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Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2024- An Interview with Mari Lowe

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARI LOWE

WINNER OF THE SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD

FOR

THE DUBIOUS PRANKS OF SHAINDY GOODMAN

(Levine Querido; $18.99, Ages 8-12)

 

stba24 blog tour schedule banner

 

We’re thrilled to be back for another year, this time sharing a must-read middle grade novel, The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman by Mari Lowe. This novel not only addresses universal issues school girls deal with daily but one that brings the Orthodox Jewish community into the forefront in an insightful and meaningful way for readers of all backgrounds. Click here to see the full list of books and participants on the blog tour this week: 2024 Blog Tour: Sydney Taylor Book Awards – Association of Jewish Libraries

 

 

SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD WINNER
NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD WINNER

Starred Reviews – Horn Book, Shelf Awareness
Kirkus Top 10 Middle Grade Novels for Fall ’23

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

SHAINDY is a twelve-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl who struggles in school and has no good friends. She watches with envy as her next-door neighbor, GAYIL, excels socially and academically. They have little to do with each other, and it comes as a surprise when Shaindy looks out her window one September evening and sees Gayil staring out at her from her own window with a sign reading: want to know a secret?

The secret (at first) is that Gayil has a key fob that will allow them to break into their school after hours. Together, they set up a harmless prank in their classroom. But under Gayil’s instigation the mischief becomes malice, and Shaindy sees that the pranks and humiliations are targeted only at certain girls. But what could they have in common?

With the fear of Gayil’s fury and her own reluctance growing, Shaindy comes to the terrifying conclusion that if she can’t figure out how to stop it, the next target could be her.

INTERVIEW:

GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Congratulations, Mari, on winning the 2024 Sydney Taylor Book Award for best middle grade novel, The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman. Two years and two wins in a row, has it sunk in yet?

MARI LOWE: It’s honestly been incredible. I never imagined that Shaindy would be so fortunate, and I’m still kind of shocked by the whole thing! But I’m also grateful that these books have left an impact and I hope that they will continue to do so– it’s every writer’s dream.

 

GRWR: I read that you came up with the story concept while at home with your family. Have they influenced your writing journey or did you always know you wanted to write?

ML: Well, I’ve always wanted to write! I read very young and started making up my own stories soon after that, and writing became as instinctive as breathing for me. But I don’t think that I really considered writing in this genre, with Orthodox Jewish characters, until my kids were old enough to read chapter books. And there were just so few where they could see themselves! What few portrayals there were of Orthodox Jews were fleeting and often inaccurate, and I wanted to give them mirrors– and, for other readers, a window into our world, where children are the same regardless of culture.

 

The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman cover Shaindy in Heelys.

 

 

GRWR: The premise of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman is that 6th grader Shaindy would love to be friends with Gayil Itzhaki, “her tall, willowy with perfect hair” neighbor, so when Gayil surprisingly invites Shaindy to join her in pulling off a bunch of pranks, it’s hard to say no. While they are pitched as harmless “fun between friends” as the pranks increase in hurtfulness, Shaindy begins having doubts. It was clever how you included the class lesson on the four steps of Teshuva, especially given the significance of the girls’ negative actions as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach. It helped ground the story. Can you speak to the dilemma that Shaindy faces?

ML: Those four steps of forgiveness feel so apt in all cases– because it isn’t about saying sorry, paying lip service or just regretting the way you’ve hurt someone, it’s about taking responsibility and vowing to do better moving forward. It’s about growth! For Shaindy, someone who has so often been overlooked and neglected by her classmates, there are two elements in the pranks: both the desire to belong, with Gayil, and this kind of underlying, dismissive sense of well, they’ll be fine, because they have what I don’t. It’s mean-spirited and petty, and I don’t think that Shaindy fully acknowledges that part of it until she really takes that step back midway through the book and evaluates not just the ways that she’s been hurt but the ways that she has hurt, in turn. She has to find strength within herself to break away from Gayil, but also to not become Gayil– someone who lashes out and seeks to continue that cycle of pain.

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GRWR: Your novel resonated with me which is why I could not put it down. Growing up I had a lot of Shaindy in me. That feeling Shaindy describes as “I’m the shadow, the girl no one notices …” And I knew girls like Gayil (“destined to shine” in Shaindy’s eyes) and her BFFs, Rena, and Devorah who seem to have it all. Now, looking back, would you say this story emerged as the result of any past experiences you’ve witnessed as a teacher or encountered yourself when you were in middle school?

ML: Oh, definitely! I’ve had a lot of classes like Shaindy’s, where the girls are all sweet and enthusiastic and a teacher’s dream– but there are those moments of unpleasantness when you know to look for them. There are the girls suffering at the fringes, and there is no easy way to pull them in from the outside, even as a teacher! Maybe especially as a teacher. I’ve spent a lot of time pairing girls up, encouraging new combinations, all in an effort to have every girl find her place. I don’t identify more or less with any of the girls in the book– I think I’ve had my moments when I’ve been each of them. But I definitely remember the Shaindy weeks, the times when I felt completely isolated and inferior, and I drew on a lot of those emotions to construct a girl who feels very universal to me. So many women and girls have told me that they identify with Shaindy. I think that Shaindy is who we feel like in our roughest adolescent moments, and I wanted desperately to give her strength of self in her story.

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GRWR: As writers we’re often told, write what you know, and you’ve done that by using Fairview, the purpose-built Orthodox Jewish community, as the backdrop of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman. I appreciated the loving and respectful glimpse into the school, family, neighborhood, and home lives of the main characters yet did not feel I had to be more religious to understand the novel. The challenges Shaindy coped with were moral and social, things any middle schooler could relate to. Why do you think Shaindy often says her classmates are nice and are not bullies, that’s not something that would occur at Bais Yaakov middle school yet still feels lonely and socially othered?

ML: Thank you! I really try to find universality in my specific cultural experiences. I think that there’s a certain level of expectation in Bais Yaakovs that is inculcated young: that we must be perfect, respectful and kind and caring and inclusive, and it’s an admirable thing, of course! But at the same time, a lot of girls wind up focused on giving off the appearance of those traits, performing them without feeling them. Interestingly, my most religious classes tend to be better-behaved, but also much more competitive and sometimes more likely to ice out an outsider. They rarely bully others– that’s something that can be quantified as Bad, and they are never Bad– but there is a certain level of disdain for those who can’t fit into the perfect mold, who don’t have it all down like they do (and deep down, so few girls do have it all down, and they’re all a little insecure about it– a tale as old as time). And I wanted the girls to confront that, a bit, too, how you don’t have to bully someone to make them miserable.

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GRWR: There is subtle foreshadowing for readers about what’s to come and what big issue Shaindy will ultimately have to deal with, one in fact that I never expected. Did you outline the book so that you knew in advance what would happen to Shaindy and her relationship with Gayil? Or, as her character’s emotional development evolved, did it occur organically and present itself to you?

ML: I started the book knowing a few things– Gayil’s initial proposition to Shaindy, Gayil’s end goal for it, and Gayil’s motivations. I started it knowing very little about Shaindy! But I think that she was easy to understand and to drop into her head. She sees herself as unlovable, but as I spent more and more time with her, I really began to love Shaindy and see her strengths, too. And by the time we get to the moment when everything changes, I was clear on where she would go from there– because I genuinely knew that she had it within her! Though when I initially finished the book, it was with a sweet last few pages which resolved the conflict neatly and left everyone friends. My agent talked me out of that, though! It couldn’t be sweet and simple– it had to feel real to Shaindy’s character growth and the messages of the story. Forgiveness is one thing; friendship and trust are another entirely.

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GRWR: Tzivia is one of my favorite characters. It’s a shame that Shaindy cannot pick up on Tzivia’s friendly overtures because she’s too intent on being friends with Gayil, the “it” girl of the grade. Nor does Shaindy spot Gayil’s meanness (unlike Tzivia) until it’s too late. Shaindy’s loyalty does not serve her well. Are these common friendship errors girls make?

ML: Oh, there are so many girls I want to shake sometimes and tell these girls are not for you. I think that in middle school, it’s so easy to get caught up in the magic of the girls who seem to have it all, who are beloved and surrounded by friends, without realizing that you might just be a bad match. It isn’t about some girls being nice or mean– most girls, I think, are both and neither. But a strong personality might overpower a milder one. A girl who is self-conscious and comes off as competitive because of it won’t mesh well with another girl like that. There are power dynamics and personality conflicts at work in many middle school interactions, and it’s hard to find the right friends for you, even if that person seems like such a good friend to the others around her. And Shaindy is starry-eyed and caught up in Gayil because Gayil is so perfect, to her eyes, that she hardly notices Tzivia until the stars have dissipated. It’s very common, especially while girls are still figuring out who they are– because until you have that confidence of self, it’s easy to be drawn to the girls who are all confidence and overlook quieter, more reliable friends.

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GRWR: Over the course of the novel, Shaindy’s relationship with Bayla, her older sister, improves, and Shaindy also becomes less hard on herself, more open to new friendships. What can readers learn from Shaindy’s rollercoaster (or should I say rollerblades and Heely’s) ride from her brief and tumultuous false friendship with Gayil?

ML: Middle school is a time all about finding your place and yourself. We spend a lot of time searching around us for the key to it all– what will make us stronger, smarter, more popular, happier. Shaindy gets caught up in all of that, looking for the actions and interactions that can change her. But in the end, very few of those changes are really going to come from others but within. We get really immersed in friends and social issues these years because they feel like they’re what define us. But Shaindy comes to understand that it isn’t a friendship with Gayil or the class’s treatment or even her sister’s dismissiveness that defines her: it’s who she is, and what choices she makes. And once she grasps that, the rest falls into place. She finds her real friends, her confidence, and new maturity, and she becomes someone who can take back her own power.

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GRWR: Before I say goodbye, I’m curious what your menagerie of pets consists of and whether any pet in particular keeps you company when you write.

ML: Right now, I have NOTHING KIND to say about the cat who is stubbornly napping behind me so I can’t lean back (save my back, please). I’m kidding! He’s fantastic, except for his propensity to walk on the keyboard when I’m trying to write. He generally takes the clacking of my keyboard as an invitation to curl up and nap beside me.

It’s not much of a menagerie anymore. I have a fifteen-year-old friendly corn snake, and at the time of the bio, we had two adorable hamsters (gifted to my son as a sorry-we’re-not-getting-a-cat present) and a cat (who came soon after). Sadly, over two isolated incidents, several months, and accidentally ajar doors apart, we are down to a snake and a cat. Over the years, I’ve kept a variety of pets– frogs, mice, ducklings, kittens, and even, briefly, a hedgehog. We’ve been contemplating chickens– popular in the neighborhood, and I do consume a Gaston-level number of eggs a day, anyway– but none of those yet!

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GRWR: What a treat it’s been having this opportunity to chat, Mari. I hope everyone who reads this gets a copy of The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman and enjoys it as much as I did!

Support an independent bookseller and purchase a copy here.

Mari-Lowe-headshotAUTHOR BIO:

Mari Lowe has too little free time and spends it all on writing and escape rooms. As the daughter of a rabbi and a middle school teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school, she looks forward to sharing little glimpses into her community with her books. She lives in New York with her family, menagerie of pets, and robotic vacuum. Find her at Mari Lowe – Books by Mari Lowe and on Twitter (X) @marilwrites.

 

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An Interview with Margaret Finnegan Author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MARGARET FINNEGAN

AUTHOR OF 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

RONNA’S IMPRESSION

I absolutely adored this perfectly polished middle-grade novel about an imperfect yet endearing protagonist, Susie B. Yet aren’t we all imperfect in some way, shape, or form? That’s exactly what Susie B. realizes in this story that cleverly and humorously addresses several relatable tween issues such as popularity and school dynamics, friendship, flawed individuals from the past and present, and being true to oneself. Margaret’s fifth-grade voice feels spot-on as we get inside her ADHD “butterfly brain” while she navigates both a class Hero Project and student council race.  Her personality jumps off the pages presented in letter format making the read fast but oh so fulfilling. If your middle grader is looking for a book that will keep them smiling from page one, this is it. See the publisher’s page for an excerpt.

 

BOOK SUMMARY 

SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

Roll with It meets Absolutely Normal Chaos in this funny, big-hearted novel about a young girl’s campaign for student council president, told through letters to her hero, Susan B. Anthony.

Susie B. has a lot to say. Like how it’s not fair that she has to be called Susie B. instead of plain Susie. Or about how polar bears are endangered. Or how the Usual Geniuses are always getting picked for cool stuff over the kids like her with butterflies in their brain. And it’s because Susie B. has a lot to say about these very important things that she’s running for student council president!

If she’s president, she can advocate for the underdogs just like her hero and fellow Susie B., Susan B. Anthony. (And, okay, maybe the chance to give big speeches to the whole school with a microphone is another perk.) But when the most usual of Usual Geniuses also enters the student council race, Susie realizes this may be a harder won fight than she thought. Even worse, Susie discovers that Susan B. Anthony wasn’t as great as history makes it seem, and she did some pretty terrible things to try to help her own cause. Soon, Susie has her own tough decisions to make. But one thing is for sure—no matter what, Susie B. won’t back down.

 

INTERVIEW

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome back to the GRWR blog, Margaret, and congratulations on your second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down! How does it feel to bring this new book into the world?

Margaret Finnegan: Very exciting! I feel so grateful to my editor and all the people at Atheneum Books for Young Readers who helped usher Susie B. into the world. I have a special fondness for Susie B. I love her gumption and her heart.

 

GRWR: Please share where the spark for this super engaging and original story came from especially since spark is a prevalent and meaningful word in Susie B. Won’t Back Down.

MF: I started my career as an historian, and a long time ago I wrote a book on the US woman’s suffrage movement. I think about the work I did for that book a lot. You know, it took women almost seventy years of coordinated work to get the vote, and, along the way, some of the women we admire for their activism did some unadmirable things. So what do we do with that? Susie B. was my way of exploring that question.

 

GRWR: The irresistible and honest voice of Susie Babuszkiewicz (aka Susie B.) pulled me in immediately, in fact, I tweeted that the opening made me literally LOL. “Dear Susan B. Anthony: I have very bad news for you. You’re dead.” Was this always how you planned to start the novel? And were you always going to write in letter format? 

MF: From the beginning, I conceived of the book as a series of letters because I always wanted Susie B. to be having a conversation with Susan B. Anthony. However, I don’t think the rough draft started quite that way. But then it occurred to me that some young readers wouldn’t know anything about the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. So I had to get some basic information out there really fast.

 

GRWR: Susie B. is an insightfully portrayed character who beautifully describes her ADHD as having a butterfly brain or at times getting wiggly. Another character, Carson, also seems to have ADHD, perhaps Asperger’s and Tourette syndrome. Can you speak to your inclusion of neurodiverse characters again as you did in your first novel, We Could Be Heroes?  

MF: I’m glad you asked. About one in every seven or eight individuals has some type of neurodiversity. So the real question is, why don’t we see neurodiversity in more books? Also, I guess I’m highly sensitive to this issue because my kids, (both young adults) are neurodiverse.

 

GRWR: I ran for class secretary in my high school government but don’t remember much except that our very laid-back advisor was called Mr. Lincoln. Did you ever run for student council and what are your thoughts about this part of a student’s school life?

MF: I ran for student council in ninth grade—and I lost! So suck it Henry M. Gunn High School. At last, I’ve achieved my revenge, proving that, in many schools, student government is indeed just another scam to shine a spotlight on the very people who need it the least. (Apologies if your experience suggests otherwise. I may still be a little bitter.)

 

GRWR: You weave such fabulous humor throughout this book which helps to lighten some serious issues middle-graders face daily. We see Susie B. cope or not cope with passive-aggressive bullying or word bombing as she calls it by a mean girl named Chloe (aka Old Fakey Fake), feeling constantly overlooked by teachers and peers in favor of the jocks, the “usual geniuses” and popular kids, along with the struggle to keep her anger at perceived injustices at bay. What did you hope readers would feel after finishing this novel?

MF: As with everything I write, my main goal as a writer is to give readers a good time. If they also pick up an idea or two to wrestle with, so much the better. These are the things I want out of books, so why would I want to give my readers any less?

 

GRWR: I love whenever Susie B. discusses the universal mystery of paragraphs and all things paragraph writing-related. Do you have a favorite scene/letter in the book?

MF: I like it when Susie B. owns her anger, telling Susan B. Anthony, “I WAS AN ANGRY GIRL.” Too often, girls are taught to swallow their anger, and—by that time in the story—Susie B. has been trying to do that for a while. But, finally, she accepts her anger and embraces it, and sometimes that is not a bad thing.

 

GRWR: Susie B. experiences a gamut of emotions in Susie B. Won’t Back Down which feels so realistic. Let’s talk about the friendship dynamic you’ve created. Without any spoilers, how would you describe the relationship Susie has with Joselyn? Can you also tell us more about the diverse group of classmates who people this story? I particularly enjoy interactions with Soozie and Daniel Rodriguez.

MF: Poor Susie. B. She and Joselyn have been best friends for a long time, but friendships change, and a lot of the time those changes begin in late elementary and early middle school. That’s not a spoiler, that is just the way things are, and that is something Susie B. has to deal with.

Susie does have a diverse group of classmates. They are diverse in all the ways you can be diverse, in all the ways our communities are diverse. And they are also diverse in the things we don’t always think about: their personalities, their goals, and their motivations. They are each the main character in their own story. We just happened to be listening to Susie B.’s.

 

GRWR: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh? Also, how do you capture the language of fifth-graders so perfectly when you teach college students and have grown-up daughters? 

MF: Mostly, I read. I read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, books, long-form journalism, kids lit, adult lit. I try to stay curious. I don’t know how I capture the language of fifth graders. I think fifth graders sound like everyone else, it’s just that they have a more limited vocabulary and a smaller share of prior knowledge to help them understand relationships and the world. I guess I try to write about them with respect?

 

GRWR: Novel writing-wise, are you a pantser or a plotter? And did you write the ending first and work your way back or do you approach each new project traditionally from beginning to end?

MF: Oh, I definitely start at the beginning and work my way to the end. But I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. I usually start out by writing a page or two summary of what I think the book will be about. That gives me a sense of where things are going, and it identifies a few plot points I want to hit. The problem is, the characters always take over, and if I’m going to be truthful to them, I have to follow them where they go, and that always takes me away from any prior designs I have for things. So plotting too carefully just never really works for me.

 

GRWR: You have a full-time job as a university professor. How do you find the time to write so prolifically since it feels like it’s one novel a year (can we mention that you’ve already sold your next book?)

MF: You can mention I’ve sold my next book! It is called New Kids and Underdogs and it’s about a new kid in town who gets immersed in the exciting world of agility dog training. I think it’s coming out late 2022 or early 2023. I’ll keep you posted.

I wouldn’t call myself prolific. I would say slow and steady wins the race. I write in the morning. I do university stuff in the afternoon. I do all my school prep in the summer. Sometimes it all falls apart. I do my best. Frankly, I’m a little tired.

 

GRWR: I know you have something exciting planned for tomorrow,  Saturday, November 6 to promote this book. Can you tell readers about it and how they can attend?

MF: Yes! Join me on November sixth (please see below) for a very special Conversation with Susan B. Anthony. Yes! She is still dead! But she is coming back from the grave this one time, just so I can interview her. It will be held live and online on Zoom Webinar. So anyone can join in—and even ask Susan a few questions.

 

GRWR: What’s on the horizon, Margaret?

MF: A bath, a good rest, maybe a real laz-a-bout, and then a whole lot of grading before I pull up my sleeves and start writing again. I’m thinking monkey bars that hang just a little too high from the ground. I’m thinking garden apartments. I’m thinking a kid who learns to take charge when the grown-ups won’t. But we’ll see.

 

GRWR: It all sounds wonderful! Thanks tons for taking the time to tell us all about Susie B. Won’t Back Down.
Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony!

 

Register for A Conversation with Susan B. Anthony,
on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at noon Pacific Time.

 https://calstatela.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_7wiUs6McQJuJMGAdHr6fVA

BUY THE BOOK

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/books/susie-b-won-t-back-down/9781534496361

SOCIAL MEDIA

Website: MargaretFinnegan.com

Twitter: @FinneganBegin
Instagram: @FinneganBegin
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Author Margaret Finnegan
Margaret Finnegan ©2019 Skye Moorhead

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Margaret Finnegan is the author of Susie B. Won’t Back Down, a School Library Journal starred review, and We Could Be Heroes, a Junior Library Guild selection. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, with her family and dog Walt. She makes very good chocolate cakes, and while she ran for student council in ninth grade, she lost.

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An Interview with Author Suzanne Kamata About Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR  SUZANNE KAMATA

 

PopFlies CVR

 

POP FLIES, ROBO-PETS, AND OTHER DISASTERS

Written by Suzanne Kamata

Illustrated by Tracy Bishop

(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)

 

 

INTRO

The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters offers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.

SUMMARY

Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.

INTERVIEW

PopFlies int page 031 R
Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?

SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.

GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?

SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.

GRWR: Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?

SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them  to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.

GRWR: The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?

SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.

As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.

Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.

While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.

GRWR: A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?

SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.

PopFlies page 205 r
Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

GRWR: There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.

SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.

GRWR: Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?

SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! —  and I wanted to put it into a story.

GRWR: I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?

SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.

GRWR: What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?

SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.

I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.

GRWR: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that  have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!

BIO

Author Suzanne Kamata
Photo of Suzanne Kamata by © Solveig Boergen

Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.

Website: http://www.suzannekamata.com

Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.

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Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy for Readukkah

DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

Dreidels on the Brain car

 

 

When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’s Dreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:

“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.”
There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.

Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.

As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.

Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.

Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.

The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel for #Readukkah
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Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) by Liz Pichon

The British are coming … Again!

Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff)
Written and illustrated by Liz Pichon
(Candlewick Press; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

TomGatesExcellentExcuses.jpgWhile Paul Revere is probably rolling in his grave, Pichon’s American fans will be rolling over with laughter as they read the next book in the hilarious saga of British fifth grader, Tom Gates.

Those who read Pichon’s first book, The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, will find that Tom, now on a two week break, is still up to his usual hijinks: finding new and improved ways of annoying his sister, Delia, devising the most ingenious excuses to get out of troublesome situations, eating his favorite snacks (caramel wafers), doodling, and hanging out with his best mate (friend), Derek.

Tom’s biggest hope is to find a drummer for his band, DOGZOMBIES and secure the band’s first gig. But in typical Tom Gates fashion, there’s a whole lot of everyday life – and his reaction to it – swirling around: a bad tooth, his prank-playing cousins, the ongoing rivalry with class smarty pants, Marcus, and the field trip from hell. Oh, and as Mr. Fullerman, his teacher, keeps reminding him, there’s still an overdue homework assignment to turn in. To give Tom a little incentive, Mr. Fullerman (who’s wise to this procrastinating day dreamer) has sent one of his prize worthy, tongue-in-cheek notes home to his parents. So now Tom’s got his parents on his back about that (and undone chores),

The DOGZOMBIES land their first gig, thanks to Tom’s zany grandfather, at the Leafy Green Old Folks Home (where many of the residents truly don’t mind loud music). Their success at Leafy Green even inspires Tom’s principal to ask the band to play at an all school assembly (Tom puts him off by claiming Delia injured his arm when she punched him).

In one of the book’s many subplots, Tom becomes suspicious about the growing number of gold stars Marcus has earned on the classroom Gold Star Award Chart. So he begins to spy on Marcus and observes him purchasing gold stars. Aha! Tom brilliantly exposes Marcus’ cheating and finally finishes his homework assignment. In the process, he earns three gold stars, putting him ahead of all his classmates.

Tom’s clever doodles are a treasure and often visually extend the narrative, supporting young readers with additional clues about the story and characters. And for those readers who don’t know “British” check the handy (and well doodled) glossary in the back.

Visit Pichon’s website for more information about the author and the series. You can also find several videos, including book trailers, “How to Draw Like Tom Gates,” and “Fun Stuff” to do. Visit The World of Tom Gates website, too. Click here for a sample chapter.

New to Tom Gates? Read my previous review of The Brilliant World of Tom Gates on the Good Reads With Ronna blog to get acquainted with this terrific series. Highly recommended for tweens, ages 8-12, who enjoy the humorous, diary-style series.

– Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

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Fish In a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

FISH IN A TREE
by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
(Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers, $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Booklist & School Library Journal

Fish-In-Tree-cvr.jpgDyslexia, and other learning disabilities, can be invisible, isolating, and confusing. For a fifth-grader like Ally, it only adds to life’s problems. She’s also dealing with school bullies, a transient, military lifestyle, and missing her dad who’s been deployed overseas for several months. She copes with these difficulties by acting out in class, working very hard to hide her learning problems, and keeping to herself.

Enter Ally’s hero, 5th grade substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels. In Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Mr. Daniels is the first teacher who’s been able to see through her defiance and acting-out, and identify a learning disability. Mr. Daniels inspires Ally to realize her other strengths and to think of the “IM-possible” as “possible.” After receiving tutoring from Mr. Daniels, Ally finally begins to come out of her shell and enjoy life due to her newfound confidence.

Readers will recognize the authentic and endearing characters who eventually become Ally’s friends. Keisha is a sassy new student who is looking for buddies while trying to avoid mean girl Shay. Albert is a brilliant, kind, and very logical boy who might be on the Autism Spectrum and also has his own after-school bullies to avoid. There’s also Oliver, a hyper-active and kind boy who craves attention; Suki, a new girl from Japan; and Michelle, Shay’s toady who is beginning to see the light.

The author’s description of the teacher, Mr. Daniels, is particularly touching. Hunt has created a realistic character who is fair, intuitive, and devoted to his job.  In Fish in A Tree, we read of the many ways Mr. Daniels is able to bring out the best in each of his students (his “Fantasticos”). He creates a secret hand signal to tell Oliver to calm down. He creates class games and projects that reward the kids who might not typically succeed in the classroom. He also takes extra time to work with Ally and help her see her strengths.

Fish in A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt will have you rooting for Ally while gaining an understanding of what it’s like to live with Dyslexia. If you’re looking for a realistic feel-good book about adolescence, this will hit the spot. The characters, their relationships, and their struggles are so real, and the ending will make you smile and wish for a sequel.

– Guest Review by Maggie Moore

Click here for a curriculum guide for FISH IN A TREE

Read Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s blog here.

Maggie-Moore.jpgAbout today’s Guest Reviewer: Maggie Moore is a third grade teacher
and a voracious reader. She lives in Los Angeles with her two rascally
sons and a small zoo of pets.

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