Interview: Alyson Gerber

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Alyson Gerber’s Focused is one of my favorite reads this year – and an important book that I hope finds its way into as many hands as possible. I’m thrilled that Alyson agreed to stop by the MG Book Village today to talk about her latest middle grade novel.  Focused hits shelves next week so make sure you plan a visit to your local bookstore or pre-order a copy here!

~ Corrina

Alyson – I am incredibly excited to see your latest novel, Focused, out in the world! What is this story about?

Thank you! It means a lot to hear that you’re excited about my new book! Focused features Clea, a gutsy, seventh grade chess player, who is caught between her love of chess and her ADHD.

You’ve mentioned that Clea’s story is somewhat based on your own experiences with ADHD. One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is how Clea starts to recognize that what she considered a weakness can actually be a strength. In fact, you recently said on Twitter “ADHD is one of my favorite parts of myself.”  What are the positives for you?

This is such a great question! There are so many positive aspects of having ADHD. I’ll share a few here, but there are definitely more. First, hyperfocus! When I find something I love to do, it’s all I can think about and talk about. I get consumed, and that has been a huge asset to me in writing books. Hyperfocus enables me to dive into a character’s mind and live in their world. Also, I have a difficult time regulating my emotions, I’m very open about my feelings and experiences. While this wasn’t great in middle school, as an adult, it has given me the chance to connect with a lot of different people. I’ve been able to share, listen, learn, help and be helped. Lastly, my brain works really fast, and because of how I process information, I often see things differently than other people. While that can be a problem at times and in certain situations, it can also be a huge asset, because I can solve puzzles and problems very quickly and come up with unusual solutions.

One of the things I really loved is that even though your novel is about a particular girl coming to terms with her particular diagnosis of ADHD, how she and her family and friends handle that can be generalized to so many other situations.

Thank you. That was my intention in writing Focused. I wanted all readers to be able to find themselves in this book. We each have our own unique problems and struggles. Part of growing up is facing those challenges and learning to stand up for what we need and ask for help when we can’t handle things alone.

Let’s talk about CHESS! I learned so much about the game and the tournament process from reading Focused.  Are you a chess player yourself?  And what kind of research did you do?

I love chess, but I don’t play. That’s one of my favorite parts about writing fiction: I get to pretend to be really amazing at something I barely know how to do. I actually became interested in chess after I watched a British mystery where obscure chess strategies were being used as clues. After that, my husband taught me the basics, and then I learned how to play using a online training program. For research, I read non-fiction and strategy books, and I watched a lot of chess tournaments on YouTube. It also helped that Maya Marlette, who is an assistant editor at Scholastic, played competitive chess. She was an invaluable resource to me.

I was really intrigued by Clea’s organization notebook! Is that a particular strategy or product that really exists? And do you use something similar yourself?

For someone with ADHD, staying organized can be a lifelong challenge, there are a lot of strategies and systems that can be helpful. A notebook, like the one Clea uses, as well as color coding can be great tools.

What do you hope readers with ADHD take away from reading Focused?

There isn’t one way to be smart. Some of the most innovative people, who have changed the world for the better, saw things very differently, like Einstein.

What do you hope readers who do not have ADHD take away from reading Focused?

My hope is that all readers can find themselves in Focused, and realize that even when they feel alone and like they’re the only one who is having a hard time, they aren’t and they don’t have to handle everything on their own.

What resources would you suggest for students and adults to help them understand ADHD and start to develop strategies to help?

Reading Focused is a great place to start! I wrote this book for a lot of reasons, but one of the main reasons was that I wanted readers, who are family members, friends, and teachers to kids with ADHD, to be able to experience what it feels like. I would also recommend reading more on chadd.org and understood.org.

What are you working on next?

I just finished a draft of a new middle grade novel that will be published by Scholastic, and I can’t wait to share more details soon!

Can’t wait to hear more and thank you so much for stopping by today, Alyson!

Thank you for having me and for all of the wonderful questions. I can’t wait until Focused is out in the world! You can pre-order a copy now through your local bookstore or at AlysonGerber.com/Books.

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Alyson Gerber wore a back brace for scoliosis from the age of eleven to thirteen, an experience that led directly to her debut novel Braced from Scholastic. Alyson’s new middle grade novel Focused, about a girl caught between her love of chess and her ADHD, will be in stores on March 26, 2019. Focused  has received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and the American Library Association’s Booklist and is a Junior Library Library Guild Selection.

Alyson is a graduate of The New School’s MFA in Writing for Children and lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.  You can connect with Alyson on Twitter ( @alysongerber) or Instagram (@alysongerber).

 

Cover Reveal: A TIME TRAVELER’S THEORY OF RELATIVITY by Nicole Valentine

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Hello, Nicole! Welcome to the MG Book Village, and thank you so much for hosting your cover reveal here. We’re very excited! Before we get to all of that, though, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Sure! Thank you for having me on the blog.

My name is Nicole Valentine and I’m a children’s book author, educator and technologist. I have an MFA in Writing from VCFA and I’ve been teaching writing at The Highlights Foundation for seven years. I was the Chief Technology Officer of several internet start-ups, my first being Sally Ride’s Space.com and my last being Figment.com, a website for teens to share their own writing (purchased and re-branded by Penguin/Random). I love all things science, but you can find me writing about that fascinatingly fuzzy area where science and magic meet. I live outside of Philadelphia with my human family and all the animals: our two dogs Merlin and Arthur, and our cats, Pickwick and Tink. One day we would like to add a falcon or hawk to the mix.

Whoa — those are some SOLID pet names. Bravo. Now, moving onto the book: can you tell us a bit about A TIME TRAVELER’S THEORY OF RELATIVITY? The novel is your debut, correct?

It is and I’m so happy it will soon be in the hands of kids. It’s about a very practical, science-loving boy who discovers all the women in his family can time travel. I have been fascinated with time travel since I was a child and this story explores not just the adventurous side of being able to travel in time, but all the emotional and moral conflicts that would arise. I describe it as A Time Traveler’s Wife meets Tuck Everlasting. While there is plenty of page-turning adventure inside, it is also a heartfelt story about family and loss.

The official description:

Twelve-year-old Finn is used to people in his family disappearing. His twin sister, Faith, drowned when they were three years old. A few months ago, his mom abandoned him and his dad with no explanation. He clings to the concrete facts in his physics books and to his best friend, Gabi to cope with his sadness. But when his grandmother tells him the family secret: that all the women in their family are Travelers, he realizes he has to put his trust in something bigger than logic to save his Mom.

It sounds excellent. Have you always enjoyed science fiction?

Yes, but I didn’t always realize it was science fiction. The kind of sci-fi I loved was very close to magical realism and fantasy, and what we now call speculative. I was in love with Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time (I still think Charles Wallace is the most fascinating character in all of children’s literature). I devoured all of Ray Bradbury’s stories and would take his books out of the library and keep them so long that I had to take a job at the library to avoid late fees. I fell hard for the subtle realism of Jack Finney’s Time and Again and read it over and over. I was deeply moved by the short stories of Charles DeLint and soon became an Ursula LeGuin devotee. I think my first introduction to the fact that I was reading sci-fi was when my uncle gave me his old issues of Omni Magazine and my favorite authors were inside. I have to credit both Omni and William Gibson with steering me towards a career in both writing and technology from a young age. Did you know the word cyberspace first appeared in Omni Magazine? I didn’t know any other teenage girls who were reading Omni and it was obvious that I wasn’t the intended demographic as a thirteen-year old girl, but it didn’t stop me. It’s funny how I can look back now and identify all the influences that steered my life.

Why do you think you are drawn to writing science fiction, particularly for young readers?

I can’t think of a better genre for kids in our current world. They have far more stress to cope with than we did and science fiction is a unique coping tool. Recently I’ve been reading about the psychology of awe and have delved much deeper into what captured my own young mind and why. I was twelve when my father suddenly passed away and like most children dealing with grief, I desperately wanted everything to return to normal. Being the grand thinker that I was, I dove headfirst into books about time travel. It seemed like the most logical solution: go back in time and warn my father about his undiagnosed heart problem. I didn’t discover how to time travel in the stacks of the New City Library, but I did discover awe in those pages. They filled me with wonder and gave me hope. Psychologists are just now beginning to study the emotion of awe and its benefits on the human brain and body. Subjects in psychological studies report a feeling of having more time available, increased generosity, and decreased aggression. Awe both generates empathy and combats stress in an empirical way. I know it was awe that saved me as a child. We need more books that bring hope through inspiring wonder.

That’s fascinating, and I relate to that a lot as a science fiction-lover myself. Okay, onto the main reason you’re here: your cover. Were you at all involved in the process?

I was given several sketches to look at early on. I’m afraid I wasn’t much help in the elimination process because I loved them all! I don’t know why, but I was surprised to find secret tells in the art that came from deep within my text. Alice Brereton took a nuanced, careful approach and I couldn’t be more grateful.

What did you think when you first saw the cover?

When I saw the full-color final choice I was blown away. I think I had to sit down. It’s a big moment seeing your book come bursting into reality in full color like that. It’s the perfect cover for this book. It captures all the magic and wonder I wanted and more.

All right — let’s see it!

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Wow! It’s gorgeous. I love all the detail and different textures. I cannot wait to get my hands on it on October 1st! Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

You can find me at nicolevalentinebooks.com where you can also sign up for my quarterly newsletter. You can also find me blogging at steaMG.org – an alliance of middle grade authors working to bring more sci-fi and science-inspired fiction to the shelves. I’m on twitter at @nicoleva and my book is available for pre-order now at Indiebound and Amazon.

Screen Shot 2019-03-17 at 8.13.20 AM.pngNicole writes science fiction and magical realism for middle graders. She follows awe wherever it leads her. In her past life, she was a Chief Technology Officer for various internet start-ups. She began her career at CNN, moved on to work with Sally Ride at Space.com, and then helped found Figment.com, a website for teens to share their own writing. She has a Masters in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches writing at the Highlights Foundation. Home is just outside of Philadelphia where she lives with her human family, two large dogs named Merlin and Arthur, and two small cats named Tink and Pickwick. You can find her and subscribe to her newsletter at www.nicolevalentinebooks.com and on Twitter at @nicoleva.

 

Three New Graphic Novels & a Conversation with Jerry Craft: Books Between, Episode 70

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect the tweens in your life to books they’ll love.  I’m your host, Corrina Allen – 5th grade teacher, a mom of an 11 and 9 year old, and desperate to be DONE with winter, please!! Yesterday we saw robins all over the yard and today… it’s covered with snow again.

I believe that the right book can change the trajectory of a child’s life and can help them recognize the world for what it is and what it can be.  And I want to help you connect kids with those wonderful, life-shaping books and bring you inspiring conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

This is episode #70 and today I’m discussing three new graphic novels that would be great additions to your collection, and I’m also sharing with you a conversation I had with one of their creators.

Book Talk – Three New Graphic Novels

In this segment, I share with you a selection of books centered around a theme and discuss three things to love about each book. This week I am featuring three new graphic novels released in the last few months that should absolutely be on your radar – Click, New Kid, and Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy.  

Click

Let’s start with Click by Kayla Miller.  This full-color graphic novel is about 5th grader Olive who is feeling left out and left behind when all of her friends have matched up with each other for the school variety show. They’ve all formed acts together and Olive is 51Cjbn97YrL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_feeling like she just doesn’t “click” with anyone or anything.  Here are three things I really enjoyed about Click:

  1. Olive’s Aunt Molly! She’s the kind of aunt we all wish we could have – the one whose house you can stay at when things are tricky at home. The cool aunt with ripped jeans, green streaks in her hair, and a “Kiss the Librarian” coffee mug. (I mean – well, *I* think that’s cool!)  It’s Aunt Molly that gets Olive these DVDs of old-timey variety shows that leads to her “a-ha” moment.
  2. The friendship dynamics in the book! I know a lot of kids can feel like they don’t belong. Don’t feel popular, don’t have a best friend. And as someone who always seemed to be friends with girls who were best friends with each other – I could really relate to Olive.
  3. The third thing that I ended up liking about this book is that it’s slower paced, has essentially one main conflict, and it can be read in one sitting.

Click is a great option for kids in grades 3-6 who liked Sunny Side Up or Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel.  And – Kayla Miller has a sequel coming out on April 23rd called Camp – so if they enjoy Click, they’ll have another one on the way.

Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy

Next up is Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo which is, as you might have guessed from the title – a modern retelling of Little Women. A full-color, 256 page graphic novel reboot of the March sisters’ story. In this retelling, the March family lives in a brownstone in New York City and their father is deployed overseas in the Middle East. So the setting is different, but the girls’ personalities are pretty much the same, but 51DPECs2-oL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgwith a modern twist. Meg is the responsible one and works as a nanny. Jo is an ambitious writer, Beth is shy and loves writing music but plays a guitar and not the piano, and Amy is still her obnoxious self – just in a slightly different way.  My eleven-year-old and I devoured this book – oh it’s so good! And here are three reasons why:

  1. That the March family is reimagined as a modern blended biracial family. Mr. March is black and was a widower with one daughter, Meg. And he marries Mrs. March, who is white and also had one daughter, Jo. And they go on to have Beth and Amy together.  And that mix of closeness and conflict that can happen between sisters had my daughter nodding her head and laughing in recognition. We also loved that this modern retelling including gay characters and just an overall more diverse slice of society.
  2. Noticing what’s changed from the original. I’d read the Little Women many years ago but my daughter hadn’t and I doubt many middle grade readers will have. But we had both seen the movie recently and it’s cool to see how those classic characters are updated. Amy is into gaming – and boy is she competetive about it! And she wants to sell Aunt Catherine’s ring to either go to art school or launch a career as a video game reviewer on YouTube. The book includes most of the iconic Little Women scenes – Jo cutting her hair, Amy wrecking some of Jo’s writing, Jo not saving Amy from an accident that could have been tragic, Meg hanging out with a crowd of a different class, the whole Laurie situation. But each are shifted and told in a totally new way that makes sense for the now.
  3. The ending is the same yet totally different. I want to be careful with what I say so I don’t ruin anything if you haven’t read Little Women. First, the story ends when the girls are younger. Jo is still in high school and Meg is in college so there might be an opportunity for a sequel? Also – just like the original, you will need tissues but maybe not an entire box.

Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth is a must-purchase graphic novel for I would say about grades 5 and up. And just like other graphic novels versions of classics like Anne of Green Gables and the Iliad, it’s a way for young readers to access those stories in a format they love. And adult fans of Little Women will love it, too.

New Kid

The third graphic novel that I want to recommend to you this week is New Kid by Jerry Craft. I’m fairly confident that you have already heard about this book since it seems like NewKidCover.jpgeveryone is raving about it. But let me add my voice to those to say – yes, it’s THAT good. And I am really excited to have Jerry Craft on the show today to talk about how the book connects to his own experiences attending a private school, micro-aggressions, his favorite Chinese food, his inspirations, what’s he’s been reading – and so so much more.

Take a listen:

Interview Outline – Jerry Craft

New Kid has been getting so much love and support from readers online –   you have knocked it out of the park! For our listeners who have not yet read the novel, can you tell us a bit about it?

I’ve heard you say that Jordan’s story is somewhat based on your experiences. What are those those similiarites and also – where does the novel diverge from your experiences?

In a previous interview you were asked what message you hoped people would take away from reading New Kid. And one of the things you mentioned was addressed to teachers and librarians “when you see kids of color, make sure you see them as kids first. Because they are! They like to laugh, and play, and use their imaginations, but to me they are constantly bombarded with so many things that force them to grow up at a much faster rate than other kids. Their books. Their movies. Their music. Everything is such a heavy reminder of how terrible their lives are going to be.  And that scene at the book fair is such an illustration of that….

jerrycraftHiResSo I have to talk to you about the audiobook of New Kid!  What was the process like and what did you think of the final audiobook?

So – what’s YOUR favorite Chinese food?

A question from Jarrett Lerner.. “I’d love to hear about your favorite comics, comic book artists, graphic novelists. You do such inventive, clever things with your paneling and your visual language. Who are your influences and favorites?

So, everyone wants to know – will there be a sequel?!

What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked?

Thank You!

Links:

Jerry’s website – http://www.jerrycraft.net

Jerry on Twitter – @JerryCraft  

Jerry on Instagram – @jerrycraft

Jerry on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/jerry.craft.162

New Kid audiobook

Jerry’s influences:

John Buscema

Jim Steranko

Gil Kane

Jack Kirby

Will Eisner

Barbara Slate

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

Nimona audiobook

Angel Love (Barbara Slate)

Sweet Sixteen (Barbara Slate)

You Can Do a Graphic Novel (Barbara Slate)

Class Act (Jerry Craft)

Piecing Me Together (Renée Watson)

Queen Raina Telgemeier

Nic Stone

Ibi Zoboi

Jason Reynolds

Kwame Alexander

American Born Chinese (Gene Luen Yang)

Anika Denise

Pura Belpré

Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library (Carole Boston Weatherford)

Closing

Thank you so much for joining me this week.  You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org.   And, if you have an extra minute this week, reviews on iTunes or Stitcher are much appreciated.

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

Talk with you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

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

 

 

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MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox Post: SO DONE and the Art of the Epilogue

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There’s plenty of talk in the writing world about prologuesseparate introductory sections that usually take place well before or well after a story begins. When prologues are done well, they can set the stage for a novel in a very compelling way…but some people list prologues among their literary pet peeves and caution that there had better be a really good reason for including one. We’ve even heard the advice that writers should omit a prologue if they’re querying agents and sending sample pages because it might be an immediate turnoff. Prologues evoke some strong opinions!

There’s not so much talk about epilogues, though. Perhaps that’s because epilogues are separate sections that come at the end of a book rather than at the beginning, and there tends to be more talk in writing circles about how novels begin, especially when writers are querying agents and sending first pages, and especially because beginnings get workshopped most frequently.

But let’s face it: writing a good ending is hard. And there are times when an epilogue can offer just the right kind of closure for a novel. That’s the case in the Middle Grade at Heart March book club pick: So Done, by Paula Chase.

So Done ends with an extremely effective epilogue. Well, two extremely effective epilogues, actually: one for each of the novel’s two point of view characters, Mila and Tai. Let’s look at why the So Done epilogues work so well!

So Done is the engrossing, powerful story of two girlsMetai and Jamilawho are about to begin eighth grade. Tai and Mila have been best friends for many years, but their connection is now unraveling and there is a whole lot of tension between them, in part because of a secret they are both keeping about something that happened to Mila at the end of seventh grade.

The end of So Donethe part just before the epiloguesis intense. We’ll try to keep this discussion spoiler-free, so we’ll just say that the whole novel is ramping up toward the full revelation of what happened to Mila several months ago. The scenes that reveal Jamila’s trauma are raw and painfulas they should be, because what happened to Mila is terrible, and it’s something that really does happen to girls her age.

Paula Chase goes there. She trusts that upper middle grade readers can handle the depiction of what Mila has gone through and how it impacts her, Tai, and others when that truth comes to light. The scenes at the end of the book are very emotional. They are honest. They do not pull punches. The last chapter before the epilogue finishes with a gut-wrenching image of one of the girls. It’s beautifully done…but it would be a bleak place to end a middle grade novel.

So instead of either ending there, Chase skips ahead a few months and gives us the two epilogues, one showing Mila in November and one showing Tai. Chase summarizes some of the consequences of the truth coming out and then takes readers to a place where the girls are beginning to heal. This works well for a few reasons.

First, a lot of what has happened between that last heartbreaking image and the epilogues centers around the adults involved in Mila’s trauma rather than on the girls themselves. This is the girls’ story, and we need to know about how those events impact the girls, but we don’t need to see those events unfold in detail.

Second, by moving ahead in time, Chase gives those heartbreaking last chapters space to linger. She doesn’t suggest that the girls could begin to heal quickly. This jump in time honors the seriousness of what has happened but also shows readers that the girls can ultimately get to a better place.

Thirdand this is a really important onethe epilogues don’t wrap things up too neatly. Middle grade readers notice when books end in an unrealistically happy and tidy way. These epilogues offer plenty of hope, but they also make it clear that things are not magically betterthere are things that are still extremely difficult, and there are people who are suffering very much (including the girls, some of the time).

In general, an epilogue can be an effective tool for bringing closure and hope to the end of a novel, especially one explores tough topics. Can you think of other middle grade novels with epilogues that work particularly well? Let us know some of your favorites!

Our newsletter about So Done will go out on Monday, March 18th, and be sure to mark your calendar for the #mgbookclub Twitter chat about the book! The chat will be a week earlier than usual this month, on Tuesday, March 26th at 8pm EST. We hope you can join us!

Interview: Geoff Rodkey

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Before we begin, I just want to say thank you, Geoff, for stopping by the MG Book Village to celebrate We’re Not From Here and to chat about the book. Before we get to the new book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Sure! This is my ninth middle grade novel, after the Chronicles of Egg trilogy, the four books in the Tapper Twins series, and Stuck in the Stone Age. Before I got into books, I wrote movies, including Daddy Day Care and RV. And before that, I worked in a bunch of different media, including TV, magazines, speechwriting, and video games.

Now – We’re Not From Here. Can you tell us about it?

It’s the story of a family of humans who immigrate to an alien world after Earth is destroyed in a nuclear war…only to discover that the aliens who invited them have changed their minds about opening their society to a species that just incinerated its home planet. Because the family has nowhere else to go (assimilating is literally a matter of life and death), they have to figure out how to persuade the planet’s government to let them stay even as they’re being subjected to various kinds of scapegoating and discrimination.

I can’t imagine a darker, more dire premise for a book. Yet, like all your books, We’re Not From Here can be downright hilarious. Was it important for you to make sure the story was humorous? What do you see as the role of humor – both in fiction and in life?

I didn’t set out to write a funny book, and it’s probably too dark a premise to be a comedy in the usual sense. But the human characters in the story are desperately trying to persuade their alien hosts that—despite our often horrific capacity for violence—humans have other qualities that are redeeming enough to make it worth the risk of allowing us to live among them. And in trying to figure out for myself what human attributes are unambiguously good, one of the answers I came up with was humor. I think life would be a lot sadder and less interesting without it.

We’re Not From Here is told in first person, by a young human named Lan. You made a very interesting decision regarding Lan. Would you care to discuss your motivations for doing so? What does this do for the story, and for the reader of it?

In the book, I never describe Lan’s gender, ethnicity, or body type, because those physical attributes don’t matter much in the context of a story that’s set in a non-human society—and by leaving them out, I could give every kid who reads the book the freedom to imagine whatever version of Lan works best for them.

I wanted to make it as easy as possible for kids to imagine themselves in Lan’s shoes, and to empathize with how hard it is to be in that situation—to get scapegoated, discriminated against, and blamed for things you had nothing to do with, simply because of where you come from.

Full disclosure: I borrowed this device from an adult sci-fi author, John Scalzi. In 2014, he published a book called Lock In, and I got three-fourths of the way through it before I realized my default assumption—that the main character was a white guy—wasn’t necessarily correct, and that they could just as easily be a woman, an African-American, etc. As a reader, this really opened my eyes to the notion that a big chunk of the way I perceive the world doesn’t come from facts, but from assumptions I make based on my own personal history and biases. These assumptions might seem true for me…while not being true at all for someone looking at the same set of facts from a different perspective. That realization was pretty profound—it was like taking an empathy vitamin, and it had an impact on me way beyond my enjoyment of the book.

I decided to use the same device for We’re Not From Here not just because it fit perfectly with the book’s themes of inclusion and acceptance, but because I wanted to give middle grade readers the chance to have the same kind of empathy-broadening experience that reading Lock In gave me. Plus, I figured the overlap between John Scalzi’s mostly adult readership and the 8-to-12-year-olds who might pick up We’re Not From Here is slim enough that borrowing his narrative conceit won’t be too unfair to him. (Although I still feel a little guilty about it.)

We’re Not From Here is certainly science fiction, but a particular sort of science fiction. Reading it, I was reminded of certain books and stories by Kurt Vonnegut, and also of Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Are you a fan of sci-fi? Did you read it growing up? What were, or are, some of your favorites?  

I’m not a hardcore sci-fi fan, although I’ve enjoyed a lot of books in that genre over the years. As a teenager, I loved Slaughterhouse FiveDune, and Brave New World. In my 20’s, it was William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I’ve read a bunch of Stephenson since then—Cryptonomicon and Seveneves were both great. I went through a Terry Pratchett phase recently and read half a dozen of his Discworld books, which are hilarious. M.T. Anderson’s YA novel Feed was awesome. Like millions of other people, I devoured the whole Hunger Games trilogy in about a week. And I’ll read almost anything John Scalzi writes, even when I’m not stealing his narrative devices.

The situations and themes at the forefront of We’re Not From Here are incredibly timely – and seem to grow even more timely by the day. Did you set out to write such a book, or did the story come to you more naturally?

The book was definitely inspired by what’s been happening in America over the past few years. When I was growing up in Freeport, Illinois, my public school teachers drilled into us the idea that America is a melting pot of races, religions, and cultures that all come together in one society. Where we came from doesn’t matter: we’re all just Americans. That ideal might be naive, and it’s been contradicted in pretty appalling ways throughout our country’s history. But to me, it’s still worth striving for, and it’s a core element of our national character.

I got to thinking about this a lot in the fall of 2015, right after I did some school visits in Wichita, Kansas. Culturally and demographically, Wichita’s similar to the town where I grew up, and at one school I visited, I noticed a few Muslim girls wearing headscarves in the audience. Seeing them in a Kansas middle school initially struck me as a heartwarming reminder of that ideal of the melting pot.

But on the same day I came home from Wichita, the Paris terror attacks happened…followed a few weeks later by the San Bernardino attack…and then a presidential candidate’s proposal that the government ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. The idea that a nation founded in part on the principle of freedom of religion would even consider such a thing struck me as a pretty fundamental violation of what I’d been raised to believe it means to be an American. And as events like this happened, I kept thinking back to those little Muslim girls in Wichita. It broke my heart to imagine what kind of a lousy month they must be having—because I strongly suspected, based on my own experience growing up in a similar culture in the Midwest, that there was at least one kid on the school bus calling those sweet little girls terrorists.

I wanted to write a book about the injustice of that—about getting scapegoated and harassed not because of anything you’ve done, but just because of where you come from. Like the ideal of the melting pot itself, I wanted the story to be inclusive of everybody, and to speak not just to the kid getting bullied in real life, but the kid doing the bullying. It took me a while, but eventually I figured out that the best way to do that was to take a metaphorical step back and make the story about someone who’s getting scapegoated not because of the kind of human they are, but just because they’re human.

What do you hope your readers – in particular the young ones – take away from We’re Not From Here?

My deepest hope is that kids who read the story and identify with Lan will come away with a greater sense of empathy for people who are in similar situations in real life. But the story’s metaphorical enough that I’m not sure how many kids will see the real-world parallels without a nudge in that direction from a teacher or librarian. My own 12-year-old son, who’s pretty well-informed about current events, loved the story—but he read the whole thing without ever pausing to wonder if it had any connection to things he reads about in the news. It was a somewhat humbling reminder that what might seem to an adult like a blindingly obvious political metaphor can, to a kid, just be a cool story about trying to get along with a bunch of giant insects who don’t like you.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add We’re Not From Here to their classroom libraries?

When they talk to their students about the book, I’d encourage them to point out that every kid has the freedom to imagine whatever kind of Lan they want. Because the lack of physical detail is all subtext, a lot of kids probably won’t even notice that they haven’t been told Lan’s gender, body type, etc. in the text—they’ll just automatically fill in the blanks without realizing it.

But if you draw their attention to it, I think it can make for a really interesting conversation around the idea that reading isn’t just a passive activity, and that every reader’s experience of a book is unique. Unlike movies and TV, written stories are really a collaboration between two imaginations: the writer’s and the reader’s. If you think of a story as a house, all a writer does is draw the blueprint. It’s the reader who has to actually build the house in their mind, and no two readers’ houses will ever look exactly the same. Every book is like this—We’re Not From Here just makes that imaginative collaboration a little more obvious by putting slightly less detail into the blueprint.

Where can readers find more information about you and your work?

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I have a website at geoffrodkey.com, where you can learn more about both my books and my background. Also, Random House created an Educator’s Guide for We’re Not From Here—there’s a PDF at this link, and I’ll happily send a physical copy to anyone who emails me via the contact page on my site. And until the end of this school year, I’ll be offering free Skype visits to any classroom or group that wants to talk about We’re Not From Here, so send me an email if you’re interested!

MG at Heart Book Club’s March Pick: SO DONE by Paula Chase

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There’s been a lot of discussion in the middle grade community lately about the need for books that bridge the gap between middle grade and young adult. Here at MG @ Heart, we think that So Done by Paula Chase is exactly that kind of book—so we’re extra glad to have it as our March book club pick! Read on to find more about it…

When best friends Tai and Mila are reunited after a summer apart, their friendship threatens to combust from the pressure of secrets, middle school, and the looming dance auditions for a new talented-and-gifted program.

Fans of Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together will love this memorable story about a complex friendship between two very different African American girls—and the importance of speaking up.

Jamila Phillips and Tai Johnson have been inseparable since they were toddlers, having grown up across the street from each other in Pirates Cove, a low-income housing project. As summer comes to an end, Tai can’t wait for Mila to return from spending a month with her aunt in the suburbs. But both girls are grappling with secrets, and when Mila returns she’s more focused on her upcoming dance auditions than hanging out with Tai.

Paula Chase explores complex issues that affect many young teens, and So Done offers a powerful message about speaking up. Full of ballet, basketball, family, and daily life in Pirates Cove, this memorable novel is for fans of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish and Jason Reynolds’s Ghost.

Watch for our newsletter on 3/18 and our Twitter chat on 3/26!

MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: THE NIGHT DIARY by Veera Hiranandani

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Our February book club pick was Veera Hiranandani’s Newbery Honor Book, THE NIGHT DIARY. This heartbreaking historical middle grade tells the story of a family forced to relocate under dangerous conditions during Partition in the 1940s in India and what is now Pakistan. When India secured its independence from Britain, it came with the caveat that all Muslims would move to newly formed Pakistan, while all non-Muslims could live in India.

This puts young Nisha and her family in a difficult position. Her father is Hindu, but her mother, who passed away just after Nisha and her twin brother Amil were born, was Muslim, which leaves Nisha with many thoughtful questions about why they must choose sides in the conflict. Their beloved cook, Kazi, who steps in as a beloved parental figure with the children while their father spends long hours at the hospital where he works, is also Muslim and must stay behind while Nisha and the rest of her family prepare to leave the only home she’s ever known for India.

The novel is made up of a series of journal entries from young Nisha to her mother. The epistolary style really lends itself to listening to the story via audiobook if you’re able! These journal entries describe all the things Nisha loves about her home even as she prepares to leave it. And then it chronicles the conflict that is stirred up between Muslims and Hindus as they prepare to leave. Even as the family faces life and death stakes on their journey to India, they face personal stakes as both Amil and Nisha force their father to face the grief he’s shoved aside since their mother’s death.

A story of love, loss, and redemption in the face of political upheaval and violence, THE NIGHT DIARY is a must-read that deserves every bit of the praise and accolades it’s garnered since its release.

Readers of all ages will learn something from Nisha’s heartwarming journal entries.  To learn more about the author, or for printable drawing pages, activities, recipes, and discussion questions, check out our Middle Grade at Heart newsletter devoted to THE NIGHT DIARY.

The Middle Grade @ Heart book club pick for March is DO DONE by Paula Chase! Stay tuned for more posts about this awesome book and don’t forget to join us for our Twitter chat on THE NIGHT DIARY on March 5!