Kathie: Hi Josh, and welcome back to MG Book Village! I’m so glad we get to be a part of the cover reveal for LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE, the third and final book in the Adventures of the PSS 118 series, which will come out on August 1st with Carolrhoda Books. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?
Joshua: Absolutely! Thank you so much for having me back. Trying (as always) to be non-spoilery about it: LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE continues the story started in SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY and sequel, EIGHTH GRADE VS. THE MACHINES. The series is about kids in the future who attend a “public school spaceship” (the PSS 118!) caught up in a galaxy-wide adventure. They have to find their way home; and help others find it too.
LAST SUMMER picks up where EIGHTH GRADE left off: Main character Jack has been taken somewhere. (BUT WHERE???) And his best friends Ari and Becka are somewhere else. (WITH WHO???)
They’ll reunite (obviously!), but not everyone is the same as they were when the previous book ended. And rediscovering the rhythm of their friendship is only the one of many challenges on the road to stopping the villainous Minister and rescuing their lost friends and family.
Kathie: Did you know from the outset that this series would be a trilogy, and did this book change a lot from your initial concept to the final draft?
Joshua: Oooh. Good question. I always knew it would be a series of sorts, and that a trilogy was the most likely form the series could take. The first book (and the second!) end on pretty harrowing cliffhangers, and I had to wrap them up. There’s absolutely stuff in this book that I’ve been planning since the very beginning and I’m delighted I get to close out this story on what I think/hope is a really satisfying note.
Kathie: What’s something you got to explore in this book that’s new for the series?
Joshua: It was important for me to wrap up the plot, of course. (And I do, mostly?) But I really wanted to give all the characters (big and small) the send-offs they deserved. Getting to explore who these kids (and grown-ups) are at the end of this adventure was a real joy. What is Jack’s relationship to his parents? How do Becka and Ari resolve? Is Principal Lochner very proud of the kids? Or, like, super very proud? WHAT DOES THE SHIP DO NOW?!
Kathie: Is there anything new you discovered about your characters in this book that surprised you?
Joshua: I’ll give a specific example—and then not explain it at all! J I always had a sense of where Doctor Shrew (a character’s stowaway pet hamster) would end up. But the specifics of it, well, that has been a blast to sort out. Buckle up (even if the kids have a hard time remembering to wear their safety belts on the bridge of a spaceship). It’s gonna be a bumpy ride for ol’ Doctor Shrew.
Kathie: Let’s talk about the book’s cover – who designed it, how does this one differ from the previous books, and can you point out any Easter eggs that might be visible?
Joshua: Kim Morales from Lerner was the book designer (on this book and the previous two!). And this time around, the cover itself was illustrated by Mariano Epelbaum. He did a fantastic job echoing the style of the previous two covers, while still taking things in a fresh (and awesome) direction. (I particularly love the coloring.)
As always, the three protagonists (Jack, Becka, and Ari) are on the cover, each with their distinct expressions—this time outside the ship! Doctor Shrew is here too. With something of an upgrade. The background features the PSS 118 being chased by some of the Minister’s forces, as well as the Minister herself (and another character we’ve encountered before and who—at the end of the last book—made some pretty big trouble). I think my favorite Easter eggy element of the cover this time around is the largest element in the background: Jupiter, with a larger moon looming in front of it. You can tell the moon is populated, lit up. It’s the kids’ home: Ganymede. Where the adventure started. And where it ends.
Kathie: Drum roll, please; here is the cover for LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE!
Kathie: I love how bold and eye-catching it is! Can we see all three series covers side by side?
Joshua: Absolutely. I’d love nothing more.
Kathie: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about this book, or your May 2023 release, THE JAKE SHOW?
Joshua: Always more to say. For now:
On LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE (coming out on August 1, 2023 from Lerner/Carolrhoda), I suppose I’d add that, when I started the series, I set out to write books that I’d have loved reading as a kid. Fun, funny, fast-paced, character-driven, with heart. I’ve tried to stay true to that all along.
And yes, before that book comes out, I’ve got THE JAKE SHOW (May 23, 2023 from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books). It’s got all those things too: The fun. The heart. But it’s…a lot closer to my lived experience (alas, I’ve never been to space). THE JAKE SHOW is about a contemporary Jewish kid with divorced parents, trying to navigate very different sides of his family. One very religious, the other not.
I’m so happy this year will see both books in kids’ hands. I feel very fortunate.
Kathie: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?
Kathie: All the best with your launches this year, Josh, and we look forward to seeing what you’ve got coming up next.
Joshua: Thank you so much! I really appreciate your time—here, and on everything else you folks do for our middle grade book community!
Joshua S. Levy is the author of several middle grade novels: SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY and EIGHTH GRADE VS. THE MACHINES, as well as the upcoming THE JAKE SHOW (May 2023) and LAST SUMMER IN OUTER SPACE (August 2023). He lives with his wife and children in New Jersey, where he practices as a lawyer. Visit him at www.joshuasimonlevy.com or on Twitter @JoshuaSLevy.
Kathie: Hi Shari, and a big welcome to MG Book Village! I’m so happy to hear you have another book coming our way. Can you tell us about GAME FACE, which is coming out with Groundwood Books on September 5th?
Shari: Thank you so much, Kathie! I love MG Book Village, and I’m so happy to be here! GAME FACE is a novel in verse about thirteen-year-old Jonah. Jonah’s got big dreams, but he’s also got a secret he keeps from everyone but his best friend. The secret? Jonah worries. And his worst worry is that he’s destined to have his life controlled by anxiety, just like his dad does. To prove to the world—and himself—that he’s not like his dad, Jonah is determined to succeed in a role that requires significant chill: goalie for his hockey team.
Kathie: What about the idea for this story compelled you to write it?
Shari: After many years as a “hockey mom” and decades as a hockey fan, I wasn’t surprised to find a hockey story brewing. I was excited to tell a story that included this sport I love, but it wasn’t until I got to know Jonah and realized the impact anxiety had on him that I felt compelled to write GAME FACE. I’ve got so much compassion for that kid—his dreams, his sorrows, his struggles—and I’ve also got some seriously strong feelings about the stigma surrounding mental health and the huge potential for harm that carries. So really, how could I not tell Jonah’s story?
Kathie: Can you tell us a bit about Jonah, and what five words would you use to describe him best?
Shari: In many ways, Jonah is a typical eighth-grade kid, with big-league hockey dreams, a best friend, and weekends full of homework, video games, and team practices. But there was a significant loss in his past that has an ongoing impact on both Jonah and his dad. And he’s plagued with worries that he’s gradually realizing are a sign of something bigger—something that might be too big to handle on his own.
Five words for Jonah: determined, anxious, loyal, hopeful, conflicted.
Kathie: I love that you address the topic of anxiety and how it affects Jonah both on and off the ice. Can you tell us a bit more about that and what kind of research you did for this book?
Shari: One thing about having anxiety is that you don’t get to decide when it’s going to make an appearance. So yes, Jonah’s anxiety affects him both on and off the ice. He knows being a goalie forces him into high-pressure situations that can make his anxiety worse, but it’s those exact situations that he believes he must master to prove to himself that he’s “okay.”
Jonah’s anxiety came out of my own experience, although Jonah’s anxiety is more severe. As a starting point, I drew from my experience and from the stories others shared with me. Then I was off to the library, of course! I researched anxiety in children and teens, and I read personal stories of mental illness in competitive athletes. I also connected with a school counsellor and a physician. And then I put myself in Jonah’s shoes (skates?) and let him experience anxiety in his own unique way, trusting that the background research I’d done would ensure Jonah’s experience felt authentic to others with anxiety, even if the situation and the particular symptoms/effects were different for them.
Kathie: I love the recent conversation I heard on Twitter about “sports books” not being just for kids who love sports. What are your thoughts about this, and what sort of reader did you have in mind when you wrote this book?
Shari: Definitely not just for kids who love sports! Just as sports aren’t only about the actual sport or game (they’re also about things such as how we work together, how we complement one another, and how we support one another, and they’re about things such as motivation, goals, commitment, dreams, and competition, and how all that plays out differently in different people), sports books are also about so much more. GAME FACE is a hockey story, yes, but it’s also a story of a boy and his dad, a story of a friendship strained to the breaking point, a story of the impact of mental illness on families and individuals, a school story, an Oma-loves-you story, a make-a-new-friend story, a you’ll-be-okay story.
What sort of reader did I have in mind? Anyone who loves realistic fiction. Anyone who loves novels in verse. Anyone who loves upper-middle-grade stories with heart.
Kathie: Let’s talk about the cover! Who designed it, and what struck you most when you first saw it?
Shari: The cover artist is the wonderfully talented Julien Castanié, and I have to say, seeing my Jonah there, perfectly captured by Julien, was amazing! It was such a cool process, seeing this character move from my imagination into story and poems and pages, and then into something visual through Julien’s art.
Kathie: OK, let’s show readers what it looks like!!
Kathie: I love the way the reader is drawn to Jonah’s face. Can you share one element of significance that you love?
Shari: I love the way it captures so much of Jonah’s heart and mind. When I look at it, I feel like I catch a glimpse of Jonah’s big dreams, but then I blink, and I feel the weight of anxiety on him, the alone-in-the-darkness feeling that comes from all he’s dealing with.
Kathie: What else would you like readers to know about this story?
Shari: There are some delicious foods in the story that I absolutely had to test out in my kitchen (all in the name of research, of course! haha). Also, one fun fact is that I wrote this book during the 2018-2019 school year, when I was a “mentor” for a grade 4/5 class in the #KidsNeedMentors program. I gave the class regular updates on my progress, and in turn, they gave me a wonderful supply of enthusiasm and motivation.
Kathie: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?
Shari: I love connecting with other MG lit fans! They can visit my website for info (www.sharigreen.com) or connect with me on social media. (I’m mostly on Instagram @shari_green and twitter @sharigreen.)
Kathie: Thanks so much for letting us be part of your cover reveal today, Shari, and I anxiously await the opportunity to read it!
Shari: Thank you so much, Kathie! Thanks for the great questions, and huge thanks to you and everyone at MG Book Village for sharing my excitement about GAME FACE!
Shari Green is an award-winning author of novels in verse, including Missing Mike, Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, and Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles. Her books have been included on international “best of” lists and nominated for multiple provincial and state readers’-choice programs. When she’s not writing or reading, Shari can often be found wandering the beaches or forest trails near her home. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, BC, on the traditional territory of the Laich-Kwil-Tach people. Visit her online at www.sharigreen.com.
Anne: Hello, Aya! I’m thrilled you could join us to talk about Undercover Latina, your recently released novel for older-MG and YA readers. The fast-paced action is awesome! Would you please give us a super-brief synopsis of the story?
Aya: Sure! Andréa is a homeschooled 14-year-old Latina in a family of spies going on her first solo mission. She must press her hair and pass for white to infiltrate a high school in Arizona to befriend the estranged son of a white supremacist terrorist. Shenanigans ensue!
Anne: Yes, they do! And as part of her spy mission, Andréa must learn a card game reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Also, she attends a convention similar to Comic-Con. What about you? Are you into Magic and cosplay, or did you have to do research to develop this plot?
Aya: While I tend to write in the crime genre, my partner and my kid are both hardcore into sci-fi/fantasy. My partner used to play Magic a lot, and my kid loves cosplay. Meanwhile, I have been going to my local AfroComicCon for years—I was even their keynote speaker in 2019! I started going to the Con supposedly for them, but I was just loving the imagination and the uprising of women, people of color, and other marginalized folks demanding that we be part of our culture’s collective vision of the future.
In the book, when it was time to have my main character befriend this other kid in her mission, she needed to pretend to share his interests. What could be more fun than making him a nerd who was into comics, gaming, and cosplay? And for me, as someone who mostly writes contemporary, realistic fiction, it was a way to create a world-within-a-world where I could play around with sci-fi/fantasy and fandom.
Anne: Fun! And beneath all that fun, your characters deal with some tough issues ranging from racism and colorism to privilege and white supremacy. I loved insights such as “white people…don’t have the same natural danger radar and vigilance that teens of color have,” and “a lot of the ideas in the US Constitution had come from the Iroquois Constitution [but that’s not taught in our schools].” This is an educational thriller, and it’s oh, so much more readable than a textbook! My question is: when you sat down to write Undercover Latina, which came to you first—the espionage intrigue or the justice issues? Where did you begin?
Aya: It all began with Ally Carter and Robin Benway. I read their spy girl books over a decade ago, and wondered what teens of color would bring to the spy girl genre. My first muse was Amani, who appears as the colleague in Undercover Latina. In particular Benway’s book ALSO KNOWN AS has a spy girl protagonist, whose family works for an independent spy agency. She’s homeschooled and goes to high school for the first time as part of her first solo mission. I LOVED the setup, and that was how The Factory was born, an international spy organization whose mission is to fight racism and protect people of color around the world. So, really, the politics and the espionage developed in tandem, but in response to these two other authors.
As an author, I am always thinking about my books for young people (and adults!) as tools of political education. And once my protagonist is in a school, there needs to be conflict in the scenes. So I’m going to use that opportunity to comment on education, and look critically at what she’s being taught.
Anne: That’s great. I loved your comments on education. Now, tell me: which character did you most enjoy writing, and which was the hardest to write? Do you see yourself in any of the characters?
Aya: I really enjoyed writing all of them. My heart is closest to the girl spies, and Amani has more of me than anyone, except maybe Andréa’s mom, because that issue of wanting your daughter to be bold, but also wanting to protect her is REAL. Probably the most difficult character to write was the white son of the terrorist, because he didn’t have a super strong personality. I needed him to be quiet, and a hard nut to crack, without boring the reader. There’s a twist a little ways into the book that made him more interesting to me, and put his inscrutability into a context that made him more relatable.
Anne: Yes, he grew through the course of the story. Such a great mix of characters!
Before Undercover Latina, you wrote a number of suspense novels for adults. Why did you decide to write for young readers, and how was writing MG/YA different from writing for adults?
Aya: First of all, when I read Benway and Carter, it was only a matter of time before I tried my hand at spy girl fiction. But also, my books for adults are very much adult. They’re sexy beach reads, as well as political thrillers, and as a mom, it was as if I had this big thing I was doing that I couldn’t share with my kid. As she got older, I wanted her to be part of my writer’s life. So I began writing an upper middle grade series so she could be part of that journey. And it’s been amazing. When I go on the road, she comes with me. We go to conferences of kid lit and they give out ARCs (advance reader copies) of all the new books. She can take whatever she wants and is in heaven. She’s a big reader, particularly of graphic novels.
Ultimately, I’m obsessed with the same issues in adult fiction as in MG/YA: race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomics, and the climate crisis. My adult books just have more gritty realism and my kid’s books handle the topics more lightly. Undercover Latina is like Yikes! White nationalism! But also skateboard chases! Teen romance! Cosplay! I think the biggest difference is that in the adult books, I’m writing characters who have heavy trauma histories, and the character development is about working through those histories. With the YA/MG protagonists, I’m writing characters who don’t have big trauma in their early lives. They have intact families. No abuse/neglect/adverse life events. So their developmental arcs are about growing up and experiencing agency in their teens for the first time.
Anne: What do you hope young readers will take away from Undercover Latina?
Aya: I have the world’s longest author’s note. I really think of the book as a fun rallying cry for everyone (particularly in the Latine community) to join the fight to end racism.
Anne: Awesome. I’m European American and would love for more white folks to join in the fight, too. And let me just say: your author’s note isn’t that long! You got me thinking about people who have—as you put it—a “proximity to whiteness”: a light-skinned experience of racism. I’m glad you included it.
I’ve heard that a sequel to Undercover Latina is coming out. What can you tell us about it?
Aya: Yes! Actually, more of a prequel. Untraceable comes out this October (2023).
Amani and her mom go on the run when someone comes after them and burns down their house in LA. They decide to hide in plain sight, moving from a white prep school to a Black public high school. As a plus-sized Black girl, Amani gets body image whiplash when she goes from being romantically invisible to being sexually harassed. Also, she’s totally in the dark about what’s going on with her family, and why they’re on the run. So she begins spying and shenanigans ensue!
Anne: Love it. Finally, where can we go to learn more about you and your writing?
Anne: Excellent. Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village today!
Aya: Thanks for inviting me!
Aya de León teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. She is the acquiring editor for Fighting Chance Books, the new climate justice fiction imprint at She Writes Press. Aya has published award-winning climate fiction with Kensington Books, including SIDE CHICK NATION (2019), A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE (2020), QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY (2021), and THAT DANGEROUS ENERGY (2022). Aya’s YA/MG books include UNDERCOVER LATINA (Candlewick 2022) and THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM 3 (free online on Orion Magazine). Aya’s work has also appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Ebony, Guernica, Bitch Magazine, VICE, The Root, and Ploughshares.
Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, Karuna! It’s a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you about your upcoming book, A BIT OF EARTH, which comes out March 14th from Greenwillow Books. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?
Karuna: It is such a pleasure to be here – thank you so much!
Absolutely! A Bit of Earth is a contemporary retelling of the classic The Secret Garden, told with warmth and hope in a blend of poetry and prose. To borrow from the official synopsis: “Maria Latif is used to not having a space of her own. But what happens when she feels the sudden urge to put down roots in the most unexpected of places? Karuna Riazi crafts a tender coming-of-age story about friendship, family, and new beginnings. A Bit of Earth is a reimagining of the classic The Secret Garden, perfect for fans of Other Words for Home and The Bridge Home.”
Kathie: I had a chance to read an eARC of your book, and I love how you reimagined The Secret Garden. What was it about this particular book that inspired you to rethink it?
Karuna: I have always loved The Secret Garden, since I first read it around seven or eight years. As a rather grumpy and opinionated girl myself, I felt seen in Mary Lennox, and was raptly absorbed in her quest for acceptance in spite of that prickliness, for friendship, and for a peaceful garden to call her own. However, even as Mary made me feel seen, the also present elements of ableism and racism deeply embedded in the plot prevented me from fully calling the story my own – an experience I’ve found I am not alone in sharing, as I’ve discussed A Bit of Earth with friends, family and readers over the past few months. My hopes with A Bit of Earth is to honor and the classic and all it meant to me, while exploring the previously overlooked and rich cultural South Asian background and heritage that is also a part of the original legacy, and that this title – in the words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop – will open a new mirror, window, and sliding door that will only further The Secret Garden’s timeless messages and themes.
Kathie: Maria grew up in Pakistan and moved to the United States to stay with her parents’ friends after being bounced around among family members following their deaths. There are many richly detailed cultural elements in the story. Is there a section you most enjoyed writing?
Karuna: One of my favorite scenes to write was definitely the religious gathering, or milaad, that Maria is invited to attend at a new Bangladeshi-American friend’s house. I grew up attending milaads myself, being of Bangladeshi heritage, and being able to add in both a cultural and nostalgic touchstone of my childhood was a highlight.
Kathie: The reader letter you included at the front of the book really influenced how I looked at Maria as a character. Can you tell us how you’d describe her and what life advice you might give her?
Karuna: I would describe Maria as pricky and grouchy, yearning for a place that will recognize the deep-set grief that results in those reactions and suspicion of the world, and for a found family to support her and love for who she is (and I am so glad that she is able to receive that found family, and a place where she is recognized and invited to start healing, by the end of the book).
I’m not sure what life advice I would give Maria except for “Keep being who you are.” She’s doing pretty awesomely at being herself, and expecting respect and acceptance for who she is!
Kathie: You wrote the story in prose and verse, which I think worked very well. Why did you choose to tell it this way?
Karuna: It has been such a wonderful journey of discovery toward the inclusion of verse in this story – beginning during my second semester in Hamline University’s MFAC program, when I told my advisor (incredible middle grade author Laurel Snyder) that I wanted to rediscover the poet within me that had so feverishly loved and written verse over my high school years. When A Bit of Earth wasn’t hitting the emotional arc I wanted as a strictly prose novel, Laurel encouraged me to pursue the little verses I was writing from Maria’s perspective in the margins of the first draft. From there, when the book sold to Greenwillow, my wonderful editor Martha Milhalick recognized that the verses were introspective, intimate and emotional insights into Maria’s perspective, and the prose was invaluable in moving the plot forward. The rest is history.
Kathie: Gardening plays a prominent role in the book. Is it a hobby that you enjoy?
Karuna: At the moment, the only gardening I do is tending to three house-plants, and virtually through farming sims like Stardew Valley – but I want the opportunity to garden more in the future!
Kathie: Relocating from one place to another is such an eye-opening experience. If you could choose one place to live for a year, where would it be and why?
Karuna: I would love to do a year-long artist residency somewhere with a view, preferably in the forest or maybe near the sea. I’ve always wondered if Prince Edward Island (famously home of one of my other favorite childhood heroines, Anne Shirley) offered a residency, or another of Canada’s remote, quiet islands – that would be beautiful, and probably very productive in terms of getting writing done!
Kathie: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you want readers to know about your book?
Karuna: I cannot think of anything else at the moment, and only hope that readers – both those who are familiar with the original Secret Garden, or are being introduced to the story for the first time – feel welcomed, seen and loved by A Bit of Earth, and are able to find a home within its pages that will allow them to set down roots and bloom into their own bright, beautiful potential.
Kathie: Where can we go to learn more about you and your writing?
Karuna: Readers interested in finding out more about me and my book are invited to visit my website, karunariazi.com. I can also be found on Twitter and Instagram under @karunariazi!
Kathie: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today, and I wish you all the best with your book’s upcoming release.
Karuna: Thank you, Kathie! I appreciate your time and your support, and am so honored that you’ve read and enjoyed A Bit of Earth!
Headshot credit: S. Uddin
Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. She holds a BA in English Literature from Hofstra University, an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University, and is an online diversity advocate and educator. She is the author of The Gauntlet (S&S/Salaam Reads, 2017), The Battle (S&S/Salaam Reads, 2019), Ghostwriter: The Jungle Book (Sourcebooks Wonderland/Sesame Workshop, 2019), and A Bit of Earth (HarperCollins/Greenwillow Books, 2023).
Anne: Hello, Sydney! I’m so glad you’re here at MG Book Village to chat about your novel It Happened on Saturday, which hits shelves tomorrow, February 21. It’s such a gripping story! Timely and relevant. Without revealing any spoilers, could you tell readers a bit about the story? What’s the basic setup?
Sydney: Hi Anne! Thank you so much for having me! I’m thrilled to be here.
This is the story of 13-year-old Julia who is in a tough spot because two good friends have moved away, and her BFF has come home from camp with a boyfriend. She begins eighth grade feeling lonely and left behind. After she convinces her older sister to give her a makeover, then posts a picture of herself online, she hears from Tyler, who says he’s in tenth grade at a school across town. As the two DM more and more, it seems that Tyler “gets” her in a way her family never has. But things aren’t always what they seem.
Anne: Thank you. Kids are repeatedly told about online dangers, but everyone thinks, “I’m careful. It won’t happen to me!” Your book is a cautionary tale. How did you come to write about this topic?
Sydney: This story grew out of my work with child trafficking survivors. I noticed that there was very little for young readers on this topic, even though eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are an especially vulnerable group. I decided to write an age-appropriate, character-driven story incorporating this subject matter in order to reach kids before or during the time they most need to know this information.
Anne: That’s great. In the opening scene, Julia is at a rescue barn, caring for a horse named Brandy. Later, when Julia feels distraught, she gets comfort from Brandy. I loved Julia’s relationship with Brandy as well as with other animals in the story. Are you a big animal lover? Do you ride horses? Do you have many pets?
Sydney: I’m so glad you liked the animals. The barn scenes were my favorites to write! I am a huge animal lover. At one point, we had so many pets that my home was “one animal away” from being declared an animal shelter! My family always has several dogs and cats, and I ride horses whenever I get the chance. Like Julia, my first job was at a barn taking care of horses in exchange for riding lessons.
Anne: Love it. In addition to animals, friendships play a big role in this story. You depict the messy complexity of Julia struggling to get along, fit in, and find her way. Middle school can be a tough time! What was middle school like for you? How much of your writing process involved tapping into your memories of those years in your life?
Sydney: Back in fourth grade, I met a wonderful friend who has been my BFF ever since. We lived on either side of a very long road, our homes separated by a busy intersection. My main memory of that time is standing at the corner with my friend, talking about everything and nothing for hours as cars whizzed past us. The bus dropped us off after school on that corner, and the time just flew by. But I also remember feeling shy like Julia when my small elementary school fed into a giant middle school, and there were few familiar faces in my classes. I was able to tap into those memories to understand how Julia felt, and how important her relationship with Nori, her BFF, was.
Anne: The story has nail-biting tension both in the lead-up to a traumatic event and in the follow-up afterward. I loved the absence of a simple “happy ever after” ending, and I resonated with these words from one of the characters: “It takes time to learn to live with a traumatic event.” Julia’s story feels real. Could you tell us a bit about your process in crafting her story? How many revisions did you have to do to get it right? How long did it take you to write this novel?
Sydney: I appreciate that Julia’s story rang true for you! When I first wrote it, the intense scene at the midpoint was the climax of the book, and there was a little about the aftermath, but not much. I chopped off a good bit at the beginning and added a lot at the end. During the time I was writing, I underwent trauma recovery training through Traffick911, an anti-trafficking organization, and I learned a lot that I put in the book. An early reader suggested making the book accessible to anyone who has experienced trauma, and I thought that was a wonderful idea, so I added the counseling center. As far as revisions, I didn’t keep track exactly (I revise constantly, as I go along), but a ballpark figure would be about seven major rewrites. Each big draft took at least a few months, so I probably spent around two years on it, with breaks in between.
Anne: In the epilogue you mention a quote Julia saw on a poster: “Courage doesn’t mean you don’t feel afraid. It means you don’t let the fear stop you.” That’s a great line, an excellent theme. When you began writing this novel, did you know you’d end with that quote?
Sydney: I’m glad that line resonated with you! I can’t remember where I found it (I’m a bit of a collector, and it was on a list of quotes that I love), and I didn’t know I’d end with it until I was writing the last scene. I’d thought about ending the story at the barn with Nori, but my editor suggested adding a final scene with Julia alone, so I did.
Anne: Did your experiences as a teacher inform your writing process? How do you think this novel could be used in schools?
Sydney: I taught ten-year-olds for many years, and as I was writing, I wanted to make the story relatable and accessible to kids in that age group and slightly older. Currently, I tutor kids of all ages, and a twelve-year-old student served as one of my beta readers. Since many schools now have internet/online safety awareness Standards of Learning, and states are mandating anti-trafficking curricula, it’s my hope that It Happened on Saturday can be a helpful resource. Along with tie-ins from those areas and novel-study in English classes, I hope Julia’s social/emotional journey and experiences learning about trauma recovery and stress management can serve as useful resources in the health curriculum.
Anne: What do you hope readers will take away from It Happened on Saturday?
Sydney: Being introduced to a topic in a fictional story allows for a more meaningful understanding than just being told about it. I hope that experiencing the events along with Julia will provide young readers an awareness that will help them stay safe when they go online. Also, I hope they enjoy a fast-paced story that has the heart and familiarity of a middle grade novel, but incorporates elements not usually seen in books for this age group.
Anne: It’s definitely fast-paced, and you’re right—I haven’t seen this topic for this age group before.
Finally, please tell us where we can go to learn more about you and your writing.
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such an intense, realistic, and timely novel!
Sydney: It is an honor to have my story featured here. Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions and kind words!
Sydney Dunlap is a former elementary school teacher who has worked with at-risk youth in a variety of settings. She enjoys reading and writing heartfelt, hopeful fiction that expands young readers’ awareness of tough topics. She is a published poet and has also written for a newspaper. A lifelong animal lover, Sydney lives with her family in a home where the dogs and cats outnumber the people.
Shari: Hi Torrey! Welcome to MG Book Village! Since seeing the cover of Hands, I have been so excited to read it and talk to you about it! Please tell our readers about this powerhouse of a book!
Torrey: I’m excited too to talk about Hands and for it to be released everywhere in two weeks. The same aged readers who have enjoyed my other books, who say they should be turned into movies and graphic novels, say Hands is about themes in my other books: friendship, family, choices. I returned to those themes in Hands because these are constant themes in all tweens’ and teens’ lives. Hands is a middle grade book that follows a sixth grade main character, and I’m also getting lots of great feedback from fourth through eighth grade kids saying, “I read Hands in one day” and that it’s the closest thing to a tween/teen Creed–the boxing movie with Michael B. Jordan (who also plays Kilmonger in Black Panther). They agree thatHands is a story about responsibility, promise, questioning what strength is, and comparing how much can be achieved by one person to how much more can be done with a team. Trev is like many young people I’ve taught over the last twenty five years. He sees muscles as strength and feels responsible to help solve family problems but feels alone to solve them. A problem is he wants to protect his mom and sisters from his stepdad because when he left he threatened Trev’s mom. Trev’s getting messages from media, friends, and his neighborhood about “throwing hands” so he thinks he needs to learn to fight to protect his family so he trains to box as good as Muhammad Ali and Creed on his bedroom wall’s posters and others. Here’s the thing, even though he puts on lots of muscle and is almost six feet tall and gets so nice with his hands that he could do what you see Jake Paul or Tyson do, Hands puts you right in his heart and mind as he wonders if boxing hand-skills is what’s best. Because Trev has talent as a comic-book artist and he has uncles who’ve used fists as weapons and they tell him that drawing could help him build a better future. They say school is the best way for him to keep his promises to protect and help his family. Trev’s really torn–feeling east-west, which is a phrase I invented that repeats in Hands.
Shari: I love that phrase – it so perfectly describes that inner struggle that all readers can connect to! Trev is a conflicted character with complex emotions. How were you able to get into his head so well to convey his emotional tug-of-war?
Torrey: I got the chance to narrate the audiobook of Hands and, after recording a few pages, the recording director and engineer said the same thing: “Trev is you–you can hear it in your voice”. And you know that camp song, “Everywhere we go/ people always know . . .”? Well, anywhere I go, people know Trev is younger me. I was in a Brooklyn library when a teacher who’s doing a gradewide read of Hands told me, “Trev is you. Isn’t he?”. So it’s great that I’m not hiding that fact, true? And the feedback from educators on social media is that it’s obvious that many young readers are Trev too–they share his feelings, struggles, and situations.
Shari: I will definitely be checking out the audiobook as well! Trev’s family and friends are of utmost importance to him, to the point he feels compelled to defend them. Why do you think it’s so important for young people to find their “village”?
Torrey: We all feel how Trev does. There are two tweens who do book reviews and they never met but they both like the Maya Angelou quote that repeats in Hands, and they both say they share the same trait as Trev. A sixth grader named Rahul says in his blog “Rahul’s Playing with Words”, “One scene that was incredibly impactful in Hands was when Trev looked at the quote above his uncle’s sofa. The quote says, ‘Be a rainbow in someone’s cloud’. I connected to this quote because just like Trev, sometimes I feel responsible for taking care of my family, especially my younger sister . . . I wish that my actions could help bring some light to a person’s gloomy day.” In his review of Hands, E Train explains he feels that is one of his new favorite quotes. So many young readers are similar to Trev and they just want to add light to other people’s cloudy days and make them feel light when they feel heavy. In their starred review, School Library Journal says, “readers will feel a sense of the real community Trev has beyond his immediate family. They will also appreciate the complex supporting characters and feel hopeful”. For me, the two words that pop out in that are “community” and “hopeful”. It’s so important for Trev and young people to find their “village” because it means seeing who has our backs. Plus, people in our village are mirrors because we try to be a rainbow and shine light on them and they also shine back light on us that makes us feel hopeful and other great things.
Shari: For such a “tight” book, the characters just leap off the page. Are any of the characters in Hands drawn from real life?
Torrey: Some of the characters in Hands are drawn from real life. I’m Trev because as a boy I used to draw how he does. There’s a scene in Hands where Trev’s oldest sister is amazed by a drawing Trev did of The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, as Black Adam. He wishes he was as strong as Black Adam. As a boy, I saw Black Adam in comics and I’m a HUGE fan of the movie Black Adam and The Rock. Trev’s friend and neighbor Pete—the 12-year-old who Trev learns how to box with—is inspired by kids I’d box with. His Rec Center is the one I trained in. Readers love Trev’s uncles and I’m lucky because there were men around my neighborhood who looked after me better than some family. Trev calls them uncles, and I did too. And Ms. Clark knows who she is. Yours is a question I bet I’ll be asked when I do author-visits for Hands so I’m curious what characters audiences will want to know are based on real people.
Shari: What types of readers do you hope will read Hands, and what message would you want them to take from it?
Torrey: I hope kids all over our globe read Hands. As a boy, I had stories in me that I wanted to share with the world because I believed in my heart that other kids had to feel how I felt. Now that I’m an adult I still hope my stories travel the world because my heart still believes that other kids feel how my characters feel. Another person who feels that way is Pernille Ripp, who lives in Denmark, and she’s in charge of The Global Read Aloud. About Hands, she said, “This needs to be translated into Danish for all the kids that need it here too.” She thinks kids all over the globe should have Hands read aloud to them. So, Hands is for kids all over the world. Its setting is New York and New Yorkers feel that it’s so true about New York and New Yorkers that both a Bronx middle school and a Brooklyn middle school are doing a whole school read. While Hands is for middle graders, it’s also for fourth and fifth graders because educators like Patrick Andus in Minnesota who teaches 4th grade recommends on his blog that Hands is for fourth grade and up, a Brooklyn teacher is reading Hands to all of the fourth graders and fifth graders, and Rochelle Menendez in Texas says it’s a book that all of her upper elementary students would grow from and love.
Shari: I completely agree – let’s get this into ALL the kids’ hands (and grown-ups too)! How was writing Hands different from Tight or What Lane?
Torrey: Writing Hands was the hardest book I’ve ever written. Some of Trevor’s story is about overcoming perfection. He learns it’s not about being perfect–it’s about NOT being perfect and figuring out what works and what’s helpful. While writing Hands, I put a pressure on myself to write the shortest of all of my books and I wanted it to be the perfect book. My chapters are super short–like two paragraphs short. The longest chapter is maybe two pages. So I’d compare my two-paragraph chapters to other author’s chapters of many pages and I’d doubt myself, Two paragraphs? But, I kept trying to be like Trev and stay open-minded to a page setup and poetic style of writing that isn’t “right” for everyone, but feels right to me and to my students. Being open-minded and accepting Hands as the book it became led to people accepting it in phenomenal ways. Recently, Matthew Winner had me as a guest on his show called The Children’s Book Podcast and he told me, “You have a beautiful, beautiful way of writing these micro chapters, these, these quick “Oh, I can just read a chapter and then put it down. I’ve got time to read a chapter”, and then you find yourself reading multiple”. About the poetic style of writing, Adam Gidwitz, Newbery Honor–winning author says, “Gorgeous and gripping, Hands is a poetic page-turner.”So writing Hands differently than my other books is appreciated by others in ways that remind me to trust myself.
Shari: Speaking of short chapters… Torrey, I am amazed at how you always tell such powerful stories in so few words! Why is this important to you, and how do you do it?
Torrey: It’s important I tell a story in as few words possible for the same reason that roller coasters aren’t long rides. In their starred review of Hands, School Library Journal says Hands offers an unputdownable story that’s a fast rollercoaster of short thrilling chapters. So I hoped Trev’s story is a rollercoaster ride and offers thrills to readers, especially when school or life feels slow or boring. No one quits what’s fun. If it’s fun, we keep doing it. I don’t want readers quitting my books so I try to keep my books fun and fast-paced so readers keep saying, “I want to read more Torrey Maldonado books”.
Shari: As an educator, how do you find time to write books? More importantly, how does your teaching influence your writing?
Torrey: Sometimes, I lose sleep. I have these stories in me that I have to get out and, if there aren’t enough hours in the day, I’ll stay up late or wake up early to write. I’ve been teaching for over 25 years. I’ve gone from when a lot of these comic book movies were just comic books to seeing them on the big screen, which is great because I teach and I like to help young people realize that they are super heroic. So much of teaching is storytelling. I storytell in every class, all day long. My challenge is after a long, exhausting workday to tell myself, “Okay, find time for you to storytell about what you and students experience, but, this time, storytell as you type and turn it into a book”. As a teacher, I see that students hold a tremendous amount of power in their hands but don’t realize their power. That’s one reason I titled my book Hands. Students have a firmer grasp on things than they think. So, with Hands, I show through Trev how we spot areas where we have a little grip on what matters and turn it into a stronger hold on things.
Shari: I love that! Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your books?
Torrey: Readers can find me on social media at @TorreyMaldonado. You could also find me at my website, torreymaldonado.com. I’m excited about my website because I just added a page for Hands. There are things there that I can’t say in interviews that I hope give readers more windows into seeing Trev’s story and how it mirrors many of our stories.
Shari: What other new or upcoming books would you recommend for our readers?
Torrey: Colby Sharp just came out with a list of “Ten Must Read 2023 Books For Kids” where he chose Hands and calls it “130 pages of gold.” There are so many great books on that list. I recommend books in a blog I did for The Children’s Book Council. We partnered for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which happens two days after Hands publishes–January 26th–and the blog is a giveaway of a signed copy of Hands and a spotlight of eight sports-themed books that help readers win in sports and win in life . This is a giveaway that readers here can join too so I hope everyone tests their luck. Good luck because the giveaway winner might be reading this.
Shari: Thank you so much for joining us today, Torrey, to share about Hands! I already have it on order for my library. I can’t recommend it enough, and look forward to seeing it out in the world!
Torrey: Thank you and, since a theme in Hands is boxing, I hope that I gave knockout answers.
Shari: You absolutely did! Readers, do yourselves a favor and preorder Hands today!You can even get a signed copy by preordering from Greenlight Bookstore.
Torrey Maldonado was born and raised in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects. He has taught in New York City public schools for over 25 years and his fast-paced, compelling stories are inspired by his and his students’ experiences. His popular young readers novels include What Lane?, which won many starred reviews and was cited by Oprah Daily and the NY Times for being essential to discuss racism and allyship; Tight won the Christopher Award, was an ALA Notable Book, and an NPR and Washington Post Best Book of the Year; and his first novel, Secret Saturdays, has stayed in print for over ten years. His newest book, Hands, publishes on January 24, 2023, is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, won a starred School Library Journal review, and amazing reviews from Horn Book, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com or connect on social media @torreymaldonado.
Anne: Hello, Karen! Thank you for stopping by to chat about your novel Eden’s Everdark, which came out a few months ago. It’s such a unique story! Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the setup?
Karen: Thanks for having me! I like to pitch Eden’s Everdark as a Southern Gothic fantasy that’s about a girl trapped in a spirit world of eternal night who must fight a terrifying witch to make it back into the world of the living.
Anne: Great. It’s full of lines like “wide oaks dripped with Spanish moss” and “the wind moved through the island trees like a lazy sigh,” plus details about Eden’s ancestors purchasing land after freedom came. These lines and details made the setting so real that I wanted to visit, so I looked up Safina Island… only to find that it’s fictional! Did you base the setting on a real place?
Karen: Safina Island is inspired by the very real Georgia sea islands. Growing up, I visited St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, and others known as the “Golden Isles.” After college, I lived in Brunswick for a brief time and became captivated by Sapelo Island, which is one of the few islands without a bridge and steeped in deep history. A lot of the landmarks on Sapelo Island have similarities in Eden’s Everdark, including the mansion and village hammocks. Sapelo Island is a beautiful and fascinating place, and my main muse in creating the novel’s world.
Anne: I could really feel that world, and I liked the way you signaled that the story would depart from the “real” world. Early-on, Eden learns that the “crossroads is where you can speak with the dead and god-spirits” and black cats “can travel between worlds.” Good stuff. Tell us a bit about your process in creating Everdark, the spirit-world.
Karen: When I started writing this novel, I knew I wanted to create two worlds: the “real life” world of Safina Island and the “dark mirror” world of Everdark. I wanted readers to see the similarities and the differences between them. Creating the island folklore was also a great experience because I heard a lot of these stories as a child and some of those details made their way into the island’s mythology. I knew the god-spirits were the ones who could travel between worlds, and the Gardener women and descendants like Eden could travel too. I also did a lot of research on the Georgia sea islands and their landmarks, which proved very helpful when creating the Renata Mansion, one of the major Everdark settings. I was very meticulous about the details because I wanted readers to feel like Everdark was a real place—as real as Safina Island but much darker and more dangerous.
Anne: You certainly succeeded in making it seem real! Also, you wove in some beautiful themes. Throughout the story, in addition to feeling Eden’s grief, I felt a sense of hope in lines like, “Nothing ever dies… It just changes.” Toward the end, Eden thinks about the “memories, the love, and even the sadness [that] connected her to [her] lineage… Eden felt the presence of… all the [ancestors] she had never met, whose names she would never know.” I love that! When you began this story, did you know you’d include these themes, or did they emerge during your writing process?
Karen: I wish I could say I knew these would be the themes when I first started writing! But I think as writers, the themes always tend to find us. I can say the title came to me very early because I wanted Everdark to be the physical manifestation of Eden’s grief. In many ways, I believe Eden was able to see and enter the spirit world because as it states in the novel, “At times, Eden’s grief felt like a shroud of eternal night…” I felt very strongly that readers understand grief is something that never goes away and that’s okay. But I also wanted to convey that nothing truly dies—it just changes. The person you love always stays with you in your heart and in your memory. That’s a theme I found coming to the surface as I continued to write. In Black Southern culture, families are sacred since we have limited knowledge of our lineages because of enslavement. So in many ways, Eden is also connected to relatives she may not know by name, but she can still feel their presence.
Anne: Thank you for sharing that. It’s very powerful… and empowering.
Now, Eden’s dad happens to be a biology professor, and I laughed out loud when a character said, “he ain’t a real doctor. He just one of them learned ones.” My roots are Southern and your characters’ colloquialisms (such as “y’all two” and “all y’all”) warmed my heart. Are any of your characters based on real people?
Karen: I’m glad you liked reading the Southern dialect and colloquialisms because I loved writing them. These were the voices I heard growing up and they still feel like home to me. Most of my characters have snippets of real people included in their personality, especially the voices of my grandmothers and great-aunts. Most of the elders in my family tolerated me as a child because I followed them around and begged them to tell me more of their stories and tall tales. I’m glad I spent that time with them because they gave me so many gems when it comes to character and story development.
Anne: How long did it take you to write Eden’s Everdark? And what are you working on now?
Karen: I began my research for Eden’s Everdark in 2018 after I turned in my final edits for my debut novel Just South of Home. After I launched that book into the world, I wrote the first draft of Eden’s story in July 2019, continued writing during the pandemic, and finished in September 2020. I started working with my editor in January 2021.
I’m currently working on another middle-grade novel coming out in 2024. A contemporary fantasy centering on girl friendships, secret clubs, and a haunted Victorian house.
Anne: Oooh, I’m intrigued!
To conclude, would you please tell readers where they can go to learn more about you and your work?
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village. I’ve loved chatting with you about this immensely creative and heartfelt story!
Karen Strong is the author of the critically acclaimed middle grade novels Just South of Home, which was selected for several Best of Year lists including Kirkus Reviews Best Books and Eden’s Everdark, a Junior Library Guild selection and an ABA Kids’ Indie Next Pick. She is the editor of the young adult anthology Cool. Awkward. Black. and has also written short fiction for Star Wars including From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back and Stories of Jedi and Sith. Her speculative fiction appears in the award-winning anthology A Phoenix First Must Burn. An avid lover of strong coffee, yellow flowers, and night skies, you can find her online at karen-strong.com.
Anne: Hello, Melanie! It’s so good of you to stop by and chat about your third novel for MG readers, A Perfect Mistake, which came out earlier this year. It’s a real page-turner. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?
Melanie: Sure! Eleven-year-old Max has ADHD, is the tallest student in his middle school, and has just lost his two best friends after a dangerous trip into the woods in the middle of the night. Max doesn’t remember exactly what happened before he ran away and left his friends behind. Now, one of his friends is in a coma, and the other friend isn’t talking to Max. When the local authorities run out of leads, Max begins to question what happened after he and his two friends each went their separate ways, back on the night he feels he made a terrible mistake.
Anne: Thank you! I loved the mystery in this story, and loved trying to solve it along with Max. It’s also a friendship story. When you set out to write A Perfect Mistake, where did you begin? With the mystery? Or the characters? Or something else?
Melanie: I started planning A Perfect Mistake with the intention of featuring a character with ADHD. My previous books had strong mystery storylines, so I also intended to create a page-turning mystery. It took a while for me to think of the right external plot that would amplify Max’s emotional journey and keep readers guessing, but ultimately the book is about making mistakes, so I decided to create an incident wherein many characters made mistakes.
Anne: I love the Uncle Cal character and his lines like, “All you can do is be yourself. You gotta embrace the weird, man.” He made me laugh! Is he (or are any of your characters) based on people you know?
Melanie: Uncle Cal is inspired by one of my favorite actors, Sam Rockwell. He usually takes roles that are somewhat quirky but ultimately good-hearted, and that’s how I viewed Uncle Cal. He’s a very loving and loyal person who has been through some tough times, but he turns out to be exactly who Max needs with him on this journey. Miss Little is named after a favorite teacher of mine from high school, and Dr. W is named after a dear friend of mine, Romaine Williamson, who passed away this year and was known for her wisdom and kindness.
Anne: Nice. I love knowing these connections.
Max’s friend Samantha enjoys combining words, such as “sweird” (super weird) and “freal” (for real). In some scenes you don’t translate her words, and I enjoyed trying to figure them out. Fun! Tell us about your process in crafting the Samantha character.
Melanie: I’m glad you enjoyed figuring out Sam’s word play! I was pretty obsessed with words as a child. I even made my own dictionary by hand, and I used to write new words on my little sister’s chalkboard and make her learn them. Sam is definitely a character who embodies my love of words. In some ways, Sam is the “model” neurotypical student, which was very intentional on my part. I wanted to demonstrate for readers that Sam and Max are both equally curious, creative, and intelligent, though they may have neurological differences that make their school experiences quite different.
Anne: In some ways, the story celebrates the strengths of people with ADHD. I enjoyed learning techniques kids can use to improve their ability to focus. Why did you want to write a story with characters who are dealing with ADHD?
Melanie: My husband and older son both have ADHD, and my husband and I met in high school, so I’ve spent a long time navigating the public education system in the context of ADHD. I found it frustrating twenty-five years ago when there was not so much compassion or accommodation for my husband’s neurological differences, so I was very intentional about supporting our son’s journey through public school. Luckily, there are many supports in place now for students with ADHD, but it is still challenging navigating 504s and accommodations. I definitely wanted to show a realistic depiction of Max’s school journey while also highlighting the remaining challenges of being a student with ADHD in a neurotypical world. Since the book came out, I’ve heard from a lot of young readers who are excited to see themselves reflected in Max’s story.
Anne: That’s great. I especially like the scene when Max’s therapist says, “It’s easy to hide from pain, but we really only start to deal with it when we let ourselves feel it… This is trauma management.” Good stuff! Are there any circumstances from your own life that caused you to include this scene in the story?
Melanie: Therapy is definitely a resource I have utilized in my own life! Often there are experiences and emotions that we need help navigating, and I’ve found therapy helpful to move through these experiences with intention, and I wish everyone had access to that kind of support. I also wish that our very busy and stressful modern world were perhaps a bit less anxiety-provoking, so that maybe we wouldn’t have so much trauma to process in the first place. Hopefully the depictions of therapy in the book will help readers who are not yet aware of that resource so they can ask for the support they need.
Anne: My sister has a son with ADHD and her experience raising him inspired her to become a therapist/life coach. You’re so right that we’d all benefit from having access to that kind of support!
How long did it take you to write A Perfect Mistake? And what are you working on now?
Melanie: Every time I do author visits, I always have the students guess how long it took me to write the book. With Counting Thyme, it took three years from first draft to publication day, which included NINE drafts of the story. A Perfect Mistake only took me two years and five drafts, so I think I’m making some progress! Sometimes the creative process takes a long time, and that’s okay. That’s also something I emphasize on author visits: art is messy! We have to embrace the process. Right now, I’m working on edits for my next middle grade story, Crushed, which is a #metoo story set in middle school that will publish in 2024.
Anne: I look forward to reading it!
Finally, please tell readers where they can go to learn more about you and your work?
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such an engaging mystery for middle-grade readers!
Melanie Conklin grew up in North Carolina and worked as a product designer before she began her writing career. Her debut middle grade novel, Counting Thyme, is a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, winner of the International Literacy Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and nominated to four state reading lists. She is also the author of Every Missing Piece, A Perfect Mistake, Crushed (2024), and her picture book debut, When You Have to Wait (2023). When she’s not writing, Melanie spends her time doodling and dreaming up new ways to be creative. She lives in New Jersey with her family.
Shari: Hi Briana! Welcome to MG Book Village! I’m thrilled to chat with you about your new book that just came out, The Secrets of Stone Creek! Tell us about your book!
Briana: Thanks so much for having me, Shari! I’m excited to share a bit about The Secrets of Stone Creek, a middle grade adventure about an aspiring explorer who – while visiting an estranged relative in a small, strange tourist town – sets out to find an adventurer who went missing there two decades ago. The protagonist, Finley, enlists the help of her brothers and sets out to solve Stone Creek’s decades’ long mystery in the hopes of becoming a great explorer herself – and, through that, to prove to her mom, overbearing brother and ex-best friend that she’s worth taking seriously.
Shari: Finley, the main character, is an adventurer who is inspired by real-life female adventurers! Who or what inspired the creation of Finley’s character, and what do you love most about her?
Briana: Finley was such a fun character to write, because she is so gung-ho and never hesitates to take on a challenge! I had so much fun researching real female adventures and weaving their stories into the narrative whenever Finley referenced them for inspiration.
But Finley’s character arc is also about exploring whether she needs to, or should dedicate herself to achieving “greatness.” Finley feels overlooked by her mom, and like she’s not taken seriously by her brothers or her friends at school. She is driven by a need to prove herself to others, and is convinced that unless she accomplishes something incredible like the female adventurers in her favorite book, she’ll continue to be overlooked and left behind.
I loved writing Finley because her goals make her such a driven, fun character, but also reflect what I believe are very real and relatable insecurities. I hope her journey to self-love and realization is as cathartic to readers as it was for me.
Shari: Finley’s brothers, Oliver and Griffin, are important characters too. What was it like writing a story with sibling relationships at its core?
Briana: When writing Stone Creek, it was important to me that even though Finley is the protagonist, both Oliver and Griffin had character arcs of their own, too, and went through challenges and changes in each chapter. The Walsh siblings are all dealing with the aftermath of their father leaving a few years ago, but they all experienced it differently and faced unique roles and expectations from their mom – and each other – after the divorce. Coming together to solve the mystery of Meggie’s disappearance brings this all to a head but also gives them the opportunity to try working together despite their differences and misunderstandings, too.
As a writer, it was fun to play with the way the three siblings’ goals aligned and conflicted – both for the purpose of tension and plot, but also because of all the fun banter that ensued, too! Even when they’re disagreeing, there’s a lot of love between the Walsh siblings, and embracing that is ultimately what makes them capable of solving the mystery.
Shari: The setting of Stone Creek is very unsettling and strange. Tell us more about Stone Creek, its inhabitants, and what makes it such an important element in the story.
Briana: Setting is always important in my books, but it takes on more of a life of its own in The Secrets of Stone Creek than in my previous work. Stone Creek is a tourist town dedicated to the legacy of Meggie Riley, a local adventurer who went missing decades ago. All the characters (and suspects!) are connected to Meggie’s legacy somehow, and – because of that – are invested in the mystery of her disappearance, whether they’re hoping for her return, hoping to clear their name as a suspect, or hoping to take advantage of her story for a profit.
In a way, the town itself goes through a character arc of its own as the sensationalized mystery surrounding Meggie’s disappearance is explored and critiqued over the course of the novel. As much as the story is about Finley hoping to become a legendary adventurer, it’s also about the dark side of legacies and an exploration of who can – and should – be able to tell someone’s story.
Shari: Wow, what an fascinating perspective! What types of readers do you hope find Stone Creek, and what message would you want them to take from it?
Briana: I hope any reader with a love of adventure finds and enjoys Stone Creek. But at its heart, Stone Creek is for anyone who has ever felt like they’re not enough, or feels they need to prove they’re worthy of love or acceptance. The Secrets of Stone Creek is an action-packed and twisty adventure – but it’s mainly about a girl who’s afraid of failure and her journey to discovering that what makes her great isn’t what she accomplishes, but the person she is and chooses to be.
Shari: How was writing Stone Creek different from your first novel, Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing? What can you tell us about upcoming projects?
Briana: Stone Creek and Pepper both have mystery and action elements to them, but Pepper was solving a murder that just occurred whereas Finley is working on what is essentially a cold case. So the clues aren’t fresh, and the story of Stone Creek relies heavily on the unique things Finley and her brothers are able to uncover because of their distinct point of views and experiences. The settings of the two stories are quite different, too: Stone Creek is a town full of quirky locals and suspects, while Pepper only interacts with people who live directly in her cul-de-sac. They are similar, though, in that they’re both stories about stubbornly determined girls who have something to prove!
I can’t say too much about what’s coming next, but I have a third book with Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers that will be coming soon. It’s another adventure, like my first two books, but this time…it’s set in space! I’m very excited to share more with readers soon.
Shari: What are your favorite books/ types of books to read?
Briana: I love mysteries and adventures. The more action and twists, the better! Some of my favorites from the past year are The Clackity by Lora Senf and The Fright Watch series by Lorien Lawrence.
Shari: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?
Briana: My website is www.brianarosemcdonald.com, and I am @BrianaRMcDonald on Instagram and Twitter. I love hearing from readers and educators, so don’t hesitate to reach out!
Shari: Thank you so much for joining us today, Briana, to share about your fantastic book!
Briana: Thanks so much for having me, and I hope everyone enjoys The Secrets of Stone Creek!
Briana McDonald writes diverse and adventurous books for young readers. She studied writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals. When she’s not writing, Briana works at Columbia University and lives in New York City with her wife and their dog, Rex. She is the author of Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing and The Secrets of Stone Creek. Find out more at BrianaRoseMcDonald.com.
Anne: Hello, Shirley! I’m thrilled that you could stop by to chat about your latest book for young readers, The Sky We Shared. It reminded me why I love historical fiction! Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?
Shirley: Certainly. Based on Japan’s Project Fu-Go during the last stretch of World War II, The Sky We Shared focuses on two youngsters who tell their stories in alternating voices. In rural Oregon, Nellie waits for her father to come home from the army, filling her days with salvage drives, a secret crush, rationing, and annoying twin brothers. In southern Japan, Tamiko finds a secret way to support her country’s war effort while her brother goes off to fight the Americans. Nellie’s and Tamiko’s spheres couldn’t be more different…until their worlds collide in life-changing ways. The Sky We Shared weaves real history with characters who, like many youths today, must deal with war and hatred right alongside friendship, first love, and family.
Anne: Great. The Japanese Project Fu-Go (translation: “balloons carrying bombs”) is a bit of WWII history I’d never before heard. When/where/how did you hear about it? Please tell us a bit about your research for this story.
Shirley: I’m a history junkie, consuming all kinds of history-focused books, podcasts, magazines and websites, both for my own personal interest and in search of that next nugget of history to share with young readers. That’s how I literally stumbled upon the WWII Fu-Go project for the first time.
Once I decided to write a novel about it, I immersed myself in the facts of Project Fu-Go, as well as in the socioeconomics, politics and zeitgeist of the era, both in the U.S. and Japan. I read newspaper reports from the time (1945), and delved into relevant books, journal articles, government websites, museum information, and other resources. I wanted to know exactly what happened in the war that year, and I also wanted to know more general information about life in the 1940s. What did kids wear? What music did people listen to on the wireless? What idioms and slang were in popular use?
Since half the book takes place in Japan, I also worked directly with some talented experts in Japanese culture, history and language. One of those experts—I was so lucky to know him—actually grew up in Japan during WWII and was able to share firsthand accounts of the history described in the novel. Since the University of Massachusetts is in my town, I was able to connect with their department of Eastern studies for all sorts of support. My alma mater, Cornell, also came through with a language expert.
Anne: I love the way you built suspense by alternating chapters between Nellie’s and Tamiko’s points of view. What made you decide to tell the story this way, rather than, say, simply from Nellie’s point of view (the American side)?
Shirley: That was a very deliberate choice. I wanted to show how Nellie’s and Tamiko’s war experiences differed, and also how their lives were similar. What better way to do that than to let them each tell their own side of the story—with all the fear and bravery, resentment and friendship, propaganda and truth? I think the alternating viewpoints help reveal the shared humanity of these characters, who live on opposite sides of the world, on opposite sides of the war.
Anne: The sense of “shared humanity” was quite strong. While reading, I paused to get lunch, then returned to the book, but felt guilty eating in front of Tamiko and Suki because they were so hungry. Ha! That’s how real the characters had become for me. I’d love to hear how you develop your characters. Are there any writing techniques you find helpful for bringing characters to life on the page?
Shirley: I’m so glad you related to Tamiko and Suki! My own process for developing characters looks something like this: First, I wait until I “hear” a character knocking around my head. The character won’t be full-blown at this point, but they’ll be expressing a personal concern or interest in their unique voice.
As soon as that happens, I start writing. Writing helps me better understand a character—their motivations, goals, and personality—especially when I put them in conversation with other characters. Along the way, I constantly ask myself what the character’s interior monologue looks like. What are they daydreaming about? What are their hopes, pet peeves, regrets? In The Sky We Shared, for instance, I knew Nellie and Tamiko would be wondering when/if their loved one would come home from the war…and what lay in store tomorrow…and when the fighting would finally end.
Anne: I especially enjoyed the many little sayings sprinkled through the story, such as “fall down seven times, get up eight” and “one kind word can warm three snowy peaks.” Did you grow up hearing these sayings, or did you discover them while doing research for the novel?
Shirley: I love these Japanese sayings too. They’re so vivid and rich with imagery. I learned about them during my research, and from my language and cultural experts.
Anne: How long did it take you to write The Sky We Shared? And what are you working on now?
Shirley: Including the background research time, the writing, and the revising/editing, it took about two years. I’m currently working on two nonfiction picture book biographies about a couple of amazing women who belong to traditionally underrepresented groups.
Anne: Nice. Let’s end with some links so that readers can learn more about you and your work.
Shirley: Here are my website and social media links. I encourage readers, or anyone who’s curious, to get in touch:
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such excellent historical fiction for middle-grade readers!
Shirley: Thank you, Anne! I enjoyed your thoughtful questions and the chance to chat about my story and writing process.
Shirley Reva Vernick is the award-winning author of five novels for young readers. A graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars, she is committed to creating stories that inspire hope, tolerance, and a love of reading. The American Library Association named The Blood Lie to its list of Best Fiction Books for Young Readers. The Blood Lie also won the Simon Wiesenthal Once Upon A World Book Award and a Sydney Taylor Book Award honor. Remember Dippy won the Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. The Black Butterfly is a Junior Library Guild selection. Ripped Away (Purple Dragonfly Award) and The Sky We Shared (a starred Publishers Weekly review) were released this year. Shirley’s favorite food group is ice cream.