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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

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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.

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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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Hey, Kiddo – A Review and Interview with Jarrett J. Krosoczka

 HEY, KIDDO BY JARRETT J. KROSOCZKA
(Scholastic; $14.99, Ages 12-18)

A REVIEW & BRIEF INTERVIEW
COURTESY OF HILARY TABER

 

Hey Kiddo book cover art by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

 

 

REVIEW:

“It must be hard to write a graphic novel about one’s own childhood,” I thought to myself as I opened the book Hey, Kiddo. I remembered meeting the author, Jarrett Krosocszka, years ago in California. He was a bright, sweet man with an open demeanor and ready smile. He reminded me so much of my own brother. I had put that memory right next to his Lunch Lady books in my mind, and they sat on the shelf of memory happily together, side by side. I remember hearing about his forthcoming book, Hey Kiddo, and I knew both the writing about a troubled youth and the reading about it would be a challenge.

 

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Interior illustration from Hey, Kiddo written and illustrated by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Scholastic Books ©2018.

 

As it turns out, Jarrett has written so beautifully about that time that I could not be prouder of him if he had been my own family. Jarrett’s mother, Leslie, suffered from a heroine addiction. She was in and out of jail, and in and out of Jarrett’s young life. He never knew who his father was until he was older. His amazing and often exasperating grandparents stepped in as true parents. This book feels close to home in my heart because it’s about family. It’s Jarrett’s grandparents that I wanted to hug for all the sweet things they did for him. And at times I wanted to sit them down for a good talk! Still, how wonderful they were to him. Wonderful because they loved him deeply and it showed. For all that they smoked, drank, and quarreled all the while they loved Jarrett with a heart and a hat.

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Interior illustration from Hey, Kiddo written and illustrated by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Scholastic Books ©2018.

Hey, Kiddo sometimes reads as though Jarrett has written it from the perspective of a loving investigator of his own childhood. The author includes small and intimate touches like an image of the actual wallpaper pattern from his grandparent’s home. As we read we step into his childhood world. Also included are photographs of the family along with letters from his mother, Leslie, originating from her time in prison. There are drawings by Leslie just for Jarrett. It’s those letters that show how much she loved him and missed him. I read the book in one sitting, and when I put it down, I thought of Jarrett’s grandparents, Joe and Shirl. I thought that for all that Jarrett had been through, Joe and Shirl were always there for him. Actually, they still are in the way that love can never pass from us completely when it is given with such readiness and generosity. That kind of love death cannot touch. So, now on that same shelf of memory I have about Jarrett are his endearing personality, his ready smile, the Lunch Lady books, a difficult childhood and right beside that childhood is a place for Joe, Shirl, and their Love for him. That was, and is, a love with a capital “l” for sure.

Hey, Kiddo was a finalist for the National Book Award and is a highly recommended graphic novel for teens and grownups.

 

INTERVIEW:

HT: This is perhaps less of a question and more of an opportunity to tell us why author/illustrator visits to schools are so important. Clearly, a school visit from an illustrator changed your life. What would you say to a debut author or illustrator about what that school visit meant to you?

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Interior illustration from Hey, Kiddo written and illustrated by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Scholastic Books ©2018.

JJK: Yes, I vividly remember being a third-grader and sitting on the creaky, wooden floor of my school’s auditorium and listening to Jack Gantos talk about writing. While he said, “Nice cat,” to me that day, I have since had so many opportunities to say, “Nice Lunch Lady,” to many young artists. When I was in college, working towards a BFA in Illustration, none of my professors taught me about school visits. From a business perspective, it is a great way to promote your book, but it runs so much deeper than that. To newly published authors I would say:

  • Work on an engaging presentation to keep the students’ attention.
  • Enjoy the quiet moments where you can connect on a more one-on-one with the students.
  • Make sure you bring hand sanitizer. There’s always that one kid whose finger is up their nose throughout the entire presentation. That kid is going to want a high five. Just sayin’…

HT:  I think what I learned from reading your book, and reading in general, is that when we feel alone in a painful situation we seldom are. I think this book will resonate with so many readers. Thank you for it. It’s beautiful. To a kiddo who identifies with you while reading your book, who struggles with a parent who suffers from addiction, what would you tell them?

JJK: For those readers, I left a little something for you in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. I hope that you take solace in those words.

Writing transparently is cathartic but self-care is paramount—so write within your comfort zone but push yourself when you are ready.

 

 

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How to Grow a Dinosaur – An Interview with Author Jill Esbaum

HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR
Written by Jill Esbaum and illustrated by Mike Boldt
(Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99; Ages 2-5)

Cover illustration from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum

 

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.

interior artwork from How to Grow a Dinosaur
Interior spread by Mike Boldt from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum, Dial BYR ©2018

 

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.

interior artwork from How to Grow a Dinosaur
Interior spread by Mike Boldt from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum, Dial BYR ©2018

 

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.

 

How to Grow a Dinosaur interior spread
Interior spread by Mike Boldt from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum, Dial BYR ©2018

 

CP: Do you have a favorite unexpected detail?

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!

JE: Thanks, Colleen! I enjoyed it.

  • Interview by Colleen Paeff

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