skip to Main Content

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.

Share this:

Middle Grade Books – An Interview With Margaret Finnegan About Happy Endings

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET FINNEGAN

AUTHOR OF DEBUT MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL

WE COULD BE HEROES

 

 

For Autism Awareness Day 2020, I’m delighted to share this interview with author Margaret Finnegan about her debut middle grade novel We Could Be Heroes and her take on happy endings. At the end Margaret’s also included some helpful resources for readers.

INTERVIEW

GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Can you tell us a little bit about We Could be Heroes?

MARGARET FINNEGAN: We Could be Heroes is about Hank Hudson and Maisie Huang, two very different kids. They become friends as they try to help a dog with epilepsy—Booler—who is tied day and night to a tree. Their friendship is complicated by the fact that Hank has autism, and so he can’t always tell if Maisie is really trying to be his friend or if she is manipulating him for her own reasons.

GRWR: Your book deals with some very serious issues, but it is always funny and it ends on an adorably happy note. These days, a lot of middle-grade fiction is embracing more complicated and ambivalent endings, what made you decide to go full on happy?

MF: I wrote this book for my daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is not Hank, but she did inspire a few of his qualities, such as his painful aversion to really sad stories. She feels so connected to the characters she reads about—and she feels their heartbreaks and pain so personally—that for a number of years she refused to read new novels. The uncertainty was too much for her. So she read her favorite books over and over. Hank is like that too. When We Could be Heroes opens, Hank is trying to destroy a tragic book his teacher has been reading to the class. He can’t take how sad it makes him.

Since I set out trying to write a book that Elizabeth would read, I knew from the start that it would have to have a big, sloppy happy ending. But Hank needed a happy ending too, and I think he earned it. Like any hero, he is tested and found worthy of reward. But more than that, in a meta sort of way, the story needed a happy ending that would contrast the terrible ending of the story within the story—the one Hank’s teacher is reading the class.

GRWR: Do you think Hank and Maisie’s happy ending can last?

MF: I’m not sure. Maisie’s mom definitely has her doubts. And although Hank and Maisie are “rewarded” something amazing, I think that reward will present Hank—who struggles with change and unpredictability—with challenges. But challenges can help us grow, so I guess that isn’t a bad thing.

GRWR: There are so many challenges that young readers face today—like climate change. How does that factor into thinking about happy endings? Don’t we need books that go to those dark places so kids can see their reality reflected and then face that reality with resiliency? Or is there still a needat least sometimesfor “big, sloppy, happy endings”?

MF: We need all kinds of stories with all kinds of endings—and there are many wonderful middle-grade novels that go dark and yet are filled with transcendent beauty. Those books actually win lots of awards. But unabashedly happy endings also have something important to offer readers. Our kids are not growing up in bubbles. They have a whole world of experiences and entertainments that teach them the complexities and hardships of the world. And it is exactly when things are going horribly that some readers need stories that make them laugh and that instill hope.

I have been very open about the challenges Elizabeth has had with autism and epilepsy. There was a long stretch of years where she was being bullied, experiencing lots of seizures, and dealing with horrible medication side effects. And what were the books she turned to repeatedly during this time? The Fudge books by Judy Blume. They made her feel good. They made her believe that better was possible. She knows about the pain of the world. She lives it. She—like many others—longs for stories that remind her that there is joy and fun in the world and that sometimes—just sometimes—everything turns out great. 

Read a review in Publishers Weekly about We Could Be Heroes here.

Click here for a link to the Epilepsy Foundation.

Click here for autism information from the National Institutes of Health.
Click here for autism information from the Autistic Self Advocacy network.

ABOUT MARGARET

Author Margaret FinneganMargaret Finnegan is the author of We Could Be Heroes.
Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon,
and other publications. She lives in Southern California, where she enjoys
spending time with her family, walking her dog, and baking really
good chocolate cakes. Connect with her @margaretfinnegan.com
or on Twitter @FinneganBegin.

 

Share this:

The Sword of Summer: Book One of Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard by Rick Riordan

THE SWORD OF SUMMER
Book One of Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard
by Rick Riordan 
(Disney Hyperion; $19.99, Ages 9-12)

The_Sword_of_Summer_Magnus-Chase

Welcome to the first book in Rick Riordan’s new series,
The Sword of Summer: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.

Imagine this: it’s your 16th birthday. You wake up on a cold Boston street, your friends tell you this evil dude is looking for you … and not because he wants to bring you a birthday present. Your untrustworthy uncle reveals that you are the son of the Norse god, Frey, god of fertility of the land, peace and prosperity. Yeah, right. As the son of Frey you have the power to summon an ancient, long lost sword. Apparently, whoever wields it can do some pretty cool stuff with it. Some pretty scary stuff, too. And just think, all this time it’s been sitting at the bottom of the Charles River. Nasty.

Oh, and that evil dude looking for you? He’s the god Surt, Lord of Muspelheim, the realm of fire. He wants that sword, too. And not just to polish it up. See, he’s got this plan (or maybe it’s something like his destiny) to use the sword to free the wolf Fenir and set doomsday into motion. Wolves … dude, you hate wolves!

Someone has to stop him.

Could this be your destiny?

Ready to romp through the nine worlds of Asgard to prevent the end of the world? Well, before you take off, there’s just one. small. thing.

First, you gotta die.

Whew! So, are your ready for the The Sword of Summer, the first book in Riordan’s new series? I’ve got a feeling you’re hooked! From cold Boston streets, where the homeless (and not so prosperous) Magnus Chase lives, to the halls of Valhalla (the realm of the fallen heroes), prepare yourself for a wild and exhilarating ride through the many strange, wonderful, and sometimes frightening worlds of Asgard. Magnus and his friends, who include a snappy-dressing dwarf, a deaf elf, and a Muslim ex-Valkyrie, race against the clock to prevent a cataclysmic war.

Pursued by Valhalla heroes, giant wolves, and monsters, Magnus and his team bargain with powerful beings and magical creatures in order to prevent Surt from obtaining Frey’s sword, Sumanbrander. Whoever wields it has the power to bring about Ragnarok, the apocalyptic battle between the forces of the gods Odin and Loki.

Percy Jackson fans will snap up this latest series (I can’t keep it on my library shelves). Using his now familiar model, Riordan has readers take a look at an unlikely hero struggling to understand who he is and the events swirling around him. Like all great heroes (Hercules, Gilgamesh, and yes, Percy Jackson), Magnus’ journey throughout the worlds of Asgard bring him a deeper understanding of self and greater empathy for his companions, who have sacrificed much to support him.

Riordan has inventively created a world blending Norse mythology with contemporary culture and peopled it with diverse characters in positive roles. In doing so, he shines a spotlight on contemporary issues such as Muslim culture, homelessness and people with special needs. Filled with nail-biting and dramatic action, it has the same irreverent humor found in Riordan’s earlier series.

Not familiar with Norse mythology? No problem, Riordan provides a handy glossary and other back matter materials to enhance the reader’s understanding of the ancient Norse world.

Visit all the worlds of Rick Riordan for more information on this and his other series.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

 

 

Share this:

Show Me Happy by Kathryn Madeline Allen

SHOW ME HAPPY
Written by Kathryn Madeline Allen
Photographs by Eric Futran
(Albert Whitman & Company; $15.99, Ages 3-7)

ShowMeHappycvr

From the team that brought you A Kiss Means I Love You comes their latest, Show Me Happy. This photograph-rich, 24-page picture book with kids populating every page is the perfect introduction for little ones still learning “how to use their words.” Kids are picking up important early concepts and experiencing a range of emotions long before they have the language to express them so, by sharing books like Show Me Happy, we can help youngsters learn to communicate effectively.

Show Me Happy is actually more than just a book depicting emotions. With easy to interpret images that demonstrate actions such as a mom helping her son with measuring while cooking up a tasty treat (show me helping), an older boy handing a ball to a younger girl (show me giving), a little girl cutting the lawn with a toy mower (show me pushing), a boy cupping his mouth and yelling (show me NOISY), it’s a fun read-aloud with some subtle rhyme:

Show me pushing,
show me pulling,
show me sharing when we play.

Show me NOISY,
show me quiet,
show me putting things away.

This cheerful picture book would also be ideal to read with special needs children. Many kids on the Autism Spectrum, for example, may have difficulty identifying how they are feeling or what’s appropriate behavior in a certain situation. Furtran’s warm and inviting photos and Allen’s simple, upbeat text are both appealing and engaging. It sometimes feels as if the kids in the photos are smiling right at me! Books like Show Me Happy that are accessible to everyone, provide photographic examples that children can relate to making this picture book one your kids will certainly enjoy and one you’ll be happy to have on hand.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Share this:

A Most Special Sister

Just Because ($14.99, Lion Hudson, ages 5 and up), written and illustrated by Rebecca Elliott, is one of those picture books that quietly sneak up on you and then remain with you long after you have read the last page. I know because that’s exactly what happened to me. Why? Well, as the refrain repeated throughout the story says, “Just because.”

9780745962351Elliott, whose masterful artwork really needs no words, takes readers into the world of a doting younger brother who not only loves his big sister, but considers her his best friend. It wasn’t until my second read that I realized Clemmie, the older sibling, was in a wheelchair. My initial peruse engaged me enough to go back a second time and carefully study each page. I guess I liked the characters so much I didn’t pay attention to the fact that Clemmie had special needs which is exactly what the message is about.  When we get to know someone what we see is heart not handicap.

Clemmie, explains little brother, “can’t walk, talk, move around much…” but Elliott shows us that what Clemmie can do inspires her brother and makes him adore her even more. “Some sisters can be mean. They scream and shout, pull your hair, steal your chips and won’t play cowboys with you.”  For this young boy, older sister Clemmie’s smiles, laughter and companionship are what matters and it’s clear this sibling love and devotion will last a lifetime.

 Reviewed and recommended by Ronna Mandel, just because.

Share this:

This Mom Makes Mealtime Tempting And Tasty But Not A Task

The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket is reviewed today by Ronna Mandel.

Editor’s Note: I don’t cook, my husband does. He loves it, always has. The kitchen is his domain, but I do enter it daily and must admit I am intrigued by cooking shows and also cookbooks, in fact I have quite a selection. Everything inside each one I’ve amassed is gorgeous and delicious looking, but frankly reading a cookbook is akin to visiting a museum for me. I can admire all I see knowing I will never produce such a fine or delectable work of art. When I received The Mom 100 Cookbook by Katie Workman ($16.95, Workman Publishing), Founding Editor in Chief of Cookstr.com, with mouth-watering photographs by Todd Coleman, I was once again tempted to try a recipe, but at the same time scared off by my inexperience.  I did what every cooking-shy woman in my place would do and rang my dear friend, a cooking aficionado, for her input. Her goal after reading the book and trying some recipes, I explained, was to get me psyched to step in front of the stove, not to clean it, but to prepare a meal. Hint: She accepted the challenge so read on!

The best part about Workman’s cookbook is that it’s accessible and written in a friendly tone, almost as though you were in conversation with the author. For more of the novice chefs like me, that’s assuring. I need a cheer squad rah-rahing me on so I appreciate the “I’m here to make it easy for you” and “You can do it!” style which is especially obvious from the way the contents page is arranged. Rather than a typical cookbook breaking down chapters alphabetically or simply by food group, in this case they are cleverly categorized  based on specific needs: Quick and Easy Breakfasts, Lunch to Stay or to Go, A Handful of Snacks, Hearty Comfort Foods, Vegetarian Mains, Potluck, Mixed Company Dinners, Carbs, Best-Shot Vegetables, Weekend Brunches and my fave, Desserts. Thank you, Katie Workman, this is a great and practical idea.

One-Skillet Cheesy Beef and Macaroni
Photo Credit Copyright Todd Coleman

We begin with a warm, honest and chatty introduction from a real, hands on mom and food writer who has faced real-life cooking dilemmas with her own family and found more than suitable solutions. So much so that she’s even dubbed each recipe Solution #1, Solution #2 etc. Workman provides not only the recipes but additional features that make this cookbook the go-to guide for getting the whole family to the table tempted then leaving it happy and sated. For example, my friend cooked a Hearty Comfort Foods recipe from Chapter 10 – One-Skillet Cheesy Beef and Macaroni (see picture). Her 9 year-old daughter scarfed it down, a supper time success story. But my friend liked the extras the cookbook added such as notes about the ingredients used (in this case crushed tomatoes), a cooking tip about leftovers and a suggestion about how the kids can pitch in if they are eager to help.

The next recipe my foodster friend tried was in the Vegetarian Mains section which include variations for those who would like to add meat when it works.  Well after making the Black Beans and Rice Solution #3 I’d say my friend is a bonafide www.themom100.com convert. Never again will she cook her tired old Black Beans and Rice recipe. The new flavors of Workman’s dish did it all. Not only was it simple and affordable to prepare but the spices used added a new dimension to what was once a fixture in my friend’s recipe repertoire. And, as Workman writes, it gets “even better one or two days after you first make it, because the flavors have a chance to meld and become one with the universe.” Now this is cooking vernacular I can sink my teeth into. Optional toppings in this recipe include grated cheddar cheese, lime wedges, scallions, cilantro, diced avocado, sour cream, and hot sauce.  Add crumbled bacon to it (as suggested by Workman) to satisfy my pork-loving teen and we’ve definitely got a meal made in heaven. 

Here I must once again interject that while I may be a creative individual and can put together multiple outfits, decoupage a cardboard box like there’s no tomorrow, I am a blank canvas when facing food. How fortunate for me and those like me that Katie Workman is the Monet of Main Courses and the Degas of Desserts. She share tips and recipe variations galore, many which appeal to my sense of humor and Jewish upbringing.  Often in a handwriting-like font she’ll add: “Here it is – the breast centerfold,” where various types of chicken including Greek and Cajun are enticingly displayed or in her Ribs With a Rub recipe she writes, “You might want to rethink that white T-shirt.”  And her Fork in The Road options for picky eaters earns this cookbook extra points for parents of special needs children. My son has sensory processing issues and everything we prepare must be plain so we’ve always felt limited on what we could cook.  The book opens up a bountiful of options to make dinner more enjoyable for the entire family.

In a nutshell or should I say taco, The Mom 100 Cookbook delivers everything it sets out to and then some.  Whether you seek soup, salad, scrambled eggs or Streusel Apple Pie that will satisfy the family, a mom (or dad) needs to look no further than between pages 1 and 366.  There are even ideas for themed menus at the back plus Resources and Conversion Tables. This mom has thought of it all and you the reader, cook and eater will be grateful!  Oh husband dear, pass me an apron please.

Share this:
Back To Top
%d bloggers like this: