Goal Tending – Put Yourself in the Path of Luck by Nancy Tandon

Hello and thank you to the MG Book Village for hosting me at a very exciting time: the launch day of my debut novel, The Way I Say It!

The Way I Say It (Charlesbridge) is about a sixth grader named Rory who can’t say R sounds (and therefore can’t say his own name). He thinks that’s his biggest problem until an accident forces him to confront conflicted feelings about a former friend. The two boys struggle to reconcile old wounds as they navigate their new normal with the help of speech therapist Mr. Simms, heavy metal music, and Muhammad Ali.

Many authors have ‘bumpy road to publication’ stories, and I am no different. In fact, it took five years to get from first contract to holding my first copy. (It was a frost-heave, pothole filled path!) And even before those detours, I had been journeying for six years on back roads where I’d garnered close to 200 combined rejections across multiple manuscripts.

It is said that writers and illustrators who pursue publication need more determination than is reasonable. I have to say that’s probably true. It’s not reasonable: eleven years, 200 rejections, with more to come. What in the world possessed me to keep going? Where was this persistence coming from?

What is going to keep you going toward your 2022 goals?

You may have heard this saying from British Novelist and Philosopher Iris Murdoch (it’s one of my favorites):

Here’s my spin:

 “One of the secrets to a successful writing life (or any big endeavor!) is continuous small encouragements.”

If you are going to have more determination than is reasonable, you will also need an arsenal of support. Here are some of my best suggestions for setting up your creative life in a way that ensures that the nearly incessant encouragement you’re going to need is never far away.

Encouragement from outside sources can be a huge lift to anyone in a solitary endeavor, and contests and awards are a great way to put your work out there. In 2014, I entered a picture book text and won a Tassy Walden Award (for unpublished writers in Connecticut). One of the smartest things I did, in hindsight, was to spend a portion of the winnings on a decorative mirror I’d had my eye on. We were a young family with a pile of bills, and the purchase felt like an extravagance. But, I bought the mirror, and I hung it in a spot that I’d pass by frequently. And on my worst days, when rejections were piling up and discouragement was nudging me to give up, this is what I’d see.

Every time I saw it, that dang mirror seemed to be saying: You’re not giving up. You’re an award-winning writer. You have the mirror to prove it!

Now, you don’t need to buy anything or start talking to your reflection like I did, but I do encourage you to have a physical object somewhere in your living space that will say to you daily: keep writing. Keep drawing. Keep creating. Keep going.

Another way to secure your daily dose of encouragement is to find your people and speak your goals out loud to them. There are writers and readers just like you, longing to connect and geek out about kidlit at the drop of a hat. Middle Grade Book Village is a perfect example of that type of community! Reach out in real life and on social media to connect. These are your people, we are your people, ready and waiting to encourage you, and looking forward to the gift of your support in return.

And finally, focus on what’s fun. There’s plenty of frustration and discouragement in life. You don’t need to give those any extra time. Give your attention and energy to the joy of doing the work, and to the fabulous people your particular journey has brought and will bring into your life.  

Look for any opportunity to give and receive continuous small encouragements so that the creative, amazing human you already are can continue to grow and reach toward that next goal.

Give it space. Give it time. And Don’t Give Up.

Nancy Tandon is a former speech/language pathologist and author of two middle grade novels, The Way I Say It (Charlesbridge, 1/18/22) and The Ghost of Spruce Point (Aladdin, 8/2/22). Her short story, Finders Keepers, was published with Heinemann for the educational market. Nancy lives in Connecticut with her family and is a fan of popcorn, reading, and literacy outreach programs of all kinds.

To find out more, or to get in touch with Nancy:

www.nancytandon.com

Twitter @NancyTandon

Instagram @_NancyTandon_

Goodreads 

Order a signed copy of THE WAY I SAY IT

Order THE WAY I SAY IT wherever books are sold

Interview with Maleeha Siddiqui about BARAKAH BEATS

*We welcome Anne (A.B.) Westrick, author of the older-middle grade novel Brotherhood, to the MG Book Village Team! You can learn more about her at https://abwestrick.com/

Anne: Thank you, Maleeha, for stopping by MG Book Village to share a bit about your debut novel, Barakah Beats, which just came out in October from Scholastic. Could you start by giving us a super brief summary of the story?

Maleeha: Hi Anne! Thank you so much for having me. Barakah Beats is about a 12-year-old Muslim girl named Nimra Sharif and in the beginning of the book, she transfers to public school for the first time after spending her entire life in Islamic school. Nimra faces a number of challenges when she starts the 7th grade, namely the fact that her best friend starts to ignore her around the other kids and Nimra suspects it has something to do with her hijab. To get her friend back and fit in at her new school, Nimra joins her school’s popular 8th grade boy band and grapples with questions about faith, family, and friendships.

Anne: I was fascinated to learn that in Islam, music is hotly contested. I enjoyed reading your Author’s Note about the wide variety in Muslims’ preferences and allowances related to music and musical instruments, and in light of that, your decision to feature a Muslim boy band seems courageous. Why did you decide to make the band central to the plot?

Maleeha: Because of the way that I was raised, I faced a similar challenge that Nimra is facing in the book. Middle school was when my boy band obsession was at its peak, but I was never allowed to go to concerts or dance at events, even though my other Muslims friends’ parents did allow their kids to do both things. Because music is such a huge topic of discourse in the Muslim community, I wanted to show that there are many sides to it since we typically only see one side in mainstream media. Plus, what middle school kid doesn’t want to be asked to join a boy band and look cool to their peers? I thought the idea was fun!

Anne: Your protagonist Nimra experiences a number of humiliating moments in her new school. For example, because she wears a hijab, others assume she can’t speak English, can’t do sports, and hasn’t learned American history. To what extent did these moments come from your own experience, or from the experiences of others in your family?

Maleeha: Quite a few, sadly. In the past, I’ve gotten some strange questions and assumptions from people because I started wearing hijab at a young age. The question that bugged me the most and still rings in my head to this day is when I walked into school wearing hijab for the first time and someone went, “WHOA! What happened?” Like…I’d done something bizarre by putting it on in the first place.

Anne: The dynamic between Nimra’s parents and grandparents highlights generational tensions in her family. Why was it important for you to include the many scenes in which she observes her parents’ struggles with their parents?

Maleeha: I guess to show that we all have disagreements with our parents regardless of what generation we grew up in, and those of us that go on to have families of our own always have in mind the ways we want to raise our kids differently to make up for the things that we feel like we lost out on. Nimra is who she is because of the way her parents raised her. She has more emotional support and fewer insecurities about herself than her parents did growing up as first-generation immigrants.

Anne: I loved the sprinkling of Arabic through the story, such as, for example, “making wudu” (cleansing before prayer) and “Barakah” (divine blessing). Did you ever consider adding a glossary either to the book or your website? (I’m kind of a word-nerd, and would’ve poured over a glossary, if you’d given me one!)

Maleeha: I didn’t consider it because I briefly explain what the words mean within the text. Plus, they’re easy to Google! Readers will find far more information that way than if I provided a glossary.

Anne: What do you hope readers will take away from Barakah Beats?

Maleeha: I want one of the big takeaways from Barakah Beats – for young readers especially – to be that one’s faith can be uplifting and can motivate people to live their best, authentic lives while also respecting other people’s opinions and boundaries. Faith doesn’t always diminish down generations. Sometimes, it becomes stronger. Just because someone chooses to live a different way doesn’t mean they’re any less happy with the lives that they are leading.

Anne: Finally, Maleeha, where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?

Maleeha: Readers can follow me on Twitter or Instagram. My handle is the same for both: @malsidink. They can also visit my website at https://maleehasiddiqui.com/

Anne: Thank you for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such an engaging story!

Maleeha: Thank you so much for asking such thoughtful questions. I had so much fun with these!

Maleeha Siddiqui is an American writer of Pakistani descent who loves to tell unapologetically Muslim stories for all ages. By day, Maleeha works as a regulatory affairs professional in the biotech industry. She grew up and continues to reside with her family in Virginia. When she’s not working, reading, or writing, she likes to try new food and snuggle cats. Barakah Beats (Scholastic 2021) is her debut novel.

Interview with Sabrina Kleckner about THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY

Kathie: Hi Sabrina, and welcome to MG Book Village. I really appreciate you taking some time to chat with me. I recently finished The Art of Running Away which is your debut novel that comes out on November 16th from Jolly Fish Press. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would love it if you could tell our readers a little bit about it, please.

Sabrina: Hi Kathie, thank you so much for having me! THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY is about twelve-year-old Maisie, who runs away to London in the hopes of convincing her estranged older brother to help save their family’s art shop. In the process, she learns why her brother cut ties with their family six years ago and the role their parents played in that. At its core, it’s a story about identity, allyship, and angsty (but earnest) sibling bonding. 

Kathie: I really loved watching Maisie reconnect with her brother, Calum, and her growth over the summer as she starts to understand why he left home and the factors that affect his decision to stay away. What do you hope young readers will notice about these changes in Maisie?

Sabrina: As a character, Maisie is pretty mature for her age. She often feels like the smartest person in the room, and sometimes she is. But a large part of her growth in the story revolves around her coming to terms with the fact that she doesn’t know as much about the world as she thinks she does. She makes rash decisions without considering how they will affect others, and is careless with people’s emotions. Especially in regard to Calum, it doesn’t occur to Maisie that she has the power to hurt him. He’s a very stoic, closed-off character, and Maisie kind of takes this to mean he’s unbreakable. She makes a lot of mistakes with him, but she also learns from them. I hope young readers will see that this is a story both about the inevitability of messing up and the desire to understand what went wrong so you don’t do it again. Maisie is not perfect and never will be. But by the end of the book she’s much more mindful of her words and actions, and because of that she’s much less likely to cause unintentional hurt going forward. 

Kathie: The question I really want to ask about Calum is “Was he a spy?” but since I’m pretty sure I won’t get an answer to that, can you tell us what you most admire about him as a character and the role he plays in Maisie’s life?

Sabrina: Ahaha–if I answered that question, Calum would feel so betrayed! Whether or not he is actually a spy will have to stay a secret, but as for what I admire most about him, I think it’s just the fact that he’s living his life. At one point in the story, he tells Maisie, “When I was in middle school and teachers asked where we pictured ourselves in twenty years, I…couldn’t. It felt like there wasn’t any space in the world for me, like I wasn’t allowed to exist.” Calum is gay, and although he’s only ten years older than Maisie, a lot has changed in the decade that separates them. Maisie grew up surrounded by queer people who were accepted completely in her small town. Calum did not have the same experience. He was actively erased in the same town, and could not see a future for himself. So I think there’s a lot of power that comes from him taking up space in the world, in the mundanity of him simply existing.

This generational gap was also an interesting dynamic to explore in his relationship with Maisie. Because of how much their town changed in only a few years, there are things about Calum’s life that she can’t comprehend, and vice versa. I think this bridge is really important for both of them. It’s a reality check for Maisie when she realizes things weren’t always as easy for other people as they are for her. And it’s proof to Calum that even in their small town, in the place he was miserable, people can change. In a lot of ways, Maisie and Calum are opposites. Because of that, I think they play equally important roles in each other’s lives. They are much more balanced together than they are apart.

Kathie: Can you tell us why you chose London and Edinburgh as the setting for most of the novel?

Sabrina: THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY was actually my senior thesis for my Creative Writing major in college, and I wrote it right after coming back from studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh. I absolutely loved living in Edinburgh and missed it as soon as I returned to New York. I knew I at least wanted to partially set my story there, and because there was already a nostalgic element to the setting, I decided to also write about London–another city I love and lived in a few years prior.

Kathie: Do you enjoy art, and do you have other artistic or creative outlets besides writing?

Sabrina: I do enjoy art. I drew a ton when I was younger, and I took art classes in high school and college. It’s been a while since I’ve drawn anything, though, and I was never very good–Maisie would put me to shame! But it is something I’d like to pick up again. Possibly my favorite thing in the world is seeing art of my book characters. I’ve commissioned a few pieces for THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY, and they make me so happy. I would love to be able to draw my characters one day!

Kathie: What would you love young readers to know about this book?

Sabrina: That it’s funny! There are definitely heavy topics covered in this book. There’s pain and angst. But there is an underlying hopeful tone and a ton of humor. One of my favorite scenes (and possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever written) has to do with a Shrek bet. I’m still a little shocked it made it past copy edits haha, but it did! It was important to me that this wasn’t a dark book. I wanted to write about characters who had been through trauma and who may always experience the effects of it, but I also wanted to show that those characters could be happy and healthy and doing well in life.

Kathie: Are you currently working on another writing project?

Sabrina: I’m not going to lie, writing through this pandemic has been rough. I’ve started and stopped several projects over the last year and a half and haven’t made a ton of progress on any of them. But I’ve finally settled on re-writing an old manuscript that has had my heart for a while. Like THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY, it’s also about siblings! Hopefully I’ll have more updates on it soon.

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

Sabrina: I’m on Twitter, Instagram, and Tiktok @sabklecker. You can also find out more about me and my writing at https://www.sabrinakleckner.com/ 

Kathie: Thank you so much for answering my questions today, Sabrina, and I wish you all the best with your book’s launch.

Sabrina: Thank you so much! These were great interview questions and I enjoyed answering them. 🙂

Sabrina Kleckner is the author of THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY, a middle grade contemporary novel about family and identity. She began writing at the age of twelve, and is grateful to not be debuting with the angsty assassin book she toiled over in her teens. When she is not writing, she can be found teaching ESL or gushing about her three cats to anyone who will listen. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @sabkleckner.

Book Review: PARADISE ON FIRE, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Inspired by the real life Camp Fire in California in 2018, this middle grade survival story follows Addy, a young girl from the Bronx who’s headed to California to participate in a summer wilderness program. Haunted by her parents’ death when she was just four at the hands of a tragic apartment fire, Addy’s grandmother Bibi has enrolled her in this program to broaden her horizons and live up to her name (Aduago, which means daughter of an eagle).

Once she arrives, Addy surprisingly finds herself enjoying the outdoors and learns to camp, hike, rock climb, and most importantly, how to correctly start and put out campfires. Realizing Addy has a need to create maps to show escape routes, the camp’s owner, Leo, shows her how topographical maps work which helps her understand her new environment. As the summer days pass, Addy’s love and respect for the wilderness grows, and she learns to trust the other kids as they depend on each other for companionship and survival.

But when a wildfire approaches Wilderness Adventures, Addy is suddenly faced with the nightmare of her past. It’s up to her to her to lead her friends to safety, and she’ll need all the courage and knowledge she’s obtained to survive.

With flashback scenes to the fire that killed her parents and told in sections titled: 
Flying Blind
Discovery
Training
Trapped
Escape
Survive
Flying Home and
Epilogue, this middle grade story will spark discussions surrounding global warming and environmentalism among its readers.

Katie Reilley is a fourth and fifth grade ELA teacher from Elburn, Illinois, and a proud mom to two amazing daughters, ages 14 and 10 who has been married to a wonderful husband for 18 years. She’s a member of #bookexpedition, a group of teachers, librarians and authors who read and review ARCs and newly released middle grade books. She’s also happy to be part of the #classroombookaday community, and loves to learn alongside her students and fellow educators. She has been teaching for twenty-two years, and her passion is getting books into the hands of her students. You can find her on Twitter at @KReilley5.

Book Review: ACROSS THE DESERT, by Dusti Bowling

Twelve year old Jolene spends as much time as she can at the library watching a livestream of her favorite pilot, 12 year old “Addie Earhart.” Addie’s livestream, the Desert Aviator, shares her flights in an ultralight plane over the desert. Watching the livestreams keeps Jolene’s mind off what happening with her mom at home, who’s struggling with an addiction to narcotics.

During one of the livestreams, something goes terribly wrong, and Addie’s ultralight plummets to the desert floor as Jolene watches in horror. Knowing the Addie won’t survive long in the desert, Jolene decides to set out in hopes of saving Addie.

Told in both present time and past-tense messages, this is an incredible story of courage and friendship. I loved the way the author sprinkled in names and story snippets of real-life women adventurers, including Emma Gatewood, Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Valentina Tereshkova,  Lois Pryce, the Van Buren sisters, Bessie Stringfield, Sarah Marquis, Wanda Rutkiewicz and Ynez Mexia.

I can’t wait to share Jolene’s story with my middle grade classroom of readers.

Katie Reilley is a fourth and fifth grade ELA teacher from Elburn, Illinois, and a proud mom to two amazing daughters, ages 14 and 10 who has been married to a wonderful husband for 18 years. She’s a member of #bookexpedition, a group of teachers, librarians and authors who read and review ARCs and newly released middle grade books. She’s also happy to be part of the #classroombookaday community, and loves to learn alongside her students and fellow educators. She has been teaching for twenty-two years, and her passion is getting books into the hands of her students. You can find her on Twitter at @KReilley5.

Interview with Katherine Battersby about CRANKY CHICKEN

Hi Katherine! Thanks so much for stopping by the Village to chat about your latest book — the early graphic novel, Cranky Chicken!

Before we get to Chicken and Speedy, would you care to introduce yourself to our site’s readers?

Thanks for having me! I am the author and illustrator of a whole bunch of quirky picture books, like Trouble and Perfect Pigeons and the Squish Rabbit series. I’m also a fan girl of comic books, ice cream, mischief, tea, and travel. I grew up by the beach in Australia but now live by the mountains in Canada. I can be found most days either making books, reading books, or sharing books with my little girl (and occasionally even my dog).

Okay: let’s get to the book! I’ve read elsewhere that you are not (or at least were not) a fan of chickens. I believe you are (or at least were) SCARED of them. How did you end up creating a book all about one? (And are you still scared of them?)

Wow, you have done your research! Yes, I’m scared of chickens. Surely I’m not the only one who knows that ALL chickens are cranky chickens? They have beady little eyes and sharp beaks and you just can’t trust them (I have been chased by many chickens). But then I met this tiny girl during one of my author visits and she had the audacity to laugh at my fear. She said, “Chicken’s aren’t scary – they’re hilarious!” I couldn’t stop thinking about her. So I decided to spend more time drawing chickens to see if I could discover what she so loved about them. Cranky Chicken is what emerged. It turns out we’re both right: chickens are cranky AND hilarious.

As an illustrator, I strive for simplicity, and I was blown away by how economical and powerful your linework is. Both Chicken and Speedy are wonderfully expressive, yet so simply designed — I already know legions of kids are out there drawing Chicken and Speedy in their sketchbooks (and probably in the margins of their homework!). Can you share about the development of these characters?

Thank you! Whenever I design my characters, I always strive to make them as simple as I can. To use as few lines as possible. In part it’s because I like to leave lots of room in my art. Kids are incredibly clever and I want to leave space for them: space to think, space to imagine, space to put all the story pieces together themselves. Space to maybe even see themselves on the page. I also think emotion is the most important puzzle piece of any story and I love the challenge of trying to capture it with a single quizzical line or an arched brow. So much can be captured with so little.

It brings me great joy to think of kids drawing my characters, especially knowing their own personalities and quirks will shape the way they draw them. I used to obsessively draw Sandra Boynton characters as a kid. I can now see her influence in my work. There’s nothing quite so special as getting to become a small part of a child’s life through your stories.

When you’re creating a character such as Chicken, does the drawing come first, or the personality? Do they come together? Is it always the same, or is it different with every character/project?

As an author / illustrator, the process of writing and drawing for me are inextricably linked. It’s tricky to figure out which came first and I think that’s because they always happen together. I play with a character in my mind for many months (sometimes years) before I ever touch pen to paper. I watch them move, observe their quirks, see how they react and interact with the world — all in my mind. I watch them from every angle, refining their shapes and lines, so by the time I finally drew Chicken she pretty much came out the way she appears in the book: squat, unibrowed, and spectacularly cranky. But her softer curves do betray the fact that underneath that firm outer, she has a generous heart. So her form and her personality developed together, as I got to know her.

It’s a little bit different for each project, but typically I discover a character and follow them around my mind and then the page until I figure out who they are and what their story is. Some characters reveal themselves quite quickly. One rather elusive character I’ve been trying to figure out for over ten years. I’m glad Chicken didn’t make me wait that long!

I am a HUGE fan of cranky characters. Give me all the curmudgeons, crabs, and grumps — I think they are wonderfully fun to read about. Do you enjoy telling stories about Chicken? Why do you think it’s enjoyable to create and/or read about such ill-tempered individuals?

I love a good grump, too. Maybe we love cranky characters because they have permission to say and do things we don’t get to out in the world. Most of us have to be more polite, more thoughtful, more considered — and for good reason! But curmudgeons in literature can show the world exactly who they are and even be celebrated for it. Part of why Chicken so appealed to me as a character is that in stories we so rarely celebrate female grumps. I immediately fell for her — she was spectacularly grumpy and somehow more lovable for it, so I wanted to put her front and centre in a book that joys in all her cantankerous ways.

What made you choose to write about a pair of unlikely friends? And why did you choose to tell their stories in comics?

I tend to feel more like my characters find me, rather than that I create them. But I can see why I am particularly drawn to mismatched friendships. In many ways people are much more interesting when they bump up against others, especially those who are quite different to themselves. Chicken was intriguing on her own, but she only became real to me once she met Speedy worm. Suddenly I had a much more vivid sense of who she is and what she likes (and doesn’t!). The beautiful thing about friendships is they often challenge us to be more than we ever could have been on our own. In this way, Chicken and Speedy remind me a lot of me and my childhood best friend (we are still besties to this day!). We are so very different but our friendship is much richer for it.

As for why comics, would you believe I’ve always wanted to make a comic book? I grew up reading comic books and graphic novels and I never grew out of them. But I do remember realising at some point in my youth that all the comics I had access to were made by men. It was (and is) a somewhat more male dominated industry and I think in ways, at least subconsciously, I felt that world wasn’t for me. I’d published ten picture books before my agent asked me if I’d ever considered making a graphic novel and the question opened up a door insider me I didn’t even know was there. It was immediately clear I desperately wanted to make one! Then I just had to wait for the right idea to come along. As soon as I met Chicken, I knew she was it. She had the perfect comic energy to pull off a longer book and provided so many opportunities for physical humour and quirk and even a dose of heart. I had so much fun making this book. I hope I get to make many more.

All right, here’s the question everyone is wondering: are you more Chicken, or more Speedy?

I remember vividly back when I first discovered that, ultimately, … all my characters are me. Or parts of me. I was horrified. I recall thinking: do all readers of my books know this? I felt like everyone could SEE me. The secret inside parts of me. Now this fact just makes me laugh! So I am here to comfortably admit: I am Cranky Chicken. We are both introverts who need time to process the world. When confronted with new things, we frown (thinking takes a lot of energy). Anxious chicken brains are good at anticipating what can go wrong, so we see the flaws in every plan. Luckily, just like Chicken, I have plenty of upbeat Worms around me who make me laugh and help me see the more playful parts of life. To be honest, I have plenty in common with Worm, too. I smile. A lot. And I am very, very silly.

Please, please, PLEASE tell me there are more Cranky Chicken books on the way…

Yes! Your enthusiasm is delightful. I have already finished the second book, which comes out June 2022. AND I am writing the third book as we speak, which will be out in 2023. These characters are always getting up to mischief in my mind, often when I’m trying to do other things. I have reams of notes about their misadventures, so I would be happy to make many, many books about them.

Katherine is a fan girl of ice cream, tea, travel and all things papery. She is also the critically acclaimed author and illustrator of ten picture books, including Little Wing and the popular Squish Rabbit series, which have been published around the world. Her books have had glowing reviews in The New York Times, received starred Kirkus reviews and have been shortlisted for numerous awards. She is regularly booked to speak in schools, libraries and at festivals and she is a passionate advocate for literacy and the arts.

In another life, Katherine worked as a paediatric occupational therapist, specialising as a children’s counselor. She has also studied graphic design and loves typography, fabric and vintage teacups.

Katherine grew up by the beach in Australia and now lives in Canada with her poet husband, their book obsessed baby and a rather ridiculous dog.

Interview with Donna Barba Higuera about THE LAST CUENTISTA

Kathie: Hi Donna, thank you so much for joining me at MG Book Village today to talk about your new book, The Last Cuentista, which was released yesterday by Levine Querido. Can you tell us a little bit about it, please?

Donna: This book is about a girl named Petra Peña who is leaving for a new planet with her scientist parents as a comet approaches threatening to destroy Earth. Petra wants nothing more than to be a storyteller like her grandmother. Just her luck, the one upside to the journey that will take hundreds of years, will be a download of information. Petra hopes she can possess all of Earth’s folklore, mythology, and stories in her mind by the time they arrive to the new planet. But along the way a sinister collective of those monitoring the passengers begins to “purge” adults and erase the memories of the remaining children in hopes of starting over with none of Earth’s past mistakes or history to hinder their new plan.

But during this 370-year journey, when all the other children are reprogrammed, Petra’s defective download makes her alone the hidden bringer of Earth’s now forbidden stories and her grandmother’s Mexican folklore to a changing humanity.

Kathie: This book is based on the Mexican folklore that your grandmother shared with you. Why do you think oral storytelling is so important and leaves such a strong impression on children?’

Donna: In the oral tradition of storytelling, these tales are normally told to us by someone we trust. A teacher, a parent, a grandparent…so there is an added layer of trust compared to what we may read in a book. The storyteller can impart parts of their own personality or life experience, so it has the element of something more personal.

I think of my own experience as a child and how important sensory detail is. I could see my grandmother’s facial expressions. She could add a layer of tension with a quick jump. She could add sadness or humor to her tales with one look. That was something I couldn’t always get with the written word. She might give me a cup of hot chocolate with cinnamon beforehand. I could taste and smell the story. To this day, I add cinnamon to coffee and hot chocolate and feel like I’m back by a fire and my grandmother’s knees crack as she settles in to tell me a story. I sense those feelings of humor, fear, tension and love I had in those moments.

Kathie: I really loved Petra’s loyalty, and the way she cared about those around her. What quality do you most admire in her and why?

Donna: Well, there are two, but because they intertwine in a way, can I count them as one? The first quality is her tenacity. There was a point in the book where I tried to imagine what I would have done if I’d been in Petra’s situation at that age. I would have crawled up into a ball and quit. But Petra feels so strongly about the stories she carries with her and her purpose that she doesn’t give up. But even when helping others poses roadblocks to her end goal, she still carries a layer of nurturing she’s learned from her parents and grandmother that she transfers to the other children.

Kathie: This book could fuel many fantastic discussions! I had so many questions running through my mind, like if we could start over as humans, how could we make things different, and how we can value art AND science as we move into the future? What do you hope a young reader will take away from your book?

Donna: I suppose I hope young readers take away concepts to ponder. I don’t know the answers to all the questions this book raises. But it isn’t meant to give the answers. I hope young readers will take away issues to contemplate and will have discussions with others. Maybe they will consider those topics together and make the world better place, one in which we work to be more appreciative of the arts and sciences.

Kathie: I’d love to know what items you would take with you if you were relocating to Sagan?

Donna: Well, I just moved. And this is no joke. Three quarters of the boxes were books. If relocating to Sagan, this would certainly not be an option. My obsession with books is partially what gave me the idea for that part of Petra’s story. I asked myself what I valued most. What would I take with me if I were leaving for another planet and could take very little? The concept of being able to download all the books and stories of Earth into my mind felt like the most priceless item I could imagine.

But one physical item? I’d take my dad’s old tobacco-infused pipe. Anyone who’s had a father who smoked a pipe will understand.

Kathie: Can you share an interesting tidbit about how this story changed over the course of editing?

Donna: This book started as a short story from a writing prompt. “Take a traditional fairy tale and make it sci-fi. I think I had a one-thousand-word limit. I used Princess and the Pea, and created a character who’d been placed in cryo for hundreds of years, but never slept. When she was removed, the world, people and culture had all disappeared, and she was not valued for the things she once was. The concept was both fascinating and horrifying. I wanted to develop it into a novel.

The first draft of The Last Cuentista was mainly plot-based. In rewrites and revisions, the character came to life. She shared my love of story, folklore and mythology. I decided if Petra was a girl like me, then she would surely bring the tales she loved most. Those told to her that she loved on Earth. At first, I didn’t go into detail with the stories. They were just ghostly versions of the original. My editor at Levine Querido, Nick Thomas, asked me to expand on these stories, and let Petra tell them the way she would in that moment. He was so right. Once we made those changes, the stories sprung to life with Petra as the storyteller.

Kathie: Is there any chance of a sequel to this book? I would love to know what happens next for Petra and her friends.

Donna: I hope so. I think of Petra and the other children all the time.

I had to know what happens to her in her life, so I recently wrote (just for myself) the end of her story. It was the most fulfilling ending to a story I’ve ever written. I read it to my husband and we both cried. Perhaps one day it will make it into a book.

But I’m also thinking of others in Petra’s universe. What happened to those left behind on Earth? Did anyone survive? If so, what is Earth like now? So perhaps I will write that next.

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

Donna: On my website www.dbhiguera.com or www.donnabarbahiguera.comThey can also find me on Twitter @dbhiguera & Instagram @donnabarbahiguera

Kathie: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me today, Donna, and all the best on your book’s release.

Donna: Kathie, thank you! You’ve asked some amazing questions that allowed me to ponder things about my book I hadn’t yet considered.

And thank you for helping to welcome The Last Cuentista and Petra into the world.

Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration. 

Donna’s Young Adult and Middle Grade books feature characters drawn into creepy, situations, melding history, folklore, and or her own life experience into reinvented storylines. She still dreams in Spanglish.
Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs. Donna’s backyard is a haunted 19th century logging camp. (The haunted part may or may not be true—she makes stuff up.) She is a Critique-Group-Coordinator for SCBWI-Western Washington and teaches “The Hero’s Journey for Young Authors” to future writers.

Follow Donna on Twitter at @dbhiguera.

The Last Cuentista is available now to purchase, and you can find it at your closest independent bookstore here:

Interview with Karen Pokras about THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER

Kathie: Hi Karen, and welcome to MG Book Village! I’d love to know more about your upcoming middle grade book, THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER which is scheduled for release in November with Lerner/Kar-Ben. Can you please tell our readers about it?

Karen: Hi Kathie, and thanks so much for having me here!

The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler is about 11-year-old Danny, the only Jewish boy in his town in 1978.  When a local child goes missing, Danny’s convinced it’s connected to an old Bermuda Triangle theory involving UFOs. With his two best friends and their Spacetron telescope, Danny heads to his backyard to investigate. But hunting for extra-terrestrials is complicated, and it doesn’t help that his friend Nicholas’s mom doesn’t want her son hanging out with a Jewish boy. Equipped with his super-secret spy notebook, Danny sets out to fight both the aliens and the growing antisemitism in the town, in hopes of mending his divided community.

Kathie: I remember being fascinated by the Bermuda Triangle when I was a kid. Was it something you wondered about as a child, or did your interest in the topic come later?

Karen: Definitely as a kid! I remember spending a lot of time wondering about it. When I started brainstorming for this story and thinking of my own memories about growing up in the 1970s, my curiosity about the Bermuda Triangle was something that really stood out. There are a handful of scenes in this story that are pulled straight from my childhood, which made this book both fun and at times, cringe-worthy to write.

Kathie: Anti-Semitism was also a very real issue in the late 1970s (as it is today). Was there a reason you chose to tell this story during this period of history, and what do you hope your characters communicate about this topic?

Karen:  When I sat down to write this new story, I knew I wanted to set it in the late 1970s so I could tap into my own memories of being a middle grade child during this time period. While I’m not sure I set out originally to write about antisemitism, recent acts in my community as well as throughout the country, combined with memories I’d tucked away, quickly weaved their way into the pages. My hope is that my characters inspire conversations that continue long after the story ends, and that kids (and adults) recognize that antisemitism still exists, and that we still have so much work to do.

Kathie: Can you tell me about your main character, and what do you admire most about them?

Karen: Is it admirable to say Danny will do just about anything for a slice of chocolate cake? Danny is both typical and atypical. He is awkward and gullible. He is a loyal friend. He is curious. He is thoughtful. He can be quick to judge others. He is determined and ambitious when he wants to be. He has strong opinions and is often not sure when/how/if to filter them. He is (sometimes) willing to admit when he’s wrong. He loves Star Wars (and chocolate cake.) He’s not sure about girls and piano lessons. What I admire most about him though, is the way he listens.

Kathie: What would you most like young readers to know about your book?

Karen: While I know that antisemitism is a heavy topic, The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler also has light and funny moments. FYI, hunting aliens is tricky! So is trying to avoid your hairy-handed piano teacher. And did you know there are purple vegetables? You may learn a thing or two about cooking. (Hint: I include one of my grandmother’s recipes at the end of the story.) 

I also hope young readers come away from this story with the knowledge that their voice matters, and that we (as adults) are listening.

Kathie: What’s one thing you’ve learned about yourself as a writer during your publishing journey?

Karen: There’s been so much! I started writing later in life and with a background in law and finance, I had to learn everything outside of writing professional emails about taxes. Creatively, I have really learned how to slow down and be more patient with my process, taking some time off in between drafts and revisions. Every writer is different of course, but for me, I’ve found that taking this time helps me understand my characters and story better. Next up is patience everywhere else in the journey.

Kathie: Are you working on another writing project at the moment?

Karen: Yes! I have two middle grade projects in the works. One, about a science-loving girl who’s moved into a house that’s rumored to be haunted, is on submission, and the other, about ballet, is in revisions. I’m hoping to share more information about both of these soon!

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

Karen: ​​Visit my website www.karenpokras.com where you can learn about my books, sign up for my newsletter, and read blog posts.

I’m also on social media … my preferred platform these days is

Instagram: @karenpokras_author  

I can also be found on:

Facebook:  www.facebook.com/karenptoz

Twitter: @karentoz

Kathie: Thanks so much for taking some time to answer my questions today, Karen, and I hope you have a great response to your book.

Karen:  Thank you so much for having me, Kathie!

Karen Pokras is a daisy lover, cat wrangler, and occasional baker. She has been writing for children for over ten years, winning several indie literary awards for her middle grade works. Always an avid reader, Karen found her passion for writing later in life and now runs all of her stories past the furry ears of her two feline editorial assistants before anyone else. A numbers geek at heart, she enjoys a good spreadsheet almost as much as she loves storytelling. A native of Connecticut, Karen is the proud mom to three brilliant children who still provide an endless stream of great book material.  She lives with her family outside of Philadelphia. ​

Interview with H.S. Norup about THE HUNGRY GHOST

Kathie: Hi Helle, and welcome to MG Book Village! It’s a pleasure to chat with you today about the North American release of THE HUNGRY GHOST which comes out on September 28th. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, please?

Helle: Thank you, Kathie. I always enjoy #MGBooktober and the other chats you organise, so I’m delighted to visit MG Book Village.

I’m Danish, but I have lived most of my life outside Denmark. Currently, I reside in Switzerland with my husband and two young-adult sons. I have also been at home in the US (New Jersey and Georgia), the UK, Austria, and Singapore.

Whenever I’m not reading or writing, I spend my time outdoors. I love to explore new places and learn about other cultures and traditions.

So, I feel lucky that both my own corporate career and my husband’s have given us opportunities to live abroad and travel.

I’ve always been a voracious reader, but I didn’t start writing until I was in my thirties. At first, I wrote just for fun, then about ten years ago I started taking it seriously and finished my first manuscript. I was 49 when my debut was published—it’s never too late!

Kathie: This book was originally published last September in the UK. Can you tell us what it’s like to be promoting the book for a new audience, and if there are many differences between the UK and US versions?

Helle: It a difficult time to have a book published. Because of the pandemic, all promotion last year was purely online. My publisher had arranged a big blog tour, and I did virtual talks and school visits in the UK and Singapore. I was also lucky that both Financial Times and Singapore’s main newspaper, The Straits Times, reviewed THE HUNGRY GHOST.

On Twitter, I’m quite well-connected with UK teachers, librarians and MG authors, but it’s hard to know to what extent the online promotion results in book sales.

I’m less well-connected online in North America, and publicity from the publisher is limited, so promotion this time around is going to be even more difficult. I hope the fact that the book recently won a SCBWI Crystal Kite award will help.

There are no differences between the UK and the US versions. It’s even the same stunning red cover.

Kathie: I’d love to know about the inspiration for this story?

Helle: I began writing The Hungry Ghost, while I lived in Singapore. When we moved there, I was immediately fascinated by the mix of cultures and religions, and I wanted to capture the vibrant atmosphere in a story.

On my walks, early on, I noticed offerings on the pavements—little collages of food, joss sticks and candles—for ancestors and forgotten restless spirits. The focus on remembering and honouring ancestors fascinated me and gave me the first kernel of a story idea.

At times, when the busy city overwhelmed me, I found solace in parks and nature reserves. My favourite place became an old Chinese graveyard—the biggest outside China. It hasn’t been in use in fifty years, so the rainforest has turned it into a tropical wilderness, right in the middle of Singapore. On my long hikes there, I thought a lot about forgotten spirits.

The idea for The Hungry Ghost really sparked, when I asked myself: “What if a girl who had just moved to Singapore met a hungry ghost who needed her help to remember the past?”

From there, the story, which explores themes of families under stress, grief and acceptance, evolved.

I was aware that I was writing about a culture that isn’t my own, so I anchored the book in the perspective of someone with my own background. Therefore, the main character, Freja, comes from Denmark.

Kathie: Many readers may not be familiar with the folklore which is an important part of the book. Can you tell us more about that?

Helle: There are various beliefs around the hungry ghosts throughout China and South East Asia, but in essence these ghosts are spirits that are not at rest. They are unsatisfied, hungry, because of the way their lives ended or because they were forgotten by their descendants. One month every year, the seventh month in the Chinese calendar, they are on holiday from the realm of the dead and roam the streets, seeking nourishment. In addition to the offerings of food and burnt paper effigies, live stage performances, called Getai, are held to entertain both the living and the dead.

The hungry ghosts are often perceived to be vicious and vengeful, but I mainly felt sad for the ones that had been forgotten by their loved ones. And so, the importance of remembering those we have lost, and how that impacts our way of dealing with grief, became a key aspect of the story.

In the story, Freja also enter a portal to another world. This world, based on ancient Chinese mythology, includes mythical creatures—the azure dragon, the white tiger, the red vermillion bird, and the black tortoise—that are among the foundations for Feng Shui.

Kathie: What sort of research did you do for this story, and can you share an interesting tidbit that you discovered but didn’t include in the book?

Helle: For contemporary Singapore, I walked and walked, visiting all the locations in the book. I tasted the food Freja eats, smelled the frangipani trees at night, and perspired in the humid air. I saw lizards and monkeys and a black spitting cobra. I held a python in the zoo. I even went to the graveyard at night during the hungry ghost month…

In addition to reading about hungry ghosts, I asked Chinese Singaporeans about their beliefs and traditions. After the book was written, I used a cultural sensitivity reader and had Singaporean friends read through the Singaporean dialogue.

The driving force in the book is the mystery around the hungry ghost’s past, so I spent much time researching Singapore’s colonial history. It was especially important for me to understand the situation of the Chinese population a hundred years ago when the ghost was alive. A key source was the newspaper archive at the National Library of Singapore. Several newspapers, going back 200 years, are available and searchable online. Obituaries and small announcements I stumbled upon became clues for Freja to discover in the story.

There were so many things I wish I could have included in the book: details about the other cultures that link to the story, locations I wish Freja could’ve had time to visit, and more of the local food. In an earlier version of the book, the visit to the hawker centre took up a whole chapter and included all the local dishes I miss.

Kathie: What’s one thing you enjoyed about living in Singapore, and how is it similar to where you live now? How is it different?

Helle: I definitely miss the food! I loved going to the hawker centres—the organised street food markets, where you can find a huge variety of inexpensive dishes.

There are no hawker centres in Switzerland, although, occasionally, pop-up street food markets appear. Luckily, I also like cheese and chocolate! And it’s much easier to get hold of fresh organic produce here than it was in Singapore where almost everything is imported from the neighbouring countries or flown in from Australian and Europe.

Kathie: Is there a book or author that has influenced you as a middle-grade writer?

Helle: The first book I fell in love with was The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis and The Never-ending Story by Michael Ende were also childhood favourites that influenced me to write books set in the borderland between real and imaginary worlds.

My books are hopeful and have family and friendship at their hearts. In this regard, I admire and am probably influenced by Sharon Creech and Eva Ibbotson, whose adventure stories are full of heart and hope.

Kathie: Where can our readers go if they want to know more about you and your writing?

Helle: My website is www.hsnorup.com. On social media, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @hsnorup

Kathie: Thanks so much for joining us today, Helle, and I wish you the best with your book’s North American release.

Helle: Thank you so much for having me, Kathie.

H. S. Norup is the award-winning author of The Hungry Ghost and The Missing Barbegazi—a Sunday Times Book of the Year in 2018. Originally from Denmark, she has lived in six different countries and now resides in Switzerland with her husband and two sons. She has a master’s degree in Economics and Business Administration and sixteen years’ experience in corporate marketing strategy and communications. When she’s not writing or reading, she spends her time outdoors either skiing, hiking, walking, golfing or taking photos.

Interview with Hallie Christensen about Enchanted Misadventures with Great-Aunt Poppy: Magic, Mayhem, and Monsters

Christie: Hi Hallie! “Enchanted Misadventures with Great-Aunt Poppy: Magic, Mayhem, and Monsters” comes out in October. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please? 

Hi! Of course 🙂  

When three siblings discover that they must spend the holiday with their Great-Aunt Poppy, they prepare themselves for the worst week of their lives. Poppy, or Groppy, is a witch, though, for some reason, only the children can see that. While surviving the creepy house and Groppy’s thousands of cats, the siblings stumble upon a spell room with a magic potion that grants wishes. But wishes go awry, and while their aunt can save them from her own magic, the children must help her capture something frightening in the woods that even a witch’s magic can’t stop. To survive the holiday, it will take all the bravery and wit the kids can muster. But who knows? Things aren’t always what they seem! The best holiday surprise might be hiding in the most unlikely place imagined!

Christie: Can you tell us the idea that inspired the book?

Well, one of the best ways to perfect your writing skills is to write! Funny how that works. So, I was on a writing website and they had a short story contest and I decided to join. One of the prompts was, and I’m paraphrasing, “Three siblings have to spend a holiday with a relative and they are not looking forward to it.” I thought, “I like that!” and I sat down and it just immediately came to me. I have never found something so easy to write and may never again, lol. I loved the story so much that I showed it to one of my critique partners and she was like, “Hallie, this is awesome. You’ve got to try and publish it!” So, I made the novella into a novel, and the rest is history, as they say. 

Christie: Did you have a character that you most enjoyed writing?

Oh gosh, lol. I love all of the characters. But Nolan’s quick wit and dry humor – he gets me every time. All of my characters are an inspiration from my childhood experiences, friends, and family, and they all hold a close place to my heart. And don’t think I didn’t hear Merlin (the cat) scoff when I picked Nolan, ha. I love you too, Merlin! Silly cat. They’re all my favorite, really :).   

Christie: What was one of your biggest challenges writing this story?

Figuring out how they were going to survive the “scary thing” in the woods (I’m trying not to give too much away). I knew what they needed to do, I knew how the story would end, but I didn’t know how it was going to be done. I just kept working up to that point in the book and thinking “It will come to me eventually.” Luckily when I got to the major scene, it did! (With a lot of prior research…) But it was tricky and took quite a few rewrites. I made sure to have a few beta readers to double check everything. Beta readers are the best!  

Christie: What do you think is important for young readers to know about this story?

Each of the three siblings, Ava, Nolan, and Charlotte, experience their own personal growth throughout the story. Each has something they want to work on, work through, or overcome. Be looking for those scenes! They break through those struggles and really take charge! I’m so proud of them! 🙂  

Also, I have to mention Great-Aunt Poppy, or Groppy, as the kids call her. She is amazing! I love how she doesn’t change, just the children’s perspective of her. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a great message in Groppy’s character. 

Christie: What has your debut publishing journey been like?

Very interesting, lol. This is my first traditionally published novel and it has been a whirlwind! There is so much to work on! There were edits and rewrites, and then I helped with the cover appearance, everything that goes on it and choosing the artist’s style for the cover, which I love BTW. Also I’ve been chatting up my book on social media and spreading the news with the community and beyond. I mean, you get out of it what you put into it. There’s always work to be done.  

Christie: Is there something unique about you or your story that you’d like to share with our readers?

I know how to juggle, lol. I love cats and that is one of the main reasons why there is a cat in this story. I think I may always put a cat in my stories, though, they may not always be able to talk, ha. 

I am a band nerd. I marched in a band all throughout school and college. And if you’re wondering, I play the saxophone and flute and know a few major chords on the guitar. 

As for what is unique in my story, I find Groppy to be very unique, and I think that’s what makes her so special and an amazing person. 

Christie: What’s one thing that I haven’t asked you about your book or your writing process that you could share with us?

I am a planster! Meaning that I both plan out my story and also write by the seat of my pants. A combination of planner and pantser, lol. I did not coin the phrase, but I fully embrace it. 

You never know when writing inspiration will strike, so you write it down when it does. Sometimes you plan a story out only to realize halfway through that something needs to change. There’s nothing wrong with that. I like the quote by Terry Pratchett, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” 

Christie: Where can we go to find out more about you and your writing?

I have a website: http://www.authorhalliechristensen.com/

You can also follow me on social media: 

Insta: @halliekat_bibliolove

Twitter: @HallieKathaleen

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

If you have a question or would like to chat about book stuff or anything really, please reach out! 🙂 

Hallie Christensen grew up in a small town in Alabama surrounded by professional storytellers – her family. She received her BA in English with a minor in Italian while attending The University of Alabama and her MA in Teaching English from Faulkner University.  Her life’s background helped to influence her writing and creativity. While growing up she attended Young Authors conferences, played in a marching band, tried her luck as a magician, became a Junior Ranger for quite a few National Parks, and for a brief moment was a disc jockey with an eclectic taste of music spanning from The Monkees to N’SYNC. When she isn’t writing, editing, teaching English courses, or marking-up essays, she enjoys hiking, rappelling, attending rock concerts from musicians her parents’ age, staying at B&B’s, playing in a family band, and of course, reading with preferences in fantasy, contemporary, and the classics. Hallie currently resides in northern Alabama with her husband and a couple of cats.