All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

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ALL’S FAIRE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL
Written and illustrated by Victoria Jamieson
(Dial BYR; $20.99, Ages 8-12)

 

cover image for All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly
A New York Times Editor’s Choice
An Autumn Kids’ Indie Next List top pick

 

Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School, provides a much-needed glimpse into alternative lifestyles. Twelve-year-old Imogene has been homeschooled by parents who work at Florida’s Renaissance Faire. When Imogene starts public school for the first time, she faces a very different world than at the faire where she is a knight-in-training.

Each chapter begins with brief synopsis of the brave heroine’s plight, conveyed in somewhat Old English. With much of the book set at the faire, readers gain insight into this medieval reenactment where people choose which role to play. Imogene never wanted to be the princess, but she questions whether she is destined to be a knight—maybe she’s more like Cussie, the hermit. Sometimes, Imogene behaves like the dragon.

The story explores Imogene’s turbulent journey to self-discovery. This is a tale of acceptance, forgiveness, friends, and blossoming sexuality. Imogene is every preteen, learning what it takes to fit in at school. She is teased for wearing thrift-store clothes with the wrong shoes. Imogene’s family becomes an embarrassment to her when they show up still dressed in Elizabethan costume and think nothing of it. Before entering sixth-grade, Imogene hadn’t noticed her family was different and how this is viewed suspiciously.

As with Jamieson’s successful Newbery Honor Book Roller Girl, in All’s Faire, the protagonist is a tough girl struggling with prepubescent emotions. The love of Imogene’s family—including her “faire-mily”—is a constant. Even when at odds with her parents and brother, in the end, Imogene realizes that the bullies and popular kids at school are something to suffer in passing. Her philosophy of what’s important shifts—and that makes all the difference.

Imogene makes unkind choices, acting out against others because of her own frustration. Her journey to finding the right path is a realistically portrayed ongoing battle. In life, there are no easy answers. Family can embarrass us by just being themselves. We all make mistakes, yet, each day, we can choose which character we wish to play. The book concludes with an understanding that, if you believe there are happy endings in sixth-grade, then you haven’t attended middle school—a declaration which will resonate with readers everywhere.

 

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

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THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET
Written by David Barclay Moore
(Random House BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore cover image

 

Starred Reviews: Bulletin, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness, VOYA

The Stars Beneath Our Feet  by David Barclay Moore introduces us to Wallace “Lolly” Rachpaul, a twelve-year-old boy reeling from his older brother’s recent murder. Lolly almost thinks it’s a joke, that Jermaine will reappear and everything will be fine. However, the heaviness in Lolly’s chest makes him realize life is unfair: “it’s all about borders. And territories. And crews.”

For years, Lolly built Legos per the box’s instructions because they provided relief from the real world. When Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend begins giving him garbage bags full of Legos, it unleashes his imagination but their apartment isn’t big enough for his artistic endeavor. At his community center after-school program, Lolly finds the storage room a peaceful retreat where he can build alone, forgetting about everything else until he must share his space and blocks with a quiet girl the kids call Big Rose.

When Rose does speak, she repeats comforting words to herself: “Your mama, your daddy—they were buried under the ground, but they’re stars now, girl, stars beneath our feet.” Her seemingly obscure statements affect Lolly. Their unlikely friendship evolves to include an understanding of shared pain. In the Harlem projects, death is too commonplace.

Throughout the book, Lolly and his best friend, Vega, feel pressure to join a gang for protection; yet, that’s what led to Jermaine’s death. Lolly wavers between fear, anger, and acceptance of what seems to be his only path. The question of how to fit in pulls Vega away as they search for their own answers, boys on their way to becoming men.

Moore’s book reveals our world’s imperfections and complications. Yet, hope shines through. We relate to Lolly’s conflicting emotions and understand his worries about the future. We all must decide how to best live our lives. The Stars Beneath Our Feet shares a glimpse of one boy’s journey.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Zinnia and the Bees, An Interview with Debut Author Danielle Davis

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MEET DANIELLE DAVIS,
AUTHOR OF
ZINNIA AND THE BEES
Written by Danielle Davis
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)

 

Cover image from Zinnia and the Bees written by Danielle Davis

 

Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel. 

REVIEW

Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.

Zinnia and the Bees book with wool and some beesOn that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.

As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.

The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)

Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel

INTERVIEW

Photo of Zinnia and the Bees author Danielle Davis

Author of Zinnia and the Bees, Danielle Davis

Good Reads With Ronna: What was the genesis for Zinnia and the Bees

Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.

GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?

DD 🐝: I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).

GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?

DD 🐝: While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.

GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?

DD 🐝: Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday. 

GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?

DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.

GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?

DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.

GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?

DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of my blog.

And The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.

GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?

DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.

GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?

DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.

GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?

DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)

The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years ago here.

GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?

DD 🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!

Visit Danielle’s website here.
Find her at Twitter here.
Find her at Instagram here.
Click here to see Danielle’s Facebook page
And click here to for her Pinterest boards.
Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.

 

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The Explorers: The Door in the Alley by Adrienne Kress

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THE EXPLORERS:
THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY
by Adrienne Kress
(Delacorte Press; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

THE BLOG TOUR

The Explorers: The Door in the Alley book cover image

 

Allow me to take the liberty, given the wit and wildly sassy style of Adrienne Kress’s fantastical middle grade novel, The Explorers: The Door in the Alley, to share with you, readers, the several unused openings that I toyed with before settling upon something completely different though perhaps a bit more mundane:

Can a pig ever be considered precocious?

Teeny hats off (and I mean that in the best possible way) to author Adrienne Kress for her latest novel!

Kress had me at Explorers.

REVIEW:
Now, all those intros aside, I thoroughly enjoyed being taken inside the thrilling walls, doors, rooms and slide (yes, slide!) of The Explorers Society, one of the most marvelous places I’ve been to in a long time, and the driving force (to say the least) behind this very imaginative adventure. Getting to know the cool cast of characters whose journey kept me turning the pages as more and more secrets were revealed, was also tons of fun.

The story of The Explorers unfolds with the rescue of a pig in a teeny hat by a 12-year-old, rule-respecting, STEM scholar named Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also got a photographic memory. The pig, it turns out, belongs to a member of The Explorers Society, located in a seemingly innocuous building in a back alley near Sebastian’s routine route home. Rather than being rewarded for his helpful deed as logic would dictate, logic being another characteristic that can be attributed to young Sebastian, he is punished by the society’s president. Sebastian must now, to avoid arrest (yes, arrest!), do chores daily after school at the society in order to learn to take risks and expand his limited horizons.

As he becomes familiar with the amazing interior of the society (trust me, it is absolutely unreal!), Sebastian, prodded by the president Myrtle Algens, seeks to do something inappropriate that only someone who thrives on appropriateness can do. Just what that is, he hasn’t a clue. So, while unsure exactly how to push these boundaries, Sebastian accidentally uncovers a small hidden door behind which sits a box. Sebastian takes this box home and discovers in its contents assorted articles, photographs and other information about a disbanded group of explorers called the Filipendulous Five. When he asks Algens about them he is less than politely asked to leave the society’s premises and never return!

Upon departing, Sebastian encounters a forlorn-looking girl sitting outside. The girl, we learn, is Evie, an orphan on the run from some scary-looking dudes, one with a jaw wired shut, the other with (I kid you not!), a partially melted face. According to a letter she was given before she escaped the bad guys, Evie discovers she has an important connection to the The Explorers Society. This letter, written by her grandfather who she didn’t know was alive, indicates he’s in grave danger. Somehow though, this information, when shared with Algens, has gotten her kicked out of the building despite believing it would be a place of refuge. Things become even more confounding for the poor girl when Sebastian explains that her grandfather is none other than Alistair Drake, the head honcho of the Filipendulous Five! Soon Evie and Sebastian team up and take off on a series of exciting and risky exploits (it’s true, Sebastian skips school!) at the local zoo, the university, as well as inside The Explorers Society, all in an effort to find a mysterious key mentioned in the letter and save Evie’s grandfather while trying to elude wired-jaw guy and melted-face man.

The Explorers is a fabulously funny, fast-paced read with 27 chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter contains just the right mix of mayhem, dialogue, description and derring-do. Kress’s imagination is boundless, something I’m certain middle graders looking to lose themselves in an adventure/mystery will appreciate. Her sense of humor is also spot on. I must mention here that I had the good fortune to be sent an advanced readers copy for the blog tour so the artwork that is due to accompany the novel wasn’t included. But I can’t wait to see it since the story itself is quite visual and would lend itself well to film or TV.

Now dear readers, the story doesn’t end here because there is definitely more to come in an as yet unnamed sequel that, I have to admit, is the appropriate thing to do when the author leaves you with a cliffhanger making you wonder what’s to become of Sebastian, Evie and the rest of the characters you’ve grown to care about. I’m also very curious as to whether Sebastian’s school ever calls his parents, that is unless all the action occurs on weekends. That would certainly calm his nerves. Watch this space! 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

More upcoming stops this week and next for the blog tour include:

Tuesday 5/9/17 – Geo Librarian
Wednesday 5/10/17 – Life by Candlelight
Thursday 5/11/17 – Jumpin Beans
Friday 5/12/17 – Always in the Middle

Monday 5/15/17 – Librarians Quest
Tuesday 5/16/17 – The Book Wars
Wednesday 5/17/17 – Middle Grade Mafioso
Thursday 5/18/17 – Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Friday 5/19/17 – Tween You & Me


Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd) by Julie Bowe

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BIG & LITTLE QUESTIONS
(ACCORDING TO WREN JO BYRD)
Written by Julie Bowe
(Kathy Dawson Books; $16.99, Ages 7-9)

 

Big & Little Questions book cover image

 

Find out about this fab new middle grade novel, Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd) in Christine Van Zandt’s glowing review. Good Reads With Ronna also wishes author Julie Bowe a very Happy Book Birthday today!

Over the summer, Wren Jo Byrd, a shy nine-year-old, was abruptly sent to stay with her grandparents while her Mom and Dad split up. Rather than confess what was going on to BFF Amber, Wren ignored her.

At the start of the new school year, Wren finds that Amber is best buddies with Marianna Van Den Heuval, the new girl in town; Wren pretends nothing has changed. However, Wren’s lies about her family become hard to maintain because she must split her time between two households. Wren doesn’t understand how this could be good for them.

Marianna, from the big city of Portland, blows into Wisconsin like a diva with an agenda. She peppers her dialogue with wonderfully realistic preteen talk, such as “We’re going to have So. Much. Fun!” Yet, Marianna’s bravado isn’t all it seems. Wren discovers some of Marianna’s secrets and begins a list of questions for Marianna—the only girl she knows whose parents are divorced. As Amber is swept away in Marianna’s coolness, Wren wrestles with what it means to be a friend and dreads what will happen when everyone discovers the truth.

Julie Bowe’s first-person voice captures Wren’s fears and the complexities in her life. The text is punctuated by definitions Wren looks up on her phone, such as to the word “happy” (meaning “content”) and then “content” (meaning “not needing more”). These lead her to wonder, “When did Mom and Dad stop being happy? . . . How come no one told me we needed more?”

Everyone has secrets; Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd), gives us a glimpse into why we hide our truths and the consequences we must endure when we choose to lie. This heartfelt story is about accepting change as friendships and families evolve beyond our control.

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com


Friday Barnes Under Suspicion by R. A. Spratt

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FRIDAY BARNES UNDER SUSPICION
Written by R. A. Spratt
Illustrated by Phil Gosier
(Roaring Brook Press; $13.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Tween sleuth Friday Barnes is back, this time to uncover who set her up and why mysterious things keep happening at her private school, Highcrest Academy.

 

Friday Barnes Under Suspicion book cover

 

If you’ve been reading Good Reads With Ronna for awhile you’ll recognize R. A. Spratt’s name as the author of the popular Nanny Piggins series. With nine of these books under her belt, Spratt tried her hand at middle grade mysteries with the release of Friday Barnes Girl Detective. Today I’m going to introduce you to this über intelligent student sleuth in her second book, Friday Barnes Under Suspicion, out earlier this month. And frankly, it didn’t matter that I started with book 2 since Spratt has included just enough pertinent backstory to make this book succeed even as a stand alone.

This latest installment features 25 short chapters that are filled with action and lots of surprises. Yes, there’s never a dull moment when 11-year-old private investigator Friday Barnes is around. The story moves at a fast pace and is broken down into one large mystery to solve and several smaller ones. Spratt kept me guessing whodunnit throughout the novel and that will appeal to readers who, like me, love the challenge of putting the mystery puzzle pieces together.

Whether she’s helping to prove her own innocence after a setup or that of a vagrant by locating a missing sapphire bracelet, or catching the home economics class cheat who took credit for a quiche she didn’t make, Friday Barnes solves her cases using brains not brawn. Add to all the enjoyable sleuthing just a dash of tween romance, a fun symbiotic friendship, a satisfying amount of Spratt-style tongue-in-cheek banter, and the sudden profusion of large holes around the campus of Highcrest Academy, and you’ve got the makings of one very entertaining novel. What is happening at Highcrest Academy that’s causing people to appear, disappear, or reappear, and could it all be tied to a past secret or something more recent?

I couldn’t wait to read what escapades the staff and students of this posh private boarding school got up to. Spratt has created an academic environment rife with intrigue. And the fact that Friday uses money earned from prior and current cases to pay her way through school is significant. Friday’s the daughter of physicists who are preoccupied with their own lives so she’s been forced to grow up early and make her own way in the world. She does so with aplomb, occasional embarrassment, and a lot of hilarious dialogue that will keep middle grade readers coming back to Barnes for more. Watch out for book 3, Friday Barnes Big Trouble due this coming January 2017.

Read an excerpt from Friday Barnes Under Suspicion here.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

A Talk With The Tiara on the Terrace Author Kristen Kittscher

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An Interview With Middle Grade Author Kristen Kittscher
&
A Special Mystery-Themed Giveaway

 

THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE
By Kristen Kittscher
(HarperColllins; $16.99, Ages 8-12) 

 

Tiara_on_the_Terrace

 

Fans of The Wig in the Window eagerly awaited the arrival of its companion book, The Tiara on the Terrace, and were rewarded this past January with its release. But even if you’ve never read Kittscher’s first book, her latest, The Tiara on the Terrace, can most certainly be read as a stand alone and is terrifically entertaining and awash in the adventures of Young and Yang.

Here’s a blurb from HarperCollins’ website:

In this funny, clever novel, perfect for fans of Pseudonymous Bosch and Gordon Korman and a companion to The Wig in the Window, tween sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang go undercover at Luna Vista’s Winter Sun Festival to catch a murderer before he—or she—strikes again.
Sophie Young and Grace Yang have been taking it easy ever since they solved the biggest crime Luna Vista had ever seen. But things might get interesting again now that everyone is gearing up for the 125th annual Winter Sun Festival—a town tradition that involves floats, a parade, and a Royal Court made up of local high school girls.
When Festival president Jim Steptoe turns up dead on the first day of parade preparations, the police blame a malfunctioning giant s’more feature on the campfire-themed float. But the two sleuths are convinced the mysterious death wasn’t an accident.
Young and Yang must trade their high tops for high heels and infiltrate the Royal Court to solve the case. But if they fail, they might just be the next victims.

INTERVIEW WITH THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE AUTHOR, KRISTEN KITTSCHER

Good Reads With Ronna: Are detective stories what you read growing up?

Kristen Kittscher:  I was a voracious reader. I read all kinds of things so detective stories weren’t the only things I read but they were some of my favorites. I was a big big Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fan as I’m sure many people are. I love Encyclopedia Brown. I just loved solving the puzzles that were involved. One of my very favorite books as a kid was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and that kind of mystery [where] they’re locked in a museum. I always loved solving puzzles but really I read widely. Judy Blume was an absolute favorite of mine. I think Blubber was a one of my all-time favorite books growing up. And Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming was another book I loved.

GRWR: Empowerment is prevalent in both novels. Was this a goal of yours?

KK: It’s interesting. After the book was out in the world I’d hear that a lot and it wasn’t an actual focus of mine when I was writing … I think it’s because I taught at an all-girls school many years and I was swimming in girl power without realizing it. I was teaching 7th grade where girls are starting to become more self-conscious. But at that school they were very much themselves and not worried about how they were coming across. And I think I was definitely trying to write a story for them and was very influenced by their joie-de vivre and general sense of fun and curiosity and smarts as I was writing. I didn’t think about it. It just came out that way.

GRWR: What qualities do Sophie, Grace and their quirky pal, Trista have in common with you?

KK: Well maybe I’ve given them qualities I don’t have because that’s the fun of writing fiction, right? I’m definitely very curious myself and always loved a sense of intrigue. I’m pretty silly and they’re pretty silly. I think in a way they probably have more attributes of my students but Trista’s practicality and her kind of ability to just sort of, kind of plug on no matter what. I definitely have a bit of that as well. She’s a bit like my father was and I’m a bit like him so I always think I definitely have a little bit of Trista in me. The other quality definitely is the lack of confidence that Sophie has in coming into her own. I just started writing late in life – this is the first thing I ever wrote – or ever finished – and I really was focused on teaching and not writing. So, the thought of saying I want to be a writer is like saying I want to become a rock star or something like that. The story of The Wig in the Window is a mystery but it’s also kind of paralleling my journey in finding my voice as a writer.

GRWR: Getting into the heads of two twelve year olds isn’t easy. What helped you?

KK: Well, it helps to kind of be 12 in my head mostly! Well I think it goes back to my teaching middle school for a long time. I can’t remember what I was like before I was teaching 7th grade, whether I was also still 12 or if they helped me get back in touch with my youthful self. But definitely having that be my world day in and day out for a long time definitely rubbed off on me. As to Sophie and Grace, their perspective was relatively easy for me to access. The other part that makes it easy for me is having moved a lot as a kid. I moved almost every two years when I was growing up. So each place at each age I was, I remember it really vividly. I’s a very separate point in time and it’s relatively easy for me to go back to a certain place geographically in my mind and get back in touch with the feelings I had at that time. So it was a blessing in a way having moved so much because then I can remember each place individually.

GRWR: Where were you at age 12?

KK: At age 12, I was in the South Bay so basically Torrance, Palos Verdes area. For those people who don’t know, it’s this beautiful peninsula at the bottom of Los Angeles. It’s one of the most beautiful places I ever lived. You’re right by the beach. I think at the time as a kid you don’t realize how beautiful it is so when I set out to write something that came back to me very much and I knew it would be a fun setting for other people to read about too.

GRWR: Was there any pushback from the Tournament of Roses organization to change the similarities?

KK: No. But definitely the fictional town of Luna Vista is a combination between Pasadena and the place I just described, Palos Verdes and Torrance area. It’s my observing my students here in Pasadena and my own memories back when I was 12. And the town of Luna Vista has AmStar (which is very similar to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) so we have a great deal of scientists, actual rocket scientists as Pasadena does, and that makes it lots of fun to explore lots of technological things. That’s where the idea of Trista having such technological savvy comes from but as far as pushback from the tournament, no. One of my former students was on the royal court and she sat down with me and told me all about her experience as a princess so I actually had a lot of cooperation. Other former students told me about the audition process, other colleagues, longtime Pasadena volunteers and parade goers definitely helped me with all of their memories and observations. And then when the book was finished the Tournament House was considering even doing a launch there as well. Unfortunately the launch of the book came three days after the Rose Parade itself.  So I don’t know if their lack of cooperation after the fact had more to do with the fact that they were focusing on their event because, as you know, it’s a huge operation and requires thousands of volunteers and all kinds of things. I haven’t experienced any direct pushback, but there is of course some gentle fun that I’m poking at the parade so we’ll see.

GRWR: How did you know the Wrigley Mansion so well?

KK: Well, for those who don’t know there’s a mansion in Pasadena called the Wrigley Mansion, which is the tournament headquarters and it was donated by Mr. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate you all know so well. So I thought it would be fun to create this sort of parallel world where Mr. Ridley who is a root beer magnate has his whole thing because basically I wanted a literal root beer float in the parade. Right? That makes it much more fun. I definitely had that outside of the mansion in my head as I was writing. Also you can take tours of the mansion and while it’s been renovated into offices, some of the rooms I definitely had in mind as I was writing so maybe that helped add a little flair to the setting.

GRWR: What else did you do for research?

KK: I was also an embedded undercover agent in float decorating. Every year in Pasadena before the parade begins, students pour out to volunteer in what are called the Float Barns which are these huge warehouses where the floats are. Actually before ever writing the story the inspiration where it comes from is my volunteering as a float decorator on the Trader Joe’s float one year. I was there gluing on flowers and climbing around on scaffolding so in the opening of the novel, Sophie, the main character, nearly falls from the scaffolding. Well that’s directly related to my own fear of heights crawling around on the scaffolding which I thought was highly unsafe for a 12-year-old. I also would constantly be Googling and referring back to different news articles just to get more inspiration and details. I don’t know a lot about flowers and obviously flowers are a very important part of the float decorations.  So all the different kinds of things that are used to create different colors I would constantly be having to check back on, and say oh they used cinnamon for the brown part. I only knew what my tasks were as the decorator. I didn’t know what other flowers are used and I’m sure I messed it all up.

GRWR: Do they use a lot of different flowers?

KK: Oh, no they’re endless- I mean that’s part of their creativity – every single bit of surface area of a float needs to be decorated with some sort of living material. Even the tires of the float – they’re black, right? But we need to keep them black so they cover the tires with sheets of sea weed. Those little squares of seaweed that you got – that is really what they do. In order to win any of the prizes everything needs to be organic material of some kind.

GRWR: And there are people underneath the float?

KK: Yes, a major plot point of The Tiara in the Terrace is Trista working on a driver-less float because she finds that it would revolutionize the festival not to have people in these cramped compartments. One of the other things that is also very true about the parade is the need for what they call the pooper scooper brigade of kid volunteers who shovel up after the horses. The reason for that isn’t just to keep the parade route clear it’s because if they don’t clean up after the horses the wheels of the float kick up the remains of the horse poop into the eyes of the float drivers and gets in the ventilation system of their float. We’re getting right down to the nitty gritty.

GRWR: Because The Tiara on the Terrace is for middle grade students and includes murder, did you have to diffuse it with humor? How do you go about bringing that into a story?

KK: It’s true. It’s pretty hard to write a murder mystery for kids. You have to make it silly in some cases, but you know that kids also love the stakes being potentially high or real. In this case, you have what’s a potential murder. All the adults believe that the Winter Sun Festival president has been the victim of a tragic accident – a giant dancing animatronic S’more on a parade float has swung down and killed Mr. Steptoe. So you have this really really silly situation but also this tragic accident and that gives that distance and silliness that makes it kind of okay. And also it’s maybe a bit silly that the kids think that this could possibly be murder. Right? As the kids say, seriously? murder by marshmallow? … By giving that distance it helps explore a dark er side.

GRWR: How hard was it to put your red herrings into your story because there are a bunch of them?

KK:  Thank you for recognizing that! The Wig in the Window was not hard, because well, it was hard to write for other reasons, but there’s always something, right? But mystery-wise it’s much more of a thriller, like a psychological thriller for middle schoolers where [the questions are] is this person bad, or is my imagination running away with me or not? So that’s a very simple structure, really. The Tiara in the Terrace is much more like an Agatha Christie novel or a typical cozy mystery as they call it, where you have many suspects in a large cast. It was really hard to trickle in all the clues at the same time that we’re exploring all the social dynamics in friendships. I think as you’re reading you can think oh, gosh, here we have some sort of detour, some sort of social friend detour and you don’t realize oh, wow, all the clues are being laid out at the same time. And so it’s kind of hard pacing-wise to keep the tension going at the same time, your reader might not realize that all of those red herrings are being placed in that sense. It takes a lot of outlining and even reverse outlining. Really knowing the crime, if there is a crime.

GRWR: You totally got me … I love being tricked!

KK: And I love tricking people. I think in this one you might know who it is but you might not know why. And then all the why is very, I think, very satisfying and very fun. (Ronna talking). One thing I know about kids is they often don’t just read a book once unlike adults and so it’s very important to me to make sure that everything matches up. That if you’re going to read this again, you’re going to see everything a second time and have just as much fun figuring out how it’s constructed as the reading itself. Also, my favorite scene is the parade scene at the end which of course has to be bombastic and spectacular and I really had the most fun writing that.

GRWR: Do you ever find, when you hear from young readers, that they’re inspired to write their own mysteries after reading yours? Afterall it is inspiring to see these three young girls go about solving mysteries in their own communities.

KK: Oh definitely … I also run some workshops in writing mysteries so I get kids going that way as well. Last summer I was at The James Thurber House in Ohio and they have a summer writing camp and they also go out in the community. All the kids would love trying to create their own mysteries after reading so I had a great time teaching those workshops. I think kids love the idea of uncovering secrets, I mean we all do, but particularly adult secrets because they don’t have full access to that world. It’s fun to imagine what could be happening in worlds they don’t know about.

GRWR: Will the girls be back for another adventure?

KK:  Each book was separate. I like that a lot because they stand alone. If you read carefully there might be mild spoilers that you probably wouldn’t remember but each of those books can stand by itself so I didn’t sell The Wig in the Window as a series.

GRWR: So your publisher came back to you after book #1?

KK: Right. So that’s a good transition to say, ” Buy The Tiara on the Terrace, everybody, so there can be a third Young and Yang adventure.

GRWR: Can you speak briefly about the TV show that’s been optioned?

KK: Yeah, I’m really excited that both books have been optioned by a producer and I’m co-writing the first season – the pilot right now. It’s really exciting to be able to imagine giving Young and Yang new life in this form because they can be much more equally represented. You know, both The Wig in the Window and The Tiara in the Terrace are from Sophie Young’s point of view. Now we can step back and look at these families from the outside a little bit and also get much more access to Grace Yang’s point of view and possibly the worlds of the villains. So I’m having a really good time figuring out how to adapt the story and getting a lot of help with it as well. The first season is The Wig and the Window stretched out over 12 episodes so you almost have strangely more opportunity to see more elements of their school life and family life within that kind of episodic structure as opposed to the three act structure of a book. So The Wig in the Window the ongoing mystery travels over the course of the season, but each episode has its own exploration of things that are going on between Young and Yang and their families and school and love interests.

GRWR: Did I leave anything out that you would like to add?

KK: I don’t know if I can think of a direct question but something I really like to get across about why I write in general and especially The Wig in the Window and The Tiara on the Terrace is that I love giving kids a sense of adventure and wonder. In my observations as a teacher, kids can be like little business people these days. They have their rolling back packs and their schedules they have their playdates, they have their extra-curriculars. And their world is very constricted much more so then mine was growing up, and I feel that through books or through these adventures you can kind of restore that sense of wonder but also the feeling that kids can have real power and trust themselves to go on all kinds of fun adventures so I like opening that up to them through books and that’s something that I don’t get asked about much but I love to get across. That books have this power to open up some avenues of freedom for kids in their otherwise sometimes overly scheduled world.

  • Interview by Ronna Mandel (with special thanks to Armineh Manookian for all her help!)

 

Kristen_KittscherThe_Tiara_PrizeKRISTEN KITTSCHER is the author of bestselling tween mystery The Wig in the Window (Harper Children’s, 2013) which garnered a starred review from School Library Journal and was on ten Best of the Year lists. A graduate of Brown University and a former middle school English teacher, Kristen was named the James Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence in 2014. She lives with her husband in Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade—the inspiration for her latest novel, The Tiara on the Terrace. Visit kristenkittscher.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@kkittscher).

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