FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Alysa Wishingrad

Kathie: Hi Alysa! It’s my pleasure to spend some time with you today talking about your debut MG novel, THE VERDIGRIS PAWN, which will be released on July 13th by HarperCollins. I just finished it last night, and I have so much I want to know! Let’s start by asking you to tell our readers a little bit about it, please.

Alysa: Hi Kathie! It’s such a pleasure to be here with you, thank you so much for having me.

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is the story of Beau, heir to the ruler of the Land, a man so frightening, people only dare call him Himself. Raised isolated and alone, Beau has no idea of the brutal tyranny Himself unleashes upon his subjects, and how hated and feared their family is.  

This all changes when he meets Cressi, a young servant, who opens his eyes to the realities of life in the Land – especially about Mastery House, a terrible and brutal place where the children of the poor are sent to be raised and trained to be servants in exchange for payment of their family’s taxes.  

This discovery of the truth sets Beau off on an epic adventure along with Nate, a runaway, as he tries to undo the poisoned legacy of his family. But in order to restore fairness and equality to the Land, Beau must think of things like a real-life game of Fist (a board game similar to chess!)  

Although, when you’re reviled throughout the Land and false heroes lurk around every corner, leading a rebellion is easier said than done. 

This is a story about how appearances aren’t always what they seem and how real power can come from the most unlikely places. 

Kathie: This was such a unique story, and felt like a mix between historical fiction and fantasy. I’d love to know if you had a time period in mind for when it was set, and what kind of research you did to help you create the setting and characters?

Alysa: I think the best way to describe the time period of THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is quasi-medieval. I was inspired to create a pre-industrial world that might look like something we recognize from history, but that also allowed me the space to play and not to be burdened by the need to be accurate. What was important to me was that the world feel both somehow familiar and new to the reader.

As for research, I love nothing more than getting lost for hours and days chasing down details about how people lived, what foods they ate, how medicines were made, what garments they wore. And sensory details are so important to me as well. The pre-industrial world did not smell or sound the same as it does now. I love digging around for those facts. While I always want to understand the big picture of a time period, fundamentally it’s the details of daily life that fascinate me most.

Many of my characters could, I think, live in any time period. There are always those who will have isolationist tendencies, and the power hungry have existed since time immemorial. But in building Himself, I dug deep to really understand how despots can come to power, how they maintain their hold, and what are the conditions that can lead to their downfall.

Kathie: Was there ever a point when you thought about telling the story from the perspective of a different character, and what was it about Beau that drew you to his side of the story?

Alysa: This was always Beau’s story from the very beginning. I was really taken with the idea of turning the trope of “the chosen one” on its head. What happens when the chosen one doesn’t want to be chosen? And further, do the privileged have the right to spurn their privilege because they either don’t want it or think themselves unworthy of it?

But mostly I fell in love with this boy, who, even though he’s woefully ignorant about the realities of life around him and who has been raised with such cold-hearted judgement, never lost his gentle and open heart.

And yet, Cressi’s voice and POV are so vital to this story. In many ways she’s the true heroine here, the driving force for change in Beau, Nate, and the Land. I loved spending time in her POV chapters and travelling along with her as she comes into her own power. I suppose if I could have told this in two books Cressi would absolutely have gotten her own volume!

Kathie: I really loved the character development, and how each of the three main characters went through tremendous growth and coming into their own as individuals; it felt like all three of them had been gone from the Manor for much longer than a few days. Is it hard to keep the details straight when so much happens in a short amount of time? Do you have to plot it carefully to keep track?

Alysa: Absolutely! There are several plot lines that all eventually converge, but until they do, I had to balance who knows what when along with what the reader knows.

I know several writers who have wonderfully organized systems of charts and graphs to keep track of timelines. I don’t do so well with charts. My method is a bit messier and involves writing out the story of the story by hand, diving into character notes, and keeping a lot of it in my head.

Once great advantage of having two parallel POVs was that I could read all of Beau’s chapters as one story, then read Cressi’s to make sure neither one was getting ahead of the other.

And yes, you’re right an awful lot happens to these characters and the Land over the course of a few short days. But as I think we’ve all seen in the last year, change really can happen overnight.

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

Alysa: Oh gosh, where to start? I’ll begin by saying that writing this book was not a speedy process, it took many years to get this story right and working.

But specifically, getting to know Beau was a challenge. I had made several assumptions about him, who he was and how he’d respond to certain situations. Yet the deeper I went the more he surprised and delighted me with his compassion, honesty, and willingness to learn. I in turn had to learn to listen and learn from him.

Building in the backstory was also a challenge. I needed to fold in the history of the Land and several of the characters without it feeling heavy handed or too expository. In so many ways telling this story was like making a bed. You smooth the sheet in one section only to realize that you’ve created a few wrinkles further down. But I hope the history and backstory enriches the reader’s experience.

Kathie: Did you have a favorite section to write?

Alysa: It’s not so much a section as an element. There are a great many things and people who are not what/who they appear to be in this story. Holding back the truth and letting it drop out ever so slowly was a great challenge, but also fantastically fun.

Oh! And developing the game of Fist also presented me with an incredible challenge.

Kathie: What’s one thing you’d like our readers to know about The Verdigris Pawn?

Alysa: I know some folks have been uncertain about how to pronounce Verdigris. I’m happy to say that you have two options, both of which are correct. You can pronounce it either VER-duh-grees, or VER-duh-gris.

And for those readers who might not know, verdigris is the chemical reaction that occurs when bronze and copper are oxidized. The Statue of Liberty is an example most everyone can call to mind.

Much like copper and bronze Beau, Cressi, Nate and the Land all get tested and transformed into something new over the course of the novel.

Kathie: Are you working on another writing project at the moment, and do you like short bursts of time or long uninterrupted stretches in which to write?

Alysa: I am working on two other books actually, neither of which I can say much about yet though.

I tend to work in phases. There are times where I can sit and work for hours on end, when the words just flow, and I know where I’m going. Other times, I have to break my day up into chunks and leave myself time to think and not think. I call that thinkutating— a mix of thinking and contemplating – meaning leaving space for the answers to come when you’re not looking for them.

Since both of my kids are fairly grown now, I can work pretty much uninterrupted – although my dogs have very strong opinions about how often I need to get up and go for a walk with them.

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

Alysa: Readers can find me on twitter and Instagram talking about books and food, and they can visit me at www.alysawishingrad.com.

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN will be out July 13th – all the pre-order links are here on the HarperCollins page. And if anyone would like a signed pre-order and some pawn-ish swag (pawn-shaped stickers and bookmarks) they can order from either of my two of my favorite local Independent Booksellers:

Oblong Books, and Postmark Books

Kathie: Thank you so much for talking with me today, Alysa. I’m so happy to know your book will be out in the world for young readers to enjoy very soon.

Alysa: It’s been such a delight chatting with you, thank you so much for having me, Kathie. And thank you for all you and Middle Grade Book Village do for readers, writers and lovers of Middle Grade Literature!

Alysa Wishingrad once had a whole different career working in theater, film and TV, but nothing could be better than building worlds for middle grade readers. When she’s not writing, she’s probably out walking the dogs or getting back to seeing as much theater as she possibly can. Alysa lives in the Hudson Valley of NY with her family, three cats, and two demanding dogs.

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN, her debut novel will be out July 13 from HarperCollins. Visit her at www.alysawishingrad.com.

Book Review: PIZAZZ and PIZAZZ VS. THE NEW KID, by Sophy Henn

Everyone knows that kids love graphic novels. But for some young readers, there may be something even better: the so-called “hybrid” novel. “Hybrid” books can, and often do, contain anything and everything. Prose, spot illustrations, full page illustrations, comics strips and long-form comics — you name it. One of the things I love about books that use such a variety of forms is that each one is totally different. For young readers, that leads to a wildly exciting reading experience, as they really don’t know what to expect next, both in terms of the content of the story and the form in which it will be delivered.

Pizazz and Pizazz vs. The New Kid, both recently released from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin and both written and illustrated by Sophy Henn, are excellent additions to the hybrid Middle Grade space. The story is about and told by Pizazz, a reluctant superhero who comes from a large family of them. Why is Pizazz reluctant? There’s the embarrassing outfit, for one thing, plus the humiliatingly superhero she’s been saddled with (it’s not revealed until late in the first book, so I won’t spoil it for you here). Not to mention the fact that it seems every time Pizazz is hanging out with her friends, she has to dash off to somewhere or other and save the day. It all keeps Pizazz from leading a normal life — and that’s all she really wants.

Sophy Henn does a great job juggling the out-of-this-world excitement of Pizazz’s superheroics with more down-to-earth themes and conflicts — ones that every kid, whether or not they’ve got superpowers, will be able to relate to. Add in a boatload of humor and all the bold, exciting illustrated elements, and you’ve got yourself books that kids won’t be able to put down. But Pizazz and Pizazz vs. The New Kid (and no doubt the third book in the series, out September 7) are worth adding to your collection for other reasons, besides. With its mix of text and art, the books can serve as great “bridges” for a number of readers — including those who are beginning to read longer chapter books on their own (the Pizazz books are about 200 pages each) and those who prefer, or are more comfortable with, either full-text books or graphic novels and want to explore the other.

You can meet Sophy Henn and get a sneak peek of the first book in the series here:

For more information, head to the individual Pizazz book pages on Simon & Schuster’s site (here’s the one for Pizazz) or follow Sophy on social media (here’s her Twitter)!

. . .

Review by: Jarrett Lerner

Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerds, Revenge of the EngiNerds, The EngiNerds Strike Back, Geeger the Robot Goes to School, and Geeger the Robot: Lost and Found, as well as the author-illustrator of the activity books Give This Book a Title and Give This Book a Cover. Jarrett is also the author-illustrator of the forthcoming Hunger Heroes graphic novel series and the forthcoming illustrated novel in verse A Work in Progress (all published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He cofounded and helps run the MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instragram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his family in Medford, Massachusetts.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Jessica Speer

5 Questions with Author Jessica Speer About Her Middle-Grade Debut – BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships

Thank you so much for having me, Kathie, and for your unwavering support of debut authors! It’s such an honor to be part of Fast Forward Friday.

  1. What was the inspiration for BFF or NRF?

When my two daughters entered the preteen years, friendship struggles started to emerge. This reminded me of my experience as well as the stories of so many others. So I got curious.

I’ve got a background in social sciences and have always been fascinated with human relationships. I dove into books and research on the subject. I also started a friendship program for elementary school girls. This program and the stories of girls shaped this book from start to finish.

  1. Why are friendship and social struggles common in the preteen years, especially for girls?

When we explore everything going during this phase of life, it’s not surprising that social struggles happen. Girls’ confidence drops between the ages of 8-14. Some studies find that confidence dips as much as 30% in girls, leading to self-doubt, social anxiety, and risk avoidance.

At the same time, preteens are becoming more reliant on peers. Friendships begin to replace family as tweens’ primary source of identity and support. Preteens also start exploring their own identity. Who their friends are, what they wear, what activities they do.

All of this happens alongside the physiological changes of adolescence. So yeah, social changes and struggles are common in the preteen years! In my friendship programs, the notion that change and struggle are normal was a huge relief to girls. This is emphasized in the book too.

  1. The pandemic and social isolation added even more change to our social lives. Did this impact your writing or your book?

Yes, for sure. My book was initially scheduled for release in 2020. It was delayed due to the pandemic, which allowed me to edit it one more time. I’m grateful for these final edits because I was able to add additional content that I hope will support girls as they reenter their in-person social worlds.

Many girls are feeling isolated and unsure of where their friendships stand. I hope that BFF or NRF serves as a supportive guide as girls rebuild relationships.

  1. BFF or NRF has interactive components, like quizzes and fill-in-the-blanks. Why is that important?

It can be tough to navigate social issues the moment they happen. The book’s interactive nature gives readers a chance to reflect when they are not right in the moment. The activities help girls learn more about themselves as well as others. Something magic happens when we put words on paper or on screen. Quizzes and activities give girls a chance to think about who they are, how they want to behave, and how they might respond in challenging situations.

5. Can you tell us where to find out more about you and your writing, please?

Absolutely! For updates, you can find me on @jessica_speer_author on Instagram and @speerauthor on Twitter. For book-related news and articles on social-emotional topics, you can visit my website, www.JessicaSpeer.com.

Thank you so much, Kathie! I’m honored to be a part of MG Book Village and the Fast Forward Friday series. Your support for the book means the world!

Jessica Speer’s book, BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships grew out of her friendship program that strengthens social awareness and helps kids learn to navigate common struggles. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and explores social-emotional topics in ways that connect with pre-teens and teens.

Interview with Adam Perry about THE THIEVING COLLECTORS OF FINE CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Hey Adam! Thanks for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat more about your recent release, The Thieving Collectors of Fine Children’s Books!

Thanks for having me!

You’ve been here before to chat about the book, but just in case our readers missed that post (click HERE to check it out!), can you tell us a bit about the book?

Absolutely! The Thieving Collectors of Fine Children’s Books takes place about 40 years in the future and stars Oliver Nelson as a young bookworm who loves to spend time in his local library. But he has a secret—he steals books!

One book that he steals is a very rare and special, and sadly, when he discovers this fact and tries to return it, the book gets destroyed. When two rich inventors/book collectors come looking for it, they learn that now the last remaining copy exist inside Oliver’s mind! So they use some futuristic technology to try to steal it from his imagination, chapter by chapter, literally going inside the story.

But Oliver fights back, changing the plot of the book and introducing new and exciting elements characters. Even the narrator gets involved!

The narrative voice of the book is SO fun to read. It reminds me of some 19th century favorites, like Charles Dickens. Did you draw inspiration from other authors or any particular books when developing this style?

Absolutely, and in many ways, this book was me taking lots of inspiration from others and trying to teach myself how to write books. It was very much a learning experience in deconstructing books and learning to put them back together in a unique way.

I was working on this novel when my first novel was out on submission. Sadly, that book didn’t sell, but during the process, one of the suggestions my agent made for that book was to add a narrator that breaks the fourth wall and talks to the reader. I didn’t end up doing that because I couldn’t crack who that narrator would be and why they would be talking to the reader, but it provided the seed of the idea that would become the narrator character in this book. 

As a fun fact, the narrator is described as having a sort of a clipped, Transatlantic accent, and is very particular and easily annoyed. He’s prickly, but with a soft side underneath. He’s very much like me actually, but also, a lot of his character and voice was modeled after Niles from the TV show Frasier, so if you want to he “hear” him as I do, that’s what to imagine!

The Thieving Collectors of Fine Children’s Books joins a long tradition of books about books. Do you have any favorite books about books? Did any of them come into play while you were creating your own?

I love books about books, but it’s hard to pinpoint a single source of inspiration for this. I loved how much of a bookworm Matilda was. Phantom Tollbooth was a favorite. And there is a lot of inspiration from The Princess Bride (movie and book) in this. 

I can’t say I set out to write a book about books, though. The first draft of this was called THE IMAGINATION THIEF and featured a character who could go inside kid’s imaginations and steal the worlds they created. After the first draft of that, I realized there wasn’t much of a driving force through the story, so the book angle was added later to provide that motivation in the real and imagined worlds.

Your novel features some exceptional villains. Can you tell us a bit about them, and share any insight into just how you make a character so deliciously bad?

Villains are so fun to write in middle grade, because they often have so much ability for redemption. It’s hard for me to write a straight-up evil character, because if they are doing truly terrible things to kids, it quickly becomes a very different kind of book. Their evil has to be somewhat oblivious to the kid’s feelings or well being, or not take it into account.

In this book, the Pribbles are inspired directly by a quote from real-life book collector A.S.W. Rosenbach who was known by Sothebys as “The Terror of the Auction Room.” A famous quote of his is:

“Very young children eat their books, literally devouring their contents. This is one reason for the scarcity of first editions of Alice in Wonderland and other favorites of the nursery.”

This book as it is wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t heard this quote. The idea of book collectors who LOVE children’s books but have such a fiery disdain for children was too great to pass up, and that’s what made me decide to add the book angle to this story.

The villains don’t see themselves as bad characters, but collectors who want a book and will stop at nothing to get it. If you can make a villain like that, you can empathize with them even as you are rooting against them. So while they are doing something bad, they can also be funny, and their minds can be changed in the end.

What do you hope your readers — especially the young ones — take away from The Thieving Collectors of Fine Children’s Books?

Not to give any spoilers, but the Pribbles can’t steal the story from Oliver. Not really, anyway, because the story he’s imagined is different than how anyone else imagined. When a book is released, the author disappears, and now it’s the reader who appears, shaping the words with their own imagination. To read is to create.

Many of our site’s readers are elementary school librarians, and I know you grew up with one of those in your family! Would you care to share about how that influenced you as a story-lover and storyteller?

Yes! Growing up, my mom was an elementary librarian, and I spent every afternoon tucked into the reading loft, going through stacks and stacks of books. In many ways, I wrote this book as a love letter to libraries and children’s books, and tried to mash everything I would have wanted into one story.

We always had books in my house growing up, always were read to, and she was always introducing me to new books. Now, I get to send her middle grade books to read from my growing collection, so it’s come full circle.

One of my earliest memories was meeting Tomie DePaola when I was four years old at the school where she taught. I think that is what made me want to write children’s books.

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This book is dedicated to my mom, so she’s just been a huge influence.

Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?

You can learn more at:

adamperrybooks.com
https://www.facebook.com/adamperrybooks
https://twitter.com/misterperry

And to any librarians or teachers, I love doing in person or virtual visits, so please reach out!

Adam Perry is the author of The Magicians of Elephant County and The Thieving Collectors of Fine Children’s Books. The son of an elementary school librarian, he discovered a love of stories at an early age. He lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with his wife, children, and a growing collection of children’s books. To the best of his knowledge, none of them are stolen. Find out more at adamperrybooks.com.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Payal Doshi

Welcome to Fast Forward Friday, Payal! I’m so happy to have a chance to talk with you about REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR, which will be published by Mango and Marigold Press in May 2021. Can you please give us a synopsis of your story?

Hi Kathie! Thank you so much for having me! REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR is the story about Rea Chettri, an introverted but curious girl from Darjeeling, India, whose life gets turned on its head on the night of her twelfth birthday. After a fight with her twin brother Rohan, Rea discovers that he has gone missing. Her Amma is distraught and blames Rea for his disappearance. So, she takes matters into her own hands. Ordinarily, Rea prefers her own company (often feeling misunderstood by others) but this time she asks her neighbor Leela for help. Together, they visit the village fortune-teller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling quest to find Rohan. In the shade of night, they portal into an otherworldly realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy. There, Rea and Leela meet Xeranther, an Astranthian barrow boy, and Flula, a pari, and with their help Rea must battle evil creatures, confront a ruthless villain, and find out why Rohan has been captured.

The heart of this adventure story though lies in Rea’s relationships with the people in her life. Her Baba died when she was a baby and even though she can’t remember his face, she misses him dearly. But when she asks to know more about him her Amma and Bajai, her grandmother, evade the topic. Her brother who she was once inseparable from is now the popular kid in school and spends most of his time with his friends. Rea, on the other hand, has always struggled socially, but in her mission to find Rohan she must learn to trust others, find the courage within her, and understand the meaning of friendship and loyalty. Adding to all that, she discovers dark truths about her past that have been hidden from her. Grappling with betrayal and failing courage, Rea has to find a way to rescue Rohan and save the realm of Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking! 

I absolutely loved this story and how vividly you described the characters and setting. What was the inspiration for it?

Thank you so much! I love reading books in which the setting feels like a character in itself and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to portray a region of India that was beautiful and underrated with respect to its landscape and people. The city of Darjeeling is a stunning hill station in the northeast part of the country ensconced within hills, the view of the majestic Himalayas and rolling tea plantations. That beauty and uniqueness made for instant inspiration when I had to describe the landscape!

With respect to the main characters—Rea, Leela, and Rohan—I wanted them to have well-rounded personalities with each of them having their own strengths and insecurities. Rea is a flawed but fierce girl who is on the hunt for answers to questions that plague her. Leela is a ray of sunshine, but she too has her own fears. Rohan is extroverted and the popular kid in school, but he comes to learn how that affects his sister.

It is important to me to make sure that South Asian kids see themselves as main characters in a book and know that they are worthy of going on exciting adventures and being heroes. Similarly, I want kids from other cultures and countries to relate with my characters and see that despite their different backgrounds, they share the same hopes, dreams, and fears.

Which character would you have wanted as a friend when you were a middle grader?

Hands down, Leela! When I first wrote Leela as a character, she started out as being Rea’s sidekick, but then she evolved into this wonderful, optimistic, make-lemons-out-of-lemonade type of character who had this adorable lovability about her! When readers read the book, they’ll see that she, too, has her own insecurities and fears, and yet she chooses to look beyond them when it comes to helping others and being there for them. I imagine having someone like Leela by your side would immediately lighten your burdens, shine light into a room, be your rock-solid support, and always be there for a laugh. So, yes, Leela all the way!

I know that representation is really important to you and having a story with Indian characters and culture is something that drove you to write this book. What do you hope young readers will take away from your story?

Diverse representation, especially South Asian representation, is incredibly important to me and it has been my mission and passion in writing this book. What I most hope for is that young readers from all backgrounds see my book as an exciting fantasy story (not one only meant for South Asian kids) filled with characters that can relate to and hopefully love reading about. I also hope that South Asian kids feel seen when they read this story, know that their stories deserve to be celebrated, and feel joy and pride for their culture.

Do you have the story planned out before you sit down to write it, or does it develop as you go? What does an average writing session look like for you?

I’m the type of writer who plans a story well before I begin writing. I’d say I’m 80% plotter and 20% panster! The first thing I’ll do before I begin my first draft is jot down a bulleted summary of the plot to see how the story unravels. I then enter into research mode which sends me down multiple rabbit holes, but I usually come out of them with twists and details that I couldn’t have concocted myself! By this time, I have a fairly good sense of the plot and the main checkpoints of the novel. It’s when I start writing, however, that I pants my way from one checkpoint to another, having my characters leading me down paths I didn’t think they would take, as cliched as that might sound! Add into that mix my precocious two-and-a-half-year-old, and I’m lucky if I get three hours in a day to write! When I do, a good writing session for me is about 1500 words.

I absolutely love the cover of your book; there are many important elements of the story incorporated into it. Can you tell us about the illustrator, and what you thought when you first saw it? 

Thank you! I love the cover as well! The wildly talented Beverly Johnson is our illustrator. I was lucky to work with her very closely and it was an absolute joy. When I first saw the final cover, I was blown away. I wanted Rea to look fierce but also fearful because that is the journey she goes through in the book. Beverly did such a great job in capturing that emotion and seeing an Indian girl on the cover with magic burning on her palms knowing she is about to embark on an incredible adventure was simply incredible. I was moved to tears. I also love that Beverly included little easter eggs like the castle, the banyan, and the fae-golis, which readers will recognise once they’ve read the story. I’ve had people tell me that every time they’ve seen the cover, they’ve discovered a new detail, which is really cool!

What have you enjoyed most about preparing to launch your book into the world?

I’ve most enjoyed getting to know wonderful gatekeepers of middle grade literature such as yourself as well as other librarians, bloggers, reviewers, and readers. I still find it surreal to think that people I don’t know want to read my book! Whenever I get a review or get tagged on an ‘anticipated release list’ or see someone say that they’ve put my book on their TBR list – it’s just incredible. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention #the21ders, a group of MG and YA authors who are debuting in 2021. They’ve become a second family to me. Writing can be such a solitary activity, but I’m so grateful that in preparing for my launch I found my people, my community. Their support and celebration for all our books has been priceless.

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

Readers will be surprised to learn that my first draft which I wrote nearly ten years ago, all 70,000 words of it, was written with white characters who lived in the English countryside! It was only when my writing teacher pointed out my lack of Indian characters did I realize how much the books I had read (and loved) growing up had subconsciously trained my mind into thinking those were the only types of stories people wanted to read. I wouldn’t change the books I read as a kid, but I sure would have loved to read books with characters that looked like me! This is why diverse representation is important because underrepresented kids should also see themselves in books, see themselves as complex characters, and should grow up knowing that their stories are equally important and wonderful.

When can we expect to see the next book in The Chronicles of Astranthia series, and is there anything you can tell us about it?

Yes, I can! The sequel is planned for a Fall 2022 release! I can tell you that there is a new character with many shades of grey, who I hope readers will enjoy reading about and…drumroll… the title of the book is REA AND THE SORCERER OF SHADOWS!

Can you tell us where to find out more about you and your writing, please?

Absolutely! For the most current updates you can find me on @payaldoshiauthor on Instagram and @payaldwrites on Twitter. For book related news, you can visit my website www.payaldoshiauthor.com

All the best to you, Payal, with the launch of your debut, and I so look forward to reading future books in the series.

Thank you so much, Kathie! I’m honored to be a part of MG Book Village and the Fast Forward Friday series. Your support for the book means the world!

Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) from The New School, New York. Having lived in the UK and US, she noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become her first children’s novel. She was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and three-year-old daughter. When she isn’t writing or spending time with her family, you can find her nose deep in a book with a cup of coffee or daydreaming of fantasy realms to send her characters off into. She loves the smell of old, yellowed books. Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, the first book in The Chronicles of Astranthia series is her debut middle grade novel. For more information, visit her website, www.payaldoshiauthor.com, or follow her on Instagram @payaldoshiauthor and on Twitter @payaldwrites.

Interview with Alyson Gerber about TAKING UP SPACE

Kathie: Hi Alyson, and thank you so much for sitting down with me today to talk about your upcoming book, TAKING UP SPACE, which comes out May 18th with Scholastic. I just finished it last night, and couldn’t wait to talk to you about it. I would love to see it in the hands of as many readers as possible because it touches on topics I haven’t seen in middle grade fiction that are impactful, illuminating, important for us to be discussing. Can we start with you giving us a brief summary of the story?

Alyson: Thank you for having me. TAKING UP SPACE is the story of a seventh grade basketball player who is struggling to feel good about her body and herself. This book is based on my experience overcoming struggles with body image, food, and self worth. At 11, I found myself stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk, restricting food, binging, and compulsive dieting that didn’t stop until I got help as an adult. What I went through with disordered eating is actually very common. More than half of eight-year-olds want to be thinner, and they feel better about themselves when they’re on a diet. A 2008 survey suggests that 75% of women struggle with disordered eating. And we know that the statistics for men with disordered eating are underreported. 

TAKING UP SPACE is a chance for kids and adults to have an honest conversation about how diet culture–a society that prioritizes weight, size, and shape over actual health and well-being–has been passed down for generations. TAKING UP SPACE is here to start this conversation in a way that is comfortable for teachers, librarians, and parents. This book doesn’t require adults to be experts. It’s okay if you’re struggling to feel good about your relationship with food and with your body, and it’s also okay if you don’t understand why this issue is such a big deal. There is space for everyone to enter this story and feel seen and heard and valid.

Kathie: Your stories are all based on your personal experiences, but there’s an emotional element to this one that’s unique; what made this the right time for you to write it?

Alyson: Thank you so much for saying that. This book came from a very different place than my other books. I wrote a lot of this story while I was fighting to recover. I really let myself be vulnerable and uncomfortable and ashamed on the page. I think I knew deep down that I had an opportunity to tell a story in a way that might really change things for a lot of people if I was willing to dig deep enough. I’m so proud of how this book came out, and I’m excited for this story to be out in the world helping kids and adults navigate this very challenging topic.

Kathie: I really love your writing voice, and that Sarah’s words and tone are spot-on for middle grade. You so clearly show how her thoughts about her body and food got confused when she processed the rules and information others shared with her. What do you hope a young reader will learn from Sarah’s story?

Alyson: I work really hard to make sure my books are authentic. I was very skeptical of adults as a kid. I rolled my eyes a lot. So I try to think of myself at that age when I’m revising.

I’m so glad Sarah’s internal experience resonated with you. This was a piece of the story I worked on and thought about a lot. I knew I had to get it right in order for this book to work in the way I wanted it to. I really want young readers to come away from this story knowing that it’s okay to be confused. I want them to question and think critically about the information they’re getting. And I want them to consider that sometimes well-meaning adults can be wrong. TAKING UP SPACE gives kids the tools to recognize when this is happening and will help them to see that if they are in that situation, they have options. Ultimately, I want my readers to know that their pain matters and that everyone deserves to get the help they need.

I think this is also the tendency with disordered eating, because it isn’t a medical diagnosis to resist help, since these struggles have been normalized. But disordered eating can lead to an eating disorder. And early intervention is critical to eating disorder recovery.

Kathie: My daughter was involved in the dance world, which is filled with teens with food/body issues, and yet I never knew about changes related to puberty that can affect coordination and agility at this time. How do we better educate people of all ages about what to expect at this age?

Alyson: Thank you for pointing this out. I actually wrote Sarah as a basketball player for this exact reason. We typically think of struggles with body image and food in sports that emphasize appearance, size, or weight as well as endurance sports, but athletes who play team sports are impacted too. It’s so important to take a step back and consider that puberty actually changes everything. Hormones affect changes in the body and the brain in all different ways. Kids are unsteady and uncomfortable within themselves. And on top of that everyone who matters to them is also changing. I think reading TAKING UP SPACE is a great way to remember how overwhelming this time can be and help readers build empathy for themselves and others.

Kathie: How do you delve into difficult subject matter and step away from it after a writing session?

Alyson: I’m not sure I have this down just yet. I get better with each book, but it’s very hard for me to compartmentalize my writing life. I don’t know that I’ll ever be great at stepping away, and I think I’m okay with that.

Kathie: What’s one thing you discovered while writing this book that you didn’t know before?

Alyson: I learned a lot from writing this book. One thing that really surprised me was the history of diet culture. I had no idea that food restriction and giving food a moral value dated back to the early 1800s and could be connected to the temperance movement.

Kathie: Is basketball a sport that you enjoyed growing up, or what other sort of activities did you enjoy as in middle school?

Alyson: I actually never played basketball, but I always loved watching. I did play soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey, so I had experience being part of a team. I also danced pretty seriously, performing in Jose Mateo’s Ballet Theater of Boston, until I got my back brace. And I was really involved in theater. I loved acting and being part of a cast. Studying theater in college and participating in that type of storytelling had a big impact on my writing.

Kathie: Do you have another writing project on which you’re currently working, and where can our readers go to find out more about you?

Alyson: I do! But it’s top secret so stay tuned! 

Follow me on Instagram and Twitter @alysongerber and on Facebook @AlysonGerberBooks, and visit AlysonGerber.com.

Kathie: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today, Alyson, thank you! I wish you all the best with your book’s release, and I can’t wait to get it into the hands of young readers.

Alyson: Thank you so much!

Alyson Gerber is the author of the critically-acclaimed, own-voices novels Braced and Focused published by Scholastic. Her third novel Taking Up Space will be in stores on May 18, 2021. She has an MFA from The New School in Writing for Children and lives in New York City with her family. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @AlysonGerber.

BracedFocused, and Taking Up Space are all Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections. Braced received three starred reviews and has been nominated for state book awards in Oklahoma, Indiana, New Hampshire, Virginia, South Dakota, and Georgia. Focused was picked as a best book of year by The Today Show, Kirkus Reviews, and A Mighty Girl and has been nominated for state book awards in Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Alyson’s latest novel, Taking Up Space, based on her experience with disordered eating, will be published on May 18, 2021. Taking Up Space will help readers recognize how much they matter and see that if something negative is taking up space in their minds, even if there isn’t a name for it, they should ask for help. 

Interview with Ali Standish about THE MENDING SUMMER

Kathie: Hi Ali, and thank you so much for taking some time to talk with me today about your upcoming novel, THE MENDING SUMMER (releases May 25th with HarperCollins). Can you give our readers a summary of it, please?

Ali: Of course! Thank you very much for having me. The Mending Summer is about twelve-year-old Georgia Collins, who is having a really rough summer. She longs to be at Camp Pine Valley, where she usually spends summers, but money is tight while her mother is going back to school to earn her college degree. And home is no longer the happy place it once was, because Georgia’s beloved father is struggling with alcoholism, which has changed him beyond recognition.

So Georgia is nervous but also a bit relieved when she is sent to stay with a distant relative, her great aunt Marigold, in her old, rambling house in the country. As Georgia slowly gets used to life with her prickly aunt, she finds a new friend out in the woods, and the two are enthralled to discover a magical lake that seems to have the power to grant wishes. At first, Georgia hopes she can use this magic to help heal her family, but she comes to learn that the magic has limits and rules. Not only that, but it has a dark side, too. When things with her father take a turn for the worse, a new boy appears at the lake, and the magic begins to spin out of control. Georgia must find a way to heal her broken heart, or let the magic sweep her away, leaving her forever changed.

Kathie: This story is a blend of realistic fiction with a magical island. Can you tell us why you chose to tell the story this way?

Ali: I always try to balance weighty, important themes with mystery and adventure in my books. I don’t want the “issue” of the book to edge out the sense of wonder that all children have about the world. Wounded hearts can feel joy, too, as Georgia does when she first experiences the lake’s magic. So that was part of it.

I also wanted to play with the idea of wish fulfillment fantasies. We are all familiar with them, and it can be tempting to lose ourselves in wishing we could control things we ultimately can’t. Someone else’s addiction is one of those things. So at some point, we have to nudge ourselves on past wishing we could fix the addiction (or blaming ourselves for not being able to) and start to concentrate on what we can do. Which is be kind to ourselves, build a support system, and restructure our identity so that it doesn’t revolve around the addicted person. In that way, we protect our heart without hardening it. The idea of a magical lake and island is so tempting to Georgia (and exciting for the reader!), but ultimately it becomes a trap that she must find the strength to free herself from so she can move on.

Kathie: There are some meaningful relationships in your book, but one of the most significant is Georgia’s relationship with her dad who becomes The Shadow Man to her when he’s drinking. I love how she created two people to deal with her conflicting feelings about him. Did you find this common in young people who have a parent dealing with an addiction in your research?

Ali: I did find this to be a common motif in accounts by children of alcoholics, and it’s a dynamic that I recognize from my own experience, too. The idea that my father was a completely different person when he drank was one that actually really helped me to process my sense of loss, anger, and betrayal. Georgia comes to this idea at a much younger age than I did, but it’s not until the end of the book that she recognizes that, in separating Daddy from the Shadow Man, she is able to reclaim Daddy from his alter-ego and preserve in her heart the father she knows and loves.

Kathie: I’m a fan of quiet yet supportive adult characters like Hank. From which character did you feel you learned the most?

Ali: Me too! I find that I can’t write a story without a crotchety, elderly character who has some wise words to share with my protagonist. Maybe this has something to do with how much I cherish the memory of my grandparents. But Aunt Marigold really stands out to me among the characters I’ve created. I absolutely loved writing her and getting to peel back her story layer by layer. Often, I have characters’ backstories all laid out by the time I write a book, but hers kept changing and morphing as I got to know her. She is a woman of great strength and profound regret, with kindness hiding behind the façade she has hardened against the world. I wish I had known someone like her when I was Georgia’s age. I learned so much from writing her, and I can’t imagine how much I would have learned from knowing her!

Kathie: What’s one takeaway you hope young readers have from this story?

Ali: Hope is at the heart of all my stories, and it is always the paramount thing I want readers to take away. But with this book in particular, I also want readers whose families are impacted by addiction to feel less alone. I remember feeling isolated and ashamed, and like I was navigating a maze by myself—one that I wasn’t at all sure even had an exit. I want kids to know that there is joy and healing and happiness waiting for them, if they give themselves permission to care for their own hearts.

Kathie: If you could make one wish on the island, what would it be?

Ali: Well, as I mentioned, the lake’s magic is limited in some important ways, so I couldn’t ask for world peace or anything noble like that! But I would love to go back and relive some old memories, to see the faces of my grandparents again. To crawl into their laps to have them read me a story. That would be really, really wonderful.

Kathie: Do you have another project on which you’re working right now?

Ali: Always! I’m working on another middle grade book, which will be out next year, entitled YONDER. It’s about a boy named Danny who is growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains during World War II. When his best friend, Jack, goes missing, Danny is determined to find out what happened to him. His only clue is a single word carved in a tree: Yonder. It’s the name of a magical town Jack once spoke of—a town of unimaginable beauty where flocks of rainbow birds cover the sky, and where no one ever quarrels. But in trying to solve this mystery, Danny finds himself with new questions to answer. Questions about courage and war, about injustice abroad and in his own mountain town, and about his place in all of it. It’s a book I have been working on for many years in one way or another, really the book of my heart. I can’t wait for it to be out in the world.

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

Ali: You can visit me at www.alistandish.com or find me on twitter at @alistandish.

Kathie: Thanks so much for answering my questions today, Ali, and I wish you all the best with the book’s release.

Ali: Thank YOU, Kathie!

Ali Standish grew up in North Carolina and graduated from Pomona College before spending several years as an educator in the Washington, D.C. public school system. She has an MFA in children’s writing from Hollins University and an MPhil in Children’s Literature from the University of Cambridge. She lives with her Finnish husband, son, and rescue dogs in a state of perpetual chaos in Raleigh, NC.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Jake Maia Arlow

Kathie: Hi Jake, and welcome to Fast Forward Friday! I had the pleasure of reading an eARC of your upcoming book, ALMOST FLYING, which comes out on June 8th with Dial Books. It’s such a great story, and I hope everyone has it on their TBR list. Can you tell us a bit about it in your own words?

Jake: SO happy to be here, Kathie! ALMOST FLYING is a queer middle-grade novel that centers around an amusement park road trip. It features a first crush, a prickly stepsister, and TONS of roller coasters! 

Kathie: I love stories where the main character has an “awakening” about some aspect of themselves, and Dalia goes through her own roller coaster ride of emotions during one week without it feeling rushed. Did the pacing come naturally, or was it challenging to include so many thoughts and feelings in a short time frame?

Jake: It was definitely a challenge! The first draft of the book was much more meandering, but I think that was because I really wanted to get all of Dalia’s thoughts and feelings out onto the page. This was my first time going through the editing process with a book–from self-editing all the way to the official copy-edits, and it was an incredible experience. I love being able to mold something that came out of my brain so raw and unfiltered into something intelligible that will hopefully resonate with my tween (and not-so-tween) reader.

Kathie: This story has a number of important relationships, and I loved how they connect and influence each other. I especially liked how the age difference between Dalia, and Alexa and her friends, added a mature support network and relationship modeling for Dalia. Which relationship was the most fun for you to write, and which character would you most like to be friends with?

Jake: Thank you for saying that! It was really important for me to model positive queer relationships in older teens for the younger main characters, whether those be romantic or platonic. One of my favorite relationships to write was the one between Alexa and Dhruv, since they have such a lovely queer friendship that they both feel is almost familial. And I’d most like to be friends with Dhruv, for sure. 

Kathie: What would you like young readers to know about this story, and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?

Jake: I’d love for young readers to know, first of all, that they can find all the roller coasters in the story as POV videos on YouTube. I know this seems like a small, silly thing, but watching those videos as a kid (and an adult) allowed me to escape and dream and relax. And I hope that they’ll come away knowing that they deserve to be loved as they are, however they are, and that there are always people who will care about them, even if those people aren’t biologically related to them. 

Kathie: I had no idea there were so many different types of roller coasters! Are you a fan of them, and if so, what style do you like the best?

Jake: I know, it’s shocking how many there are! I’m a fan of all types of roller coasters, but I never knew the official names for the different kinds before I was doing research and digging into Dalia’s voice. My favorite type of roller coaster is definitely a wooden roller coaster, even though they give you major whiplash! 

Kathie: What’s one thing you learned about yourself or your writing while publishing this book?

Jake: First of all, that I have no idea where to place commas (this past sentence was no exception)! But jokes aside, I learned that my writing voice isn’t something to be ashamed of. I’ve always been told that I “write like I speak”–which is true, and I love that about my writing. I think it makes it more accessible, fun, and unique than it otherwise might be. 

Kathie: Can you tell us where readers can go to find out more about you and your writing?

Jake: Yes! You can go to my website, jakewhosagirl.com, or you can go to my Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, which are all @jakewhosagirl! 

Kathie: I really appreciate you taking some time to talk with me today, Jake, and I wish you all the best with your book’s release.

Jake: Thank you so much, Kathie! I’m so grateful for all of your work in the middle grade space.


Jake Maia Arlow is a podcast producer, writer, and bagel connoisseur. She studied evolutionary biology and creative writing (not as different as you might think) at Barnard College. She has lived in various places, but can always be found with an iced coffee. You can find her on all social media platforms @jakewhosagirl, or at her website, jakewhosagirl.com.

FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Shakirah Bourne

Kathie: Welcome to Fast Forward Friday, Shakirah. It’s a pleasure to have a chance to talk with you today. Your debut book, JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA will be published on July 6th with Scholastic. Can you tell our readers what it’s about, please?

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

JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA is a contemporary fantasy about 11 year-old cricketer Josephine, who is very overprotective of her Dad, and sets booby traps for his dates to scare them away. She knows she can distract her Dad from dating by getting on her school’s cricket team but the Coach says only boys are allowed to play. But then her Dad brings home a new catch – Mariss, and unlike the others, she does not not scare easily. Josephine discovers that Mariss is not what she seems, and has to convince everyone of her true nature before it’s too late. It’s a Barbadian with a sweet single father-daughter relationship, addresses issues like overcoming grief and is full of Caribbean folklore.

Kathie: This is a story I would highly recommend for fans of The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, and I know she wrote a blurb for your book. Can you tell us more about the inspiration for it?

Shakirah: Sure! There were several story seeds that inspired the growth of this tale, but the first sprout occurred in English class in secondary school (high school) when we read a Caribbean short story about a fisherman who became obsessed with a mermaid. She would sit on a rock by the river, combing her hair and singing. Though villagers warned him to stay away, he’d visit her everyday and soon she took over his dreams; he stopped eating, providing for his family, and one day, the villagers found his clothes on the riverbank and he was never seen again. I wondered, who was that mermaid? What happened to that fisherman? That story haunted me since I was 12 years old so when I decided I wanted to write a folklore story, JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA became my answer to those questions.

Kathie: Did you enjoy reading or listening to myths and fairytales as a child, and did you have a favorite one?

Shakirah: I have always been infatuated with myths and fairytales about princesses, vampires, mermaids and other sea creatures, Anansi the Spider, Greek mythology, you name it, so it would be torturous to try to pick a favorite one. But one local folklore character that is very well-known is the Heartman, a cloaked figure that patrols the streets at night in a hearse, looking for naughty children who are outside after dark. He rips the hearts from their chests and offers those organs to the devil. In other tales, he steals the hearts because he has none of his own. Of course this was a story used to scare children so that they would get home early, but in my research I discovered that the legend was based off of a real serial killer!

Kathie: Josephine and her dad both come to terms with the loss of her mom in this story, and Josephine also comes to accept that her dad might need more than watching cricket with her in his life. What’s one important thing you hope readers will discover while reading this book?

Shakirah: Josephine and her Dad have a special bond, and he does his best as a single Dad to raise her and fulfil her needs, but in his inability to talk about her Mum, and also deal with his own grief, Josephine is left to make incorrect assumptions in an attempt to protect his heart. I hope readers will understand the importance of communicating feelings, because confronting and sharing emotions is the first step to healing.  

Kathie: Josephine desperately loves cricket and wants to play on the team but has several obstacles to overcome. Did you enjoy cricket growing up, and if so, what position did you (or would you want to) play? What words of encouragement would you give to a young girl in Josephine’s position?

Shakirah: I made the assumption that because I loved watching cricket, I naturally would be skilled at playing the game. I had imagined myself to be an amazing bowler, but I discovered how wrong I was when I tried out for a girl’s cricket team at college, ran to catch the ball and it felt like a rock had shattered my knuckles. Those balls are HARD! Through Josephine, I’m glad that I can still contribute to the game in a safe, pain-free way.

Josephine goes to extreme lengths to prove her bowling skills. Sometimes, people who are supposed to be your role models aren’t very supportive, and I would encourage young girls to find creative ways to overcome challenges, continue to develop their skills and never give up on a dream.  

Kathie: Although Barbados is home to you, many young readers may not be familiar with it. What would you like young readers to know about it?

Shakirah: This is such a great question. Firstly, I’d love people to understand that the Caribbean is made up of several different countries, and all of us are not from Jamaica or the Bahamas. 🙂 Barbados is tiny–it’s only 179 square miles, which is just over half the size of New York! Without traffic, you can drive from the top to the bottom of the island in less than an hour. Though Barbados is small, we’ve made a big impact on the world. Fun fact: Barbados is the birthplace of the grapefruit. It was actually an accident–a cross pollination between the orange and the shaddock, but I’m sure the world is grateful for this delicious fruit.

We’re more than white sand and beaches, or a stop on a cruise ship; it’s an island that is rich in culture and history. For instance, Barbados was the only country George Washington visited outside North America!

Kathie: How has the pandemic affected your writing routine, and are you currently working on another book?

Shakirah: The pandemic has definitely made it more difficult to write, because my brain is constantly in alarm mode. I have to keep up with continuously shifting COVID protocols, and still be productive and meet deadlines.  I’m currently working on a middle grade horror called Duppy Island, about a young filmmaker who follows her family to a silent retreat, and discovers that the island is haunted by douens (children who died before they were baptised). Duppy Island is surrounded by a thick fog, and always looks gray and overcast, and ironically, Barbados recently experienced some ash fall from La Soufriere volcano eruption in St Vincent, which made the atmosphere similar to that on Duppy Island! It’s definitely more challenging to focus on writing when mother nature seems to be at war with the world.

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

Shakirah: You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @shakirahwrites, where I cheer on fellow authors, post about publishing and writing, art and random things that make me laugh. You can also visit my website at shakirahbourne.com

Kathie: I wish you every success with your book’s release, Shakirah, thanks for chatting with me today.

Shakirah: Thank you so much Kathie. I really appreciate the support that you’ve given to authors on your wonderful platform.

Shakirah Bourne is Bajan author and filmmaker. She once shot a movie scene in a cave with bats during an earthquake, but is too scared to watch horror movies. She enjoys exploring old graveyards, daydreaming and eating mangoes. She currently resides in Barbados in the Caribbean, and spends most of her time staring out at the sea thinking about new stories to tell. Her debut middle grade contemporary fantasy, JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA, will be published by Scholastic in July 2021.

20 Questions with Author Sam Subity and His Middle Grade Debut The Last Shadow Warrior

Publishing a book comes along with a whirlwind of interviews and blog posts, so I thought I would compile an easy-to-read, condensed version as sort of a lightning round of FAQs. 

20 questions. Short answers. Let’s get started! 

What was the inspiration for The Last Shadow Warrior?

This is a question that I think can be answered in lots of different ways, which is good because it’s also naturally the most frequent question that authors are asked. But at its core, I’d have to say my main inspiration was the story of Beowulf. I first read it a long time ago, but when I picked up a copy of The Lightning Thief much more recently, the gears really started turning in my brain and eventually became my pitch for the book: Percy Jackson meets Beowulf. 

Do you need to have read Beowulf to follow your story?

Nope. I mean, those familiar with the story will likely have some moments like, “Oh, I see what he did there,” but no knowledge of the original story is necessary.

How did you choose the book’s setting?

Minnesota has the largest concentration of people of Scandinavian descent in the U.S. (nearly ⅓!), so it felt like a natural setting for a story packed with Vikings and Norse mythology. And the mysterious private school that Abby attends there has the name “Vale Hall” as a nod to Norse mythology. 

And your main character Abby Beckett is one of those Vikings, right?

Yes, she’s descended from a line of Viking warriors known as the Aesir who are a sort of ancient secret society charged with protecting humanity against these monsters called Grendels. Except she hasn’t figured out yet what her special abilities are, or even if she’s got any at all. 

That word “Aesir” comes up a lot in the book. How do you pronounce it exactly?

I’ve heard it different ways, but I like Neil Gaiman’s pronunciation that basically sounds like a combination of the words ACE + EAR. My website SamSubity.com actually has a pronunciation guide for this and other Norse words that kids might not be familiar with. Another they’ll see a lot is “knattleikr” (kin-attle-eye-kur) which is a sport that Abby plays.

And knattleikr is a real sport, right?

Totally. The Vikings used to play it over a thousand years ago and there are a few enthusiast clubs still today that attempt to recreate the game, but we don’t really have any historical descriptions of how it was played or the equipment used. So, like me, they made up their own rules.

It sounds like you included a lot of real history in the book. Are there any other examples?

Absolutely! I compiled a “Fact vs Fiction” guide for teachers on my website to help kids identify the historical stuff in the story. In fact, one of my characters, Grimsby, is named after a small town in England that was settled by Vikings. 

That reminds me: You’ve mentioned that you like to include easter eggs throughout your stories. Is there a favorite that you can share?

I do think it’s fun to include little things that maybe just your family and friends will get. About halfway through TLSW, Abby visits Vale’s library which is named “F.J. Feola Library” after a great friend of mine who passed away from cancer several years ago. He always wanted to write his own book, so I thought putting him in one was the next best thing. 

You also mention a lot of other books and authors in your story from Shakespeare to Dr. Seuss. Were you always a big reader?

Definitely. I read anything and everything when I was growing up. In third grade, I read around 100 books in a month and won the grand prize for my class which was to meet McGruff the Crime Dog. 

McGruff the…Crime Dog?

He took a bite out of crime. It was mostly an 80’s thing. 

Anyway, I imagine you probably wrote a lot too?

I did write a lot of short stories and fan fiction of my favorites like The Hobbit. But the authors I read as a kid from Tolkien to Beverly Cleary seemed like almost mythical figures, so I didn’t imagine I could actually ever be one. Then as I got older, my creative outlet took a detour into inventing toys and games before I started writing seriously again around five years ago. 

Inventing toys and games sounds like fun. Can you share any that you’ve created?

It was a ton of fun, but I could rattle on about it for hours, and this is supposed to be a quick FAQs, so…back to books? 

Sure, okay, what has been your favorite part of being a debut author so far?

Definitely connecting with kids. I love to see them inspired to read and even write their own stories after encountering mine. After one virtual class visit, one of the girls wrote me afterward to say that she had a question but was too shy to ask in class. That would have totally been me at that age. So for those shy, quiet kids, I want to encourage them to find their means of self-expression, whether it’s writing, art, or something else entirely.

Is that why writing for kids appeals to you?

For sure. And I love the hope that’s inherent in the stories. Also the fun. I mean, in what other category can you put a Ping-Pong playing sea monster in a book and your readers don’t even blink? 

And you’ve probably had some odd questions from kids, right?

Yeah, you really have to be ready for anything when you’re talking with kids. One wanted to know what I had for lunch. That led to a discussion on the merits of carnitas vs. carne asada tacos. It was random but really fun! 

So what did you have for lunch?

Leftover lasagna, which happens to be my favorite food. Not the leftover version specifically. Like, well, you get what I mean. 

I guess even authors have trouble with words sometimes. But speaking of food, you do have a lot of it in the book…

Maybe I was hungry from all those long writing sprints. But I think kids like to read about food too. So I have some authentic Scandinavian dishes like lutefisk (think fish Jell-O) and aebleskivers (powdered, jam-filled doughnut holes) as well as a Viking Slurpee machine nicknamed Slurpus Maximus that offers some, well, unique flavors. 

What do you hope kids get out of The Last Shadow Warrior?

Hopefully they find it to be a fun ride, and at a deeper level, one of the central themes is around Abby feeling like she’s constantly trying and failing to live up to everyone’s expectations, including her own. But by the end she learns that there are lots of different ways to define a hero, and I hope her story helps kids find the hero in themselves too. 

Do you only write middle grade?

The first kids’ book manuscripts I wrote were actually picture books and chapter books. My first one came from an incident where my toddler sneezed in my face when I was taking his picture. People ask me sometimes where my ideas come from, and in that case the idea literally hit me in the face. I still have the picture of him in mid-sneeze, and the manuscript which I titled “How Do You Achoo?” So maybe I’ll see my name on a picture book eventually too. But…most likely not that one. 

What’s been your least favorite part of being a debut author?

Honestly, all the self-promotion. I’d much rather talk about all the other wonderful books from my debut author group The 21ders than my own. But I so appreciate all the people who are still reading this interview at this point and who already have or plan to read The Last Shadow Warrior.

What’s next for you?

In Beowulf there are essentially three “bad guys,” so my original concept had TLSW as the first book in a trilogy that mirrors the original saga. So I’m hoping for the chance to write the second (and third) books if enough readers connect with the story. 

You can find Sam online at SamSubity.com and on Twitter or Instagram at @sjsubity, and his debut novel The Last Shadow Warrior (Scholastic Press) in bookstores everywhere on May 4.