12 BOOKS SET ON THE FARM by CJ and Elza from Middle Grade Carousel

Today at MG Book Village we’re featuring a great list of middle grade recommendations for August all about the barnyard from CJ and Elza from Middle Grade Carousel.

Hello from Middle Grade Carousel! We’re CJ and Elza, a mother-daughter blogging duo who love all things middle grade.

Although we’re both readers, CJ and I don’t always want to read the same book. This inspired us to start our own reading challenge, where we pick a theme and run with it! In looking for books that fit our challenges, we often discover new books that maybe we wouldn’t have noticed or tried before.

Today, we’re here to share a dozen books inspired by our theme this August. From prize-winning pigs and powerful poultry to fields of creepy scarecrows and crops with a mind all their own, farms hold plenty of possibility for everyday adventures, extraordinary discoveries, and creature comforts. We hope you’ll read and explore along with us!

MOO  

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28217808-moo)

Sharon Creech

Lower Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction/Novel in Verse

When their family moves from the big city to rural Maine, Reena and her brother, Luke, are recruited by a kooky neighbor to help care for her menagerie, including a stubborn beltie cow named Zora.

UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22926534-unusual-chickens-for-the-exceptional-poultry-farmer)

Kelly Jones

Middle Grade, Magical Realism

Sophie and her family inherit Blackbird Farm from her recently deceased great-uncle. Moving in and learning how care for a farm is more work than they expected. Especially when Sophie realizes Uncle Jim’s chickens are far from ordinary.

PIXIE PUSHES ON

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35209422-pixie-pushes-on)

Tamara Bundy

Middle Grade, Historical Fiction (1940s)

Pixie feels she’s been cursed with bad luck. Her family’s been torn apart by loss and illness, and she’s not getting along with her classmates at school. With no one else to turn to, Pixie takes to caring for the farm’s newest resident, a runt lamb named Buster.

JACK: THE TRUE STORY OF JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22747768-jack)

Liesl Shurtliff

Middle Grade, Fairy Tale Fantasy

Jack gets into trouble when he’s bored, which means he’s in trouble a lot. Life on the farm isn’t very exciting. That is, until his father is carried away by an unusual force of nature. With the help of his sister, Annabella, Jack takes on the adventure he’s always wished for.

100 CUPBOARDS

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1661390.100_Cupboards)

N.D. Wilson

Middle Grade, Portal Fantasy

When his parents go missing, Henry York is taken in by his aunt, uncle, and many cousins in rural Kansas. A bump in the night leads to a mysterious discovery in the farmhouse attic that tuns his quiet new life upside down all over again.

SMALL SPACES

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43231098-small-spaces)

Katherine Arden

Middle Grade, Speculative/Horror

Upon rescuing an old book and receiving a cryptic warning, Ollie reads a chilling tale of feuding brothers and a mysterious “smiling man”. Her class’s field trip to the farm reveals spooky similarities to the story, but when their bus breaks down on the way home, it’s too late to get out before nightfall.

DRIZZLE

(https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/6658679)

Kathleen Van Cleve

Middle Grade, Magical Realism

Polly Peabody lives on a magical rhubarb farm where jewels appear in the soil, bugs can talk, and rain falls every day at precisely 1:00 P.M. without fail. When things go awry and the rain stops falling, Polly decides to investigate.

WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW 

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36341193-where-the-watermelons-grow)

Cindy Baldwin

Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Della Kelly’s family is struggling. The farm is in trouble, and mama’s condition is taking a turn for the worse. In hope of finding a cure, Della decides to ask the Bee Lady for a jar of honey rumored to work like magic.

CHARLOTTE’S WEB

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24178.Charlotte_s_Web)

E. B. White

Lower Middle Grade, Classic/Magical Realism

Born a runt of the litter, Wilbur was raised by the farmer’s kindhearted daughter, Fern. Moving into the Zuckerman’s barn is a big step for the little pig, but he soon befriends the other animals, including an intelligent spider named Charlotte.

CHICKEN FEATHERS

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2607210-chicken-feathers)

Joy Cowley

Lower Middle Grade, Humor/Magical Realism

Semolina is a sassy and spirited chicken, but only Josh knows she can speak. When eggs begin to go missing from the henhouse, Semolina has a birds’ eye view of the culprit, but Josh has a hard time convincing anyone to listen to her advice.

THE UNICORN IN THE BARN

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30971733-the-unicorn-in-the-barn)

Jacqueline K. Ogburn

Middle Grade, Magical Realism

When Eric Harper encounters Chinaberry Creek’s much-rumored “white deer”, he discovers the magic that’s been hidden away right next door. What was once his grandmother’s farm is now a veterinary hospital for magical creatures, and Dr. Brancusi is willing to share its secrets with Eric.

WISHES, KISSES, AND PIGS

(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1429768.Wishes_Kisses_and_Pigs)

Betsy Hearne

Lower Middle Grade, Magical Realism

A careless wish turns Louise Tolliver’s brother, Willie, into a pig. Unfortunately, this isn’t their first—nor last—brush with trouble. With her father missing, neighbors conspiring, and magic mixing everything up, Louise and her mother must keep their wits about them while searching for a spell to make everything right.

If you’re ready for more farming fun, join us at Middle Grade Carousel. Our reading challenge for the month of August is Barnyard Bookshelf (https://elymnifoquent.com/2020/08/01/mgcarousel-august-2020/)!

Elza Kinde is a designer of graphics, writer of fiction, reader of Middle Grade, nerd for words, and maker of bad puns. She celebrates her many hobbies and passion for creativity on her personal blog at ElzaKinde.com. (https://elzakinde.com/)

C. J. Milbrandt is a lifelong bookworm with a love for fairy tales, far-off lands, and fantasy worlds. Her family-friendly stories mingle humor and whimsy with a dash of danger and a touch of magic. She is a moderator on the Great Middle Grade Reads (https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/71883-great-middle-grade-reads) group on Goodreads. You can also find her at CJMilbrandt.com (https://cjmilbrandt.com/).

Together, this mother-daughter duo run Middle Grade Carousel, a blog designed to make reading fun with a variety of games and challenges for middle grade readers of all ages. Learn more at Elymnifoquent.com (https://elymnifoquent.com/)!

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Lorelei Savaryn

Hi Lorelei! Thank you for stopping by MG Book Village to talk about your upcoming debut novel, THE CIRCUS OF STOLEN DREAMS (releases September 1, 2020 by Philomel Books). I love the sound of this story, can you share the synopsis with everyone, please?

Absolutely! 

After Andrea’s brother, Francis, disappeared, everything changed. Her world turned upside down, and there was nothing she could do to right it. So when she discovers a magical dream world called Reverie in the woods near her home, Andrea jumps at the chance to escape her pain and go inside. But the cost of admission is high: Andrea must give up a memory in order to enter. And she knows exactly which memory she’d like to give up.

Once inside, Andrea discovers tent after tent of dreams come alive; she can fly on a gust of wind, brave swashbuckling pirates and search for buried treasure, reach for–and wish on–a tangible star, and much, much more. But Andrea soon realizes that not all of Reverie’s dreams are meant to delight, and the Sandman behind the circus tents seems to have plans of his own. When Andrea finds a tent in which her brother’s darkest nightmare has been brought to life, she realizes the dark truth: Reverie is not an escape; it’s a trap.

Will Andrea and her new friend Penny have what it takes to find Francis, figure out what’s really going on in Reverie, and break free from this nightmarish dream world?

What was the inspiration behind this story, and was there an aspect of it that came to you first before the rest?

Many of my story ideas come to me first in the form of a very sharp image or idea. THE CIRCUS OF STOLEN DREAMS began when my then six-year-old daughter showed me a picture she had drawn that brought me to wonder what would happen if a world of dreams started to creep into and impact real life. I immediately knew that I wanted to play around with the idea of the dream world being a circus and it took a lot of work to flesh out all the details and get things right, but it was so very much fun.

Was there a character that you enjoyed writing the most? What about the one that was the most challenging for you?

Oh my goodness, I’m not sure I could pick a favorite! Each character has grown so very special to me in their own way. But, I think I’d have to say that my antagonist, the Sandman, really does hold a special place in my heart. Creating an antagonist who is both working actively against Andrea, the main character, but who has wounds of his own that echo Andrea’s struggles (and also has magic at his fingertips to boot!) definitely stretched me as a writer. Figuring out the Sandman’s story was one of my most significant challenges while writing this story, but it also was the most rewarding when I finally figured it out.

So, in the end, I think the answer to both of those questions is the same: The Sandman!

Can you tell us 3 things you’d like readers to know about this book?

1- This story is meant to feel like a hug to any kid who has ever walked a difficult road, who loves to immerse themselves in magic and wonder, and who dreams of being brave.
2- As a kid whose parents divorced and who didn’t see much representation of the child experience of divorce when I needed it most, I hope that this story will find kids who may be walking through that journey & who may benefit from feeling less alone.
3- I’d also like readers to know that this book is the product of about 100 rejections over the span of two years, and is a testament to resilience and continuing to pursue one’s dreams, even when it’s hard.

What has surprised you about the journey to get this book published?

Through this journey, I have learned so much more about patience! There are a lot of quiet periods and periods of waiting at every stage of the process to publication. It takes time to get a story right, it takes time to wait for feedback, or to get a chance to send an agent your full manuscript, and then to receive an offer. It takes time to get it ready for submission, and then to hear back from an editor, and then to revise it again. And the waiting continues, even now! I’ve learned to be a lot more patient and willing to accept that things will happen in the right way at the right time. 

So many writers have found it challenging to write over the past few months. What is one technique you use to keep the words flowing?

Having a deadline for my book two edits has definitely helped! But I’ve given myself a heaping helping of grace, too. I’ve used this time to really reflect on the kind of stories I want to bring into the world, which is helping me hone future story ideas. I’ve read a bit, or watched TV a bit, or sat outside a bit. Whatever allowed me to refresh and recharge. I also think that now, with so much uncertainty in the world, that stories are as important as they ever were, and I’m so thankful that I get to write stories for kids. We make sense of the world through stories. Stories affirm that the world can sometimes be a scary place, but that there is also hope and love and joy and magic to be found in sometimes the most surprising of places. To paraphrase Chesterton, stories teach us that dragons exist, but that they also can be beaten. Focusing in on the value of my work has helped me continue to be creative even now. 

Are you working on another project now that you can share with us?

I am! I am contracted for a second book, due to be released in Fall 2021. It’s another creepy, magical story, this time inspired by The Secret Garden! I can’t wait to share it with the world soon.

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

Lorelei: You can find me at www.loreleisavaryn.com. I’m also @loreleisavaryn on Twitter, loreleisavarynauthor on Instagram, and on my author page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/loreleisavarynauthor/

Thanks for spending time with us today, Lorelei, and I look forward to seeing your book in the hands of young readers soon!

Thank you so much for your hospitality, Kathie, and for inviting me to chat about my book!

Lorelei Savaryn is an author of creepy, magical stories for children. She holds a BA in creative writing and is a former elementary teacher and instructional coach. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time amidst the beautiful chaos of life with her husband and four children outside of Chicago.

Cover Reveal: THE SHIP OF STOLEN WORDS, by Fran Wilde

Hi, Fran! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to reveal the cover for your new book, THE SHIP OF STOLEN WORDS! Can you tell us a bit about the book?

Hi Jarrett! So happy to be here — I’m a huge fan of MG Book Village and @MGatheart!

The Ship of Stolen Words is about Sam, a fifth grader who can’t wait for summer to begin. But when his favorite get-out-of-trouble word is stolen, and then his sister’s is as well, Sam and his sometimes-best-friend Mason have to track down the thieves. Sam’s entire summer depends on getting those words back! Sam discovers that goblins are sneaking into our world and collecting overused and mis-used words when he meets Tolver, a goblin boy, and Tolver’s word-hunting pigs. This kicks off an adventure across two worlds where humans and goblins race to recover Sam’s words before goblin prospectors invade Sam’s neighborhood… using flying pig ships called word hogs.

There’s a lot of magic in this book, and I’m so excited for readers to meet Sam, Tolver, and their families (and some of the prospectors too!). 

Word hogs?! WOW. I can’t wait!

What do you hope your readers — especially the young ones — will take away from the book?

I hope they have a lot of fun with the book, and also take away the feeling that words are pretty magical!

I know that the book originally sold with a different title. How did you feel about the switch?

I love the new title a lot. The original title was focused on the first word that was stolen, and this title, which my brilliant editor Maggie Lehrman and her family came up with, really captures the adventure of the book.

You write fiction, non-fiction, essays, and poetry. What do you love about fiction in particular? Is there anything about Middle Grade fiction that you find especially exciting to write and/or read?

What I love about fiction is that imagination can take the lead. If you’d told me, when I set out to write this book, that it would end up where it did, I would have been so surprised… and that’s part of what’s so great about fiction: the more surprises, the better. 

My excitement for Middle Grade goes all the way back to reading The Phantom TollboothEarthsea, and The Westing Game as a kid — the way that wordplay and adventure mixes, and a new discovery seems to be on every page. I love reading what’s happening in Middle Grade fiction now as well — so many adventures! Some of my favorites lately include Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret, Carlos Hernandez’ Sal & Gabi Break the Universe, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, Molly Brooks’ Sanity & Tallulah, Laurie Morrison’s Up for Air, Kate Messner’s Chirp, a series called Enginerds (you might have heard of it!), Lamar Giles’ The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, and Kate Milford’s The Thief Knot

At the same time, Middle Grade can engage both serious and silly topics, and I love that too. My debut Middle Grade – Riverland – was about a very serious topic, and used portal fantasy to allow two sisters to work out a solution to a problem they — and others — had been trying to conceal.

I couldn’t agree more. And what a great list of books! Thank you! Okay — let’s get to the cover. Were you at all involved in the creative process? If so, how so?

My main involvement with the cover development was screeching with delight. The first cover comps were among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Maggie Lehrman had asked me about what I’d like to see, and I’d given some general guidelines, but I’ve also worked with so many great cover artists over the past five years that I know they’re the masters of their craft.

Artist Shan Jiang (website) did an amazing job – the colors and the motion on the cover makes me want to jump right into the story.

All right — let’s take a look!

My word. It’s magnificent!

What did YOU think when you first saw the cover?

Honestly, my first thought was: FLYING PIGS!!!!

Hahaha! So, when can readers get their hands on THE SHIP OF STOLEN WORDS?

The Ship of Stolen Words comes out June 1, 2021, and Riverland comes out in paperback on May 11, 2021 — both are available for preorder at Abrams Kids and Amazon— and soon, everywhere. You can also mark it as “want to read!” at Goodreads.  And Riverland is also available for paperback preorder: https://www.amazon.com/Riverland-Fran-Wilde/dp/1419743384/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1596470860&sr=1-1

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

You can find me at http://www.franwilde.net and on instagram (along with my dog, Luna, and a lot of summer garden vegetables) at https://www.instagram.com/fran_wilde/.

Kickstarter Creators Photo by Bryan Derballa

Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been finalists for six Nebula Awards, a World Fantasy Award, three Hugo Awards, three Locus Awards, and a Lodestar. They include her Nebula- and Compton-Crook-winning debut novel Updraft, and her Nebula-winning debut Middle Grade novel Riverland. Her short stories appear in Asimov’sTor.comBeneath Ceaseless SkiesShimmerNatureUncanny, and Jonathan Strahan’s 2020 Year’s Best SFF. (Bibliography.) Fran directs the Genre Fiction MFA concentration at Western Colorado University and writes nonfiction for publications including The Washington PostThe New York Times, and Tor.com. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at franwilde.net.

Interview: Victoria Bond

Welcome, Victoria! Thank you so much for stopping by our site to talk to us about your work. Let’s get right to it. Can you share a bit about the ZORA & ME trilogy as a whole? Where did the idea for the trilogy come from?

First, hello and thank you! I deeply appreciate the access to this community and its support! Middle grade novels meet readers, well, in the middle of so many things: growing up, trying out new ideas, figuring out who they are, and deciding what values they stand for. I feel a responsibility writing for an audience that consciously recognizes that they are in the midst of a huge, life-altering shift. That’s true of all of us all the time, of course. Especially now, in the middle of both the pandemic and the efforts to call out and end white supremacy and systemic racism, it’s hard not to confront some of the hard realities we’re surrounded by. In the Zora and Me books, we’ve wanted to discuss some of those hard realities, but in the context of community, hope, and true friendship.  

The series was literally born in a universe far away called 2007. I had just finished writing a novel that was horrible. Tanya Simon, my friend and Zora and Me co-creator, read my first post-MFA book, and agreed that it didn’t work. But she mentioned that she liked the young people characters. I said I enjoyed writing them. Not too long after that, Tanya invited me over to her house for lasagna and told me her idea about a middle grade series starring Zora. In this NYT piece, Tanya discusses some of her motivations, which are personal and political. She wanted to create a spunky, mystery-solving Black heroine for her own daughter who she was pregnant with at the time. She also wanted to create that genius Black girl heroine for all kids. Because Tanya has a background in anthropology, in part, Zora was already in her mind as a specific kind of iconoclastic embodiment. Clearly, I jumped aboard! I was always deeply compelled by Zora’s writing and her hometown, Eatonville, Florida, the first all-Black incorporated town in the US.  As much as these books are about Zora, they’re also about an early 20th century Black community. For me, in so many ways, that’s been an intellectual joy to explore and something I’m deeply grateful I’ve had the opportunity to do.

I’d love to hear more about your working relationship with T.R. (Tanya) Simon. You two co-wrote the first book, she wrote the second book, and you wrote the final one — THE SUMMONER, which publisher this October. What has the experience been like?

For years, Tanya and I tried to settle on a story for the second novel. There were elements of each other’s outlines that we liked, but whenever either of us would try to wrench those elements into a single novel, in at least two drafts, the work was just not coherent. We decided to divide those ideas out into the final two installments and I am so pleased with where we landed, and how connected and cohesive each volume remains to the first. More than that I’m relieved that Tanya and I remain friends and such proud co-creators of this series!

Do you remember when you first discovered the work of Zora Neale Hurston? What did it mean to you then, and has that changed over the course of working on these books?

I was a sophomore in high school when my godmother gave me the collection of Zora’s work, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…and Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive, edited by Alice Walker. I was bookish and a theater kid and people were always telling me that I spoke too loudly, or that they loved the way I dressed, or that I looked weird, that I was really smart one day, and a complete idiot the next. Like many of us, as a result, I internalized truck-loads of self-doubt. The Zora anthology though started to chip away at it. Those writings forced me to think about what I thought about myself and how I would choose to articulate my self-respect irrespective of what voices were coming at me daily. This was a huge leap for me personally, one I continue to take, and I have my godmother, Alice Walker, and of course Zora herself to thank. Zora modeled the Black woman as a fearless intellectual force committed to recording the life of her community. If Zora could do all that, I started to feel like “Who cares if people think I’m weird? I have to figure out what I want to do!” 

What sort of research did you do before and while writing these books? Is the research process one you enjoy?

I’ve reread Hurston’s novels, stories, plays, essays, and autobiography. I’ve read Valerie Boyd’s wonderful biography of Hurston Wrapped in Rainbows a few times. I’ve also returned to the work of Hurston’s contemporaries such as Langston Hughes and Jessie Redmond Faucet who are two of my favorites. At the beginning of the series, I found that considering the preoccupations of some of Hurston’s contemporaries seeded in me things I ended up using. That became less true as time went on because my interests shifted. 

In the 1930s, Zora photographed a woman named Felicia in a hospital courtyard who had been thought to be years dead before she showed up at her family’s farm, broken, bewildered, and for the most part without speech. The family had buried the woman and now here she was; there was no denying her identity. Zora was in Haiti at the time doing anthropological work, heard about Felicia’s case, and went to visit her. Zora took this photograph of Felicia, and Zora as a photographer fascinated me almost as much as the photo itself. These are points that I ended up working into The Summoner. Before I started working on the novel though I was familiar with the idea of the zombie being rooted in the history of enslavement. But as I kept digging, forgive the pun, for information on graveyards and grave robberies, the issue of medical racism started to loom large. In many places in the US, the use of white cadavers for medical research was banned, looked down upon, or made illegal. This means that historically a lot of medical research done in the US was conducted on Black bodies and our biological matter. The Henrietta Lacks case, for example, is one of the most high profile instances of racism and white supremacist erasure continuing after death, and for Henrietta into immortality. Yes, the reach of racism extends beyond the grave. By including in this novel the history of what scholars call “postmortem racism” I wanted to say to middle grade readers, You think racism is a crazy, evil, atrocity? Well, here’s more evidence to add to the case. 

Was there anything you learned in your research that didn’t make it into the books, but that you wanted to include?

What a good question! This is not something that I learned researching necessarily, but it was a historical element that I kept trying to work into The Summoner that in the end was edited out for streamlining purposes. In every draft, except for the published one, there’s a passage about the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the north and midwest. I kept thinking that Zora and Carrie would have known or at least heard of families that made this journey. I’m a little sad the passage didn’t make it to the final. 

Why do you think it’s important for kids to explore history – and this history in particular? What sort of role does fiction have in that exploration?

Another good question! I think it’s so easy for kids and all of us really to think that history, especially difficult ones where violence and oppression feature prominently, as it did in the Jim Crow south, don’t have anything to do with us. We’re not those people in that strange, far away place who did those horrible things, or could endure living such-and-such way. What fiction does is undermine all the pomposity, safety, and security we feel in being who we are now. And it puts words and ideas in our bones that transport us to a then where we care about what happens to people who are not us because we’ve imagined and inhabited their lives, in their times, in their way. And that’s all to say that stories like the ones I’ve written should give us insight into how the history we think is so far away is actually uncomfortably close. While writing this book I would sometimes think about Michael Brown’s lifeless body left in the street in Ferguson for four hours. I would also think about Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old, left to bleed in the street alone as his sister wept and begged police officers to comfort her brother in his last moments. The grim spectacle of Black death has permeated our lives. In The Summoner I used the idea of the zombie and the history of medical research to get at that point another way.  

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from the ZORA & ME books?

I just hope readers enjoy the books and want to hug their friends a little harder after reading them, which many of us are desperate to do anyway because of the pandemic. 

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add the ZORA & ME books to their classrooms and libraries?

Zora Neale Hurston is truly an extraordinary historical figure. What our series tries to do is build out the extraordinary and ordinary world that contributed to who Zora became with historical realities intact. Some of what these books are about includes gender, race, white hostility and racially motivated violence. But they’re also about family dynamics, friendship, and love. I wrote this last book thinking about the election of 2016. Irrespective of what happens in our democracy in 2020, The Summoner makes an interesting vehicle for thinking through civic communities and why exactly people cast their vote for one candidate over another. There’s a lot to explore in these books! The times are begging for teaching opportunities like the ones this series provides. Teachers, librarians: go for it!    

When can readers get their hands on THE SUMMONER?

October 13, 2020! Order/pre-order the entire series NOW!!

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

I’m in the middle of putting together a website! The address is victoriabondauthor.com. My fingers are crossed it will be up by the time this interview posts. Thanks again!! 

Interview: Aliza Layne

Hello, Aliza! Thank you for coming to the MG Book Village to talk about your debut graphic novel, BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES! Before we get to the book, would you like to introduce yourself to our site’s readers?

Hello!  I’m Aliza and I write silly books very seriously.

BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES is your first graphic novel, but you have been making and sharing comics for a long time. Can you talk about your background in comics?

I started seriously teaching myself how to draw when I was around 17, back in 2010, and by 2013 I was making Demon Street, which is my longform fantasy-horror webcomic that’s free to read online. In 2014 I wrote the first story with Beetle and Blob Ghost as a kind of Halloween special and I couldn’t put the characters down, so as everything else continued to develop I kept sending Beetle around to different people and working on developing it out, first into a storyboard and then some years later into a book pitch. In the meantime I did a bunch of anthologies and shows and built Demon Street out into the 600+ page monster it is now.  

Did you read comics and graphic novels as a kid? What do you say to those parents, teachers, and librarians who still don’t consider comics and graphic novels “real” books and the reading of them “real” reading?

I read almost everything I could get my hands on! I think my first really in-depth reading of a graphic novel was probably Jeff Smith’s Bone, which I still think the world of. I think everyone has come a long way in seeing comics as real reading, but I would say that the lack of an idea of comics as literature comes back to a dearth of scholarship about them. I think it trickles down from academia. Even though we generally don’t study film in k-12 in the US, you’re not going to see very many people saying that it isn’t real art, because we have broad scholarship about film and film theory in a way we don’t about comics. Graphic novels as literature may be present in an average college as a single elective class, but it just isn’t a branch of study the way film or literature are right now. But this is a unique art form with a unique language that’s separate from aping the conventions of any other media, it’s just under-studied. So I think we’re already moving in the right direction by shifting culture towards scholarship about GNs, parents and teachers who are traditionalists are naturally going to follow academia’s lead. You see a similar issue in other “low art,” like games.

Fascinating! I hope you are correct!

All right, let’s get to Beetle, Gran, Kat, and Blob Ghost! Was your creative process at all different knowing that these characters’ stories would one day be in a physical book?

So, a physical book is written in a slightly different language than webcomics. You have a finite number of pages to work with that have a specific size, and you also have to consider the gestalt of the two-page spread as well as the action of page-turning as opposed to scrolling or clicking. It forces you to tell your story tightly, similar to the way that a film works as opposed to a TV series, so you end up squeezing everything you possibly can out of every little moment. This might have been twice as long as a webcomic! There’s certainly enough material I could have added!

Can you tell us a bit about what BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES is all about? 

It’s about Halloween jokes and high adventure, but it’s also about being a kid with only one friend and what that feels like. It’s about running around your neighborhood during the week where summer turns into fall for real. I didn’t know it when I wrote it, but it’s about giving the Halloween adventure feeling to kids who might not be able to do Halloween this time around!

I know BEETLE began as a much shorter comic. Can you discuss how the idea evolved? How did you decide to plant such a magical story in, of all places, a mall?

Most immediately I thought the juxtaposition would be funny, which is why the short I did in 2014 has the long title “Goblin Witch and Blood Ghost hang at the mall.” But the joke of mixing the Halloween-spooky with the mundane is a very old one. The Addams family is absolutely this joke, I’m just doing it with a very earnest heart that loves magical coming-of-age. But I’m also framing it around a kid’s experience of the world, especially young kids and how they think when they’re brought into a huge, strange, completely artificial space. There’s a fairyland quality to that. The escalator has teeth and it’s scary and it could suck you down into it and chew you and that’s how you die—we all remember thinking stuff like that. So that beast is real here. And because a lot of malls around the country are sort of decrepit and crumbling, there’s an eerie quality to the space that I’ve talked about a lot. I was 13 when the global financial crisis began in 2007 and I watched the doing-just-fine commerce around me fall apart. Kids now are growing up in a time that’s even weirder! So I think if we’re going for a kind of magical mundane, why not talk about the very real spooky feeling of seeing a place you used to be into sag in on itself until it collapses?

BEETLE is at times touching, at times exhilarating – and almost always hilarious. What role does humor play in your creativity? How do you make sure you are balancing all of these emotional notes in your storytelling?

Oh, they aren’t kidding when they say it’s harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I love jokes but they take so much craft! After that everything is smooth sailing. If I can make you laugh, the hardest thing in the world, I can certainly make you care. The rest of it is all about having characters who you can really believe in as a writer. You want to be able to just put them in a scene and keep in mind their current mental state and figure out how they would bounce off each other, that gets you most of the way there!

Are there any comic-makers or any particular graphic novels you’d suggest to readers who become fans of BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES?

Please look forward to Dungeon Critters coming soon from Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter, it’s a fantasy adventure/mystery by way of Captain Underpants and Redwall! Check out Ethan M. Aldridge’s Estranged and its sequel! For older readers I highly, highly recommend Ariel Slamet Ries’ Witchy.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from the BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES?

That really depends on the individual person and what they need! I hope this makes someone out there feel less alone, or believe that they can help others or ask for help themselves. Or I hope it makes someone out there feel less self-conscious about their creativity. I hope people take things away from it that I haven’t thought of yet!

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES to their classrooms and libraries and/or recommend the book to their students?

Just that I see a lot of really vibrant, fascinating, textually dense creative work being done in comics right now, so I hope you’ll look forward to this continued renaissance of graphic novels in the future! I love this medium, and I hope more and more people learn how to read stories this way and examine them in depth!

When can readers get their hands on BEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES?

You can ask for it at your local bookstore (for contactless pickup if you’re reading this in 2020) or from any online book retailer! I suggest using indiebound or bookshop, since they support local bookstores!

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about — and see more of  — your work?

I have a kids’ website at Beetlebones.net and a website with my entire portfolio at alizalayne.com! That website has all my social links.

Thank you so much again for stopping by the site, Aliza! It was great to chat with you!

Aliza Layne is a cartoonist, illustrator, and storyteller. She is the creator of Demon Street, a long-form fantasy webcomic for all ages. Her Halloween costumes have elicited the phrases “theatrical,” “don’t you think you’re going a little overboard,” and “oh, we remember you from last year.” Beetle and the Hollowbones is her first graphic novel. Visit Aliza at AlizaLayne.com.

The Narrative Neighborhood: Little Free Library Liberation and Story Scavenging During Quarantine, by S.G. Wilson

My neighborhood had achieved a state of peak Little Free Library years ago. By the start of 2020, it was headed for a full-scale borrowed-book market collapse. 

You couldn’t walk a block without bumping into one book-lending box after another on their curbside posts. So many of my neighbors had taken up littlefreelibrary.org’s nonprofit mission to share books and promote literacy that the glut had nearly robbed the whole endeavor of its magic. With practically everybody putting up a little free library, the little structures become so much background noise, like fire hydrants or post-911 yard flags circa 2003.

However picturesque they looked, the libraries stood there either empty (save for ancient tomes on marketing written before the internet, food-encrusted picture books spotted with cover mold, etc.) or saddled with the same boring stack of Barnes & Noble remainders everybody had already read or didn’t want to read. Day in and day out I’d pass these ghost libraries on the bike ride to my son’s school, rolling my eyes at the Tom Clancys and James Pattersons that never left the shelves, as if they were squatting there to keep books people actually wanted to read from moving in. I even watched one neglected Little Free Library rot and fall apart from disuse, a sight that traumatizes me to this day.

Then COVID-19 struck, and everything changed. Desperate for diversion like the rest of the world as we all sheltered in place, my neighbors produced sidewalk-chalk art, stuffed-animal hunts and lawn decorations as funny and uplifting as anything else you’d see on the internet. The world may have gone down the crapper, but the creative spirit of my neighborhood had come to life. And so had its Little Free Libraries.

The outdoor book shelves filled to bursting again, and the boring old titles finally moved on to make way for the new. I found novels I’d always wants to read, as well as fresh discoveries I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of, like a 1980s spiritual dieting book by Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. This blessed browsing filled a void that had opened in me since all the libraries and bookstores shut down.

I got so excited by all this quality time with books that I started making videos about the experience. With my son’s help, I fashioned them after the unboxing videos I used to deride, calling them my “Little Free Library Book Tour.” (Feel free to check them out here.)

Story Scavenging

Fun as it was to make a project out of my new hobby, I wanted to produce something that would contribute to this neighborhood renaissance I’d enjoyed so much. I found that something while walking around the next neighborhood over (which had generally proven to be a less creative neighborhood, but I’m biased).

“Which is the coldest planet?” the sidewalk asked us in chalk. Arrows pointed from the multiple choices: “Neptune” going one way and “Uranus” another. We could have just looked up the answer on our phones and headed back home. But this challenge was the most excitement I’d had during quarantine since discovering that Jim and Tammy Faye diet book (well, that and the impending streaming release of Hamilfilm). Never mind that when we made it around the block, the right answer had washed away from the pavement. Never mind that we wound up having to look it up on our phones (Uranus). All we cared about was that after weeks of isolating at home, for just a few moments there, we had an actual destination to reach.

I loved the way this sidewalk-chalk trivia challenge made people interact with the physical world in order to answer a question in their heads. It was kind of like Pokémon Go but with an actual reason to exist. I decided to take this basic format and give it my own spin: I devised a real-world Choose Your Own Adventure.

I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. If you’re not familiar, these books give readers a choice about where to go at the end of every section. “If you decide to attack the dragon, go to page 14.” “If you decide to talk with the dragon about the Republicans’ chances of holding on to their senate majority in the next election, go to page 50.” What I had in mind was something more akin to, “If you decide to attack the Dragon, go to the intersection of Dancy St. and Duval Avenue.”

Figuring everybody loves middle-grade books (again, I’m biased), I dug up a rejected novel my friend and podcast co-host Matthew Bey wrote years ago. When Monsters Attack, the tale of a boy protecting his school from an invasion of 1950s-esque B-movie aliens, lent itself to the conventions of a Choose Your Own Adventure once I boiled it down to seven parts told over a few paragraphs apiece. I made the story and its choice path super-simple, figuring the average pedestrian might get a headache from too many decisions, especially in the summer heat just around the corner.

I printed up signs, titled them “Story Scavenger: Navigate the Narrative,” and coated them using the lamination machine my son requested for his birthday (because he’s THAT kid, bless him). With the help of my other son, who prefers staple guns to lamination machines (because he, in turn, is THAT kid), we affixed them to utility poles within a five-block radius of our house.

I can’t say this experiment in interactive neighborhood narratives caused some sort of sensation, but over the course of several weeks, I saw a fair share of kids, families, hipster couples and other random folks try their hands at When Monsters Attack. One reader even fixed a typo.

At my site, I’ve made a set of these story signs with blank lines for filling in the directions in case you’re inclined to hang them up in your neighborhood. Still, I’d recommend making up your own Story Scavenger tale, if you’re so inclined. It’s a fairly straightforward process, but keep these points in mind as you go:

  1. Use second person. Stick with “you” instead of “I” or “he” or “she” or “they”. “You wake up in a cave in your underwear with no memory about who you are and a full-size bear is licking your face.” It’s a good way to immerse the reader in the story.
  2. Another way to maintain that sense of immersion is to not go into detail about the point-of-view character. Try to avoid mentioning gender, race and other details about the character if you can help it. Otherwise, it might remove them from buying into the story and feeling that immediacy when they’re making their choices. For When Monsters Attack, I left out most details about the character beyond the implication that they’re a middle school student with a knack for getting into trouble. Most people have been a middle-school student, so they can hopefully relate.
  3. Also, keep it concise. I didn’t write more than three or four paragraphs for any of the parts, figuring people reading the signs would want to get a move-on eventually.
  4. And while you’re at it, don’t complicate the choice path unduly. Too many choices and the reader (or in this case, the walker) might feel overwhelmed. In When Monsters Attack, I kept thing super simple: a choice to press forward with the story or an “out” to escape. However, the escape hatch choice bumps the reader to the conclusion, so it’s all tied together.

And one last piece of advice while you’re out turning your neighborhood into a story: wear a mask and keep a healthy distance from your readers!

S.G. Wilson is the author of the upcoming middle grade novel, Me Vs. the Multiverse: Pleased to Meet Me, due out Aug. 4. Alternate versions of S.G. from parallel Earths have worked as an Olympic shufflepuck commentator (Earth 24), food taster for Emperor Justin Bieber (Earth 101), stage manager for an all-mime version of The Sound of Music on Broadway (Earth 3), and many others. This Earth’s S.G mostly just writes stuff in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his partner, kids and cats. He’s worked as a magazine writer and editor and hosts a podcast called This Week in the Multiverse. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @SGWilson_Earth1.

. . .

S.G. Wilson is holding an Alternate Earth Giveaway for a free copy of ME VS. THE MULTIVERSE!

Me Vs. the Multiverse Alternate Earth Giveaway!

Everybody who enters gets: 

1. A “Greetings from the Multiverse” postcard (doubles as a bookmark)

2. A copy of “The Budget Guide to Traveling the Multiverse” (a zine)

3. The chance to win a copy of ME VS. THE MULTIVERSE!

To enter:

1. Think up an alternate Earth

2. DM it to me on Twitter or Instagram (bonus for follows): @sgwilson_Earth1

3. I’ll read out the entries at my online book launch have an the audience vote on the winner!

4. You don’t have to attend the launch by any means, but here’s the registration info just in case: Aug. 5, 4pm CST: tinyurl.com/y29fbpzw

Cover Reveal for SPIRITS AMONG US, by Sherry Howard

Hi Sherry, and welcome to MG Book Village! We’re very excited to reveal the cover for your upcoming MG novel, SPIRITS AMONG US. Can you tell a bit about it, please?

Hi, Kathie, and thanks for having me. I’m excited to share information about SPIRITS AMONG US! It still feels a little bit unreal. SPIRITS is a mystery, but probably not a typical one. Scooter and her best friend, Harlan, are trying to connect with the spirit of her mother. Appalachian folklore (with author license) has it that if you don’t connect with a spirit within a year, you may never connect. Their search, while trying to connect with her mother, sends them spiralling into a search for the robber who’s using their family property for a personal loot locker. As the mystery unfolds, Scooter’s impatience nearly leads to a disaster.

I’m curious to know the inspiration behind your story?

Sometimes it’s hard to pin down one inspiration. In this case I think several inspirations converged. The original name, Paintball Asylum, was the inspiration for a setting. We have a local paintball park by that name that I was enthralled with! Every time I dropped off a teen I listened and looked, then asked them a million questions afterward. Then, I heard the voice of my grandmother with Appalachian roots, and had many talks with my mother about life in the hills. I also have a lot of baggage from spending time in my teen years in a hospital for crippled children, with severe scoliosis that included a tethered spinal cord. Put all that in a cocktail shaker, throw in a dash of the middle grades principal in me, and eventually a manuscript crept out of me.

Can you tell us three things you’d like people to know about this book?

I’d like kids to know that even when times feel dark, the sun is still in our world. I’d like parents to know that this book might help teens understand and process their own kinds of sorrow. I’d like writers to know that it was a journey of a few years before the book arrived at its present form.

How do you fit writing into your daily life?

I have a three-generation-home, so it’s always been very busy! Parts of this manuscript were written and revised in carpool lines. I fit writing into the corners of my world. Except… During major revisions, twice with this manuscript, I shut out my world, build corkboards and cards on my huge kitchen table, and tell everybody to leave me alone! They cooperate a little.

OK, let’s talk about your cover. Did you have any input on it, and if so, what was the experience like for you?

I didn’t have any input at all, which is typical, I think. I had to ask, for this interview, who the talented designer is. Reycraft’s in-house designer, Raquel Hernandez, designed this intriguing cover! My wonderful, crafty editor, Wiley Blevins, envisioned a direction, and she created this cover, which I LOVE SO MUCH!!! I looked at it over and over to try to discover all the story promise it held.

Let’s show everyone what it looks like!

Can you tell us about the illustrator, and what you thought when you first saw the cover?

I fell in love with it! I think it says so much about the story. The paintball and other hints are delicious.

What is it that you love most about writing for kids?

Most of all, I respect kids and their thirst for understanding their world. I love anything I can do to help reassure them or share what I’ve learned with them. The curious geek in me gets really excited to learn about tiny details and share them. For instance, I met a friend who’d owned a paintball field during the course of beta reads for this book. Loraine helped me get every tiny detail correct about a paintball field. Even for fiction, I research and get excited about tiny details!

What is the release date for SPIRITS AMONG US, and where can people go to find out more about you and your writing?

SPIRITS AMONG US releases in just a few months on October 22.

Thank you for allowing us to be part of your cover reveal, and all the best with your book’s release?

Thanks for having me! It was great to be part of your world!

I’m active on social media and love to interact with folks. I’ll drop my links:

Website: https://sherryhowardwritesforkids.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sherlhoward/?hl=en

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SherLHoward

Sherry Howard lives with her children, silly dogs, and a dragon in Middletown, Kentucky, a stone’s throw from the beautiful horse farms Kentucky is always bragging about. During her career in education, she served as a middle school principal in one of the largest metro school districts in the US; she and cat-herders share many common skills. Sherry loves to read, write, cook, and sit in the sand watching the waves when she can. Her picture book, ROCK AND ROLL WOODS, received a Kirkus star and represented Kentucky at the National Book Festival! She also writes for the educational market, and has completed around a dozen books for that market.

LAYLA AND THE BOTS: EMPOWERING KIDS IN STEAM, by Vicky Fang

On August 5, the second book in the LAYLA AND THE BOTS series will be released! I wanted to tell you a little bit about why I wrote these books and give you a sneak peek into Book 2, BUILT FOR SPEED.

Covers for Layla and the Bots: Happy Paws and Layla and the Bots: Built for Speed, by Vicky Fang and ill. by Christine Nishiyama (Scholastic, 2020)

Before becoming a children’s book writer, I spent 6 years at Intel and Google designing technology experiences for kids. Through that work, I learned some important things. 

For example, did you know that girls start doubting their STEM intelligence by the time they are 6 yrs old [Atlantic]? Or that Black & Hispanic students have lesser access and exposure to CS resources [Google/Gallup Report]? Or that computer literacy and computational thinking skills are critical for everybody, not just computer engineers? [CMU]?

These are just a few of the reasons I was inspired to write STEAM books for kids. I wanted to create engaging and accessible stories to promote computer literacy. I wanted to share my love for technology and creativity. I wanted to feature strong protagonist girls of color that would inspire and empower kids in creativity, coding, and technology.

In case you’re new to the series, Layla is a rockstar/inventor with a band of bots, Beep, Boop, and Bop. They work together to solve problems in their town with their awesome inventions.

Credit: Scholastic Inc., Vicky Fang, Christine Nishiyama (2020)

In Book 2, they are performing at their local go-kart race and modify a go-kart for Tina, a girl who uses a wheelchair. As with every Layla and the Bots book, they embark on a product design mission, complete with investigation (research), ideation (brainstorming), implementation (building and coding), and iteration (debugging and revising). And as always, their inventions are fantastic and spectacular! But when the mayor refuses to allow the modified go-kart, Layla and the Bots must find a creative way to save the day – and Tina’s race.

Credit: Scholastic Inc., Vicky Fang, Christine Nishiyama (2020)

This story explores accessible design and the user-centric design process through a fun, jet-pack-fueled story. I hope these books help kids to see the awesome, imaginative, and meaningful possibilities of technology—And inspire them to rock out on their own!

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. Her goal is for her books to inspire computer literacy for a wide range of kids—while letting their imaginations run wild with the possibilities of technology! She is the author of INVENT-A-PET, as well as the LAYLA AND THE BOTS early chapter book series, and the I CAN CODE board book series. Find out more about Vicky by following her on Twitter at @fangmous or on her website at www.vickyfang.com.

Interview: Vong Bidania

Hello, Vong! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your debut chapter book series, ASTRID AND APOLLO! First, though, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Thanks so much for inviting me here, Jarrett! I’m a huge fan of middle grade books and therefore, a huge fan of MG Book Village. I am Vong Bidania (author name is V.T. Bidania) and I am the author of ASTRID AND APOLLO, which is a new chapter book series published by Capstone. ASTRID AND APOLLO stars eight-year-old twins Astrid and Apollo Lee, who are second-generation Hmong Americans living in Minnesota. This realistic fiction chapter book is the first series ever to feature Hmong American characters and I’m very excited to bring this much-needed representation to mainstream kidlit!

As mentioned above, these books constitute your debut. What was your journey to the printed page been like?

To be honest, it’s been a long and harrowing journey. I received my MFA from the New School many years ago—too many to say the number out loud—but once I started querying after graduation, I became extremely discouraged by rejections and didn’t write for a long time. I know all writers receive rejections, but mine felt particularly disheartening because the feedback I received was always the same. My manuscripts, which focused on the Hmong experience, “could never sell because there was no market for them” and “no one would read Hmong stories.” It was incredibly discouraging to repeatedly hear this and eventually, I stopped trying to get published.

A few years ago, after more diverse books were being published, I decided to try and submit my work again. This time I pitched one of many chapter book ideas that had been brewing in my head for years. I tried to be hopeful even though I had very low expectations. Surprisingly and fortunately, I found a publisher and then an agent who support my work. The chapter book I submitted is now ASTRID AND APOLLO. It’s been amazing to see the anticipation and excitement for the series—from readers and educators—and I’m happy to finally share my stories with the world.

I just really want Hmong children to see themselves represented; as a kid, I never saw myself in any books and I don’t want other children to have that same experience. Although I never expected my debut year would happen in the time of a global pandemic, the positive response so far has been so encouraging. I always knew there was a market for my stories even if I was told that market didn’t exist.

Can you tell us a bit about ASTRID AND APOLLO?

Readers will see Astrid and Apollo enjoying everyday adventures such as camping, fishing, and attending the Hmong July Soccer Tournament and the Hmong New Year Festival. Minnesota is home to one of the largest Hmong communities in the country, so it was fitting that the twins would reside here and participate in these special events that draw massive crowds to Minnesota every year. To me, the series is a celebration of Hmong kids and all kids in general. If you like reading about twins and siblings and families just having fun, this series is for you!

There’s a lot of outdoor activity in these books. Are you as outdoorsy as Astrid and Apollo?

Not in the least! I’m actually not an outdoorsy person at all, nor was I one as a kid. Here in Minnesota, there are lakes everywhere, which means there are mosquitos all over the place. I get mosquito bites all the time and I get sunburned easily too, so wearing a ton of sunscreen and covering myself with bug spray every time I step outside is a real pain. But many families who live in Minnesota love the outdoors and that includes a lot of Hmong families. I wanted to be sure Astrid and Apollo participated in the popular outdoor activities that so many Minnesotans enjoy. More importantly, I wanted the series to be an accurate representation of Hmong American children and families today. So while I am not outdoorsy, Astrid and Apollo are!

In ASTRID AND APOLLO AND THE STARRY CAMPOUT, there is a lot of talk about food – one of my favorite topics! In the book, we learn a bit about Astrid’s and Apollo’s preferences, but do you have a favorite Hmong food?

Sesame balls are my favorite treat in the whole world! Specifically, the kind with mung beans and coconut, which are excellent. Note that sesame balls are not specific to Hmong people and are enjoyed by people all over Asia. Sesame balls found in Chinese bakeries and restaurants—hello, yummy dim sum!—usually have red bean paste or lotus paste filling. Those are delicious too, but I love the Southeast Asian-style sesame balls that have yellow mung bean filling. Hmong delis and grocery stores sell these kind, which I prefer. And like Astrid, I am a fan of egg rolls. Hmong egg rolls are similar to Vietnamese egg rolls with thin, crispy outer layers and meat and vermicelli noodles as filling. Those are the absolute best!

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from the ASTRID AND APOLLO books?

I hope Hmong readers will see themselves, their families, friends, and stories reflected in the series. I hope non-Hmong readers will read the books and perhaps find that culture and race don’t have to be a barrier to relating to characters from a background different than theirs. I hope everyone will learn a little bit about Hmong culture, history, food, and language too (I include some Hmong terms in the books).

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add the ASTRID AND APOLLO books to their classrooms and libraries?

Hmong people are seldom represented in mainstream media or literature, but on the rare occasions that we are, the representation is inaccurate or outdated, and leans toward the painful, struggling war refugee narrative. The second- and third-generation Hmong children today are removed from that experience and might not relate to those stories. While it’s important that Hmong children know and understand our history and hardships, it’s also important that they see themselves in happy stories. It’s especially important that they see themselves as the stars of stories, and that their non-Hmong peers see Hmong children as lead characters and stars too. Diverse representation is more important than ever at this moment in history, and all kids deserve to read books with characters from diverse backgrounds. I hope you will share ASTRID AND APOLLO with your students so everyone can finally see Hmong children in authentic, happy stories and as the stars of stories.

What else are you working on now?

I’m finishing up the next set of books in the ASTRID AND APOLLO series coming Fall 2021. I’m also working on a middle grade novel that’s part historical fiction, part magical realism, which I’m very excited about, and I have some picture books in the works as well.

When can readers get their hands on the ASTRID AND APOLLO books?

All four books in the series publish August 1 and are available wherever books are sold. To get signed copies, please order from Moon Palace Books and Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis.

Moon Palace Books

Wild Rumpus

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

Readers can learn more about me at my website: http://www.vtbidania.com. I also have some fun launch events coming up that you can find more about here:

https://www.vtbidania.com/school-visits-events

Please reach out to me anytime here:

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/vtbidania

Twitter/Instagram: @vtbidania

Thank you, Jarrett!

V.T. Bidania was born in Laos and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. When she was five years old, she wrote her first story about a frog that jumped over a pond and completed it with a crayon illustration. She has been writing ever since. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and received a Mirrors and Windows Fellowship from the Loft Literary Center. She once worked on a martial arts movie and can be seen in a one-second clip where she is fighting for her life—literally. She lives outside of the Twin Cities with her family.

Interview: Jess Redman

Hey there, Jess! Welcome back to the MG Book Village, and thanks for being willing to chat a bit about your upcoming release, QUINTESSENCE!

Thank you so much for having me back!

Before we get to the new book, I’d love to hear about how your year has been since your debut, THE MIRACULOUS, published this past summer.

Well…it’s definitely been a memorable year for everyone! And a very busy one.

THE MIRACULOUS came out on July 30, 2019. It was thrilling and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

It was also a lot of really hard work! I had copy edits for QUINTESSENCE due around THE MIRACULOUS’s pub date, and then I jumped into revisions on what became my third book.

I was chugging along pretty well though until—schools closed in mid-March. In so many ways, we’ve been very fortunate throughout this pandemic, but it has been a tricky balancing act for my husband and I working from home with two very active young kids. I’ve spent many nights working until after midnight, and I’ve had to make peace, over and over, with life as it is in this moment.

And now? I’m working on copy edits for my next book, THE ADVENTURE IS NOW! It’s a super fun, fast-paced story about magic and the environment and hidden treasure on a remote island, and I can’t wait to share more about it in the coming months.

We can’t wait, either! Now, what’s the new book, QUINTESSENCE, all about?

QUINTESSENCE is the story of twelve-year-old Alma Lucas and her quest to save a fallen star.

Alma and her family have recently moved to the town of Four Points. She is homesick and lonely and, worst of all, she’s been having panic attacks.

Then one afternoon, Alma is given a quintescope (a sort of magical telescope) and this message: Find the Elements. Grow the Light. Save the Starling.

That night, through the lens of the quintescope, Alma watches as a star—a star that looks like a golden child—falls into her backyard. Alma knows what it’s like to feel lost and afraid, to long for home, and she knows that it’s up to her to save that star.

But she’ll need the help of the enigmatic ShopKeeper and three new friends from Astronomy Club to do it. Together, they’ll have to gather the four classical elements—Earth, Wind, Water, Fire—and use them to create the fifth element, Quintessence. It’s a quest that will take a little bit of science, a little bit of magic, and their whole selves.

I’m curious about the title, QUINTESSENCE, as you seem to have a habit of using big, bold, single words for your novels’ titles – words that some of your readers might only have a slippery grasp on. Is there a reason behind this? How did you arrive at this book’s title?

I love words. I’m a bit of a word collector á la Felicity Pickle in SNICKER OF MAGIC, and quintessence was one of my favorite words long before this story. I guess miraculous was too, come to think of it. There are some words that just feel like magic, that feel powerful all on their own, and quintessence and miraculous are two of them.

Hopefully when kids read these titles, they think the same thing. And hopefully, even if they don’t know exactly what the words mean or how to pronounce them, they’ll want to find out more.

The protagonist of QUINTESSENCE, Alma, suffers from panic attacks. What led you to write a story in which you explored this?

The most direct connection is that I too was an anxious kid. In this story, Alma moves to a brand new town and begins experiencing panic attacks shortly after. When I was twelve, I moved from Philadelphia to Florida, and the anxiety I’d been dealing with for several years increased dramatically.

As an anxious kid, I read constantly. I gravitated toward protagonists who felt different and mixed-up inside, my favorite being Meg Murry. I know reading about a character like Alma would have been a revelation to me. I would have felt less isolated, less alone. I would have felt seen.

Another connection is that I am a licensed mental health counselor. Right now, my focus is on writing and being with my two little kids, but I’ve worked with many anxious clients—young and old—over the years.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from QUINTESSENCE?

First and foremost, I hope they enjoy the story itself. QUINTESSENCE contains so many things that I love—magical telescopes, astronomy, supernovas, curiosity shops, alchemy, unlikely friendships, plot twists, characters who are more than they seem, and lots and lots of kids biking around in the middle of the night on adventures. I hope readers want to find out who the ShopKeeper is, where the Starling could be hiding, which kid goes with which of the four elements, and how the story is going to end. The ending is, in my opinion, the best part.

Beyond that, I hope readers who feel anxious or lonely or overwhelmed connect with Alma and her friends. I hope seeing Alma shifting her negative self-talk, practicing breathing exercises, learning about anxiety, and seeing a therapist helps provide these readers with the language to explore what’s happening inside them and the reassurance that it’s okay to ask for help.

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 QUINTESSENCE to their classroom libraries?

Teachers, you all have been on my heart, especially these last months as we’re faced with so much uncertainty with this coming year. I’ve been fortunate to get to know so many of you through conferences and social media, and I know how much you love your students and how passionate you are about connecting your kids with books.

Whatever form this school year takes for you, I hope you’ll consider adding QUINTESSENCE to your classroom library. It has short chapters, lots of action, magic, science, exploding stars, secret identities, elements that readers can “sort” themselves into, and lots of heart.

Also, it’s a story many of your students may need right now. Anxiety is the number one mental health concern in the United States, and I’ve heard from so many teachers already who were drawn to this story because of the rising anxiety rates in their classrooms. QUINTESSENCE will speak to readers struggling with anxiety and to anyone who has ever felt lonely or unsure about their place in the universe.

When can readers get their hands on QUINTESSENCE?

QUINTESSENCE will be sold in all the usual places, and you can find links on my Macmillan page here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374309763

My personal recommendation? Order a signed copy from my independent bookstore, Books & Books! You can do that here: https://shop.booksandbooks.com/book/9780374309763

And I’ll be doing a launch event with Books & Books on July 28th along with the amazing NYT bestselling author Natalie Lloyd (SNICKER OF MAGIC, THE PROBLIM CHILDREN series), so come spend some time with us! Details here: www.jessredman.com/events

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work? And do you have any events scheduled to help celebrate the new book?

A great way to connect with me right now is through Twitter & Instagram. I’m on both as @Jess__Red. There will come a day when I step back from social media to do more writing, but today is not that day.

You can also visit my website, www.jessredman.com to check out my pre-order campaign, book trailers, teacher’s guides, character quizzes, and other fun things. Like I mentioned above, I’ll be doing a launch with Natalie Lloyd, and then I have a whole series of virtual events coming up with super awesome middle-grade authors.

So follow me on social media, swing by my website, and come hang out at one of my upcoming events. I’d love to connect with you!

Jess Redman is a therapist and author of books for young readers with FSG/Macmillan. Her first book, The Miraculous, was a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2019, an Amazon Best Book of 2019, and was called “layered, engaging, and emotionally true” in a Kirkus starred review. Her second book, Quintessence, releases on July 28th.  The book was featured in OwlCrate Jr.’s subscription box and described as “a fanciful adventure with a rich emotional core and a fairy tale” by Publishers Weekly. Her third book, The Adventure Is Now, is scheduled for publication in May 2021. Redman currently lives in Florida with her husband, two young children, an old cat named SoulPie, and a fish named Annie. Visit her at www.jessredman.com or on Twitter and Instagram at @Jess__Red.

. . .

Three months ago, twelve-year-old Alma moved to the town of Four Points. Her panic attacks started a week later, and they haven’t stopped—even though she told her parents that they did. And every day she feels less and less like herself. 

Then Alma meets the ShopKeeper in the town’s junk shop, The Fifth Point. The ShopKeeper gives her a telescope and this message:

Find the Elements. Grow the Light. Save the Starling.

That night, Alma watches as a star—a star that looks like a child—falls down from the sky and into her backyard. She knows what it’s like to be lost and afraid, to long for home. And if a star really is stranded in Four Points, Alma knows she has to get it back up to the sky. With the help of some unlikely new friends from Astronomy Club and the mysterious ShopKeeper, she sets out on a quest that will take a little bit of science, a little bit of magic, and her whole self. 

QUINTESSENCE is a stunning story of friendship, self-discovery, interconnectedness, and the inexplicable elements that make you you.

PRAISE FOR QUINTESSENCE

“A wildly imaginative tale full of wonder and hope that is grounded in our everyday world and the very real problems that today’s children face.” —Megan Frazer Blakemore, author of The Story Web

A magical, wondrous book. . .The story is beautifully written and gave me chills almost constantly—with that magic-just-around-the-corner feeling.” —Gillian McDunn, author of Caterpillar Summer

“A fanciful adventure with a rich emotional core and a fairy tale flair. An emphasis on Alma’s mental health and circular thought patterns proves an effective complement to the story’s magical elements, as her new endeavor and friends grant her the resilience to navigate her needs. Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, this is a clever, entertaining story with its own distinct identity.” —Publishers Weekly

“…a cozy contemporary fantasy that balances fresh, cosmic world building with painful personal challenges…Short chapters and tight pacing keep things moving at a brisk clip, and readers will no doubt enjoy following Alma and her new friends on their fantastical treasure hunt of sorts. A warm, engaging adventure.” —Booklist

“Redman’s writing shines [in] the portrayal of Alma’s mental health and its effect on her sense of self and on those around her. . .Reassuring, especially to kids struggling to articulate their own feelings in the face of lingering stigma about mental health.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“As bright and magical as a falling star, Quintessenceis a beautifully told story that collided with my heart and set it aglow.” —Heather Kassner, author of The Bone Garden

“While firmly grounded in real-world issues, Quintessence shimmers with the perfect amount of magic. Redman’s deft, sympathetic portrayal of anxiety, a welcome and important addition to the middle grade canon, blends with scientific references to astronomy that are sure to engage young readers. Well-rounded, relatable, and resilient characters working together in a captivating setting make this the perfect read for fans of STEM and the stars.” —Sarah Baughman, author of The Light in the Lake