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.

Interview: Kristin L. Gray

Hello, Kristin! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your new novel, THE AMELIA SIX! But before we get to that, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi, thanks for having me!

I’m Kristin, I live in Arkansas with my family, two dogs, cat, and bearded dragon. I used to be a pediatric nurse, but now I write full time, working in children’s novels and picture books.

Okay, now: Can you tell us what THE AMELIA SIX is all about?

Sure!

Six STEAM-savvy girls spend the night at the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kansas, when her historic flight goggles mysteriously disappear.

A bit of trivia, this particular pair actually vanished during Amelia’s lifetime. More on that in the book.

Have you always been interested in Amelia Earhart? How did you decide to write a book in which her story takes a central role?

Yes, Amelia, and the mystery surrounding her and her co-pilot Fred’s disappearance, has always been fascinating to me. But a family road trip to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum the summer before I entered fourth grade cemented my interest. I remember checking out biographies of Amelia at school. I’ve always loved looking at maps, too, so tracking her flight around the globe is thrilling and heartbreaking.

Writing a mystery about a mystery (or mysterious figure) sounded intriguing, challenging, and fun! In short, I have always been obsessed with CLUE and all things Nancy Drew. Cozy mysteries are my absolute favorite books to read. I knew wanted to try to write one myself . . . it was just a matter of finding the right setting and believing that I could pull the story off.

And I had plenty of setbacks. I actually set the story in a different famous house first! But those key figures weren’t nearly as inspiring to me, and the story fizzled. Then when my family took a detour to visit Amelia’s historic house in Kansas, everything clicked. It should have been Amelia all along.

You could’ve written a more straightforward historical novel, or written a story about a contemporary kid learning about that history, but you chose to use the subject matter to build a mystery. Was that always the plan? Do you think the mystery genre in particular is a beneficial one with which to explore the past?

I set out to write a mystery from the start, and I do think in this case it works well. Bringing contemporary kids (characters) into a historic house, namely Amelia’s, was a fun way to expose them to lots of aviation history. Time travel and historical novels are wonderful and offer immersive worlds, but I write contemporary stories best. I never thought to write this story any other way. I love mysteries and old things, and this book let me explore both simultaneously.

To answer your last question, in a way, all mysteries explore the past. Some pasts are just more recent than others.

One of the things I love about this book, as well as your first novel, VILONIA BEEBE TAKES CHARGE, is the voice. All it takes is a single sentence, and suddenly you feel like you can hear – actually hear – your narrators talking. Can you discuss your creation and development of voice in your work?

Aww. Thank you. I don’t have a clear answer, other than I live with a bunch of kids – having five myself. I hear a lot of conversations, ha. I also read a lot of books – I tell students in my Skype and school visits that books are our best teachers! I never took a single writing class when I was in school, so I learn by reading and studying others—Rita Williams-Garcia, Sheila Turnage, Karina Yan Glaser—to name a few. And I try to remember what it felt like to be a kid myself. Sometimes, when the writing is especially daunting, I pretend I’m telling a story to one of my friends.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from THE AMELIA SIX?

There’s one line in the book that I love: “You can be quiet and brave.”

Bravery isn’t always loud. It isn’t always shocking, stunt-worthy, or brash. We don’t have to have some grand adventure like Amelia, or like my main character Millie, in order to be brave. Bravery can be found every day, in a small act of kindness or in an unseen advocacy. Quiet, everyday bravery is courageous.

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 AMELIA SIX to their classrooms and libraries?

Thank you for adding The Amelia Six to your collection!

There’s an author’s note at the end of the book describing the top five theories of Amelia’s disappearance plus a reading list for those extra-curious students. On my website, I have links to downloadable maps of her around-the-world flight. Plus, links to youcandothecube.com for more information on how to Rubik’s speedcube like Millie.

Did you know Rubik’s loans cubes to schools as STEAM tools and for their popular mosaic projects? Check out Amelia Earhart!

https://www.youcandothecube.com/build-mosaics-with-rubiks-cubes/mosaic-templates/

When can readers get their hands on THE AMELIA SIX?

Today, June 30th, wherever books are sold!

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

Find me at kristinlgray.com and @kristinlgray on all social media channels. Thanks again, Jarrett, for having me to the MG Book Village.


KRISTIN L. GRAY is the author of Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge, a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, and the all new The Amelia Six: an Amelia Earhart Mystery, as well as the picture books Koala is Not a Bear and Rover Throws a Party: Inspired by NASA’s Curiosity on Mars. Kristin lives in Arkansas with her five children, two dogs, bearded dragon, and carb-loving cat. She loves connecting with classrooms in person and via Skype.

Interview: Supriya Kelkar

Hi, Supriya! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your latest novel, AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE!

Thank you so much for having me! I love MG Book Village and am thrilled to be here.

Can you tell us a bit about AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE is about Lekha, the only Indian American kid in her small town in Michigan. Lekha feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too. Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

Food is present throughout the book, and is often carefully, even lovingly described. There’s even a recipe section in the back! Would you care to discuss why you chose to weave it throughout the novel (even including it in the title)?

Food plays such an important role in Lekha’s life because she often feels she has to hide her culture’s food because of the looks and comments she got when she did bring it to school when she was younger. A lot of those feelings came from my childhood, when classmates would make fun of the Indian food I brought to school. I finally stopped bringing it and would only eat it at home or in cultural spaces. I wanted to take the time to describe the food with love and show how much it means to Lekha at home so that the readers would feel this sense of loss when she doesn’t bring it to school and feels ashamed of it.

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE tackles some of the toughest, most timely and important topics. Can you talk about the development of Lekha’s story? What drove you to write and share this story now?   

I got the idea for AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE in 2017. Anyone who has experienced hate knows it hasn’t ever gone away but something about that year felt different to me. I felt hate was being emboldened and encouraged by people with a lot of power and suddenly found myself terrified that my young kids were going to face the same things I did when they went to school, and that nothing had changed despite decades passing since I was their age. I got the idea for the book and began to dig deep and uncover these memories and experiences of othering, microaggressions, and hate from my childhood that I had buried over the years. The words in the racist incident in the book are words that have been shouted at me before. The othering and microaggressions Lekha experiences are from my childhood as one of the few Indian American kids in a small town in Michigan. It became obvious to me how deeply I felt this story when I was able to churn the first draft out in five weeks and everything was just clicking into place. I hope readers really connect to the story and recognize that the issues that are taking place in the book are real life issues that they can make a difference in.

The novel is balanced by numerous moments of warmth, lightness, humor, and beauty – particularly when it comes to the home life and family scenes. It was wonderful to see so much of the adults in Lekha’s life, and to understand them as complex characters in their own right. Were the adult characters always so present in the book? Was it important to you to make sure to include them as you did and as much as you did?

Thank you! The adults were always this present from the very first draft. It was important for me to include them at this level for several reasons. I remember when I was in middle school I didn’t really think of my parents as individuals. They were just my parents. I didn’t really stop to think they had their own goals and wants and fears. So I wanted to make the parents in this book really fleshed out and involved so readers could see that even though they were parents, they all had their own fears, needs, wants, and were all motivated by different things at different times. Since the book is also about empathy, I wanted readers to see that these adults could be flawed, they could make mistakes when it came to really big issues, but they could also grow and learn and change the same way the kids do. 

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?

I hope the book provides hope to those who need it and empowers readers to stand up for what they believe in, speak out against hate, and be allies. I know when I was Lekha’s age, I wasn’t able to speak up for myself or against racial bullying. I hope the book encourages readers to find a way to express themselves through whatever means is best for them. Some people use poetry, or art, or music, or dance, and some, in my case, write. The possibilities are endless and I hope young readers are inspired to find the method best suited for them from this book and realize just how powerful they are.

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 AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE to their classrooms and libraries?

I’d like to start with a huge thank you! Thank you for everything you’re doing for our kids right now. You are heroes. And thank you for planning to add AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE to your classrooms and libraries. It is a story about a Marathi-American, Hindu girl in a small town in Michigan in an election year, and it is also a timely, universal story about belonging and hope that can empower kids and grow empathy. Also, there are puns. Who doesn’t love a good (bad) pun? Thank you for considering it for your classrooms and libraries and I hope you enjoy it!

When can readers get their hands on AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE will be out on June 9th!  

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

You can find me online at www.supriyakelkar.com, on Twitter @supriyakelkar_, and on Instagram @supriya.kelkar 

Supriya 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 is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films and one Hollywood feature. Supriya’s books include AHIMSA, THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH (Sterling, 2019), AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2020) STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME (Tu Books, 2020), BINDU’S BINDIS (Sterling, 2021), and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2021).  

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: Jenn Bishop

Hello, Jenn! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your new book, THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY!

Thanks so much for having me! I love the variety of posts on MG Book Village and that it’s a space dedicated to middle grade literature.

That’s so kind of you to say! Thanks! Now, let’s get to it… THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY is your third novel. Was your writing process at all different for this book than it was for THE DISTANCE TO HOME or 14 HOLLOW ROAD?

I’m starting to discover that other writers weren’t kidding around when they said that each book teaches you how to write that book. Things You Can’t Say was the first project I started writing as a published author, and it was an adjustment to learn how to quiet the noise of the publishing world and keep my eyes focused on my own page, so to speak. I wrote Things in fits and starts, largely because it took me a while to figure out what it was about, never mind how to get into the head of a contemporary twelve-year-old boy. There was so much that got left on the cutting room floor over various drafts and incarnations. Once upon a time, one of the characters accidentally burned down his house, and there was also once a scene with a seahorse birth! (Turns out neither moment was exactly related to Drew’s internal journey and those scenes fell by the wayside during revision.)

That’s all so fascinating. Thanks for giving us some insight into your process. And now that we know there’s no burning houses or seahorse births in this new book, can you tell us what THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY is all about?

At its heart, Things You Can’t Say is a story about family, friendship, and communication. Three years after his father’s suicide, Drew is getting by just fine on the surface, but bubbling beneath he has so many questions and worries, and, as far as he can see, no one to talk about these things with. The one person who could answer these questions are his dad, and he’s gone. But as Drew discovers over the course of the story, there are people you can say anything to: your true friends and your family.

Parental suicide has got to be one of the toughest imaginable topics to write about. Why do you think it’s important for kids to have stories like Drew’s?

I’ve been heartened to see over the past several years more and more books delving into tough topics for kids that were previously relegated to YA literature. I firmly believe that whatever situations kids might find themselves in in real life belong in the literature for them. I think we’re doing a disservice to young people by avoiding the sometimes harsh realities they may be living in, and only further ostracizing hurting kids in the process. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States according to recent CDC reports, and, alarmingly, suicide rates are on the rise among young people. Looking the other way doesn’t address the problem; it only furthers the stigma.

As you mentioned, in recent years, the border between Middle Grade and Young Adult has grown increasingly blurry, as Middle Grade authors and publishers explore darker, tougher topics in these so-called “Upper MG” books. What would you say to those adults who argue that kids “aren’t ready” to grapple with such material, or that such books shouldn’t be marketed to them at all?

What makes books different from visual mediums like movies or TV shows is that if you’re uncomfortable with something happening a book, you can always close it and walk away. In my experience as a librarian (and as a former kid!), I’m impressed by how often kids, especially more sensitive kids, know their own limits. Of course, parents can make decisions with and for their own children, but it’s alarming when they try to step in and decide what’s wrong or right for someone else.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY?

I hope that Things You Can’t Say helps them empathize with kids like Drew, who have been forced to grow up early in the face of a huge loss. Statistically speaking, there are more kids in Filipe and Audrey’s situation (friends of the kid who’s lost someone to suicide) than there are Drew’s, and I hope this book helps kids like them understand the kinds of concerns Drew is quietly wrestling with. And for any readers who’ve lost a loved one to suicide, I hope they find a kindred spirit in Drew.

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 THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY to their classrooms and libraries?

I’m delighted to share with them that Simon & Schuster has made a reading group guide with a fantastic list of discussion questions and extension activities to go along with Things You Can’t Say. The guide can be accessed online:  https://www.simonandschuster.net/books/Things-You-Cant-Say/Jenn-Bishop/9781534440975#reading-group-guide

When can readers get their hands on THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY, and do you have any exciting upcoming events or blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

Things You Can’t Say will be in bookstores and libraries starting March 3rd. I’m having a local launch party in my hometown of Cincinnati on March 7th. Full information about other appearances can be found on my website: https://jennbishop.com/events/

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

Oh, where can’t they find me online? (I kid. Though really, I should get offline a bit more.) I’m on Twitter as @buffalojenn and also have a Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/jennbishopauthor/

I recently relaunched my website: jennbishop.com. But most importantly, for picture of my stunning cat Lilly and other exciting updates, readers should sign up for my newsletter! https://jennbishop.us11.list-manage.com/subscribe/post?u=3d3d69e2e31b002c0dc292076&id=a27347b636

Jenn Bishop is the author of the middle grade novels 14 Hollow Road; The Distance to Home, which was a Junior Library Guild selection and a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book; and Things You Can’t Say. She grew up in New England, where she fell in love with the ocean, Del’s frozen lemonade, and the Boston Red Sox before escaping to college at the University of Chicago. After working as a teen and children’s librarian, she received her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Jenn currently calls Cincinnati, Ohio, home.

Interview: Deborah Lee Rose

Hello, Deborah! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your work! Before we get to your books, please introduce yourself to our readers.

I am thrilled to share with readers of the MG Book Village blog about my books and writing process.

I am an insatiable reader. I was born in Philadelphia and spent countless hours in the Free Library of Philadelphia growing up. One summer I set out to read every book in the children’s section. I remember that whenever I was deeply immersed in a book, which was nearly always, I did not hear anything around me even when my family kept telling me it was time for dinner!

I started writing in college at Cornell University. I had once wanted to be a United Nations translator, but after college I discovered that I was good at, and loved, writing about science topics for nonscientists. My work as a science writer and children’s author, including in my award-winning books Beauty and the Beak and Scientists Get Dressed, is like being a translator. My job is to translate complex concepts for the public, especially kids. One of the best things about what I do is that I am always learning, and each book opens up new worlds of discovery for me—which I can then share with readers anywhere.

This year marks 30 years since my first children’s book, The People Who Hugged the Trees: An Environmental Folktale, was published. I wrote it for my then infant daughter, to tell her a story of a brave girl who grew up to protect the environment. To this day it is read around the world. Just in the last two years, it has been included in school reading collections in South Africa and France.

And 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of my book Into the A, B, Sea: An Ocean Alphabet which has sold a quarter million copies. I wrote it for my son when he was learning to write alphabet letters in the sand, on a beach by the Pacific Ocean. I am crazy about ocean animals and to me, the ocean and the alphabet each offers vast combinations of life and language.

Kids always want to know what my favorite children’s book is. Ever since I was in the middle grades, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web has been my favorite, and still is! I remember to this day how the school librarian first showed us the book and started reading it to us. The book let me travel in my imagination to a world so different than my own growing up. The book also has many factual pieces of the natural world woven into its fictional story about the power of friendship and the power of words.

I didn’t realize then—and kids, teachers and librarians are often surprised when I tell them now—that the character of Charlotte the spider is a writer. She works a lot like I do. She thinks a long time before she writes, she writes when everyone else is asleep, she gets help from her friends, she checks her spelling, and she shows her words in the best light possible. Most importantly, she uses her words for good, to save the life of a friend. Her story reminds me again and again that words are powerful. They can teach, inspire, comfort, entertain, and change someone’s life.  

You write both fiction and nonfiction. Is your process very different for the two? What are the similarities?

When I write fiction, like The Spelling Bee Before Recess, I can be silly and play with the facts, but in writing nonfiction I’m more serious. A similarity is that ideas for both fiction and nonfiction often come to me when I least expect them. Then I have to run to get a pen or get to the computer and put down the words pouring into my mind. I do a huge amount of research for both kinds of books. The more I know, the more I can weave into the story. My factual research helps me launch and build a story, whether nonfiction or fiction.

How do you typically choose a topic—and once you land on one, how do you decide whether to approach it via fiction or nonfiction?

Mostly it seems like topics choose me! I have had book ideas unexpectedly triggered by a single photo, or a sound, or a sentence in an article. The idea for Scientists Get Dressed came when my 9-year-old great-niece showed me a family photo of her mother Dr. Lucy Rose. In the photo her mother, a freshwater chemist, was wearing chest waders and standing in an icy stream to check her pollution testing equipment. “This is what Mommy does?” I asked in astonishment.

Water chemist Lucy Rose wearing chest waders, from Scientists Get Dressed.
Photo credit: Ethan Pawlowski, (c) Lucy Rose

I began thinking about many other scientists I knew and had worked with, and what they wear. I had been fascinated that Janie Veltkamp, my raptor biologist coauthor of Beauty and the Beak, wears puncture-proof gloves for her work with sick and injured wild birds of prey. I discovered through further research that all scientists get dressed for the specific work they do and the places they do it. Scientists Get Dressed is about so many different, real scientists—and facts are so critical to their work—that the book had to be nonfiction.

Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle is a true story, but to recreate Beauty the bald eagle’s life before any humans came into contact with her, I had to borrow facts about bald eagles in the wild and use them to recreate Beauty’s experiences. One reason I wrote Beauty and the Beak is because it’s not just about a single rescued bald eagle, but also about how bald eagles were an endangered species, brought back from near extinction on the U.S. mainland by environmental conservationists and scientists. Because of their heroic efforts, kids across the country can see bald eagles soaring in the wild or even nesting in kids’ own neighborhoods!

Raptor biologist Janie Veltkamp wearing puncture proof gloves to carry Beauty the bald eagle, from Beauty and the Beak
Photo credit: Glen Hush, (c) Jane Veltkamp

You are here, primarily, to discuss a pair of your recent nonfiction books—Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak—so let’s chat more generally about nonfiction. What does your process look like for creating a nonfiction book?

To create nonfiction I talk to lots of people about my topic. That’s one of my favorite parts of doing a book. For Beauty and the Beak, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to coauthor the book with Janie Veltkamp, who led the team that engineered Beauty the bald eagle’s pioneering, 3D-printed prosthetic beak. Janie has encyclopedic knowledge about eagles, and Beauty’s story was Janie’s own scientist story too.

To create fiction I draw a lot on memories, things I see, my senses, words of all kinds, and my imagination. I don’t talk to  a lot of other people about fiction I’m writing until I’m almost finished. I have a lot of fun working through fiction ideas inside my own head. I take it as a very good sign if I laugh out loud while I’m writing fiction!

How do you conduct your research? Does it change from book to book?

One thing that doesn’t change is that I gather way more research than I can use for each book. But it’s amazing how all that research may contain one fact that my editor suddenly wants me to include, or facts that an illustrator can use for visual storytelling to go with what I write.

I do my research by reading, watching videos, looking at many, many photos, and listening to interviews, in addition to talking to experts. For Scientists Get Dressed I was in contact with scientists and photographers around the world. They could tell me about their firsthand experiences, from collecting frozen snow samples on a glacier to gathering burning lava samples on a volcano. Their excitement and insight helps me make reading my nonfiction books a richer and deeper experience for both kids and adults.

Do you have any general tips for young, aspiring nonfiction writers?

Photographs are a fantastic source of ideas and research. Nonfiction is so huge, you can write about almost anything that grabs your interest and imagination. Making sure your facts are correct can be challenging. You can’t just trust all the information you see on the Internet. Always try to use more than one source for your research, and compare your sources to see what they say that is the same or different.

Whenever I talk to kids at schools, I tell them they don’t have to write the beginning of a book first! If an idea comes to me that might be best in the middle or the end of a book, that’s OK. I do not start writing all my books at the beginning of the story.

Advice that kids and teachers really like: If you get writer’s block, change what you’re doing. If you’re sitting, stand up. If you’re staring at a computer screen, go take a walk instead. Make a drawing of your ideas first and then try to turn them into words. If you can’t think of a word, look through the dictionary or a thesaurus. Try writing with a writing partner. Hug a tree, bake cookies, listen to birds singing, read a book…All these can help you write. I know, because I have done ALL of them!

And my best advice for the writing itself— USE STRONG VERBS.

Now, let’s get to the books. Can you tell us briefly about Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak?

Scientist Get Dressed looks through the unique lens of scientists’ clothing to spotlight how scientists—including some who are also engineers—suit up, gown up, gear up, and even dress up in costume to make new discoveries, save lives, and save the planet.

Beauty and the Beak is a true story capturing the STEM innovation and human compassion that gave Beauty the bald eagle a new, 3D-printed, prosthetic beak after her real beak was shattered by a poacher’s bullet.

Both of these books combine multiple STEM disciplines in unique ways—scientific concepts and scientists as people in the one, and engineering, 3D printing technology and wildlife rehabilitation in the other. Was this a conscious choice? Or is this a reflection of how the real world works?

Both books are reflections of how the real world works, and both look at the world of real scientists doing extremely challenging jobs. Scientists Get Dressed is built on the foundation that science as a whole is not just random facts, but connected knowledge discovered through human endeavor. Beauty and the Beak grows from the real life of an extraordinary animal rescued by an extraordinary scientist harnessing state-of-the-art technology.

Was there anything that didn’t end up being included in either of these books that you want to share with readers here? 

Scientists Get Dressed was published just a few months before the first all-woman spacewalk in 2019. I would have loved to include photos of those two astronauts together, getting dressed for their historic work in space. Luckily, my very next book WILL include them! The book is titled Astronauts Zoom! and it will be published in early fall 2020, in plenty of time for the 20th anniversary, on November 2, of astronauts living continuously on the International Space Station.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson wearing a spacesuit on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station, from Scientists Get Dressed
Photo credit: NASA

What do you hope your readers—especially the young ones—take away from your books, particularly Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak?

Kids often learn a lot about STEM without ever meeting a scientist or engineer, or seeing images of how and where STEM professionals do their amazing work. I want young readers to see in Scientists Get Dressed, Beauty and the Beak and Astronauts Zoom! that real people make the discoveries and progress that are changing our lives. And I want young readers to imagine themselves someday doing important and rewarding work.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians. Is there anything you’d like to say to them—in particular those who may consider adding your books to their classrooms and libraries? 

A lot of my books have been in print quite a while, so I know they have a long shelf life! In light of this, I work especially hard to write my books so they are relevant and empowering not just today but in the future. I craft my writing so children can listen to, read from, learn from and be inspired by my books for multiple years as they are growing up. I also know that adults read children’s books, with kids and on their own. I read so many children’s books to my own kids—I want the books I write to engage adult readers as well.

Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

My author website www.deborahleerose.com includes free educational guides, interviews, a contact form and much more.

Deborah Lee Rose is an internationally published, national award-winning children’s author who lives in the Washington, DC area. Her book BEAUTY AND THE BEAK: HOW SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND A 3D-PRINTED BEAK RESCUED A BALD EAGLE won the national AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books, Bank Street College Cook Prize for Best STEM Picture Book Winner, and Eureka! Gold Award for Nonfiction from the California Reading Association. SCIENTISTS GET DRESSED won the national DeBary Award for Outstanding Children’s Science Books and was rated by Common Sense Media A+ for Educational Value and 5 Stars for Educational Value, Positive Messages, and Positive Role Models and Representations. Deborah’s new alphabet book Astronauts Zoom! will be published in fall 2020. She speaks at conferences, book festivals and schools across the country. Deborah was also senior science writer for UC Berkeley’s renowned Lawrence Hall of Science. She loves walking, swimming, visiting beautiful nature areas, watching wildlife, reading, and chocolate!