgotten spirits.

The idea for The Hungry Ghost really sparked, when I asked myself: “What if a girl who had just moved to Singapore met a hungry ghost who needed her help to remember the past?”

From there, the story, which explores themes of families under stress, grief and acceptance, evolved.

I was aware that I was writing about a culture that isn’t my own, so I anchored the book in the perspective of someone with my own background. Therefore, the main character, Freja, comes from Denmark.

Kathie: Many readers may not be familiar with the folklore which is an important part of the book. Can you tell us more about that?

Helle: There are various beliefs around the hungry ghosts throughout China and South East Asia, but in essence these ghosts are spirits that are not at rest. They are unsatisfied, hungry, because of the way their lives ended or because they were forgotten by their descendants. One month every year, the seventh month in the Chinese calendar, they are on holiday from the realm of the dead and roam the streets, seeking nourishment. In addition to the offerings of food and burnt paper effigies, live stage performances, called Getai, are held to entertain both the living and the dead.

The hungry ghosts are often perceived to be vicious and vengeful, but I mainly felt sad for the ones that had been forgotten by their loved ones. And so, the importance of remembering those we have lost, and how that impacts our way of dealing with grief, became a key aspect of the story.

In the story, Freja also enter a portal to another world. This world, based on ancient Chinese mythology, includes mythical creatures—the azure dragon, the white tiger, the red vermillion bird, and the black tortoise—that are among the foundations for Feng Shui.

Kathie: What sort of research did you do for this story, and can you share an interesting tidbit that you discovered but didn’t include in the book?

Helle: For contemporary Singapore, I walked and walked, visiting all the locations in the book. I tasted the food Freja eats, smelled the frangipani trees at night, and perspired in the humid air. I saw lizards and monkeys and a black spitting cobra. I held a python in the zoo. I even went to the graveyard at night during the hungry ghost month…

In addition to reading about hungry ghosts, I asked Chinese Singaporeans about their beliefs and traditions. After the book was written, I used a cultural sensitivity reader and had Singaporean friends read through the Singaporean dialogue.

The driving force in the book is the mystery around the hungry ghost’s past, so I spent much time researching Singapore’s colonial history. It was especially important for me to understand the situation of the Chinese population a hundred years ago when the ghost was alive. A key source was the newspaper archive at the National Library of Singapore. Several newspapers, going back 200 years, are available and searchable online. Obituaries and small announcements I stumbled upon became clues for Freja to discover in the story.

There were so many things I wish I could have included in the book: details about the other cultures that link to the story, locations I wish Freja could’ve had time to visit, and more of the local food. In an earlier version of the book, the visit to the hawker centre took up a whole chapter and included all the local dishes I miss.

Kathie: What’s one thing you enjoyed about living in Singapore, and how is it similar to where you live now? How is it different?

Helle: I definitely miss the food! I loved going to the hawker centres—the organised street food markets, where you can find a huge variety of inexpensive dishes.

There are no hawker centres in Switzerland, although, occasionally, pop-up street food markets appear. Luckily, I also like cheese and chocolate! And it’s much easier to get hold of fresh organic produce here than it was in Singapore where almost everything is imported from the neighbouring countries or flown in from Australian and Europe.

Kathie: Is there a book or author that has influenced you as a middle-grade writer?

Helle: The first book I fell in love with was The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis and The Never-ending Story by Michael Ende were also childhood favourites that influenced me to write books set in the borderland between real and imaginary worlds.

My books are hopeful and have family and friendship at their hearts. In this regard, I admire and am probably influenced by Sharon Creech and Eva Ibbotson, whose adventure stories are full of heart and hope.

Kathie: Where can our readers go if they want to know more about you and your writing?

Helle: My website is www.hsnorup.com. On social media, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @hsnorup

Kathie: Thanks so much for joining us today, Helle, and I wish you the best with your book’s North American release.

Helle: Thank you so much for having me, Kathie.

H. S. Norup is the award-winning author of The Hungry Ghost and The Missing Barbegazi—a Sunday Times Book of the Year in 2018. Originally from Denmark, she has lived in six different countries and now resides in Switzerland with her husband and two sons. She has a master’s degree in Economics and Business Administration and sixteen years’ experience in corporate marketing strategy and communications. When she’s not writing or reading, she spends her time outdoors either skiing, hiking, walking, golfing or taking photos.

Interview with Hallie Christensen about Enchanted Misadventures with Great-Aunt Poppy: Magic, Mayhem, and Monsters

Christie: Hi Hallie! “Enchanted Misadventures with Great-Aunt Poppy: Magic, Mayhem, and Monsters” comes out in October. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please? 

Hi! Of course 🙂  

When three siblings discover that they must spend the holiday with their Great-Aunt Poppy, they prepare themselves for the worst week of their lives. Poppy, or Groppy, is a witch, though, for some reason, only the children can see that. While surviving the creepy house and Groppy’s thousands of cats, the siblings stumble upon a spell room with a magic potion that grants wishes. But wishes go awry, and while their aunt can save them from her own magic, the children must help her capture something frightening in the woods that even a witch’s magic can’t stop. To survive the holiday, it will take all the bravery and wit the kids can muster. But who knows? Things aren’t always what they seem! The best holiday surprise might be hiding in the most unlikely place imagined!

Christie: Can you tell us the idea that inspired the book?

Well, one of the best ways to perfect your writing skills is to write! Funny how that works. So, I was on a writing website and they had a short story contest and I decided to join. One of the prompts was, and I’m paraphrasing, “Three siblings have to spend a holiday with a relative and they are not looking forward to it.” I thought, “I like that!” and I sat down and it just immediately came to me. I have never found something so easy to write and may never again, lol. I loved the story so much that I showed it to one of my critique partners and she was like, “Hallie, this is awesome. You’ve got to try and publish it!” So, I made the novella into a novel, and the rest is history, as they say. 

Christie: Did you have a character that you most enjoyed writing?

Oh gosh, lol. I love all of the characters. But Nolan’s quick wit and dry humor – he gets me every time. All of my characters are an inspiration from my childhood experiences, friends, and family, and they all hold a close place to my heart. And don’t think I didn’t hear Merlin (the cat) scoff when I picked Nolan, ha. I love you too, Merlin! Silly cat. They’re all my favorite, really :).   

Christie: What was one of your biggest challenges writing this story?

Figuring out how they were going to survive the “scary thing” in the woods (I’m trying not to give too much away). I knew what they needed to do, I knew how the story would end, but I didn’t know how it was going to be done. I just kept working up to that point in the book and thinking “It will come to me eventually.” Luckily when I got to the major scene, it did! (With a lot of prior research…) But it was tricky and took quite a few rewrites. I made sure to have a few beta readers to double check everything. Beta readers are the best!  

Christie: What do you think is important for young readers to know about this story?

Each of the three siblings, Ava, Nolan, and Charlotte, experience their own personal growth throughout the story. Each has something they want to work on, work through, or overcome. Be looking for those scenes! They break through those struggles and really take charge! I’m so proud of them! 🙂  

Also, I have to mention Great-Aunt Poppy, or Groppy, as the kids call her. She is amazing! I love how she doesn’t change, just the children’s perspective of her. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a great message in Groppy’s character. 

Christie: What has your debut publishing journey been like?

Very interesting, lol. This is my first traditionally published novel and it has been a whirlwind! There is so much to work on! There were edits and rewrites, and then I helped with the cover appearance, everything that goes on it and choosing the artist’s style for the cover, which I love BTW. Also I’ve been chatting up my book on social media and spreading the news with the community and beyond. I mean, you get out of it what you put into it. There’s always work to be done.  

Christie: Is there something unique about you or your story that you’d like to share with our readers?

I know how to juggle, lol. I love cats and that is one of the main reasons why there is a cat in this story. I think I may always put a cat in my stories, though, they may not always be able to talk, ha. 

I am a band nerd. I marched in a band all throughout school and college. And if you’re wondering, I play the saxophone and flute and know a few major chords on the guitar. 

As for what is unique in my story, I find Groppy to be very unique, and I think that’s what makes her so special and an amazing person. 

Christie: What’s one thing that I haven’t asked you about your book or your writing process that you could share with us?

I am a planster! Meaning that I both plan out my story and also write by the seat of my pants. A combination of planner and pantser, lol. I did not coin the phrase, but I fully embrace it. 

You never know when writing inspiration will strike, so you write it down when it does. Sometimes you plan a story out only to realize halfway through that something needs to change. There’s nothing wrong with that. I like the quote by Terry Pratchett, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” 

Christie: Where can we go to find out more about you and your writing?

I have a website: http://www.authorhalliechristensen.com/

You can also follow me on social media: 

Insta: @halliekat_bibliolove

Twitter: @HallieKathaleen

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/halliechristensenauthor

If you have a question or would like to chat about book stuff or anything really, please reach out! 🙂 

Hallie Christensen grew up in a small town in Alabama surrounded by professional storytellers – her family. She received her BA in English with a minor in Italian while attending The University of Alabama and her MA in Teaching English from Faulkner University.  Her life’s background helped to influence her writing and creativity. While growing up she attended Young Authors conferences, played in a marching band, tried her luck as a magician, became a Junior Ranger for quite a few National Parks, and for a brief moment was a disc jockey with an eclectic taste of music spanning from The Monkees to N’SYNC. When she isn’t writing, editing, teaching English courses, or marking-up essays, she enjoys hiking, rappelling, attending rock concerts from musicians her parents’ age, staying at B&B’s, playing in a family band, and of course, reading with preferences in fantasy, contemporary, and the classics. Hallie currently resides in northern Alabama with her husband and a couple of cats.

COVER REVEAL for Trouble at Turtle Pond, by Diana Renn

Kathie: Hi Diana! Thanks so much for asking us to be part of your cover reveal for TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND, which comes out in April 2022 with Fitzroy Books/Regal House. Can you please give us a brief synopsis of your story?

Diana: Thanks so much for hosting me here today! TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND is an eco-mystery about a boy named Miles who moves to a new neighborhood near a wildlife refuge, where nesting turtles are on the move. A neighbor girl, Pia, convinces him to join her in being a Backyard Ranger, a self-appointed wildlife ranger working to protect road-crossing turtles and other creatures of the pond. They discover clues pointing to a series of crimes against Blanding’s turtles, which are endangered. The crimes disrupt the work of a local biologist and her conservation group that have been working hard to protect them. Worse, a pair of turtle hatchlings that Pia has been fostering go missing at a town event. Suspecting wildlife poachers are involved, Miles and Pia investigate a string of suspects in town. Miles hopes to get positive attention for solving the mystery and stopping more turtle crimes. He’s desperate to leave his troublemaking reputation behind, as his ADHD-related challenges brought him only negative attention at his old school. The rangers double their numbers, convincing two other kids on the street to join their team. But an unexpected twist throws suspicion back on Miles. He has to convince his new friends that he’s not who they think he is, and stop the turtle crimes before more turtles – and people – get hurt. It’s a story about citizen science sleuths, activist kids, and the power of paying attention.

Kathie: Congratulations, this is your middle-grade debut book! What did you most enjoy about writing for this age group rather than the older audiences of your previously published books?

Diana: Thanks! It was so much fun to write a mystery for this younger age group. In some ways, the process I went through was exactly the same as my work for teens and adults: doing some planning, making sure I understood the world these characters were in, coming up with a series of related crimes that ratchet up in intensity, having a good number of suspects to work with (each with their own means, motives, and opportunities for crime), planting clues, then covering my tracks. But what I really loved about creating a younger investigative team was the chance to turn up the dial on suspense, and to make relatively ordinary occurrences become infused with possibility — and even tinged with menace. The Backyard Rangers are taking those first steps toward independence, widening their worlds, even by venturing a couple of blocks from their home, or out to the pond alone, or to a shop without a grownup. They’re encountering so many things for the very first time. Senses are heightened. Everything’s exciting. Nothing is taken for granted. I also liked exploring the friendship dynamics with this age group, as kids are investigators of themselves as well at this age. They notice more things about one another, from appearance to interests to obligations to fears and anxieties. Finally, kids at this age usually still have one foot in the world of magic and imagination. For Miles, a highly creative kid, that means thinking he can communicate with animals, feeling a special connection to them. If he were a teen or adult, we might call him just highly attuned or empathetic, but because of his age, I was able to play out entire mental dialogues that he has with the turtles he comes across.

Kathie: Your story has a number of different themes that will appeal to a wide range of readers. Could you tell me what sort of readers I could recommend this book to?

Diana: I hope it will appeal to mystery lovers of all ages, but especially those in the 8-12 age group who like a twisty, small town mystery that can keep them guessing. Animal lovers in general (and turtle lovers in particular) should enjoy the story too, and anyone who cares deeply about nature. Kids with ADHD, executive function issues, sensory issues, or anxiety, may relate not only to Miles but also the other characters; I wanted to be sure that Miles isn’t the only neurodivergent kid in the book, and that there are a range of experiences represented. Finally, I think teachers who have citizen science themes in their curriculum would enjoy this story, and there are numerous opportunities to connect to STEM / STEAM themes.

Kathie: Can you tell us about your main character and what you admire most about him?

Diana: Miles is a kid who happens to have ADHD, which comes packaged with some other things like anxiety and sensory processing issues. Miles has always viewed his diagnosis as a weakness, something that’s led him to impulsive actions, social disconnections, and the unfortunate nickname “Mayhem Miles.” But it actually aids him greatly in solving this mystery, as the things he pays attention to, and the way he processes information, ultimately help him here. He’s also able to turn his unique talents into things that directly help the conservation group (like making box turtles to raise money), and he has some innovative ideas that people take seriously once he articulates them. I love Miles’s creativity, his outside-the-box thinking, his sense of humor (even if he sometimes tries too hard to get a laugh), and his fierce loyalty to the turtles and his friends.

Kathie: Who is the cover’s illustrator, and what was your involvement in the process?

Diana: C.B. Royal is the chief cover designer at Regal House Publishing. Her work has been getting so much attention lately, and even winning awards. Fitzroy Books / Regal House has a very collaborative marketing process with their writers. I was invited to submit extensive notes about what I envisioned for a cover, from palette to characters to symbolic elements to the overall feel. I also shared with them some covers I liked for comparable books. I really wanted a cover that felt like a classic cozy children’s mystery – this story is set in a small town, with just enough danger to keep the pages turning but still let you sleep at night. The typewriter font and the woodcut-style boy with the flashlight accomplish that feeling nicely. I also wanted a cover to capture that sense of mystery and danger; hence the dusk hour we see, and the grouping of trees that almost appear to be whispering. I wanted the cover  to appeal to all genders, and not to be specific with regard to character features. So the boy with the flashlight in silhouette, cloaked in shadow, is merely suggestive, and lets readers maintain their own mental picture of Miles. And I love the palette, all the pond colors.

Kathie: Drum roll please, here is the cover of TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND!

Kathie: Oh wow! I really love the blue background and how the flashlight beam is reflected in the trees. Can you tell us something about the cover that a reader may not discover on their own?

Diana: This is incredibly subtle, but if you look very closely at the turtle on the log — you may even need to shine your phone’s flashlight on it — you’ll see it has a yellow throat. This is a distinctive feature of the Blanding’s turtle. (That and the fact that they always appear to be smiling, because of their jaw shape, so that makes them desirable — though illegal — pets!) I love that the designer registered that throat detail in my preliminary notes, and honored it in her design. This is no clip art turtle. I know it’s a Blanding’s turtle.

Kathie: What’s one thing you’d like our readers to know about your story?

Diana: “Little is big.” Miles and his friends are working to save turtles that are often quite small — the hatchlings are no bigger than quarters when they first emerge from their shells. They are advocating for creatures that people are driving by and, unfortunately, driving over. They are a voice for the voiceless. They also work to save turtles – and ultimately solve a mystery – through a series of seemingly small actions that all add up to big change. The story was loosely inspired by real-life turtles in my own neighborhood, and the small but huge actions taken by kids and teachers to foster turtles in our town’s classrooms and give them a head start in life (releasing them into ponds after letting them grow bigger and stronger in classroom tanks). I hope TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND inspires readers to look around and see what’s worth protecting and fighting for in their own backyards — if not turtles, then something else.

Kathie: Thanks so much for joining us today, Diana, and I hope the months pass quickly until your release date.

Diana: Thank you for having me! I hope the months pass quickly too. My release date is timed with the turtles in my neighborhood. They’re heading off to hibernation soon. When they start emerging to nest in the spring, my book will be emerging too!

Diana Renn is the author of three YA mysteries: TOKYO HEIST, LATITUDE ZERO, and BLUE VOYAGE (all published by Viking / Penguin Random House). Her debut middle grade novel, TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND, will be published by Fitzroy Books / Regal House April 5, 2022. She lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts, with her husband, her son, a dog and a cat, and a street full of turtles. Visit her online at http://dianarennbooks.com.

TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND is available for pre-order! https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/product/trouble-at-turtle-pond/

(Please consider pre-ordering directly from the website of this independent publisher as opposed to a larger entity, as it’s the best way to support a smaller press!)

COVER REVEAL for Secret of the Shadow Beasts, by Diane Magras

Kathie: Hi Diane! It’s such a pleasure to have you at MG Book Village today for the cover reveal of your upcoming book, Secret of the Shadow Beasts. I’m so happy to be part of your street team for its launch as I’m a huge fan of your writing. Can you tell our readers a bit about it?

Diane: Thanks so much for having me, Kathie! (And I’m so thrilled that you’re on my street team.)

So here’s the formal description:

For fans of Dragon Pearl and the Lockwood & Co. series comes a swift-moving contemporary fantasy about a young girl tasked with destroying deadly shadow creatures.

In Brannland, terrifying beasts called Umbrae roam freely once the sun sets, so venomous that a single bite will kill a full-grown adult—and lately, with each day that passes, their population seems to double. The only people who can destroy them are immune children like Nora, who are recruited at the age of seven to leave their families behind and begin training at a retrofitted castle called Noye’s Hill. But despite her immunity, Nora’s father refused to let her go. Now, years after his death by Umbra attack, Nora is 12, and sees her mother almost killed by the monsters too. That’s when Nora decides it’s time to join the battle. Once she arrives at Noye’s Hill, though, she and her new friends are left with more questions than answers: Where are the Umbrae coming from? Could the government be covering up the true reason their population has whirled out of control? And was Nora’s father, the peaceful, big-hearted man who refused to let Nora fight, in on the treacherous secret? 

Kathie: This story sounds very different your previous books, The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, and its sequel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. What aspect of the story came to you first? Was it a character, plot, or setting that compelled you to write it?

Diane: Yes, it’s quite different in many ways, though readers will find some similarities. But also, my two previous books were the backdrop to much of my early thinking about this story. It was between edits of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter that I firstbegan mulling over the idea of deadly monsters that came out at night to destroy humankind with only kids able stop them. But I wasn’t sure what to do with that concept. Around the same time, I was also pondering stories about a rural kid who lived on a sheep farm (based on a farm I stayed at in the Scottish Borders), but again wasn’t sure where to put her. Between the edits of my second book, I sketched out a few stories around a different character, a girl with unseen talent who isn’t sure of herself. And then one day, the three aspects combined, and the girl on the sheep farm and the girl with unseen talent turned into Nora, my main character. So I had her and the basic premise all at once.

Kathie: What’s something interesting you learned during the research process that you can share with us?

Diane: There’s a crucial video game element in this book and I knew I needed to get my details right. I game a bit, but I’m not an expert like Nora, so I turned to an expert I know well: my 14-year-old son. He’s an avid reader too, so he understood exactly the kind of help I needed in conveying Nora’s gaming in a work of fiction. He invented and designed Warriors of the Frozen Bog, the game that Nora and her best friend Wilfred play (a game that I would absolutely love to play). Thanks to his detailed description of all its parts (lore, geography, classes, progression system, equipment, mobs, and quests), I could confidently write about it. One gaming chapter even includes Nora’s current build (which my son put together for her). Non-gamers will, I hope, find it interesting, while gamers will totally understand how OP (overpowered) it is!

Kathie: Can you tell us about the cover’s illustrator and what your thoughts were when you first saw it?

Diane: My cover art is by Vivienne To, whose work has graced the covers of many incredible middle grade fantasies (including quite a few Rick Riordan Presents titles). I felt very lucky when I heard she’d agreed to do this—and even more lucky when I saw an early sketch. Nora’s face was exactly what you see on the final cover, just as I’d envisioned her. When I saw the final cover art, I was thrilled. It fits the feel of the book perfectly, and I think it’s gorgeous.

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

Kathie: I absolutely love it! Vivienne is one of my favorite MG illustrators as her covers are so colorful, and she brings life and personality to characters. Is there a certain element that you felt was important to have represented in the cover image?

Diane: I wanted to have Nora and her Order, the group with whom she goes out to fight the Umbrae, in action—and, if possible, hints of their characters in their faces. Vivienne did a magnificent job with that—for one, Nora’s determination but also that flicker of fear and uncertainty in her face. Everyone else looks confident and ready to battle. Nora, not so much. I was also hoping we could picture the Umbrae, and I love how they’re looming above the kids: terrifying but also pretty fascinating!

Kathie: What would you like to hear a young reader say after they finished reading this story?

Diane: First, I want young readers to feel that they can escape in this book when times are tough. Fiction that takes you completely away from your world is so important, especially now. But I also want them to be able to think about the issues under the surface—such as being yourself and trying hard even if you don’t fit in, and the questionable nature of history—when they feel like going deeper. And I hope young readers will find something of themselves in the characters. I’ve depicted many things I’ve seen, heard, or experienced—some things very challenging—in a world that wholly centers and supports these kids. I hope my readers feel seen and less alone, as well as inspired, and maybe a bit brave when facing the challenges of their own lives.

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

Diane: The best place to find me is my website, www.dianemagras.com. You can also find me on Twitter, where I share my thoughts about a lot of things, and Instagram, where I seem to post a lot of pictures of my cat!

Kathie: Thank you so much for letting us be part of the cover reveal. I can’t wait to read it!

Diane: You are so welcome! I can’t wait to share it with you too. And thank you so much, Kathie, and MG Book Village, for all your enthusiasm and support!

  • SECRET OF THE SHADOW BEASTS will be published on June 14, 2022, by Dial Books for Young Readers

Diane Magras, award-winning author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, as well as its companion novel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter, grew up on Mount Desert Island in Maine, surrounded by woods, cliffs, and the sea. An unabashed fan of libraries (where she wrote her first novel as a teenager), history from all voices, and the perfect cup of tea, Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son.