Interview with Alda P. Dobbs about THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER

Kathie: Hi Alda, thanks for returning to MG Book Village to talk about your second book, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER (releases September 6th from Sourcebook for Young Readers.) It’s the sequel to BAREFOOT DREAMS OF PETRA LUNA, and I’d love to hear more about what happens to Petra in this book?

Alda: Thank you, Kathie, for having me and Petra Luna back! Well, In THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER, Petra Luna has escaped both the Mexican Revolution and the terror of the Federales. She is now in America, but still, twelve-year-old Petra knows that her abuelita, little sister, and baby brother depend on her to survive. She leads her family from a smallpox-stricken refugee camp on the Texas border to the buzzing city of San Antonio, where they work hard to build a new life. And for the first time ever, Petra has a chance to learn to read and write.

Petra, however, sees in America attitudes she thought she’d left behind on the other side of the Río Grande—people who look down on her mestizo skin and bare feet, who think someone like her doesn’t deserve more from life. Petra wants more. Isn’t that what the revolution is about? Her strength and courage will be tested like never before as she fights for herself, her family, and her dreams.

Kathie: What was it like for you to write this sequel, and how did the experience differ from writing your debut?

Alda: Originally, this story began as an idea for a Highlights Magazine article. After much research, I found out that my great-grandmother’s powerful story was indeed true. It was then I decided to turn it into a picture book. At a writing conference, an agent suggested I turn the picture book into a middle grade novel. It turns out that the picture book I wrote is now the first chapter of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER. I then had to work “backwards” and come up with a story that would become BAREFOOT DREAMS OF PETRA LUNA.  But writing the rest of sequel book wasn’t as daunting as the first books since my research skills had improved as well as my writing.

Kathie: What’s one way that Petra grows in your new book?

Alda: Petra must learn that just because she has struggled and sacrificed so much to reach America, the struggle continues just like it does for many immigrants. America is the land of opportunities and Petra quickly learns that it takes hard work to make things happen in the new land.

Kathie: Did you have to do more research for this story, and did you learn something new while writing it?

Alda: I did have to do more research for this book, especially because my family story deviates from that or Petra’s after the refugee camp. While at the refugee camp in 1913, U.S. Immigration announced that it would soon shut the refugee camp. Like Petra Luna and her family, my great-grandmother’s family was given the option to return to Mexico after the camp’s closure or stay in America, where she and her father would be guaranteed work. My great-grandmother, only nine years old at the time, talked it over with her father and after much consideration, they decided to return to Mexico. Upon their return, my great-grandmother and her family discovered that everything had been burned to the ground—homes, farmlands, entire villages—and found themselves starting over again from the bottom with nothing but the clothes on their backs. This is where Petra’s story diverges from my family history. While the story of my family’s return to Mexico was interesting, I found out that during the Mexican Revolution, over two million Mexicans made the United States their permanent home. I was intrigued by the lives of the immigrants who decided to make a new life in America and decided this would be Petra’s story.

Kathie: Do you find it challenging to step away from the accolades, praise and feedback from others while continuing Petra’s story, or does it positively influence your writing?

Alda: I’d say I’m positively influenced by feedback, especially when it comes from readers who say they can relate to my story because their ancestors went through similar journeys, or when people tell me my story ignited their passion to share family stories with their children.

Kathie: It’s interesting to think about how immigrating to the United States today compares to Petra’s experience. What do you hope young readers will think about while reading your story?

Alda: I want young readers to realize that Petra Luna’s story is not unique to my family or to Mexicans. It’s a universal story that transcends many cultures and eras. I want them to be inspired to seek their own stories and to realize how history repeats itself over and over again.

Kathie: Will Petra’s story continue after this book?

Alda: Great question. Not sure… maybe if the audience wants more Petra Luna?

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

Alda: You can visit my website at

Kathie: I really look forward to reading THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER when it comes out, Alda, and the best with its release.

Thank you, again, Kathie. I always enjoy your questions!

Alda P. Dobbs is the author of the historical novels Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna and its followup, The Other Side of the River (September 2022). Her debut novel received a Pura Belpre Honor and is a Texas Bluebonnet Master List selection. Alda was born in a small town in northern Mexico but moved to San Antonio, Texas as a child. She studied physics and worked as an engineer before pursuing her love of storytelling. She’s as passionate about connecting children to their past, their communities, different cultures and nature as she is about writing. Alda lives with her husband and two children outside Houston, Texas.

COVER REVEAL for The Nightmare House by Sarah Allen

Shari: Hi Sarah! I’m delighted that you asked MG Book Village to be part of your cover reveal for your new MG horror book, THE NIGHTMARE HOUSE, which is due out in August 2023. I’m dying to know more about your book! 

Sarah: Hooray!! This is the spooky book of my heart and I can’t wait to share it with everyone! Here is the fancy and official publisher’s description:

Penny Hope used to be brave, but that was before she met the Fear Maker. Years later, he still haunts her nightmares—a tall, thin man with red eyes, in a haunted house in the woods, who devours human souls and leaves their eyes hollow and empty. Penny’s beloved grandma tells her to write down these nightmares as poems in her notebook. But then Penny starts seeing blank-eyed people in the waking world, too. She’s the only one who notices.

As more people around her fall prey to the Fear Maker, Penny must gather her courage once and for all to save the souls of those she loves. With the help of a magic garden and a new friend, she ventures to the Fear Maker’s house. But the house is a labyrinth of shadows and tricks—and the Fear Maker’s fun is just beginning. Can a pocketful of sunflower seeds and a notebook filled with poems be enough to defeat a master of nightmares? And if Penny sets foot in the Fear Maker’s house, will she ever leave?

Shari: Oh wow, that sounds so eerily compelling! How would you describe your main character, Penny Hope, and what quality does she possess that will help her most in this story?

Sarah: Oh my sweet Penny! Penny cares a lot, and is afraid a lot. She loves poetry, which she learned from her Grandma. And really, her winning quality is in her name! She’s able to cling to just a penny’s worth of hope and use that to fight her battle against the Fear Maker.

Shari: Can I just say I love that so much! I already can’t wait to meet Penny! Where did the idea for the Fear Maker come from, and what was the most fun (or most challenging) aspect of writing a monstrous villain?

Sarah: The Fear Maker was a lot of fun and very cathartic to write. I’ve dealt with anxiety for a lot of my life and I thought it would be incredibly satisfying to personify the fight against fear and anxiety. To make the creator of anxiety an actual monster you can take up arms against. And it was! I often think of the ending of the movie Labyrinth, and in a lot of ways, writing The Fear Maker was my way of looking my fear in the eye and saying, “You have no power over me.”

Shari: What drew you to writing a horror story? Did you read a lot of horror growing up?

Sarah: I’ve gotten this question from several friends and family, since this book is such a departure from my first two! I’ve always had a bit of a spooky streak in me, and one of my favorite authors growing up was Roald Dahl. I must have read The Witches a hundred times. Another favorite as I grew up was Neil Gaiman. If readers feel like this book fits nicely alongside theirs, I will be thrilled and honored!

Shari: Please tell us about the cover of your book, and who designed it? Did you have any involvement in the process?

Sarah: Yay!! I’m so excited to squee about this. The cover artist is the incredible Angie Hewitt, who you can find on Twitter and Instagram. My editor sent me clips from Angie’s portfolio and truly my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe how perfectly her work fit the feel of Nightmare House. She even had haunted, blank-eyed characters already in her work! I gave an enthusiastic heck yes and from there, Angie and amazing cover designer Mallory Grigg did their thing and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I feel very, very lucky in my cover artists.

Shari: It’s time for the big reveal!

Shari: When I saw this, my jaw dropped! It is so delightfully creepy, and the color palette really makes it stand out! What were your thoughts when you first saw it? Is there an element that stands out for you or that you particularly like?

Sarah: I literally squealed with excitement when I saw it! I got Coraline vibes, which is exactly what I hoped for. I am obsessed with the spooky title font, and the fact that Angie got Penny’s Van Gogh sunflower notebook on there! I knew this cover was going to be a tough balancing act, because it is squarely middle grade, but I didn’t want it to come off as too youthful or…twee? Angie pulled it off perfectly.

Shari: I agree – it is truly fantastic! While we wait until next August to read this spooky story, where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

Sarah: I am available all the places! I try and keep my website up-to-date, I’ve got a quarterly newsletter that will be going out at the end of this month, and I’m on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and basically all the socials @sarahallenbooks! I love when readers reach out 🙂

Shari: I’m very excited to read this book, especially since I loved your debut, What Stars Are Made Of! Your second book, Breathing Underwater, is on my shelf waiting to be read – soon, I hope! Thank you so much for letting me be part of the cover reveal and chatting with me today.

Sarah: Truly my honor and pleasure! Thanks for all the work you guys do here at MG Book Village. Some of the best books being published are middle grade and we need places like this to talk about them! 

Sarah Allen is a poet and author of books for young readers. Her upcoming middle grade horror, THE NIGHTMARE HOUSE, releases in August of 2023. Her first book, WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF, was an ALA Notable Book of 2020 and Whitney Award Winner, and her second, BREATHING UNDERWATER, was a Jr. Library Guild Selection for 2021. Born and raised in Utah, she received an MFA in creative writing from Brigham Young University, and now lives in the Des Moines area. She spends her non-writing time watching David Attenborough documentaries and singing show-tunes too loudly, both of which do an excellent job of fending off her own Fear Maker. You can learn more on her website or find her on all the socials @sarahallenbooks.

Book Trailer Reveal for QUEST KIDS AND THE DRAGON PANTS OF GOLD by Mark Leiknes

Here at MG Book Village, we have a special unveiling today of a BOOK TRAILER! Thanks to Mark Leiknes for inviting us to be part of this special reveal, and on the extra-special day of the release of Quest Kids and the Dragon Pants of Gold!

Shari: Hi Mark! Happy Book Birthday!  What a treat to get to share the trailer of your new book, Quest Kids and the Dragon Pants of Gold on its release day.  This title will definitely get readers’ attention! What would you say about your book to convince someone to read it? 

Mark: Hi Shari. Thank you for having me on the MG Book Village. It’s a real honor!

Quest Kids and the Dragon Pants of Gold was written to crack up my kids, as well as make my own inner eleven-year-old laugh. So if you’re a kid, or kid at heart, who thinks an afternoon of non-stop guffawing is time well spent, then you’re going to love Quest Kids!

Quest Kids follows four kids and their pig-dog-thing as they attempt underage questing in a medieval world. Ned is our fearless leader, who took up questing to find his missing parents. Gil is Ned’s best friend and a wizard-in-training; his wizarding teacher disappeared the same time as Ned’s parents. Terra is a 700-year-old elf who still happens to be a kid (700 is 11 in elf years). Boulder is a sensitive rock troll who often gets stuck doing the dirty work because he’s MMOR (Mostly Made Of Rocks). And the previously mentioned pig-dog-thing is their pet named Ash. Is he a pig? A dog? Or something else entirely? No one knows, but he’s cute, loyal, and intensely gassy!

The Quest Kids scour the countryside in search of quests, which is quite tough because no one is keen on hiring a bunch of kids to quest. Plus, the Quest Kids don’t really have the best track record quest-wise; they have not completed a single one. But Ned thinks all this will change with their latest quest: 

To find and shave the golden-fleeced rage beast, so they can make a giant track jacket for a dragon

A golden track jacket is the perfect complement to the dragon’s preexisting pair of golden lounging pants. But if Quest Kids can’t complete this shiny ensemble in one year’s time, the dragon looks to leave an entire mountain village EXTRA CRISPY! And not in the good bacon-y kind of way 😦

Shari: Quest Kids sounds like a hilarious adventure! What is the hardest part about writing a quest story, and especially a humorous quest story?

Mark: The hardest thing is to avoid mapping everything out ahead of time. It’s easy to get nervous about where the quest might go and want to safely steer things along. I try not to do that. Sure, I’ll jot down ideas, but I really just use those as jumping off points and then see where the characters take me. This leads to more spontaneity and probably more humor. Discovering what happens the same time as your characters do makes everything more fun. Even if it’s a little scarier. 

Shari: Get your popcorn, folks, it’s time for the trailer!

Shari: Wow! What a fun book trailer! What were your thoughts when you first saw it? Is there an element that stands out for you or that you particularly like?

Mark: Thanks, Shari! I actually cobbled that trailer together myself. When I wasn’t constantly drawing growing up, you’d find me playing with the AV equipment. So ANY excuse I get to do that again is very welcome 🙂

My favorite part was finding music that seemed to work. Then I fine-tuned the edits a little closer so that the music sort of propelled everything along. It was so much fun!

Shari: Wow, well done! I love how the music really sets the mood for the story! If you can share, will there be more Quest Kids adventures, and what might they encounter on their future quests?

Mark: I’m working on the second quest right now. It is tentatively titled Quest Kids and the Dark Prophecy of Doug. In it, the Quest Kids must face a dark and mysterious character who has written a dark and mysterious prophecy that’s sending the world into, well, darkness. Yup, things are glum. But this Doug fellow might know where Ned’s parents are. Plus, they should probably stop him from fulfilling his altogether downer of a prophecy.

Shari: Dark and mysterious prophecies are always intriguing! Is there anything you’d like to share about yourself with our readers?

Mark: I was always the weird kid who lived for drawing and making people laugh. I was fortunate enough to do those two things for a few years with my syndicated comic strip Cow & Boy. Now I feel super blessed to combine my only two life skills once again with Quest Kids 🙂

Shari: Thank you so much for sharing your talents with young readers! Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

Mark: My website is your best reference for all things Mark Leiknes related. It lists everything I’ve published over the last ten years and where to find them.

Shari: Mark, thank you so much for letting me be part of your trailer reveal and chatting with me today. I hope you have a fabulous launch day, and I look forward to sharing your book with my young readers!

Mark: It’s been my pleasure, Shari. Thank you again for having me!

Mark Leiknes lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and three kids. He produced a nationally syndicated comic strip (Cow & Boy) for eight years and now he writes and illustrates books for kids. Mark studied graphic design in college and honed his comedic chops studying improv and sketch comedy at the acclaimed Groundlings School. Visit him online at

COVER REVEAL for A Season Most Unfair by J. Anderson Coats

Shari: I’m so happy to have a chance to talk with you today! Your book, A Season Most Unfair, is set for release next summer by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

JAC: A Season Most Unfair is set in thirteenth-century England, and it’s about a girl named Scholastica who has grown up helping her father in his candlemaking workshop. Since her father’s eyesight isn’t great, he relies on Tick to do detail work, and she finds a lot of meaning and purpose in it. But one day he decides to take on a proper apprentice – a boy – and Tick is no longer allowed in the workshop. She’s hurt and disappointed, but she’s also determined to prove to her father that she’s as good at making candles as any boy. Even if it means breaking the rules.

Shari: Since your book is set in medieval England, how much research did you have to do before and during your writing, and what was the most fascinating fact you learned in your research?

JAC: Fortunately for me, this isn’t my first book set in the middle ages, so this time around my research focused on the specifics of the culture of fairs in medieval England, particularly the Stourbridge Fair, where Tick and her father go to sell their candles. One interesting thing was how cosmopolitan English fairs were, even in the thirteenth century. You’d have people coming from all over the place to buy and sell, not only other parts of England and realms in Europe, but also Scandinavia and Muslim Spain and places like Antioch and Damascus and Constantinople. Everyone liked a fair. 😊

Shari: Can you tell us more about Tick, and what compelled you to write her story? What do you like best about her?

JAC: Sometimes we in the modern world have a perception that girls and women in the middle ages didn’t have power, and while this is true in a lot of ways, it’s much more complicated than that. Tick is a reflection of how one kid responds to feelings of displacement and a consuming worry about losing her father’s love and—equally important to her—his respect. Tick is convinced that she and her father won’t have anything to talk about if they don’t have candlemaking, She’s also worried that he might treat her differently once she starts to grow up. Even though she lives at a time where her options are limited, Tick makes the most of what’s available to her.

Shari:  When writing A Season Most Unfair, which part came first – the setting, the characters, or the storyline?  

JAC:  A Season Most Unfair came out of a challenge I presented myself: Write a book set in the past that centers a regular kid and their ordinary problems instead of someone coping with a big, society-altering trauma like war or corruption. While those types of books are important and moving, I wanted to explore what ordinary problems modern kids and medieval kids might have in common, and to encourage readers to see the past as something other than an unending parade of destruction and despair. That stuff was there, absolutely, but there was also joy and tenderness and families and friendship.

Shari: How is A Season Most Unfair similar to your previous novels, and how is it different? 

JAC: If my books have a theme, it’s power relationships, especially ways in which kids can recognize unequal power, confront it, and develop communities and relationships that allow them to resist and fight against it. Tick’s response to the unfairness she experiences reflects the fact that there’s more than one way to resist unequal power, and it’s as important to focus on your desired outcome as it is your actions.

Shari: Please tell us about the cover of your book, and who designed it? Did you have any involvement in the process?

JAC: I was fortunate enough that my publisher was able to get the amazing Matt Rockefeller ( to create the cover. He did the cover for another book of mine, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, so when I saw his name I squee’d out loud. The jacket design is by Debra Sfetsios-Conover, who also did an amazing job. One neat thing that happened with this cover: the artist made sketches for four possible options, and I showed them to a class of fourth and fifth graders during a school visit and asked their opinions on which one cover they liked best. They had an overwhelming favorite – which just happened to be my first choice as well. 😊

Shari: It’s time for the big reveal!

Shari:  I love all the details, and the way the title is positioned in the steam from the kettle! What were your thoughts when you first saw it?

JAC: I love how the artist chose details – the cats circling Tick, her expression, how the scene captures one of the core conflicts of the story. I love the summery feel, too, how the light falls through the trees and how the leaves swirl around just a little. It’s just lovely.

Shari: What kind of readers do you think will be drawn to this story, and what do you hope they take away from it?

JAC: I think this story will appeal to readers who’ve ever felt like they had something to prove, especially to an adult who was important to them. At the core, this is a story about a kid who isn’t sure her dad will look at her the same way once she grows up, who feels like she has to be helpful to earn his love. It will also appeal to readers who like a friendship story, who like seeing kids overcoming their differences and having one another’s backs.

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

JAC: My website is I’m on Twitter way too much, Facebook sometimes, and Instagram not enough (all handles are @jandersoncoats). If you’re trying to cut down on your social media, I have a monthly-ish newsletter that’s mostly good book news, reading recommendations, and pictures of my cat: Thanks for your interest in my work!

Shari: Thank you so much for letting me be part of the cover reveal and chatting with me today.

JAC: Thanks so much for having me!

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 The Night Ride, a middle grade action-adventure about a girl determined to protect horses in danger, and Spindle and Dagger, a historical YA set in medieval Wales that deals with power dynamics and complicated relationships. She is also the author of The Green Children of Woolpit, R is for Rebel, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, and The Wicked and the Just. Her next middle grade historical, A Season Most Unfair is forthcoming in 2023.

Interview with Kathleen Wilford about Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt

Shari: Hi Kathleen! I’m so excited to chat with you today about your debut novel, Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt, which just released on September 1! Tell us about your book, and what led you to write this story!

Kathleen: Thanks so much for having me on MG Book Village!

Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt is set in Kansas in 1875, the year after the grasshoppers devastated the state. My main character, Cabby, is an “outdoor kind of girl,” more interested in farming than fashion. Cabby’s struggling homestead is her first real home, and she’s desperate not to lose it, even if that means accepting a housemaiding job at stuffy, high-class Ashford manor. She’s also a bit naïve and has what her mother calls an intemperate tongue. These qualities get Cabby in trouble when, hoping to save her home and get out of a job she hates, she hatches an improbable matchmaking scheme between her romantic older sister and the young lord of Ashford Manor. When her rash plot backfires, Cabby must use her voice to stand up for herself, a Native American friend, and her entire community threatened by land-grabbers.

As for what led me to write this story: When I learned that British aristocrats had founded a settlement on plains of Kansas in the 1870’s, I imagined a young homesteader going to work at one of the grand homes of the settlement. And the character of Cabby was born. 

Shari: Cabby Potts sounds like such a fascinating character, full of schemes and plans, but with her heart in the right place.  Was there a particular inspiration for her character, and what do you like most about her? 

Kathleen: You’re right, Shari. Cabby is impetuous and quick to draw conclusions, and she tends to leap before she looks! But, like you say, she has a big heart and would do anything to save her family and her home. She was inspired by some of my favorite literary heroines, Laura Ingalls and the pioneer women of Willa Cather. Like them, Cabby doesn’t care about “frippery,” and she’s eager to get her hands in the dirt.  

Shari: HIstorical fiction requires some research to get the setting and details just right.  Would you tell us about your research process? What drew you to this period of history? Were there any fascinating factoids you came across during your research that didn’t make it into the book?

Kathleen:My book is based on the true story of the Victoria settlement in Kansas, so of course I began with learning everything I could about that. In general, I like to begin with books that situate the time period I’m studying in a larger historical context. I follow that up with more specific books and then with primary sources. For Cabby Potts, I consulted homesteader journals, 1870’s editions of the Dodge City Times, an 1841 book by Dr. Samuel Sheldon Fitch called Diseases of the Chest (fascinating, trust me), Mrs. Beeton’s book on the duties of a housemaid . . . etc.! Since I work for Rutgers University as a writing instructor, I’m lucky enough to have access to the rich depth of primary materials owned by the university. I think primary sources are key not only to authentic details but to the language of the times.

Several experts also helped me with questions, and of course, Google is great for filling in details. 

I learned so many fascinating tidbits of information in my research, many of which I couldn’t include in the book but would be happy to tell you about sometime! Some facts that DID make it into the book: people used to believe that walking on the prairie could cure consumption (tuberculosis)—housemaids were not allowed to whistle in the house—dried up buffalo dung was burned for fuel.

One fact that got me thinking was that fully half of all homesteaders didn’t make it and never “proved up” on their claims. We tend to romanticize homesteading on the prairies, but it was brutally difficult.

Shari: What is your favorite part of writing a book? 

Kathleen: Well, my least favorite part of writing a book is outlining—in fact, I just can’t do it. I have an idea of beginning, middle and end before I write, but it’s not a detailed outline.

My favorite part of writing might be revising, oddly enough. I like going over and over a sentence, polishing the style, working on voice, finding just the right words. I also love the research process but have to avoid going down too many rabbit holes. 

Shari: What has been the most surprising aspect of your debut publishing experience, and how would you describe releasing your story into the world?

Kathleen: I didn’t know what to expect in the publication process, so all of it has been surprising, challenging, and exhilarating! I’ve been so grateful for the help and generous support I’ve received, beginning with my publisher, Michele McAvoy of Blue Bronco Books. I’m especially impressed by librarians, who are always working to keep up with new releases and are willing to read and promote new books. And fellow writers have helped by reviewing and boosting as well. The writing community is the best!

Shari:  If readers enjoy Cabby Potts, what other books do you think they will enjoy?

Kathleen: If they love prairie/pioneer stories: Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park, May B by Caroline Starr Rose, and classics like Caddy Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink.

If they love all things British: A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus, The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and classics like the Narnia books.

If they love historical fiction with funny, spunky heroines: Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, and The Summer We Found the Baby by Amy Hest. 

Shari: What are you reading these days?

Kathleen: I was able to pick up some great ARC’s at the ALA Convention in DC (so much fun to sign books there!), including The Secret Battle of Evan Pao, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang and The Last Mapmaker, by Christina Soontornvat. And I have a long middle-grade TBR!

Shari: Can you tell us what you are working on next?

Kathleen: Well, I have some irons in the fire, but most of them are unformed at this point. I hope to settle down to writing this fall.

Shari: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing, and what is one thing you’d like young readers to know about you?

Kathleen: Readers can connect with me on my website: 

Or on Twitter:

A couple of things people might not know about me:

I was born in a place that no longer exists: The Panama Canal Zone, Panama. (The Canal Zone was once a U.S. territory but was formally returned to Panama in 1999.) I also lived in Costa Rica and Colombia. I can speak some Spanish, but I’m rusty. 

I love to mow the lawn!

Shari: Thank you so much for joining us at MG Book Village to chat about your book.  I can’t wait to read it!

Kathleen: Thanks so much for having me!!

Kathleen Wilford was born in Panama and has lived in four different countries and three different states—but never in Kansas, where her book is set. She studied literature at Cornell University and at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she now teaches writing. When she’s not teaching or writing, Kathleen can be found outdoors, chasing her disobedient dog.

Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt is Kathleen’s debut novel for kids.

Shari Sawyers is a School Librarian in Texas. You can read more about Shari at the MG Book Village “About” page.

Interview with Wendy Wan-Long Shang about The Secret Battle of Evan Pao

Anne: Hello, Wendy! I’m so glad you’ve stopped by MG Book Village to chat about your newest novel, The Secret Battle of Evan Pao. It came out this summer and I loved reading it. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the story? 

Wendy: Sure! Evan Pao moves to a small town in Virginia, hoping to get a fresh start after his dad’s scandal in California. While most everyone is friendly, one kid makes sure that Evan feels like an outsider, focusing on the fact that everybody in town has a connection to the Civil War—something that Evan does not have. When Evan discovers, though, that Chinese soldiers did fight in the Civil War, he hopes to gain a sense of belonging, but instead is confronted with a choice he never expected to make. 

Anne: Great. I’ll ask about the Chinese connection in a sec, but first… dogs play a huge role in Evan’s story! Are you a dog lover? And what about cats? (There were no cats in the book. I grew up with cats. Just saying.) 

Wendy: For the record, I have two cats and a dog, I love them all, but what can I say? There’s something about a dog. Zoe is a pandemic puppy—we got her a few months into the pandemic—and she is still surprised when we leave the house. 

Zoe and Wendy

Anne: Awww, Zoe looks super sweet!

Okay, now back to the book: do you see yourself in any of the characters in the story? Is any part autobiographical? How much of you is inside this gentle, sensitive, and insightful protagonist Evan? 

Wendy: The story is written in multiple third-person points of view, but much of the story is told through three boys—Evan, of course; his new best friend Max; and the boy who wants to exclude Evan, Brady. I feel attached to the three boys for different reasons. Evan is very sensitive to people’s feelings, which is definitely me, though like Evan, I also have my blind spots! I relate to Max because he tries to do the right thing, but can be a bit clumsy about it. Brady is a dog lover and has an older brother like me (though my older brother is nothing like Brady’s!). 

Anne: As the new kid in a small Virginia town, Evan notices things that no one else seems to question, like the fact that there’s a dead person on the Virginia state flag, the oddness of naming a school “Battlefield Elementary,” and the way “Yankee” became a Northern-versus-Southern thing. When did you first cue into ironies like these and decide to weave them into a novel? 

Wendy: I started questioning things a few years ago, probably around the same time that we started having a national discussion about Confederate statues, though I do remember, as a kid, thinking that Virginia having a Lee-Jackson-King Day—a holiday for two Confederate generals and a Black civil rights leader—was pretty weird. Living in Virginia, it’s hard to see how incongruous it is to have places named after people who fought against the United States because they are everywhere. Until they were renamed, I lived near Lee Highway and my kids’ friends went to JEB Stuart High School. Once you start noticing these kinds of details, it’s kind of hard to stop, to be honest. That’s where a lot of those observations came from! 

Anne: I hear you! In my Virginia town, the high school used to be Lee-Davis and has recently been renamed. Now, in the book, one of my favorite parts was learning new historical tidbits, such as the fact that Chinese men fought alongside Americans in our Civil War. Really interesting! How did you come to learn this history? 

Wendy: I have a really terrible memory, so I can’t remember where or how I first learned about the Chinese soldiers. If I had to guess, I would imagine it was through the work of Ruthanne Lum McCunn, who has written both fiction and nonfiction about the Chinese American experience, particularly in the American West. I ended up using one of her scholarly articles to pin down details for the book. What I can tell you for sure is that once I found out about these soldiers, I knew that I was not going to rest until I had them in a story.  

Anne: I found these lines especially touching: “[Because of] the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese were not allowed to become citizens, not even someone who had fought in the war. But [the Chinese man Edward] still went out and saluted the flag every evening… [He] must have loved the United States when it did not seem to love him back, would not call him a citizen” (pages 170-171). These lines broke my heart. I’m so glad you included them in the book. While you were writing this section, how did you feel? Would you talk a bit about your writing process? 

Wendy: One of the trickier parts about writing about the soldiers was trying to convey their story without getting too bogged down in the weeds; some of the more well-known men had very complex legal or life stories. But sometime while I was writing this book, I heard that expression, and it seemed to fit this situation and sum up the experience of being Chinese-American, both then and now. I was raised to love the United States, and I do believe in the highest ideals of our country, though we are still fighting to reach those ideals. At the same time, the recent increase in violence against Asian-Americans has been frightening and disturbing.  

My writing process for Evan Pao was unusual in a lot of ways. I started writing it before the pandemic, and then, a few months in, I had an opportunity to write books for the American Girl of the Year, but on a very short deadline. So I hit pause on Evan Pao to write those books, and when I came back, the world had changed in so many ways, but most notably, the rise in anti-Asian hatred. That brought the issues I wanted to explore in the book into a whole new light, and I really struggled with whether I wanted to talk about forgiveness at that point. At the same time, I kept finding little phrases or ideas that pushed me to stay the course of how I originally envisioned the story. When I was writing the ending, I was trying to really hit that right note, and then Chloe Zhao won the Academy Award for Best Director, and included the chengyu (Chinese idiom) in her speech that people are basically born good. It was a gift to hear that! 

Anne: Love it. There’s so much hope in that idiom. So much optimism.

You’re already known for your novels The Great Wall of Lucy Wu and The Way Home Looks Now, plus two books co-written with Madelyn Rosenberg (Not Your All-American Girl and This is Just a Test), and the picture book The Rice in the Pot Goes Round and Round. What are you working on now? Will you be writing more novels for middle-grade readers? 

Wendy: I have a few irons in the fire! Madelyn and I are trying our hand at screenwriting. I have a picture book out on sub, and I’m toying with a non-fiction picture book idea. And I do have an idea for a middle-grade that I’ve been pondering for the last few years. Middle grade books are really my first love, so I think I’ll always have something MG to work on. 

Anne: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?

Wendy: Readers can visit my website, You can also follow me on Twitter @WendyShang, or Instagram @wendyshangbooks.

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a heartfelt and eye-opening story for middle-grade readers! 

Wendy: Thank you for having me!  

Wendy Shang; photo by Jason Harrington

Wendy Shang is the author of numerous books featuring Chinese-American characters, including The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, winner of the Asian Pacific-American Librarian Association award, and the American Girl 2022 Girl of the Year books. Wendy’s most recent book is The Secret Battle of Evan Pao, which has received three starred reviews. While she joined the Wordle craze in 2021, she remains a stalwart New York Times Spelling Bee fan. In addition to her writing, Wendy works for the Pretrial Justice Institute. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia with her family, dog and two cats.

Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about Anne at the MG Book Village “About” page.

Interview with Erin Petti about Thelma Bee in Toil and Treble

Shari: Hi Erin! I’m thrilled to chat with you today about your sophomore novel, Thelma Bee in Toil and Treble, which releases September 6! Since this is the sequel to The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee, what was it like to return to Thelma’s peculiar world and characters?

Erin: Hi Shari! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me! I have to say, it was a real joy to dive back into the weird world of Riverfish, MA. The ghost-investigating crew feel like old friends now, and it was exciting and sweet to travel back for their new adventures!

Shari: Thelma is a quirky and unusual character, but also very accepting and friendly. What is your favorite thing about her, and what do you want readers to understand about Thelma?

Erin: Thelma is super brave and smart, but the thing I love most about her is how totally unbothered she is about the stuff that can be a real problem for some kids in middle school. She doesn’t care about what’s popular or cool – she gives not one HOOT for what people think about her. She just loves what she loves. Also, she’s a one-in-a-million friend.

Shari: I really loved the cast of characters, and that they were each so interesting! Will the whole crew be returning in the sequel, and which ones were the most fun to write? 

Erin: Yes! The whole gang is back at it. But some of my very favorite characters are actually brand new to this story! We meet some TV ghost hunters who may do more harm than good…and a new friend named Bobby Cho brings a huge rush of chaotic, positive energy that was just a blast to write.

Shari: What do you enjoy most about writing paranormal stories for kids? 

Erin:  This is such a tough question because I just love it all! Maybe it’s the feeling of endless possibilities. Middle Grade is a truly special category where you can work with elements from childhood and adulthood. The transition time is undoubtedly trickier than most, but it also carries the most pure potential for adventure. Same with paranormal stories! As an author you can do almost anything, from silly and funny, to really dark and scary. It’s an amazing space.

Shari: The “magic” in Thelma Bee’s family is very unusual. What was your inspiration in creating this type of matriarchal power?

Erin: The concept of earth-shakingly powerful, ancient feminine energy always calls to me. A huge part of Thelma’s journey has to do with understanding that she IS powerful and figuring out how best to use that power.I think that’s a journey lots of people can relate with, even if we aren’t literally conjuring magic in our palms.

Shari:  If readers enjoy Thelma Bee, what other books do you think they will enjoy?

Erin: I think readers of Thelma Bee will absolutely love CATTYWAMPUS by Ash Van Otterloo, THIS APPEARING HOUSE, a new one coming out soon by Ally Malinenko, and THE KEY TO EXTRAORDINARY by Natalie Lloyd!

Shari: What a fantastic list! What are YOU reading these days?

Erin: I actually just finished CATTYWAMPUS! Now I’m excited to dive into RAYNE AND DELILAH’S MIDNIGHT MATINEE by Jeff Zentner.

Shari: We are excited for this release coming soon. Can you tell us what you are working on next?

Erin: Yes, for sure! I’m working on a side quest story for Izzy Finkle, one of Thelma’s friends called THE LEGEND OF CAPTAIN BLOODBONES. Also, putting together the research for book three of the THELMA BEE series.

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

Erin: Visit me online! My website is and you can also find me on Twitter (@empetti) , Instagram (@erinpetti) , and Facebook (@erinpettiauthor). 

Shari: Thank you so much for chatting with me about your new book!  Readers are in for a real treat!

Erin: Shari, thank you so much for hosting me! This was a blast!

Erin Petti is a writer who specializes in stories for young people. She lives in New England with her husband, two daughters, a sweet dog, a murderous cat, and five chickens who defy description. Things Erin really loves include ghost stories, garden smells, watching live theater, practicing yoga, and when Peter Jackson cameos in the LOTR movies, especially when he’s eating a carrot.

COVER REVEAL for Skyriders by Polly Holyoke

Kathie: Hi Polly! I’m so glad you asked MG Book Village to be part of your cover reveal for your first book in a new series called SKYRIDERS, out next March from Viking Children’s Books. Can you tell us more about your novel, please?

Polly: Skyriders is the story of brave young couriers on flying horses fighting terrifying three-headed monsters known as chimerae. My heroine Kiesandra Torsun and her loyal skysteed N’Rah love their work flying mail across the vast Empire of Prekalt, but then the dreaded chimerae return. Thanks to her eccentric Uncle Dugs, who has always believed the beasts would reappear one day to menace the Empire, Kie and N’Rah are the only ones who know how to fight these monsters effectively. But how can a shy frontier girl convince officers in the Skyforce, Imperial officials and the Emperor himself that they must listen to her, before it’s too late?

Kathie: How would you describe your main character, Kiesandra, and what quality does she possess that will help her most in this story?

Polly: Kie is brave and determined, and she has complete faith in her skysteed. Kie’s had to be determined because she has been running her family’s apple orchard since her father died. It also took tremendous determination for her to learn how to read despite being severely dyslexic because in her world, no one understands this relatively common learning challenge. 

Kathie: Kiesandra has a winged horse known as a skysteed with whom she can communicate through her mind. Where did the idea for N’Rah come from, and what is it about mythical creatures that draw kids in?

Polly: I’ve always been fascinated by flying horses and the Pegasus myth. I also had a wonderful picture book about Pegasus written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and illustrated by Herschel Levit that I spent hours reading when I was little. Because of their vivid imaginations, children love the idea of being friends with a mythical creature who can sweep them away to magical places. 

Kathie: The cover of this book is incredible! Can you tell us about the illustrator and if you had any input on the cover?

Polly: The amazingly talented Brandon Dorman (illustrator of the Fablehaven and Land of Stories series) created this cover, and I’m thrilled with it! I did mention to my editor that drawing horses is hard, and drawing flying horses even harder, and she reached out to the perfect artist to depict Kie and N’Rah and the terrifying chimerae they must battle.

Kathie: Let’s show everyone what it looks like!

Kathie: One of my favorite things about this cover is the balance between the light and dark; it’s definitely giving off good vs. evil vibes. Is there an element that stands out for you or that you particularly like?

Polly: I love how small and valiant Kie looks facing that monstrous chimera. I also appreciate the amazing palate of colors Brandon used, and how beautifully he has conveyed the sky and clouds.

Kathie: Is there anything you can share with us about the future of this series, or anything else you’d like readers to know about it?

Polly: Viking will be publishing at least one more book in my Skyriders series, but I have seven more novels all planned out, so here’s hoping the series takes off… so to speak! Also, Skyriders is already available for pre-order at:

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

Polly: I encourage teachers, librarians and young readers to visit my website: A former middle school teacher, I made sure to post plenty of useful information and activities based on my first children’s series, The Neptune Trilogy, which was published by Disney Hyperion. The Neptune Project, the story of young teens struggling to survive in the sea because climate change has ravaged their world, made several state lists and won the Sunshine State Young Readers Award. We are still in the process of creating teachers’ guides and a book trailer for Skyriders, but by the time the first novel is released March, 2023, I hope to have lots of good materials ready and waiting for educators.  

Kathie: Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Polly, and I look forward to reading your book.

Polly: Thank you so much for letting me share the cover of Skyriders with the wonderful teachers and librarians who follow the MG Book Village!

Polly Holyoke is the author of adventurous fiction for kids. A former middle school teacher, Polly loves doing school visits and lives in a small mountain town in Colorado with her husband and two rescue dogs. SKYRIDERS, her new series about brave young couriers battling chimerae on flying horses, will be available from Viking Childrens’ Book in March, 2023.

Interview with E Train

Kathie: Hi E Train, and welcome to MG Book Village! I’m so glad I have a chance to sit down and chat with you today. You’re making a big impression in the middle-grade book world, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to get to know you and your current projects a bit better.

E Train: Thank you so much for having me today, Kathie! It’s an absolute honor to be interviewed for MG Book Village. I try to attend as many #MGBookChat and #VillagePageTurners discussions as I can!  I’m excited to share a little of my journey with you and your readers!

Kathie: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

E Train: I’m E Train, a book reviewer, podcast host, and author interviewer. I’ve loved books my entire life, in fact, I’m told I started reading at 2.5 years old and never stopped! Recently, I decided I wanted to do more than just read books, I wanted to review them, and share my reviews with the authors.  And thanks to the wonderful writing community, my dream has come true! From interviewing New York Times bestselling authors, to leading local book drives for underprivileged kids in my community, I want to do everything I can to not only inspire kids and adults to read but to help ensure that they have the OPPORTUNITY to read.

Kathie: How did you get started using social media to connect to middle-grade authors and readers? What platforms do you currently use, and where can we find you to follow what you’re up to?

E Train: When I was in fourth grade, I received an assignment to review all the books I read and share them with my class. Soon, I started sharing my book reviews with librarians, booth lovers, and other educators through Zoom book clubs. Eventually, I sent one of my reviews to a Michigan librarian, and she shared it with the author, who happened to be the amazing Lisa Fipps, author of the novel-in-verse, STARFISH! And, much to my surprise, Lisa posted my review on her Instagram page.

That got me thinking, maybe I can share my reviews on social media. At first, I only reviewed books on YouTube, where you can find me @ETrainTalks.  But soon, I shared them on Twitter @ETrainsWorld, on my podcast E Train Talks, on Instagram, which is also @ETrainTalks, and on my website at That’s where you can find my reviews, interviews, and more!

Kathie: Zoom has had a huge impact on your life. Did you use it before the pandemic, and what sort of opportunities has it given you?

E Train: Before the pandemic, I’d never used Zoom, so once Covid hit, it was a big adjustment. At the time, I didn’t even know if I was supposed to use headphones or not, but soon, once I had the techy stuff figured out, my mom scoured the internet, and many, many Facebook feeds, in search of virtual library book clubs for me to attend. Being stuck inside all day meant I needed to find ways to stay mentally strong and what better way than by reading books!

Attending zoom book clubs not only helped me discover some of my favorite reads, like “Starfish,” but also connected me with other kids. It was nice to know that other kids were in the same boat as me.

Soon, I was attending many virtual book clubs and each experience was better than the last. I ended up meeting many authors, whom I’ve stayed in touch with to this day.  And without these book clubs, I would never have become a fiction lover and I would’ve never come out of my reading shell. 

Virtual book clubs gave me the chance to talk about books and share my love of reading with others during a time when I would have otherwise been stuck at home alone. It’s funny to think that the pandemic is what led me to attend so many book clubs, which also ended up leading me to start my podcast and literacy advocacy journey! 

A5: I absolutely love sharing how my interviews got started.

Kathie: In addition to being a book reviewer you also have a podcast focusing on people in the book industry. How did that get started, and how can people contact you if they’re interested in being interviewed for it?

E Train: I absolutely love sharing how my interviews got started. I’d just created my podcast, E Train Talks, and it was a wonderful experience. I was reading and writing and sharing my reviews all the time and I was starting to connect with more and more authors.  But, deep down, I knew what I really wanted, I wanted to interview authors and other book enthusiasts. Not just because I’m in awe of them and want to one day work in the writing community,  but also because I wanted to help inspire kids to read, and what better way to motivate kiddos to read, than sharing my talks with authors themselves! 

Once I made that decision, things moved pretty fast. Much faster than I ever thought possible!  On March 18th, I made a post on Twitter asking if people in the book industry would like to be interviewed on my new book podcast. I expected maybe one or two responses from authors I already knew, but in one night, I received 50 inquiries from people in the book world, many were from debut authors, some of them are now my personal favorites, and I was overjoyed!! Like my mom keeps telling me, hard work really pays off, and I know that now. So, I’ve kept on working and have interviewed people like James Ponti, Jerry Craft, and Jarrett Lerner, just to name the J’s!

Kathie: This summer, you’ve been doing a book drive for kids in your community. I’d love to know more about that, please.

E Train: This summer, I started a book drive for underprivileged kids in my community. I don’t know where I’d be without books, and knowing that many kids don’t have access to books made me want to do something, and that’s why I started the book drive. My original goal was to sponsor a Title One middle-grade classroom, and with the help of the writing community, I was able to make that goal, and now, thanks to The Friends of the Sacramento Public Library community, and their generous book donations, I’m able to reach many more kids than I had originally planned! I also plan to continue collecting books to donate to kids and classrooms in need throughout the school year!

Kathie: What do you like to do when you’re not reading?

E Train: When I’m not reading I love performing on stage, whether I’m singing or saying lines in a play. I’m also a huge sports fan, like my dad. Whether it’s basketball, football, baseball, or golf, I will be on the edge of my seat, eating popcorn, and enjoying the amazing world of sports.

I’m also a pianist, I’ve been playing the piano since I was five years old. I enjoy playing contemporary songs like “Vienna” by Billy Joel. And, of course, playing with my friends is another one of my hobbies. When I hang out with my friends, we usually play everything from video games, to sports, to board games, and I always have a wonderful time! I think spending time with my family is probably my favorite thing to do, especially if I get to hang out with my cousins, And, of course, I always find time to read during my busy days!

Kathie: What’s something I didn’t ask you about that you would like our readers to know?

E Train: Well, when I was little, I was obsessed with “The Beatles” and I still am to this day. My mom said I started being totally interested in the Beatles after watching an episode of GLEE with her (she’s also a big Beatles fan too). My mom also recalls that I flipped through page after page of Beatles books and magazines, and I devoured all kinds of Beatles trivia. I know I sound like I’m in my 50’s or 60s when I say this, but I’m not a big fan of popular music today. Past eras of music are awesome. From guitar solos by Eddie Van Halen to hair bands like Bon Jovi.  And of course, the one and only Michael Jackson. 

I can’t go a day without singing “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, and “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles.

Kathie: Thanks so much for joining me today, E Train, and I look forward to seeing what you’re up to next!

E Train: Thank you so much for having me, Kathie! I look forward to keeping up to date with all of MG Book Village’s interviews and events! You and the whole crew are amazing, and I’m in awe of all that you do to promote middle-grade literature and everything books!

Interview with Shawn K. Stout about The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle

Anne: Hello, Shawn! I’m thrilled you could join us here at MG Book Village to chat about your newest novel, The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle.

Shawn: Hello! Thanks so much for inviting me to share my new book with MG Book Village!

Anne: It’s such a heart-warming story. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?

Shawn: The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle is about ten-year-old Cutie Grackle, who lives with her bewildered uncle at the top of a remote mountain in West Virginia. She knows almost nothing about her family history, but she has no trouble believing it includes a curse. It isn’t until five ravens start following her that she worries much about it, though. She’s too busy trying to trick her stomach into feeling full and keeping tabs on her uncle. But when those ravens bring her a trinket that pulls Cutie into a memory from her family’s past, the truth is impossible to deny. As other trinkets and memories follow, Cutie learns not just that the curse exists, but that it’s her destiny to do what her long-lost mother could not: break it.

Anne: Great. Thanks! Now, tell me about the protagonist’s name. What a curious name! Where did you get the idea to call your protagonist Cutie Grackle?

Shawn: Since ravens are such an important part of the magic of the story, and crucial to Cutie’s insight into her missing family, I knew that I wanted her last name, as well as the last names of her long-lost family, to be some sort of bird. I happen to love grackles. They are fascinating and resourceful. Did you know that grackles will follow closely behind a farmer’s plow so that they can catch mice in the fields? They will also pick leeches off the legs of turtles. Which is kind of gross, but also very cool. (Especially for the turtle, I’d imagine.) Typically, grackles are unafraid of humans, and for that reason, they often symbolize courage. (Which I thought fit Cutie’s character nicely.) Other characters in the book have bird names, too—Uncle Horace’s last name is Thrush, and Cutie’s great grandmother’s name is Pearlie Mae Grouse. (If you aren’t familiar, thrushes and grouse are different groups of birds.)

the common grackle

Anne: I love this! I didn’t know all of these details about birds. Good stuff. Now, what about Cutie?

Shawn: It took me awhile to settle on the name “Cutie.” I knew I wanted her name to be unique and endearing. But every name I came up with didn’t quite fit Cutie’s personality. And then I watched Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary, “Cutie and the Boxer,” which is about the life and marriage of Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. I knew then that Cutie was the name I’d been searching for.

Anne: Cutie feels hungry a lot. I love the sensitive way you introduce readers to some hard truths about food insecurity. What made you want to include poverty and food insecurity as part of the plot in this story?

Shawn: Raising awareness of childhood hunger and food insecurity is really important to me. About 13 million kids in the United States live in “food insecure” homes, which means that in those homes, there’s not enough food for each family member. Imagine that: a country as rich as ours, and millions of kids, like Cutie, don’t have enough food. Summertime, which is when my book takes place, is especially hard for kids who rely on free meals during the school year.

I grew up in a single-income household—my mom’s salary as an elementary school teacher supported our family of five—and we lived paycheck to paycheck. Although we weren’t considered food insecure, my siblings and I always understood that money was tight, and that no food was to be wasted. In high school, I volunteered at soup kitchens as well as helped to donate food to our local food bank as part of our church’s youth group. Today, I regularly support No Kid Hungry and their efforts to help communities feed children. There are a lot of wonderful organizations that are working to end childhood hunger, and if you’re looking for a way to help, here’s a great place to start:

Anne: Thank you. That’s a great resource.

Now I have another question about Cutie. A raven causes her to experience a vision of sorts, and I loved that as Cutie and the reader together try to make sense of what seems impossible, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the magic of this world. Did you know from the get-go that magic would play a big role in this story? How hard was it to craft the magical elements?

Shawn: For all of my books, I always start with a character. Basically, I have to know who the story is about before I knew what the story is about. Once I got to know Cutie and her predicament—alone on the mountain with no food, and no family to rely on—I knew that the ravens would become her family. And for that to happen, I knew there would be magic involved in some way.

Before Cutie, I’d never written a book with magic in it—all my previous books have been either realistic or historical fiction—so it was really challenging (in a good way…uh, mostly) for me to figure out how to weave the magic of the birds and the history of the curse into a contemporary story. I kind of got swept up in the magic, to be honest. In early drafts, I had written a very long, very detailed backstory of how the ravens came to the mountain and their complex involvement in the curse. Each raven had its own name and personality and feelings about the curse. It was a lot. As you might imagine, the magic got more and more complicated with each draft, until one day, my editor asked me, “Whose story are you telling?”  It seemed like such a simple question, but it forced me to recognize that Cutie had taken a back seat to the magic. You can’t have your main character sitting in the backseat of your story! Once I realized what I’d done, I deleted about 100 pages until I was able to bring her back to the front again.

Anne: Oh, my. That’s a lot! But I’m sure the process helped you shape the final story. In addition to weaving magic into the book, you had many references to fine art. Cutie’s uncle Horace loves the work of Claude Monet, a French Impressionist painter. I enjoyed your description of Monet’s paintings as “blurry and dreamy with lots of light and shadow.” Do you have a favorite Monet painting?

Shawn: Before I started writing this book, I read Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, which is a fantastic read. I learned so much about the difficulties Claude Monet faced in capturing the fleeting light, color, and water, and the torment he suffered in his later years as he began to lose his vision to cataracts. He chased the impossible—expecting perfection from himself—and drove himself mad by falling short. I don’t really have a favorite Monet painting, but if I had to choose, I might pick “La Grenouillère” because the baths look so inviting, and it makes me want to live inside the painting for awhile.

Anne: While reading, I learned a lot about ravens. Very fun! How much research did you have to do to weave in details about these very intelligent birds?

Shawn: I read a lot about ravens while I was writing this book. In particular, Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich gave me insight into how ravens communicate with each other, their posturing and calls, and how they work (and play) together. They are incredibly intelligent birds, with a strong social structure.

Anne: Speaking of learning new things, the character Galen suffers from fibular hemimelia—a condition I found fascinating. I’m sure it’s quite rare. How did you decide to include this condition in the story?

Shawn: When Galen’s character first came to me, I knew he had a limp. The more I got to know Galen and developed his character, I learned that he was born with a limb deficiency. Part of his fibular bone was missing, which resulted in a shorter leg. You’re right, it is a rare condition in this country, with about 100 kids born with fibular hemimelia each year. What I discovered in my research is that there is a procedure to lengthen the fibular bone so that it will be the same size as the other leg. The procedure usually involves several surgeries over a period of years with extensive physical therapy. I interviewed limb lengthening surgeons and read patient accounts to get a sense of what the child has to go through, not only with the condition, but how the choice to have the series of surgeries impacts the child’s life. In Galen’s case, he’s already had two surgeries, and he’s not sure he wants to have the third. He knows what’s involved, he’s afraid, and he feels as if his parents are making all the decisions for him, without asking him what he wants.

Anne: That would be tough to go through. I’m glad you included it in the story.

You’re already known for your historical novel A Tiny Piece of Sky, your Not So Ordinary Girl books, and your Penelope Crumb series. What are you working on now? Will you be writing more novels for middle-grade readers?

Shawn: Yes! Although I love reading young adult and picture books, my heart belongs to middle grade. I’m currently working on a new middle grade novel, Anatomy of Lost Things, which is about three characters who have each lost something very important to them, and whose lives intersect as they try to recover what they’ve lost. It’s slated to publish in Fall 2024 from Peachtree.

Anne: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?

Shawn: You can find out more about me, and my books, on my website: Or you can see what I’m up to by following me on Twitter @shawnkstout and/or Instagram @shawnkstout.

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a great story for middle-grade readers!

Shawn: Thanks again, and happy reading!

Shawn K. Stout is the author of several acclaimed books for young readers, including the Penelope Crumb series, the Not-So-Ordinary Girl  books, and the historical novel, A Tiny Piece of Sky. Her newest middle grade novel, The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle, is in bookstores now. Shawn is a science writer at the National Institutes of Health and holds an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in a very old house in Maryland, where she hopes to be visited by ravens. (She sets out trinkets for them just in case.) Visit her at

Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about her at the MG Book Village “About” page.