EDUCATORS AND READERS TUNE IN TO CLI-FI, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Have you heard of cli-fi? Even though the term has been around for a few years, I hadn’t heard of it until my editor mentioned this genre is growing in popularity among educators. Cli-fi stands for climate fiction – literature that imagines past, present, and future effects of human-made climate change. Similar to sci-fi, but solely focused on climate crisis related issues.

The trend is likely due in part to the efforts of Greta Thunberg, the young environmental activist who has motivated millions of kids to raise their voices on the climate crisis. According to Nielsen Book Research, children’s publishers have been releasing and planning numerous books aimed at empowering young people to save the planet, calling it the “Greta Thunberg effect.” In the past year, booksellers have noted and responded to a high interest on this topic with kid readers especially. At Book People in Austin, for example, the store had devoted an entire endcap to books with climate crisis themes and a sign above it marked #clifi.

I didn’t know I’d be on the forefront of a trend when I started writing my fifth middle grade novel. I’m usually never on the forefront of anything – I remember being behind all the cool fashion and culture fads in middle school, probably because I was absorbed in whatever book I was reading at the time.

But eureka! The main character in my new middle grade novel, HELLO FROM RENN LAKE, (May 26, Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books) becomes a mini Greta in her small Wisconsin lakeside town after a harmful algal bloom threatens the livelihood of the lake, and the town itself. Cli-fi! And, an uplifting, positive story for these challenging times, highlighting the message that if we all work together, we can change things for the better.

In the story, 12-year old Annalise Oliver isn’t satisfied when the town authorities decide to see if the harmful bloom will dissipate on its own. She springs into action and researches solutions with the help of her friends. And then takes a risk to implement a nature-based remedy.

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) have been increasing in all bodies of water in recent years. You’ve probably seen a bloom – it looks like green scum covering the top of the water. They’re another effect of climate change, and also polluted stormwater runoff that causes algae to grow out of control. HABs steal oxygen and also produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals, birds, and even dogs. Three dogs died last summer after swimming in a lake with a toxic bloom.

HELLO FROM RENN LAKE is not only a story of youth environmental activism. There are also intertwined themes of abandonment and roots – literally and figuratively. Annalise, who was abandoned as an infant, is grappling with her unknown origins but instead of searching for where she came from, she makes a choice to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots are also part of the solution that may help Renn Lake recover. I based this plot element on real-life efforts that have helped polluted waterways become healthy again – the idea that the roots of water-loving plants can soak up toxic algae, similar to how wetlands act as natural purifiers.

A unique aspect of this novel is that Renn Lake, and its cousin Tru, a river, are narrators as well as Annalise. While I was writing, I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water” – that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Having the points of view of these unusual narrators deepens the events in a way that a human narrator couldn’t relay. Readers will really get the sense of the vital importance of water to our lives and how our actions are negatively affecting its viability.

There are some amazing things that happen in this story because of the kids’ determination and refusal to accept complacency. There’s also an informational section in the back of the book for readers who want to learn more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms, and it’s narrated by one of the characters, Annalise’s friend Zach.

I’m so happy to see several other cli-fi middle grade books that have been published recently. Be sure to check out these terrific titles.

THE LIGHT IN THE LAKE, by Sarah R. Baughman

After twelve-year-old Addie’s twin brother drown in Maple Lake, she finds clues in his notebook about a mysterious creature that lives in the lake’s depths. When she accepts a job studying the lake for the summer, she discovers Maple Lake is in trouble, and the source of the pollution might be close to home.

THE LOST RAINFOREST: MEZ’s MAGIC, by Eliot Schrefer

An animal fantasy adventure novel about a reawakened evil that threatens an endangered rainforest. Mez, a panther, and her animal friends, must unravel an ancient mystery and face danger to save their rainforest home.

THE VANDERBEEKERS AND THE HIDDEN GARDEN, by Karina Yan Glaser

When catastrophe strikes their beloved upstairs neighbors, the Vanderbeeker children set out to build a magical healing garden in Harlem – in spite of a locked fence, thistles, and trash, and the conflicting plans of a wealthy real estate developer.

And, these two new nonfiction books for young readers will be sure to inspire and prompt action:

EARTH HEROES: TWENTY INSPIRING STORIES OF PEOPLE SAVING OUR WORLD, by Lily Dyu

Twenty inspirational stories celebrating the pioneering work of a selection of earth heroes from all around the globe, from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough to Yin Yuzhen and Isatou Ceesay. Each tale is a beacon of hope in the fight for the future of our planet, proving that one person, no matter how small, can make a difference.

FANTASTICALLY GREAT WOMEN WHO SAVED THE PLANET, by Kate Parkhurst

From deep in the ocean, around the Antarctic, to a Tanzanian forest, women throughout history have made discoveries that have helped and improved our world. Antarctic researcher Edith Farkas identified the hole in the Ozone Layer and Daphne Sheldrick cared for young orphaned elephants. In Gambia, Isatou Ceesay is spreading the message about the damaging consequences of plastic waste and educates women in local communities about recycling. This is a great compilation of women who have changed circumstances for the better.

With all of these books, the message is clear and positive: we are in this together globally, and every single of one of us can help in ways big and small. The health of our planet is more important than ever. During the coronavirus crisis, many people have been reminded just how restorative and soothing nature can be, not to mention vital to our survival. Let’s make a promise to take care of our water, land, air, and plants and animals so they will be here for future generations.

Michele’s website: micheleweberhurwitz.com

Michele on Twitter: @MicheleWHurwitz

Michele on Instagram: @micheleweberhurwitz

Michele Weber Hurwitz’s books include CALLI BE GOLD and THE SUMMER I SAVED THE WORLD IN 65 DAYS (both Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books) and ETHAN MARCUS STANDS UP and ETHAN MARCUS MAKES HIS MARK (both Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). She lives in the Chicago area.

Interview: Christina Soontornvat

Tell us about the main characters:  Pong, Nok, and Somkit.

When we meet Pong and Somkit, they are nine-year-old orphaned boys who are living in the prison where they were born. Pong is a quiet boy with a special gift – a sort of superpower. He pays attention to things. That might seem like a small thing, but it enables him to see things other people miss – including magic. I gave Pong this quality because it’s something I wish I were better at. I’m always working on trying to live in the present and not let my mind wander. 

Somkit is the smallest boy at the prison (and the most picked on). He’s very smart and has a real knack for inventing things (my background is in mechanical engineering, and I loved creating a character who is a budding engineer). He’s also a wise-cracking funny guy, who is always teasing Pong. The two boys are more like brothers, really. Their friendship is heavily based on my dad’s friendships with the men he grew up with in Thailand. They all had a really strong bond that was shaped by their tough childhoods, and having to grow up a little too fast.   

All the children in the prison are reminded often that they won’t grow up to be much, and in fact they will probably just end up right back in jail. It’s a desolate place to be a child – especially for Pong, whose one true wish is to help make the world a better place. One day Pong gets his chance to escape, and leaves his best friend and his past behind forever. Or so he thinks (bum, bum, bum!). 

Nok is the prison warden’s perfect daughter, and she is determined to hunt Pong down and restore her family’s good name. She’s driven by a shameful secret in her past, and she wants to prove to her family that she’s worthy of their love. When we meet Nok she has lived a very privileged life, and until now she’s never confronted her privilege or questioned the system of oppression that rules their city. Of all the characters she is the one who has the most changing to do, and she is the character who I identify with the most. 

You have mentioned that Chattana is based on the city of Bangkok, Thailand. Can you tell us about the fantastical elements infused into Chattana, as well as the real ones?

Bangkok, like many cities and towns in Southeast Asia, is a river city. It has been called the “Venice of the East”, and when my dad was a boy it was even more prominent in daily life than it is now. People built their homes and businesses along the river. As a boy, my dad fished and swam there. He would hitch rides on the back of water taxis. His parents owned a cargo boat that would take goods up and down and back up the river again. So in his stories that he would tell me, the river was always important. 

The Chao Phraya River from above.
A temple on the river in Chiang Mai.

When I wrote A Wish in the Dark, I wanted to emphasize the river even more and so the city of Chattana has no roads at all, and everyone gets around by boat. A river is a wonderful element to have in a story because it’s a force of nature that imposes its will on the characters whether they like it or not. They either have to flow with the current, or fight the current. They can get trapped on one side or the other. A river is a dangerous thing (especially for Pong, who can’t swim), but also full of life. And of course, it’s so beautiful. One of my earliest memories is being in a boat at night on the river in Thailand and being mesmerized by the reflections of all the lights in the water. That moment felt magical and it’s one of the things that inspired me to make the lights of Chattana (literally) powered by magic. 

The Author on a river boat ride in Bangkok.

What was your favorite scene to write? Which one was the hardest?

For almost the entire book, the chapters switch back and forth between Pong and Nok’s points of view. But there are two chapters that are written from the point of view of very minor adult characters, and I had a ton of fun with those! These adults underestimate the kids (typical for adults!) and have zero clue about all the complex things going on in their lives. The adults are the complete opposite of Pong – they think they know everything, but because they don’t pay attention they are missing it all. Those scenes were so fun to write. 

The hardest scene to write was the ending, which stretches over several chapters. This is where all the separate threads of the story have to come together and tie up. The reader has to learn some surprising information and mysteries have to finally get solved. I also wanted the reader to absolutely burn through the pages and not be able to stop until they finished. So that scene had a lot of heavy lifting to do! It took a lot of rewrites, but I’m happy with the way it finally turned out. 

Once you have finished A Wish in the Dark, do you have recommendations for what to read next? 

If you’d like another twist on an old “classic” I highly recommend Hena Khan’s More to the Story, which is a modern retelling of Little Women starring four awesome Pakistani American sisters. If you want to read about more kids having incredible adventures across the world, City Spies by James Ponti is so much fun. An MG fantasy that also digs into important social issues that I am absolutely loving right now is Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan. 

And later this year, my middle grade nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue, All Thirteen will be released. I didn’t originally plan to have two books set in Thailand come out in the same year, but it is a total thrill. I traveled back to Thailand to conduct in person interviews for All Thirteen, with my dad by my side to help me with research and translation. So in a way, I also got to work with my dad on two books in the same year, which has been such a joy. 

Nightly rituals – visiting the fruit markets after dinner.

Christina Soontornvat is the author of several books for young readers, including The Blunders, illustrated by Colin Jack, the middle-grade fantasy novel A Wish in the Dark, and the nonfiction All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. She holds a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in science education. Christina Soontornvat lives with her family in Austin, Texas.

Interview with Jennie Englund

Why did you choose to focus on mental health in Taylor Before and After?

Thank you for including Taylor and me as part of Mental Health Awareness Month!

As person who’s lived with depression for 22 years, and as a teacher seeing more and more students struggle with the condition, I felt called to craft a story about what it’s like to carry around depression today—among social media, news outlets, competition, pressures of school, family, and financial issues. For me, there’s been a desperation to try to push through those dark times— situational and clinical. I really loved that Rhoda Belleza–who acquired the project for MacMillan–picked up on that.

When I was Taylor’s age—13—in eighth grade in California, I rarely heard the word “depression.” We weren’t aware. Today is different—there’s greater understanding, more attention and acceptance, ways for us to get help and to feel less alone. People are waiting for us to reach out to them.

How have you gotten yourself through a hard time?

That’s a BEFORE prompt in the book—“What has helped you through a tough time?”—and Taylor writes how her closet saved her. But by that, she means more than jeans and an orange necklace; fashion may seem small, a tiny way of making through another day, but really, it’s having “a purpose, a future.”

I haven’t relied on my closet. But I’ve tried to pull myself together in other ways–getting outside, trying to compromise with my husband and kids, watering my plants, petting my cats, being an engaging teacher, applying for fellowships. I walk, hike, swim, and do yoga. I try to eat less treats than I crave. That’s all good work, but I still need medical help. I have a thorough doctor and a kind counselor.  I wish Taylor had those resources, or took up Sister Anne’s offer to talk. It would’ve made DURING more endurable.

Instead, Taylor tries eating blueberries, doing jumping jacks, getting outside, forcing herself to join a club at school. For people with depression, there’s BEFORE and AFTER, and there’s DURING, which can feel like the hardest part. It can be heavy, overwhelming, and seemingly permanent. But at the center of those lonely times is the promise it will get better. It does get better.

And always, there’s writing. “A blank page is an invitation to healing.”

How does the setting reflect character and plot?

Like the state of Hawaii and the island of Oahu, Taylor is part of something bigger, though she doesn’t always feel like she is. Yet, even on her darkest days, there is beauty in the natural world around her, and that beauty is there for all of us, if we look to it. Of course, there are days when volcanic ash blows over Oahu from the Big Island—“heavy and suffocating and gray”–but there are also days the tradewinds blow that vog back out again, “so cool and light, whispering promises of hope and change, you feel new and calm at the same time, the simple ha breathing onto and into and all through you. You’re alive and whole but also still.”

So, there’s dark and light?

Yes! In life, in the book! On the way to school one day, my son, Rees, who was 15 or 16 at the time, asked if I always have to be so deep. I guess I do.

But also, I laugh—A LOT! I peppered the story with scuttling lizards, a kiss-gone-wrong, a cat that eats enchiladas. Taylor’s life is tough, but it’s also very rich! It’s full of everything!

Can you speak to the unconventional structure of the story?

I took a huge risk on format—moving Taylor between before and after her life falls apart. The narration isn’t straightforward, linear, and clear because mental health isn’t straightforward, linear, or clear.Memory is affected—fragmented, jumbled—and thinking, concentrating, and problem solving can be difficult. We piece together moving forward and back—like the ocean’s flow, its vastness and depth, its reach.

Depression is a disorder, so it made sense to me to present Taylor’s story in a dis-ordered way. The School Library Journal reviewed Taylor Before and After as “appropriately disorienting.” I love the power, the truth, the irony of that! I had to be brave to put my art out there, vulnerable to criticism, but I did it on behalf of the brave mental health community who fights to “see another sunrise.”

And also, the story is told completely through prompts in Taylor’s Language Arts class?

Yes! Every “chapter” is a different prompt off the whiteboard in Miss Wilson’s class.

I remember the first time I gave a writing prompt a student skipped right over, writing instead about the broken washing machine that had flooded her apartment. This showed me humans need an outlet for our worry, our sadness and frustration. Writing is an opportunity. We can share space with pain, and at the same time use written expression as a journey, a process, a navigation through it.  

As a writer, mom, and writing teacher, I’ve seen the powerful healing of journaling…Getting our thoughts from our heads onto paper helps us with clarity and order. It’s empowering!!!

How have readers responded to the mental health thread?

Readers have AMAZED me!!!! They seem so thankful to have Taylor for a friend. And I’m grateful for their own stories!

The humanities chair at my college—a PhD in literature!—said he wished he’d read the book while his kids were Taylor’s age; he would’ve understood so much more about what they were going through, and could have been a more compassionate parent.

Since Taylor’s debut, I’ve been surprised to hear its impact on parents, teachers, counselors, librarians, and reviewers—as much as I’ve heard of its importance to sixth graders in Sacramento, for example.

It seems to break down the big picture of mental health in a way teens and those around them can understand.

I wrote Taylor for upper-middle-grade readers, which is a specific group. It straddles chapter books and YA–a unique and significant part of life, of growing up. When I was writing the story, I had early teens in my home and on my mind; I never thought about grown-up readers, so the book’s impact on them has been the biggest surprise of my publishing process.

And, there are the wonderful teens I was hoping to reach. One reader shared he’d made a big mistake during high school, and after reading Taylor, he could see the impact that mistake had had on his younger sister. He was remorseful, but also optimistic. There was still a future for both of them. They could move forward.

What is the backstory of the Author’s Note?

Ah, this is really lovely…Weslie Turner, my wise editor at MacMillan, really worked with me to get the wording here just right. We wanted support to feel accessible, relatable, and normalized. I’m not a medical worker, but I’m a person living with mental illness, and a sister. In the Author’s Note, along with resources, I share my 26-year old brother Mac’s story. He’s been on all sides of depression. It’s an ongoing challenge. He and I have been there for each other, for other folks, and have asked for, received, and offered support. There is help. There is hope. Eventually, Taylor realizes that when she shares her story with Henley.

What is one way we can support each other?

Taylor knows her mom is right: “the hard thing is the right thing.” Straight up, we can all be kinder to each other, to think again before judging someone. It might not be easy—we can see Taylor really struggle with the choice to be kind to her frenemy toward the end of the story—but the smallest kindnesses make a huge difference. They matter.

And what three words would you say to someone who suffers from a mental disorder?

YOU matter! Okay, that’s only two words. But, it’s everything.

National Endowment for the Humanities fellow Jennie Englund began Taylor Before and After during a teaching institute on Oahu. She lives in Oregon, where she teaches college research writing and firefighters. 

Cover Reveal: RESCUE AT LAKE WILD, by Terry Lynn Johnson

Hi Terry! Thank you so much for allowing us to be part of your cover reveal. Can you please tell us about your upcoming release, and when it will be published?

Rescue at Lake Wild is about Madison, a 12-year-old girl, and her two best friends, who rescue a pair of orphaned beaver kits and then must keep them a secret. There is a poaching mystery to solve, a town’s beaver population to save, and a helpful, slightly food-obsessed dog named Lid. Expect lots of beaver mayhem. It comes out June 1, 2021 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I’d love to know where the idea from this story came from?

I worked with a wildlife rehabilitator one year in Kenora, Ontario and was astounded at her stories of caring for beaver kits. She gave me an insight into the hidden life of a beaver. Fast forward years later, I’d been wrestling with writing a novel about my job as a game warden, but couldn’t find the right kid-friendly approach. Then I saw a special on the Nature of Things about beavers, and the idea for this book was born.

Did you have any input on the cover, and who is the illustrator?

The illustrator is the amazing Maike of Front Desk fame. She gave us several sketches to choose from, and they were all fantastic. I’m lucky that my publisher has always asked for my input on my covers. What I really appreciated in this process was how Maike was able to capture the tone of the story in her art, since she had taken the time to read the book! Truly a wonderful experience for an author to have the illustrator get you! She also created a fun map!

Of course, I thought the art style looked familiar! OK, it’s time for the big reveal!

Wow, this is an amazing cover, Terry! It’s so bright and colorful.

And I’m double lucky in that this book also has wrap art. Here’s the whole work of art.

I LOVE the beaver and tree on the spine. It’s absolutely beautiful.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?

As with all my books, the wild animals in the story are as realistic as possible. To ensure the beaver kits’ behavior was true to life, I interviewed several wildlife rehabilitators, including one who told me an incredible personal story with a beaver she cared for. That story is depicted on the cover. I toured a wildlife rehab center and also visited beavers at a wildlife education facility, where one of the good-natured beavers allowed me to touch him so I could write accurate details. It’s fun being an author!

I highly recommend our readers check out your other middle grade titles if they’re not familiar with your writing. Where can they go for more information on you and your books?

My website http://www.terrylynnjohnson.com

Thanks for chatting with us today, and all the best with your book’s release. I cannot wait to read it!

I so appreciate everything you do for the MG community!

Terry Lynn Johnson writes middle grade adventures based on her experiences living in northern Ontario, Canada. She might have fallen through ice a time or two, been dragged by a dog team, and chased a bear with a chainsaw. She owned eighteen sled dogs, but now owns one border collie which is about the same amount of work. Her books have been recognized by Bank Street College Best Books, ABA Best Books, ILA Children’s Choice Book Award, Canadian Children’s Book Center Best Books, and been nominated for eighteen state Young Reader Book Awards. Rescue at Lake Wild is her tenth novel.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Gracie Dix

Welcome to MG Book Village, Gracie! I’m so happy that you could be part of our Fast Forward Friday feature. Your debut novel, Welcome to Superhero School, comes out this Tuesday, April 28th. Could you please let our readers know what it’s about?

Thanks for having me! Welcome to Superhero School is about a group of teenagers with superpowers, who all attend Superhero School. One day, they find out an evil organization called Vork is threatening their very livelihood. The teens must work together through perilous, life threatening situations to save not only themselves, but also the world.

Wow! That sounds exciting. I love a good action adventure novel, and who can resist one that involves superheroes? This is the first book in the Vork Chronicles series. Are you working on the next one, and are there any details you can share with us?

Yes, I am working on the next book in the series. The sequel features the same group of friends as Welcome to Superhero School, plus a few new characters. They’ve been selected to compete on a game show but aren’t aware yet of an underhanded twist lurking behind the scenes.

I’ve also written a short prequel, called Journey to Superhero School, featuring twins Oliver and Jessica Fletcher. If you would like to learn when Oliver and Jessica got their powers or how they were selected to go to Superhero School – this prequel is for you! You can download it on Amazon Kindle.

That’s a lot of writing! You are a high school student, right? How do you fit in time for writing with schoolwork and extracurricular activities?

Yes, I am currently a Junior in high school. I mostly write whenever I have free time during my classes or study halls. I wrote the entirety of Welcome to Superhero School on my school computer. Now with staying at home due to coronavirus, I have a lot more time for writing.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned on your writing journey?

The editing process is grueling! When I first started to edit Welcome to Superhero School there were so many edits to go through, even though I thought the book was ‘done’ at the time. Editing really opened my eyes to mistakes that I had made and to information I could add to help my story develop. Then, after finishing the first round of editing, I had to go back through a second round, and a third round, and many more rounds. Editing took much longer than I had expected but it was worth it in the end. I’ve learned that to be a good writer requires a lot of patience, flexibility, and editing.

What advice do you have for aspiring teen authors who read this interview?

Just go for it! Don’t let anyone or anything hold you back. Be yourself and write about what you love. If you get stuck, take a break. Something will come to you if you are passionate about it.

Don’t feel like you must have every detail of the whole story planned out to get started. I know some authors write that way, which is great, but believe it or not, once I had the basic plot I wrote the entirety of Welcome to Superhero School by letting the story evolve as I went along.

However, if you make things up as you go along, remember what you wrote previously to avoid plot holes. In fact, I keep a chart going as I write. The Welcome to Superhero chart includes information on all the characters, such as their powers, the order in which they appear, and where they were at certain moments in the story while I focused on another character. Also, if you are writing a book or novel with a larger number of main characters, remember to give each of them time in the spotlight throughout the story, so the reader doesn’t forget who they are.

I see that you are donating a portion of the proceeds from each book sold to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International? I love that you are giving back with your debut novel. What inspired you?

I really love animals. They are a big part of my life. In fact, they are such a big part of my life that I put one of my dogs, Snowball, as a character in the book. I love that people buying my book can also help  animals all around the world with their purchase.

The characters in your book all have superpowers. If you could choose a superpower, what would it be?

Super agility – because agility includes strength, resistance and speed.

If you could say one thing to your readers, what would it be?

Don’t be embarrassed about your differences. The things that make you different also make you special. For example, I have ADHD and it has become one of my superpowers. Embrace who you are!

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

They can go to my website, graciedix.com

Also, follow me on social media: 

Instagram: @gracie.dix.author

Facebook: GracieDixAuthor

You can also follow my dogs on Instagram: @Sandy_and_Snowball

Thank you again for joining us today, Gracie, and best of luck with your book’s release!

Thank you for having me!

Gracie Dix is a high school student and author, who has been writing since she could hold a pencil. When Gracie isn’t writing, she can be found singing, creating art, in the theatre, volunteering, or playing tennis.  She loves travel and is a loyal friend. Gracie lives in Dallas, Texas with her parents, brother, and her beloved dogs, Snowball and Sandcastle “Sandy.”

OPEN A BOOK, OPEN A HEART: SEWING THE SEEDS OF COMPASSION THROUGH STORY, by Bobbie Pyron

The best part of being a writer is getting letters and email from my readers. Middle grade readers particularly are so passionate about what they read. They tell you they are quite sure they are the biggest fan of your book that you’ve ever had. They tell you how much their life mirrors that of the main character’s. One young reader of my book, A DOG’S WAY HOME, assured me she will take excellent care of her copy because she plans to read it to her children one day.

But hands down, for me the best letters are the ones that tell me my book helped them see things in a different way. My 2012 book, THE DOGS OF WINTER, was inspired by the true story of a child in Russia who lived homeless with a pack of wild street dogs for two years. It’s not an easy book, emotionally. I didn’t sugar coat anything. But that book, of all the ones I’ve written, prompted the longest, most heart-felt letters about. As Gabby wrote to me after her class read THE DOGS OF WINTER, “It makes you think and question and realize things about the world you didn’t notice before.”

My new book, STAY, is starting to get its own fan letters. STAY is the story of Piper and her family who are experiencing homelessness. Piper’s story intersects with that of a little dog named Baby and his person, Jewel. They too are homeless. But because shelters don’t allow animals, Jewel and Baby must live in a city park. Again, a tough subject. But gratifyingly, readers say, “This book really opened my eyes,” or “I will never look a homeless person the same since reading your book.” And best of all, “Now I want to do something to help. To make a difference like Piper did.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines compassion as, “sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with the desire to alleviate it.” I also think of compassion as the ability to see things and people differently through an open heart. “Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” as my mother often instructed us.

Story is a great way to develop a sense of compassion in kids. I was a passionate reader as a kid and teen. I was particularly drawn to stories—both fiction and nonfiction—about people dealing with challenges I could only imagine. The biographies of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, BLACK LIKE ME, by John Howard Griffin, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHIN, by Jean Craighead George, and of course, Anne Frank’s THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL. These books not only opened my eyes and my heart, they helped me become the kind of author who writes to widen that circle of light which is compassion.

I believe kids search for connection, are still open and curious enough to embrace “other.” And I believe kids truly want to make a difference. Whether it’s making masks for health care providers, donating lemonade stand money to animal shelters, or writing letters to soldiers overseas, kids want to feel empowered to alleviate distress.

Several months ago, I had the good fortune to connect with a remarkable young person named Roby Summerfield. Roby lives in a small mountain town about forty-five minutes from where I live. The town of Bakersville has fewer than five hundred people. Being the passionate reader that she is, Roby decided to establish the Bakersville Little Free Library. Roby’s goal is to fill the tiny library with books for young people featuring books on subjects she’s passionate about: empowerment of women and girls, cultural diversity, disability visibility, and environmental awareness. But, as she explained to me in her email, “The overall theme is kindness and compassion.” You bet I not only donated a signed copy of STAY for her library, I persuaded several other children’s authors to donate signed copies of their books too. “The role of being a library steward,” Roby says, “has enabled me to connect with my community, and feel that I am making a difference close to home.”

Six years ago, I taught at a writer’s conference on Sanibel Island in Florida. I was the only children’s author on the faculty. When asked why I choose to write for kids rather than adults, I said it’s because the books we read as kids—particularly between the ages of seven and twelve—that have the ability to shape who we become as adults. We carry them with us in our hearts, and often in our way of seeing, into adulthood. Middle grade authors are in the unique and humbling position to write stories that open hearts and widen the circle of light. Something needed now more than ever.

Bobbie Pyron is the author of seven award-winning, critically acclaimed novels including A DOG’S WAY HOME, THE DOGS OF WINTER, LUCKY STRIKE and her latest novel, STAY. Bobbie lives in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband and their dog, Sherlock. You can find out more about her and her books at bobbiepyron.com.

To find out more about Roby Summerfield’s Bakersville Little Free Library, visit her Facebook page facebook.com/bakersvillelittlefreelibrary, and her Go Fund Me page, Kindness & Compassion Through Books.

DREAMING OF NORMAL, by Reina Luz Alegre

Like everyone, I’m stressed, worried, hoping, praying, and longing for things to please go back to ‘normal.’ Literally the whole world is trapped in a Pandemic. But it’s just a moment in time. It too shall pass. Or so I try to remind myself when tears threaten. When everything seems like too much.

And though the current state of the planet is a whole other level, to be honest, I’ve been dreaming of normal and falling short to some extent my entire life. Every problem, every insecurity, always standing in the way of the idyllic normal in my head. I think maybe we all do this, at least a bit? Particularly in middle school—a time beset by so much physical and emotional change under even the best of circumstances. A time when perhaps many of us wanted so badly to just feel normal. To fit in with friends. To be understood by our families. To like what we saw when we glanced in the mirror.

The pre-Pandemic, contemporary world of my upcoming MG debut THE DREAM WEAVER is very different than the current one we suddenly find ourselves in. Yet twelve-year-old main character Zoey still longs for normal there too.

Zoey wants to put down roots. But her dad keeps dragging his kids around the country in pursuit of impulsive, often irresponsible career changes. Zoey wishes she had a solid group of friends. But constantly moving around makes it hard to build and maintain friendships. Zoey longs to dress like other girls her age. But she isn’t sure how to go about figuring out fashion yet. Typical junior high worries mixed with heavier ones. Then, at the beginning of the story, Zoey’s dad dumps her indefinitely at grandpa’s house while her big brother prepares to head off for college, and Zoey’s future is abruptly more uncertain than ever as those she loves most slip away.

But Zoey adapts. She grows closer to grandpa. She makes friends, has fun hanging out at the beach, and resourcefully plots to save grandpa’s boardwalk bowling alley. She finds her backbone and where she belongs. By the end of the story, Zoey is living a ‘new normal’ too—one in which she’s thriving, despite not having everything she wanted at the beginning of the book. Some things are better, others worse, a few remain to be seen. And that’s life. Adjusting to new normals all the time. Doing our best. G-d Willing, when we’re finally able to do all the fun summer stuff Zoey does in THE DREAM WEAVER—normal things like going to the beach or hanging out with loved ones in person—I bet it will all feel extraordinary.

But, for now, happy reading!

Reina Luz Alegre lives in the Miami area with her family. She’s dreamed of becoming an author since the second grade, and grew up to work on various other professional dreams—including as a freelance journalist and lawyer—before debuting her first novel, The Dream Weaver, which comes out June 23, 2020 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. When she’s not writing, Reina loves to read, sing, and salivate over baking shows. Follow her on Twitter at @ReinaLuzAlegre and read more about The Dream Weaver at https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Dream-Weaver/Reina-Luz-Alegre/9781534462311.

Cover Reveal: ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, by Tanya Guerrero

Welcome, Tanya! I’m so excited to be part of the cover reveal for your upcoming middle grade book ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE. Can you tell our readers a little bit about it?

Hi Kathie! I’m thrilled to be here at MG Book Village a second time around. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be sharing more about my next book, ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, scheduled to be released, March, 2021. As you can tell from the title, which of course includes a fun bread pun and a musical reference, there will be lots of bread baking and music weaved into the plot. My main character, Alba is sent off to Barcelona, Spain to live with her estranged grandmother, in order to escape an abusive home situation in New York City. At first, she finds the transition jarring, but as she begins to settle in, she meets her mother’s childhood best friend, Toni, who owns the neighborhood bread bakery. He takes her under his wing as a sort of father figure, and teaches her the art of sourdough bread baking. As she gets to know her estranged grandmother, Abuela Lola, and makes new friends and a found family, she’ll start to heal, and find her true self. Below you’ll find the official teaser:

Twelve-year-old Alba doesn’t want to live with her estranged grandmother in Barcelona.

But her mother needs her to be far, far away from their home in New York City. Because this is the year that her mother is going to leave Alba’s abusive father. Hopefully. If she’s strong enough to finally, finally do it.

Alba is surprised to find that she loves Barcelona, forming a close relationship with her grandmother, meeting a supportive father figure, and making new friends. Most of all, she discovers a passion and talent for bread baking. When her beloved bakery is threatened with closure, Alba is determined to find a way to save it—and at the same time, she may just come up with a plan to make their family whole again.

From the author of How to Make Friends with the Sea comes a heartfelt story of finding one’s chosen family, healing, and baking.

I can’t wait to read it, I love your writing and it sounds fantastic!!! How did writing this book compare to writing your debut novel, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, which just came out a few weeks ago?

Both books were similar to write since they were partially inspired by my own childhood experiences. Because I was using a lot of my own memories to form the plot, setting and character arcs, I was able to draft relatively quickly, in 3-4 months. I would say that the big difference between writing my debut novel, and this second book, is that I had so much more on my plate that I had to juggle while drafting this second time around. I think what was key to the success of a debut author’s juggling act is being able to identify those moments when you have down time, and use those opportunities to write the next book. For me, the best time seems to be while I wait for notes from my editor, or while I wait for copy-edits.

Are you a bread baker, and where did the idea for this story come from?

I am a bread baker, more specifically a sourdough bread baker. I took it up a couple of years ago, and found it to be a hobby that worked really well with my writing, since there are long waits during fermentation. The average loaf can take 6-8 hours to ferment, so I can get a lot of writing done, as well as do my daily chores and errands. As someone with anxiety, I also found sourdough bread baking to be really meditative; it’s helped my mental health tremendously, so I thought it would be the perfect passion to give to my protagonist, Alba. 

As I stated above, part of this story was inspired by my own childhood experiences. When I was seven, I moved to Barcelona to live with my grandparents, while my parents were going through their divorce. I combined that, with my love of sourdough bread baking. Additionally, I also decided to make Alba, non-gender conforming like my own daughter, because I felt there was a void in MG literature when it comes to representation like hers. Both my daughter and Alba, identify as she/her, but they do not conform to the traditional mold of what a girl is supposed to be. Like my daughter, Alba chooses to wear clothes she finds in the “boy” section of stores, and wears her hair short. 

My daughter asked me why none of the girls in the books she was reading were like her, so as a mom and an author, I decided to do something about it myself!

I’m so glad you did this, I’d love to see more non-gender conforming characters in middle grade stories. Did you have any input on the cover, and who is the illustrator?

I did have a bit of input on this cover, but it was mostly in the minor details, such as choosing the kinds of breads and pastries for the display and cake stand. Early on, my editor sent me samples of Zhen Liu’s work, and I was so impressed by how she depicted all sorts of people, and how she used color and architectural elements to create such gorgeous scenes. I’m also extremely fortunate to be working with Cassie Gonzales, who is an amazing book designer at Macmillan. She really brought everything together, including the title font, which I adore. But what I love the most about this cover, (besides all the delicious breads and pastries), is how Zhen really captured Alba, physically and mentally. The way she looks is exactly how I envisioned her, and the expression on her face and body language is just perfect.

OK, it’s time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for….

What a wonderful cover! I love the bright colors, and its got such kid appeal.

Thanks so much! I really, truly love this cover so much and I couldn’t be more thrilled with how it came out. I hope others will love it as much as I do.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?

Yes, I definitely want to highlight the fact that Barcelona as a setting is very much a character in its own right. While the story mostly takes place in the Gothic Quarter, where Alba’s grandmother lives, there are many scenes that take place in neighboring areas such as El Raval (where a lot of Filipino immigrants live), Barceloneta and El Tibidabo. I hope to inspire readers to travel to Spain someday, and discover some of the places I feature in the story. 

What is the release date for ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, and where can people go to find out more about you and your writing?

Right now the release date is set for March 30, 2021, almost an exact year since my debut, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, came out. Hopefully that won’t change, but I’ll make sure to update everyone if it does. Please visit my website, and make sure to add, ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE to your Goodreads TBR lists!

https://www.tanyaguerrero.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53096213-all-you-knead-is-love

Thanks again for letting us be part of your cover release, Tanya. I look forward to reading it.

Thanks again, Kathie! As usual, it’s a joy to work with everyone here at MG Book Village!

Tanya Guerrero is Filipino and Spanish by birth, but has been fortunate enough to call three countries home–the Philippines, Spain, and the United States. Currently, she lives in a shipping container home in the suburbs of Manila with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of rescued cats and dogs. In her free time, she grows her own food, bakes bread, and reads.

Telling Our Secrets

When I was ten years old, I lived in a neighborhood that seemed perfect from the outside. The grown-ups came and went in their cars. The kids walked to school. We rode our bikes around the block. In the summer, we caught toads and fireflies, and in the winter, we built forts. Everyone seemed happy and well-adjusted. If you look at pictures of me from back then, you would think I was happy too. There was one of me as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz with the ruby slippers we dipped in red glitter. (I remember there was glitter on the kitchen table for weeks). There was one of me sitting on the lawn with my dog. Just a goofy neighborhood kid you thought you knew. No different than any other ten-year-old.

You never would have guessed that I was suffering in secret. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  OCD takes many different forms. Some people who have it experience a fear of germs or feel a compulsion to wash or disinfect. Other people have rituals that stave off the feeling of disaster. My OCD mainly expressed itself in the repetition of intense and constant worries about ideas that disgusted or terrified me. Once a bad thought entered my head, I became consumed by it. I was completely unable to stop focusing on it for months at a time, and the thought would grow bigger and bigger until it became very difficult to do anything else besides worry. Most of my obsessive thoughts had to do with death, probably because my father was very ill when I was a child. I would think about AIDS or heart disease or terminal cancer or senility. Sometimes I would think about what would happen if one or the other of my parents were dying. Sometimes I would worry that I myself was dying. I would imagine my death bed, I would imagine being buried alive. I would imagine murder scenes.

Each of these worries would cycle continuously through my mind every moment of the day, growing in intensity from the time I woke in the morning, until I went to bed in the evening. It was a kind of constant existential pain. No matter how I tried to distract myself, I could still feel the worry clawing in my chest and my belly. When my obsessing was at its most desperate, and I became physically unable to keep the thoughts a secret any longer, I would begin to ask people around me if the things I worried about could possibly be true. But no matter what the person said in their attempts to soothe me, I would always doubt. Asking for reassurance doubled or tripled my anxiety, inspiring new questions that could never be answered. “Are you sure I can’t catch AIDS from a water fountain? Completely sure or just a little sure? Are you just saying this to make me stop asking, or do you really mean it? Will you always tell me the truth? How can I know you are telling the truth now?” I would ask and ask until my poor friend or family member would become so exhausted from my questions that they would eventually find a way to escape and I would turn inward, disgusted with myself, but still completely unable to stop.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness asserts that today, one in five adolescents suffers from some sort of serious mental health issue (NAMI, 2018) but because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, many teens suffer in silence as I did.  When I was a child, I didn’t know there was such a thing as OCD. I didn’t know there was a name for what was going on inside my head. I didn’t know that there were other people whose brains got stuck in the way mine did, or that a careful combination of therapy and medication would one day, finally, help me live a normal life. It was not until I was in my twenties that I finally became brave enough to seek help.

I wrote Trowbridge Road, so that children living in families with mental illness might see a reflection of their own experience and realize that they are not alone. In Trowbridge Road, June Bug discovers how harmful and exhausting it can be to keep secrets. She forges an unusual, imaginative and powerful friendship with a strange neighborhood boy named Ziggy, and discovers that she is not the only child in this neighborhood whose life is imperfect. She is not the only one who keeps secrets. She is not the only one who has been suffering in silence. Little by little, as trust grows between them, both children eventually feel safe enough to tell each other the truth for the first time, and in telling, they realize that sometimes when your own family is shaking you can find someone from the outside who can feed your spirit and even save your life. I wish that when I was eleven years old, someone had put a book like Trowbridge Road into my hands so that I could see that there was no such thing as a perfect neighborhood. Maybe I would not have waited so long to get help. There are many reasons why Middle Grade literature is powerful, but I think one of the most important is the ability to provide mirrors for children who have never seen themselves in literature before and windows for children who are the perfect age for empathy and connection. I hope Trowbridge Road finds its way into the hands of someone like me, who needs to know that what she is feeling can be put into words. I hope it gives some young person courage to find help if she needs it or to find hope in the promise that there are people out there who will feed your spirit and hold you until you are no longer afraid.

Marcella Pixley teaches eighth grade Language Arts at the Carlisle (MA) Public Schools. Her poetry has been published in literary journals such as Prairie Schooner, Feminist Studies, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review and Poet Lore, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Ms. Pixley has written three acclaimed novels for children: FreakWithout Tess, and, Ready To Fall. Freak received four starred reviews and was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year; Without Tess was a School Library Journal selection, and Ready To Fall was named a best books of 2018 by Bank Street Society of Children’s Literature. Ms. Pixley lives in an antique farmhouse in Westford, Massachusetts with her husband, two sons, and a ridiculous shaggy dog named Mango. She is a graduate of Vassar College and Bread Loaf School of English.

Interview: Avi

How did you become a children’s book writer?

I made up my mind to become a writer in high school, a playwright.  A Broadway playwright. That sure didn’t work, though there were flickers of interest. Reluctantly (believe or not) I took up cartooning. By then I had a son. He liked to climb on my lap and ask for a story. I’d always tell him to choose the subject. “A garbage truck.” “Rain.” With such prompts I invented stories.

Around the same time a picture book editor saw my art work, and urged me to write a book. “I’m an artist, not a writer.” She said “Then write a book and illustrate it.” I did. In quick time the art was ditched but the stories remained.  My first book, Things That Sometimes Happen—consist of those stories I told my son. It was published in 1970.  A rewritten version of it is still in print. Writing that book reminded me how much I loved kids’ books. There’s your beginning.

When did you start writing novels?

By the time I had my own kids I needed a stable income. I became a librarian, working first at the NY Public Library.  Then I became a librarian at what has become the State College of New Jersey.  When there, my son—the same one mentioned above—had a costume party: super hero stuff.  (One kid came dressed as Snoopy!) The third book I wrote was No More Magic loosely based on what happened at that party and the town in New Jersey where we lived. It was nominated for the Mystery Writers’ annual award. By then there was no turning back. I was a writer of children’s books.

And the historical fiction?

In 1947 Simon and Schuster published A History of the United States, the first truly pictorial history of the USA. I must have read it a thousand times.  I still own that very book. It made history vivid and utterly absorbing for me.  At the University of Wisconsin, I had two majors: Theatre and History.  My early plays were historical dramas. I still read history for fun.

After I wrote No More Magic, I wrote Captain Gray, a novel set in the post-Revolutionary war period.

People often reference your historical knowledge and detail. Where does that come from?

That’s the librarian in me.  At the college where I worked I taught students how to do research.  I find it wonderfully exciting, endlessly fascinating. Recently, writing about a famous event, I learned (when doing research) that there was an almost full moon that night two hundred years ago. No wonder it happened at that time! Serendipity is candy for writers.

Writing the just published Gold Rush Girl there is a vast library about San Francisco at that time.  People lived in tents. But I learned they also lived in Bamboo house imported from China, and iron house shipped in from New York City.  Best of all there was this vast fleet of abandoned ships—abandoned because the crews went off to search for gold—with this wonderful name “Rotten Row.” How could I resist such stuff? Rotten Row became the core of the book.  But of course, the story comes first. Still all that detail enabled me to invent a wonderful rich—as in detail—tale about people who came alive.

But–shortly after it was published I came upon a collection of Daguerreotypes (an early form of photography) of gold rush San Francisco people. And there she was: my heroine, Tory Blaisdell, looking and dressing exactly as I described her in the book, even to a Bowie knife in her belt! It was a wonderful confirmation of my research, my exploring Tory’s character, and the story I had written. Except as I looked at the picture, I had this eerie thought: maybe I was not writing fiction.  Maybe it was channeled–a true story!  Tory’s tale!

What is your writing process?

In two words: endless rewriting.  Endless. That includes reading it aloud to my wife, and to kids in a favorite local school. There is no such thing as a perfect book—not by me anyway—but I do try.  A story has to flow from start to finish with no speed bumps.  In one sense a novel is a logical revelation, logical in the sense that is must all be linked, cause and effect.  Or, as I like to say, I can’t write a good opening line of a book until I’ve written a good last line.

What is the role of an editor for you?

A good editor helps you discover (and deliver) the book you are writing.  Working with an editor who is smart, who challenges me, who has wit, who has a sense of fun, of whom you grow fond —is one of the great joys of my writing life.

What advice would you give would-be writers?

Read. Read. Read. And read some more. And more.  And more. In time—hopefully—your thinking will be like writing.  Thus my mantra: “Writers don’t write writing. They write reading.”

Avi comes from a family of writers going back to the 19th Century.  He has just published his 80th book, The Button War (Candlewick) and has won many awards for his work, including a Newbery Award and two Newbery Honors.  He and his wife live in a log house high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, in the middle of a forest.  Their five children are all grown-up.