Interview with Mat Heagerty about LUMBERJACKULA

Kathie: Hi Mat, and welcome to MG Book Village! I appreciate you taking some time to chat with me today. You have an upcoming MG graphic novel called LUMBERJACKULA illustrated by Sam Owens and scheduled for release on July 19th from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Mat: Hi Kathie, so happy to be chatting! Lumberjackula is about Jack, a ½ vampire, ½ lumberjack who can’t decide which of his parent’s old middle schools he wants to attend, because the truth is, all he wants to do is dance! There’s tons of fun dance sequences beautifully drawn by Sam Owen and loads of puns and unique characters. It’s a story about how you don’t have to choose just one side of yourself. I can’t wait to get it in kids hands!

Kathie: It sounds like this story has a very relatable theme of finding the confidence to do your own thing. Why was it important for you to write about this?

Mat: As a kid, I struggled a ton with confidence and still do now really. I’m dyslexic and was a pretty poor student. It wasn’t until I started expressing myself creatively that my confidence grew. I’m the dad of the two best kids in the world, and I want them to eternally feel supported to be whoever they are and I want more stories in the world that celebrate folks dancing to their own beat. I’m hoping kids reading Jack’s story will be inspired to be more brave and go after what they want. 

Kathie: Did you enjoy reading humorous stories when you were younger, and who are some of your writing influences?

Mat: Reading wasn’t the easiest when I was a kid, but I was obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes. I also watched pretty much every cartoon ever in the 90s. I have so many writing influences, some maybe more obvious ones are Jeff Kinney, Vera Brosgol, Alex Hersh (and the Gravity Falls writers), and John Allison. But I was also really influenced early on by Brian K. Vaughan and Jeff Lemire.

Kathie: If you could choose to be a lumberjack or a vampire, which would you choose, and why?

Mat: Oh vampire, no question! I want as much time on earth as possible. There’s a ton I want to do, and I never seem to have the time. So living forever would be rad. I would have to vampirize my family (with their blessing of course) and I would figure out a not jerky way to get my blood and just fly around doing cool stuff. I’m already pretty nocturnal and like wearing black, so I think it would fit me well! Being a lumberjack wouldn’t be awful, I do love me some flannel and being outside. But the whole manual labor, coordination part I would just be so, so bad at.

Kathie: What was the collaboration process like for you with Sam when creating this graphic novel?

Mat: I would make a hundred books with Sam if I could! I hope there’s a demand for some Lumberjackula sequels. This entire process with Sam has just been amazing. I approached Sam about the book when I just had a synopsis, a sample script, and some character designs. Since then, he’s added so much to every word I wrote in the scripts and I couldn’t imagine the book without him. We both got our agent Maria through this project, and it’s been awesome going on this journey with him. I can’t wait to start promoting it a bit out there in the real world and maybe even meet him in person one day!

Kathie: What’s something new you discovered about yourself as a writer while working on this book?

Mat: I guess not really fully new, but with Lumberjackula I feel like I’ve really landed on the type of books I want to make– silly middle grade where really anything can happen!

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

Mat: I have a website that’s due for an overhaul, but has all the important info. Matheagerty.com I also am @mat.heagerty on instagram and for some reason, I still subject myself to twitter, I’m @matheagerty on there.

Kathie: Best of luck with your book’s release, Mat, and thanks for stopping by the Village.

Mat: Thank you so much for having me! I’m grateful! 

Mat Heagerty is a comic book writer living in Boise, ID. He’s the writer of “Martian Ghost Centaur”, “Unplugged and Unpopular”, and Lumberjackula”. 

Interview with Diane Magras about SECRET OF THE SHADOW BEASTS

Kathie: Hi Diane, thank you for joining me today at MG Book Village. I’m so glad we can talk about your upcoming book, SECRET OF THE SHADOW BEASTS, which comes out on June 14th from Dial Books. I recently read an eARC and loved it! Can you tell our readers a bit about it, please?

Diane: Thank you so much for your kind words, Kathie! I’m thrilled that you enjoyed Secret of the Shadow Beasts. And thank you for hosting me.

Here’s the official publisher’s description:

In Brannland, terrifying shadow beasts called Umbrae roam freely once the sun sets, so venomous that a single bite will kill a full-grown adult. The only people who can destroy them are immune children like Nora, who are recruited at the age of seven to leave their families behind and train at a steampunk castle called Noye’s Hill. But despite her immunity, Nora’s father refused to let her go. Now, years after his death by Umbra attack, Nora is twelve, and sees her mother almost killed by the monsters too. That’s when Nora decides it’s time for her to join the fight.

At Noye’s Hill, Nora’s new companions draw her into a sweeping world of round-the-clock battle training, fierce loyalty to one another, and sworn allegiance to defeat the Umbrae above all else. But despite slaying so many beasts night after night, the Umbrae’s population is quickly growing. And the government is keeping secrets about the source of the Umbrae, secrets that may tie back to Nora herself . . . and lead Brannland’s downfall.

Kathie: I love Nora is such a fully-developed character who is eager for battle yet vulnerable and true to herself. What draws you to write such female protagonists?

Diane: I saw this kind of person in kids I’ve met when I volunteered at my son’s elementary school library, or in his friends, or kids I’ve connected with during my author talks. There’s still a lot of gender bias in our world (definitely for girls, but for boys and non-binary kids too), dictating to kids who and what they should be. Girls especially are told to be strong and tough—or be gentle and nurturing. I wanted to depict a girl who was a bit of both—because truly, that’s who we are: not just one stereotype of our gender identity.

Also, ever since I wrote the Mad Wolf’s Daughter books (which feature a girl with immense confidence), I wanted to write a protagonist who was more like the kid I was when I was 12: I liked who I was, but I wasn’t so sure if the world would like me. And Nora has something else she’s dealing with: At age seven, she’s been told that she’s immune to the shadow beasts’ venom. She’s an incredible person, one of these special kids who can save the world. But then her father won’t let her do it. That had a huge psychological impact on her. She loves and trusts her dad, but starts to doubt herself (and her worth) at that point.

That’s one of the roots of her vulnerability. It parallels the period of life where kids start to really look at themselves and question their worth. That can feel shattering, and is always hard to get through. I wanted to honor that time in kids’ lives.

Kathie: The influence of video games plays an important role in this story. Can you tell us a bit about that inspiration?

Diane: During the start of the pandemic (right when I was working on the second draft of this book), my teenage son, an avid gamer, introduced me to two of the many games he plays: Minecraft and Wynncraft (an MMORPG, a massive multiplayer online game). I saw and experienced how gaming could provide an essential respite to people who were feeling crushed under the immense stress of the time. The more I saw and the more I learned (from conversations with my son, as well as gaming videos I watched), I also realized that gaming is a place where kids can be themselves, be powerful, and achieve something important. When I developed the character of Wilfred, Nora’s best friend and gaming companion, I realized that gaming could also be a profound bond between them, the crux of a deep friendship. Of course, the world that Nora enters—in which she’s a warrior in real life (as she reminds Wilfred at one point)—would strain that relationship. Gaming also gave me an opportunity to keep Nora connected to her home life through the chat function of the game, which she sneaks in with her to Noye’s Hill.

I couldn’t have done any of this without a solid model of a game in front of me, and I owe that to my son: The game that Nora and Wilfred play, Warriors of the Frozen Bog, is his own creation. Early on, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind coming up with a quick description of a video game that I could feature in this book. I was expecting a paragraph or two. He came back with a full concept—lore, classes and builds, a progression system, map, the whole thing. It was beautiful, inspiring, fun, and a game that I very muchwanted to play. Having that detailed outline helped me easily envision how this game would be a big part of Nora’s life—and parallel the action of the story too.

Kathie: I noticed in the acknowledgement that you mention the young readers’ input that helped shape this book. What’s one thing a middle-grade reader pointed out to you that you may have missed as an adult?

Diane: I have two things, actually, that I’d like to share. One: I am so grateful to my son for his creation of Warriors of the Frozen Bog, as mentioned above. If I’d created my own video game for this book, it wouldn’t have been so vivid, and I wouldn’t have been able to imagine Nora and Wilfred being so devoted to it, or had the parallels with the story that it now has. Warriors of the Frozen Bog feels utterly real, all thanks to him. (And I love that this huge element of this book is his creation.)

I’m also grateful to two elementary school classes in a small town here in Maine who helped me pick my cover artist. I’d presented to Mrs. Braun’s and Mrs. Snell’s classes before, and I asked them if they could ask their students to rate five ideas I had for the art that would serve as this book’s face. Using the cover samples I provided, they and their students did more than just rate: They provided an analysis of cover art and what it conveyed. They sent back detailed notes. It was easy for me to request Vivenne To (who’d been my favorite for this book all along!), but it incredibly helpful to know why students had chosen her.

Kathie: There are several types of Umbrae with different characteristics. Why did you choose to create more than one variety, and which would you prefer to face in a battle?

Diane: When I first came up with the concept, I knew I wanted different kinds of monsters to challenge the characters in different ways. I also wanted to represent different aspects of fear. I know a lot of people who are terrified of spiders (hence the Aranea umbrae, which are spider-like), others who are scared of snakes (leading me to the Cochlea umbrae, which are snake/slug combos), and some who have serious dog phobias (hence the Lupus umbrae, which are wolf-like silver dogs). I wanted these monsters to be scary, and rooted in the real world.

Here’s a secret about me, though: I’m not afraid of any of those creatures! I used to be afraid of spiders, but I love them now, and I talk to them as I rescue them. I’ve always loved snakes, felt sorry for slugs, and I grew up with shaggy dogs that may have some things in common with the Lupus umbrae. So…if I met any of these on a battlefield, I’d probably start talking to them and tell them they were beautiful!

But if I had to fight one, I’d pick the Lupus umbrae; like Nora, I know dogs and can do serious voice commands.

Kathie: What’s something you’d like readers to know about your story?

Diane: I want young readers to know that this book, with all its action and adventure and monsters, is also a warm read about friendship and family, and that the young characters feel important, respected, and cared for. That last part was really important to me as I was writing this. The kids who go to battle are shouldering a huge load and are in great danger. They bond with each other—some of those scenes when they first begin to connect were the most rewarding for me to write—but they also always know that the people in charge are going to do everything they can to help. This is a world where kids can be themselves, and be loved and respected for it. I hope that young readers will feel my own respect and care for them as they read my words.

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

Diane: You can check out my website, and find me also on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads. You can also find out more about all my work at Penguin Random House’s page for me.

Kathie: Thanks for chatting with me today, Diane, and I wish you all the best with your book’s release.

Diane: Thanks so much for having me, Kathie! It’s always a pleasure to join MG Book Village. And thank you as well for your incredible support of middle authors and our books.

Diane Magras (she/her) is the award-winning author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, as well as its companion novel, The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. Secret of the Shadow Beasts is her third book. An unabashed fan of libraries (where she wrote her first novel as a teenager), history (especially from cultures or people who’ve rarely had their story told), and the perfect cup of tea, Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son.

Interview with Alex Gino about Alice Austen Lived Here

Anne: Hello, Alex! I’m so glad you’re here at MG Book Village to chat about your latest novel, Alice Austen Lived Here, which hits shelves tomorrow, June 7! Could we please start with you giving readers a very brief summary of the story?

Alex: Sure thing. Nonbinary 7th grader Sam and their best friend TJ need to find a local historical figure for a contest to design a new statue to be built in front of Staten Island Borough Hall. With the help of the queer community in their building, they learn about Alice Austen, an early photographer who likely would have been defined as a lesbian today. On the way, they explore themes of LGBTQIAP+ history, chosen family, mentors, and more. It’s the story I’m proudest of yet and I’m excited to share it with readers.

Anne: I love the unique way you incorporated history into this novel: you put your protagonist in the very apartment where photographer Alice Austen once lived. Brilliant. So my question is: how did you get this idea for your setting?

Alex: Thanks. This is an easy one; that’s the building where I lived until I was 12.

Anne: Ha! Too perfect!

Alex: I lived in a different apartment, but I had the same view of New York Harbor as Sam does, and as Alice once did. I knew about Alice Austen growing up, but I didn’t learn she had lived in my building until I was in college and found out that Alice had been partnered with a woman for fifty years. I was so excited to find a part of Staten Island history that wasn’t straight that I found the same biography Sam does in the book and made the same discovery that Sam’s best friend TJ does. Alice Austen Lived There.

Anne: Love it. Now, the characters represent multiple generations ranging from 6 month-old Evie to Leslie, the 82 year-old neighbor. Middle-schooler Sam interacts with them all. With which character do you most identify? Do you see yourself in one more than in the others?

Alex: There’s a bit of me in all of my characters, but probably the most in Evie’s parents. Jess is a self-assured fat femme, and Val is a cheerful nonbinary nerd, and they are both living their lives as fully themselves as possible. I also find a lot of myself in my main character, Sam, unsurprisingly, but they have access to language and community that I didn’t. And so sometimes I feel like Leslie, someone now living in a very different world from the queer community I first discovered nearly thirty years ago.

Anne: The book’s themes are great, particularly the one—as you say in the epigraph—that “language changes; the need to be ourselves doesn’t.” So true. Over the years, there have been huge shifts in LGBTQIAP+ terminology, and even that acronym—oh, my, what a mouthful! Would you please talk a bit about your interest in including “changing language” as one of the story’s themes?

Alex: Language and word play have always fascinated me. In the case of shifting language for the rainbow of communities of people outside of “straight,” repression, shame, laws, and more have kept people from gathering and communicating. We have had to invent and repurpose words to describe ourselves, both because the words didn’t exist and because the words that do exist can be dangerous to use, hurled as insults, or otherwise not right. Now that we are stretching and growing, we have new spaces to explore words that work better for us, and the process will continue. As a writer, whose words get sealed in the time capsule of a novel, that can lead to tricky situations about word choice. For me, the answer has been to incorporate the issue of evolving language into the story itself.

Anne: Nice. The book is about queer history, about questioning stereotypes, about friendship and families, and what makes a family a family, and on all fronts, it’s a breath of fresh air. What do you hope readers will take away from Alice Austen Lived Here?

Alex: Thank you for the compliment. I hope that readers from queer and trans families will see people and connections like theirs on the page. And for readers unaccustomed to queer and trans cultures, I hope that they’ll have the chance to experience a family unlike theirs in some ways, but just as loving and just as imperfect. I’m excited for readers to learn about Alice Austen and to be inspired to discover other queer and trans people from history. We were always here.

Anne: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?

Alex: I can most commonly be found on twitter @lxgino. I am also occasionally on facebook @authoralexgino. But if you want to reach me, the best option is to email me at alex@alexgino.com. You can also find links to media interviews, blog posts, and more at my website, alexgino.com.

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a heartfelt story!

Alex: You’re welcome and thank YOU for sharing it.

Alex Gino. Photo by Blake C. Aarens.

Alex Gino is the author of the middle grade novels Alice Austen Lived Here; Rick; You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P!; and the Stonewall Award-winning Melissa. They love glitter, ice cream, gardening, awe-ful puns, and stories that reflect the complexity of being alive. For more information, visit alexgino.com.

Anne (A.B.) Westrick is today’s MG Book Village interviewer. She’s the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about her at https://abwestrick.com/

Interview with Sylvia Liu about HANA HSU AND THE GHOST CRAB NATION

Kathie: Hi Sylvia, and welcome to MG Book Village! I recently had a chance to read your middle-grade science fiction novel, HANA HSU AND THE GHOST CRAB NATION, which comes out on June 21st from Razorbill Books, and I loved it! Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?

Sylvia: Thank you so much! In a hyperconnected world under corporate control, twelve-year-old Hana can’t wait to get meshed—her brain connected to the multiweb. She thinks this will bring her closer to her high-powered scientist mom and overachieving sister. But when she discovers a corporate plot that threatens her classmates about to be meshed, she must rely on her wits and newfound allies—new friends, junkyard hackers, and a qi gong master—to save them, all while navigating complex family dynamics. Also, throw into the mix some bird bots, cyber bees, and a massive online game featuring ancient Chinese monks, warriors, and scholars.

Kathie: I loved getting to know Hana. She’s loyal, curious, and has a strong sense of justice. How are you most like her, and in what way are you different?

Sylvia: Hana and I are similar in our strong urge to connect with family, friends, and community, and our eagerness to make sense of the world. Hana is more of a tinkerer and scientifically-minded than I am, which made it interesting to write her character.

Kathie: What made you set this book in the year 2053?

Sylvia: When writing science fiction, it can be easy to set a story a hundred or a thousand years in the future and let one’s imagination go wild. The trickier challenge is to speculate what might happen within our lifetimes. For me, thirty years in the future is a good amount of time to extrapolate from current events and scientific advances and explore how things might turn out. I also wanted to include “historical” references from the 1990s that will appeal to parents of current twelve-year-olds.

Kathie: I love how you balanced the advantages of cutting-edge science with some of its drawbacks. Why was it important for you to have characters like Hana’s grandma who were resistant to making those technological leaps.

Sylvia: In discussions about technology, there’s always a range of attitudes from the early adopters to those resistant to change. I wanted to show that people with all of these perspectives have good points to make. As someone who grew up without the Internet or social media for half my life, but who was an early tech and social media adopter (and who is sometimes too addicted to the online world), I see the costs and benefits of both sides.

Kathie: Hana wants to be enmeshed because she feels disconnected from her mom and sister. There are several timeless middle-grade themes in your story (such as feeling shut out of the life of an older sibling) with futuristic spins on them. Can you share a bit more about how you did that?

Sylvia: I believe almost everyone, at some point, has felt excluded from a group they want to be a part of, whether it’s a group of friends or a subset of family members. At its heart, Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation is about a girl who feels abandoned and desperately wants to belong again. So while I had a great time spinning a near-future with cool tech and an exciting, twisty thriller, I always tried to bring the story back to the emotional beats: Hana’s wants, fears, and joys. 

Kathie: What’s one technological advancement you would like to see in your lifetime?

Sylvia: What a great question. I’d like to see people seriously addressing and reversing global warming. It’s going to take a lot more than technological advances to do so, but they are a critical part of the toolbox. For example, we need to figure out ways to trap greenhouse gases, conserve energy, and reduce our carbon footprint. One small example would be super-efficient solar power generation. The harder part will be getting the political will to make these changes.

Kathie: Can you share one thing about this book that you would like readers to know?

Sylvia: Almost every tech in the story exists or is being researched, from virtual gaming to connected brains (mice brains have been connected by wires) to bioluminescent trees and robotic bees for pollination. One thing that hasn’t been developed yet, as far as I know, is the Cat Memes Converter™, which translates cat language to human language!

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

Sylvia: My website is enjoyingplanetearth.com, and I’m active on Twitter (@artsylliu) and Instagram (@sylliu).

Kathie: Thanks so much for joining me today, Sylvia, and I hope you get a fantastic response from young readers.

Sylvia: Thank you for having me!

Sylvia Liu grew up with books and daydreams in Caracas, Venezuela. Once an environmental attorney protecting the oceans, she now spins stories inspired by high tech, cephalopods, and the intricacies of family and friendship. She’s the author of the middle grade books Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation (Razorbill, June 21, 2022) and Manatee’s Best Friend (Scholastic 2021) and the picture book A Morning with Grandpa, illustrated by Christina Forshay (Lee & Low Books 2016). Sylvia lives in Virginia with her family and a very fluffy cat.

Interview with Lorelei Savaryn about THE EDGE OF IN BETWEEN

Kathie: Hi Lorelei, and welcome back to MG Book Village! The last time we chatted, you were preparing to release your debut novel, THE CIRCUS OF STOLEN DREAMS. Today we’re discussing your new middle-grade novel, THE EDGE OF IN BETWEEN, which came out on April 19th. Can you tell our readers a bit about it, please?

Lorelei: Absolutely! THE EDGE OF IN BETWEEN is a spooky, magical reimagining of The Secret Garden. 

ABOUT THE EDGE OF IN BETWEEN

A spellbinding tale of magical realism and superb, twisty retelling of The Secret Garden, where twelve-year-old Lottie’s colorful world turns suddenly gray when an unexpected accident claims her parents, and she is uprooted from her home to live with an eccentric uncle she never knew she had—on the border that separates the living and the dead.

Lottie lives in Vivelle—the heart of a vibrant city where life exists in brilliant technicolor and nearly everyone has magic. And Lottie is no exception; she can paint pictures to life in every shade and hue imaginable. But at the sudden loss of her parents, all the color is stripped from Lottie’s heart and the world around her. Taken in by her reclusive, eccentric uncle, Lottie moves into Forsaken, his vast manor located in the gray wasteland between the Land of the Living and Ever After, the land of the dead.

The discovery of a locked-up garden, a wise cardinal, a hidden boy, and a family whose world is full of color despite the bleakness around them begins to pull at the threads of what it means to live in such a near-dead place, slowly returning some of the color to Lottie’s private world and giving her hope that life is worth experiencing fully, even while one carries sorrow.

But as time runs out, Lottie must find a way to thaw both the world and the hearts of her uncle, cousin, and those she has come to know and love in her new home, or all of Forsaken—including Lottie herself—will be absorbed by Ever After long before their time.

Kathie: I love your writing, but I admit I was initially skeptical about reading this book because I’m not a fan of The Secret Garden. Your book stands so well on its own, though, and doesn’t require any knowledge of the original story. How did you choose what elements to keep from The Secret Garden and how to put your own spin on it?

Lorelei: I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I worked really hard to tell a story that could be appreciated by anyone, whether or not they’re familiar with the original story (or even if they don’t really like it!). Early on, I decided that I would have a counterpart to each of the characters in the original, but that I would take a fresh angle on their personalities and dynamics. I also decided to keep some of the major plot markers in place, namely, that my main character moves in with her uncle, discovers she has a cousin, and finds a hidden garden. I hoped to then build on that foundation to create a world brimming with magic, and that delves into navigating grief and finding one’s way to hope and healing again in a more nuanced and layered way. I also wanted to write a story completely free of the racism, ableism, and colonialism of the original book.

Kathie: Lottie is my favorite character. Can you use three words to describe her, and in what way do you wish you were more like her?

Lorelei: I love Lottie so much! She is resilient, open-hearted, and incredibly creative. I love how she fights to see the good in people, even if it isn’t apparent at the start. One thing I admire about Lottie is how she lets herself feel the way she is feeling- if she is sad, if she is angry, she doesn’t try to hide it. She accepts those feelings as part of herself, and I think I sometimes struggle with trying to put on a brave face when maybe being more vulnerable would actually be the healthier choice, because that opens you up to support from those who love you. On the flip side of that, when Lottie is happy, the whole world knows it, and that joy spreads to others. I’m also working harder to be like Lottie in pausing to appreciate how far I’ve come.

Kathie: One of the things I most enjoy about your stories is how you explore grief and loss but how hope balances out those themes. How does writing fantasy allow you to explore these emotions differently from a realistic story?

Lorelei: This is such a great question. Writing in magical worlds in a strange way allows me to face certain aspects of grief more head on or even more concretely than I maybe could in a realistic story. In The Circus of Stolen Dreams, I got to give Andrea the chance to go back and save the one she had lost, which I think is something so many of us wish for when we experience loss, but can never achieve. It was incredibly healing to write that possibility for her. In The Edge of In Between, there’s a scene where Lottie cries in the frozen over garden, and she’s worried it will make the garden deteriorate even more. But when she looks down, flowers have sprouted up in the places where her tears hit the earth. It can be tough, sometimes, to understand that sadness is not only acceptable, but a necessary part of the path toward healing. Inside the magical world of Forsaken’s frozen garden, I got to show that in such a concrete and visible way. My hope is that readers will remember that scene and carry it with them for the day when their tears need to fall.

Kathie: Color plays an integral part in this story. What is your favorite color, and how do you use color to express yourself in your life?

Lorelei: I recently decided that my favorite color is that pinkish orange hue the sky takes on just as the sun is setting. There are roses that are that color, and I’ve always been drawn to them too. 

I use color in my life, especially in my home, to set up the feeling of different spaces in our house. There are rooms that are in calm and peaceful blues with pops of yellow, there are rooms that have gray walls and pink flowers and brown wood. We have four kids, and things are generally noisy and filled with movement, so I tend towards gentle colors in the spaces I’m in. I appreciate beautiful color combinations as well as the feelings they can evoke and the comfort they can bring. I also love setting up little book arrangements by spine color as decor in different rooms of the house to coordinate with the seasons. Red and green for Christmas, bright yellow during the spring, etc.

Kathie: People often say writing a second book is more challenging than writing the first. Was that true for you?

Lorelei: Oh my goodness, absolutely it was. It took some time to get used to writing my first book from scratch that was under contract, and the expectations and deadlines that came along with that. This was also just a deeply personal story for me, and there was a point three rounds into revision with my editor where I realized I had to scrap everything and start over. With my editor’s blessing, I opened a blank word document and began again, and rewrote the whole thing in about three and a half weeks in order to turn it in on time. It was very scary in the moment, but so worth it in the end.

Kathie: What’s one thing you wish someone would ask you about this book? 

Lorelei: I would love to be asked about the little cardinal in the story! In the original book, the bird that leads Mary Lennox to the garden is a robin. But I chose to use a cardinal because there is a legend about cardinals being messengers for loved ones that we’ve lost. I’ve seen a lot of art and cards about that sort of idea, and it just enchanted me from the very first time I heard it. How lovely it would be to have a messenger like that be a sign for someone who has lost a loved one. I was able to take that story and very easily adapt it to fit into my imaginary world and use the cardinal to bring comfort to my characters in a way that some readers may find familiar.

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

Lorelei: Readers can head on over to www.loreleisavaryn.com! I’m on social media as well:

Instagram: loreleisavarynauthor

Twitter: @loreleisavaryn

TikTok: lorelei_savaryn_author

Kathie: Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Lorelei. I truly enjoyed this story, and I wish you all the best with its release.

Lorelei: Thank you so much Kathie! And thank you for taking the time to chat!

Lorelei Savaryn (loreleisavaryn.com) is an author of creepy, magical stories for children. She holds a BA in creative writing and is a former elementary teacher and instructional coach. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time amidst the beautiful chaos of life with her husband and four children outside of Chicago. She is also the author of The Circus of Stolen Dreams. You can follow her on Twitter @LoreleiSavaryn.

Interview with Salma Hussain about THE SECRET DIARY OF MONA HASAN

Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, Salma! Today we’re chatting about your debut middle-grade novel, The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan, which releases on May 3rd from Tundra Books. Can you tell us a bit about it, please?

Salma: Thank you for the warm welcome, Kathie! The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan is a middle grade novel set in 1991 about a young, Muslim Pakistani girl growing up in big-city Dubai, in the U.A.E. Due to the first Gulf War her parents decide to immigrate to North America. They end up in small-town Dartmouth on Canada’s east coast. The novel is a year-in-the-life-of young Mona as she journeys through immigration, puberty, and general tween concerns – “When will my chest grow, Allah? Why is my mother not like the mothers on T.V.? Why is Aba ruining our lives by moving us to Canada?”

Kathie: Mona’s story begins in United Arab Emirates, but she ends up immigrating to eastern Canada in a small town outside Halifax. Can you share why you chose these locations as your setting?

Salma: To answer this question, I’d like to share the origin story for this novel – when my daughter was five, she turned to me sleepily at bedtime and asked, “Mama, you were born outside Canada, right? Were you a regular kid just like us?” 

That one question was the spark behind this entire novel. I knew in that moment that I wanted to write a book in a child’s voice to answer my child’s underlying questions – in what ways might the kids who grow up outside Canada be different? And in what ways might they be the same? 

I wanted it to be an immigration story and I choose these particular locations because I know them very well! I grew up in the U.A.E. myself (until grade seven), and immigrated to a small town on the eastern coast of Canada when I was a teenager (I completed my high school years in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia). I have a familiarity and love for both places, and as they are under-represented in childrens’ literature in North America, I wanted to amplify and celebrate them.

Kathie: What 5 words would you use to describe Mona, and explain why you chose them?

Salma:

CURIOUS – Mona questions the world around her and in so doing holds up a mirror to the absurd world we have created.

JUST – Mona knows when something is wrong and she steps in to do something about it (i.e., in the situation with her sister and Uncle Annoying, and in the situation between Ross and the bully.)

DREAMER – Mona wildly and passionately believes in all the good things yet to come in her life. She dreams of a better world. Every. Single. Day.

UNSINKABLE – Kids, at all times from all places, but especially those who grow up in times of conflict and war, have been and continue to be unsinkable.

GRAND POETESS – Mona would pick this one for herself so I had to include it!

Kathie: The book takes place in 1991 at the start of the first Gulf War. What sort of research did you do, and did you discover anything that surprised you?

Salma: I knew that I wanted the impetus for this family’s move to be the first Gulf War, and I knew that I wanted the novel to cover twelve months. However, when I started researching the first Gulf War, figuring out which twelve months I should cover was a challenge! The Iraqi military invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990 but Mona’s first diary entry begins on January 1, 1991, so when readers meet this family they have already been dealing with the news of the Gulf War for a few months. This meant I had to insert context and background about the Gulf War quickly but in a way that would not be overwhelming, nor an “info-dump”! It took a few tries to get it right. I looked up the front pages of newspapers in the Middle East (in English, Arabic and Urdu) and compared and contrasted the headlines. I also listened to news coverage from different TV channels (a lot of this is available on Youtube). Nothing was surprising, but a lot of it was very sad. News about any war, anywhere, from any time period, is extremely sad. In contrast, I then also looked at popular “fashion”/“beauty”/“womens’” magazines and listened to music from the late 80s to 91. This research countered the sad stuff. I found that as an escape from the reality and horror of war, people determinedly and resolutely sought out joy in fashion and food and music. 

Kathie: Your writing voice is quite humorous. Are you naturally a funny person?

Salma: Yes, absolutely! My friends (who have had their arms twisted about this) agree. My children, however, disagree.

Kathie: What’s one question you wish readers or interviewers would ask about your story?

Salma: What are Mona and Adam up to today? 🙂 

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

Salma: Please follow me on Twitter and Insta: @salmahwrites. I post updates about my writing life on these platforms and I also desperately need more followers! (My mom and her friends  aren’t enough! :))

I also have a website (designed by the lovely Hazel of @staybookish): www.salmahwrites.com.

Kathie: Thank you so much for joining me today. I love connecting with Canadian new authors, and I wish you all the best with your publishing kickoff!!

Salma: Thank you so much, Kathie. I just want to close by adding that the Middle Grade writing community in Canada and beyond is one of the friendliest writing communities to be a part of, and I am honoured and delighted to join it. Thank you for reading The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan!

Salma Hussain enjoys writing prose and poetry for all ages. She has a B.A. (Hon.) in English literature  from the University of Calgary, a law degree from the University of Calgary, and a Masters in Law from McGill University. The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan is her debut MG novel. She lives in Toronto. 

Interview with James Bird about The Second Chance of Benjamin Waterfalls

Anne: Hello, James! Welcome to MG Book Village. I’m excited to chat with you about your new novel, The Second Chance of Benjamin Waterfalls. The book hit shelves on April 19th and I loved reading it. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the story?

James: Hello Anne! This book is about second chances. Not only getting them, but also giving them. Benny receives a second chance to turn his life around, and in turn, ends up giving his dad a second chance to become the father he needs to be.

Anne: Great. It’s such a heartfelt story. And there’s a lot of humor here! Characters tell jokes and riddles and play good-natured tricks on one another. What about you? Are you a jokester? Do you have a silly sense of humor? Are any of the characters based on you?

James: I guess I am a bit of a jokester. I try to find the humor in all situations. Sometimes that’s very difficult and nearly impossible, but the point is too look for it, not to find it. I think most problems, not all, but most problems would be solved if we approached them with humor and a sense of trying to find a common ground with people. And now that I am a dad, I see that humor is one of the most precious qualities we are born with, and as we grow up, some of it fades away. With this book, I am trying to reel it back towards the adults in this story. We should not only learn to laugh more, but we should make a huge effort in trying to make other people laugh more.

Benny, in a way, is based on me. I stole a lot as a kid. And like him, I was given a second chance to straighten up.

Anne: Oh, interesting. And it’s lucky for all of us that you straightened up and started writing fiction! Now, Benny is Ojibwe but grew up speaking English, and as he learns a few Ojibwe words, so do readers. Did you grow up speaking Ojibwe, or did you have to research the language to write this novel?

James: I grew up speaking only English, but as I got older, I really wanted to reconnect with my blood. So I made it a mission to learn anishinaabemowin. Now, I am teaching it to my son, Wolf. But he has a young spongy brain, so it’s more like he is teaching it to me.

Anne: Somewhere I read that you were raised in California and now live in Massachusetts. Why did you set the story in Minnesota? What is it about the city of Duluth and the remote area of Grand Portage that made Minnesota the right setting for Benny’s story?

James: The book is set in Minnesota because that is where all my relatives are from. My mom was born and raised there, so now I try to go back as often as I can. It is a part of me now.

Anne: One of the story’s themes is that inside each of us we’ll find both a superhero and a villain; Benny must struggle to wake up his inner superhero. When you started writing, did you set out to incorporate this theme, or did it emerge along the way? How long did it take you to write Benny’s story?

James: I have always believed that each person has a superhero inside of them, as well as a villain. As we grow up, we tend to listen to one and ignore the other. My hope is that people will read my book and decide to listen to their superhero.

Writing this book was rather quick. A few months is all it took. I had a lot of superhero experiences to pull from, and I admit, I also had a lot of villainous experience to draw from too.

Anne: Love it. Before we end, I want to tell readers that your first MG novel was titled The Brave and came out in 2020.

Readers who like The Second Chance of Benjamin Waterfalls will like that one, too. It’s a great story! And my question is: will you be writing more novels for middle grade readers? What are you working on now?

James: Yes. I will be writing many more middle grade books. My third book, No Place Like Home, will be out in spring 2023.

Anne: Awesome. Can’t wait to read it! Finally, please tell readers where they can go to learn more about you and your work.

James: I am on Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/jamesbirdbooks/, Facebook, and sometimes Twitter, https://twitter.com/jamesbirdwriter

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such heartfelt novels for middle grade readers!

James: Great to be here!

James Bird is an Ojibwe author (The Brave, The Second Chance of Benjamin Waterfalls) as well as an award winning filmmaker (Eat Spirit Eat, From Above, Honeyglue, We Are Boats, Wifelike). But in his words, his greatest accomplishment is being a father to his son, Wolf. When he’s not writing, he spends most of his time rescuing animals and painting in the basement with his son. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, fellow author Adriana Mather. His next book will be released in spring, 2023, and is titled No Place Like Home.

Anne (A.B.) Westrick is today’s MG Book Village interviewer. She’s the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about her at https://abwestrick.com/

Nouns, Verbs And Adjectives Help Mark My Muslim Celebration by Saadia Faruqi

In the first few days of May, American Muslims like myself will mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan with a big celebration called Eid al-Fitr. Traditionally, this means collective prayers, fancy clothes, henna, delicious foods, and gift exchanges. This year, it will also include Mad Libs.

Many people think Mad Libs is inappropriate and risqué. They may not know that it’s one of the world’s most popular word games, making children grin since 1953. My own kids aren’t immune: I played Mad Libs with my then elementary school daughter while on a road trip, and haven’t looked back since. Whether you’re alone or in a group, this fun game inserts parts of speech like nouns, adjectives, verbs, even celebrity names and types of buildings into a story full of blanks for a rip-roaring laugh.

I remember the giggles whenever we’d play the game. My daughter thought she was lucky to be allowed to use words like poop and diaper and fart, all in the name of good fun. Little did she know she was learning language skills and spending time with her family instead of alone in her room playing Roblox. I have the fondest memories of this time, so when Penguin Random House knocked on my door to write a Mad Libs all about Eid, I jumped on board quickly.

As a children’s author, I write stories centering Muslim American families. Characters like my first generation Pakistani American kids, who try to practice their faith while living fulfilling, multidimensional lives in the U.S. One of the reasons I write such books is to allow kids like mine to see themselves in the pages of books, their faces reflected back from the covers, and their lives normalized through the stories. I knew I wanted to go further than that, however. Including Muslim observances like holidays into mainstream culture is an important aspect of my work, and Mad Libs is definitely a part of American culture since the last mid-century. If families can play Mad Libs about Easter, Christmas, and other holidays, why not Eid?

To me, this little booklet of twenty-one word games is more than it seems at first glance. The stories within it are carefully chosen reflections of Eid in all its glory of celebrations. From “Henna How-To” and “Glitter and Lights” to “An Eid Poem” and “An Eid Recipe” this book can help players of every age learn a little something about me. My culture. My holiday. The gifts we give each other. The ways we find joy. The foods we eat, whether they’re home cooked using generations-old recipes or huge family gatherings at a local restaurant. And now, maybe a new tradition: playing a Mad Libs game together after a hearty Eid meal.

At the end of the day, Eid al-Fitr isn’t just a Muslim holiday. With millions of Americans celebrating it each year, Eid is an American holiday, just like all the others. I want to mainstream and normalize it, and if I can help children learn the parts of speech in the process, that’s just an added bonus.

Ramadan Kareem and Eid Mubarak!

Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series “Yasmin” and other books for children, including middle grade novels “A Place At The Table” co-written with Laura Shovan (a Sydney Taylor Notable 2021), and “A Thousand Questions” (a South Asia Book Award Honor 2021). Her new book “Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero” details the experiences of the Muslim American community twenty years after 9/11. 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 lives in Houston, TX with her husband and children.

COVER REVEAL for THE POLTER-GHOST PROBLEM by Betsy Uhrig

Kathie: Hi Betsy! Thank you so much for asking us to be part of the cover reveal for your upcoming middle-grade book THE POLTER-GHOST PROBLEM (scheduled for release on August 30th by Margaret K. McElderry Books. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?

Betsy: Hi, Kathie! Thanks so much for hosting this spooky cover reveal! THE POLTER-GHOST PROBLEM is about three argumentative best friends who stumble on a haunted orphanage during an otherwise boring summer. The orphan ghosts aren’t the problem, though – in fact, they’re quite friendly in their own noncorporeal way. The problem is that they have been trapped at the hated orphanage by an angry poltergeist that won’t let them go until the boys follow its highly unusual and obscure instructions. 

Kathie: This book is a shift away from your previous books with its supernatural happenings. Why did you choose to go in this direction, and what was the writing experience like for you?

Betsy: When I began writing this book, one of my nephews was obsessed with those TV shows featuring investigations into real hauntings. So I started writing this for him, and my goal was an eerie, spine-tingling book. But me being me, I managed to get the word “underpants” into the first paragraph, so it morphed into a spooky-funny hybrid from the beginning. I doubt anyone would truly get a fright out of it, but I hope they get a few laughs! (PS: That nephew is about to graduate from college. These things take time.)

Kathie: Can you tell us a little bit about your main characters?

Betsy: The main characters are three middle-school boys: Aldo, Pen, and Jasper. They are narrating the book as a trio, though Aldo is typing, so he gets the last say for the most part. (This despite his self-confessed acute case of verbal diarrhea and over-familiarity with the thesaurus.) The boys agree on almost nothing, so the narrative is in some ways a 50,000-word argument about how to describe what happened to them over one hair-raising summer. 

Kathie: It sounds like this is a very humorous spooky story. What do you most enjoy about writing stories that make readers laugh?

Betsy: I think there’s humor to be found even in scary situations, so my characters tend to make comments that other, more dignified characters would leave off the page. Let’s face it: If you’re battling a giant squid ghost, at some point you will at least think about the phrase “battered squid” in the seafood sense. My characters just go ahead and admit it. 

Kathie: Let’s talk about the cover. I believe this is the same illustrator who did the cover for WELCOME TO DWEEB CLUB?

Betsy: Yes, the amazing team of Lisa K. Weber (illustrator) and Rebecca Syracuse (designer) reunited for THE POLTER-GHOST PROBLEM, and I’m so glad they did. Lisa is great at bringing my characters to life and making them look suitably nervous. 

Kathie: OK, let’s show everyone what it looks like?

Kathie: What a great spooky cover! I really like how the colors jump out with the teal background. Can you point out one element that you really like?

Betsy: I agree that the color is gorgeous. I also love the swirl of ghostly and poltergeistly activity around Pen, Jasper, and Aldo. My favorite thing is the pink china poodle flying at them. That was a special request on my part! (The haunted orphanage features tons of tacky knickknacks, which make hazardous projectiles.)

Kathie: What’s something you’d like readers to know about this book?

Betsy: First of all, I want them to know that it’s mostly funny and only a little bit scary. So they can carry this book around and impress their peers with their daring without actually having to leave a nightlight on after reading it. Second, I like to think that this is the first-ever middle-grade novel to feature an index! It’s completely useless, but it was so fun to make. 

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

Betsy: They can visit my website, BetsyUhrig.com, which has recently been updated with some fun stuff about this book. They can also follow me on Twitter @BetsyUhrig

Kathie: Thanks for chatting with me today, and best of luck with the buildup to the book’s release!

Betsy: Thanks so much for indulging me, Kathie! Nothing I love more than a low-pressure chat about my books! 

Betsy Uhrig is the author of the middle-grade novels Double the Danger and Zero Zucchini, Welcome to Dweeb Club, and The Polter-Ghost Problem (all from McElderry / Simon &Schuster). She was born and raised in Greater Boston, where she lives with her family and even more books than you are picturing. She graduated from Smith College with a degree in English and has worked in publishing ever since. She writes books for children instead of doing things that aren’t as fun. For more information about her and her cats, visit BetsyUhrig.com.

Kathie interviews herself about IF YOU CAN DREAM IT, YOU CAN DO IT

Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, Kathie! How does it feel to be on the other side of this interview process?

Me: Why, thank you, Kathie; I’m a HUGE fan of MG Book Village!!! I honestly didn’t think this day would ever come, so it’s beyond exciting for me.

Kathie: You have the honour of making your writing debut alongside author extraordinaire Colleen Nelson. Can you tell us a bit about IF YOU CAN DREAM IT, YOU CAN DO IT: How 25 inspiring individuals found their dream jobs that releases on October 25th from Pajama Press?

Me: Of course, thanks for asking! Colleen and I interviewed 25 individuals with very cool jobs and asked them how they ended up doing the work they love. We wanted our readers to see their training, what they actually did on an average day, and share advice for kids interested in pursuing similar work. With each profile, we also included helpful information such as spin-off jobs, pro-tips to help prepare for that type of work, and inspiring young people currently exploring similar career paths. Scot Ritchie did a fantastic job on the illustrations, and I’m thrilled with how the final book turned out.

Kathie: What sparked the idea for this book?

Me: Colleen and I started the monthly MG Lit Online Book Club two years ago, so we knew that we worked well together. When I mentioned one day that I had taken a course on writing nonfiction for children and had published a magazine article, she started to think more seriously about her idea to write a nonfiction book about kids figuring out what they wanted to do when they grew up. When she approached me with the idea of working together on a book to highlight a variety of dream jobs, I immediately said yes.

Kathie: How did you choose the individuals you included in the book?

Me: We spent a lot of time searching for people with a wide range of backgrounds and unique perspectives in their fields. For instance, I interviewed one of a handful of female smokejumpers in the United States, while Colleen interviewed a Canadian barber who caters his services to transgender clients. We wanted kids to pick up our book and see a world of possibilities.

Kathie: Tell us what it was like co-writing with Colleen?

Me: Working with a well-established author like Colleen was a godsend. I learned so much from her, and she was incredibly generous in answering all my questions. I’d never considered co-writing a book but discovered I loved having someone to bounce ideas off and working collaboratively. I experienced my share of imposter syndrome as an unpublished author working with someone well-established in the writing community. Still, I learned that I brought valuable skills, ideas, and perspectives to this project, and I’m so proud of the finished product.

Kathie: What do you hope young readers will take away from your book?

Me: My daughter is almost 19 and heading off to university in September (I dedicated this book to her as she sets off in search of her own dream job). She felt so much pressure to have her career path figured out before graduating from high school. I really want young readers to see that many of these successful individuals had no idea what they wanted to do at that point in their lives. Many “fell” into their dream jobs while on the road to someplace else. I hope kids are inspired to pursue their passions and work through the bumps in the road to get to a place where they are doing work they love.

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

Me: Colleen’s website is http://www.colleennelsonauthor.com/, and you can find her on Instagram at @colleennelsonauthor or Twitter at @colleennelson14. You can find me on Twitter or Instagram at @KathieMacIsaac, and at the Bit About Books blog with Laurie Hnatiuk.

Kathie MacIsaac is an award-winning literacy advocate who is passionate about books for middle-grade readers. She is a co-author of the blog Bit About Books and a co-founder of the website MG Book Village, which facilitates connection between members of the middle-grade community. Kathie manages the children’s department of the Headingley Municipal Library near Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she lives with her husband and daughter.  If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It: How 25 inspiring individuals found their dream jobs is her first book.