Welcome to day three! As one of the bloggers participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour, I’ve had the privilege to interview author Rachel Lynn Solomonabout her terrific debut novel You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at the Association of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.
PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY OF YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE Eighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on her path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.
But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.
When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s. The other tests positive.
These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?
From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters.
INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL LYNN SOLOMON
Good Reads With Ronna: Please tell us what the source of your inspiration was for writing You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone (Simon Pulse, $17.99 + 12.99, Ages 14+)?
RLS: Thank you for having me on your blog! As a kid, I remember watching a couple TV shows that centered on genetic testing, and the idea of being able to know your fate, to an extent, stuck with me. Years later in early 2014, I was doing some random Internet research, looking for something that might spark a book idea. I landed on a page about Huntington’s disease, which I knew a little about. What stood out to me was the fact that a child of a parent with Huntington’s has a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, and I wondered: what if twin sisters received opposite results?
GRWR: Your bio says you write about ambitious, complicated, sometimes unlikable girls who are trying their best. Can you please expand on that in reference to your main characters, Adina and Tovah, the 18 year-old fraternal twin sisters who do not get along?
RLS: Absolutely! I firmly believe we don’t need to like the characters we read about — we just need to relate to them. Likable characters, in fact, are often quite boring to read about. Rule-following characters who always make the right decisions, who never hurt anyone’s feelings…not realistic, for one, and not as interesting as a reader or writer. Furthermore, in fiction, male characters are often given much more “permission” to be unlikable. Their flaws are more easily forgiven.
In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah aren’t bad people, but they make mistakes, they hurt each other, and they occasionally sabotage themselves. But they’re trying, and they’re relatable (I hope!), and at the end of the day, those are the kinds of characters I’m always going to gravitate toward.
GRWR: Do you share any qualities with your main characters aside from Adina’s love of Siren red lipstick?
RLS: There’s a bit of myself in all the characters I write. While I don’t play viola like Adina, I grew up playing piano and guitar, and in high school, I was a stereotypical overachiever like Tovah.
GRWR: What are your thoughts about the need for Jewish authors to write about more than just Holocaust stories despite the need for those to continue being told? And what kinds of books would you like to see written?
RLS: My major thought about this is: YES. We need stories about all kinds of Jewish experiences. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but growing up, I truly believed we only had one story to tell, and that story was the Holocaust. And that’s just devastating, to think your entire culture can be summed up by a tragedy. It’s why it took me so long to write Jewish characters of my own — while YMMWIG was my first published book, it was my fifth completed manuscript since I decided to get serious about writing. It was also my first with Jewish characters.
I would love to see more historical novels featuring Jewish characters that don’t center on the Holocaust. IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF TRUE by Susan Kaplan Carlton, which comes out in April, is a great example of this, and I highly recommend it! I’d also love to see more intersectional Jewish stories like YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT by Laura Silverman, coming out in March, and COLOR ME IN by Natasha Diaz, coming out in August. Aside from that, more contemporary stories about Jewish teens simply living their lives while also being Jewish — whatever “being Jewish” means to them.
GRWR: Do you feel that books featuring Jewish protagonists and teens tackling illness fall under the diverse books heading since they are so underrepresented and often stereotyped?
RLS: This is a weighty topic, and one I’m still grappling with. Judaism occupies an interesting space in diversity discussions. I’m keeping a list of 2019 YA novels by Jewish authors and with Jewish protagonists, and I have only 14 books on that list. It’s so underrepresented in YA, and yet I’ve had a trade review insinuate Judaism isn’t diverse. Jewish friends writing Jewish characters have asked me whether their book “counts” as diverse. Conversely, one review told me I made my characters Jewish “for diversity points.” To me, Jewish books are diverse books, and I plan to continue advocating for them in the book community.
GRWR: Your YA novel tackles a tough topic of a mother slowly succumbing to Huntington’s disease as her teen daughters witness the decline. Also, early on in the story, one of the twins will learn after genetic testing, that she will get the disease, too. Your second novel also deals with a character needing a kidney transplant. What compels you to write about characters coping with illness?
RLS: I’m drawn most to topics that interest me — with YMMWIG, I wanted to learn more about Huntington’s disease and genetic testing, and with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, which deals with the aftermath of a kidney transplant, I was curious about organ donation. Curiosity is a huge part of my writing process. My background is in journalism, and I love research, and writing is such a magnificent way to learn more about the world.
With regard to illness, specifically, I wanted to write characters who are not defined by their illness. In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah’s mother is suffering from Huntington’s. It was important to me that Huntington’s was not her sole defining characteristic. She enjoys her job as a teacher, old movie musicals, and knitting, and she has a meet-cute backstory with the twins’ dad. In OUR YEAR OF MAYBE I focus more on the aftermath of the transplant and how it affects the two protagonists’ relationship. I aim to write sensitive portrayals of illness where the illness is a piece of the story but not the entire story.
Rachel Lynn Solomon Photo by Ian Grant
GRWR: Of the two sisters, Tovah is the practicing Jew who keeps kosher, studies Torah and observes Shabbat along with her parents. It was encouraging to read a YA novel featuring Jewish main characters and their perceptions navigating life in a predominantly non-Jewish school and world. Was this your experience too?
RLS: Thank you! Yes — I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids in my Seattle suburb. I actually don’t remember meeting other Jewish kids outside of temple until middle school. And it wasn’t until college that I found more of a Jewish community — I took a year of modern Hebrew, I joined Hillel, and for a while, I attended services every Friday. These days, I am more secular, but I’m happy to say I have close Jewish friends for the first time in my life, which I’ve realized is so incredibly important, especially in a world that often makes us feel like outsiders.
GRWR: Adina can be cruel, jealous, socially aloof and manipulative, often using her beauty to control guys. Is it easier to write a more likeable character such as Tovah or one who’s not so likeable?
RLS: That’s a great question. I’m not sure what this says about me, but Adina was much easier to write than Tovah! It might be that I’m more similar to Tovah, so writing Adina allowed me to get more creative. To this day, her voice is the clearest of any main character I’ve written.
GRWR: Tovah is a neophyte when it comes to sex while Adina has been sexually active since age 14. Tovah myopically dreams of attending Johns Hopkins to become a surgeon while Adina dreams of playing viola in an orchestra. One incident four years earlier has shattered their tight bond. Sisters yet complete opposites and strangers. What would they or anyone for that matter have to do to become close again and repair the wounds?
RLS: I’ve never experienced a rift quite like theirs, but my sister and I fought constantly growing up. It’s hard to admit you did something wrong, but I think that humility is the only way to at least begin to repair a broken relationship. I’m not sure if it’s something that gets easier as we grow up and grow older, but I know it’s especially difficult as a teen.
GRWR: The twins’ story is told through alternating POV which works so well. What do you like about this approach and what other YA novels using this dual POV have you enjoyed?
RLS: Thank you so much. I felt strongly that this was the only way the book could be told — each sister is a full person but only half the story. It was the same with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE. The book explores the aftermath of a kidney transplant, complicated by the fact that the donor is in love with the recipient. The book doesn’t work unless we have both POVs and understand both characters, whose arcs are so closely entwined. Some other dual POV books I love: I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson, JUST VISITING by Dahlia Adler, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr.
GRWR: I found it hard to say good-bye to Adina and Tovah. How do you feel upon completing a book?
RLS: It’s been an adjustment! In the past, my manuscripts felt like living documents — I could open one up and tweak a sentence any time I wanted. But now, the book gets to a point where I have to be done messing with it. It’s hard for me to say goodbye, but it’s heartening to know that the book is done because it’s going out to readers who will be able to experience it for the first time.
For anyone else who’s interested, I wrote a “five years later” short story about Adina and Tovah that originally went out as part of a preorder campaign. It’s available on my website here for anyone to read: https://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/extras/. There are some sad moments, but I hope it provides a bit of additional closure!
GRWR: What other irons do you have in the fire?
RLS: My second book, OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, came out last month, and I have two more YA novels contracted through Simon Pulse. My third, a romantic comedy, will be out in the summer of 2020. It takes place in 24 hours on the last day of senior year, and follows two rivals who realize, as they reluctantly team up to win a senior class game, that they might be in love with each other. While it’s lighter than my first two books, the two main characters also confront anti-Semitism in a way I haven’t written about before.
GRWR: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to mention or call to readers’ attention?
These questions were wonderful — thank you for again having me!
2019 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2019
Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky, author and illustrator of All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers Category At Out of the Box at the Horn Book
Kwame Alexander recently celebrated publication of his new book with Mary Rand Hess, Swing (Oct 2018, BlinkYABooks; $18.99), at a Skylight Books event that also featured his mentor, acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. Alexander is the Newbery Award-winning, NYT-bestselling author of more than two-dozen books. Swing is a novel-in-verse about two high school juniors, Noah and Walt, trying to find their “cool.” I enjoyed the event, and later caught up with Alexander by phone to talk about the book and some of his other projects. (The transcript below is edited for clarity and length.)
MM [Mary Malhotra]: This is your third book with Mary Rand Hess, so I thought I’d start by asking, how did the two of you decide to collaborate, and how does that work for you?
KA [Kwame Alexander]: We’re in a writer’s group together, and we had critiqued each other’s work for a couple of years. It was her idea, and I thought, “Well, let’s try it.” I’m a huge fan of collaboration and we just seemed to gel. There were certain times when I took the lead and she was cool with that, and there were times when she took the lead because she had the expertise and I was cool with that. It was almost like putting a puzzle together.
MM: Obviously music is important in the book, and I was curious if Walt’s musical loves mirror yours or Mary’s?
KA: I am a jazz aficionado; Mary loves jazz. Whenever I’m writing, I listen to instrumental jazz, preferably bebop or straight-ahead jazz. Mary plays piano. Music plays a huge role in our lives, and I think that’s why we wanted to write about rock and roll in [our first novel] Solo, and really pay a tribute to jazz in Swing.
MM: I know lots of adults who are intimidated by poetry, [yet] on your website you say if you want to get a reluctant reader engaged with literature, start with poetry. How do you go about making the poetry so accessible and relatable that it’s actually easier for a reluctant reader than a prose novel?
KA: I try to write stories that have you as the reader forgetting that you’re reading poetry. I want to use all of the techniques and the strategies that poetry allows me to use — figurative language, sparse text, rhythm, sometimes rhyme — but ultimately I want to tell such a compelling story that by page ten or twenty-seven you’ve forgotten that you’re reading poetry.
MM: I’d seen a synopsis that talked about a biracial friendship at the center of the book, and it still took me awhile to identify what race different characters were. I like diversity not being handled super explicitly, but some people really feel like we should be explicit. What’s your feeling?
KA: Isn’t that the goal, for us to be less explicit about race in real life, and to really begin to look past all those superficial things, and treat each other as if we are all human beings? When I was growing up and I was in high school and I played tennis, one of my best friends was a white guy. I didn’t wake up each day and go to the tennis court and say, “Oh hey, here’s my white guy!” It’s not an authentic approach to life, so why should it be an authentic approach to literature?
MM: As a white person, I’ve tried to be sensitive to arguments I’ve read about people who feel like, if I say, “I don’t see your race,” then I’m not seeing them as a whole person.
KA: I’m definitely not saying you don’t see race. I’m saying the race is obvious and evident in all of the books that I write, in my estimation. The race is a matter of fact.
MM: When you started out [writing Swing], were you planning to write something political?
KA: Everything I write is political. I think to live in America, especially during this time, you either — what one of the characters says: “You either uphold the status quo, or you see what’s wrong and try to change it.”
MM: I read about your imprint [Versify, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt], and saw that it’s accepting unsolicited submissions. What are you looking for?
KA: I’m looking for good books. Picture books, middle grade novels, YA novels, graphic novels. I’m looking for books that highlight the beauties, the hurdles, the woes, and the wonders of children coming of age. I’m looking for books that are going to help kids ultimately imagine a better world. I’m looking for books that are intelligent and entertaining.
MM: I also read that you’re starting a #HUGLIFE commitment in classrooms?
KA: It’s really just borrowing from Walt’s philosophy on life. Sometimes the world is not so beautiful, but you’ve got to stretch every inch of good as far as you can. I’m a big fan of saying “Yes” to what’s possible in life, and hugging life.
KA: If you look at what Tupac’s acronym stood for — The Hell You Give Little Infants F’s Everyone — if you flip that around, don’tgive them hell. Hug them. Show them love. I went to a school one day in a prison. I told my wife I was never going back, and she said “Why?” And I said, “Because it was the hardest work I ever had to do.” And she said, “Well, that’s cool. Those kids probably aren’t expecting you to come back.” And of course, I ended up going back. And it changed my life, and it changed theirs. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m suggesting that hugging life, embracing the full humanity of all of us? It’s work, but the rewards are sacred, and beautiful, and life-giving, and life-saving.
THE FANTASTIC LIBRARY RESCUE AND OTHER MAJOR PLOT TWISTS Written by Deborah Lytton Illustrated by Jeanine Murch (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $7.99, Ages 8 and up)
Read Our Q & A With Author Deborah Lytton
On today’s post I’m excited to share a recent interview I had with author, Deborah Lytton, about book #2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, which came out earlier this month. Having thoroughly enjoyed this chapter book for middle grade readers* that includes illustrations of Ruby’s active imagination at work, I can see how much tweens and bibliophiles will gravitate to the series, and this new book in particular, especially since it tackles two important issues: libraries losing funding and friendship predicaments. I especially like that Ruby’s friend Will P is also in a bookclub, something I don’t usually see depicted in stories. Here’s how Sourcebooks Jabberwocky describes Lytton’s latest:
The second book in this fun series that’s perfect for younger fans of the Dork Diaries and Story Thieves series. Ruby Starr is an older Junie B. Jones with a big imagination and a love of reading.
Ruby Starr’s life is totally back on track. Her lunchtime book club, the Unicorns, is better than ever. And she and Charlotte, her once arch enemy, are now good friends. The only thing that’s really causing any drama is her upcoming poetry assignment. She’s a reader, not a poet!
But disaster strikes when Ruby learns that her most favorite place in the world, the school library, is in trouble. Ruby knows she and the Unicorns have to do something to help. But when Ruby’s plans end up hurting a friend, she’s not sure her story will have a happy ending after all.
Q & A:
GOOD READS WITH RONNA:Ruby is a charming, book-loving outgoing yet introspective fifth grader. And while she is not perfect she certainly is someone any parent would be proud of. Do you happen to know any Rubys? And if not, how did you wind up with her as a main character for your series?
DEBORAH LYTTON: I do know a Ruby. My inspiration for this series came from my younger daughter who was in fifth grade when I began writing the first book. My YA SILENCE had just been released, and my older daughter was reading it. My younger daughter wanted me to write something for her to read. She asked for a story that would make her laugh. I based the character of Ruby on her initially, but then as I began to write, the character took on her own qualities. My favorite part of writing is when the characters begin to shape themselves. That definitely happened with Ruby Starr.
GRWR:What do you love most about her?
DL:I love that Ruby makes a lot of mistakes, but always tries to fix them. My favorite thing about Ruby is her kindness. She thinks about other people and their feelings and tries to help them when she can. This is a quality I truly admire. I also enjoy writing Ruby because she is so imaginative.
GRWR:I realize this is book #2 in the series but yet I felt fully up-to-speed. Can you please tell readers briefly what happens in book #1?
DL: I am so happy to hear that you felt up-to-speed! It was really important to me to write a second book that would let readers jump right in. Book #1 establishes Ruby’s character and her love for reading. The story centers on friendship troubles. When a new girl joins Ruby’s fifth grade class, she begins pulling Ruby’s friends away from her. Then she threatens to destroy Ruby’s book club. Ruby has a difficult time, and then she learns something about the new girl that changes everything. Ultimately, books bring the friends together.
GRWR:Is there a book #3 on the horizon?
DL:Yes, I am really excited about Ruby’s third adventure. I have just finished the manuscript and I can tell you that Ruby and her friends get into a little bit of a mix-up and that it all begins with a very special book.
GRWR:As a kidlit reviewer I love that Ruby is in a book club (The Unicorns), and as a writer I love Ruby’s vivid imagination. Did your own childhood inform these traits or did you feel she’d need these qualities to be a role model for tweens or someone many young readers could relate to?
DL:Growing up, my sister and I were like Ruby. We loved reading. Both of us cherish books and have saved many of our favorites from when we were young readers. My own daughters also love to read. In spending time helping out in their school classrooms and libraries, I have seen how many students enjoy books. I loved the idea that a fifth grade student would be independent enough to start her own book club at school to celebrate reading. Then I thought it would be fun to see where her imagination would take her, especially since she would be inspired by all the books she had read and loved. I hope young readers who have stayed up late just to read the next chapter of a book will connect with a character who is like them.
GRWR:The hero’s journey that Ruby embarks on is to save the school library where the hours have been reduced and new book purchases have been shelved due to funding cutbacks. Was this plot line inspired by stories you’ve seen in the news or even closer to home here in L.A.?
DL:I have volunteered in the libraries at my daughters’ schools so I have seen first-hand the way that budget cuts have impacted the libraries. I have also helped students search for the perfect book to read and then watched their faces light up when they discover something really special. Libraries are so valuable to our youth. I wanted to highlight that message in this story.
HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR Written by Jill Esbaum and illustrated by Mike Boldt (Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99; Ages 2-5)
If you’re looking for a gift for a child who is about to become an older sibling, look no further than Jill Esbaum’s hilarious and practical guide to big siblinghood, HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR with artwork by Mike Boldt. Here’s a description from Penguin Random House:
Good news: Your mom’s hatching a baby! Bad news: Babies take their sweet time. And when the baby finally hatches? He’s too little to play! He mostly screeches, eats, burps, sleeps, and poops. He doesn’t even know he’s a dinosaur! That’s where you come in. You can teach the baby just about everything–from peek-a-boo to roaring to table manners to bedtime. Growing a dinosaur is a big job, but you’re perfect for it. Why? Because one thing your baby brother wants more than anything . . . is to be just like you.
INTERVIEW: I was lucky enough to sit down for a chat (via Facebook Messenger) with Jill to talk about the book, finding time to write, and the perks of being a kidlit author.
Colleen Paeff:I love the way HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR is playful and funny, but it’s also a legitimate how-to guide for older siblings. Did the manuscript start out that way or did it evolve over time?
Jill Esbaum: Thanks, Colleen! That evolved over time. I wrote it to be a simple, entertaining book, but it sort of took on a life of its own. My editor grabbed onto the possibilities right away.
CP:Did you send it to your agent first or did it go straight to your editor?
JE: I sent it to my agent, Tricia Lawrence. I had my Dial editor, Jessica Dandino Garrison, in mind, though, and asked Tricia to send it to her first. It seemed like the kind of goofy humor she might like.
CP:So, you had worked with this editor before?
JE: Yes. We had worked together on both I HATCHED and I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!
CP:Is it easier to work on something with an editor you’ve worked with before?
JE: Definitely, because you (sorta) know what might work for her/him and what probably won’t.
CP:How long was the process from first draft to publication for HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR?
JE: I sent it to Tricia in May of 2015, and by October we had an offer. The process didn’t really start until March, when the contract was finally buttoned up. So March, 2016, to January, 2018. Not bad.
CP:Is that faster than usual? Or is that normal for you?
JE: That was about the same as my other recent books. I once waited nearly 5 years, though, so 2 years felt like lightning speed. My last 5 (or so) books have all been about 2 to 2 and a half years from sale to publication.
CP:Wow. That seems fast!
JE: Still seems fast to me, too. My earlier books were mostly 3-year books.
CP:I’m curious about the ratio of stories you write to stories you sell. Do you have many manuscripts in the proverbial “drawer” or do you sell most of what you write?
JE: That’s hard to say right now. My agent has 6-7 picture book manuscripts that started to make the rounds last year. Considering my entire career, though, I suppose I sell…50% of what I write? That’s probably just because I refuse to give up on some that deserve the drawer. I can’t help tinkering with rejected stories in hopes of making them irresistible the next time out. That persistence has often paid off for me. An offer came in last month for a picture book that had been rejected 7-8 times since I wrote it in 2014.
CP:Do you usually work on one project at a time or several?
JE: Several. Right now, I have a chapter book, 3 picture book manuscripts, and a nonfiction project all front and center on my computer desktop.
CP:Are you someone who writes every day or do you have a more flexible schedule? And how do you squeeze it in around farm work, grandchildren, school visits, and teaching a summer writing workshop?!
JE: I don’t feel like I’ve been doing a very good job of it lately, honestly. Working on that. But I can’t always make writing my priority. Family comes first, always. One thing that has also been squeezing out writing time lately is handling the business side of being published. I don’t love it, and it’s a huge time suck. Long, leisurely days of “Hmm, what should I work on first?” are VERY few and far between, these days.
CP:But it seems like you’re so prolific!
JE: I don’t feel that way. I always feel like I should be writing more. For instance, I wrote a quick draft of a new picture book and sent it to my online critique group about 10 days ago. They’ve all weighed in, and I’m chomping at the bit to start tweaking. But I haven’t yet been able to make the time. Part of that is because I have a new book out and am doing my best to promote it, including my first-ever launch party this next weekend. Partly it’s because the flu sidelined a grandson’s babysitter, so I stepped in there. Grammy duty is one of the best parts of my life!
CP:Is hanging out with your grandkids a big source of inspiration for you?
JE: It is! And I hadn’t really expected that. My fingers are tightly crossed for a project going to its final yes/no meeting next month that springs entirely from a moment I experienced while babysitting my granddaughter. Crazy.
CP:I know you write both fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a soft spot for one over the other?
JE: I suppose I have a soft spot for fiction, but only because that comes entirely from my own imagination, and it’s a blast to see that come to life. I love writing nonfiction, too, because all the information I need is easily available to me, and all I have to do is figure out a way to make it engaging for kiddos.
CP:Let’s get back to HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR. I love the parts in the story where the text is vague, but the illustrations show something alarming, or moving, or downright hilarious. Did your manuscript go to the illustrator with art notes or was that all him?
JE: I did include brief art notes here and there. But much of it was left for the illustrator’s imagination. I don’t think I had an art note for the page in which the baby dino is teething on the cat. And that turned out to be one of my favorite illustrations.
CP:Yes! I love that one. And I love the one where the big brother roars and scares the baby. They both look so sad.
JE: I feel very fortunate that both Jessica and the illustrator, Mike Boldt, understood what I was trying to do.
JE: My favorited unexpected detail is that Mike inserted picture books here and there with titles that are plays on books of his or mine. There’s I Don’t Want To Be a Stegosaurus (from his book with Dev Petty, I Don’t Want To Be a Frog); I Hatched; and I Am T. Rex, Hear Me Roar! (from my I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!) Too funny. Illustrators are brilliant.
CP:Yes! I love those, too. And I love how all the illustrations in the books are dinosaurs. It’s so clever.Did you see any artwork while it was in process or did you have to wait until it was complete?
JE: I did get to see the black and white sketches. It was obvious even then that this one would be special.
CP: Do you sometimes feel a sense of trepidation when you give up your manuscript to an illustrator?
JE: No, I never feel that way. I’m always excited to see what they bring to the story. Seeing their sketches feels like unwrapping a gift.
CP:What’s next for you?
JE: I have a couple of nonfiction books coming out in March. Picture book-wise, two projects are in the pipeline that I can’t yet talk about. And my fingers are tightly crossed for a third. Meanwhile, I’ll be writing whenever I can squeeze it in. Enough of that, and projects eventually get finished.
CP:What do you wish you’d known when you first started writing for children?
JE: I don’t think there’s anything I can say I wish I’d known. Getting to this point in my career has been one long, slow learning process, of course. But I can’t wish I’d had shortcuts, because everything that’s happened has made me a stronger writer.
CP:That’s good to know!
JE: The BEST thing that’s happened in the past 20 years: If anybody had told me, early on, that in 20 years I’d have this many amazing and talented author/illustrator friends all over the globe I would have thought that person was nuts. I mean, I live in Iowa; how would I meet them? Ha. Enter the internet. And SCBWI conferences and literature festivals. Meeting so many terrific book people has been one of the highlights of my life.
CP:It’s definitely one of the perks of this business. Thanks so much for doing this, Jill!
THE WONDERLING Written and illustrated by Mira Bartók (Candlewick Press; $21.99, Ages 10-14)
Read Our Author Q & A Today & Attend a Book Signing on Friday, 11/10 in West Hollywood Scroll down to find out more!
The Wonderling, written and illustrated by Mira Bartók and soon to be a major motion picture, garnered a great amount of attention, and deservedly so, even before the book deal was done. Reminiscent of classic literary odysseys and the best of contemporary fantasy, with a sprinkling of steampunk, The Wonderling opens in a thrillingly dreadful orphanage for young groundlings – part creature, part human. In this Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Children, all pleasures, especially music, are forbidden. But the hero of the story, a young one-eared fox-like groundling yearns for friendship and love. All he has is a half memory of a special song that will lead him to his destiny. After staging a daring escape with the help of a small mechanical bird, Trinket, the Wonderling sets off on a glorious adventure through forests and wild country, to the shiny city of Lumentown, ruled over by the High Hats, where he will discover the mysterious Songcatcher and unlock the secrets of his past.
Written in stunning prose and decorated with Mira’s exquisite illustrations, The Wonderling is a hugely enjoyable and original fantasy filled with vivid and eccentric characters and a plot that twists and turns. You will find echoes of King Arthur, of Dickens, of Kenneth Grahame; you will find brave mice in armor, and giant crows that terrorize the skies; you will find innocence, humor, hope, and ultimately triumph.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA INTERVIEWS MIRA BARTÓK:
GRWR: Can you please speak to the world building you so brilliantly created for The Wonderling – did you have certain places and buildings in mind when you wrote the novel and drew the map?
BARTÓK: The settings I created for the book came from various places—books, images online, dreams, my imagination, and travel. I probably gleaned the best ideas from looking at Gustav Doré’s images of 19th century London and Henry Mayhew’s 19th century descriptions of London’s poor. Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London was also essential, as was actually walking about in that wonderful city. I also spent many hours looking at maps from classic children’s books and in library archives. The feeling of Gloomintown, the City Below the City, came from a combination of re-reading Dickens’s Hard Times, looking at old engravings of London’s sewer system, and studying Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. A crazy mix!
GRWR: I’m thrilled there’s going to be a second book because I cared about your characters, well the good ones anyway! Who did you have the most fun imagining and why?
BARTÓK: I definitely had the most fun writing about Quintus, my Fagin/Artful Dodger Rat groundling! Mostly because he’s funny, he loves to make up songs (therefore, I get to make up his lyrics), and he’s complicated. He’s a thief, a rogue, and an opportunist, but he’s also a really good guy.
GRWR: In addition to sharing a strong sense of hope and tolerance, your story also touches upon the power of dreams. Do dreams influence your writing?
BARTÓK: I can’t even begin to tell you how much! Sometimes entire scenes are mapped out in my dreams. I have very epic dreams populated with many different kinds of creatures. If only I could sleep all the time and have some machine transmit my dreams directly into books, I’d probably finish my books sooner!
GRWR: The Wonderling gives a voice to the marginalized. I especially liked when Arthur, who was marginalized himself as a groundling, befriended Peevil, the mouse and Trinket, the bird. Was that one for all and all for one teamsmanship one of your intentions?
BARTÓK: Not really. I knew Arthur would make one good friend, but I had no idea he would make so many. I realized half way through writing the book that part of his journey is learning that he has friends who have cared about him all along.
GRWR: Wire, Miss Carbunkle, Sneezeweed, Mardox the manticore and even His Excellency the powerful White Hat, were so vivid and nasty, yet so unique in character. How difficult was it to create the villains?
BARTÓK: Easy as pie! I lOVE creating villains! But Miss Carbunkle was harder to write about since she has more of a backstory. She is and will continue to be the most complex villain, therefore she is the most interesting and difficult to write about. She will transform a little in Book Two, and her character will deepen in surprising ways. The Man with the White Gloves and Wire are really sociopaths and will continue to be nasty little fellows in Book Two. And I will, I am sure, have a ball writing about them!
GRWR: What is it about the Victorian era that interests you?
BARTÓK: I think that era appeals to me because I see such a parallel between the Industrial Revolution and all the problems we are going through today. And in London, things were exceedingly hard for children, women, immigrants, and the poor. When I read about the nightmarish working conditions for children in the coal pits during that time, and how horrible living conditions were for poor immigrants living in Spitalfields, it’s hard not to think of the sweat shops of today, or the global refugee crisis, and the rise in homelessness. The Victorian Era was also a time of great and wondrous technological inventions, just like today. And like today, people often didn’t think of the ramifications of the technology they created, for better or for worse.
GRWR: Quintus, your Fagin of sorts, is an intriguing individual. What can a character like him bring to the story for young readers who may not be familiar with any Dickens?
BARTÓK: I think he can bring a sense that some characters who do bad or illegal things aren’t always bad through and through. Sometimes there’s a good reason for their misconduct. And there’s also room for them to change and grow.
Mira Bartók, Photo Credit: Doug Plavin
AUTHOR BIO: Mira Bartók is a writer and artist whose New York Times best-selling memoir, The Memory Palace: A Memoir, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. The Wonderling is her first novel for young readers. She lives in Western Massachusetts.
MEET MIRA BARTÓK THIS FRIDAY IN WEST HOLLYWOOD!
Mira Bartók discusses and signs The Wonderling at Book Soup on November 10th
Event date: Friday, November 10, 2017 – 7:00 p.m. Event address: Book Soup 8818 Sunset Boulevard West Hollywood, CA 90069
Below is an abbreviated schedule of upcoming appearances. Find a full listing of Bartók’s events on her website. · Monday, November 13 in Portland, OR: Public book reading and signing at 7 p.m. at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005 · Saturday, December 2 in New Salem, MA: New Salem Town Library reading and signing event from 2-4 p.m. at Swift River School, 149 West St., New Salem, MA 01355 · Wednesday, December 13 in Northhampton, MA: Local author series event from 7-8:45 p.m. at Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton MA 01060
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)
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.
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.
On 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
Author of Zinnia and the Bees, Danielle Davis
Good Reads With Ronna:What was the genesis forZinnia 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 myblog.
And The Red Treeby 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 agohere.
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.
We’re back again today with more on Kate DiCamillo’s latest middle grade novel, Raymie Nightingale. Hilary Taber’s got some terrific questions lined up for a chance to get the author’s insights about writing this moving story.
Hilary Taber:Raymie is a character that is dear to my heart. She’s going through such a hard time, and at the same time she’s looking for what is true about life, what is real, what can be counted on. Is Raymie like you in this way or is that a particular facet of her character?
Kate DiCamillo: Raymie, oh Raymie. Raymie is very much like me. In particular, she is very much like me as a child.
HT:Raymie’s father’s secretary, Mrs. Sylvester, is such a sweetheart. It’s sort of like Raymie gets to have a very practical, straightforward mentor and encourager on the phone whenever she needs someone. Mrs. Borkowski is almost like the opposite of Mrs. Sylvester. She says such mysterious things that make you wonder if they are true somehow. Are these characters based on someone you know or are they both a symbol of the archetypal wise woman?
Children’s book author, Kate DiCamillo, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2014–2015 and winner of a Newbery Medal and a Newbery Honor.
KDC: I had the great good-fortune of growing up on a dead-end street in a small town. One side of the street was families with young children; and on the other side of the street there were three widows: Mrs. Lucas, Mrs. Lindemann and Mrs. Broadfield. These ladies all kept their doors and hearts open to the kids on the street. I could also go and sit on Mrs. Lindemann’s porch and talk with her. Mrs. Sylvester and Mrs. Borkowski are fictional characters, but they are also a way of thanking those ladies.
HT:Raymie, Beverly and Louisiana each have a problem of their own. Their shared suffering seems to unite them until they are almost a little family. Are these three friends going to make it? I believe that Raymie will make it, but I worry about Beverly and Louisiana. You’ve got me so invested in them!
KDC: I believe—absolutely—that all three of them will make it. I have no doubt about this.
HT:I’m fascinated by Louisiana’s bunny barrettes. They seem like Louisiana herself – present but also little, a tiny bit removed from reality. Did you make those up or did you ever see anyone who wore those?
KDC: Oh boy. And: bless you. I had bunny barrettes. I lost them in Mrs. Lucas’ backyard.
HT:As a child, did you have a book about a larger than life hero like Raymie did? Was there a particular person that you considered your hero when you were a child?
KDC: Librarians were my heroes. Teachers were my heroes. Anybody who put a book in my hand was my hero.
HT:Marsha Jean. Marsha Jean haunts me. Marsha Jean is not real, but yet she is. She’s the, “…ghost of what’s to come.” She’s a person that Louisiana’s grandmother has made up to keep her granddaughter on her toes. What made you think of writing about Louisiana who is pursued by the unknown?
KDC: Hmmm. I don’t know. So much of what happens in a story is not planned out by me, but is rather a surprise to me. So I don’t know how this happened. I do know that I am familiar with that feeling of being pursued by the unknown.
HT:Beverly is initially such a gritty realist, but she can be very sweet. Louisiana is more vague and kind initially, but she can be strongly adamant about how there is room to hope. Where do you see Raymie to be? Is Raymie somewhere between these two?
KDC: Raymie is somewhere in the middle, yes. She is an introvert, a hoper, a watcher. Like me.
HT:The more I read Raymie Nightingale, the more I realized that wisdom and truth are ever present in everyday life. Raymie is someone who listens for it. She listens for people to say something true, something wise. Were you like Raymie when you were a child? Did you listen for a certain phrase or words of truth like Raymie does?
KDC: I did. I still do.
Many thanks to Kate DiCamillo for answering my questions, and to the entire team at Candlewick! As Kate is my writing hero I treasure this chance to interview her. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity I will not soon forget. Summer reading is coming up! Be sure to go to your local indie bookstore and get a copy of Raymie Nightingale today. I can’t imagine anyone else that I would rather spend the summer with than Raymie, Beverly and Louisiana a.k.a. The Three Rancheros! Click here to read Hilary’s review of Raymie Nightingale from Monday, May 16th. Click here for Kate DiCamillo’s Facebook page. Click here for Kate DiCamillo’s website.
Interview courtesy of Kate DiCamillo and Hilary Taber
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.
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 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.comor follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@kkittscher).
Enter below to win a copy of The Tiara on the Terrace by Kristen Kittscher plus an exclusive spy kit with Moleskine notebook. spy pen, magnets and book marks. Receive an extra entry for following Good Reads With Ronna on Facebook.
“Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.”
~ Dr. Myra Pollack Sadker, researcher, educator, and author of Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls (Scribners)
Knowing our history helps us discover who we are, and where we want to go. But when we don’t know our own history, or ‘herstory,’ this is a difficult task. Not knowing our past can limit our power today, and hinder our dreams for tomorrow. The National Women’s History Project initiated Women’s History Month 35 years ago to address this issue, and their mission remains to ‘write women back into history.’ In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to re-visit an author interview focused on a heroic woman whom I am very glad to have discovered and why I HAD to record her story for young readers.
When my picture book, Molly, by Golly! The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter, was released, I did several interviews for bloggers. One of the nicest was this one with Debbi Michiko Florence for her blog DEBtastic Reads. It was a pleasure ‘talking’ with her about this book of mine, which went on to win the bronze medal in the 2013 Florida Book Awards, was named to the 2012 ALA Amelia Bloomer Book List for Feminist Literature, and more recently, was included as a 2016 Selection on the Top 100 Recommended African-American Children’s Books by AALBC.com (African-American Literature Book Club).
Q: Congratulations on the release of your newest picture book, MOLLY, BY GOLLY!The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter (Calkins Creek), fabulously illustrated by Kathleen Kemly. You first became interested in Molly when you came across her legend while researching another book. What inspired you to turn this into a picture book?
A: First, it was the great spirit of volunteerism that is at the heart of Molly’s legendary tale. What Molly lacked in experience she more than compensated for with her courage and strength. It was a great opportunity to inspire future firefighters and other community helpers. Second, it was a chance to show kids how fires were actually fought in early American times. I was meticulous in my research of these details, and so was illustrator Kathleen Kemly—the firefighting history experts who double-checked our efforts were equally meticulous—because we all wanted to present as accurate a picture as possible. Kids will certainly get an appreciation for the modern equipment we have today. Third, Molly’s legend was filled with the type of action and emotion sure to inspire fabulous illustrations…which is just what happened!
Q: I was fascinated to learn how intensive and exhausting firefighting was in the 1800s! What part of your research for this book surprised you the most?
A: The biggest surprise was learning that the earliest pumper engines were not transported to the scene of a fire by a team of horses as I’d always assumed—PEOPLE did. The cobblestone streets were very narrow and bumpy, and it was often easier and safer for humans to maneuver the heavy pumper in tight spots. Also, since there were no paid fire companies at the time, there were no funds for buying, feeding and housing horses to help fight fires. There were no firehouses as we know them today, either. The volunteer companies only had equipment sheds for their very basic tools. No “sliding-down-a-fire-pole” fun for these early firefighters!
Q: Molly was a cook for firefighters. You share some delicious-sounding dishes in the book! What are some of your favorite comfort foods?
A: My favorite comfort foods: Pad Thai Noodles, Salted Caramel Ice Cream and Carolina Pulled Pork—but not all in the same meal! I had a wonderful time researching early American cookery, and just loved the quaint-and-quirky names of dishes that Molly might have fixed for her ‘fire laddies’.
Molly, by Golly! The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter
The Sweet Smell of Stink … Stink Moody, That is! A Q & A With Megan McDonald
I had the privilege of sitting down with popular and inimitable author, Megan McDonald, at the L.A. Times Festival of Books last month. She’s the brains (and humor) behind the successful Judy Moody and Stink Moody series. We met to discuss the 10 year anniversary of the STEM-oriented Stink Moody books being celebrated by her publisher, Candlewick Press.
Meet Megan McDonald
Good Reads With Ronna:If Judy’s an exaggerated version of you, who have you modeled Stink on, or is he a conglomerate of your sisters, or totally from your imagination?
Megan McDonald: Well it’s interesting because Judy and I have so much in common with our messy hair and all of our moods, but really in a way, Stink is the one who is close to my heart because he’s the youngest. And even though he’s a boy, and I had four older sisters, and a lot of the funny stories I tell are based on the stories growing up with all these sisters, I imagined a boy because I never had a brother. And then, because he’s the youngest, I know what it’s like to have that bossy big sister. You know, who sort of thinks she’s in charge and knows it all and wants to boss you around.
I empathize a lot with Stink. And making him be the shortest kid in the class; in the first book he’s very sensitive about his height, and he wants to grow, that was all coming from my empathy for Stink being the youngest.
GRWR:Is it difficult for you to switch from being in the head of Judy to being in the head of Stink? In other words, does keeping their individual perspectives get tricky when both characters are in a story?
MM: Yes. At the beginning it really was because even when I go to write other books, the voice of Judy will be in my head and start to take over. So with Stink, whatever the book is going to be about, like if he’s going on a shark sleepover or he’s going to save the planet Pluto, I sort of just immerse myself in that universe and learn about Pluto or go to the aquarium and watch the sharks and really try to set an atmosphere for Stink just to get my head out of the Judy thing. At the beginning it was really hard because even when Judy would come on stage, so to speak, in a chapter, she would start to take over and I had to keep reigning her in and letting Stink have his say.
GRWR: I thought you did a terrific job, especially in Stink and The Shark Sleepover because Judy is never domineering.
MM: At first I was going to have Stink go on the sleepover without his family. But then I thought it would be really fun to see Judy in the older sister role in a different capacity. So when the kids are kind of scared, and they want to know what’s behind the big KEEP OUT door, and they see the light under the crack, it’s the perfect thing. You wake up the older sister and say, “C’mon, we’ve got to go find out what’s behind the door!” Then she can go fall back to sleep leaving Stink to think about putting toothpaste in her sleeping bag or whatever.
GRWR: What are the qualities in Stink that you admire the most?
MM: I guess I really admire his passion. You’ll notice there are not a lot of electronics and computers and things in the books … so from the very first book Stink is always reading the encyclopedia. I had a nephew who always did that. I don’t know if it was because it’s just what was around, but he’d pick up a volume of the encyclopedia and he’d disappear. It kind of started with that, with Stink picking up the S volume and he’d be reading aboutSkinks or Saturn or whatever the S word of the day was. And then I realized I never set out to make it about science, but I realized he really had the passion for all these things, whether it was animals, or Pluto, or sharks or saving the guinea pigs or whatever it is, and I love how this passion comes through.
GRWR: What do you do to find inspiration for your stories? Tell us about connecting with your inner child – how do you do it so convincingly?
MM: Well growing up with four sisters really helped. In the first book, especially in Judy Moody, I did tell actual stories. The famous story of the fake hand in the toilet, in the first Judy Moody book, is a real joke that I played on my sisters. And that really happened where they went to the White House and I stayed home. So it started out with the idea of using some of these funny stories of growing up with all these sisters, but Judy really took on a personality of her own. And Stink was his own person from that first book, so it’s sort of branching out more into my imagination. And people say to me, “But how do you go back? How do you remember all these things? It’s like you know, you remember everything from when you were eight years old!” I really don’t. I love the Mark Twain quote where he says, “I remember everything whether it happened or not.” That’s kind of how I feel. I remember certain things and feelings from childhood, but whether it happened or not, I can easily add imagination and embellish and make it into a funny story.
Ronna:So in Judy Moody & Stink: The Big Bad Blackout, did that hurricane really happen?
MM: Ah, that’s interesting. I got the idea because I was on tour in the state of Virginia where Judy and Stink are from. I just happened to be there right after a hurricane, I think it was hurricane Isabella. So all these people, this was more in the early days of Judy Moody, were coming through my signing line and telling me we found Judy and Stink, we discovered Judy and Stink in the hurricane. I thought, “What, the books washed up?” And they would say no, all the lights went out, there was no electricity.” They couldn’t watch TV, they didn’t have computers, laptops, iPads. They had flashlights, or they lit a candle and they read books. The whole family would get out a Judy Moody or a Stink book and they’d read aloud by candlelight. That just gave me goosebumps. So many people told me this. They would talk about playing board games, going back to the things of my childhood. This really made an impression on me and I thought I would love to have Judy and Stink experience a blackout. You know, have a hurricane come, not a scary one, but the electricity’s out and they have to find ways to be entertained, I guess. You don’t have all the electronics if you take away the lights and the electricity.
So of course Grandmas Lou comes. She shows up with an entourage of all these animals with her and then the lights go out. What do you do? You roast marshmallows in the fireplace and you tell stories, right? That was really fun because I got to tell several stories within a story.
GRWR:What’s the most meaningful or hilarious response from a kid regarding your Stink books?
MM: It’s funny you ask, because I was just Skyping the other day because Pizza Hut had a reading month and they chose Stink as their mascot for the month of March. One of the prizes, it was for teachers and their classroom, was to win Stink books and they got a Skype visit with the author. So I was just Skyping with the fourth grade classroom who won the prize. The teacher told me ahead of time that the kids all had prepared questions. It’s their questions. She didn’t weed them out or anything. They each had to come up to the camera and they got to ask a question.
One little boy came up and he asked, “What do you do when you’re angry?” I think he was thinking about Judy and all her moods and so he wanted to know how I handled being angry. I told him all about the newest Judy Moody book, Judy Moody Mood Martian and in that book Judy tries to stay in a good mood for one whole week, but it’s very difficult. So, when she feels a bad mood coming on she gets out her finger knitting. It’s knitting you can do without needles. And I’m there on Skype explaining finger knitting to the kids, showing them my fingers and how you can wrap yarn around them and everything. And that’s what Judy does. I said for me, I usually go walk the dog, or go take a swim, or just do something to help get that energy out, but finger knitting was a way Judy found she could channel some of those feelings. He said thank you and he went to walk away from the camera and said, “Well I guess now I have to go home and take up knitting.” (Laughter) It was very cute, sweet and very funny. He really took it to heart.
GRWR:Do you have a favorite Stink book or situation that remains outstanding in your mind after 10 years?
MM: Oh gosh! So many favorites. One that I really love is, it was probably the most difficult to write, is the one about Stink where he rescues all the guinea pigs, Stink and The Great Guinea Pig Express. I had read about these guinea pig rescues that had happened. And there was a woman in the Bay Area who heard about these guinea pigs in a lab that were being mistreated. They shut down the lab and she brought all these guinea pigs home. And she thought. what am I going to dowith 101 guinea pigs? She got a bus from the Humane Society, then went online, found homes for these guinea pigs all over the country, loaded them up in her car and went on a guinea pig rescue tour, giving away the guinea pigs to good homes. When I read this I was so inspired that I had this inspire Stink. He finds out about these guinea pigs at the pet store and with the help of the woman from the pet store, they get a bus, outfit it and they go all over Virginia and find homes for all of these animals. So it was a really fun one because it has such heart. You just want these guinea pigs to be well and be safe and find good homes; also it’s hilarious because you can just imagine being on this little van or bus with 101 squealing little guinea pigs and all of the antics that would go with it.
GRWR:That’s super. I just love how you come up with things like squeals on wheels and you have asteriod and then the blasteroid. Does it come easily or do you spend a ton of time thinking those up?
MM: I love to play with language, and I grew up with a lot of nonsense poetry and even at the dinner table my mom and dad we would have pun contests. I’ve always loved that word play and that language play. Sometimes it just comes naturally when ryhming or something will pop in my head. Other times it’ll just be almost be like a gift. I’ll be doing some research or something and exactly the thing I was looking for just sort of lands in my lap. So when that happens those are really special moments for a writer.
GRWR:If you were asked to create a “me” collage, like in Judy’s first book, what would you include in it?
MM: Oh, gosh, um. Well, I don’t have the Barbie Doll heads and scabs I collected as a kid, but I do have a lot of collections. Judy and I are both collectors. So I collect things like erasers, sock monkeysand mood rings, so some of the Judy Moody things you’re probably familiar with go in my collage.
MM: Yes, of course. I have a killer BAND-AIDS® collection including bacon strips.
GRWR:Oh I like the bacon strip ones!
MM: Now of course people know that I collect them they send me all these funny ones. Pirate ones, sock monkeys and all sorts of neat ones. Yes, definitely the BAND-AIDS®, and a grouchy pencil or two. And other than that, probably just things, you know from my own life, pictures of me with my sisters when we were little. We have a lot of those black and whites from when you used to go in photo booths and make funny faces. You know, that sort of thing. But a lot of the things in Judy’s world are things from my own childhood, too.
GRWR:What can we expect to see Stink getting up to in his next book?
MM: Okay, well the next book is Stink and the Attack of the Slime Mold. It’s bringing Riley Rottenberger to the forefront. She’s sort of the Stink nemesis of it. He gets to Saturday Science Club and Riley Rottenberger is there and it turns out in this club that they were going to learn how to grow slime mold. So they each take home their little samples of slime mold and it begins to grow. And it’s really gross and slimy. Stink starts to imagine that this slime mold, you know you only feed it like one Cheerio or one oat flake, but he starts to imagine that’s it going to take over his room and begin to take over the whole house and the whole planet. So that’s a fun one. There’s a lot of science in it where you can learn about the actual slime mold which is an amoeba. It’s a one celled organism. But it’s also very science fiction-y. It opens with Stink and Judy going to a drive-in with their parents -they’ve re-opened an old drive-in, and the Blob movie is playing. That kind of gets Stink’s imagination going, so the comics will feature, you know how there are comics after each chapter, some of the more fantastic, science-fiction-y aspects of the book.
GRWR:Is it done? Or if not, when is it due out?
MM: Yes, my part is done. Peter [H. Reynolds] is working on the drawings right now. It comes out, I think, spring of next year, 2016.
GRWR:Okay, and what about Judy’s book, the one you mentioned earlier?
MM: That one is out. That came out last fall and is calledJudy Moody and the Mood Martian. It’s still in hardback; it should come out in paperback this summer.
GRWR: What contemporary kids books are you reading now?
MM: Well, right now I’m reading Pam Muñoz Ryan’s book called Echo. And I almost couldn’t even come to Los Angeles because I only have 20 pages to go, and I’m like I can’t carry this thick 600 page book … that I just have to finish now.. It’s in 3 different time periods, 3 different stories, and I just have to know how they all weave together. It’s a fascisnating historical novel.
I’m a huge Katherine Paterson fan so I went back and I’m filling in all the holes in my Katherine Paterson collection because I discovered there are books of hers I’ve never read. Some of the ones that are set in Japan that were some of her early ones. And Come Sing, Jimmy Jo. So I’m going back and reareading some of those. But The Great Gilly Hopkinsisprobably one of my most all time favorite children’s books – for children.
GRWR:Wow! Good to know.
MM: And from my childhood, Harriet the Spy, of course.
GRWR: Of course, of course. Which reminded me, you used an expression which tells me that you and I are of the same generation, the Screamin’ Mimi’s Café, where they go for the ice cream, but I don’t know if kids of this generation know it. I don’t even know where it comes from, but I grew up knowing about screamin’ mimis.
MM: I know and it’s funny because I have a real Screamin’ Mimi’s in my town. In Sebastopol, there’s an ice cream shop called Screamin’ Mimi’s but that’s not her name or anything. She also is of my generation and knew it [the expression]…
… I was so drawn just by the name Screamin’ Mimi’s. And then in the early days I asked her if I could use the name of the shop in the book since it was going to be an ice cream shop. She said sure but don’t use any of the flavors I make because I might want to trademark them. Well now, the poor woman, kids come from all over the country and go to Screamin’ Mimi’s and they ask for the flavors that are in the book that I just made up! She said, “Oh I wish I would have let you use my flavors!” Now she makes the actual flavors for special occasions that are flavors from the Judy Moody books.
Right, who’s ready for a big scoop right now? A huge thanks to Megan McDonald for generously giving of her time during such a busy book fair day, and to Candlewick Press for giving Good Reads With Ronna the wonderful opportunity to chat with Megan McDonald.
Local L.A. Author, Susan Lendroth, Shares Her Insights About Neighborhood Gardens in a Clever Play on the Beloved Children’s Song.
– A Junior Library Guild Selection
Lendroth’s new read aloud, sing aloud picture book, Old Manhattan Has Some Farms,(Charlesbridge, $16.95, Ages 3-7) is a clever way to introduce urban farming to youngsters while also encouraging interaction with the enjoyable and catchy E-I-E-I-Grow! refrain. The places highlighted in the story are (Manhattan) New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto, Seattle, and The White House in D.C. Little ones will get a brief tour of North America while learning all the different ways to grow food in lots of different locales.
Whether you’ve got a windowsill or a rooftop, Lendroth’s included a variety of garden venues that should make getting started a looked-forward-to adventure. Illustrator Endle’s bold, primary colored art is cheerful and warm like the sunshine, but she even makes a rainy Seattle inviting with swirls of clouds against a lavender sky. Best of all, Lendroth’s included in the end pages what she calls Green Matters with more info on all the ins and outs of urban gardening such as beekeeping, hydroponics and worms. There are links to additional resources and a free song, too, from Caspar Babypants.
Good Reads With Ronna:Old Manhattan is quite different from your other books. When did the seed of this story begin germinating?
Susan Lendroth: Thanks for asking that question, Ronna; I really hadn’t thought about it before now. The truth is that my books — published and unpublished — are all over the map, but yes, the first four that were published all dealt with the past in one way or another, while Old Manhattan Has Some Farms is definitely current. The rhyme just popped into my head when I read an article about a rooftop garden in New York and sort of hummed to myself, Old Manhattan Has a Farm … It’s a bad habit of mine, singing and/or rhyming without warning. I have fought my tendency to write in rhyme because the market for rhyming books is smaller than for picture books in prose. However, sometimes, a rhyme just breaks free, and there is no corralling it.
GRWR: Why do you think the public is experiencing a renewed interest in urban farming and is this a passing trend or here to stay?
Susan Lendroth, author of Old Manhattan Has Some Farms, Charlesbridge Publishing, 2014.
SL: Unless we find a more efficient way to clean the air than plants do as a by-product of photosynthesis, I hope making our cities greener is now the norm rather than the exception. Throughout human history until the last 100-150 years, it was commonplace for householders and market gardeners to grow produce in urban areas. Before the advent of fast transportation and refrigeration, it was the only way to put fresh fruits and vegetables on the table. We moved away from that system when it became possible to mass produce food and truck it in. However, another product of our fast-paced age, the internet, has made accessible a great deal of information about the harmful effects of certain pesticides, and people are concerned about the source of the foods that they are eating. Buying from reputable local growers and growing their own foods gives consumers more control. I like to think that our last 100 years of totally separating food sources from consumers was the aberration rather than the norm, but I can’t predict the future.
GRWR:The farm to table movement is something I’ve noted in more restaurants of late. To what do you attribute this?
SL: Fresher produce tastes better. Restaurant patrons can visit farmers markets just like chefs do so they are becoming more savvy about what is available and more discerning about what they want to eat.
Interior spread from Old Mahattan Has Some Farms by Susan Lendroth with illustrations by Kate Endle, Charlebridge Publishing, 2014.
GRWR:I just visited Manhattan where The High Line on the West Side was attracting scores of visitors who want to be surrounded by nature. There’s something similar in Paris, too. Do you think this is the next phase in cities around the world?
SL: Oh, I hope so. As cities and their satellite suburbs cover larger and larger stretches of land, it pushes the “countryside” further away. No one should have to commute an hour or two to find a shady nook. And the green spaces are also the cities’ lungs, helping to clean the air and lower the temperatures.
GRWR:Old Manhattan Has Some Farms is a great idea to get kids excited about growing fruit, vegetables, herbs, and getting honey from beekeeping. Did you grow up in a city and do this as a child? And if not, do you do it now with your daughter?
SL: I grew up in a suburb of L.A. where we had a nice-sized backyard. My parents planted a few veggies for us to tend as children, but Mom was more into roses than radishes. I do remember corn and tomatoes, but unfortunately, recall a bumper crop of tomato worms more than our harvest. My daughter and I live in an apartment with a private patio, but it’s shaded for most of the day which means that while tropical plants thrive there, when it comes to sun-loving produce — not-so-much. When my daughter was three-years-old, we planted a few seeds in containers lined up against a sunny wall in the carport. I don’t know if the bees failed to find and pollinate the blossoms or (more likely) the pots were far too small for the plants, but we raised lots of leaves and one watermelon the size of a walnut. Now I stick to herbs on the windowsill. Basil is hearty enough to survive even my poor gardening abilities.
GRWR: You’re so knowledgeable on the subject of sustainable gardening and even include great resources in the back matter of the book. How can parents, schools and even our government encourage more Americans to go green?
SL: Many organizations exist with just that mission. There are foundations dedicated to promoting gardens in schools, neighborhood groups reclaiming city lots for community gardens, architects devoted to designing green buildings, etc. I think anyone interested in any aspect of urban agriculture will be able to find like-minded individuals in their own community with a quick search on the internet. The best encouragement we can all give is to support the movement with our efforts and our funding:
– buy food from co-ops, farmers markets and supermarkets that promote locally grown and organic crops – make donations to community organizations that reclaim lots, plant school gardens, etc. donate books, DVDs and other materials about urban greening to local schools – buy a few potted herbs at the market and let your children tend a windowsill garden, and then cook with them — sprinkle basil on pizzas, dill in a salad, etc. Let everyone taste how fresh makes foods pop.
Interior spread from Old Manhattan Has Some Farms by Susan Lendroth with illustrations by Kate Endle, Charlesbridge Publishing, 2014.
GRWR:What else would you have liked to have included in the book that space simply did not permit?
SL: Actually, this is one of the first times I wrote a book where I didn’t feel constrained by the word count. One of the benefits of rhyme is that it serves as a kind of shorthand where much is packed into a few words. Plus, I was allowed a section for back matter to explain concepts further so I was satisfied. However, I am sure that there are many elements other people may have wanted me to include, such as backyard chicken coops or cities of different syllable counts, like Portland or Dallas, that just didn’t fit my rhyme pattern.
GRWR: In your opinion, which city or state is doing the best job of promoting urban farming?
SL: I have no way of ranking the efforts. What I do find amazing is how many of them are taking place, from city officials greening up rooftops to municipal codes being changed to allow beekeeping to an edible garden being installed at AT&T Park, the baseball stadium of the San Francisco Giants. Whether a city or state’s efforts is large or small, the fact that any effort is being made should be applauded. I’ll leave the measurement of those efforts to someone else.
GRWR: Can you tell us about the free song by Caspar Babypants readers can get with your picture book?
SL: The amazingly talented Kate Endle, who illustrated Old Manhattan Has Some Farms, is married to the equally talented musician, Christopher Ballew, A.K.A Caspar Babypants. He volunteered to record the book’s text as a song. I’m tempted at readings to just whip that out and play it for the audience while I turn the pages, but in the interests of being more interactive, I gamely sing book with my less-than-professional voice. And audiences are great about singing the refrain with me: E – I- E – I – Grow!
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to add before we all head off to buy some seeds?
SL: How about a healthy tip? Right now is a great season to buy organic grapes. My favorites are the black seedless. Pluck them off the bunch, wash them and let them dry on a baking sheet or paper towels spread out on a table. Once they are dry, bag the now clean, ready-to-eat grapes and freeze them. They are the most terrific snack. My daughter says they’re better than ice cream. And they will last long beyond grape season.
The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles, Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, 2014.
The Lost Planet (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, $15.99, Ages 9-13 ) is the first novel in a series by Venice, CA author Rachel Searles. I met this friendly and imaginative debut fiction author earlier in the year at a local event sponsored by Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse where Searles read from her book and explained its premise.
Readers will be introduced to Chase Garrety, a 13-year-old boy who wakes up on another planet with a head wound. Chase soon meets Parker and though they start off fighting, the boys realize they need to take care of each other. Together Chase and Parker meet an android named Mia who becomes a huge help to them in this fast-paced, sci-fi adventure. The story unfolds in the course of a week in which Chase, without giving any spoilers, learns some unusual stuff about himself. So, if you’ve got a child who thrives on the science fiction genre that’s packed with action and adventure as well as interesting characters such as assorted aliens, a mysterious benefactor, and a Federation-like organization, then this is the book for them.
I asked Searles about when she began writing. She told me that she’s been writing since she was six years old. The Lost Planet actually took her four years to write, but the good news is that the second book in this series has already been written! “Writing a book,” according to Searles, “is like putting lots of puzzle pieces into the right spot, with lots of re-writing.” In fact she said her original outline for the novel changed so much since she had her first idea for the story. That’s not hard to imagine when you learn that the idea for a space story was first planted in her mind in 2006. It then took her two years to write the first 100 pages. In 2008 Searles came up with The Lost Planet concept, and in 2010 she tried to write 1000 words a day. She then spent a year and a half revising. And which character, I wondered, did Searles most relate to? Parker. Now you’ll just have to read it for yourself to understand why.
Today Good Reads With Ronna is delighted to share an interview with L.A. resident, Sara Louise Kras, author of The Hunted: Polar Prey, a new fiction early chapter book.
Sara Louis Kras, author of The Hunted: Polar Prey, from Speeding Star, 2014.
If you didn’t get to read our review of The Hunted: Polar Prey, please click here for the link.
Sara, welcome to Good Reads With Ronna, and thank you for agreeing to give us a glimpse into your writing life!
Interview with Sara Louise Kras:
GRWR:When did you make up your mind to be a writer?
SLK: When I was around 30 years old. I got my feet wet by enrolling in a mail order course called “The Institute of Children’s Literature.”
GRWR:You’ve written over 30 nonfiction books for children. What made you decide to try your hand at fiction?
SLK: I have been trying to get published in fiction since I began writing children’s books. I started with picture books with no success. Then I tried middle grade with no success. After 21 years, I finally got a contract for my fiction early chapter book, The Hunted: Polar Prey. For some reason, writing non-fiction was easier for me. It only took me seven years to get published with my first non-fiction, Giant Lizards.
GRWR:On average, how long does it take you to write a non-fiction book vs. a chapter book?
SLK: The time frame is about the same, one year. However, the edits for fiction books can go on for years.
GRWR:The Hunted: Polar Prey takes place in the Arctic. Please tell us some of the other exotic and/or remote locales you’ve visited? Which one is your favorite and why?
SLK: I’ve visited many countries in Africa, Europe, Central America, South America, and Asia. I can’t pick just one. I loved Italy, Japan, China, Maldives, Botswana, South Africa, Peru. I have fond memories of the majority of countries I’ve visited. However, I rarely return to a county. There are so many more to see! Unless, I have to go back to a country for research, of course.
GRWR:Please tell our readers how The Hunted: Polar Prey came to be written.
SLK: I read a newspaper article about scientists who became shipwrecked in the Arctic. While there, polar bears began to close in on them. I also read a book titled Ice Drift by Theodore Taylor. I put the two ideas together to come up with [the story of] a boy who has to save his mother while she is floating on an iceberg and being hunted by a polar bear.
GRWR: The book is told via several voices: the main character, Jeremy, his mom, Jeremy’s Inuit friend, Felix and the bear. Why did you decide to write the story this way?
SLK: Because I become disinterested with one character. It gave me the chance to bring in all my interests into the story. It was fun to be a polar bear, a twelve year old boy, a mother, and an Inuit all at the same time. I love nature and animals. I love action and adventure. And I love spirituality. It was also fun to piece the story together through all the different viewpoints. It was like putting together a puzzle.
GRWR:Did you base the human characters on people you know or are they completely made up?
SLK: They are completely made up. I tried to put myself in the characters’ shoes. It was fun to shift gears.
GRWR:I love how you weave in facts so seamlessly into your story – for example Inuit language and traditions and how a helicopter is maneuvered. How long does it take to do this research?
The Hunted: Polar Prey by Sara Louise Kras, Speeding Star, 2014.
SLK: I was able to ask at the Eskimo museum in Churchill about Inuit traditions. The Inuit words were gotten from the book Ice Drift mentioned above. In regards to the helicopter, my husband loves helicopters. So we’ve ridden them many times including while visiting Churchill, Canada.
GRWR:Do you typically make research trips?
SLK: Yes. I’ve made many during my years as a children’s writer. My first research trips were to several of the national parks in the United States as I did a national park series. My other research trips included: Cambodia, Honduras, Botswana, Antigua/Barbuda and Galapagos Islands.
Today Good Reads With Ronna and Susan VanHecke discuss how the seeds of a story were planted for her new picture book, Under The Freedom Tree(Charlesbridge, $16.95, Ages 6-9) with illustrations by London Ladd,which we’re highlighting for Black History Month.
BLOG TOUR We’re joining other reviewers this week as part of a special Charlesbridge Publishing blog tour and hope you’ll take the time to visit all the bloggers’ sites. We’re also delighted to be giving away one copy of Under The Freedom Tree, so enter by clicking here for a chance to win. This giveaway ends at midnight PST on February 24, 2014. Please be sure to write Freedom Tree in the subject line and include your address. Like us on Facebook for an extra entry. A winner will be chosen by Random.org and notified via email on February 25th.
Under The Freedom Tree shares the story of three captured slaves, Frank, James and Shepard, during the Civil War, who take an enormous risk to escape across dangerous waters in Virginia to reach the Union Army on the other side only to discover they are still not totally free. However, with the help of clever General Butler, a lawyer before the Civil War, the three fugitives are able to remain with the Union side on a technicality. The winds of change were beginning to blow in the right direction.
Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Charlesbridge Publishing, 2014.
VanHecke delivers a powerful tale told poetically in free verse and based on actual accounts of the creation of America’s first “contraband camps.” After word of Frank, James and Shepard’s successful escape, others followed suit. First hundreds then thousands.
Better forward than back.
Former slaves built a community in what was known as Slabtown, or the Grand Contraband Camp. By day they worked for the Union, but they were freer than they’d ever been, some living in a home of their own for the very first time. Silent witness to this all was the majestic old oak tree, the Freedom Tree. Illustrator Ladd conveys so much spirit and emotion in every spread, whether by depicting children being taught under the shade of the oak or the joyful gathering of the community to hear the reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. “Lives forever changed under the Freedom Tree.”
Be sure to sit down with your kids and read this fantastic picture book that helps shed light on a little-known yet inspiring event of the Civil War. Also included are a bibliography and author’s note at the end providing more historical information that helps place many of the events in Under The Freedom Tree in context.
Good Reads With Ronna:Susan, I had no idea the story would be anything other than straightforward prose, but it was so much more. It was poetic and flowed like the water that carried the three slaves to their eventual freedom. How did you decide upon this form of storytelling?
Susan VanHecke: Thanks so much, Ronna, and your imagery is beautiful! You know, I struggled for quite a while (a couple of years, actually) trying to write the contraband slaves’ story in prose. But it was just too dry, too flat, too distant. I didn’t think it would hold young readers’ attention or get them feeling exactly what was at stake.
Then one day I picked up a collection of the late, great author Virginia Hamilton’s essays and speeches. In it, she described a concept she called “rememory,” an “exquisitely textured recollection, real or imagined.” I liked that idea, especially the texture and imagination parts. I decided to make a personal visit to the Freedom Tree. There in the summer quiet, under those sprawling, sheltering branches, I could feel all those heart-pounding emotions, I could imagine all those daring events, that took place under or near Emancipation Oak.
It was a powerful moment for me, and it definitely shook loose the words. My “rememory” came in the form of free verse. I owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Hamilton.
GRWR:Did you happen upon the history of Frank, James and Shepard accidentally or was their story one you had heard about and always wanted to share with youngsters?
VanHecke: It was totally by accident. Do you ever get those local lifestyle magazines in the mail that are really just slick vehicles for home improvement ads? I was flipping through one of those when it opened to a photo in the back. It was a stunning, sepia-toned image of a spectacular tree. The caption underneath said that this was where area contraband slaves learned to read and write and heard the Emancipation Proclamation, what some consider the first Southern reading of that important document.
I was astonished that I’d never heard of this history, especially since Emancipation Oak is just a few miles from my home. As I researched the full story, I knew I wanted my kids and their classmates to know this exciting, little-known aspect of the Civil War.
GRWR:Under the Freedom Tree is a reminder that even in many places in the North, freedom for slaves was not readily embraced. How did some African American former slaves get to be free while others remained “contraband” until the 13th Amendment?
VanHecke: I’m certainly no expert, but it’s my understanding that former slaves could become free through manumission (emancipated by their owner, usually by “purchasing” themselves) or escaping to the free states of the North. Of course, slave hunters were always on the prowl—in the North and South—and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 created harsh punishments for those who assisted runaways in any way.
That’s what made Union General Benjamin Butler’s “contraband” decision so important. Virginia was a slave state, so by law (the Fugitive Slave Act), Butler had to return to their Confederate owners those three brave souls who rowed under cover of night to Fortress Monroe. But Butler, a lawyer himself, found a loophole: Virginia had just seceded from the United States, so U.S. law no longer applied to it. Virginia was now an enemy of the United States. Therefore, clever Butler was able to declare those escaped slaves “enemy contraband,” since they were being used in the Confederates’ effort to wage war on the Union.
As word spread, more and more slaves escaped and made their way to the Union line, where they too became “contraband.” They weren’t free, and in fact labored for the Union for many months before they were eventually paid for their work. But contraband surely seemed—and ultimately was—one step closer to free.
HOLY BAGUMBA! It’s An Interview with Kate DiCamillo (As of 1/27/14 the 2014 Newbery Medal)
About FLORA & ULYSSES: THE ILLUMINATED ADVENTURES
Image credit: Photo courtesy of Candlewick Press
Good Reads With Ronna recently had the good fortune to meet multiple award-winning (including a Newbery medal) author Kate DiCamilloand illustrator K. G. Campbell at Vroman’s in Pasadena. It was standing room only for DiCamillo on her extensive publicity tour for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures(Candlewick Press, $17.99, ages 8-12), now a New York Times Bestseller. Today’s interview features DiCamillo and next Friday’s interview will feature Campbell. Please click here for Hilary Taber’s review of Flora & Ulysses posted here last month.
GRWR:You mentioned at Vroman’s that finding an ill squirrel by your front doorstep and your late mom’s love of her Electrolux vacuum cleaner were a serendipitous comedic collision – is happenstance the genesis for many of your stories or do you usually begin with a plot outline or a character’s journey in mind?
KATE DICAMILLO: Oh, I never begin with a plot outline. I never know what’s going to happen. The origins of a story aren’t always as unusual as the collision of a vacuum cleaner and an unwell squirrel, but a story for me almost always begins with an image or two. Or a voice. Sometimes I hear a voice. And then I just follow the voice or the image.
GRWR:In Flora & Ulysses you give a powerful voice to underdogs, outsiders, lonely and grieving characters by giving them hope, love, joy and friendship. Do you feel your books set out to honor these types of people?
KATE DICAMILLO: I set out to tell a story. I set out to honor the world. All of it. All of us. That said, I guess I am preoccupied about the miracles that can happen when we see each other.
GRWR: William Spiver’s character has so many unique traits. A lot of kids and adults who read Flora & Ulysses may know someone similar to him from school or in their family. Is he simply a socially awkward genius or does he have Asperger’s?
KATE DICAMILLO: I never thought about William Spiver having Asperger’s. It is surely possible. But to me, he is just William Spiver—irritating, wonderful, complex, tender-hearted, and yes, very, very smart.
GRWR:You are to children’s book writing what Monet and Renoir are to Impressionism. Your words are like brush strokes of pigment. Do they flow effortlessly out onto the page or is each sentence finely and laboriously crafted?
KD: What a lovely thing to say. You are kind. And would that the words flowed effortlessly. Alas, they don’t. I work and work and work. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.
GRWR: Can the two pages you write daily take two or ten hours or do you limit the amount of time you devote to a manuscript?
KD: The two pages usually take me an hour. Sometimes a little more. Sometimes less. And I limit the time in the first stages of telling, but when I am working on rewrites for my editor, I will spend all day working—short sessions of two pages at a time.
GRWR:Have you ever liked a character you’ve created so much that it’s hard to say good-bye at the end of the book or series?
Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses from Candlewick Press with illustrations by K. G. Campbell.
KD: I still miss Dr. Meescham.
And I miss Ulysses. And Flora.
And William Spiver.
It’s hard to say goodbye.
GRWR:Light and dark play an important role in Flora & Ulysses. There’s mention of illuminated adventures, the stars, William Spiver’s temporary blindness, the shepherdess lamp called Mary Ann, the neon Giant Do-nut sign, Incandesto and his arch-nemesis, the Darkness of 10,000 Hands. Were these intentionally woven into the book?
KD: They weren’t! I read through that list and I am kind of amazed because I didn’t know that I was doing that. It’s this wonderful thing where the story is smarter than I am.
GRWR:Can you please tell us what books you’re working on right now?
KD: I’m working on some stories about the secondary characters in the Mercy Watson stories. So: Leroy Ninker, Francine Poulet and Baby Lincoln are all getting their own stories, their own books.
I’m also working on another novel.
GRWR:It was wonderful to meet illustrator K.G. Campbell at your Pasadena signing. Although you did see illustrations in advance of publication, and made some alterations to the text to include both K. G. and the art director’s idea of comic strip-style artwork in the book, you never met or collaborated. Is it a scary feeling as an author to know that your imagination and vision are in someone else’s hands?
KD:Yes, but I have learned to trust Candlewick so implicitly in this respect. Art director Chris Paul’s vision of what the book should be is always something wonderful and astounding.
GRWR:Was the novel originally titled just Flora & Ulysses and, after the extra artwork, did The Illuminated Adventures get added or was it always intended to be The Illuminated Adventures?
KD: Originally, the book was entitled simply Ulysses, or the Squirrel.
I thought that this was very funny. Other people were not quite as amused. So, after many rewrites, the illuminated aspect came to the fore.
GRWR:I adore the bohemian look of Phyllis. Were you particularly fond of any character’s rendition more than others?
KD: I LOVE William Spiver.
Keith brings him to life so accurately and lovingly.
GRWR:On your website you advise aspiring authors to “Listen. Read. Write.” Do you have time to read as much as you used to and whose books are you reading now?
KD: I make time to read. It is so important to me. I can’t survive without a book. Right now I am reading Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.
GRWR: Could the book’s premise have worked with a dog or cat as a superhero instead of Ulysses, the squirrel?
KD: Well, I love the notion of vacuuming a cat. I really do. But as impossible as it seems to vacuum up a squirrel, it seems even more impossible to vacuum up a cat. Or a dog.