Interview with Nicole Melleby about HOW TO BECOME A PLANET

Today we’re chatting with Nicole Melleby, whose book How to Become a Planet publishes today! This contemporary middle grade tells the story of Pluto, a young girl who is dealing with a summer unlike any she’s experienced before. Instead of trips to the planetarium, playing at the boardwalk arcade, and working in her mom’s pizzeria, she’s faced with a diagnosis of depression. When her father threatens to move her to the city, where he believes money will fix Pluto’s problems, Pluto determines to complete a checklist which she feels will get her back to her old self. But a new therapist, a new tutor, and a new friend with a checklist of her own help Pluto learn that there is no old and new Pluto- there’s just her.

Of the few middle grade books which feature characters dealing with depression, the focus is often on the initial cause or even when the character feels they’ve ‘overcome’ their depression. What made you decide to explore a character dealing with a recent diagnosis?

I wanted to show that mental illness can be a lifelong issue. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning, like it ends up being for a lot of kids (and adults) struggling with mental illness. And it can be scary! She’s got all of these big emotions, and her depression has set her back in a lot of ways while she and her mom were trying to figure out what was wrong, and now that they know what is wrong, where do they go from here? Ultimately, I wanted to show my readers that it’s okay to have these diagnoses, that it doesn’t change who they are, and I wanted to show them that despite it feeling so hard, there is always hope.

How to Become a Planet is your third middle grade novel. Are there any themes you’ve noticed pop up across all your books?

Mental illness and queer characters always have a place in my books, in a number of different capacities, but I have noticed now that I’m on my third book that a big theme that often comes up for me is the dynamic between parents and my middle grade aged characters. In Hurricane Season, Fig struggles with this intense sense of responsibility to take care of her dad and herself in the face of his undiagnosed bipolar disorder. In In the Role of Brie Hutchens…, Brie is desperately eager for her mom to just see her and love her for who she is. And here, in How to Become a Planet, Pluto is constantly caught up in her single mom’s expectations and concerns for Pluto’s well-being, and how that effects Pluto’s own journey. I once read that the difference between Young Adult and Middle Grade is that Young Adult characters look to find their place in the world outside of their friends and family, while middle grade characters try and find their place within their friends and family. Middle grade characters are surrounded by adults who make the calls about their lives, and I think it’s important for them to find agency and understanding within that. 

Your novels feature strong secondary characters that help guide and mentor the main character. Do you have a favorite secondary character that you’ve written?

Oh, this is such a tough question to answer! I have a particular soft spot for Fallon, Pluto’s new best friend (and crush!) in How to Become a Planet. Fallon is my first nonbinary character; she’s a bit of a nerd (a book nerd, to be specific) and she can be prickly and defensive if she gets her feelings hurt. But she listens to Pluto and tries her hardest to understand what Pluto is going through. Like attracts like, and Fallon sees something familiar in Pluto’s struggle to understand herself, since Fallon’s going through some pretty similar feelings herself. She’s gallant and sweet and exactly the type of friend Pluto needs when she finds her. 

But I also have to give a shoutout to Parker in In the Role of Brie Hutchens. She’s Brie’s best friend, and she has my favorite moment in all of my books: When Brie comes out to her, Parker (who can’t respond verbally, since they’re in the middle of class) responds by sending Brie a thumbs up and rainbow emoji. She’s the kind of best friend I think any queer kid could love. 

I’m going to cheat and keep going, because while we’re on the subject of all of these wonderful best friends, I have to mention Danny. In Hurricane Season, Fig is going through a lot, and she’s going through most of it alone, until Danny comes along. While he ends up with a bit of a misguided crush on Fig, at the end of the day, Danny completely and fully has Fig’s back and is there for her when she needs him. 

What do you hope young readers take away from How to Become a Planet?

Mental illness is often seen as an “adult issue” and that’s just not true. There are many, many kids who struggle with depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses. You’re not alone if that includes you. 

In your astronomy research for How to Become a Planet, what was one interesting thing you learned that didn’t make it into the book?

I actually found out after I turned my book in that due to the increasing number of debris in space, the space station has guidelines for avoiding a collision, that includes keeping empty space in an invisible rectangular shape clear around the space station called the “pizza box”. This was particularly amusing to me, because Pluto and her mom own a pizzeria on the boardwalk and are obsessed with all things astronomy. While I didn’t know this fun fact, I can almost guarantee Pluto and her mom are well aware of it! 

As a Pitch Wars mentor, you have experience guiding aspiring writers. What advice would you give to young writers?

You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are. 

Find a group of writers who are in the same boat as you. If you’re looking for an agent? Find writers to commiserate with. If you’re on sub? Ditto. Find a debut group if you’re having a very first book coming out—because all of these stages are daunting and new and no one knows how to navigate them, but it helps not navigating them alone. 

Also: If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!

Get your copy of How to Become a Planet from Indiebound!

Nicole Melleby, a born-and-bred Jersey girl, is an award winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, recipient of the Skipping Stones Honor Award, and a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist. She lives with her partner and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule.

Nicole is currently represented by Jim McCarthy (@JimMcCarthy528) with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC.

Feel free to follow her on Twitter!

Interview with Supriya Kelkar about THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD

Welcome back to the MG Book Village, Supriya! Thanks so much for stopping by.

Thank you for having me here, Jarrett! It is so great to be back at the MG Book Village.

Since you’ve been here to discuss your previous contemporary Middle Grave novel, American as Paneer Pie, you’ve released a historical Middle Grade novel (Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame — which we were honored and delighted to host the cover reveal of!), a picture book (Bindu’s Bindis), and also announced that you’ll be illustrating your first picture book (American Desi, written by Jyoti Rajan Gopal). You have been seriously busy!

Yes, it has definitely been a busy year! I’ve been learning lots about the illustrating side of books and working on revisions and first drafts of new projects too so that has been exciting as well.

You are here to chat about your upcoming release, That Thing About Bollywood. Could you tell us what the book is about?

That Thing about Bollywood is the story of Sonali, a Bollywood-obsessed girl who isn’t good at expressing her feelings. Sonali’s parents don’t get along and it looks like they may be separating. One day, something magical happens that causes her to express herself in the most obvious way possible, through Bollywood song and dance numbers. As the Bollywood magic grows and Sonali’s whole world starts to turn Bollywood, she must figure out what is causing the magic and how to stop it before it is too late. 

American As Paneer Pie, your other contemporary novel, is strictly realistic. But That Thing About Bollywood has lots of fantastic elements. Was that always part of Sonali’s story?

It was! I had actually been searching for a way to incorporate Bollywood into a book for a long time. One day I woke up with the idea that classic 90s Bollywood is about expressing yourself very obviously, so what if there is a girl who isn’t good at expressing herself, and magic causes her to show her true feelings in a Bollywood way? So magic and Bollywood were part of Sonali’s story right from the very first thought I had about this story.

The magical or fantastical elements of That Thing About Bollywood are all rooted in, or relate back to, very real issues and emotions, some of them very tough. Do you think there are any advantages or particular strengths to addressing such topics and feelings with fantasy?

I really wanted to explore what happens in some families in the Asian American community, where things like sickness and separations can sometimes be hidden from the community. And I think having the fantastical elements of Bollywood magic in the mix can sometimes let readers feel a little more at ease about the discussions of these issues in the book that are really quite serious.

What do you hope your readers take away from That Thing About Bollywood?

I hope readers realize it is okay to express themselves and not be embarrassed of all the feelings they have. I hope it inspires them to find their voice and know how powerful they are.

Can you tell us about your own history with Bollywood film, song, and dance?

When I was growing up, there were no South Asian American characters in American books, and there weren’t any roles for South Asian American actors that weren’t racist depictions. I never saw anyone who looked like me in any American media. But Bollywood, the nickname for the Hindi movie industry, one of the largest film industries in the world, gave me just a little of the representation I was looking for. Bollywood gave me a space where people who looked like me were heroes, and where my languages, and foods, and cultures were celebrated. I even learned Hindi from watching 3 Hindi movies a week as a child, because they weren’t subtitled back then so I had to figure out what was being said. And when I grew up, I ended up working as a Bollywood screenwriter on the writing teams for several Hindi movies, including India’s entry into the Oscars.

What’s your favorite thing about the world of Bollywood? Did you include that in That Thing About Bollywood?

It is so hard for me to pick just one thing but if I had to, it would be the songs and dance numbers. I tried to pick some of my favorite Bollywood tropes and pay homage to them in the musical numbers Sonali does in the book. And I’ve been counting down to the release of That Thing about Bollywood with movie clips of all of these Bollywood tropes on Twitter!

Do you have any appearances or events scheduled to celebrate your new release? Where can readers find more information about you and your work?

I do! The virtual launch party for That Thing about Bollywood is being hosted by Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, MI. You can get the Zoom link and signed copies at this link!  And readers can find more information about me at my website, www.supriyakelkar.com, and find me on Instagram @supriya.kelkar and Twitter @supriyakelkar_.

Thank you again for joining us here, Supriya! And congratulations on the release of another wonderful book!

Supriya is an author, illustrator, and screenwriter who grew up in the Midwest, where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Winner of the New Visions Award for her middle grade novel AHIMSA, (Tu Books, 2017), Supriya has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films, including Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Eklavya: The Royal Guard, India’s entry into the 2007 Academy Awards. Supriya’s books include AHIMSA, THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH (Sterling, 2019, illlustrated by Alea Marley), AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, a School Library Journal Best Book of 2020, (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2020) STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME (Tu Books, 2020), BINDU’S BINDIS (Sterling, 2021, illustrated by Parvati Pillai), and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Simon and Schuster BFYR, 2021). She is the illustrator of Jyoti Rajan Gopal’s AMERICAN DESI (Little Brown 2022). Supriya is represented by Kathleen Rushall at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Kim Yau at Echo Lake Entertainment for film/TV rights.

Cover Reveal: NOT A UNICORN, by Dana Middleton — PLUS: A Conversation between Dana and author Jill Diamond

Jill: I loved NOT A UNICORN and I’m excited to learn more about the book and your process! To begin, could you please give us a brief synopsis?

Dana: First of all, thanks so much Jill for being one of my first readers and for doing this interview with me. Your support along the way has meant the world to me! 

NOT A UNICORN is the story of 13 year old Jewel Conrad who has a horn on her head that looks very much like a unicorn horn. You might think that looking like a human unicorn would be cool, but Jewel doesn’t feel that way at all. More than anything, she wants to be hornless and “normal.” But there are other forces at play in Jewel’s world that make getting what she wants more complicated than she ever expected. She has to figure out the mystery of her horn which takes her on an unexpected quest to unexpected places. In the end, Jewel’s story becomes one to which we can all relate: learning to love and accept herself as she is.

Jill: This is such a unique concept, can you explain where it came from and why it resonated with you?

Dana: I wish I knew where Jewel came from, but I don’t. She just appeared in my brain one day and would not let go. She simply demanded that I write about her. Honestly, I resisted. I mean how weird would it make me to write a book about a girl with a unicorn horn?! And then I realized that was exactly how Jewel felt. She was scared to let herself be the real weird her in the world. So thanks to Jewel, I’m learning how to do that, too!

Jill: Jewel doesn’t want to have a unicorn horn and will do almost anything to get it removed. Why is this so important to her and what’s so bad about having a unicorn horn from Jewel’s perspective?

Dana: She wants to be like everyone else—just like so many kids in middle school. But for Jewel, she feels like she can never be normal and never live the life she wants when everyone is always staring at her. She thinks getting rid of her horn will solve all her problems. But will it?

Jill: Is it a real unicorn horn?

Dana: You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Jill: An interesting aspect of your book is that it’s a hybrid contemporary fantasy, which is great from a reader’s perspective because it makes it both relatable and escapist. Was it challenging to write a multi-genre book?

Dana: My two previous books were contemporary middle grade with some added magic or mystery, but Jewel’s story was very different from those. So, yes it was challenging. Partially because Jewel was less like me than any main character I had ever written. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED getting to inhabit her skin. I loved getting to know her and discovering the fantasy part of her story along with her. But it was important to me to get that balance right. I wanted this to be about a real girl in a real life who was living an experience that at times crossed the barriers of reality. That fantasy part was new to me as a writer but ultimately extremely fulfilling to get on the page. At this point, it all seems absolutely real and possible to me. Of the books I’ve written, it’s the one that I would most like to step into and experience for myself.

Jill: The characters in your book have very distinct personalities. Do you connect with any of the characters’ stories or traits?

Dana: I think I most connect with Jewel in her desire to belong. That was an acute desire for me at her age and I think it’s a human desire throughout our whole lives. Part of my evolution, as well as Jewel’s, is learning that you can be authentically yourself and still belong. The other characters in this book, especially Jewel’s friends, Nicholas and Mystic, came to me over time. They definitely have distinct personalities, and I think I would have been too intimidated to sit down at a lunch table with them in middle school. But even though they are a bit guarded and tough on the outside, their waters run deep. They were so worth getting to know! And I couldn’t have asked for better companions to go with me and Jewel on this journey.

Jill: Do you have another book you’re working on now?

Dana: Yes! I just finished a mystery with my screenplay writing partner, Kate McLaughlin. This is the first middle grade novel we’ve written together, but not the last, as we hope for it to become the first of a series. It’s contemporary fiction with some fantasy elements, too. Imagine that?

Jill: How can readers find out more about you and your writing?

Dana: You can always find out more about me by reading any of my books because there’s lots of me in them! Also, you can visit my website or follow me on social media:

Website: http://www.danamiddletonbooks.com

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DanaKMiddleton

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/danamiddletonbooks

Thanks so much, Jill, for taking the time to discuss NOT A UNICORN with me today. I can’t wait for it to be out in the world!

Jill Diamond is the author of LOU LOU AND PEA AND THE MURAL MYSTERY and LOU LOU AND PEA AND THE BICENTENNIAL BONANZA. You can find her online at www.jilldiamondbooks.com or @jillinboots on Twitter.

Dana Middleton is the author of THE INFINITY YEAR OF AVALON JAMES and OPEN IF YOU DARE. Her new book, NOT A UNICORN, comes out from Chronicle Books on September 21.

The Power of Food in Family and Fiction: An Interview with Tanya Guerrero

I’m so excited to chat today with Tanya Guerrero, author of How to Make Friends with the Sea and All You Knead is Love, which is out today!

Let’s dive in!

What role does cooking and baking play in your connection to your family and culture?

Because I grew up in the Philippines, Spain and the US, cooking, and food culture has been ever present in my memories—whether it was fighting for the lone red chili in the can of sardines I’d share with my sister for breakfast, or learning to cook my Lola’s croquetas in her country house kitchen, or eating cinnamon raisin bagels with melted Muenster cheese for lunch every day with my elementary school friends in New York City. I suppose being surrounded by a multicultural family and environment always made me aware of the connection we have to food, and how the process of making it brings us together not only as a culture, as family, as a community, but also brings us together with the land. My Spanish grandparents loved foraging, and some of my most precious childhood moments were spent searching for wild mushrooms, asparagus, strawberries, herbs and even snails, which my Lola Francisca would cook with loads of garlic and parsley.


Tanya with Lolo Ernesto and Lola Francisca

In All You Knead is Love, Alba finds healing from the turmoil in her life through baking. Have you experienced a similar connection in your own baking?

I didn’t do much baking when I was a kid. Rather, I would cook with my grandmother and my mom, oftentimes, three or four course meals, which consisted mostly of Spanish dishes, sometimes Filipino and French dishes as well. The process of foraging and shopping for ingredients, prepping them in the kitchen with my family, and then sitting around the table and eating the dishes that took us hours to prepare, is something I remember fondly, despite any chaos that may have been going on in my life. When my sister and I moved to Barcelona to live with our grandparents while our parents were dealing with their divorce, I found a lot of solace during those years living with my lolo and lola. And that’s something I wanted to give to my main character, Alba. I wanted her to reconnect with her grandmother like I did, I wanted her to reconnect with a culture she barely knew like I did, I wanted her to find love through food like I did. And although, I didn’t learn how to bake sourdough bread until I was in my forties, I also wanted Alba to experience the meditative kind of healing that can come from baking something as basic as bread. 


Tanya’s walnut rosemary sourdough loaf and sourdough bagels

What importance does food play in your stories? 

I think food will always play an important role in all my stories. Because for me, food was always something that connected me to my culture, the family and friends that I love dearly, and the places I’ve lived and travelled. The Filipino and Spanish people have such a huge food culture and history, and because of that, food is always front and center at all our family gatherings.


Snacking on churros con chocolate with Lola in Barcelona

What is a memorable baking or cooking mishap that you have had? What did you learn from it?

Gosh, I’ve had SO many kitchen mishaps over the years! But, I will admit that when I was first learning how to make sourdough bread, I had so many failures—flat, pancake-ish loaves, dense loaves, burned loaves, undercooked loaves, too-sour loaves. But with lots of perseverance and patience, I was able to get past those failures and now I’m able to make all sorts of loaves, although I do still fail from time to time. 

I also have one specific memory that has really stuck in my mind as an epic failure, and the reason I remember it so clearly, is because of the humiliation I felt for myself and for my mom. In the summer after freshman year in college, I went to stay with my mom in Long Island, NY where she lived with her husband and my younger brother. At the time, she was freelancing as a one-woman caterer for some of the wealthy people who summered in the Hamptons. So I spent my break helping her with catering jobs. There was this one particular job, where we were supposed to make a passionfruit tart with mango sorbet for dessert. Well, all the courses turned out perfectly, except for the mango sorbet. For whatever reason, my mom’s ice cream machine wasn’t working properly, so the sorbet wouldn’t solidify. And since we didn’t have time to make any changes to the menu, my mom sent me to the nearest grocery to buy some Haagen Dazs mango sorbet to go with our homemade passionfruit tart. After the luncheon, where all the guests seemingly loved the food, the hostess came into the kitchen as we were packing up, and confronted my mom about the mango sorbet. “I didn’t pay you to serve Haagen Dazs,” she said to us with an accusatory glare. As my mom explained and apologized profusely, I could feel my cheeks getting hotter and hotter, and redder and redder, and it was the first time in my life I experienced something truly belittling. 


Tanya’s “failure bread”

If you could travel to any country to learn how to make their cuisine, which country would you choose and why?

Hmmm… This is such a tough question! I am obsessed with Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Cuban and generally any Latin American food, so any of these would be great. But if I really had to choose, I’d probably travel through central and south America and do a gastronomic tour, not only for the food, but also so I can also brush up on my Spanish and visit family and friends along the way. I’ve only ever been to Mexico and a couple of islands in the Caribbean, so I know there is just so much for me to explore and learn from this part of the world!

Thank you, Tayna for your wonderful answers! I think we’re all hungry now!

Get your copy of All You Knead is Love today!

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About All You Knead is Love

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.

Interview: Charise Mericle Harper

Hi Charise! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to share about your recent release, SO EMBARRASSING: AWKWARD MOMENTS AND HOW TO GET THROUGH THEM! Before we get to the book, would you care to introduce yourself to our site’s readers?

Hello Readers!  This is always hard for me, I’m not super comfortable with listing off accomplishments.  When I do school visits, I have a sidekick character to help me explain things.  He’s an animated book, and we give the presentation together.  I guess he’s not going to be much help today.  Okay, so I’m on my own, here it goes. I like to make things. I make picture books, graphic novels, and chapter books.  I the draw pictures and I the write words.  Sometimes I to do both together and that is always my favorite.  I love making comics!

You did great! 🙂 Okay, so: SO EMBARRASSING. Where did the idea for such a book come from?

Well, it really was a collaborative project with my editor, Chris Duffy at Workman.  I wanted to make a book filled with comics and factual information, and wanted the content to be helpful to kids.  This is an unusual book, so it took some work to figure out how all the pieces were going to fit together.  There isn’t a big central story, but reappearing characters and two dedicated narrators helped give it a framework.  Then the fun started – I got to make comics!

Were you easily embarrassed as a kid? Did you ever want to stick a paper bag over your head?

Absolutely!  And I am a blusher!  While I’m not an expert on embarrassment, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of that moment when it happens and the horror of it all.  How you just want to disappear. It’s awful. On the other hand, I’m always predisposed to look for humor in a situation, and this topic has a lot of opportunities for humor. 

Do you think, as we grow up, that we stop doing so many embarrassing things, or do we just stop getting embarrassed as easily?

Wait!  Are you saying that adults don’t get embarrassed? No one told me! I’m still operating at full kid level.  Let me take a second to let that sink in.

I’m pretty sure that no one likes the feeling of being embarrassed, so I suppose that adults might be good at avoiding potentially embarrassing situations. They have years and years of practice. So they know to say, No thanks, I won’t get on that electric scooter while you have a camera pointing at me. Also, perhaps the adult brain can understand that embarrassment isn’t such a big deal, that if you can laugh it off – you win.

Were there any issues or anecdotes that didn’t make the cut — that were removed from the book, say, during revisions?

I don’t think there were any big cuts to the book, but it was good that that we had a limited number of dedicated pages per chapter.  I could have easily made more comics with additional time and pages.  I didn’t include any of my own big embarrassment stories in the book, but inspired by the book, I made some comics about them and added them to my website.  The time my car caught on fire was pretty embarrassing, as was the time I fell in the middle of the street while walking my dogs.  That last one happened only last year. Yikes!

What do you hope your readers will take away from the book?

Well, first off, I hope they will smile and laugh.  There are some facts in the book, so I’m hoping those might be interesting and helpful. Also, knowing that you are not alone is a big help when facing an uncomfortable situation.  No one talks about embarrassment, what to do when it happens, and why it happens, yet it is something that we’ve all experienced.  When I was just starting this book, I was at a school visit with about sixty fifth graders. I told them about the new book I was working on, shared my own embarrassment story, and then asked if anyone wanted to share a story of their own.  I thought two or three brave students might put a hand up, but I was wrong.  More than half the class wanted to talk about something embarrassing that had happened to them. I couldn’t believe it.  It was fun, it was high energy, and it gave me confidence in my subject matter.  Embarrassment equals a good story.

SO EMBARRASSING is a marvelous mishmash — there are comics, lists, charts, facts, and at different points, the book reads like a self-help survival guide, a confession-filled memoir, an illustrated informational text, and a handful of other things besides! How did you come to use this approach? Are there any other topics that you could see making a book about in such a fashion?

You use the word mishmash and that was the exact recipe I used.  I put all the things I like to do together, mixed them up, and then made them fit.  A fair amount of it was not pre-planned, but just appeared as I kept working through the pages.  I’m really thankful to my editor for letting me play around with the format.  Not every publisher is going to be so comfortable with that.  I am looking for new topic right now.  I’m not sure if it’s going to be exactly like So Embarrassing. I might have to invent something new.  I felt very comfortable making this book. I’d love to make more.

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

My website holds more information than anyone could want.  There’s information about all my books, free comics to read, and free crafts to make.  You can find all this at www.chariseharper.com  Come on by!


Charise Mericle Harper is the author and illustrator of many children’s books, including the Just Grace series, the Fashion Kitty series, and the Next Best Junior Chef series. She lives in Oregon. She can be found at chariseharper.com.

Interview: Amy Timberlake

Hi there, Amy! Thanks so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new book, Skunk and Badger!

Hi Jarrett! Thanks for having me. Yay!

First off, can you tell us what the book is about?

Skunk and Badger is about two animals who are forced to become roommates. This does not go well. The badger — an Important Rock Scientist — has moved into the brownstone first. How will he do his Important Rock Work with a roommate? How will he find his focus, focus, focus? Difficulties abound. There are too many chickens.  

Can you share where these characters came from? Did the idea for the story come first, or did Badger and Skunk?

Skunk and Badger came first? I think? A long time ago, I tried to write a story in the style of Marjorie Sharmat’s “Nate the Great,” with a skunk as the main character. Also, as I was packing up in a recent move, I came across this story about a badger who collected stamps. Anyway, neither of these tries amounted to anything. Then years went by, and I was re-reading A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories and I thought, What if I wrote something like this but in my own style? What would that be like? That’s when I was able to start writing “Skunk and Badger.” 

In addition to the themes woven throughout the story, there are two topics delved into relatively deeply: rocks and chickens! Did you have an interest in these topics before sitting down to write Skunk and Badger? Did you do any research to learn more about them?

I find chickens funny. I like the way they peer and scrutinize and then, peck-peck-PECK! Also, all those tufts and booties and wattles! And why all the varieties? Look up ‘Transylvania Naked Neck chicken!’ What do you think of that? 

And rocks run in the family. My uncle is a geologist and my grandfather worked in the copper industry. My grandmother landscaped her front lawn with old mining equipment and tumbles of big rocks. In the home I grew up in, books were held upright with geode bookends. Still, none of this meant I was interested in rocks or geology. But then Badger walked into my story with his magnifying glass and his quartzite and I had to learn about rocks and geology. I’m doing the best I can to keep up with him. Badger knows far more about rocks than I do. 

Geology — whew! — it’s mind-bending! Or mind-stretching? Anyway, you have to conceptualize a huge span of time. I’ve got this Earth Science textbook. I’ve read histories, and geology written for non-scientists. I took a beginner geology course up at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota because I had to find a way in. Badger needed to see like a geologist, and that’s tough. Geologists don’t look at the landscape in the same way that everyone else does. Geologists read history and time in the rocks around them. That rolling hill? Those sharp-edged mountains? They look completely different to a geologist. You may see something still and lovely; a geologist sees action and violence. 

Skunk and Badger features both spot and full page illustrations by Jon Klassen (plus one absolutely stunning spread!). What was it like working with Jon? What did you think when you first saw his art for the book?

I’ve loved the process of working with Jon. I trust him! 

That said, we each did our work separately and so, when the first illustration arrived it felt as if it came out of the blue. Elise Howard, my editor at Algonquin Young Readers, emailed it. I opened that email and yelled. In front of me was Badger. He sat at his rock table. He was in his rock room. Then I said, “There he is. That’s Badger. He’s in his rock room.” I said this to myself, to Phil (my husband), and to Elise Howard (when she called later). Seeing that image felt both right and eerie. I mean, I recognized Badger, as if yeah, there was the badger who lived in my head, focus-focus-focusing on his Important Rock Work. How was that possible? I’d only just opened the email! Also, at that point, Jon and I had not spoken. I’m still shook by this. I don’t know how Jon did that — but wow.

Skunk and Badger couldn’t be more timely, but there are qualities of the writing, illustration, and general presentation that make it feel classic. While reading, I especially couldn’t help but think of The Wind and the Willows and the Frog and Toad books. Was this intentional? Did these books, or any other older children’s books, play a role in the process of Skunk and Badger‘s creation?

The writing was inspired by A.A. Milne in particular, so that sort of storytelling (the style of it, the shape and size of it, the craftsmanship) was in my head from the beginning. Jon wanted to illustrate the text using full-color spreads printed on thicker, glossy paper that are tucked into the book and bound with the rest of the pages. This is something done in traditional book publishing. Algonquin Young Readers and Jon took these ideas and ran with them. The design of this book is something very special. As a ‘book object’ I consider it a work of art. Honestly, it’s been dreamy to have any part in something like this!   

What do you hope your readers — especially the young ones — take away from Skunk and Badger?

I am hoping for discussion! Maybe about getting along? Or about apologies? Or how disparate creatures — feathered, scaled, or furred — come together in community? Or perhaps they’ll decide to take a day and see the world through Skunk’s eyes. I love how Skunk sees the world! 

Skunk and Badger is listed as the first book in a series. Can you tell us anything about what’s in store for this pair?

In the second book, it’s summer. Skunk and Badger leave the brownstone on an adventure that goes, well, alarmingly astray…  

Are you doing anything else — interviews, events, etc. — to celebrate the release of Skunk and Badger? If so, where can readers find out about that, as well as more about you and your work?

Everything is at amytimberlake.com

Is there a celebration of Skunk and Badger? YES! (See “Events” on amytimberlake.com.) Throughout September and October, there’ll be a virtual book tour where I’ll be live and in conversation with various folks including Jon Klassen, Lisa Yee, Betsy Bird, and Jim Higgins of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. There’s also a blog tour going on September 13-19th.

 I hope to see and meet you there!    

Thanks Jarret and MG Book Village for having me! I loved being here!

Amy Timberlake’s work has received a Newbery Honor, an Edgar, and a Golden Kite Award. One book was chosen to be a Book Sense Pick, another was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. Her books have made several “best books of the year” lists, and she loves it whenever her books are chosen to be part of a state reading list. Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre has adapted both One Came Home and The Dirty Cowboy for the stage. She’s received residency fellowships from Hedgebrook, and The Anderson Center. She was recently awarded The Sterling North Legacy Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature. She is represented by Steven Malk at Writers House. Amy grew up in Hudson, Wisconsin. She attended Mount Holyoke College and majored in History. She also holds an M.A. in English/Creative Writing. Most of the time, she can be found in Chicago, where she lives with her husband. But on especially good days she can be found walking on a long, long trail.

Interview: Jamie Sumner

Hi there, Jamie! Thanks for swinging by the MG Book Village to talk about your new novel, TUNE IT OUT! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the book?

I am so very happy to be here, Jarrett! I’m a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve written articles and essays for the New York Times and the Washington Post, but my heart lies in middle grade fiction. Before I was a writer, I taught high school English for over a decade and before that I worked in New York at a small publishing house in Chelsea. The love of language has carried me through all my jobs.

TUNE IT OUT is my second middle novel. My first, ROLL WITH IT, came out last year. TUNE IT OUT is the story of twelve-year-old Lou Montgomery who has the voice of an angel and a mother who wants to make her a star. The catch is, Lou also has an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder that makes performing nearly impossible. Sounds and crowds overwhelm her. When Child Protective Services separates the mother-daughter duo, Lou is sent to live across the country with her aunt and uncle. This is where she finally attends school regularly, makes her first real friend, joins the theater class, and begins to understand her SPD. This is Lou’s journey to find her own voice and take ownership of what she lets define her.

Music and musical theater play a big role in the book. Have they played a big role in your own life?

I love musical theater (she says with jazz hands)! It’s where I first found my home and my people in high school. I tended to stick backstage and worked as assistant director on all the plays. My senior year, I did an independent study where I wrote a one-act play that I was able to cast, direct, and put on for the entire school. It was epic. And it was all due to my theater teacher, Paula Flautt. She took a risk on me and I am so grateful. This book is dedicated her.

I think there’s something about music and theater both that open you up to parts of yourself you might never have recognized. They allow you to explain the unexplainable through movement and sound. Everyone has a favorite song that the minute you hear it, you think, yes, this is me, this is my experience and I couldn’t have said it better myself. I believe really great books do this as well. They make you feel a truth you knew deep down, but never recognized until the moment you read it on a page.

Do you listen to music when you write? Or do you need quiet? Or can you listen to music during some parts of your creative process, but not others?

I need quiet while I write. Well…I’m home writing with three kids, so I need whatever level of quiet I can get. However, I listen to music as I’m plotting and also when I get stuck. I have certain songs and styles of music that I associate with each of my characters and if I don’t know where to go next or I start to feel disconnected from a character, I’ll put something on that reminds me of them. Lou’s music was an eclectic mix of Patty Griffin, Dolly Parton, and Pink. She’s tough and also heartbreakingly vulnerable and these women know how to rock that complexity.

Lou, TUNE IT OUT’s main character, has a sensory processing disorder. Can you share with us exactly what it is?

Thank you for asking this. The best way I can explain it is to think of a sensory processing disorder as a traffic jam of the senses. Sounds and touches and tastes, even light, collide in a way that overloads the brain. It’s too much to process and can make the world feel unbearably overwhelming at times. Each case is different. Some people have difficulty with certain fabrics on their skin. Others are sensitive to loud or sudden or specific sounds. Some need firm versus light touch, like a hug or a handshake instead of a pat on the shoulder. Unfortunately, as is the case with many invisible disabilities, SPD is often misdiagnosed or misunderstood. I hope this book can spread some understanding of it.

Can you discuss your relationship with sensory processing issues, and why you were compelled to create and write about a character like Lou?

My son, Charlie, has both cerebral palsy and a sensory processing disorder. The SPD diagnosis came later in his life when we noticed his sensitivity to particular sounds. Vacuums, hair dryers, razors, lawn mowers – they all brought him to tears. He was terrified of them. It wasn’t something you could rationalize him out of because this is how his brain works and his brain is wonderful and he deserves to be understood. As a teacher, I also came into contact with students with sensory issues and I watched them struggle to explain something that no one else could see. In TUNE IT OUT, I wanted to create a character that might help bring awareness to and empathy for their situation. Lou’s story is ultimately about how she grows brave enough to speak her truth to the people in her life who need to accept her for who she is. I think middle school kids are so much better and braver than adults at this and I hope they cheer her on as the story unfolds.

What sort experiences did you call upon and what sort of research did you do before and while crafting Lou’s story? Did you use sensitivity readers?  

My priority in writing Lou’s story was to portray her experience as authentically as possible while fully acknowledging that is not my experience. To do that, I called upon sensitivity readers with sensory processing disorders as well as occupational therapists who work with those with SPD. A judge and a social worker also read early drafts to make sure Lou’s experience with Child Protection Services was accurate.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from TUNE IT OUT books?

Middle school is tough. You are just beginning to peel yourself away from the identity your parents and teachers place upon you and figure out who you really are apart from those labels. I hope this story helps readers feel brave enough to voice their wants and needs and to dive headfirst into who they want to be, no matter what anyone else says.

When can readers get their hands on TUNE IT OUT, and do you have any other exciting appearances or events around the release?

TUNE IT OUT is available on September 1st, 2020 wherever books are sold! Personally, I’d say order it from your favorite independent bookstore, because they need us as much as we need them right now. I’m having my launch party/live Facebook chat with Parnassus Books here in Nashville on September 2nd at 6 p.m. (CST). If you want to “tune in” (pun intended), you can find all the info here!

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

The best place to find me is my website: www.jamie-sumner.com. If you’re a teacher and looking to schedule a Zoom/Skype visit, this is the best place to contact me!

I’m also on:

Facebook: @jamiesumner.org

Instagram: @jamiesumner_author

Twitter: @jamiesumner_

Jamie Sumner is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, ROLL WITH IT (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, October 2019). Her second middle-grade novel, TUNE IT OUT, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and the School Library Journal, will be coming out September 1st, 2020. She has written for the New York Times and the Washington Post as well as other publications, and is the reviews editor at Literary Mama. She loves stories that celebrate the grit and beauty in all kids. She and her family live in Nashville, Tennessee. Connect with her at Jamie-Sumner.com

Interview: Victoria Bond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When can readers get their hands on THE SUMMONER?

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

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

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

Interview: Aliza Layne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fascinating! I hope you are correct!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview: Vong Bidania

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you tell us a bit about ASTRID AND APOLLO?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else are you working on now?

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

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

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

Moon Palace Books

Wild Rumpus

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

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

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

Please reach out to me anytime here:

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

Twitter/Instagram: @vtbidania

Thank you, Jarrett!

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