FAST FORWARD FRIDAY – Basil Sylvester

Hi Basil! I’m so glad you could join me today on Fast Forward Friday. Your middle grade debut, THE FABULOUS ZED WATSON!, is co-authored with your dad, Kevin Sylvester, and comes out on January 26, 2021 with HarperCollins. I was delighted to have a chance to read an ARC, and I absolutely loved this story. It’s funny, uplifting, original, and who can resist a road trip to search for a long lost book? Can you give us a bit of a synopsis of it, please?

Hi Kathie! Thanks for having me! I definitely can; the book is about an energetic kid named Zed who is obsessed with finding a long-lost manuscript called The Monster’s Castle. They have to go on a road trip to gather all the clues to find it, except they don’t have a car—so they have to go along with their neighbour, Gabe, and his sister Sam. It’s a book filled with road-side stops, bad puns, ice cream, clues, new friends, and lots of fictional monsters!

Zed is such an entertaining character. I especially liked when they did something we weren’t expecting, such as thinking like a corpse, or dancing in the Potato Dance Off. Yet I also learned a lot from Zed about what it means to be nonbinary while they explained it to their friend, Gabe, and the challenges they’ve faced. How did you find that balance between educating and entertaining as you wrote them?

I’m really glad you liked their weirdness—the corpse moment was one that Kevin wrote separately, and I laughed out loud when he showed it to me! I think it’s important to have conversations in the book that sound like people would actually talk—if we just went for a straight lecture or information session, it wouldn’t be realistic anyway. So that’s kind of where some of the Own Voices element comes in, because when people ask me about gender or lgbtq+ stuff, I tend to address it with humour/levity. I also think that if trans and/or nonbinary kids read this book, they would get bored if it was just an info session for the uninitiated, so addressing stuff like this with humour means it’s more engaging for everyone and just a better read.

What was it like to co-author a book with your dad, and how did the collaboration work in terms of the writing process? Did you also have input on his illustrations?

It was so fun, honestly! We wrote an outline super quickly—we just seemed to be on the same page so to speak. Then we split it up in parts—Kevin would write a certain part if he was excited about it, I would write the gender stuff and a lot of the character-driven conversations, and so on. Then we got together and read everything out loud, and edited as we wrote. While I was reading, he would illustrate—I had a lot of input, he was very generous about that. He originally drew a couple character designs for Zed and I remember I mainly directed him on that—I said I wanted Zed to be short and wearing lots of oversized stuff, and to be a bit chubby, like me.

I’m always drawn to a story where there’s a hunt for missing items, but I could never solve a single clue. Do you enjoy scavenger hunts, and how did you come up with such creative clues?

As a kid I absolutely loved them! in fact, my dad and my mom used to make scavenger hunts for us and hand-write notes from different fictional characters that would lead us around the house and backyard. There’s something so incredibly special about solving a clue yourself and getting a reward for it! I’m a bit self conscious about the clues in Zed because I worry they’re a bit opaque, but sometimes the fun is just watching Zed and Gabe run around and doing zany things. The clues were all about places, and initially it was all going to be stuff just from The Monster’s Castle, but we realized that wouldn’t be as fun since the reader wouldn’t know it. So we added the plant/flower clues to make it a bit more complex and also so that you could learn things while watching them solve it!

What’s one thing that’s surprised you about the publishing process?

I would say for our book the thing that surprised me the most was the trust they put in me with a lot of the aspects of the design, even though I’m an unknown to them! For instance, they sent a cover mock-up and I suggested a different style of font—which they then allowed me to do! Me! I’m really proud of the cover we did—it was based on my original idea and then I, who is in no way a professional artist or any kind of artistic talent, got to do the cover lettering and the lettering on the spine! It was very exciting to work with our editor and the art department on that, and I feel really great about how it turned out!

What would you like to hear a young reader say after they’ve read your book?

I just hope they enjoy it, and like Zed. I hope some LGBTQ+ kids will see themselves and have fun reading a book where the main character is like them and gets to do all kinds of cool things. I hope they say that it inspired them to learn something else—like, I don’t know, gardening or the history of pulp horror novels, or maybe that it inspired them to write. I think I’d like that a lot.

Do you have another book on which you’re working right now?

Basil: Not exactly—I’m trying to finish my bachelor’s degree (sigh). But I am toying with writing an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, possibly for YA readers. I’m not sure yet, and I don’t want to jinx it! But I can tell you there will be a queer element to it, most definitely.

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

To be honest, I am not all that active on social media, but I am trying to update my writing Instagram account more, @basiltheowrites (Theodore is my middle name).

Thank you so much for talking with me today, Basil, and I wish you all the best with your book’s launch in January.

Thanks so much Kathie! What an honour, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the book! The published version is going to be even better—we caught a few mistakes in the ARC—so look out for that on January 26! Have a great weekend everyone, and happy reading!

BASIL SYLVESTER is a nonbinary bookseller. Their favourite monsters are vampires. They live in Toronto. The Fabulous Zed Watson! is their first book. 

Cover Reveal for BEA IS FOR BLENDED, by Lindsey Stoddard

Welcome, Lindsey, and welcome to MG Book Village. I’m so happy you could join us today to reveal the cover for your upcoming book, BEA IS FOR BLENDED, which is set to be released by HarperCollins on May 4, 2021. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Hi, thank you for having me! Yes. In the book, it has always been eleven-year-old Bea and her mom. But now, Bea’s mom is marrying a man named Wendell who has three sons, two dogs, and a cat. As Bea learns to adapt to life in a new, busy house with a new, bigger family, she also runs into new obstacles at the beginning of middle school. For example, Aileyanna-people-call-me-“A” moves right across the street and has a fancy bounce-back soccer net in the front yard, and a killer left foot. Bea’s always been the town’s “most valuable girl,” and there isn’t room for another left-footed midfielder. But when they arrive on the first day of sixth grade and learn that this might be the first year enough girls are interested in soccer to field their own team, A and Bea must learn to drop the competition and fight together for what they deserve: a team, with a coach who takes them seriously, and a town behind them.

Really, this is a story about coming together and lifting each other up.

I’m curious to how this story came to you, and how much the story changed from the original concept during the process of writing it?

For all of my books, I reflect back to my own childhood and some of the big emotions I remember feeling then. Each book is then powered by that seed emotion. For BEA IS FOR BLENDED it was a moment when the boys’ soccer team at my school dressed up like girls for team spirit. They wore sports bras over their jerseys, stuck their hair in little ponytails all over their head, smeared terrible lipstick across their mouths, and flitted around the halls pretending they had broken a nail. I remember feeling angry and humiliated, but I also remember feeling the pressure to laugh along with the boys, because the “cool” girls were the ones who could take a joke. I had a non-reaction then. I went about my day not laughing along with them, but also not confronting them and I remember my silence feeling so wrong. But now I have BEA and this book is, in part, my reaction to that behavior. Throughout the writing of the book, I stayed true to that seed emotion, and built the story from there.

Is there a character with whom you would have been friends as a middle grader?

I think middle school Lindsey would have gravitated towards A’s confidence. In fact, my real middle school best friend, Lauren, has some of A’s qualities, and I drew on my friendship with Lauren so much for this book. We couldn’t have been more different. I played every sport under the sun while Lauren sang in her church choir, recorded her own CDs for Christmas presents, and played the piccolo. I wore soccer shorts and t-shirts to school. She had a knack for doing hair into complicated updos. But we were inseparable. My friendship with her taught me what to strive for in strong girl friendships: No judgment, lots of humor, and someone who will link arms with you to lift you up, and make you stronger. This is what Bea and A learn to do over the course of the book.

This is your fourth middle grade novel, but the second one you’ll release during the pandemic. What are some ways that readers can best help support authors right now?

Yes, this has been a difficult time for launching books. What I miss most are the in-person school visits. I miss connecting face-to-face with young readers, feeling their excitement, seeing their classrooms, and their projects, meeting their teachers, hearing their questions. Besides buying their books, anything you can do to reach out to an author to let them know their book landed in the perfect reader-hands is always so appreciated. I LIGHT UP when I hear about a reader who fell hard for one of my books.

Did you have any input in the cover, and who is the illustrator?

Jen Bricking, the amazing illustrator, initially sketched a few options for the cover and together with my agent and editor, we decided on one. It was a tough decision because all of her sketches were beautiful and thoughtful, but this one just felt right. I love it. Jen captures so much beauty and just the right amount of storytelling and intrigue.  

OK, it’s time for the moment we’ve all been waiting for….

Oh wow, Lindsey, this is so bright and colorful. I think kids will definitely gravitate toward it.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?

There is no such thing as a girl book or a boy book. I hope that kids, regardless of gender, find strength in Bea’s story and that they find hope and courage in Bryce’s character. I hope they find comfort in Bea and Maximilian’s friendship and I hope they all want to take down Principal Meesley.

I love this! Where should people go if they want to know more about you and your writing?

You can visit my website www.lindseystoddard.com or follow me on Twitter @lindseystoddard or Instagram @lindseystoddardwrites

Thanks again for stopping by the Village today, Lindsey, and allowing us to be part of your cover reveal. All the best to you and the release of your new book.

Thank you so much for having me!

Lindsey Stoddard was born and raised in Vermont. She spent twelve years living in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, teaching middle school English, before returning to the Green Mountain State with her husband and two young children. She is also the author of Just Like JackieRight as Rain, and Brave Like That

Cover Reveal for SOL INVICTUS by Ben Gartner

Hi Ben! I’m so glad you could drop by the Village today and tell us about the sequel to your debut novel, THE EYE OF RA. What’s the name of the next book in the series, and can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Thank you for having me, Kathie! It’s an honor to be featured on MGBookVillage. You and the others do such great things for the middle grade community. Thank you.

My new book is SOL INVICTUS and picks up where THE EYE OF RA left off, specifically following John and Sarah. In book two, I tease a bit more about the overall series arc, but the meat of the adventure is when John and Sarah travel back to an ancient Roman frontier town called Aventicum in modern day Switzerland. They’ve been given a cryptic message that they must unite the Roman emperor of Gaul with one of the Alemanni (Germanic) “barbarians” if they wish to fulfill their quest. Along the way they have to survive in the Alps, battle fearsome wild beasts in the gladiator ring, and evade capture during a chariot chase. And all while dealing with their own internal struggles around the balance between independence versus being part of a whole, and how those two things can coexist.

How did writing the second book differ from writing the first one, and what’s one thing you did differently this time?

I plotted a lot more from the outset with this book. I love to just sit down and write and let my mind wander and follow the movie along, so to speak. That is how book one started, in collaboration with my sons. Then, of course, once we had some meat to a story, I did outline the whole thing and went back and revised heavily so that the outcome is different than it was when we started. But with book two, while I did brainstorm with my boys for ideas, I completed a more thorough outline before diving in to the writing. I also plotted more of the overall series arc and completed a skeleton for book three at the same time as book two. The day I stop learning is the day I die and this writing process is no exception!

Do you find that feedback from your readers influences the direction of the series, or do you have an idea ahead of time where it’s going?

Definitely both. I love to hear feedback about what worked well and what maybe didn’t excite as much. You can learn from both types of feedback. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything, and I certainly need to remember that this is my story and story-telling can be a subjective art, but I do incorporate a lot of the ideas from my readers (especially my sons, of course!) because often they are brilliant ideas! For one example, my sons introduced the idea of a puppy into the mix and that spawned my thinking about a wolf, and research led me to the story of Fenrir, and… Well, I do like to keep some surprises…

Have you changed your writing schedule over the last few months, and if so, how has that impacted you?

Well, my writing schedule has changed quite a bit, but not primarily because of COVID per se, which is what I think you’re driving at. What has most impacted my writing schedule is the various multi-tasking necessary with having multiple books in various stages of development or production. I’m still marketing my first book, but that’s taking a bit of a back seat because I’m now focusing more of those efforts on Sol Invictus – this cover reveal, contacting ARC-reviewers and bloggers, etc. And I’m also writing the third book. To be honest, I don’t love the marketing aspects of book selling. Or, said more accurately and in the positive: I most enjoy the writing part of being an author. 🙂

Let’s talk about the new book’s cover. I know you have the same illustrator; can you tell us about the experience of working with them?

Anne Glenn (http://anneglenndesign.co.uk/) is a very talented and distinguished illustrator and designer. She’s worked with a lot of big names and big publishing houses so I feel very lucky to be working with her. Her beautiful work speaks for itself!

It’s time for the big reveal!

Oh wow, there are so many great details in this cover; it looks like an action-packed ride!

What is it that you hope young readers will take away from your books?

The thing I loved about reading when I was a kid (and still do, of course) was the ability of a book to transport me to another time and place, or even to within another body, to see the world outside of my own horse blinders. I could be and do anything. I love the adventure, the possibilities, and the learning that come with that shift in perspective. And, though maybe I didn’t fully grok it at the time, reading let me work through my own “stuff.” In the best books, I could empathize with the character. They may be completely different from me, but I subconsciously learned from our shared humanity and shared challenges. I feared with them, I reveled with them, I overcame with them.

And besides, a little escapism isn’t such a bad thing, as long as there’s a good story wrapped inside of all the thrills.

Are there more books to come in the series, and if so, can you tell us anything about what you’re working on right now?

I am working on book three now! All will be revealed about who John and Sarah really are, and why they’ve been traveling in time. Their character growth will ratchet up along a self-actualization curve and bring them more into their own skins.

For the core of the adventure, they’ll be traveling to the time of the Aztec people (who actually called themselves the Mexica) in modern-day central Mexico, around the ancient city of Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City now resides). One of my challenges with this third book will be the names! For example, Huitzilopochtli was the sun god (among other things) and a primary deity for the Aztecs. Yes, I listened to pronunciation guides.

Where can people go to find out more about you and your writing?

BenGartner.com is the best place. I’m active on Twitter (@BGartnerWriting), and less so on Instagram (BGartnerWriting) and Facebook (BenGartnerAuthor).

Pre-orders for SOL INVICTUS coming February 2021 are available now:

All the Digital: https://books2read.com/sol-invictus-ben-gartner

Print pre-orders: Coming soon! You can sign up for my newsletter to learn more here: http://bit.ly/ben-gartner-mailing-list

Thank you for allowing us to be part of your cover reveal, Ben.

It has been my pleasure! Thank you so much. And thank you again for all the time and effort you volunteer for our middle grade community – authors, readers, teachers, librarians, thank you!

Ben Gartner is the award-winning author of The Eye of Ra adventure series for middle graders. His books take readers for a thrilling ride, maybe even teaching them something in the meantime. Ben can be found living and writing near the mountains with his wife and two boys.

2021 MG Debut Authors

We believe it’s important to support debut authors, especially during such challenging times. We created a list of 2021 MG debut authors and their release dates, along with links to their books on Goodreads. A huge thank you to Sam Subity for sharing his resources with us, and making our job very easy! We will update the information as more becomes available, and you can access it any time as a heading on the main page of our website.

If you are a traditionally published MG debut author and would like to be added to the list, or if this information needs to be updated, please feel free to send us an email.

Book Review: ICK! DELIGHTFULLY DISGUSTING ANIMAL DINNERS, DWELLINGS, AND DEFENSES, by Melissa Stewart

Looking for one of those books that makes readers say, “Ewww!”, “Oh my goodness!”, “That’s gross!” out loud or makes them slam the book shut, only to open it again to continue reading? Ick! is the book for those readers. This is the perfect book for those kids who love to learn about animals, especially what they eat, where they live, and how they defend themselves.

Now there are some animals you know are going to be included in this book, like spiders, rats, and snakes, and even with some new information, they are still just as gross as you expect them to be. However, the interesting thing about this book is that you will be surprised at some of the other animals that are highlighted, ones that readers may even admire or think are nice and cuddly.

And as expected from a National Geographic book, the photographs are awesome. They are vibrant, up close and personal, and usually include the thing that qualifies the animal as icky. Which is why there’ll be some strong reactions from readers as they read this book.

As far as the text goes, there’s not an overwhelming amount of text for kid readers who don’t want to be overwhelmed with a lot of specific vocabulary to wade through. Stewart does an excellent job of getting straight to the point explaining why the animal has earned its distinction and then gives a couple of other interesting facts for the reader to enjoy.

This is definitely one that students will love to pick up, put back down in disgust, and then pick it right up again. My kids (aged 9 and 11) and I love these kinds of books, so reading this was a no-brainer for us, and we were not disappointed!

Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses by Melissa Stewart was released in June 2020.

Deana Metzke, in addition to being a wife and mother of two, spent many years as a Literacy Coach, and is now an Elementary Teacher Instructional Leader for Literacy and Social Studies for her school district. In addition to occasionally sharing her thoughts here at MG Book Village, you can read more of her thoughts about kid lit and trying to raise children who are readers at raisingreaders.site or follow her on Twitter @DMetzke. She is also a member of #bookexcursion.

Cover Reveal for THE KATE IN BETWEEN, by Claire Swinarski

Hi Claire, and welcome to MG Book Village! It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that we were chatting about your debut novel, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, so you’ve been very busy! Can you tell us a bit about your new novel, THE KATE IN BETWEEN, which is scheduled to be released on May 18, 2021 with Quill Tree Books?

THE KATE IN BETWEEN is about what happens when 12-year-old Kate goes viral for saving her best friend Haddie’s life. Only, just like so often happens in our digital culture, what actually happened isn’t what it looks like. Kate had actually recently ditched Haddie for a more popular crew, and the reason Haddie needed saving in the first place was Kate’s fault. It leads to all kinds of questions: who is Kate, really, when nobody’s looking? Who is Haddie? Are they good, are they bad? What do those words even mean? It’s about friendship conflict, which I had a lot of in middle school, but more importantly, it’s about discovering who you really are and what you really stand for. And we’re back in Wisconsin again–only this time, instead of the Northwoods, Kate is living in my hometown of Madison!

What’s one thing you learned from writing your first published book that you did differently while writing the second?

Writing KATE was a very collaborative process with my editor, which I’m not used to! I usually write by the seat of my pants, so having to have things plotted out ahead of time was out of my comfort zone. But I learned from WHAT HAPPENS NEXT just how important a great editor is, and I was really thankful to work with Alyssa Miele at Quill Tree once again. 

What three things can you tell our readers about this story or its inspiration?

First of all, I went through some incredibly difficult friendship conflict in middle school, as I mentioned above. It’s easy to write this off as drama, as if it’s something shallow and inconsequential to the rest of a girl’s life. But the truth is, middle school is a very formative time, and things that happened to me during those years are things I continue to wrestle with and mull over today. It’s the time of life when we’re really deciding what we believe about the world, so the interpersonal complexities we walk through at 12 are anything but inconsequential. Secondly, Kate’s mom is wrapped up in a multi-level marketing scheme. MLMs are really popular among women my age and I wanted to write about the effect being in one can have on someone’s family members. Thirdly, when I started the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about how differently kids are growing up now than they were in the 90s, when I was growing up. We simply didn’t have the access to share media the way middle schoolers do now–how is it changing the way they act and react to things? That was really interesting and fun to explore.

OK, let’s talk about the cover. I really love the colors that were chosen. Who was the illustrator, and did you have any input in its development?

Richie Pope illustrated the cover. Let me just say this: I have heard horror stories about writers not really liking their cover and having to do all of this awkward back-and-forth, and that has never happened to me. Both times I’ve seen my book covers, I have been in awe of the illustrator’s talent and the way they were able to bring the story to life! I was asked for input this time around but I told them the truth: I honestly had no vision in my head of this cover. I wanted the illustrator to be free to create something he thought would tease the story and expose a bit of the message. I think Richie hit it out of the park!

Let’s do the big reveal!!

Wow, it’s so eye-catching. When I look at it, the first word that comes to mind is “secret”. If you could describe it in one word, what comes to mind, and why?

I would say “conflicted”. Kate just looks so unsure, and I love that, because so much of the book rests on that feeling–that I-don’t-really-know worry. She truly looks like a Kate who’s in between versions of herself. 

Releasing one book and writing another during a pandemic are far from ideal conditions for any author, so let me first say congratulations for hanging in there. How have you managed to juggle all of your different hats during such an uncertain time?

Oh, my gosh. KATE was written before the pandemic hit, but I did all of the editing with absolutely no childcare! I have two very little kids so it was definitely a juggling act. Thankfully, I have an amazingly supportive husband who has a flexible job as well, so we were able to kind of pass the baton and balance everything. I also had to give myself time limits of how long I could look at the news. It was easy to read COVID horror stories and then be distracted while I was supposed to be living in Kate’s world!

Are you working on any other writing projects you can share with us at this time?

I’m dabbling in a bit of ghostwriting at the moment, so it’s very hush hush! But I would love to return with another middle grade book under my own name soon–I’m constantly thinking of ideas and scribbling stories. 

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

You can head to claireswinarski.com–I particularly love visiting classrooms virtually, so teachers, please feel free to reach out!

Thank you so much for joining us today, Claire, and I can’t wait to read this book when it’s available!

Thanks, Kathie! May can’t come quickly enough. 

Interview with Jennifer Gennari re: MUFFLED

We’re happy to have you visit MG Book Village today, Jennifer. Your second middle grade novel, MUFFLED, is scheduled for release on October 27th with Simon & Schuster. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Thank you for having me! I am excited for readers to meet Amelia, reluctant trombonist and earmuff wearer! Fifth grader Amelia is sensitive to sound yet has to learn to play an instrument, or, as she sees it, make noise on purpose. It’s a story about navigating school, making friends, and stepping out of her comfort zone on her own terms. Plus, a pet fish and the Boston Public Library!

I’m curious to know how the idea for this book came to you. What compelled you to tell this story?

Snow is the seed of MUFFLED! When I was young, a blizzard in my Boston suburb stopped all traffic for a few days, and I loved the silence. Later, I wondered, what if quiet was a need, not a want? Then I met my husband, who is a highly sensitive person. He has taught me to listen more and provide those breaks of sound and space around him. Many of his traits I borrowed for Amelia, but ultimately this is her story. Plus, I love trombones, although I played clarinet in elementary school (and quickly switched to choir!).

Is there a character that you most enjoyed writing, and which character is most like you?

It’s hard to choose one! Madge was fun — she is kind and loud and it takes a lot to make her upset. Amelia is a little like me, although I do not have a sensitivity to sound. I was the kid alone on the playground, reading and avoiding sports. And the biggest treat was to create Mr. Skerritt, the school counselor, who wheezes when he speaks (which irritates Amelia) but ultimately she realizes he is a friend.

Do you like to have a book planned out before you write, or does it develop as the writing happens?

I am a planner, and I often begin with an idea and a setting. Then, the characters develop through many, many revisions. I am a huge fan of revising! I read aloud and use index cards to rearrange scenes until I have a satisfying arc. MUFFLED is interesting, too, because it started as a novel-in-verse. A big shout-out to my editor, Catherine Laudone, who asked if I’d be willing to write it in prose. Her suggestions helped me deepen the secondary characters and add in fun people like Mr. Skerritt!

What’s one thing that’s different about publishing this book (besides a pandemic, of course!) from your debut book, MY MIXED-UP BERRY BLUE SUMMER.

Nothing compares to the thrill of a debut! The main difference is that I know what to expect with a second book, from marketing to promotion to sales. It’s hard to connect with readers during a pandemic but it was also hard to find an audience for MY MIXED-UP BERRY BLUE SUMMER, which takes place in Vermont in 2000 during the backlash against the nation’s first civil union law. Unfortunately, many schools and states weren’t ready yet for a middle grade novel about a girl with two moms. I am hoping that MUFFLED finds many more readers, especially as it is a Junior Library Guild selection.

The other big difference is that it was eight years ago! Now I know so many more authors and book-loving people. It really does take a village (like MG Book Village!) to make and share books, and I’m grateful to everyone, from agents, editors, and designers to booksellers, bloggers, and librarians. 

What do you hope your readers will take away from your story?

I hope everyone finds MUFFLED a fun read, with a holiday concert that goes wrong, multiplication tricks, and Boston T subway rides. Ultimately, compassion is an undercurrent that runs through my work — I believe we should be kind to one another and accept our different ways of experiencing the world. 

Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing, and do you have another writing project on which you’re currently working?

You can follow me on twitter @jengenn and learn more at www.jengennari.com. I am excited about my next middle grade, which is the story of a girl who wants to stop the sea from flooding the only home she’s ever known.

We wish you all the best with your book’s launch, Jennifer!

Jennifer Gennari is the author of MUFFLED (Simon & Schuster, 2020), a Junior Library Guild selection, and MY MIXED-UP BERRY BLUE SUMMER (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), a Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year selection, and an American Library Association Rainbow List title. An engaging speaker and teacher, she has presented at schools, SCBWI workshops, and Highlights Foundation. She serves as Marin County Co-Coordinator for the SF North and East Bay Region of SCBWI. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives on the water in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Five Things You Should Know About A THOUSAND QUESTIONS by Saadia Faruqi

FIVE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT A THOUSAND QUESTIONS

Set against the backdrop of Karachi, Pakistan, Saadia Faruqi’s tender and honest middle grade novel tells the story of two girls navigating a summer of change and family upheaval with kind hearts, big dreams, and all the right questions. A Thousand Questions (Quill Tree Books, Oct 6). Preorder here.  

When I started writing A Thousand Questions, I wondered if anyone in the U.S. would be interested in reading about my birth country of Pakistan. Add to that the fact that this book isn’t about some big tragedy or major injustice, but rather a story about everyday life in another country. I’ve decided that the answer to this question is yes. Our young readers today are smart and curious. They look forward to books in unusual settings because they want to learn and be entertained.

So here are five important (and fun) things a reader will take away from A Thousand Questions:

  1. Life in other countries is very similar to ours.

Often, we tend to exoticize life in other countries. How many times have you heard a British accent and thought it sounded just the coolest? And how many times have you met someone from the Middle East and wondered how much freedom they had? A Thousand Questions showcases the everyday, mundane tasks of life in Pakistan through two perspectives: Mimi’s new, wondering perspective as an outsider, and Sakina’s weary, old perspective of someone who’s lived there all her life. From the streets of Karachi to the delicious foods cooked in Nani’s kitchen, there is so much American readers will find familiar and comforting.

2. Speaking of food, Pakistani cuisine is delicious.

Sakina’s father is the cook in Mimi’s grandparents’ house, and he takes pride in cooking the most delicious and mouthwatering food. Interestingly this isn’t the food you’d find in a south Asian restaurant (tikka or biryani for example) but ordinary household foods I grew up eating, such as aaloo gosht or pulao. What’s especially relevant is that Mimi, the American grandchild, finds the food too spicy in the beginning of the story. But as time goes by, she learns to appreciate what’s on the table. I think readers are like that as well: they may find a book like A Thousand Questions unusual at first, but they’ll hopefully love it as they continue to read.

3. Karachi is an amazing destination for tourists.

Like any other big city, Karachi (the financial center of Pakistan) has its fair share of problems. Overcrowding, poverty, bad roads, etc. But it’s also an incredibly diverse city and a premier destination for tourists to South Asia. I was born in Karachi and grew up there, so I know all the best places to visit, from British-era buildings and open-air vegetable markets, to multi-storied indoor amusement parks and big malls housing the latest international items. Mimi rides a camel on the beach, sits in a noisy rickshaw, and visits a mausoleum – all things I did in my youth. Aaliya Jaleel was the fantastic illustrator who created the cover of A Thousand Questions with Karachi’s beautiful – and to me, beloved – skyline.

4. Friendships can jump across language and cultural barriers.

At its heart, A Thousand Questions is a friendship story. Mimi arrives from America at her grandmother’s house, yearning for the father who’s left her. Sakina is the cook’s daughter, too busy trying to get admission into school while keeping it a secret from her family to be interested in the new guest. They hardly speak each other’s languages, and the way they’ve both grown up is worlds apart. Yet they find something in common: they both have big, impossible dreams. And they’re both determined to accomplish those dreams. If there’s a lesson in this book, it is that friendship takes courage and patience, but is always worth it.

5. Democracy is something to be grateful for.

During the course of the summer, while Mimi and Sakina are slowly becoming friends, there is also something bigger than them happening: a national election. Just like we’re counting down the days to the 2020 elections in the U.S. the characters in the book are counting down the days to elect their leaders. There is a lot of election drama, including violence and corruption. All this is important for American readers, both young and old, to read about. Only then can we truly understand the value of true democracy, and how fragile it can be.

I wrote A Thousand Questions to share my childhood memories with my readers. I wanted to show you my heritage: where I came from, and what made me who I am today. Preorder now by clicking here.

Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series “Yasmin” published by Capstone and other books for children, including middle grade novels “A Place At The Table” (HMH/Clarion 2020) co-written with Laura Shovan, and “A Thousand Questions” (Harper Collins 2020). She has also written “Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan” a short story collection for adults and teens. Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She resides in Houston, TX with her husband and children. 

Interview with Summer Rachel Short about THE MUTANT MUSHROOM TAKEOVER

Welcome to MG Book Village, Summer! I look forward to learning more about you and your writing. Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, please?

Thanks so much for having me here, Kathie! I’m a middle grade writer living in North Texas. I have a degree in journalism and have worked as a writer in some capacity pretty much all of my professional life. Though it wasn’t until about five years ago that I really got serious about writing fiction. Before that I’d written a few short stories here and there and drafted novel ideas that got tucked away in desk drawers. Then in the end of 2015, it was like a switch flipped and all of sudden writing a novel went from something on the backburner to a driving passion.

Your upcoming book, THE MUTANT MUSHROOM TAKEOVER, comes out on September 22nd. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it?

The book is a lightly spooky STEM novel that features eleven-year-old aspiring naturalist, Maggie, and her conspiracy theorist/YouTuber best friend, Nate, who must solve the mystery surrounding a strange glow-in-the-dark fungus that’s spreading through their small town. At the same time, Maggie is trying to put her family back together as her dad has recently taken a job across country. For now, she’s stuck in her gramma’s mobile home with her grumpy older brother, Ezra, who develops odd symptoms after their run-in with the fungus. All around town people and animals start sprouting unusual growths and exhibiting alarming behavior. Things get more dangerous as Maggie’s brother develops a bluish glow and a nagging cough. Maggie must use her scientific know-how and Nate’s impressive knowledge of all things spooky to save their town from the odd glowing mushrooms.

What’s one thing about this story that compelled you to write it?

Several years ago, my kids and I watched an old documentary called Fungi: The Rotten World About Us on YouTube. We were all so fascinated by fungi’s strange properties that I kept reading more until I stumbled upon an especially creepy kind of fungus with some very bizarre abilities. This real-life fungus features prominently in my book (I can’t say the name of it just yet as it’s a spoiler!). Another inspiration was my son, who was ten at the time, who wanted me to write a story about a character named Root Beard who possesses a beard made of living tree roots. That nugget became the impetus for an important character in the book. 

Is there a character in this book that you would have liked as a friend?

I have to say my main character’s best friend, Nate. He’s a conspiracy theorist/wanna-be YouTube star. He’s on the hunt for aliens, Bigfoot, and anything else spooky and sensational. He keeps Maggie on her toes and has a zest for adventure that I admire. He’s all about fun and doesn’t really give much thought to what people will think of all his wild ideas.

Did this story change a lot during the editing process?

The story changed a fair amount over the couple years I worked on it. In the earliest drafts, Maggie’s best friend, Nate, was actually an antagonist, but the more I wrote, the more he kept zinging out one liners and eventually I rewrote his character completely. Also, I was a PitchWars mentee in 2018 and The Mutant Mushroom Takeover was the manuscript I submitted. During that period, I got great feedback from my mentors on ways to strengthen the story, including reducing its length quite a bit. Originally, it was around 70,000 words and the final version is closer to 50,000. The book’s title has also changed a few times throughout its life. But the main characters’ opposites-attract friendship and the mystery of the strange fungus taking over their small town always remained at the heart.

How have you adapted your book’s release due to COVID?

More of my author activities are definitely moving online because of COVID. I’ve done a couple of virtual author panels so far and will also be doing my book launch party virtually with a local independent bookstore. While I’d love to see friends and family in person and sign all their books for my release, the virtual launch does let me connect with people who otherwise probably wouldn’t be able to attend.

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

My website is srachelshort.com. I’m also on Twitter at @Summer_Rachel_ and Instagram @summerrachelwrites.

Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Summer, and best of luck with your book’s release.

Summer lives in North Texas with her charming husband, three hilarious kids, a fluffy kitty, and a big yellow dog. Before spinning tales about mutant mushrooms, she once worked as a science reporter for her university’s newspaper, where she wrote on topics like nanotech tweezers, poultry farm pollution, and the nighttime habits of spiders and snakes. She enjoys
exploring new places with the family, playing tennis, and dreaming up ideas for her next book.

CHILDREN’S STORIES, ANIMAL STYLE, by PJ Gardner

I have a confession to make—I speak for my dogs. They have different voices, of course. Rosie’s is higher and more refined, while Rocky’s is deep and confused. She blames me for making her an older sister at six, and he talks about the joys of biting things. Yeah, I’m one of those people, and, yeah, it’s silly, but I do it because I’m certain they have rich inner lives. All animals do. That certainty is why I write animal POV. Well, that, and it’s a blast.

To me there are three keys to writing it successfully—research, responsibility, and relatability.

RESEARCH

Researching animals isn’t all Dodo stories and YouTube videos. Although, those are great sources for inspiration. No, sometimes it’s asking google which animals have paws like hands and then looking at images of chickens wearing fake arms for two hours. It’s a real thing, I promise. Personally, I do a LOT of secondary research. There’s a lot of great information online and, of course, the library has much to offer. Where possible I try to do primary research There’s nothing as helpful as spending time with the animals I’m writing about and the people who care for them.

When I was writing Horace & Bunwinkle I had the opportunity to visit with Better Piggies Rescue based in Phoenix. I learned so much from them that my online research hadn’t provided. The most important thing I learned is there’s no such thing as teacup pigs or micro mini pigs or a pig that stays under 25 lbs. The only way to keep a pig small is to underfeed it. Which leads me to my next point.

RESPONSIBILITY

Writing for young readers carries a lot of weight. They aren’t as familiar with the suspension of disbelief so they tend to accept what you write in the story. That makes it all the more important to be accurate or at least acknowledge where you varied from fact.

Because it’s a series, none of the characters age in Horace & Bunwinkle, but I don’t want readers to misunderstand, so I wrote a note at the end of the book. The last thing I want is for people to buy a piglet thinking it won’t grow up. It’s not fair to the pig or the family. And I can only imagine the angry letter I’d get from the parents.

I also think seeing through an animal’s eyes strengthens kids’ connection to that animal and the world it lives in. They become more invested in protecting the environment and preserving habitats.

RELATABILITY

I always hope readers identify with my characters, even if they’re a dog or a pig. Horace struggles with a move from the suburbs to a farm, and for most of the book he refuses to adapt to his new home. Bunwinkle is the younger sister who always feels like she has to prove she can do everything her older sibling is doing. I think a lot of kids can relate to those feelings, and they enjoy the story more because of it.

Great animal characters combine both animal behaviors and human emotions. They create a connection with the natural world and inspire us to protect it. And they are a lot of fun to write.

When PJ Gardner was a little girl growing up in Colorado she dreamt of being an actress or a dental hygienist or even Mrs. John Travolta. It didn’t occur to her that she could be a writer until she was a grown up. Now her debut middle grade novel, Horace & Bunwinkle, is being published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, and she’s thrilled.

PJ lives in the scorching heat of the Arizona desert with her husband, sons, and Boston Terriers, Rosie and Rocky. She doesn’t own a pig because her husband says she’s not allowed to.