Book Review: SHIRLEY CHISHOLM (YOU SHOULD MEET), by Laurie Calkhoven, illustrated by Shea O’Connor

Simon Spotlight’s You Should Meet series offer fantastic introductions to and explorations of a variety of important historical and contemporary individuals. While highly informative, they are also wonderfully inspirational. Lauren Calkhoven and Shea O’Connor’s Shirley Chisholm is a fabulous example of this.

While some educators, librarians, and parents may, based on their format and design, deem the You Should Meet books “too young” for a Middle Grade audience, I think they are, in fact, perfect for them. The short chapters and abundant (and beautiful!) illustrations make these books accessible to younger and emerging readers, and offer older and more confident readers an opportunity to quickly explore a figure and/or subject that, if they so choose, they can then dive into more deeply.

The You Should Meet books also have excellent back matter, explaining sometimes dense, difficult subjects in a clear, succinct manner. Shirley Chisholm features a section about the three branches of the United States’ government, plus information about voting. For all of these reasons and more, this volume of the You Should Meet series belongs in elementary and even middle school classrooms and libraries. Every child should know the story of Shirley Chisholm, and this book shares that story in a wonderful, accessible way.

Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerdsRevenge of the EngiNerdsThe EngiNerds Strike Back, Geeger the Robot Goes to School, and Geeger the Robot: Lost and Found, as well as the author-illustrator of the activity book Give This Book a Title. Jarrett is also the author-illustrator of the forthcoming activity book Give This Book a Cover and the forthcoming Hunger Heroes graphic novel series (all published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He cofounded and helps run the MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instragram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his family in Medford, Massachusetts.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Terry Catasús Jennings

Thank you so much for joining me on Fast Forward Friday today, Terry. You have two books coming out on March 2nd with Aladdin, KNIGHT OF THE CAPE, and CAPTAIN DOM’S TREASURE. Can you tell us a little about this new series, please?

Kathie, I’m delighted to be with you. Thank you so much for inviting me to Fast Forward Friday. The Definitely Dominguita chapter book series is about a Cuban-American third grader who would rather read than do anything else. That may be because since her friend Miranda moved to Pascagoula in second grade, she hadn’t given a lot of time to finding a new friend–she found that she always had enough friends in her books. 

Dominguita lives in the mythical Mundytown, a suburb of a large city, with her mom, dad, older brother Rafi and, up to the point in which the series begins, her  Cuban grandmother–Abuela. But Abuela has become forgetful, and it’s no longer safe for her to stay alone during the day. So Abuela moved away to live with her sister. To fill the void that Abuela left, Dominguita decides to re-read the bedtime stories she and Abuela read together–the classics like Don Quixote and Treasure Island. 

On the first day after Abuela leaves, Dominguita is reading Don Quixote during recess, when Ernie Bublassi, the class bully, tells her that she only reads because she has no friends. Not so, says our heroine–she is reading because she’s planning to become a knight. But girls can’t be knights, says the bully. The rest of the story is Dominguita’s I’ll show you, including tilting at a windmill.

In the end, Dominguita finds two friends who love pretending as much as she does. They chose characters from other classics and always manage to have a contemporary adventure which is somehow related to the book at hand. 

I would use the word “spunky” to describe Dominguita. Can you give me three other adjectives you would use to tell us more about her, and from where did the inspiration for her character come?

Dominguita is inventive and impulsive, but she is also logical. Which may sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t, really. She is good at following the clues–if this, then that–but rather than thinking things all the way through, she acts first and thinks later. She comes up with the wildest plans which have to be brought down to reality by her sidekicks. Pancho and Steph are the moderating influences. At one point, Dominguita wouldn’t have accepted their help, always trying to rely on herself, but as the friendship develops, the threesome becomes a team. 

I think I can say that the inspiration for the first book came from my father. He loved Don Quixote and I’ve always felt that writing is a quixotic occupation–trying to follow a dream that may never come true. One day, the idea came to me to write a book about a youngster who pretends to be Don Quixote. Of course, to do that, the young character had to be steeped in the classics. Needing the classics made room for an Abuela with whom Dominguita could have a wonderful relationship based on their shared love of these books and their time together reading them. It also made room for the first book to turn into a series. At first the main character was a boy. But my daughter talked me out of that idea. It didn’t take much convincing. Of course the main character would have to be a girl. From there, proving that girls could be worthy knights was a no-brainer. Dom is very much like me as a child. I liked nothing better than reading, and I had a very fulfilling life in my own imagination. I, too, am very impulsive. And I’m always trying to prove myself. 

What does your writing process look like (do you have the book or series planned ahead of time, or do you see where the story takes you as you write?)

The Knight of the Cape was a little bit of putting something down on paper and seeing where that led me. There were elements of Don Quijote that I wanted to include like tilting at windmills and trying to rescue a victim from a bully without success. I also needed to find a squire for her. But that first book, getting to know her family and building the world of Mundytown with its friendly shopkeepers was very much an exploration rather than a planned and outlined process. When I thought that I had a possible series and I began to re-read the classics, I made quick outlines of any I thought would work.  Captain Dom’s Treasure was very much a planned and outlined work, but the plan didn’t work out. A second outline with some tweaking became the template for that one. I can say that in this series, since I try to include elements from the original books in the story, I have a really good idea of where the plot will go. I write the first few chapters to see if I can make it work, and then outline the plot. Sometimes it’s a chapter by chapter outline. Other times it’s a high level plan.  

Could you tell us about the illustrator, Fátima Anaya, and the process of working together to enhance the story visually? 

Fátima is from San Salvador. She says that she loves projects about diversity, family, and friendship as well as the magic of ordinary stories. What better match could I hope for? 

Fatima’s first cover made me cry. She made Dominguita as spunky and sassy as I thought she was. The town where she lives was exactly as I pictured it. When you look at the first inside sketch, Dominguita is sitting at recess, reading–alone, but not lonely. She doesn’t need anyone else. She has all the friends she needs in her books. Fátima gets Dominguita. She knows her like I know her. And her sense of humor shines through in her art.

We don’t work together, though. We always work through the Simon & Schuster editors. In one respect, I would love to work with her directly, In another, I love the idea that Fátima is totally free to bring her own intelligence and perspective to the series. You end up with a much richer work. The process for this series is that Fátima comes up with the cover or her interpretation of a scene and I weigh in on whether the sketch follows the text. After the sketch is approved, I wait until we get the color copy and that’s when the happy tears happen. For the cover of the fourth book, Fatima drew such a fun scene that I ditched some of what I had written and wrote a scene to match what she sketched. 

What is one thing you discovered about yourself during the process of publishing your books?

I found that I was able to write a chapter book and that I LOVED writing for that audience. The younger characters were so much fun to be with. It was truly a wonderful experience. It has made me think about some other manuscripts which are in my virtual drawers that may benefit from a younger perspective. The other thing that I found was that I really enjoyed world-building. Even though this is a contemporary story, the world of Mundytown is a place all its own and I loved meeting the shopkeepers and other characters in Dominguita’s world and making them my friends.

When can we expect the next book in the Definitely Dominguita series?

Terry: Two more books are coming out late summer/early fall; All for One, which is inspired by The Three Musketeers and Sherlock Dom, which is inspired by The Hound of the Baskervilles. In All for One, the dastardly Bublassi brothers threaten the quinceañera party of Leni Fuentes, the granddaughter of the junk shop owner who provides Dom’s crew with their costumes and tools. Sherlock Dom is the search for a lost goat (The Lost Goat of Tapperville) in which the crew uses Sherlock Holmes’s methods to find the lost goat and the criminals who took her. I hope there will be many more books in the series. There are many other classics waiting for Dominguita and her crew.

Can you tell us where to find out more about you and your writing, please?

My website is Terrycjennings.com. I am also a member of Las Musas, a collective of Latinx writers.

Thank you so much for joining me today, Terry, and I hope that Dominguita delights young readers, and gives them the inspiration to go on their own adventures.

It was wonderful being here with you, Kathie. I have the same hopes as you have for Dominguita. I hope Latinx readers see themselves in Dom and Pancho and I also hope the book brings all readers the tiniest bit of acceptance of diversity cloaked inside the fun. 

On September 11, 1961, Terry Catasús Jennings landed in the United States after a short flight from Cuba. On September 12th, she was enrolled in seventh grade in an American school. Her family, including her father who had been jailed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, was now in a free country. The only catch for twelve-year-old Terry was that she could count in English and recite the days of the week and the months of the year, but not much more. Often being the only Cuban in her school—even through college—Terry knows what it’s like to be the new kid on the block. She is delighted to have the opportunity, with Definitely Dominguita, to portray a typical child of immigrants—no different than her peers—other than she loves the classics (like Jennings did as a child) and thinks Cuban food rules. 

COVER REVEAL for Spell Sweeper by Lee Edward Födi

Hi Lee! I’m delighted to be part of the cover reveal for your upcoming middle grade book SPELL SWEEPER. I absolutely love your writing and it’s an honor to help promote this book. Thank you for chatting with me today.

Thank you for hosting me. I’m really excited about this book and am over the moon with the cover.

Your last two books were part of the Zoone series, but this book looks like a magical story that will sweep us in a different direction. Can you tell us about it, please?

Even though Spell Sweeper is still a fantasy book, it’s very different from anything I’ve published before. It’s told first person, present tense, so has a very real-time intimate feel to it, which I felt was the best way to capture the voice of my main character, Caradine Moone. 

Plot-wise, this book is wizard school meets Ghostbusters. Cara is a twelve-year-old kid who has recently “failed” her standardized wizardry test at Dragonsong Academy and now finds herself in the spell sweeping program. It’s her job to clean up the magical dust that’s left behind after “real” wizards cast a spell.

If you were to ask her, she’d tell you she was the Cinderella of the wizarding realm.

In terms of setting, this is my first book that is also set firmly in the real world. Even though Cara comes from Seattle, Dragonsong Academy is located on an island on the west coast of Canada. Some real locations featured in the book include the Seattle Underground and the Whistler train wreck.

I love the Canadian setting! Was there a particular character or element that inspired this story?

I wrote this book rather quickly (for me), but I think the various inspirations have been percolating for a long time.

The main inspiration has come from my years working as a creative writing teacher. In 2004, I met a like-minded dreamer named Joon Park who was seeking a writing program for his daughters to take. He couldn’t find the right type of workshop, so he decided to invent one—and he wanted my help. The next thing you know, Joon and I had started a creative writing program in Vancouver for immigrant kids from Asia (our own school of magic!). Our workshops blossomed and bloomed, and now we host many programs for kids from all walks of life. We write stories, draw pictures, brew potions, build dragon eggs—you name it! Reading the stories by these creative kids—and about their dreams, desires, and fears—was definitely the foundation for building Cara’s voice and perspective.

Another strand of inspiration was simply to do with brooms. I typically spend a lot of time in Asia, and a few years ago I started noticing brooms everywhere. There was always one leaning against a park bench or in the corner of a temple, as if impatiently waiting for its owner to return. I started photographing these brooms because I knew there was some nugget of an idea there that I wanted to explore. Eventually, I began imagining that these brooms contained hidden and unusual magic. Of course, you mention magic and brooms in the same sentence and people automatically think of flying. But I eventually settled on a different thought: What if brooms in the magical world were still for sweeping?

My grandfather also used to make his own brooms. He grew the broomcorn, harvested it, and bound them to broomsticks. I never saw my grandfather build a broom (I really wish I had), but I still have one of his creations. When I last spent Christmas with my parents, I scavenged their house to find they had their own collection of my grandfather’s handmade brooms. They all have the same humble construction—and, if you ask me, their own type of magic. Clearly, these brooms have been lingering in my subconscious all these years, waiting for me to tell their story!

The final bit of inspiration I want to mention comes from an exchange I’ve had with countless students. It happens almost exactly the same each time; I’m wrapping up a class or a school visit and a student approaches me and asks, “Are you famous?” 

I always answer the same: “I think the answer is in your question!”—but what intrigues me about this question is this universal desire we have for accolades and recognition. I think we’ve all experienced those “why not me?” or “when is it my turn?” moments. These are the sorts of yearnings that I wanted to drive Cara’s character in Spell Sweeper. In many ways, this book is about how we view success and failure—or, as I’ve come to think of it, the success of failure.

I love how unique creatures are always a part of your books. Who will we meet in Spell Sweeper?

Ooh, I can’t wait for kids to meet some of these creatures. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling and teaching in Asia and one of the creatures that I became enamored with is the magical fox, so one of Cara’s main sidekicks, who you will see on the cover, is Zuki, a kyūbi no kitsune (which literally means nine-tailed fox in Japanese). I think he is destined to become a fan-favourite.

There are other magical creatures you can meet in the book, including a dragon named Dörgés, and a creature from my own imagination called a squix. You will have to look closely at the cover for Spell Sweeper—if you do, you might spy a baby squix!

I’ve watched you continue to be creative throughout the pandemic. Are writing and drawing an escape for you, and if so, how do you tune out the world and slip into a different place?

I’m an immersive person, which means my bigger problem has often been tuning IN to the world, especially when I’m soul-deep in a project. To be honest, I think turning to writing, drawing, building, or doing anything creative has always been a coping mechanism for me to deal with traumatic or difficult situations in my life. The pandemic has been no different—though, I will say it’s a lot harder to disappear into my imagined worlds with a two-year-old at home. There was no place for me to escape to (like a coffee shop) and nowhere for Hiro to go either. Thankfully, Hiro is a pretty creative kid and loves drawing and storytelling, too. We’ve built quite a few dragon eggs together during the pandemic—and I’m sure we’ll build a few more.

Can you tell me about your involvement in the cover, and who the illustrator is? Is it challenging, as an artist, to leave that role to someone else?

I’m really grateful that HarperCollins and my editor, Stephanie Stein, allowed me to participate in the cover design process. 

It started with Stephanie asking me to submit a gallery of the types of covers I thought were representative of the direction I thought would be good for Spell Sweeper. We agreed on the type of approach and, a few months down the road, Stephanie revealed to me that the fabulous Maike Plenzke had been chosen to illustrate the cover. I was thrilled—I have loved Maike’s art ever since I saw it adorn the cover of Front Desk by Kelly Yang. My students and I have dissected all the details and elements of that cover so many times, so I was very excited to see what Maike would come up with for Spell Sweeper.

At that point, I submitted all of my own character sketches and character profiles, so that Maike could have a clear idea of how I perceived the cast. Of course, artists need to put their own spin on things, but my concepts showed the costume and hair details that are mentioned in the text. 

When I saw the first black-and-white concept for Spell Sweeper, I was completely swept away (pun intended)! It checked every one of my boxes, perfectly capturing the characters and the magic of Dragonsong Academy. I had a few notes to provide, for example some specific details to do with Cara’s broom.

So, even though I have worked as an illustrator myself, it wasn’t challenging at all to leave this process to someone else, mostly because I felt I played such an integral role. I long ago decided that I did not want to illustrate my own book covers because I realized that even though drawing is an integral part of my writing process, it’s not something I actually need to do as part of the final product.

It’s time to reveal the cover, drumroll please!

Wow, that is fantastic! What are some of your favorite elements?

Where to start? The composition is perfect—there is a lot of energy and movement here, with Cara sweeping straight toward the viewer. I adore how the title block is a part of that motion, and I feel it’s as if the viewer is going to be sucked right into the adventure. And, while Cara is the main focus of the cover, our eye can wander off to visit the other main characters: Zuki, Harlee, Nova, and Gusto, who all get their own places of prominence. 

The colors are vibrant and strong and Maike expertly captured the details of the school that are described in the text: the wardrobe-style lockers, the crookedly-hung paintings on the wall (it’s a wizard thing), and the toxic spell-slime leaking from the rafters at the top.

Look closely at Cara and Gusto’s belts and you will see all sorts of wonderful details, such as the “cleaners” and “neutralizers” they use as part of their role as spell sweepers (you won’t find these ingredients at home!). Maike even included Gusto’s stash of candy (it’s called witch’s delight). And then, of course, there’s Cara’s secret squix pet! It’s so adorable, much cuter than my own concept drawing.

I could keep gushing, but I will just say that this cover is my favorite of any of my books. 

What is the release date for Spell Sweeper, and is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?

The release date is Fall 2021! I hope kids fall in love with it, and I want to add that the design of Cara’s broom (which you can see on the cover) comes from the actual broom that I purchased at Granville Island Broom co. 

One of the owners, Mary Schwieger, allowed me to watch her build a broom while I interviewed her on the process and traditions of broom-making. 

Where should people go if they want to know more about you and your writing?

They can head on over to leefodi.com. There is a lot of information there about my books, my school visits, and my activities for kids. And I want to say you can check out more of Maike Plenzke’s artwork at cargocollective.com/maikeplenzke.

Thanks again for letting us be part of your cover reveal, Lee, and I can’t wait to read it.

It has been my pleasure!

Lee Edward Födi is an author, illustrator, and specialized arts educator—or, as he likes to think of himself, a daydreaming expert. He is the author of several books for children, including Spell Sweeper, The Secret of Zoone,and The Guardians of Zoone. He is a co-founder of the Creative Writing for Children Society (CWC), a not-for-profit program that helps kids write their own books. He has the joy of leading workshops for kids in Canada, the US, Korea, China, Thailand, and other places here and there. Lee lives in Vancouver, where he shares a creative life with his wife Marcie and son Hiro. You can visit him at http://www.leefodi.com.

Book Review: MALCOLM AND ME, by Robin Farmer

Wow, Roberta is a 13 year old who is going through a lot during her last year of middle school! During her 8th grade year, she has a love/hate relationship with a number of important people in her life, including both her parents, her teacher Sister Elizabeth, and even with God himself.

At her Catholic school, although the number of Black students is growing, she is still a part of the minority, so when she questions some things about history out loud to Sister Elizabeth, she clashes with her teacher in a way that has Roberta wondering how’s she going to make it through the rest of the school year.  Then she also has to deal with the rift growing between her parents and her own relationship with each of them. Luckily, Roberta is finishing reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and is able to find parallels between Malcolm’s growth and her own. Plus, she always has the power of the pen to help her make sense of her thoughts and feelings. Readers who love to write poetry or in a journal or diary will be able to identify with Roberta as she uses her writing to help find her voice and to help her guide her decisions. She grows a lot as an individual throughout 8th grade, and comes to realize that although everything does not go exactly the way she wants, she can figure out how to adjust and still find happiness.

Personally, I feel like there are not a lot of historical fiction MG books that take place post-civil rights movement with Black characters front and center.  So the setting alone, including a small peek into Watergate, I think will help to fill in a gap in history for young readers. There are great descriptions of Roberta’s afro and her outfits that help to transport you back to the ’70s. And although there were times that Roberta’s behavior was frustrating to me, an adult, I can totally see how middle/high school students would identify with her and her choices. So for young readers who are also writers (this story is based on some experiences Farmer actually had), who are struggling to fit in, who are into Black History, or who are struggling with parental relationships at home, this may be the book for them.

Malcolm and Me by Robin Farmer was released in November of 2020, so it can be found wherever books are sold. Thank you to the publisher for giving MG Book Village a copy for review.

Deana Metzke, in addition to being a wife and mother of two, spent many years as a Literacy Coach, and is now an Elementary Teacher Instructional Leader for Literacy and Social Studies for her school district. In addition to occasionally sharing her thoughts here at MG Book Village, you can read more of her thoughts about kid lit and trying to raise children who are readers at raisingreaders.site or follow her on Twitter @DMetzke. She is also a member of #bookexcursion.

COVER REVEAL for The Night Ride by J. Anderson Coats

Hi Jillian, and welcome to MG Book Village. We’re very happy to share the cover of your upcoming novel, THE NIGHT RIDE, set for release by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in Fall 2021. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Thanks so much for having me on MG Book Village! The Night Ride is a middle-grade action-adventure set near a fictional medieval-ish walled city. It’s about a girl named Sonnia who loves horses and dreams of working with them – maybe even owning one – despite the fact that her family struggles to pay the bills. She’s elated when she manages to get a job at the king’s racetrack, but it isn’t long before she realizes something not-quite-right is going on there. Sonnia must decide which is more important – her own future security, or the safety of horses who, much like a poor kid from the wrong side of town, someone powerful considers expendable.

What was it about the idea for this story that compelled you to write it?

In a lot of ways, this is a story for ten-year-old me. Like Sonnia, I loved horses, but unlike her, I rarely got a chance to go riding. So this is a bit of wish fulfillment for those horse-crazy kids in tract-house suburbia who wish they could be closer to horses than they are.

But it’s also a story about power and access – specifically, how people with means are sheltered from many of the risks that people in poverty are compelled to take. Youngfolk recognize inequity and inequality, but connecting it with a discussion of power (and the abuse of power) gives them tools to confront and resist it.

I love that all of your books have female protagonists. Can you tell us more about the main character of this one?

Sonnia loves horses more than anything, but growing up in a hardscrabble neighborhood means getting used to the idea that what you love may not be in your future. Nearly all of the choices she makes are influenced by the power imbalance and compulsion inherent in poverty. Her parents both work in what we’d call the gig economy, and she knows it won’t be long before she’ll have to do the same, even though it’s the last thing she wants to do. This makes her value opportunities when they present themselves – and it means she has a lot to lose if she speaks out.

What’s one thing you learned while writing this story?

Even though I was a giant horse nerd as a kid, I grew up on a busy street with a yard the size of a postage stamp, so 99% of what I knew about horses came from books. For The Night Ride, I researched horse behavior in a more hands-on way. I was delighted to learn how deeply expressive and personable horses are, which allowed me to give Sonnia’s horse Ricochet personality traits that made him fully a character, just like the humans.

Can you tell us what kind of reader would enjoy The Night Ride?

The obvious answer is, of course, anyone who loves horses, especially that kid who has read Misty of Chincoteague to tatters and regularly rearranges their shelf full of Breyer models. But I would also hand this book to someone who enjoys stories with close families, big dreams, long odds to overcome, and the occasional bandit sighting.

Were you involved in the process of designing the cover for this book?

I’m very fortunate that my editor and the crew at Atheneum were able to hire Abigail dela Cruz to create the cover for The Night Ride. I love her style – lots of emotion and vibrant action, which is a perfect fit for this book.

What did you think when you saw it?

I may have squealed out loud! I love the combination of the stars and leaves adding texture and motion, and I love how Abigail has taken care to make Ricochet a full character, with an expressive look to him.

Time for the big reveal! 

I love it! This cover has a very different look from some of your previous books. Can you tell us one way that writing this story was a unique experience for you, too?

My editor bought The Night Ride in November 2019. I finished the final draft in September 2020. I’ve never written a book during a global pandemic. Or during massive sustained protests against police violence. Or during the deeply stressful run-up to a high-stakes presidential election. You know. 2020.

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

I’m on Twitter way more than I should be (@jandersoncoats), and also on Instagram and Facebook. You can visit my website as well: https://www.jandersoncoats.com. Feel free to subscribe to my newsletter if you want all the latest – https://www.jandersoncoats.com/newsletter/!

Thank you so much for chatting with me today, and all the best with your book’s release.

J. Anderson Coats has received two Junior Library Guild awards, two Washington State Book Awards, and earned starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, the Horn Book Review, and Shelf Awareness. Her newest books are Spindle and Dagger, a YA set in medieval Wales that deals with power dynamics and complicated relationships, and The Green Children of Woolpit, a creepy middle-grade fantasy inspired by real historical events. She is also the author of R is for Rebel, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, The Wicked and the Just, and the forthcoming middle-grade action-adventure, The Night Ride (2021).

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Kate Albus

Hi Kate, thank you so much for joining me on Fast Forward Friday today. A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON is your debut novel that comes out on February 2nd with Margaret Ferguson Books. This is one of those books that gave me ALL the feels, and I can’t wait for readers to meet the Pearce siblings. Let’s start by telling everyone a little bit about the book, please.

Thank you so much for having me, Kathie, and for your kind words about the book! A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON is a historical novel set in England in 1940. It’s about Anna, Edmund, and William Pearce, three orphaned siblings who hope the World War II evacuation of London will be their chance at a forever home.

Can you share a little bit about your research process, and tell us about some real-world events that made it into the novel?

Absolutely! This story has its roots in my lifelong fascination with the WWII evacuation of London. I learned about that little piece of history as a child and – appropriately enough – I learned about it through a story. C.S. Lewis’ THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE includes a single line about why the Pevensies were being sent to the professor’s estate in the country, and even as a child I found the idea of the evacuation extraordinary. So, Edmund was named in honor of Narnia.

Before I started writing the book, I read a lot of World War II history, and specifically a lot of evacuee memoirs and other firsthand accounts. As far as real-world events that occur in the novel, I tried to be as accurate as possible about the events themselves and when they occurred. That’s true for the big events like the London Blitz and the bombing of Coventry, and for the smaller ones like Princess Elizabeth’s first radio speech and the King’s Christmas broadcast. It’s also true for little details like the books that would have been available to the children at the time, and the sweets they might have packed in their suitcases. I love that part of the research process… finding the obscure little details of everyday life that make both the history and the story feel real.

It’s impossible to avoid the hardships that families faced during World War II when writing a historical fiction novel, but I still walked away thinking of this as a tender and hopeful story. Was it difficult to find a balance between writing light and dark moments?

That’s such a great question, and it’s something I did think about a lot as I was writing. The fact that the story takes place where it does definitely made it easier to walk that line. When it comes to the really horrific parts of the war, like the Blitz, the children would have read about those events in the paper or heard about them on the wireless, but been one step removed from the horror. And that bit of remove allows the story to focus on the less traumatic, “everyday” hardships the children might have experienced, like food rationing and clothing shortages. In a way, I think those deprivations make the simple comforts in the story (buttered toast, hot water bottles, library books) that much more poignant.

You have a true gift for touching the reader’s emotions with the way that you write character relationships. I’m not sure I could pick a favorite one, but I really loved the way Mrs. Muller, the librarian, saw something in Edmund that no one else did. Which relationship was the easiest for you to write, and which was the most challenging?

Gosh, first of all, thank you! For me, characters are the reasons for writing and reading! To really enjoy writing something, I have to fall in love with the people I’m writing about, and that was definitely the case with Anna, Edmund, and William, each in their own way. I love Anna for the way she wears her whole heart on her sleeve. I love Edmund for the fact that he never stops to think before he speaks. And I love William for being the responsible one. I identify the most with William, but to quote Mrs. Muller, I think I would be better off if I had a little more Edmund in me.

In terms of writing the relationships between characters, I can’t say one was more challenging than another, but the thing I probably worked hardest on during the editing process was each of the children’s individual journeys in their thinking about Mrs. Muller and whether she was ‘the one.’

If I had a young patron standing in front of me looking for a recommendation, what’s one thing you think is important that I let them know about this book?

I’d like young readers to know that this is an old-fashioned story. It’s old-fashioned, in part, because it’s set eighty years ago, but I also hope it has the feel of an old story, the sort of stories Anna, Edmund, and William would have had available to them. And I hope readers will find comfort in this story the way the Pearce children did in theirs.

Without giving too much away, the children’s Christmas experience is unlike any they have experienced before. Did you ever experience a holiday or celebration that was not what you were expecting?

Yikes, all of the 2020 holidays were different, weren’t they?!? When I think about unexpected or unusual holidays in my own life, the ones that come to mind are those I’ve spent somewhere other than home, like Easter Sundays when I was away at college. As a serious homebody, I will always choose to be in my own house, but I ended up loving those holidays anyway. Those away-from-home Easters, my college friends and I started a brunch tradition that I still think warmly of and reminisce with friends about today.

Is there a writing project that you’re working on, and if so, can you share anything about it with us?

I’m currently working on another middle grade historical. Set in World War II again, but this time in my beloved New York home. It’s still in the early stages, but I’ve fallen head-over-heels for the characters, which seems like a good sign!

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

Please visit me online at katealbus.com, or find me on Twitter: @katealbus. And A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON comes out on February 2. All the links are available at the Holiday House website!

I wish you all the best with your book’s release in February, Kate, and I look forward to getting it into the hands of young readers.

Kate: A million thanks, Kathie. You do so much to support middle grade books and their authors, and I’m so grateful for everything!

Kate Albus is the author of A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON (Margaret Ferguson Books at Holiday House). Kate is originally from New York, but now lives in rural Maryland with her family. She was a research psychologist for many years before stepping away to be with her children. Other than writing, her favorite activities are reading, knitting, baking, and other pastimes that are inherently quiet.

Building Joy in Fiction During a Pandemic by Louisa Onomé

The truth is this: we’re living in unprecedented times. It’s difficult for us to find moments that we can really relax and let go because of the instability of daily life. And hey, listen, pandemic fatigue is real too. There’s only so much distancing and virtual conferencing we can do before we slowly start to feel disconnected from the people and things we love.

So what do we do?

This is a question myself and a handful of my fellow 2021 kidlit debut authors have pondered over the past year. Rather than just looking at our own lives, we also took a look at how we find and create joy in our books as a way to share that feeling with young readers. The times may be uncertain, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to spread the positive.

Here’s what we had to say about how to find joy in fiction while in the middle of a pandemic.

“My writing has become even more important to me during this pandemic,” says Sam Taylor, author of We Are The Fire. “It’s something that is uniquely mine, and something that is entirely in my own hands. When there’s so much happening in the world that feels completely out of my power–I can’t stop the pandemic, however much I might wish to–I at least have my stories. I can’t control if more of them become published, or how people will respond to them. But I can make time for writing, and hone my craft, and honor the stories I need to tell, and explore the truths within them, and tell them through the best words I can put together. And I can take satisfaction in the characters and worlds I’ve created, and find some peace and escape in them each time I sit down to write.”

Young adult fantasy author of Wings of Ebony, J.Elle, agrees: “The imagination is a powerful tool. And I find the more we can use it to engage and escape when life outside (literally in this case) doesn’t feel very imaginative or inspiring, the better. Stories are such a gift, whether they’re on the screen or between the pages of a book. So in Wings of Ebony and all my stories, while they explore pointed and timely themes, I try to build in nostalgia around the things that bring us joy and love. I lean hard on emotions in my exposition because my ultimate goal is that my readers feel what my character is feeling. Opening that gateway between reader and character allows me to “play with the reader” a bit, giving them moments of laugh-out-loud joy, coupled with moments that make them shift in their seat. Also, joy is found in so many unsuspecting places. We need as many smiles as we can get, especially now.”

It’s hard not to agree with my fellow authors. In my case, I think humor is so important in anything, and it seems we need it even more now that we’re going through a global health crisis. Judging by description alone, my debut Like Home wouldn’t be considered a “funny story”, but I like to think of it, in a way, as a comedy, simply because it’s my natural style to find the humor in any kind of situation. That’s how I approach finding joy in a pandemic as well. Focusing on the mundane things and finding things about them to poke fun at is how I highlight joy in my books–and in my life. It’s really important to me to emphasize that writing contemporary or “realistic” books doesn’t mean focusing only on the struggle or stressful situations, but recognizing that there’s opportunity for joy everywhere if you’re willing to look.

Check out the Class of 2k21’s kidlit projects here for more titles that can bring the joy to any young reader in these uncertain times.

Louisa Onomé is a writer of books for teens. LIKE HOME is her debut novel. She is a part of Class of 2K21 Books, a group of young adult and middle grade authors debuting in 2021. You can find out more about them at www.classof2kbooks.com.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Great New Funny Stories by Joanne O’Connell

Joanne O’Connell’s debut book, BEAUTY AND THE BIN, comes out on February 18/21. Today, she’s sharing more great new funny stories with our readers.

Most of us could use a laugh right now (it’s the best medicine, right?) and that’s doubly true for children. Funny books are the perfect way to cheer readers up in troubled times. So, here’s a roundup of some great new stories to make you LOL even during lockdown. You’re welcome!  

Pizazz vs the New Kid: The super awesome new superhero series! 

By Sophy Henn. (out 7 January 2021, Simon & Schuster) 

HELLO! My name is PIZAZZ and I’m a superhero . . . You probably think that’s really AWESOME, and while it can be, it’s also REEEEEEEAAALLLLY annoying. 

So goes the latest fun, energetic read by illustrator and author Sophy Penn (she wrote the Pom Pom series, and the Bad Nana books). This is the second in the series about Pizazz, a child superhero who really wishes they could be normal.  

Mort the Meek and the Ravens’ Revenge 

By Rachel Delahaye (out 4 March 2021, Stripes Publishing). 

On Brutalia violence is a way of life. Ravenous ravens circle overhead, monstrous grot bears cause chaos, and the streets are bulging with brawls. But Mort isn’t like the other islanders – he’s determined to live peacefully… 

Mort is a boy who is determined to be a pacifist despite his gruesome upbringing – and the book is an adventure full of lots of ridiculous characters and predicaments.  

The Accidental Diary of B.U.G 

By Jen Carney. (Out 15 April 2021, Penguin Books) 

There is a new girl at Billie’s school, and Billie takes it upon herself to show her around, teach her the Biscuit Laws, and remind her that yes, two women can get married (after all, Billie’s mums’ wedding is the event of the year). But then suspicion sets in… The new girl seems very close to Billie’s best friend Layla. And doesn’t she know a little too much about the latest big school heist? 

Contemporary and funny, the diary of B.U.G is about friendship, (modern) families and dismantling biscuits. And the great news is that the second book in the series is also out in 2021. Not we’ve not got long to wait!  

Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Space 

By Katie Tsang, Kevin Tsang and illustrated by Nathan Reed (6 August 2020) 

Sam Wu is not afraid of many things. Definitely not ghosts, sharks, the dark, spiders or EVEN zombies! But space, well … 

In this brilliantly funny book, Sam gets the chance to go to Space Camp with his friends for the summer. All eyes are on winning the Space Camp Challenge trophy but it’s tricky being away from home and not everyone is a team player. 

You could read it as a standalone but it’s even better if you read the full Sam Wu series. 

Orphans of St Halibuts  

By Sophie Wills, illustrated by David Tazzyman. 

After the accidental demise and hasty burial of their beastly matron, life has been pretty perfect for the pupils of St. Halibuts. But they still have to put on a facade of normality for the postmistress and visiting inspectors. They don’t want anyone finding out they’re in the orphanage alone… 

This one’s a real page turner, full of stolen cakes, grumpy goats and some pretty major explosions. The pages are packed with fun. 

The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh  

By Helen Rutter. (Out 4 February, Scholastic). 

Billy Plimpton is an eleven-year-old boy with a big dream. He wants to be a stand-up comedian when he grows up. A tough career for anyone, but surely impossible for Billy, who has a stammer. How will he find his voice, if his voice won’t let him speak? 

This is an against all odds, laugh-out-loud story, with an inspiring, heartfelt message for all readers.   

The Incredible Record Smashers 

By Jenny Pearson 

Lucy is a fixer of broken things. But there’s one thing she can’t fix and that’s her unhappy mum. Until she comes up with an INCREDIBLE plan. Along with her best friend, Sandesh, Lucy is going to SMASH a world record. But breaking a world RECORD when watermelons, kumquats, two baddies and a 30cm shatter-resistant school ruler are involved isn’t quite as easy as Lucy thought… 

Laugh-out-loud, while also dealing with difficult situations (Lucy’s mum suffers from depression) this is the brilliant next read from the author of The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates. 

Joanne O’Connell is a journalist, and author of Beauty and the Bin (‘a fresh and funny debut about friends, family, school and being a young eco-warrior’) which is out with Pan Macmillan on 18 February 2021. When she’s not writing for national newspapers and glossy magazines, Joanne whips up #noplastic homemade beauty recipes, from strawberry bath slushies to minty chocolate lip balm. She lives with her family in the English countryside. You can find her on Twitter @byesupermarkets or on Beautyandthebin.com 

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Tamzin Merchant

Hi Tamzin! Thank you so much for joining me today at MG Book Village! Your debut MG novel, THE HATMAKERS, is being released February 2nd, by Norton Young Readers. I was delighted to have a chance to read an eARC of it, and it’s filled with magic, adventure, rivalry, and a desperate quest. Can you give us a synopsis of it, please?

Hi Kathie! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. A little synopsis of the book… The hero of the story is Cordelia Hatmaker, the youngest member of the Hatmaker family, who weave their handmade hats with magical ingredients.

Though the story begins with Cordelia’s father going missing in a shipwreck, it becomes a race against time as she discovers a plot to start a war with France. Cordelia and her friends must make the most magical hat they can and get it on the right royal head before all is lost!

I understand that the idea for this book was inspired by a dream you had after working on a television series where you were surrounded by many lovely hats. Can you tell us how you turned that dream into the start of a new book series?

The dream I had was so vivid – a family of magical Hatmakers who are rivals with a family of magical Bootmakers – that I woke up feeling really excited to tell it to people! My boyfriend – the first person to hear it, 10 seconds after I’d woken up – wisely advised that I write it down (dreams have a way of slipping away in the morning light, don’t they?). So I wrote down everything I could remember from the dream and found I didn’t want the story to stop! It took seven drafts and a lot of input from wise and brilliant people to turn the dream into an actual book, but all the elements from the dream remain. The dream was like a window into a world, which I climbed through.

There are many likeable (and unlikeable!) characters in this book, but I think Goose was one of my favorite supporting characters. I loved his relationship with Cordelia, and the risk they took to be friends when they knew their families would disapprove. Which character was most enjoyable for you to write?

I love that you love Goose! The friendship between Hatmaker and Bootmaker was so much fun to write. From a sheer chaotically joyful perspective, I especially enjoyed writing Sir Hugo’s scenes. He’s inspired by one or two actors I’ve come across in my career… writing his actorly antics was very silly fun. I also loved writing Great Aunt Petronella. She kept surprising me with the things she came out with!

This book is set in London in the 1700s. Did you have to do a lot of research about the time period?

I think acting in period dramas has made me familiar in some ways with the “everydayness” of the past, so I didn’t feel I wanted to do too much research into the time period itself other than what I knew from reading books set in the 1700s. But I did visit the Victoria and Albert museum archives and saw an ancient bicorn from the period, which felt magical in itself – thinking of the person who had worn it so long ago.

It was most important to me that the magic in the story felt authentic, so I researched Alchemists to try to make sure the magical system was based on something ancient and real. I also learned how to make a hat using a very old hatblock and a flatiron, the way the Hatmakers in the story do!

I loved the magical ingredients added to the Hatmaker creations to inspire certain qualities in the person who wore them. If you could design a writing hat, what sort of items would you include, and why?

That’s a great question! Writing is such a wonderful, challenging, adventuresome thing to do I would need a few things on a Writing Hat to make sure I was well-equipped for the task…

I think the whole hat would be woven out of paper straw and dyed inky blue – starting with paper and ink is always a good way to begin telling a story.

I’d add a Fabula Flower for inventiveness and tie it onto the hat with a good yarn. A Daedalian ribbon would help weave a complicated plot together nicely. I’d tuck a tailfeather from an Upstart Crow into the ribbon, to help me think of entertaining characters!

Lastly, I’d finish off the hat with a sprinkle of stardust. Every story should have a bit of stardust.

The cover of this book is beautiful; were you involved at all in the design of it, and who was the illustrator? What were your thoughts when you first saw it?

Isn’t it beautiful? I am very much hoping that people judge this book by its cover! Paola Escobar is the illustrator and she’s also created the most beautiful interior art for the book. I suggested the front of Hatmaker House for the cover and when I saw what Paola had come up with, it was completely beyond what I had imagined – I was utterly enchanted.

There are several surprising reveals in the course of reading this book, including the ending. Can you tell us when to expect the next book in the series, and is there anything about it you can share at this time?

Oooh I’m not quite sure what I’m allowed to share at the moment, other than the title – THE MAPMAKERS! It will be out in Spring 2022…

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

I’m on Twitter at @tamzinmerchant and Instagram @tamzinmerchant

Something I think is especially magical about books is that, once a reader has read a book, it becomes their story as much as it is the writers’. So I would LOVE to hear your reader’s ideas for magical hats!

Thank you very much for talking with me today, Tamzin, and all the best with your book’s release.

Thank you so much, it’s been lovely answering your questions! And I would like to end the interview by asking YOU a question… If YOU could make a magical hat for yourself, what would it be for and what magical things would you make it with?

Oh, thank you, this is the first time I’ve ever been asked a question! I would start with a red cowboy hat, like the one I used as a child when I went on adventures. I’d be sure to add a shimmering silver hatband like the swords carried by brave knights, a very elegant peacock feather so I was dressed appropriately for any occasion, a touch of Slips jelly to get me out of any sticky situation, and a sailor’s gold compass to tap so I could find my way back home.

Tamzin Merchant is a British-born actress best known for her roles in Pride & Prejudice, The Tudors, Salem, and Carnival Row. The Hatmakers is her debut novel. She lives in England.

Interview with Anita Yasuda re: MOTO MAKI’S GHOSTLY MYSTERIES series

Hi Anita, and welcome to MG Book Village! I’m so glad that we have a chance to talk about your upcoming series, Moto Maki’s Ghostly Mysteries, which releases in Summer 2021. Can you tell us about the first books being released in the series, and are there more books coming in this series?

I’m happy to be here, Kathie! I am so excited to chat with the MB Book Village community about my Hi-Lo middle-grade series. Currently, there are four books in Moto Maki’s Ghostly Mysteries. They are The Haunted Umbrella, The Cursed Cat, The Tiger Eye, and The Dream Eater. Each book highlights one ghost or yurei from Japanese folklore. Young readers will meet the harmless umbrella ghost or kasa obake that usually jumps around on one leg and enjoys surprising people. I’ve given the umbrella ghost a twist in this book to give readers chills. Other ghosts in the series are less suspenseful and scarier, such as the dream eater. I suggest readers turn on the lights before diving into this story.

I became fascinated with spooky Japanese tales as a student in Japan some thirty-plus years ago.

On away trips from school, we often stayed in old Japanese inns. My friends and I would try to scare each other. We imagined all sorts of creatures based on the sights, smells, and bumps in the night. It’s a wonder we got any sleep at all on those trips.

Can you give us four words to describe your main character?

Moto is a curious, capable, kind, and relatable kid whose love of treasure hunting accidentally leads him to ghosts.

The M stands for the mysteries that Moto and his best friend, Vijay, become entangled in.

The O stands for the odd supernatural creatures that follow Moto home.

The T stands for the terrific adventures Moto has while figuring out what each ghost wants.

The last O stands for the Japanese word obake that refers to ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural creatures in Japanese stories.

What is it about this series that you think will most appeal to young readers?

The series is action-packed with just enough adventure, suspense, and spook to keep readers hooked and pages turning. I think it will be the perfect series for children who like mysteries and ghosts. Because Moto Maki’s Ghostly Mysteries is a Hi-Lo, it will also appeal to reluctant readers in search of fast-moving text and those on the younger side of middle grade.

How did writing this book series differ from other series that you’ve written?

I have been fortunate to work on several early graphic novels and readers for children, but all of those were developed within their respective publishing houses. This series was different in that I pitched it directly to ABDO and was fortunate enough for an editor at ABDO to say yes. For the Moto Maki series, I dived deep into my past experiences living and working in Asia. I wanted the series to explore traditional ghosts but with two modern protagonists during the Festival of the Dead. The festival goes by other names. In Japan, it is called O-bon, and it usually begins in late July. In other parts of Asia, the English term for the festival is the Hungry Ghost Festival. During this time, ghosts, including those of ancestors, are said to return to the realm of the living. People leave out food and other offerings for the spirits.

How have you found time to incorporate writing into your daily life with the challenges of the pandemic?

I am an early riser. I wake at four am daily. After making a cup of tea, I begin my day with a meditation to center myself. Then, I might check correspondence or post something positive on my social media, but I limit my time spent on platforms to five minutes tops. Then, I plunge into my writing. Usually, I have several projects on the go. I find keeping a written agenda of all my assignments and due dates, edits, and correspondence essential for keeping on track and motivated. When the clock strikes seven, I get ready for a busy morning in the classroom, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Though the world is occupied by the pandemic, the best I can do is keep moving forward. I do this by following my routine and putting one foot or one letter in front of the other. I also think it’s important to take time away from work. So, after teaching, you will find me walking in the woods with my dog. It’s a time to clear my mind and connect with nature.

Can you give us one interesting tidbit about yourself that no one may think to ask you?

From the age of five, my family would spend each March break exploring independent bookstores all over Toronto. Some people might not think this a riveting holiday, but it began a lifelong love of books and inspired me to write.

Are you working on another writing project, and if so, is there any information you can share with us?

I have several projects that my agent is currently sending off into the world. These projects are dear to my heart. They celebrate my South Asian heritage and are rooted in my childhood experiences growing up the daughter of immigrants in North America.

I look forward to the day when readers will be able to hold these books in their hands.

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

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with MG Book Village community.

The best place for readers to connect with me is on my website www.anitayasuda.com. If teachers are looking to book Zoom or Skype visits, this is also where they can contact me.

I am also on Twitter @anita_yasuda and Instagram @anitayasudabooks.

I really appreciate you taking some time to talk to me today, Anita, and best of luck with your new series.

Anita Yasuda is the author of many books for young readers. Her middle-grade Hi-Lo chapter book series, Moto Maki’s Ghostly Mysteries, releases in 2021. The books published by Magic Wagon, ABDO Publishing, are illustrated by Francesca Ficorilli. Anita graduated from Victoria College, University of Toronto. She then began working in early childhood education and educational publishing. After living all over the world, she now lives in Ontario, Canada. You can follow Anita on Twitter @anita_yasuda, Instagram @anitayasudabooks, or visit her at www.anitayasuda.com.