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!

Interview: Cathleen Barnhart

Hi there, Cathleen! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your debut novel, THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO. Before we get to the book, would you care to share a bit about yourself?

I would love to! I’ve been writing, on and off, almost my entire life. I wrote and illustrated my first story when I was seven. It was called “Aunt Ant” (pronounced awnt ant). In high school, I was the editor of the literary magazine. I majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University, where I also worked on the literary magazine. I later got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But I never really saw myself as a writer because I didn’t do stuff I thought real writers did (like write every day). Believing in myself took a lot of years. I’m married to a wonderful and supportive man, and together we have three mostly grown children, a rescue dog named Zeke and a cat named Scout. In addition to writing, I foster kittens, do CrossFit, and am the co-leader of a chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom.

THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO is your debut novel. And as you’ve shared in a recent post on the site, writing it was quite a long process. But is there anything else you wish to share here about your journey to the printed page?

I’m just going to say (again) that there’s no formula for, or failsafe path to, being published. Everyone’s experience is different, but for all the not-yet-published writers out there: don’t give up. Believe in yourself.

Okay – let’s get to the book. What’s THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO all about?

It’s the story of one seventh-grade girl’s first #MeToo experience, told in alternating points of view by the girl, Sammie, and by her best friend, David, who’s on the other side of that experience. It’s the misunderstandings that lead to the #MeToo moment and the missed opportunities for communication and healing afterwards. But it’s also a story about learning to listen to your own, inner voice, and to be true to who you are.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to have books that tackle tough topics? What do you believe such a book can do for young readers?

Because so many children live through tough experiences. They need to see themselves in the books they read. Even someone who hasn’t had a #MeToo experience might have a friend who has. Books give children (and adults) a way to see a different path, other solutions to problems, other ways of behaving, and empathy.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO?

I hope they see that other kids struggle with fitting in and with finding their voice. I hope some kids say “that’s me,” to either Sammie or David’s experience, and that the self-recognition gives them strength and courage.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO to their classroom libraries?

Yes! First, I’d love to come visit your school and talk to your students about this book and the process of writing it. And second, especially for teachers who are concerned about addressing the #MeToo moment at the center of the novel: this is the lived experience of so many middle school girls and boys. I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t have some experience of being touched inappropriately or flashed or physically threatened. But that part of the story doesn’t have to be what you (or I) talk about with students. There’s so much more: parental expectations, finding your own voice, the ways that the same event can be seen and experienced very differently by different participants. 

In another recent post you did here at the MG Book Village, you interviewed a variety of those people who worked “behind the scenes” on your book. I couldn’t resist asking you some of the same questions you asked them — so, a quick, lightning round of questions before we say goodbye…

Describe your work space, and what you need to be productive.

I am a wandering writer. I don’t have a dedicated work space (although I’m working on creating one). I mostly write at my scarred and battered, purchased-secondhand kitchen table. Sometimes I work standing at the kitchen counter. When it’s really cold, I sit on the sofa in my family room, with a fire in the fireplace. And in the summer, I sit on my front porch. My porch the best. No matter where I am, what I mostly need to be productive is quiet. 

Do you have a drink of choice while you write?

Decaf coffee with homemade almond milk until lunch. Seltzer from about 1 pm until 3 pm. Then more decaf coffee. I have a mug or glass of something liquid next to me all day.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I wish I knew because then I could get more inspiration! These are the things that I do, without understanding or being able to quantify how they affect my writing: travel, travel, travel (especially to Italy); look at art; read the New York Times (these days, I pretty much skip the headline news in favor of Health, Obituaries, Science and Sunday Styles); walk in the woods with Zeke; and read adult nonfiction.

What do you do for fun that your readers might find interested and/or unexpected?

I foster feral kittens because they remind me of the importance of being open-hearted, patient and loving. I also do CrossFit because it’s really hard, every time. As an adult, I’ve gotten pretty good at a lot of life stuff (like cooking and bill paying and driving a car). CrossFit is a great reminder that it’s okay to do hard things and even things I’m afraid of. More often than not, I discover that I’m stronger than I thought I was.

What was your favorite book when you were a middle schooler?

Oh, this is such a hard question because I was a voracious reader in middle school. I’m going to say Joan Aiken’s Wolves series. The girls in her books went on such adventures! I especially adored Dido Twite.

Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

My best friend from fifth through seventh grade dumped me so she could be part of the popular group. I will be forever grateful to the nerdy second string who took me in at the end of seventh grade, although I’ve lost touch with most of them.  There are two friends from that time I’ve kept up with: Rebecca and Rick. Rick and I became friends when he joined the orchestra in my 8th grade year. He was in 6th grade, two years younger than me. We stayed friends through high school and college, and still see each other once or twice a year.

Now, when can readers get their hands on THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO, and do you have any exciting events or upcoming blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

The book appears in bookstores (or on your doorstep) on January 28, 2020.You can pre-order today at any online or bricks-and-mortar book retailer. I will be holding a book launch at Bronx River Books in Scarsdale on Sunday, February 2 from 4-6 p.m. Come on over, have a quindim (a Brazilian dessert; it’s in the book) or a brownie, get entered to win a sour cream apple pie, and get your copy of THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO signed by me! I will also be appearing on Melissa Roske’s Ask the Author blog on February 3: http://www.melissaroske.com/ and will be popping up in the Class of 2k20’s blog throughout the year. Check out the class of 2k20, a group of twenty authors with debut MG and YA books coming out in 2020 at classof2k20books.com.

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

The best place to find me is on Instagram, where I’m @CathleenBarnhart. I love the #mgbookchat Twitter chats on Monday nights and try to be on those whenever possible. For more about me, check out my website: cathleenbarnhart.com.

Cathleen Barnhart has been writing her whole life. She wrote her first story she she was seven. It was called “Aunt Ant.” Later, she majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University and then got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has held more jobs than she can count, including process camera operator, waitress, perfume salesperson, college writing instructor, and middle school teacher. She is married and has three mostly grown children, an excitable rescue dog named Zeke and a Machiavellian cat named Scout. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Zeke in the woods, Cathleen fosters kittens and does CrossFit because it’s important to be sensitive and strong. That’s What Friends Do is her first published novel.

Making a Book: It Takes a Village

As I previously wrote on this site, I spent seven years writing my debut novel, THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS DO, out from HarperCollins on January 28. During that time, I sometimes thought about agents, and even met and talked to some. And I knew, theoretically, that there were editors out there who would look at manuscripts like mine and sometimes buy them and turn them into books.

Then I got an agent. And she sold my book to an editor. And I discovered that I had no idea, really none at all, about how vast and complex the publishing world was, and how many hands my manuscript would pass through as it made its way from being a Scrivener document on my computer to a real, beautiful book.

Did you know, for example, that there’s a book designer?! I didn’t.

And a whole team of people who market the book to school and libraries? I didn’t know that either.

I wanted to recognize all of those folks who work so hard to bring books to life, so I interviewed four people who were “behind the scenes” in the making of my debut novel.

They are:

Oriol Vidal, the cover artist.

Courtney Stevenson, my amazing editor.

Cat San Juan, the book designer

and Katie Dutton, my contact on the HarperCollins School & Library Marketing team

Enjoy reading!

Oriol Vidal

1. In a Tweet (186 characters) or a haiku (5/7/5 syllables), describe your professional journey. How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?

I always liked drawing since I was a kid. I watched a lot of cartoons on TV & was very influenced by them. I had the chance to get a fine arts degree & after started my career as an illustrator. My hobby became my profession.

2. Describe your work space. What do you need to be productive? Music or no music?

I try to have a tidy workspace, with not too much things around. I always listen to music, or radio programs. And a cup of coffee next to me!

3. What is your drink of choice while you work?

Coffee! And I’m a chocolate croissant addict

4. Where do you get inspiration?

From films, mainly. When a project comes in, I Google a lot for references (art pictures, illustrations, photographers… but with a strong film background sense)

5. What do you for fun or in your off hours that is completely different from your professional work?

I try to go out for a walk, into some forest path, or simply going to the park with my daughter.

6. What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

The Happy Hollisters

7. Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

I grew up with a friend from kindergarten until university. And we are still in touch from time to time!

Courtney Stevenson

1. In a Tweet (186 characters) or a haiku (5/7/5 syllables), describe your professional journey. How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?

Never stopped reading children’s books, so knew early that’s what I wanted to do: bring stories into the world. (Got my start editing a friend’s Green Day fanfiction.) 6 internships and 2 jobs later, I’m living the dream!

2. Describe your work space. What do you need to be productive? Music or no music?

Have to have space to spread out—as long as the chaos is at least organized into piles! Music with lyrics for paperwork, soundtracks/lo fi for reading, editing, or copy writing. Ideally no email.  Sadly, I do my best focusing after work hours!

3. What is your drink of choice while you work?

Builder’s tea: strong, black, milk and sugar. Or, a froofy Starbucks drink with an extra shot of the good stuff.

4. Where do you get inspiration?

Reading really awesome books (of course). Also, watching all the masterful TV shows that are out now—some incredible storytelling and relationships.

5. What do you for fun or in your off hours that is completely different from your professional work?

I used to be part of a Highland dance troupe! 

6. What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

So many! I’ve been a Harry Potter nerd from the beginning. I also bought every single book in the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer. Jacky was bold and bright and funny, and I loved her on all her wild adventures.

7. Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

I had the same best friend all through elementary school; we started to grow apart after I moved schools in seventh grade (nightmare time).  I went to her wedding a few years ago, and we text every now and then.

Cat San Juan

1. In a Tweet (186 characters) or a haiku (5/7/5 syllables), describe your professional journey. How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?

I went to university for journalism but later took up graphic design. In the end, I graduated with both under my belt. I always knew I would work with books one day.

2. Describe your work space. What do you need to be productive? Music or no music?

My desk is decorated with art prints and mini figures and plushies of various pop culture fandoms. A meticulously neat workspace makes me feel productive. Depending on what I’m working on, I listen to music and true crime podcasts if I’m on autopilot. I like silence when I really need to concentrate.

3. What is your drink of choice while you work?

Grande White Chocolate Mocha to get me through the morning. Any fruity drink (particularly strawberry) to get me through the rest of the day.

4. Where do you get inspiration?

Nature, films, music, video games, Pinterest, mom and pop bookstores, watching other people hone their craft, artist alleys at conventions.

5. What do you for fun or in your off hours that is completely different from your professional work?

I like to cosplay characters from my favorite comics/anime/games at cons.

6. What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

7. Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

We lost touch after going to different high schools. LinkedIn tells me she’s a lawyer now.

Katie Dutton

1. In a Tweet (186 characters) or a haiku (5/7/5 syllables), describe your professional journey. How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?

BA in English. Nanny turned teacher. MA in Children’s Lit. Now I get to combine my passion for KidLit & literacy in a profession where I put books in the hands of teachers & librarians.

2. Describe your work space. What do you need to be productive? Music or no music?

Lots of books! I also like to surround myself with little inspirational reminders – I have a few framed cards sent to me by good friends, photos of my family, a gorgeous flower bouquet made from recycled book pages, some succulents… my work space is not nearly as tidy as it probably should be, to be honest. Music when I need to be in the zone; no music when I want to participate in the conversations around me.

3. What is your drink of choice while you work?

I’m one of those people who constantly has at least two beverages in front of them, and at work it’s usually some combination of coffee, water, and Diet Coke in an endless rotation.

4. Where do you get inspiration?

Teachers and librarians are the most creative, innovative, hard-working, knowledgeable people in the entire world. They’re out there fighting in the trenches every single day to make the world a better place for their students, and they’re the ones I’m always keeping in mind when a new book comes across my path.

5. What do you for fun or in your off hours that is completely different from your professional work?

I love a good game night with friends. I also take krav maga classes as often as I can, which is an amazing (and fun!) way to learn practical self defense while getting a workout in at the same time.

6. What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster & illustrated by Jules Feiffer; From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg; and The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (I’ve always been horrible at choosing just one favorite!)

7. Who was your best friend in middle school? Are you still in touch?

In 7th grade I became best friends with a girl named Kimberly, and we remained best friends all through college. We’re not as close today as we used to be, but we still try to get together whenever we can! She’s a high school teacher in Ohio now.

Cathleen Barnhart has been writing her whole life. She wrote her first story she she was seven. It was called “Aunt Ant.” Later, she majored in Creative Writing at Carnegie-Mellon University and then got an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has held more jobs than she can count, including process camera operator, waitress, perfume salesperson, college writing instructor, and middle school teacher. She is married and has three mostly grown children, an excitable rescue dog named Zeke and a Machiavellian cat named Scout. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Zeke in the woods, Cathleen fosters kittens and does CrossFit because it’s important to be sensitive and strong. That’s What Friends Do is her first published novel.

Interview: Sarah Jean Horwitz

Hey there, Sarah! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new novel, THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE. Before we get to the new book, would you care to share a bit about yourself and your previous books?

Hello! Thanks so much for having me. I’m a middle grade fantasy author. My first two books, THE WINGSNATCHERS and THE CROOKED CASTLE, are steampunk adventure books about a magician’s apprentice named Carmer and a one-winged fairy princess called Grit who solve magical mysteries together. My most recent novel is THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE, which just came out in early October from Algonquin Young Readers. 

And what is this new book of yours all about?

THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE is about a young girl, Clementine Morcerous, who has been raised since birth to be an Evil Overlord. When her father, the current Dark Lord, succumbs to a witch’s curse, Clementine must take over his official evildoing duties much sooner than expected and try to find a cure for the curse. The problem is, Clementine isn’t even sure she wants to carry out all the required Dastardly Deeds that Dark Lords are supposed to do. As she take her first steps out of the sheltered world she’s grown up in, Clementine starts to question the family legacy she’s trying so hard to save. 

I’m curious to hear what it was like for you to write outside of the Carmer and Grit universe, where you were for your first two novels. Scary? Exciting? A relief? All of the above and more?

It was very exciting to write outside of the Carmer and Grit universe. I was very energized by the opportunity to explore new characters, a new story world, and a fresh voice with Clementine. I’ll always miss my first imaginary kids, but I was glad of the opportunity for a fresh start! 

Can you tell us about the gestation for Clementine’s story? Where did the initial idea and inspiration for it come from? How did it develop from there?

As strange as it sounds, I have two babies to thank for the idea for THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE. The first is my friend Brooke’s niece, whom she nicknamed “the Dark Lord.” Ha! I’m sure little Fallyn will appreciate that when she’s older. The second is my old high school English teacher’s daughter, whose name is…Clementine! Yup. A few years ago, I was playing with baby Clementine with some friends, and we were trying to get her to make the sounds of her toy farm animals. We’d say, “What sound does the pig make, Clem? Does the pig go ‘oink oink’? Does the cow go ‘moo’?” But Clementine just sat there stoney-faced, not humoring us at all, which I thought was so funny. And so I put on this scary voice and said something like, “The animals say nothing. All of the animals are silent. They are always silent.” And everyone cracked up laughing, and I remembered Brooke’s nickname for her niece, and it occurred to me that The Dark Lord Clementine and Her Silent Farm would be such a fun title for a book. So it started this sort of running joke with my friends, but then I started thinking…what if it really was a book? And the whole idea spiraled from there. 

Amazing. And just goes to show that stories really can come from anywhere and anything! And speaking of humor — there were moments in this book where you really seemed to let your silly side come out to play. Was it a conscious choice to do so? Or did that come about naturally, as a necessity for the story?

The humorous tone and dark humor in the book came very naturally right away. I think that started from the contrast that’s inherent in the title – whoever heard of a Dark Lord named Clementine?! And then as I kept writing, I thought the humor was a good way to temper some of the more serious and emotional elements in the book. I hope I struck that balance in a way that serves the story. 

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE?

I hope they can see that opening one’s heart to love and friendship and new experiences is always worth it, even if you get hurt sometimes. I hope they also see how liberating it can be to follow your heart and be true to yourself. 

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE to their classroom libraries?

In this moment in particular, I think it’s more important than ever to examine how evil becomes normalized, and how it has always embedded itself in our institutions. We learn from a very young age to take the suffering of others as a give-in. When the oppression and pain of others is built into a system that benefits us, just as Clementine benefits from being a Dark Lord’s daughter, it can be easy to turn a blind eye, or to accept this as just “the way things are.” But just as Clementine realizes that her status quo situation is not normal, so can we. Books are one of the most powerful tools we have to foster empathy for others and explore the complexities of right and wrong in a safe way (with plenty of unicorns and magic!), and I hope THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE does that in some small way. 

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

Readers can find me online at www.sarahjeanhorwitz.com, where they can read more about me and check out some extras for all of my books, like Pinterest boards and playlists, as well as some guides to the world of Carmer and Grit. I’m also on Twitter @sunshineJHwitz, on Instagram @sunshineJH or on Facebook @SarahJeanBooks.

Sarah Jean Horwitz grew up in suburban New Jersey, next door to a cemetery and down the street from an abandoned fairy-tale theme park, which probably explains a lot. She attended Emerson College in Boston, MA as a film student, where she discovered her love of writing in her first screenwriting class.

Volunteering with the Boston Teen Author Festival sparked her interest in writing for children and young adults, and Sarah began writing the book that would become her debut novel, THE WINGSNATCHERS, in late 2012. A handful of odd jobs and a few continental US states later, this first book in the CARMER AND GRIT series was published by Algonquin Young Readers in 2017. THE WINGSNATCHERS was a Spring 2017 Kid’s Indie Next pick and a Junior Library Guild selection. THE CROOKED CASTLE, the second book in the series, was released in April 2018. Her most recent book is the standalone middle grade fantasy THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE.

Sarah’s other passions include feminism, extensive thematic playlists, improvisational movement, tattoos, and circus arts. She currently works as an administrative assistant and lives with her partner near Cambridge, MA.

Interview: Carolyn Crimi

Hello, Carolyn! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new book, WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS. Before we get to the new book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Sure! I’m a pug lover, a Halloween freak, and Lucille Ball’s biggest fan. I’m also a picture book author with her first novel for children coming out this year!

WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS is an illustrated chapter book, but you have already published several picture books. Have you always written longer form stories, or does WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS represent a creative departure for you?

I have many, many first drafts of novels in my files, but the thought of revising them felt way too daunting. Then, suddenly, I decided to change that. I had always wanted to publish a novel for kids and decided that I would put in the necessary work with Weird Little Robots. It was simply time to do what I set out to do when I started writing back in 1989.

Revision has always been difficult for me. But by watching the members of my amazing writer’s group make HUGE changes in their own work I’ve learned that starting all over doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer. Actually, I think the best writers are the ones who are the most open to revision. In order for me to improve my writing I had to be more flexible about my first drafts. That took a lot of time to learn.

Was your process for crafting this longer work at all different from your picture book-writing process? Were there any surprising similarities or differences?

It’s a very different process for me. Partly because it takes so darn long to write a novel! You really have to love your subject matter.  When I’m writing novels I’m living inside them. I’m thinking about them all the time. I’m always looking for something to add to make them more authentic and unique. The journey with a picture book is shorter and therefore less intense.

A big challenge for me is writing action scenes. In picture books, especially the ones written today that are primarily dialogue, the action is often accomplished through the illustrations. A page turn can take you from one scene to the next without having to create a seamless transition. In my novels I have often stressed about things like, how the heck am I going to get my character down the stairs, out the door, and into the car? What do I put in? What do I leave out? I’m still learning!

Is there anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?

I have heard that fifth grade is “the apex of childhood,” and that’s what I love about this age. I love their elaborate fantasy world, and how their games are so involved. I also love how important play is to them, and how intense they are when they participate. On the one hand, it’s all fun and games. On the other hand, it’s deadly serious.

All right – let’s get to the new book. Can you tell us what WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS is about?

Weird Little Robots is about a lonely eleven-year-old girl who creates miniature robots out of the odd objects she finds on her daily walks. When the robots magically come to life, she thinks her dreams have come true, but her problems have only just begun!

The story’s main character, Penny Rose, does her creating in a shed. I’m curious to know why you chose to give her this little backyard laboratory/studio/sanctuary, as opposed to having her build her robots in, say, her bedroom?

Interesting that you should mention that! I wrote a draft in which her laboratory was up in the attic, but it was too limiting. I had to throw out eighty pages and start again. Having a separate structure away from the main house gave my characters more autonomy.

More importantly, broken-down sheds fascinate me!  I’ve always been curious about who once owned them and what they did in them. I love the possibility that lies within them.

I loved the way both Penny Rose and Lark were collectors of weird little objects, things that other people might pass over as “junk.” They cherish these odds and ends, and because of this, are careful, respectful observers of the world around them. Were you at all like them as a child?

Definitely! I vividly remember one incident from my childhood that illustrates this point. It was Christmas, and I had gotten some new toys. I certainly liked the new toys, but by the end of the day I was back to playing with my handmade “spy kit” which consisted of strange little thingamabobs I had found around the house. I was addicted to the show Get Smart and loved pretending I was a spy with a shoe-phone.

It’d be a shame to talk about this book without talking about the wonderful illustrations by Corinna Luyken. What was working with Corinna like? Did any of her art have an impact on your storytelling?

Corinna has been a dream! I love the way the illustrations have turned out!

But the process of working with her was similar to working with illustrators on picture books. As with picture books, we didn’t really work as a team. My editor chose Corinna after she bought the book, and the art director worked with her on her illustrations.

While I was writing it I didn’t even know if it would be published, much less illustrated, so I didn’t have Corinna’s illustrations to inspire me.

But after reading the manuscript she did have an interesting comment, which lead to a much better story. The robots in the book used to be all male except for one. She felt that Penny Rose would create female robots, and of course she was right!

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS?

I would be so very happy if children formed their own Secret Science Societies in which they explored the magic of science!

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS to their classroom libraries?

First of all, thank you for purchasing my book! I realize there are a lot of great books on the shelves, and I’m very grateful you chose mine.

As far as using it in the classroom, I would think most kids would have a blast making their own weird little robot metropolises. I had so much fun writing about roboTown, and I’d love it if kids decided to make their own.

When can readers get their hands on WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS, and do you have any exciting events or upcoming blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

The book will be out October 1st.  I have a few events scheduled at this point, but I’ll probably have more as I get closer to the publication date:

Evanston Library, September 15th

Harbor Springs Book Festival, September 26th through September 29th

Anderson’s Bookshop (Downers Grove location), October 17th

The Book Stall, Winnetka, November 2nd

57th Street Bookstore, Chicago, November 9th

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

They can go to my website, www.carolyncrimi.com.

Interview: Hena Khan

Hi there, Hena! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new novel, MORE TO THE STORY.

Thank you for having me. I’m honored!

Before we get to the new book, would you care to share a bit about yourself and your previous books?

Sure! Although I started writing for kids with Scholastic book clubs about space and spies, when I became a mom I couldn’t find any books that represented my son, so I set out to change that! I was an avid reader as a kid, but never saw myself in books, and realized how important it is. I’ve written a few picture books that highlight Muslim traditions and culture, like Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Under my Hijab. And I loved delving into middle grade fiction with my debut, Amina’s Voice and my personal favorite, a series called Zayd Saleem Chasing the Dream about a kid who is obsessed with basketball modeled after my husband and sons.

You write picture books, chapter books, and – like MORE TO THE STORY – Middle Grade novels. Is your process and/or approach different for each format? Do you usually know the shape a story will take before you begin writing it?

Yes, it’s definitely different for each! I find writing picture books to be like working on an imaginary puzzle. I keep the page flow and turns in mind as I write, and try to make sure there is something to inspire the art on every page. For my chapter books and novels, I always outline first and know where I want the story to go. But once I start writing, I often veer off the path as the story takes shape and my characters become real to me—and sometimes don’t end up behaving the way I initially intended! I’ve also written choose-your-own path style novels and those are a different beast altogether, with elaborate flow charts, word count, page tracking, and more.

Is there anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?

So many things! I love that middle grade readers are so thoughtful, open, and curious about the world. And while they understand a lot and are pretty aware, they still have a lot of innocence and natural empathy. I remember how the books that I read and loved when I was that age managed to live in a corner of my heart somewhere, where they still remain today! And the idea that something I write could have a special place in a reader’s life is incredible to imagine. I still enjoy reading middle grade fiction more than any other genre—I appreciate that it’s usually really great storytelling without getting too complicated.

Okay – let’s get to the new book. What’s MORE TO THE STORY all about?

It’s centered around Jameela, a girl living in Georgia, who is part of a big loving family, and passionate about being an award-winning journalist someday. She’s thrilled to be selected as Feature Editor for her school paper, but disappointed to learn the editor-in-chief is a kid who she butts heads with and who always shoots down her ideas. Jameela’s life gets a welcome addition when Ali, a cute family friend from London, moves to Atlanta, but turns upside down when her dad has to take a job overseas, her sister becomes seriously sick, and she has to learn what matters most to her.

One thing that I loved about the book was your frank exploration of anger, in particular the positive, healthy ways in which that energy can be harnessed and used. Is this something you thought about a lot while crafting Jameela’s story?

Thank you! It’s something I think about in general, because it’s something I grapple with myself. Like Jameela, my default emotion when I’m stressed, frustrated, or scared is anger. And it’s something that I’ve had to recognize and work on over the years, and still haven’t mastered yet! I liked the idea of Jameela confronting her anger and learning to recognize that it isn’t the best way to react to things.

Another thing that MORE TO THE STORY tackles head-on are microaggressions. Why do you believe it’s important to get your young readers learning, thinking, and talking about them?

I thought it would be helpful for readers to understand that microaggressions are often unintentional, but that they can still hurt people or make them feel bad. Many people experience them in day-to-day life, including my own kids, and I think it helps to know that there is actually a name and a category for the little things that people say and do that make us feel icky, or misunderstood, “otherized,” or less in some way.

You’ve said elsewhere that this novel was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN. Would you care to talk about what that book meant to you as a young reader, what it means to you now, and the role it played in the creation of MORE TO THE STORY?

Yes! I was obsessed with Little Women as a child and teen, and I read it and reread it over and over, and even had parts memorized. Jo was in many ways my idol, and I found aspects of my personality in each of the sisters (as much as I didn’t want to associate with Amy, I’m pretty sure my older sister would say I was a lot like her!). And apart from the characters and losing myself in their daily dramas and relationships, I think I understood and could even relate to some of the societal and gender norms they faced as a child of Pakistani immigrants.

I always thought the story lent itself well to a retelling from a Pakistani American perspective, and I initially envisioned writing a story that would be more of a remix. But in the end, the story I wrote, which I aged down to middle grade, is inspired by the classic but very much its own story. Readers who loved Little Women like me will find parallels, but those who haven’t read it will hopefully grow to connect with another multifaceted and strong family. I consider More to the Story a love letter to my favorite book!

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from MORE TO THE STORY?

I hope they are inspired by the love Jameela has for her family, and her sister in particular, along the passion she has for getting people to care about things that matter. I hope readers feel a strong connection to the Mirzas and can relate to them, the way I did to the March family and other characters I grew up with. And I would love for them to recognize and appreciate that while Jameela and her family are connected to a different culture that is a part of their daily lives, and to their Muslim faith, they are as American as anyone else.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add MORE TO THE STORY to their classroom libraries?

Most of all, THANK YOU! I can’t tell you how much it means to me to hear that middle grade teachers are sharing my books with readers. There’s really no bigger compliment. I’m especially grateful at a time when people seem more divided than ever, for a chance for stories to bring us together and help us to see the positive in everyone. I know many teachers are committed to inclusion and representation, and to providing windows and mirrors, and I love that my stories are among the ones chosen to offer to kids. And I especially appreciate teachers who are mindful of choosing a variety of books and balancing heavier issue books about marginalized groups with regular stories about their daily lives. Also, I want to share that I have wonderful educator guides available for all of my books! You can find them and download off my website: www.henakhan.com.

When can readers get their hands on MORE TO THE STORY, and do you have any exciting events or upcoming blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

Today is pub day! I am excited to be traveling a bit this fall to celebrate the release with readers around the country. I’ll be doing several book launch events. If you’d like to attend and connect in person, please check out tour details on my website and social media, where I’ll be updating!

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



My website has details about my books, school visits, and events: www.henakhan.com. Plus you can find me on instagram, facebook and twitter: @henakhanbooks. I’d love to be connected!

Thank you so much for chatting with me!