The Fated and Magical Reasons I Wrote THE SPINNER OF DREAMS

Annalise Meriwether, a kindhearted eleven-year-old girl with purple hair and eyes, first appeared to me on July 28th, 2016. She was chasing a fluffy white cat in a top hat and monocle through a midnight field and looked scared to tears. A curse marked her left palm in the shape of a broken black heart. The moonlit sky was cracked in half. Black wolves prowled the dark forest’s perimeter, ethereal white crows cawed overhead, and the fields surrounding her were charred black. The atmosphere was tense and darkly magical, yet Annalise gave off this aura of lightness—a sincerity, gentleness, and unwavering optimism I instantly loved. I knew right away, wherever this enchanted girl and white cat were going, I would follow.

Despite being panic-deep in edits on The Land of Yesterday, I opened a new document and wrote, Annalise wants to be queen of her destiny and defeat fate. Allegory of what it’s like to follow your dreams and fail, time after time, and still get up to do it again. From this opening scene, I began to see the whole story unfold . . .

Once upon a time, in an ancient world above the sky, there lived two powerful enchantresses, the Fate Spinner, and her twin sister, the Spinner of Dreams. The first bestowed each person’s unbendable fate. The last gave each person their heart’s most precious dreams. Yet something changed the night Annalise was born—something so dark and wicked, the town of Carriwitchet broke with her birth. And everyone, including the coldhearted Fate Spinner, saw the newly born child, Annalise Lorien Meriwether, was to blame.

I saw Annalise’s impoverished parents, Harry and Maddie Meriwether, and all the love they held in their eyes for their sweet daughter. I saw their decrepit black house, in the shape of a bent witch’s hat, and the desecrated town of Carriwitchet surrounding them. I felt the hatred of the townsfolk for Annalise—the girl who destroyed their town and bore the Fate Spinner’s curse. I saw a train composed of magic and thousands of white crows carrying hundreds of magical cats. And inside that white-feather train, glimpsed a terrified, three-legged black fox with a secret dream—of opening a candy shop with his husband and escaping his own cruel fate. But it wasn’t until a monstrous labyrinth appeared in the enchantresses’ realm that I realized where all the players in this fairytale were going and why. That Annalise and the fox, and those they met on the way, were travelling to the Fate Spinner’s labyrinth to battle creatures more insidious than the mind could fathom for a chance at their greatest dreams.

Yet as fantastic as this fairytale sounded, the scope of emotion and mind and heart it would take to create this dreamworld was really intimidating! It all looked and sounded so wonderful in my head, but that was a far cry from actually getting those impressions on paper. This world was much bigger than that of my debut, and I wasn’t sure I was talented enough to pull it off. Plus, all the same doubts, fears, and questions plaguing Annalise were swirling inside me, too.

Am I doing the right thing? Am I brave enough for this?
Am I strong enough to face my fears and go after my dream?
What if I fail?

Still, experienced authors always say that writers should challenge themselves. And something told me this story was worth it.

After drafting twelve chapters of the fantasy I’d originally titled, THE QUEEN OF DREAMS, it was clear that Annalise and I shared anxiety, panic, intrusive thoughts, and PTSD. Immersing myself in her pain each day only to dive back into my own was extremely difficult. At times, juggling her battles and mine at once got very dark for me. But I swear, this girl was so good and kind and brave, and so overflowing with hope despite her cruel past, her dangerous present, and the uncertainty awaiting her future, she helped me remember why I started this book. Why writing a story about a cursed girl going after her dreams was SO important to me.

I’d been a girl just like Annalise and would’ve loved a book-friend like this.

And if I needed this story, there must be other kids who needed it, too.

A little backstory. The first book I ever wrote was an adult creative non-fiction that revolved around my family’s true history and touched on my traumatic childhood. One of the first agents I queried with it said in her rejection, “Nobody wants to read about children in danger.” I’ve never forgotten those words. Not because they’d rejected my first mess of a book, but because with that one seemingly innocuous sentence, they’d made me feel like all the grit, hope, and strength I’d forged within myself was worthless. That what me and my family went through didn’t matter. That kids’ stories didn’t matter. That girls should remain silent, and their traumas hidden. In the years since that rejection, I’ve heard similar things from adults regarding mental health addressed in kid lit. Statements like, “No kids are going to want to read dark, scary, and sad books.” But guess what? Kids living in those situations crave mirror-books voicing their experiences. They are desperate to know they are seen. That they matter.

That they are not alone.

As a child, I sure could’ve used books with middle grade protagonists who got panic attacks battling dragons. Middle Graders with PTSD making friends. Kids with depression being brave. Middle Graders with autism saving the day. Children finding strength and joy, darkness alongside hope—stories where kids like me got to be the heroes. Maybe if I’d had books like this growing up, it would’ve given me the daring to think if this anxious girl can face her fears and go after her dreams, maybe I can, too.

Climbing inside of a book that understands the reader’s unique struggles can make all the difference in that reader’s health, outlook, and world.

With Annalise’s story, I hoped to show readers that no matter what life throws at you, how different or fearful you felt, or how much you had to overcome, a secret magic is born from dreaming big dreams and not giving up. That a special power grows from the struggle. That one’s differences are often their greatest strengths.

That dreams really can come true.

Thank you so much for reading a little about me and Annalise and how The Spinner of Dreams was born. I can’t wait to share Annalise’s story with you!

K. A. Reynolds is a poet and author from Winnipeg Canada currently residing in Maine. Her superpowers include: battling monsters, reading amid pandemonium, and saving spiders from certain peril. When not typing, daydreaming, or caring for the elderly, she enjoys swapping bad jokes with her numerous offspring, herding various furry beasts, and reading strange and colorful tales expertly crafted by other imagination astronauts in love with words. Visit her at www.kareynoldsbooks.com.

The Struggle between Diversity and #OwnVoices

Sometimes hashtags take on a life of their own, becoming viral and leaping from screen to screen. Such is # OwnVoices, which started out as a small movement to encourage adequate representation of minority authors in kidlit, but now is a buzzword that’s been beaten to death.

I remember using the # OwnVoices hashtag when querying agents on Twitter. It assured that my voice was heard over the millions of white voices. It assured my tweet got seen among the thousands of others, as someone with an authentic and important story to tell. I was proud of being associated with # OwnVoices, because it felt the right step in the direction of representation.

If you’re wondering what this hashtag really stands for, here’s the simple explanation: #OwnVoices means the person telling a story is from the same group as one or more of its main characters. Most of us may not really grasp the importance of this at first reading. Consider this: Instead of hearing a story about a group of people from an outsider, wouldn’t it be better – more authentic – to hear that story from someone within that group? Rather than bystanders, someone with lived experience? I would think the latter would always be a better option.

It’s not that simple, though. Who gets to decide what a lived experience is? If my father had schizophrenia, do I have the authority to write about it? If my aunt gets cancer, am I now a cancer expert? If I lived in a Muslim country for twenty years, is my experience less valid than someone else who did too, but wasn’t Muslim? An expat white American teacher, perhaps? If I’m Muslim but Pakistani, should I be writing about Muslims who are Arab or African?

If these questions are making your head whirl in different directions, you may have an inkling of the struggle that takes place when a minority story gets written by a non-POC author. Whereas once upon a time we were worried about adequate representation of minority stories, now we have an added concern of who’s writing those stories.

As parents, educators and the general public, we’re so grateful that children’s stories with POC main characters are on the rise. The CCBC (https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp) first began compiling data about POC children’s books in 1985 when they discovered that only 18 were eligible for the Coretta Scott King award. The word they use on their website to describe their reaction is “appalled” which is an apt word indeed.

Over the years, the situation has gotten somewhat less appalling. We now have more books about African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians, but nowhere near what could be described as “adequate representation”. Nowhere near what our kids need, or what society needs in terms of creating empathy and racial harmony. But at least it’s grown, and we hope it will continue to grow as the years pass.

There is, however, another portion of the research that is still, to me, appalling. When CCBC gathers data about books, they not only capture who the book is about, but also who is writing the book. In short, #OwnVoices. The latest statistics revealed in March 2018 were no less disappointing. Of the books with African American main characters, only 29.41% were #OwnVoices, which means written by Actual, Real-Life African Americans. Similarly, of the books with Latinx main characters, only 33.8% were #OwnVoices. And so on and so forth. The full analysis of this aspect of the research is here (http://ccblogc.blogspot.com/2018/02/ccbc-2017-multicultural-statistics.html).

If you’re reading this, thinking “so what?” consider this: white people are still telling the stories of POC. On one hand, this is good because in the past POC stories weren’t being told at all. So we have the first impulse to sit down and shut up, because as POC we’ve gotten some of what we’ve been asking – begging – for. Our stories must be told. We are part of the fabric of this nation and we want to be represented in kidlit. Why then, are we complaining about #OwnVoices?

Here’s why: I firmly believe that stories told from our perspective are the only ones that should be called “our stories”. This is our right as storytellers, as people from a particular group, whether it is racial or sexual or other. We are the ones with those lived experiences that need to be shared and celebrated and explored. Not someone whose intent is to conquer and appropriate those stories just as our lands and bodies were conquered and appropriated centuries ago.

The resistance to # OwnVoices by predominantly white authors has been swift and horrific. “So nobody should write alien stories because we’re not alien?” is the common refrain. “Or animals?” Yes, writing about aliens or animals or leprechauns is okay. Writing about People of Color whose communities you’re not part of is not okay, because we have cultural context and histories and generational pain that has shaped us. Aliens, animals and leprechauns don’t. To be equated thus is an insult, but not as insulting as taking over our stories and writing them.

Let’s be clear. Many of the authors I’m talking about are my friends. My colleagues. My mentors. I write this not from a place of anger, but from a place of gentle reprimand, a reminder that we can do better. In fact, I’ve found that many white readers and writers are trying to do better. If you’re one of those who’d rather be on the right side of the # OwnVoices struggle, here’s what you can do:

  1. Learn about obstacles POC face in careers like publishing. This may mean getting out of your comfort zone and understanding things like systemic racism or micro-aggressions or cultural biases.
  2. Seek out aspiring POC creatives and help support them. This could be through mentoring them, critiquing their manuscripts or just being there as a sounding board as they try to get published. This could be a POC student in your classroom, or a friend.
  3. Support POC creatives in their work. Shout about their work, buy their work, and review their work. If you have the choice between a book written by a POC versus one written by a white author, you should know who to support. It’s not rocket science.
  4. Give POC creatives a seat at the table. Sometimes this can be in the form of referrals for illustrators, or passing on a work-for-hire opportunity. Sometimes this means co-writing a book with someone else. There are so many ways, and all of them are risks. Take them.
  5. Accept that you may not be the best person to create something. If you have a great idea about a book with a main character who’s not white, don’t automatically think you’re the perfect person to write it. There is a perfect POC to write it, so find someone to refer or suggest.

# OwnVoices was created to give people of color the same opportunities that others have. It’s a reminder that not only is the story important, but also who tells that story. It means understanding when to sit down and let someone else talk. It’s about acceptance and empathy and well-being, all things we want to teach our children.

So let’s start with ourselves.

Photo: QZB Photography.

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. 

STEM Tuesday Spin Off: Oh, Those Summer Nights Edition

StemLogo-SpinOff (1)

Today we continue the STEM Tuesday Spin Off guest blogger addition to the MG Book Village blog. It’s time once again for a member of the STEM Tuesday group at From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors to share a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) post tying middle grade STEM books, resources, and the STEM Tuesday weekly posts to the familiar, everyday things in the life of middle graders.

We look at the things in life we often take for granted. We peek behind the curtain and search underneath the hood for the STEM principles involved and suggest books and/or links to help build an understanding of the world around us. The common, everyday thing is the hub of the post and the “spin-offs” are the spokes making up our wheel of discovery.

This image is a graphic representation of the content of the STEM Tuesday Spinoff for Summer Nights. A wheel-like form is shown. At the hub is the label, Summer nights. Six spokes radiate to the rim of the wheel, each ending at one or more pictures representing each topical "spoke", or theme in the text:. Separated by 30 degrees, and beginning from top, or 12:00 positino, they are: (1) owl and bat representing creatures of the night; photo of a starry night sky  with the Milky Way, representing looking up with wonder; a sea turtle on the beach at dusk and an illuminated light bulb against a black background represent not so dark nights; a non-detailed world map represents summer and the world at large; a young girl being splashed in the face by water, arms up, eyes closed, and a tight-lipped smile represents classic summer games; and a bowl of sauerkraut, the top of an ice cream cone with ice cream in it, and a toasted marshmallow represent summer cookout.

In this month of August, STEM author and educational consultant Carolyn DeCristofano brings us the “Oh, Those Summer Nights” edition of the STEM Tuesday Spin Off. She takes us from a summer evening to books highlighting several themes: creatures of the night; looking up with wonder; not so dark nights; summer and the world at large; classic summer games; and summer cookouts.

When I was a child, nothing seemed to thrum with magic more than a summer evening. While I’m sure most nights probably were simple, ordinary events of which I took no special note, those that stick in my memory were sublime. These are the ones that define my image of a summer night. If we are lucky, a summer evening might grace us with subtle sensory detail, a connection to nature, and a link to the human community around us and the ones that precede us. And so much of this relates to the stuff of STEM!

Creatures of the Night

Cover of Mark Wilson's book, OWLING, linked to the book's p[age on the publisher's web site, https://www.storey.com/books/owling/

Mark Wilson’s Owling : Enter the World of the Mysterious Birds of the Night takes us on a journey to get to know owls, offering detailed facts about these beloved birds and explaining the parts of their anatomy and physiology that make them so successful. Did you know that owls’ ears are positioned asymmetrically, and that this gives them a unique ability to hone in on their prey? This also helps explain the head-turning habit of these birds of prey. (See Page 15.) A series of two-page spreads continue to examine the features of the owl that contribute to its owliness, and its ability to hunt so well. Other sections address owl lifestyles (not all are nocturnal), various species (!), and, most connected to our outdoor experience, ways of spotting evidence of owls nearby. A favorite section of mine is the set of tips—and rules of owl etiquette—for responsibly carrying on a conversation with your owl neighbors. And in case the reader is inspired to dive more deeply into exploring these amazing creatures, Wilson includes a section that highlights specific individuals and their owl-oriented careers. Helpful diagrams and stunning photos round out the adventure.

Of course, with the weather warm a lot of us head outdoors, some of us trekking away from the city; some others just stepping outside into our own backyards. And being outside in the evening gives us an opportunity to tune in to creatures of the night—the nocturnal beasts that hunt, hide, sing, and soar all around us, whether we notice or not. Look up at dusk and you may see swooping bats. Listen carefully and you might hear owls hooting.

Cover of THE BAT SCIENTISTS, with link to book page on publisher's site: https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/The-Bat-Scientists/9780544104938

Tom Uhlman’s photographs serve up a visual treat in Mary Kay Carson’s The Bat Scientists, featuring these nocturnal mammals and those who study them. For example, Page 42 features a close-up photo of a hibernating tri-colored, iridescent, tiny droplets of water coating its fur. The text and pictures give the reader a sense of tramping through caves to investigate these creatures alongside the scientists whose work is to know these animals up close and personal. Much more than a naturalist travelogue, this book digs into the serious science of bats. For example, she explores the “great white plague”, or white-nose syndrome, which threatens the survival of bat populations. It would be fun to read Owling and The Bat Scientists together, comparing and contrasting these nocturnal flyers through the scientific lens.

Cover of MOSQUITO BITE with link to book's page on publisher's website.

Of course, you might not want to get up close and personal with all of the critters hanging around on a summer night. Mosquitoes, for example, are best studied from afar. Unless you happen to be zooming in on them in Alexandra Siy and Dennis Kunkel’s Mosquito Bite. Featuring Kunkel’s stunning (and now classic) scanning electron microscopy, the book provides a great example of how technology can extend our ability to study the world around us.

Looking Up with Wonder

Cover of DOT TO DOT IN THE SKY, with link to book's page on the publisher's website.

Of course, on a summer evening, the world around us includes the night sky. If you are lucky enough to be in a dark-sky area on a clear night, you can’t help but look up and revel in the night lights. Stars take center stage and, if you are like many people contemplating the night sky, you will start to try to pick out the patterns of stars that have been recognized and named for millennia. Dot to Dot in the Sky: Stories in the Star (Joan Marie Galat) provides a primer to the (mostly Western culture) northern star patterns and their lore.

Cover of ULTIMATE SPACE ATLAS, with link to book's page on author's web site.

If you find yourself wanting to know more about what you see in the night sky, you might want to check out my own National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas, which features facts and figures on what you might spy in the sky—stars and constellations, the Milky Way’s glow, some planets, comets, meteors, and satellites, a galaxy or two–as well as features we cannot observe, even with a backyard telescope, such as the Oort Cloud, most dwarf planets, exoplanets, and countless distant galaxies. This book gives some attention as well to the mathematics of the scale of the universe as well as the technologies that help us explore it.

If sky gazing puts you in the mood to contemplate our universe’s beginnings, you might enjoy Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck that Became Spectacular, which combines Michael Carroll’s fabulous illustrations with (my) verse and prose to introduce readers to the Big Bang.

Not So Dark Nights

Cover of DARK MATTERS, with link to book's page on publisher's web site.

Of course, the ability to revel in cosmic beauty or enjoy nocturnal creatures depends on the night being dark. And dark nights are, alas, falling prey to bright lights that we humans use to illuminate parking lots, buildings, streets, back yards, and more. Night pollution has become a problem in many communities, albeit one that many fail to notice. That’s why Joan Marie Galat’s Dark Matters: Nature’s Reaction to Light Pollution is such an interesting read. Parts are like a memoir of Galat’s relationship to the night sky and her journey from a child playing in the dark to a graduate with an ecology degree, making it easy for the reader to relate to the core topic of the book. Galat shares with us the biological and physical ramifications of having so much human-created light infiltrating the night. She shares how sea turtles, fireflies, bats, frogs, birds, and humans struggle with the effects of artificial lighting, and explores how some of this may be addressed. It’s a unique take on experiencing a summer (or winter) night.

Cover of THOMAS EDISON FOR KIDS, with link to indiebound purchasing site.

Of course, we wouldn’t have light pollution without artificial lighting, which brings a lot of convenience and good to people, despite its negative impacts. Why not explore one of the key players in the technological revolution of lighting and electricity? Thomas Edison for Kids: His Life and Ideas, by Laurie Carlson, provides a substantial historical and experiential exploration of the inventor’s life and the technologies he developed.

Summer and the World at Large

Cover of MAPPING AND NAVIGATION with link to book's page on publisher's website.

Of course, as we sit outside on a summer evening, losing ourselves in our own world and the cosmos beyond, somewhere else it’s wintertime. Lest we stay lost in that personal bubble, it’s time to stretch out and think abut the world at large. Cynthia Light Brown and Patrick M. McGinty’s Mapping and Navigation: Explore the History and Science of Finding Your Way can help us open our eyes to the world around us, recalling how big it is—and also providing another example of how deeply technology has changed human experience and the world at large. Chapter 7, “Space: Navigating the Final Frontier,” makes a perfect bridge from summer stargazing to navigation and map making, and Chapter 4, “Mapping and Satellites: GPS and Landsat,” reminds us that the little blips of light that slowly slip across the night sky are up there doing something—sometimes helping us map the world on which we stand.

Classic Summer Games

Cover of WHOOSH! with link to book's page on publisher's website.

And in the summer, the world on which we stand is sometimes hot. Very, very hot. It’s nice to cool off with a sweet treat—ice cream, anyone?—or maybe a frolic with water. Super-Soakers are always great fun. So is the story of the man behind their invention, as told in Chris Barton’s  Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. The super-soaker is a summery example of the lighter side of technology, but Lonnie’s tale reveals some serious thinking and hard work. The child who created his own rockets became the teen who constructed his own sound systems for summer parties and the engineer who figured out how to keep a steady power supply going on the Galileo space mission. In his quest for a better air conditioner, he came across another cool idea—a super-soaker water gun. Now in the heat of summer, we can stop and thank Lonnie for the entertainment and the relief from the heat.

Summer Cookouts

Cover of EDIBLE SCIENCE: EXPERIMENTS YOU CAN EAT with link to book page on author's web site.
Cover of 30-MINUTE EDIBLE SCIENCE PROJECTS, with link to book's page on publisher's website.

Summer games and star gazing are part of summer fun, yet many a summer evening wouldn’t be complete without a cookout. Enter Jodi Wheeler-Toppen and Carol Tennant’s Edible Science: Experiments You Can Eat and Anna Leigh’s 30-Minute Edible Science Projects. You won’t just be whipping up Wheeler-Toppen and Tennant’s Orange Mayonnaise recipe for a unique twist on a coleslaw; you’ll be emulsifying liquids (as well as finding out what that means, and how it works). You can tap into osmosis to create a perfect fruit syrup to serve over homemade ice cream–with recipes, projects, and explanations of what’s going on when you make that cream chill out, courtesy of both books. Leigh also offers recipes for homemade marshmallows to compare from a materials science perspective. If you have extras, you might want to use them in Wheeler-Toppen and Tennant’s “Inflatable Marshmallow” activity. Wash it all down with one of the beverages from Leigh’s “Make Your Own Soda” project.

If it rains on the big night of the cookout? Cook in. Both books provide plenty of food and food for STEM thought to while away a summer evening. Then curl up or get active with any of the great books featured in this installment of STEM Tuesday Spinoffs. No matter where you are, no matter what books you read, no matter where your own thoughts take you, see if you and your inner child can awaken to the magic of a summer evening.

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is the author of nationally acclaimed STEM-themed books for kids from 3 to 13 and up. In addition to National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas and Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck That Became Spectacular (mentioned above), her middle grade book A Black Hole is NOT a Hole is a popular favorite. Her books for younger kids include Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work? published in 2018 by HarperCollins Children. Carolyn is also a STEM education consultant whose work has contributed to several National Science Foundation – funded curriculum and exhibit projects. She is a warmly received, accessible professional development provider (has bags, will travel), and recently co-launched a new educational research company, STEM Education Insights. She has been a blogger for STEM Tuesday since its inception. When she’s not immersed in thinking about STEM, she might be found trying her best to keep up at an Old Time jam session, running her own edible (not necessarily science) experiments in the kitchen, or, if the season is right, enjoying the magic of a summer evening.

Image of girl being splashed by water in Spin Off wheel diagram is “Sploosh!” by Monkey Mash Button and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (image cropped). All other images in the Spin Off wheel diagram are courtesy of Pixabay.

MG at Heart Book Club’s August Pick: PIE IN THE SKY, by Remy Lai

A poignant, laugh-out-loud illustrated middle-grade novel about an eleven-year-old boy’s immigration experience, his annoying little brother, and their cake-baking hijinks! Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang!

Recipient of FIVE starred reviews!

“Pie in the Sky is like enjoying a decadent cake . . . heartwarming and rib-tickling.” ―Terri Libenson, bestselling author of Invisible Emmie

When Jingwen moves to a new country, he feels like he’s landed on Mars. School is torture, making friends is impossible since he doesn’t speak English, and he’s often stuck looking after his (extremely irritating) little brother, Yanghao.

To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she’s at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they’ll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama.

In her hilarious, moving middle-grade debut, Remy Lai delivers a scrumptious combination of vibrant graphic art and pitch-perfect writing that will appeal to fans of Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s Real Friends, Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, and Jerry Craft’s New Kid.

A Junior Library Guild selection!

The Middle Grade @ Heart newsletter will go out on August 19th, with the Twitter chat to follow on August 27th!

Interview: Jess Redman

Hello, Jess! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village during your debut week! We’re very excited to have you here to chat about THE MIRACULOUS!

Thank you so much for having me! I love MG Book Village, and I’m so pleased to be here.

You’ve been here before — last month, when you shared the teaching guide for THE MIRACULOUS, as well as some how-to tips for authors interested in creating their own guides – but I don’t believe you shared much about YOU. Would you care to tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

Sure! I was raised in a house of readers, and I am a lifelong book nerd. I’m married to an English teacher, who is considerably better at grammar than I am, and we have two wonderful young children.

I’m also a therapist and an adjunct professor of psychology, although I’ve stepped back in both of these roles. As a therapist, I’ve worked with kids in the foster care system, in community mental health centers, and in private practice with girls and young women.

Has your work as a therapist and psychology teacher influenced your writing or the stories that you tell?

I think so. When I was first getting started as a therapist, I had a position as an intake counselor at a mental health center. In that position, I got to sit with literally hundreds of people in crisis and listen to their stories. That was pretty much my whole job—meet someone new and find out what brought them to us, what their life was like, how they were feeling, what they needed. Then I would go and think about that story and write up a report.

The hard thing about that position was that I didn’t get to spend much time with each person—sometimes just that initial visit. But the wonderful thing was that I was able to meet so many people and hear so many, many stories.

Recently, I’ve been talking with groups of therapists about the power of stories and literature, and it’s a topic I’m very passionate about. Therapy is about story just as much as literature—the story the client is telling in that moment, and the movement toward the story they want to tell.

Truthfully, I was drawn to the therapy field because I was already someone who was interested in emotions and big questions. But being a therapist has, hopefully, helped me understand those emotions and questions a little better, and that, also hopefully, shows up in my writing.

THE MIRACULOUS is your debut. Can you tell us about your journey to the printed page?

Reading and writing were my only hobbies when I was a kid, and I was fully devoted to them. I wanted, with all my heart, to be an author when I grew up, and I filled up notebook after notebook with stories.

From teenagerhood on, I assumed that I would end up writing Very Serious Adult Literature. But then I found myself working on a middle-grade fantasy while I was pregnant with my first child. And it became clear to me, very quickly, that middle-grade was where my heart was.

Then there was querying which brought much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, but finally I queried something that agents wanted, and I signed with my extraordinary agent, Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties.

The story that Sara signed me on, however, did not sell right away (although I have high hopes for it in the future). So while I was waiting and biting my nails and bemoaning my fate, I wrote another book and that was THE MIRACULOUS.

Sara loved THE MIRACULOUS, and after two weeks of submission, I was on the phone with editors, and shortly after MIRACULOUS found a home with FSG/Macmillan. I was very lucky to end up with my editor, Janine O’Malley, who connected with the story and brought much-needed clarity and new perspective.

And that is the nutshell story of how my biggest dream became a reality!

Do you have any tips for authors debuting either later this year, in 2020, or just generally in the future?

There is so much that you can do as a debuting author, and the vast majority of it is optional. I think debut year is like starting a really awesome new job—you will make mistakes and feel confused and uncertain, but you’ll also learn so much and feel exhilarated and wonderful.

Just know that there is a learning curve, like any new venture, and do the things that you know you’ll enjoy. Like, if you’re me, make three book trailers! Why not?

Also, join a debut group! My debut group, the Novel Nineteens, has been an incredible resource for me. I ask questions—where did you get those gorgeous stickers? Are you doing a cover reveal? What should I even be doing right now?—all the time.

Now, let’s get to the book itself. Can you give us a brief summary of THE MIRACULOUS?

THE MIRACULOUS is the story of a miracle-collecting boy named Wunder and a cape-wearing girl named Faye—two kids who have recently experienced great losses. Both are drawn to the mysterious DoorWay House in the woods where an old woman has recently appeared. The old woman—who Faye is convinced is a witch—sends the two new friends on a series of sometimes-magical quests. These quests take them through graveyards and forests, to police stations and town halls, by bike and by train. It’s a journey filled with friendship, healing, magic, and miracles. This book trailer that I created introduces with the cut-outs from the incredible cover illustration by Matt Rockefeller: 

THE MIRACULOUS is the story of my heart. It’s a story about grief and belief, about friendship and community and searching for truth and about how there is brightness to be found no matter how dark the darkness.

The book’s central character, Wunder, keeps a journal, and is an observer and recorder of the world around him. Setting aside plot-related reasons, were there any other reasons you included this element in the book?

I kept a lot of journals as a child, although I threw away most of them in my late teens. I was a pretty intense kid, and my journals definitely reflected that, and I was always petrified that someone would read them.

I did salvage a few recently, and it showed me how much I have always used writing and reading to understand the world and myself. Writing, to me, is so closely tied to the search for goodness and truth. I would love for readers to be inspired by Wunder and to journal, to observe, to search on their own.

Why do you think it’s important for kids’ books to tackle tough topics?

The truth is that kids are already tackling these topics, even if adults like to imagine they’re not. During those middle-grade years, kids are interested in absolutely everything. They are just starting to look out and beyond themselves. What children’s books can do is provide language and new perspective for these explorations that are already beginning to happen.

I don’t think that kids need to be exposed to everything, of course. I’m very careful about what my young children read and watch. But stories can be opportunities. Stories can begin conversations. Stories can frame some of the realities of the world in a way that can give kids confidence and tools, in ways that can promote healthy coping and grow empathy.

Another author, Marcie Colleen, once told me during an interview that she typically doesn’t read books for audiences older than MG, because she prefers books that end with at least some note of hope. I’m curious to hear what you make of that.

I love this! For me, this speaks to what makes middle-grade literature so special. There are tough topics addressed in middle-grade, to be sure. But there is also wonder and hope and a belief in the goodness and creativity of humanity. When I read and write middle-grade, I do feel like I am the best version of myself, and it is easier for me to love this world and the people in it.

I think it also speaks to knowing yourself. Here’s a little story: When I was around 10, I got my hands on LORD OF THE FLIES. I felt very grown up reading it—until the “hunt” got out of hand and they almost killed poor Robert. I was horrified and sick to my stomach, and I took the book to the basement and buried it at the bottom of a hamper of dirty clothes. Who knows, maybe it’s still there to this day.

I wasn’t ready for that book.

I think that kind of self-monitoring can come naturally, but I also think it’s something we can help teach kids. When you’re 10 years old, you don’t always know what you need or what you’re ready for. I think that’s where parents and teachers and librarians and other adults who know and care about the reader can help.

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

My website http://www.jessredman.com is a great place to learn more about me, THE MIRACULOUS, and my next book, QUINTESSENCE. The teaching/discussion guide, book trailers, and pre-order campaign info (just a few more days left!) are all there.

I’m also on Twitter quite a bit at @Jess__Red and on Instagram less often at that same handle. I love hearing from readers!

Jess Redman has wanted to be an author since age six, when her poem “I Read and Read and Read All Day” appeared in a local anthology. It took a little while though. First, she did things like survive middle school, travel around the world, become a therapist, and have two kids.

But then finally, her childhood dream came true! Her middle-grade debut, THE MIRACULOUS, will be published by FSG/Macmillan on July 30, 2019. Her second middle-grade novel, QUINTESSENCE, will be out on July 28, 2020. You can find her at www.JessRedman.com.

In the tradition of heartwrenching and hopeful middle grade novels such as Bridge to Terabithia comes Jess Redman’s stunning debut about a young boy who must regain his faith in miracles after a tragedy changes his world.

Eleven-year-old Wunder Ellis is a miracle-collector. In a journal he calls The Miraculous, he records stories of the inexplicable and the extraordinary. And he believes every single one. But then his newborn sister dies, at only eight days old. If that can happen, then miracles can’t exist. So Wunder gets rid of The Miraculous. He stops believing.​

Then he meets Faye―a cape-wearing, outspoken girl with losses of her own. Together, they find an abandoned house by the cemetery and a mysterious old woman who just might be a witch. The old woman asks them for their help. She asks them to believe. And they go on a journey that leads to friendship, to adventure, to healing―and to miracles.

The Miraculous is Jess Redman’s sparkling debut novel about facing grief, trusting the unknown, and finding brightness in the darkest moments.

Praise for THE MIRACULOUS

“Redman explores faith, the intertwined nature of sorrow and joy, and the transformative process of grief through Wunder’s eyes in a part-fantasy, part-realistic adventure with genuinely humorous moments…Layered, engaging, and emotionally true.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Redman’s gorgeous debut uses a cozy world of bright characters to tackle themes of death, grief, and doubt with gentle compassion and a light touch…a moving lesson for young people learning to cope with both the good and the bad that life has to offer.” —Booklist


“A stunning story expressing the complexities and mysteries of love and death in all of its light and darkness. A beautifully rendered and meaningful read for young readers asking deep questions.” —Veera Hiranandani, author of Newbery Honor-winning THE NIGHT DIARY

“Filled with longing, love, hope, and wisdom, THE MIRACULOUS is a small miracle of a book.” —Alison McGhee, author of SHADOW BABY and the NYT Bestseller SOMEDAY

“Exquisitely crafted, serious, yet woven through with wry humor, this story’s miracles are its fierce and tender characters. I loved this extraordinary debut.” —Leslie Connor, author of the National Book Award Finalist THE TRUTH AS TOLD BY MASON BUTTLE

MG at Heart Book Club’s June Pick: JUST SOUTH OF HOME, by Karen Strong

This July, the Middle Grade at Heart team is excited to feature a perfect summer read: Just South of Home by Karen Strong. Karen Strong’s middle grade debut is fun, suspenseful, spooky, and thought-provoking. It will entertain readers, and it will also give them a whole lot to think and talk about. We love the way it weaves together present and historical storylines, and lighthearted and serious moments.

Here’s a bit more about the book:

Cousins Sarah and Janie unearth a tragic event in their small Southern town’s history in this witty middle grade debut novel that’s perfect for fans of Stella by Starlight, The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, and As Brave as You.

Twelve-year-old Sarah is finally in charge. At last, she can spend her summer months reading her favorite science books and bossing around her younger brother, Ellis, instead of being worked to the bone by their overly strict grandmother, Mrs. Greene. But when their cousin, Janie arrives for a visit, Sarah’s plans are completely squashed.

Janie has a knack for getting into trouble and asks Sarah to take her to Creek Church: a landmark of their small town that she heard was haunted. It’s also off-limits. Janie’s sticky fingers lead Sarah, Ellis and his best friend, Jasper, to uncover a deep-seated part of the town’s past. With a bit of luck, this foursome will heal the place they call home and the people within it they call family.

Just South of Home received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist. It will transport you to a memorable summer in Warrenville, Georgia, and we’re sure you’ll enjoy your stay there! It’s also part of our MG@Heart summer reading BINGO game, along with many other fabulous summer reads. Let us know if you get BINGO…or if you complete the whole board!

Look out for our newsletter about Just South of Home on Monday, July 22 and join us for our Twitter chat about the book on Tuesday, July 30 at 8pm EST with the hashtag #mgbookclub!

THE MIRACULOUS Teacher’s Guide — Plus A How-To For Authors

I’m so excited to be here at the Middle Grade Book Village to tell you about the teaching guide that I developed for my middle-grade debut, THE MIRACULOUS (learn more about the novel at the bottom of the post).

The first part of this post is for educators who may be interested in using the guide with readers. The second part is for authors who might want to make guides for their own books.

The guide can be found here: https://www.jessredman.com/resources.

FOR EDUCATORS:

I decided to create this teaching guide because it’s a dream of mine for students to read and discuss THE MIRACULOUS together. I know how much work teachers put into prepping and running classes, so I wanted to provide materials that would make bringing THE MIRACULOUS into the classroom that much easier.

THE MIRACULOUS is a story about facing grief, seeking community support, and finding light even when the world seems dark. Big questions and big feelings are explored with a message of hope and wonder at the end. With in-text journal entries, a unique seven-part structure, and mysteries that will keep readers turning pages, THE MIRACULOUS would make a great choice (in my totally unbiased opinion) for a classroom read-aloud, whole-class/school text, book club, summer reading list, or independent read.

The guide that I created is aligned with Common Core Standards for 5th grade, but it can be applied for grades 3-8. I broke the guide into four sections:

  • Before You Read—Pre-reading questions that deal with the themes of the story, as well as the epigraphs.
  • As You Read—Questions for each of the seven parts of the story. These questions can be used as reflection questions, written or discussed aloud, and as jumping off points for other prompts and activities.
  • After You Read—Ten big-picture discussion questions to use after the story has been read. For book clubs or reports, this is the part of the guide I recommend.
  • Readings Activities—Extension activities, including an exploration of names used in the story, research projects related to the archetype of the World Tree and the meaning of miracles, an art project for cover design, and prompts related to the ending of the story and perspective.

I loved creating this guide because it gave me an opportunity to pull out and share some of the many strands that I wove into this story. I love that readers will get to explore not just the surface of the text, but some of its depths. Being a therapist, some of my questions focus on readers’ feelings and reactions to the story, and I hope that this produces some positive and connecting conversations.

So please check out the guide, and see if it’s something you would like to introduce to your students! I will be offering some free Skype visits to classes and groups who read the book as well, and you can find out more about that, plus book trailers, a chapter one read aloud, and more on my website: www.jessredman.com.

FOR WRITERS:

My experience in the education system is teaching psychology classes as an adjunct professor and being a humungous school nerd. I was the kid who got 110% on projects because I just did WAY TOO MUCH (perhaps some of you can relate!). I tried to bring that school nerd energy to this teaching guide.

Whenever I’m doing an author-ly project, the first step is always researching what other authors have done, and there are some wonderful teaching guides out there. Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen, for example, created a detailed and gorgeous teaching guide for EVERY SHINY THING (https://lauriemorrisonwrites.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Teaching-Guide-for-Every-Shiny-Thing.pdf) , and www.MacKidsEducators.com has some fantastic guides as well for stories like WISHTREE and HOW TO STEAL A DOG.

I chose to go the more involved route of creating pre-reading questions, questions to answer while reading, post-reading questions, and extension activities. I would say, however, that a discussion guide of 10 big picture questions is also an excellent and much faster route.

I am new to the world of designing, but I used Canva to create this teaching guide. I started with a letterhead template for the first page because I wanted a header featuring my book cover and a footer with relevant links and publisher info. I chose fonts and a color scheme to carry throughout the document to add cohesion. You can find their website here: https://www.canva.com/

When I started this project, I didn’t know very much about Common Core State Standards, and they sounded intimidating to figure out. They are, in fact, very straight forward. Some states do not follow Common Core and some are doing away with them, but it’s still widely-used and probably signals to teachers that you have done your research.

The first thing I did was read the English Language Arts standards, which can be found here: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/. I focused on the standards for Reading: Literature, Writing, and Language, as well as one from Speaking & Listening for an extension activity that asked readers to give a presentation/speech.

I found that the standards acted as prompts for my questions, which gave me some direction and clarity. For example, standard RL.5.4 states, “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.” In my guide, I have a question that quotes a figurative language-filled line from THE MIRACULOUS, and then asks the reader to explain the quote’s meaning.

I also added quite a few standard-less questions that I came up with on my own.

Some guides specify which standards apply to individual questions. I did not do this, but you certainly can. Instead, I specified which standards were used in each section of the guide (pre-reading questions, extension activities, etc.). This was less time-consuming for me, but, hopefully, will still be useful for educators.

I used the standards for grade 5, because my story can be used for upper elementary and middle-school. If you write upper middle grade, you may want to use grade 6 or 7 standards; lower middle-grade might go down to grade 3 or 4. There is a lot of overlap between the grades’ standards, however, so they are easily adaptable.

My best advice is to try to approach the story as a brand-new reader—what questions would you have? What would you want to know more about? What would you be surprised by? What did you leave out that your readers might be interested to know? Creating a guide allows you to provide readers with more insight into the world of your story, further engaging them and sparking their imaginations. It can be time-consuming, but it’s also fun and, hopefully, worthwhile!

Jess Redman has wanted to be an author since age six, when her poem “I Read and Read and Read All Day” appeared in a local anthology. It took a little while though. First, she did things like survive middle school, travel around the world, become a therapist, and have two kids.

But then finally, her childhood dream came true! Her middle-grade debut, THE MIRACULOUS, will be published by FSG/Macmillan on July 30, 2019. Her second middle-grade novel, QUINTESSENCE, will be out on July 28, 2020. You can find her at www.JessRedman.com.

THE MIRACULOUS: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374309749

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Jess__Red

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Jess.Redman.Writes/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/40864855

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jess__red/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3he1B_ldE3JKb1Qvzx7wQg/

In the tradition of heartwrenching and hopeful middle grade novels such as Bridge to Terabithia comes Jess Redman’s stunning debut about a young boy who must regain his faith in miracles after a tragedy changes his world.

Eleven-year-old Wunder Ellis is a miracle-collector. In a journal he calls The Miraculous, he records stories of the inexplicable and the extraordinary. And he believes every single one. But then his newborn sister dies, at only eight days old. If that can happen, then miracles can’t exist. So Wunder gets rid of The Miraculous. He stops believing.​

Then he meets Faye―a cape-wearing, outspoken girl with losses of her own. Together, they find an abandoned house by the cemetery and a mysterious old woman who just might be a witch. The old woman asks them for their help. She asks them to believe. And they go on a journey that leads to friendship, to adventure, to healing―and to miracles.​

The Miraculous is Jess Redman’s sparkling debut novel about facing grief, trusting the unknown, and finding brightness in the darkest moments.

Praise for THE MIRACULOUS:

“Redman explores faith, the intertwined nature of sorrow and joy, and the transformative process of grief through Wunder’s eyes in a part-fantasy, part-realistic adventure with genuinely humorous moments…Layered, engaging, and emotionally true.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Redman’s gorgeous debut uses a cozy world of bright characters to tackle themes of death, grief, and doubt with gentle compassion and a light touch…a moving lesson for young people learning to cope with both the good and the bad that life has to offer.” —Booklist

“Filled with longing, love, hope, and wisdom, THE MIRACULOUS is a small miracle of a book.” —Alison McGhee, author of SHADOW BABY and the NYT Bestseller SOMEDAY

“Exquisitely crafted, serious, yet woven through with wry humor, this story’s miracles are its fierce and tender characters. I loved this extraordinary debut.” —Leslie Connor, author of the National Book Award Finalist THE TRUTH AS TOLD BY MASON BUTTLE

“A stunning story expressing the complexities and mysteries of love and death in all of its light and darkness. A beautifully rendered and meaningful read for young readers asking deep questions.” —Veera Hiranandani, author of Newbery Honor-winning THE NIGHT DIARY