Interview with Melanie Conklin about A PERFECT MISTAKE

Anne: Hello, Melanie! It’s so good of you to stop by and chat about your third novel for MG readers, A Perfect Mistake, which came out earlier this year. It’s a real page-turner. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?

Melanie: Sure! Eleven-year-old Max has ADHD, is the tallest student in his middle school, and has just lost his two best friends after a dangerous trip into the woods in the middle of the night. Max doesn’t remember exactly what happened before he ran away and left his friends behind. Now, one of his friends is in a coma, and the other friend isn’t talking to Max. When the local authorities run out of leads, Max begins to question what happened after he and his two friends each went their separate ways, back on the night he feels he made a terrible mistake.

Anne: Thank you! I loved the mystery in this story, and loved trying to solve it along with Max. It’s also a friendship story. When you set out to write A Perfect Mistake, where did you begin? With the mystery? Or the characters? Or something else?

Melanie: I started planning A Perfect Mistake with the intention of featuring a character with ADHD. My previous books had strong mystery storylines, so I also intended to create a page-turning mystery. It took a while for me to think of the right external plot that would amplify Max’s emotional journey and keep readers guessing, but ultimately the book is about making mistakes, so I decided to create an incident wherein many characters made mistakes.

Anne: I love the Uncle Cal character and his lines like, “All you can do is be yourself. You gotta embrace the weird, man.” He made me laugh! Is he (or are any of your characters) based on people you know?

Melanie: Uncle Cal is inspired by one of my favorite actors, Sam Rockwell. He usually takes roles that are somewhat quirky but ultimately good-hearted, and that’s how I viewed Uncle Cal. He’s a very loving and loyal person who has been through some tough times, but he turns out to be exactly who Max needs with him on this journey. Miss Little is named after a favorite teacher of mine from high school, and Dr. W is named after a dear friend of mine, Romaine Williamson, who passed away this year and was known for her wisdom and kindness.

Anne: Nice. I love knowing these connections.

Max’s friend Samantha enjoys combining words, such as “sweird” (super weird) and “freal” (for real). In some scenes you don’t translate her words, and I enjoyed trying to figure them out. Fun! Tell us about your process in crafting the Samantha character. 

Melanie: I’m glad you enjoyed figuring out Sam’s word play! I was pretty obsessed with words as a child. I even made my own dictionary by hand, and I used to write new words on my little sister’s chalkboard and make her learn them. Sam is definitely a character who embodies my love of words. In some ways, Sam is the “model” neurotypical student, which was very intentional on my part. I wanted to demonstrate for readers that Sam and Max are both equally curious, creative, and intelligent, though they may have neurological differences that make their school experiences quite different.

Anne: In some ways, the story celebrates the strengths of people with ADHD. I enjoyed learning techniques kids can use to improve their ability to focus. Why did you want to write a story with characters who are dealing with ADHD?

Melanie: My husband and older son both have ADHD, and my husband and I met in high school, so I’ve spent a long time navigating the public education system in the context of ADHD. I found it frustrating twenty-five years ago when there was not so much compassion or accommodation for my husband’s neurological differences, so I was very intentional about supporting our son’s journey through public school. Luckily, there are many supports in place now for students with ADHD, but it is still challenging navigating 504s and accommodations. I definitely wanted to show a realistic depiction of Max’s school journey while also highlighting the remaining challenges of being a student with ADHD in a neurotypical world. Since the book came out, I’ve heard from a lot of young readers who are excited to see themselves reflected in Max’s story.

Anne: That’s great. I especially like the scene when Max’s therapist says, “It’s easy to hide from pain, but we really only start to deal with it when we let ourselves feel it… This is trauma management.” Good stuff! Are there any circumstances from your own life that caused you to include this scene in the story?

Melanie: Therapy is definitely a resource I have utilized in my own life! Often there are experiences and emotions that we need help navigating, and I’ve found therapy helpful to move through these experiences with intention, and I wish everyone had access to that kind of support. I also wish that our very busy and stressful modern world were perhaps a bit less anxiety-provoking, so that maybe we wouldn’t have so much trauma to process in the first place. Hopefully the depictions of therapy in the book will help readers who are not yet aware of that resource so they can ask for the support they need.

Anne: My sister has a son with ADHD and her experience raising him inspired her to become a therapist/life coach. You’re so right that we’d all benefit from having access to that kind of support!

How long did it take you to write A Perfect Mistake? And what are you working on now?

Melanie: Every time I do author visits, I always have the students guess how long it took me to write the book. With Counting Thyme, it took three years from first draft to publication day, which included NINE drafts of the story. A Perfect Mistake only took me two years and five drafts, so I think I’m making some progress! Sometimes the creative process takes a long time, and that’s okay. That’s also something I emphasize on author visits: art is messy! We have to embrace the process. Right now, I’m working on edits for my next middle grade story, Crushed, which is a #metoo story set in middle school that will publish in 2024.

Anne: I look forward to reading it!

Finally, please tell readers where they can go to learn more about you and your work?

Melanie: Sure! You can find me at my website; on Twitter; on Instagram; and on Tiktok.

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such an engaging mystery for middle-grade readers!

Melanie Conklin grew up in North Carolina and worked as a product designer before she began her writing career. Her debut middle grade novel, Counting Thyme, is a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, winner of the International Literacy Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and nominated to four state reading lists. She is also the author of Every Missing Piece, A Perfect Mistake, Crushed (2024), and her picture book debut, When You Have to Wait (2023). When she’s not writing, Melanie spends her time doodling and dreaming up new ways to be creative. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about Anne at the MG Book Village “About” page.

Interview with Briana McDonald about THE SECRETS OF STONE CREEK

Shari: Hi Briana! Welcome to MG Book Village! I’m thrilled to chat with you about your new book that just came out, The Secrets of Stone Creek!  Tell us about your book!

Briana: Thanks so much for having me, Shari! I’m excited to share a bit about The Secrets of Stone Creek, a middle grade adventure about an aspiring explorer who – while visiting an estranged relative in a small, strange tourist town – sets out to find an adventurer who went missing there two decades ago. The protagonist, Finley, enlists the help of her brothers and sets out to solve Stone Creek’s decades’ long mystery in the hopes of becoming a great explorer herself – and, through that, to prove to her mom, overbearing brother and ex-best friend that she’s worth taking seriously. 

Shari: Finley, the main character, is an adventurer who is inspired by real-life female adventurers! Who or what inspired the creation of Finley’s character, and what do you love most about her? 

Briana: Finley was such a fun character to write, because she is so gung-ho and never hesitates to take on a challenge! I had so much fun researching real female adventures and weaving their stories into the narrative whenever Finley referenced them for inspiration. 

But Finley’s character arc is also about exploring whether she needs to, or should dedicate herself to achieving “greatness.” Finley feels overlooked by her mom, and like she’s not taken seriously by her brothers or her friends at school. She is driven by a need to prove herself to others, and is convinced that unless she accomplishes something incredible like the female adventurers in her favorite book, she’ll continue to be overlooked and left behind. 

I loved writing Finley because her goals make her such a driven, fun character, but also reflect what I believe are very real and relatable insecurities. I hope her journey to self-love and realization is as cathartic to readers as it was for me. 

Shari: Finley’s brothers, Oliver and Griffin, are important characters too. What was it like writing a story with sibling relationships at its core?

Briana: When writing Stone Creek, it was important to me that even though Finley is the protagonist, both Oliver and Griffin had character arcs of their own, too, and went through challenges and changes in each chapter. The Walsh siblings are all dealing with the aftermath of their father leaving a few years ago, but they all experienced it differently and faced unique roles and expectations from their mom – and each other – after the divorce. Coming together to solve the mystery of Meggie’s disappearance brings this all to a head but also gives them the opportunity to try working together despite their differences and misunderstandings, too. 

As a writer, it was fun to play with the way the three siblings’ goals aligned and conflicted – both for the purpose of tension and plot, but also because of all the fun banter that ensued, too! Even when they’re disagreeing, there’s a lot of love between the Walsh siblings, and embracing that is ultimately what makes them capable of solving the mystery. 

Shari: The setting of Stone Creek is very unsettling and strange. Tell us more about Stone Creek, its inhabitants, and what makes it such an important element in the story.

Briana: Setting is always important in my books, but it takes on more of a life of its own in The Secrets of Stone Creek than in my previous work. Stone Creek is a tourist town dedicated to the legacy of Meggie Riley, a local adventurer who went missing decades ago. All the characters (and suspects!) are connected to Meggie’s legacy somehow, and – because of that – are invested in the mystery of her disappearance, whether they’re hoping for her return, hoping to clear their name as a suspect, or hoping to take advantage of her story for a profit. 

In a way, the town itself goes through a character arc of its own as the sensationalized mystery surrounding Meggie’s disappearance is explored and critiqued over the course of the novel. As much as the story is about Finley hoping to become a legendary adventurer, it’s also about the dark side of legacies and an exploration of who can – and should – be able to tell someone’s story. 

Shari: Wow, what an fascinating perspective! What types of readers do you hope find Stone Creek, and what message would you want them to take from it?

Briana: I hope any reader with a love of adventure finds and enjoys Stone Creek. But at its heart, Stone Creek is for anyone who has ever felt like they’re not enough, or feels they need to prove they’re worthy of love or acceptance. The Secrets of Stone Creek is an action-packed and twisty adventure – but it’s mainly about a girl who’s afraid of failure and her journey to discovering that what makes her great isn’t what she accomplishes, but the person she is and chooses to be. 

Shari: How was writing Stone Creek different from your first novel, Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing? What can you tell us about upcoming projects?

Briana: Stone Creek and Pepper both have mystery and action elements to them, but Pepper was solving a murder that just occurred whereas Finley is working on what is essentially a cold case. So the clues aren’t fresh, and the story of Stone Creek relies heavily on the unique things Finley and her brothers are able to uncover because of their distinct point of views and experiences. The settings of the two stories are quite different, too: Stone Creek is a town full of quirky locals and suspects, while Pepper only interacts with people who live directly in her cul-de-sac. They are similar, though, in that they’re both stories about stubbornly determined girls who have something to prove! 

I can’t say too much about what’s coming next, but I have a third book with Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers that will be coming soon. It’s another adventure, like my first two books, but this time…it’s set in space! I’m very excited to share more with readers soon. 

Shari:  What are your favorite books/ types of books to read?

Briana: I love mysteries and adventures. The more action and twists, the better! Some of my favorites from the past year are The Clackity by Lora Senf and The Fright Watch series by Lorien Lawrence. 

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

Briana: My website is www.brianarosemcdonald.com, and I am @BrianaRMcDonald on Instagram and Twitter. I love hearing from readers and educators, so don’t hesitate to reach out!

Shari: Thank you so much for joining us today, Briana, to share about your fantastic book! 

Briana: Thanks so much for having me, and I hope everyone enjoys The Secrets of Stone Creek

Briana McDonald writes diverse and adventurous books for young readers. She studied writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals. When she’s not writing, Briana works at Columbia University and lives in New York City with her wife and their dog, Rex. She is the author of Pepper’s Rules for Secret Sleuthing and The Secrets of Stone Creek. Find out more at BrianaRoseMcDonald.com.

Interview with Shirley Reva Vernick about THE SKY WE SHARED

Anne: Hello, Shirley! I’m thrilled that you could stop by to chat about your latest book for young readers, The Sky We Shared. It reminded me why I love historical fiction! Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?

Shirley: Certainly. Based on Japan’s Project Fu-Go during the last stretch of World War II, The Sky We Shared focuses on two youngsters who tell their stories in alternating voices. In rural Oregon, Nellie waits for her father to come home from the army, filling her days with salvage drives, a secret crush, rationing, and annoying twin brothers. In southern Japan, Tamiko finds a secret way to support her country’s war effort while her brother goes off to fight the Americans. Nellie’s and Tamiko’s spheres couldn’t be more different…until their worlds collide in life-changing ways. The Sky We Shared weaves real history with characters who, like many youths today, must deal with war and hatred right alongside friendship, first love, and family.

Anne: Great. The Japanese Project Fu-Go (translation: “balloons carrying bombs”) is a bit of WWII history I’d never before heard. When/where/how did you hear about it? Please tell us a bit about your research for this story.

Shirley: I’m a history junkie, consuming all kinds of history-focused books, podcasts, magazines and websites, both for my own personal interest and in search of that next nugget of history to share with young readers. That’s how I literally stumbled upon the WWII Fu-Go project for the first time.

Once I decided to write a novel about it, I immersed myself in the facts of Project Fu-Go, as well as in the socioeconomics, politics and zeitgeist of the era, both in the U.S. and Japan. I read newspaper reports from the time (1945), and delved into relevant books, journal articles, government websites, museum information, and other resources. I wanted to know exactly what happened in the war that year, and I also wanted to know more general information about life in the 1940s. What did kids wear? What music did people listen to on the wireless? What idioms and slang were in popular use?

Since half the book takes place in Japan, I also worked directly with some talented experts in Japanese culture, history and language. One of those experts—I was so lucky to know him—actually grew up in Japan during WWII and was able to share firsthand accounts of the history described in the novel. Since the University of Massachusetts is in my town, I was able to connect with their department of Eastern studies for all sorts of support. My alma mater, Cornell, also came through with a language expert.

Anne: I love the way you built suspense by alternating chapters between Nellie’s and Tamiko’s points of view. What made you decide to tell the story this way, rather than, say, simply from Nellie’s point of view (the American side)?

Shirley: That was a very deliberate choice. I wanted to show how Nellie’s and Tamiko’s war experiences differed, and also how their lives were similar. What better way to do that than to let them each tell their own side of the story—with all the fear and bravery, resentment and friendship, propaganda and truth? I think the alternating viewpoints help reveal the shared humanity of these characters, who live on opposite sides of the world, on opposite sides of the war.

Anne: The sense of “shared humanity” was quite strong. While reading, I paused to get lunch, then returned to the book, but felt guilty eating in front of Tamiko and Suki because they were so hungry. Ha! That’s how real the characters had become for me. I’d love to hear how you develop your characters. Are there any writing techniques you find helpful for bringing characters to life on the page?

Shirley: I’m so glad you related to Tamiko and Suki! My own process for developing characters looks something like this: First, I wait until I “hear” a character knocking around my head. The character won’t be full-blown at this point, but they’ll be expressing a personal concern or interest in their unique voice.

As soon as that happens, I start writing. Writing helps me better understand a character—their motivations, goals, and personality—especially when I put them in conversation with other characters. Along the way, I constantly ask myself what the character’s interior monologue looks like. What are they daydreaming about? What are their hopes, pet peeves, regrets? In The Sky We Shared, for instance, I knew Nellie and Tamiko would be wondering when/if their loved one would come home from the war…and what lay in store tomorrow…and when the fighting would finally end.

Anne: I especially enjoyed the many little sayings sprinkled through the story, such as “fall down seven times, get up eight” and “one kind word can warm three snowy peaks.” Did you grow up hearing these sayings, or did you discover them while doing research for the novel?

Shirley: I love these Japanese sayings too. They’re so vivid and rich with imagery. I learned about them during my research, and from my language and cultural experts.

Anne: How long did it take you to write The Sky We Shared? And what are you working on now?

Shirley: Including the background research time, the writing, and the revising/editing, it took about two years. I’m currently working on two nonfiction picture book biographies about a couple of amazing women who belong to traditionally underrepresented groups.

Anne: Nice. Let’s end with some links so that readers can learn more about you and your work.

Shirley: Here are my website and social media links. I encourage readers, or anyone who’s curious, to get in touch:

Website: https://www.shirleyrevavernick.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/shirleyvernick

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

Book trailer: https://youtu.be/9xMXnjYwAx4

Amazon link: https://amazon.com/dp/194762752X

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such excellent historical fiction for middle-grade readers!

Shirley: Thank you, Anne! I enjoyed your thoughtful questions and the chance to chat about my story and writing process.

Shirley Reva Vernick is the award-winning author of five novels for young readers. A graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars, she is committed to creating stories that inspire hope, tolerance, and a love of reading. The American Library Association named The Blood Lie to its list of Best Fiction Books for Young Readers. The Blood Lie also won the Simon Wiesenthal Once Upon A World Book Award and a Sydney Taylor Book Award honor. Remember Dippy won the Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. The Black Butterfly is a Junior Library Guild selection. Ripped Away (Purple Dragonfly Award) and The Sky We Shared (a starred Publishers Weekly review) were released this year. Shirley’s favorite food group is ice cream.

Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about Anne at the MG Book Village “About” page.

Cover reveal for WE THE FUTURE by Cliff Lewis

Shari: Here at MG Book Village, we love to encourage and support debut authors. Today we introduce Cliff Lewis and reveal the cover for his book We The Future, which will release April 18, 2023 from Jolly Fish Press. 

Check out the book’s synopsis below:

I’m from the future. We need you.

Ever since he learned about climate change, twelve-year-old Jonah has dreaded a weather-beaten future where not even his asthma medication can save him. Luckily, a girl from that future arrives just in time to throw Jonah a lifeline.

Sunny traveled back to the 2020s with a mission: help Jonah launch a climate strike big enough to rewrite history. To do it, he’ll have to recruit his entire school before Halloween. Why so soon? Sunny won’t say. But how can Jonah win over 600 classmates when the only thing he dreads more than the end of the world is talking to other kids?

Shari: Hello, Cliff. Thanks for sharing your cover reveal with us! What was it about this topic that prompted you to write a book about it?

Cliff: If you’d like to know about the inspiration for WE THE FUTURE, I’ll kindly ask you to buckle up. It’s kind of a wild story. 

Not long ago, my small Pennsylvania city was rocked by a congressional campaign with so much enthusiasm and community that it started attracting national media. Climate activists from as far Australia rolled into town and set up operations to help get out the vote. My family got swept into this campaign, and we wound up offering our house as a staging location for canvassers. 

Next thing we knew, we had a whole crew of young climate activists sharing in our traditional election-season chili while they helped the campaign reach thousands of voters in our community. And I’m telling you: These folks worked like they were running out of time. They hurried everywhere they went, but not like a workaholic. More like an ambulance. 

I’d cared about the climate crisis before. Heck, more than half of my roof was covered in solar panels. But I’d never really seen how the climate fight could reach beyond my house, my car, my individual lifestyle choices. Those activists showed me what it looks like to team up and fight for big solutions to a big problem—fast.

A few months later, my memory of that campaign sparked the idea for a story about an anxious, asthmatic boy who teams up with a girl from the future to launch a climate strike big enough to rewrite history. I drafted this story at a climate activist’s pace, filling every spare moment with writing, even dictating large portions of the book into my phone during my daily jog. In three months, WE THE FUTURE was finished, which may not sound that fast to some authors, but for me it felt like I’d stretched the very fabric of space-time to get it done. 

Shari: What can you tell us about your main character(s)?

Cliff: When we meet Jonah at the start of WE THE FUTURE, he’s wracked with anxiety about the future of life on earth. After learning about the true dangers of the climate crisis, Jonah has tried to make a difference the only way he knows how—by obsessively cutting himself off from every modern convenience that could possibly contribute to carbon emissions. But Jonah’s climate-hermit-life gets pretty lonely, and eventually it gets pretty deadly when Jonah tries to raise the world’s awareness by attempting a dangerous YouTube stunt.

But, just in the nick of time, a pink astronaut from the year 2100 shows up to save Jonah’s life and show him a better way to make a difference. Sunny has lived through the very worst of the 21st century, so she takes the climate crisis even more seriously than Jonah does. But somehow Sunny’s version of fighting back is more joyful and hopeful than anything Jonah could’ve possibly imagined. 

To set her plan in motion, Sunny gets Jonah to assemble a Crew of climate organizers, all from his own seventh grade class. They recruit a future poet laureate (Paco), a future White House chief of staff (Rashi) and a former best friend of Jonah’s (Gideon)—whose future has yet to be written. 

So, after struggling for so long in this lonely one-man climate fight of his, Jonah is about to learn that saving the world is never a solo mission.

Shari: The cover was designed by Cynthia Della-Rovere, and illustrated by Carl Pearce. Let’s take a look!

Shari: What are your favorite elements of the cover?

Cliff: I can’t stop staring at this cover for two reasons: Reason 1 is the color, and Reason 2 is the Crew. WE THE FUTURE is about a new generation rising up to take on the climate fight, which called for a cover that looked absolutely nothing like yesterday’s environmentalism. Earth-tones and leafy greens were out; we wanted this cover to feel like fire—the fire inside our five heroes and the fire they’re staring down. So that’s the color. Then there’s the Crew. I get chills whenever I look at this final artwork because, even though Jonah and the Crew are threatened by billowing pollution before them and rising floodwaters behind them, these kids show up looking like the fiercest force on planet Earth. 

Shari: What types of readers will be drawn to this story?

Cliff: With all due love and respect to science, WE THE FUTURE is not a science book. So no reluctant reader is going to feel like they’re eating their vegetables while they read it. WE THE FUTURE is pizza kind of book. It’s a hilarious, heart-warming, time-bending adventure. So young readers who couldn’t care less about the climate crisis will still have a blast reading about the time-traveling mischief, the screaming goat that sounds exactly like Chewbacca, and the creepy ice cream truck driven by a pair of vengeful 22nd century inventors. If these readers finish the book with a newfound grasp of climate science, I offer my sincerest apologies.

Of course, plenty of young readers already care quite deeply about the climate crisis. Perhaps right now, some of them are feeling like Jonah, overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s at stake. WE THE FUTURE was written for them, too. Because this book isn’t just about the climate. It’s about activism—and specifically a form of activism called “political organizing.” With Sunny as our guide, the novel takes readers on a thrilling crash course through the community-building, soul-expanding work of collective action. This book will tell the climate-conscious young reader what Sunny tells Jonah early on: “Only you can save the world, but you’ll never do it alone.”

Shari: Thank you so much for joining us today! I love the premise of your book! Where can readers find out more about you and your writing?

Cliff: I’m @heyclifflewis on Insta, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. My TikTok is mostly videos of a little dog named Pippin, but Pippin is a very good boy and I’ll be posting more about WE THE FUTURE in the months ahead, so you should still follow me there if you want. I also have a website at heyclifflewis.com.

Cliff Lewis is a time-traveler from the 1990s, presently parked in the 2020s. He’s a professional writer, a hometown story-slam winner, and a keynote speaker living in Pennsylvania with his wife, their two kids, and a little dog named Pippin. In his spare time, Cliff volunteers for local progressive organizations, which once led to a crew of young climate activists devouring all of his family’s traditional election-day chili.

Cover Reveal for ONE GIANT LEAP by Ben Gartner

Shari: Hi Ben! I’m so thrilled you asked MG Book Village to be part of your cover reveal for your new MG book, One Giant Leap, which is due out in 2023. I’m a huge fan of your Eye of Ra series. Tell us what this new book is about!

Ben: And I am also thrilled to have yet another of my cover reveals on MG Book Village! You are all so appreciated and respected in the MG community. Thank you.

I’m flattered that you are a fan of The Eye of Ra series. I loved writing those books. But this latest novel is something new. It’s still full of action, adventure, and characters who need to grow, but this time instead of going the historical fiction route, we venture into the near-future and feature some real hard science about NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon. I’ll let the blurb tease a bit more:

——

I’m pretty sure I’m about to die in space. And I just turned twelve and a half.

Blast off with the four winners of the StellarKid Project on a trip to the International Space Station and then to the Gateway outpost orbiting the Moon! It’s a dream come true until space junk collides with the ISS, turning their epic trip into a nightmare of survival. Alone aboard the Aether starship, the kids have to work as a team to save the adults before the ISS is destroyed. Suit up, cadet, and launch into adventure with One Giant Leap!

——

Publication day is tentatively set for 2/21/23.

Shari: What can you tell us about your main character(s) and the characteristics they bring to the team?

Ben: Finley Scott is the main character and the story is told from his point of view. He has experienced some trauma at home and thinks that by getting far away from his problems that that will somehow shield him from the hurt. By winning the StellarKid Project, he’ll indeed get about as far away as humanly possible with a trip into outer space! Of course, with the challenges of the adventure, and alongside the other three kid winners, he’ll learn that he needs to confront his feelings and share with a trusted friend in order to move forward.

Fin is from Washington state, an inventor, and a tinkerer. David Kalkutten is from Norway, an athlete, and loves video games. Kalpana Agarwal is from India and a computer hacker. Mae Jorgenson is from South Africa, wears a dark leather jacket, and is learning to fly airplanes back home. And they all have secrets…

Shari: With a book set in outer space, I’d love to hear about your research process!  When in the process of writing did you have to do the most research, and what was the most fascinating piece of information you learned?

Ben: Researching this topic was, and continues to be, an endless source of awe and wonder. I love learning, in general, and discovering more about the Artemis missions and how we plan to settle on the Moon with our eyes on Mars has been fascinating and mind-boggling. My 12-year-old son is especially enamored with all subjects space-related and has been teaching me new things just about every day. He has a big Celestron telescope, watches his NASA app for updates, and constantly reads and writes about space. I believe it is entirely in the realm of possibility that he will set foot on the Moon in his lifetime. Or be involved in getting others there. It will be a lot of fun to witness how that evolves for him. Just, hopefully, no space junk. 😉

Shari: What inspired you to write a science-fiction story, and this one in particular?

Ben: I’ve always been a space nut, but with my son’s exuberance for the subject I just had to write something that took us both out past the exosphere. I’m better with writing realistic-ish books, so instead of writing a science fiction with aliens and lasers I wrote a hard science book that is based on events that very well might occur. It’s also a call-to-action about the real problem of space junk in our low-Earth orbit. I’ve described it as the movie Gravity meets Space Camp. I might be dating myself a little with those references, but this is a fun genre for kids who are into space!

Shari: I love that description! Please tell us about the cover of your book and its designers/illustrators.  Did you get to be part of the process?

Ben: Anne Glenn Designs did the cover. She also did the cover for all three of The Eye of Ra series books. She is terrific, very talented, and a pleasure to collaborate with. Working on the cover is about half the fun in writing a book! So fun to see it coming to life.

Shari: It’s time to show everyone this stunning cover!

Shari: This is such a powerful image, full of motion and suspense! What were your thoughts when you first saw it? Is there an element that stands out for you or that you particularly like?

Ben: Anne was great and sent about ten different comps to review. They were all stellar (pun intended). It gave us a lot to chew on and was a ton of fun. Interestingly, there was a version that showed a close-up view of a kid’s face inside of the helmet and didn’t show the floating in outer space or the ship and station. That version was generally more popular with adults. But the version that you see above was generally more popular with kids. It was a pretty overwhelming difference, actually. Gotta give the audience what they want! I do love this cover and since the kids did too, that made the decision easy.

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

Ben: BenGartner.com is the best spot. I’m also active on Twitter (twitter.com/BGartnerWriting) and Insta (instagram.com/BGartnerWriting).

Shari: Can you recommend books that are out now that our audience might enjoy while waiting for One Giant Leap?

Ben: This is a fun question. Some recent reads I’d definitely recommend: Frances and the Monster by Refe Tuma. Daybreak on Raven Island by Fleur Bradley (reading this now and am loving it!). Time Villains: Monster Problems by Victor Piñeiro. Ghosts Come Rising by Adam Perry. The Prince of Steel Pier by Stacy Nockowitz.

On the adult book side, if you’re interested in some very hard science fiction with lots (!) of in-the-weeds accurate details, check out The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield.

Shari: I’m very excited to read this book, especially since I loved the characters you created in The Eye of Ra books. Thank you so much for letting me be part of the cover reveal and chatting with me today.

Ben: It brings me so much joy to share it with you and with the world. Thank you so much, Shari and the rest of the awesome MG Book Village crew!

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

Interview with Jasmine Warga about A ROVER’S STORY

Kathie: Hi Jasmine, and welcome to MG Book Village. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk with you about your new middle-grade novel, A ROVER’S STORY (released on October 4th from HarperCollins). Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?

Jasmine: Thank you! It’s a pleasure to be here to chat about it. So my new book, A ROVER’S STORY, is about a Mars rover named Resilience, nicknamed Res—the novel follows Res from his creation in the NASA lab to his dangerous mission to Mars. We watch as Res develops relationships with the NASA scientists as well as the other robots in the lab. All the machines are able to talk to one another in a way that the humans in the book aren’t aware of—sort of like Charlotte’s Web, but with robots! The book is about a lot of things—space adventure, bravery, friendship, and feelings. Especially feelings. Res worries a lot about his feelings—that he has them, that they are the wrong ones, and I really hope it is a book that will provide a framework for young readers to talk about their emotions while also having fun reading about a space adventure.

Kathie: In the reader letter at the start of the book, you mention that the story was inspired by a question from your daughter about the feelings of a Mars rover. I’m curious to know if your daughter read your book or what discussions may have happened with her as you wrote the story.

Jasmine: This is such a great question! So I’m actually answering these questions right now from the Atlanta airport—I was lucky enough to attend Decatur Book Festival this weekend—but when I get home, I’m going to read aloud a few more chapters of A ROVER’S STORY to my daughters. We just started last week when I got the finished copies. I wanted to wait until I had the finished copy because the interior sketches Matt Rockefeller did for the book are so fun. Which is all to say, we aren’t that far into it yet, but Juniper (my youngest daughter who asked the question that inspired the book) seems to love it so far, and that makes my heart very happy. It’s my first book I’ve ever gotten to share with them so that’s very special! I’m hoping when we finish we can have some big conversations about what it means to be scared, what it means to miss home, and what it means to be a friend.

Kathie: A ROVER’S STORY is told mostly from the perspective of Res, the rover being sent to Mars to do scientific research for NASA. How did your writing change to capture the voice of robot as opposed to a person?

Jasmine: I definitely dug deep to try to authentically craft a voice for Res. It was an exercise in imagination, right? I finally settled on a sparse voice, which to me seemed right for a robot, but it has its own texture and cadence, which hopefully help convey the fullness and complexity of Res’s heart and insights. Creating the voice wasn’t actually all that different from creating the voice for human characters. I followed the same process of trying to really get to know Res, and from there, I figured out what he would sound like.

Kathie: Can you tell us a bit about the research you did and an interesting fact that you didn’t include in the book?

Jasmine: A lot of the research I did ended up in the book, just perhaps not in so much detail. For example, at one point in the book, the reader does get a summary of Res’s physical makeup, but there are just so many cool facts about each part of the rover from how intricately engineered the wheels are to how powerful the cameras are, and some of those facts aren’t in the book in full detail because they would sort of slow down the narrative. I also think it’s so cool that Fly, the drone helicopter character in the book, is based off of Ingenuity, the drone helicopter currently on Mars, which is the first object humans have made fly on a planet other than Earth. So all the stuff about the helicopter flying on Mars is actually based on real science!

Kathie: If Res could ask Sophie one question before he leaves for Mars, what do you think it would be?

Jasmine: I’m going to cheat and have two questions. First, have you ever felt scared and what did you do? And two, Do you think I’ll get to come back home to Earth?

Kathie: What’s one thing you learned about yourself as a writer from creating this story?

Jasmine: That I’m the happiest when I’m really stretching my imagination. I hope to continue to get to push myself and my imagination in future projects.

Kathie: Is there something you wish an interviewer would ask you about this book?

Jasmine: You’ve asked such lovely questions so I’m not sure you missed anything about the book, but I would love the chance to shout out some middle grade books I’ve loved this year like THOSE KIDS FROM FAWN CREEK by Erin Entrada Kelly, THE TRYOUT by Christina Soontornvat, and JENNIFER CHAN IS NOT ALONE by Tae Keller. It’s been such a great year for middle grade books!

Kathie: Do you have another writing project on the go, and can you share anything about it with us?

Jasmine: Here’s the truth, I was working on a book for the past year, and just recently, I’ve had the very sad realization that I’m not sure it’s working. I love the characters, but I think they might be in the wrong story. So I’m back to the drawing board, but I’m very excited about a new idea I have. It’s too early to really say anything about it, but it’s another MG book.

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

Jasmine: Thank you so much, Kathie! I’m very excited for readers to meet Res.

Jasmine Warga is the author of the New York Times bestseller Other Words for Home, a Newbery Honor Book and Walter Honor Book for Younger Readers, and The Shape of Thunder. Her teen books, Here We Are Now and My Heart and Other Black Holes, have been translated into over twenty-five languages. She lives in the Chicago area with her family. You can visit Jasmine online at www.jasminewarga.com.

NEVERTHELESS, SHE (ALSO) PERSISTED – Guest Post by Kellye Crocker

This sign has hung in Kellye’s writing space since she heard Laurie Halse Anderson speak in a break-out session at the 2000 SCBWI national conference. In her glowing evaluation of Laurie’s talk, Kellye said she should be scheduled to speak to the full conference next time.

Sixteen years. That’s how long I wrote fiction for young people—seriously, steadily, lovingly—before my debut novel publishes this October.

I’ve learned some things about persistence. I’m excited to share in the hope that it’s helpful to those slogging toward their dreams, too. First, though, I want to acknowledge the privilege it is to write. I mean financial privilege, specifically, among others.

As an unpublished writer, you don’t contact agents or editors until you have a polished manuscript. That means you’ve already spent countless hours—often years—writing and revising, never knowing if someone will read your words or if you’ll earn a cent from your work.

When I took out student loans to return to school to study fiction-writing for kids, my son was 8, and I was a full-time, self-employed magazine freelancer with bills to pay. It was challenging. It would have been much more difficult if, for example, I’d been a single parent. Time is a precious resource for most folks these days, but especially for caretakers and those navigating multiple oppressions.

In 2012 I became terribly ill with two neurological viruses. I was hospitalized for five days, had to quit my library job, and spent a year in bed, unable to do anything, including write. My husband and I were forced to adjust our budget and live on his income. We were lucky we could.

Fortunately, I recovered, but lasting nerve damage and a neurological disorder make it impossible for me to work regularly outside the home now, even part-time. I have plenty of time, which is frustrating because what I don’t have, because of these conditions, is excess energy. That, along with creative bandwidth, also are necessary to write. As I’ve slowly started sharing this part of my life, I’ve met several writers with similar health challenges. Everyone is facing something, I think, and some folks are facing a lot.

With that said and the caveat that your mileage may vary, here’s what I did when I wanted to quit:

• I gave myself permission to quit. It’s okay to take a break—for a week, a month or however long you need or want. (Sometimes life circumstances give you no choice.) It’s also okay to just…stop. Our creativity and stories are important—for ourselves and the world. But there are many ways to share them.

I love to write. Sometimes it’s hard—I’ve been stuck for months on plot issues in my current novel—but it’s a challenge I relish. The part I didn’t like was trying to get published. That’s very different from writing.

• I clarified my goals—the why and how. I was one of those pasty bookworm kids who had to be forced outside to play. Books were a lifeline. I’ve always wanted to write something that touches a young reader’s heart—that entertains and inspires and gives them hope—the way my favorite books did and do for me. That yearning to connect is a powerful motivator.

The next question: How best to reach middle-grade readers? Self-publishing has come a long way, but because parents, teachers, and librarians tend to buy books for this audience, traditional publishing seemed best for me. To do that, I needed to reach out to literary agents, the bridge between writers and editors who buy manuscripts.

• I put on “my big-girl pants” and queried. (Disclaimer: All my pants are “big-girl.”) I didn’t want to be the writer who sent work too soon. (I saw this when I worked for a kidlit agent for six months.) I told myself I’d query when my manuscripts were ready. (They never were.) I became the writer who never sent work.

I sent my first query in 2011 on a dare. I was five years out of grad school, revising my second YA novel, and my friends feared I’d never query. I sent around 25 and received a wonderful response, but all the agents ultimately passed.

I finished the rough draft of what would become Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties by the end of 2016. By 2018 or so, I’d revised it a few times and started querying. This was the fifth or sixth novel I’d written and only the second I queried. I was shocked at how the query landscape had changed.

Agents I’d known for years sent form rejections. Agents who’d been enthusiastic about my YA didn’t reply. I thought this middle grade novel was the best I’d written, but only a few asked for the full manuscript. I don’t blame the agents. Their obligation is to their clients, and they are inundated with queries. Publishing is a business. Agents and editors have to consider the marketplace.

• I focused on what I could control.

• My novel. One of the things I love most about writing is that I can always improve. After a while I stopped querying Dad’s Girlfriend, gave it to my critique group, and revised yet again. I cut it from about 70,000 words to 55,000 and resumed querying.

• Agent research. After reading about a bestselling author who didn’t find her perfect match until she’d queried around 60 agents, I was determined to query at least 63, as long as I felt I could find that many who could do a good job for me. (Why not 61? I don’t know.) There also were agents I didn’t query. No agent is better than a bad one.

• My attitude. I often thought about a blog post I’d read years ago by Jennifer Laughran—aka Literaticat—a senior agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She said something like (paraphrasing roughly): Let’s say you’re at a store browsing through a rack of winter coats. A sales person doesn’t rush over and demand to know why you bypassed that blue one. Maybe you love blue and already own three, maybe you hate blue, it’s not a good fit, or not your style. Rejection is a big part of publishing, and it’s not personal. It still hurts, though.

• I reached out to friends. I can’t imagine anyone doing this alone, and I’m so grateful for my writing friends. After one particularly heartbreaking pass, I texted a YA author friend: How do you keep going? Her answer pinged immediately. You do it for your book.

She’d queried 80-ish agents and signed with one of her top five. It took that agent six months to request her full manuscript and another six months to offer representation. Publishing moves slowly—but you only need one yes. I moved my goal from 63 to 83 and kept querying. In total, I queried more than 100 agents for Dad’s Girlfriend. The agent I signed with was new, and she had solid experience working with an agent—and great mentors. (New agents are eager for clients!) She is smart, creative, and encouraging. I can’t imagine a better agent for me.

• I re-defined success. I was hiking with my husband when we stopped on a bridge to catch our breath. When we continued on, I asked if he’d noticed a crushed beer can in the creek far below. He hadn’t. When I saw that can, I told him, the whole beginning of a story opened up for me.

Why would stories come to me if I wasn’t called to do this work? And if, say, the universe wanted me to do this work, why then, wasn’t I published? My mood hit a new low.

After some serious journaling, I realized it’s about community. I’ve been a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) since 2000. For years I’ve advocated for young readers, their books, and their right to read. I love supporting authors, teachers and librarians. As an occasional visiting teacher for a literary nonprofit, I encourage young writers to be fiercely themselves—on and off the page. I’ve given careful feedback on countless novels-in-progress, and this year served as an SCBWI mentor. I’ve received far more than I’ve given.

The way I see it, my job is to show up and do the work I feel called to do, as best I can. That doesn’t guarantee publication or any result, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t made a difference, either. None of us knows the impact we have on others.

“That’s fine,” you might say. “But! I! Want! To! PUBLISH!”

I get it. I do. That’s why I had to redefine success in a way I could control. I couldn’t keep creating if I felt like a failure every day.

• Focus on the joy. I did all these things imperfectly, forgave myself when I messed up, and moved on. I try to make writing as fun as possible. When it’s not, I try to accept where I am in the process and proceed with as much optimism as I can. (Calling a friend, browsing a craft book, reading a terrific novel, and going to Twitter with the goal of encouraging another writer all help.)

I also asked myself: What would you be doing if you already had the perfect agent, if you’d already published a bookshelf of bestsellers? The answer, of course, is that I’d write the next one. That’s the job.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about writing with “stubborn gladness,” choosing to work with “as much good cheer and as little drama as I can…” She wrote with stubborn gladness, she says, before she was published, when her books sold well and when they didn’t, when critics praised her and made fun of her, and when the work went badly and well.

I try to do the same, gladly. Stubbornly. That’s why I’m not quitting.

BIO: Kellye Crocker’s contemporary middle-grade novel, Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties, was inspired by her surprise move to Colorado and her own anxiety disorder. Her debut novel will be published in October by Albert Whitman & Co. Kellye is a long-time journalist who’s also worked in library youth services and has taught writing at two Iowa universities. She teaches creative writing to young people through a large literary nonprofit. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s an empty-nester who lives in Denver, where you’ll find her reading, making art, and hiking with her husband and their rambunctious Black Lab, Daisy. Connect with her at kellyecrocker.com or on twitter @kelcrocker.

Headshot photo credit: Laura Carson Photography

Interview with Fleur Bradley about Daybreak on Raven Island

Shari: It’s spooky season, and I am so excited to share this interview with Fleur Bradley, author of Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, and the recently released thriller Daybreak on Raven Island!

Hi Fleur! Welcome to MG Book Village! I’m such a fan of your books, so I am really excited to chat with you today about your new spooky novel, Daybreak on Raven Island! The book is out now, making it a perfect read for Halloween season.  What would you like to tell us about Daybreak?

Fleur: For my previous book, Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, I was inspired by the Stanley Hotel here in Colorado. When it came time to write the next book, I wanted the setting to be super scary, so I instantly thought of Alcatraz. 

Daybreak on Raven Island is set on Raven Island, a fictional version of Alcatraz. Marvin, Noah and Tori miss the ferry off the island after a field trip, and have to spend the night. There’s an abandoned prison, a lighthouse, a morgue, and a whole lot of ghosts. The three kids have to work together to solve a decades old mystery surrounding a prison break, plus a murder mystery… 

It’s Alfred Hitchcock for kids.

Shari: Daybreak has three main characters, who are all going through their own struggles, and aren’t even close to being friends at the beginning. Can you tell us how Tori, Marvin, and Noah came to be your main characters, and how you created three character arcs within an overarching suspense-horror-mystery?

Fleur: The characters took a while to flesh out. I wanted three kids who basically would not sit together in the cafeteria, and show how they actually make great friends. Noah has a lot of anxiety and is the new kid at school, Tori is dealing with a lot of anger because her brother is in prison, and Marvin really wants to make a scary movie but misses his best friend who just moved away. 

As a writer, I know I’m getting somewhere with the characters when I start to enjoy spending time with them. Tori, Marvin and Noah each have distinct arcs, so they feel very real to me.

Shari: Daybreak is a horror story, but also a mystery with historical aspects. What was the inspiration for this story, and what did you enjoy most about weaving these aspects together? 

Fleur: I took the (real-life) 1962 Alcatraz escape of three prisoners as my inspiration. Those three men made it off the island and were never seen again, and I wondered: could they have made it alive? How? 

With Daybreak on Raven Island, I had fun imagining what could’ve happened. Creating an imaginary island based on a real one allowed me to make it what I want, while still nodding to the original prison break and Alcatraz’s history. 

Shari: Did you read a lot of mysteries and horror books as a kid, and what do you enjoy most about writing spooky mysteries for kids?

Fleur: I mostly read Roald Dahl as a kid, so not a lot of whodunit type mysteries. They just weren’t as available. When I was about twelve, I read my way through the children’s department at the library, and a very kind librarian gave me Agatha Christie books (since there was no YA at the time). I fell in love with the genre.

I love the puzzle of a mystery, both as a reader and a writer. I like trying to figure out the whodunit and spotting the clues as a reader; as a writer, it’s fun to guide the reader along to the solution of a mystery. With Daybreak on Raven Island, I really focused on blending strong character arcs with a fun, scary mystery to solve.

As for horror, I love reading it as an adult, but really didn’t read any as a kid. But I loved horror TV shows like The Outer Limits, Tales From The Crypt, and The Twilight Zone, so lots of horror influences there. And Alfred Hitchcock, of course.

Shari: Young readers will truly love Daybreak. What message do you hope will stick with them after reading?

Fleur: I hope kids take away from the story that it’s good to share it if you’re struggling with something. Often, we carry problems around and feel like others won’t understand. It’s through sharing that we’re stronger, because then we’re not alone.

Shari: My students and I loved Midnight at the Barclay Hotel. How was writing Daybreak different, and what projects are you working on next, if you can tell us? 

Fleur: I always imagined that Daybreak on Raven Island is the book that readers move on to after Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, so it reads just a little older. It was fun to make it extra scary, and really go with the horror elements in the book.

Next up, I’m writing another scary mystery, but for younger MG. I’m editing it now, and then it will go out on submission. I’m really excited about this book, but it’ll be a while before it’s out in the world!

Shari:  I can’t wait for that! What are your favorite books to read this time of year? Do you have any spooky recommendations for our readers, if they have enjoyed your books? 

Fleur: I’m really enjoying scary MG this time of year… Well, any time of year, really. 

I’m reading Lindsay Currie’s The Girl in White right now (so good!) and Erin Petti’s Thelma Bee in Toil and Treble, loving that book very much. I’m looking forward to Ira Marck’s Spirit Week next month. I’m part of a group called Spooky MG, and the writers put out some amazing books. Whenever I run out of books to read, I check to see if any of my Spooky MG authors have anything new out.

Shari: I love the Spooky Middle Grade website! (https://spookymiddlegrade.com/) I have referred to it several times when looking for spooky books for my readers!  Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

Fleur: Check out my website www.ftbradley.com or follow me on Twitter @FTBradleyAuthor.  

Shari: Thank you so much for joining us today, Fleur, and sharing about your fantastic new book!

Fleur: Anytime! I hope you enjoy spooky season…

Fleur Bradley is the author of the (scary) middle-grade mystery Daybreak on Raven Island, and award-winning mystery Midnight at the Barclay Hotel (Viking/Penguin Random House).

Her story The Perfect Alibi appeared in Mystery Writers of America’s middle-grade anthology Super Puzzletastic Mysteries, edited by Chris Grabenstein (HarperCollins).

Fleur regularly does school and Skype visits, as well as librarian and educator conference talks on reaching reluctant readers. Originally from the Netherlands, she now lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and two daughters, and entirely too many rescue animals.

Interview with Emi Watanabe Cohen about THE LOST RYŪ

Anne: Hello and welcome to MG Book Village! I’m so glad to connect with you for a chat about your debut novel, The Lost Ryū. It came out this summer, and is a wonderfully imaginative story. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?

Emi: Thanks for having me! The Lost Ryū is set in Japan in 1965, and it follows ten-year-old Kohei and his new neighbor, Isolde, as they uncover the truth behind the giant dragons that fought in World War II. Their journey takes them through the Japanese countryside to a dragon-themed amusement park, and eventually to the underwater palace of Eastern dragons of myth.

Anne: Great. Thank you. I enjoyed immersing myself in the myths about dragons—the ryū—and the underwater palace known as Ryūgū-jō. For readers (like me) previously unfamiliar with Japanese mythology, could you give an example of a detail that you had fun adding—something that made your novel come alive, but that I’d never find in Japanese mythology of old?

Emi: Ryūgū-jō is a common feature of East Asian mythology, but in The Lost Ryū, Kohei and Isolde also walk through a theme park-ified version designed for tourists. It’s nothing like the mythical site they eventually visit, but as the author, I had so much fun making it up! Merry-go-rounds, chipped paint, funnel cake… “New Ryūgū-jō” symbolizes the clash between old and new, sacred and commercial, in the landscape of a nation struggling to shape its postwar identity. It was also just really amusing to imagine!

Anne: Very fun! A significant part of the story is the characters’ desire to breed an Eastern ryū with a Western one, while meanwhile Isolde (who has a Japanese-American mom and a Jewish-Polish dad) says this about herself: “…in America, race is everything. For some people, it’s all they understand… And I don’t fit. I can’t be both—I have to be either, which sort of means I’m neither.” Her words broke my heart, and my question is: how autobiographical is this novel? How much does Isolde’s lament reflect what life was like for you, growing up?

Emi: Isolde’s experiences definitely reflect my own, and some of the most meaningful comments I’ve gotten on this book have been from people who relate to her. Still, Isolde and I are polar opposites in a lot of ways. Personality-wise, I’m much more similar to Kohei, who is quiet and reserved. My specific experience is reversed, too; while Isolde moved from a predominantly non-Japanese area to Japan, I spent my early childhood in a community with many first-generation Japanese immigrants, only to later find myself in a city with few native Japanese speakers. I went from being the “least Japanese” person I knew, to a makeshift ambassador in my third grade classroom. It was so unnerving! My classmates would ask me to say things in Japanese, and I felt like such an impostor. I wanted to say, I’m sorry, I’m only HALF!

I know there are a lot of mixed-race kids out there who feel like they can only be “half-and-half,” not a unified whole. I hope The Lost Ryū resonates with them. That said, I also hope that readers from every cultural background will see a bit of themselves in Isolde. The best thing about books—MG books in particular—is that they show us how seemingly different life experiences can be similar deep down. I think we all have moments when we feel like we’re “only half,” when other people’s expectations make us feel as though we’re not enough. Isolde is enough, and I hope my readers know that they are, too.

Anne: Yes, it’s truly something, how similar we all are, deep down. I sensed that theme, woven through the story. Toward the end, Kohei remembers Papa saying, “There is a special beauty in things that are broken, then put back together.” The fractures in an object tell its story. Another lovely theme! When you started writing this book, did you plan to include these themes, or did they emerge later, during your writing process? What theme do you most want readers to take away from reading The Lost Ryū?

Emi: The theme of fractures and recovery definitely emerged later during the writing process. When I got started with this book, all I knew was that I wanted to feature both Eastern and Western dragons. The theme of “both-ness” has always been a major part of it, and that’s the one I hope will resonate with young readers. We are all intersections of multiple identities and backgrounds—even those of us who are dragons!

Anne: How long did it take you to write The Lost Ryū? Tell us a bit about your writing process.

Emi: That first draft was less than half the length of the final version (more like an oversized short story than a novel), so I got it on paper in less than a week. It was a total mess! Once I’d signed with my agent, we worked on solidifying the pacing and plot before going on sub. My writing process involves a lot of full rewrites—in the case of The Lost Ryū, there were at least three—but every time I started over, the result was a little bit better than the last. It’s a gratifying process.

Anne: Kohei’s mom says that hope is “remembering that there are stories we haven’t told yet.” I love that line! What stories have you not told yet? What are you working on now?

Emi: I’m currently in revisions for my next novel, Golemcrafters, which is slated for release in late 2023 with Levine Querido. It follows a brother-sister duo as they uncover their family history of golemcrafting: sculpting clay golems in the tradition of Jewish folklore. It’s a contemporary setting with a lot of Jewish humor, and I’m excited to share it with the world!

Anne: I look forward to reading it! Finally, please tell readers where they can go to learn more about you and your work.

Emi: Readers can find me at my website: www.emicohenwrites.com or on Instagram @cohemiwrites.

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a unique story for middle-grade readers!

Emi: Thank you for your insightful questions! This was so much fun.

Emi Watanabe Cohen; photo credit: Risa Cohen

Emi Watanabe Cohen grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where she spent most of her time reading, writing, or pretending to do her homework while secretly continuing to read or write. The stories she tells are informed by her mixed Japanese/Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, as well as by her experiences growing up in a multilingual environment. She is a graduate of Brandeis University’s Creative Writing program. The Lost Ryū is her debut novel.

Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about Anne at the MG Book Village “About” page.

Interview with George Jreije about SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA

Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, George! Thank you for taking the time to tell us about your middle-grade debut SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA, coming out on October 4th from Harper Collins. Can you please give our readers a brief synopsis of it?

George: Thanks for having me at the MG Book Village, Kathie! SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA centers on Shad Hadid, a twelve-year-old aspiring baker. Shad’s life is uprooted when he discovers he’s descended from a long line of alchemists and sent to the mysterious Alexandria Academy. Only, his arrival at the school awakens a nefarious force long lurking in the shadows, and he unwittingly holds the key to either stopping—or unleashing—their evil plot.

Kathie: I recently finished an eARC of your book, and I loved how you wove Lebanese culture together with mythology, alchemy, and lots of humor. Why was it important to you to tell this story?

George: I’m so glad you enjoyed the advanced copy. Writing this story meant more to me than getting a book deal, and that was because I felt so strongly about the need for a story that highlights an Arab hero. So much Western media paints characters of Arab background negatively, and my hope is to combat this narrative, sharing our rich culture with younger readers while giving the world a diverse lead they can root for.

Kathie: Shad is an aspiring baker when he discovers his family’s connection to alchemy and is sent to the Alexandria Academy to study it. What’s one question you think he would want me to ask him if I interviewed him?

George: You should definitely ask what part of the Alexandria Academy he most wants to explore. There’s the dining hall with all the tasty foods, of course, but also the Great Library with countless hidden secrets, among other mysterious nooks and crannies across the school. 

Kathie: Food is an essential part of this book. Do you have a favorite Lebanese dish?

George: Picking my favorite Lebanese dish is an impossible task! One that I would rate very highly is fattoush, which is a salad covered with toasted pieces of bread that give it a tasty crunch. Yum!

Kathie: If I was booktalking this story to a young reader in my library, what could I say to help convince them to try it?

George: Be sure to ask them whether they are an alchemist or a necromancer. They’ll have to read the book to discover who they side with, but the alchemists value tradition while the necromancers are much more concerned with progress at all costs.

Kathie: What’s one thing you’ve learned as a debut author that will influence your future writing projects?

George: What will most impact my writing moving forward is having a deeper goal that I’m trying to achieve. SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA was written for readers who didn’t see themselves represented in middle grade books. I’m going to be sure that I work to get across a similar goal or message through all of my books. 

Kathie: Do you have another writing project on the go, and can you share anything about it?

George: In fact, I do have a few secret projects coming up! Though I can’t go into much detail yet, I’ll just say two words…graphic novels. 

Oh, and of course SHAD HADID will have an EPIC sequel, which will take you across the world of alchemy. There’s so much to be excited about, and I’m humbled to have awesome readers along for the ride!

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

George: Readers can find me on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok at @ByGeorgeJreije to hear all of the latest on what’s happening with me. For personalized pre-orders and some swag, be sure to pre-order SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA from Books of Wonder in New York.

Kathie: Thanks so much for chatting with me today, George, and I hope young readers enjoy this story as much as I did.

George: It’s been a pleasure to be interviewed by you and the MG Book Village, and I can’t wait to hear what readers think of SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA!

George is the Lebanese-American author of SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA, a children’s fantasy novel with HarperCollins, and a forthcoming sequel. He has also written short stories published in collaboration with UNICEF. When not writing, George enjoys trying tasty Arabic pastries, messing with new yoga poses, and playing with his labradoodle, Sushi.