Tuesday, May 28, 2019

South Side Kids Tangle with Mummies in Malayna Evans' 'Jagger Jones'

Adventure books are always a draw. Throw in a little history, and who can resist? So when I heard about Malayna Evans’ debut middle-grade, Jagger Jones and the Mummy’s Ankh (Month9Books), part of a three-book series hitting shelves today, I was especially intrigued by the Chicago angle. Malayna studied ancient Egyptian history at the University of Chicago, and the book features two South Side Chicago kids who are lost in ancient Egypt.

My morning walks take me right through the University of Chicago campus and past the Oriental Institute, where mummies and other fascinating ancient artifacts jumpstart the imagination. I've taken my own kids here, and as an author, I've contemplated weaving together a story that mixes all these elements. I've never gotten anywhere with it, but thankfully Malayna has! She shares a bit about the inspiration behind Jagger and his nail-biting adventures here.

QUESTION: What made you want to write for middle-grade readers?

MALAYNA EVANS: Two things inspired me.

First, I trace my own fascination with ancient Egypt to my middle-school years. It wasn’t Egypt I fell in love with way back then. It was Sci-Fi and, specifically, the fantastical worlds of my favorite books—worlds loaded with gods and goddess (okay, mostly goddesses). Eventually, that interest led me to Rome, then Greece, then Mesopotamia, and finally my true love, ancient Egypt.

So many (many, many, many) years later when my son, then nine, now sixteen (and 6-foot-2!), told me someone should write a book about a kid who looked like him trapped in ancient Egypt, I figured I should be that “someone.” I was drawn to the idea of writing about my passion … for kids who were the age I’d been when the roots of my interest struck me.

And the best part is, that was a mere seven years ago. (And the moral of that short story is: kids grow faster than books!)

Q: Your background is Egyptology. Can you talk about your creative process? What was it like to channel your expertise into writing Jagger Jones?

ME: In a word, painful.

I’m a creative gal at heart, but I’d learned to be pedantic—I had to in order survive grad school. When I first started on this manuscript, every page was drenched in history. And I don’t mean the fun, kids-are-going-to-love-it kind of history. My first draft was a snoozer (albeit a snoozer with some pretty well thought out, obscure historical theories plugged in).

I struggled for a few years, searching for a way to make the history work for me rather than against me. Eventually, I stumbled across a few tactics that worked.

For example, I retooled the three-book plot with an ancient blessing in mind. Ankh, wedja, seneb means (may you have) life, prosperity, and health. I tied book one to the theme of ankh (life). Then, to emphasize how ancient notions of life differed from ours, I transformed the traditional boy-saves-princess storyline into something altogether more ancient Egyptian-ish—it’s not her life he saves, but her afterlife. (Boo!)

Another breakthrough came when I figured out how to make artifacts work for me. On one side of a big page, I wrote down all the ancient Egyptian artifacts I could think of. On the other side, a list of things two middle-school kids might have in pockets and purses. And then I mixed things up. Turns out, having bug spray in your bag is handy when a giant scorpion attacks!

Q: Jagger and his little sister encounter some outrageous things on their quest. Are you tapping some of your favorite and least favorite details about the ancient world?

ME: Above all, I’m trying to create a nemesis, threats, and solutions your average ancient Egyptian might have dreamt up. But of course, I also want it to be a fun read for today’s middle-graders, so I might have amped things up a bit here and there.

My bad guys are the sun god, the Aten, who was all the rage for this very short, weird historical period, and his minions, the traditional creatures of chaos—crocodiles, snakes, scorpions, the dead… you know, the usual crew of baddies.

The challenges Jagger and Aria face aren’t exactly the kinds of things one might run into in Chicago, or Fargo, or really anywhere in this hemisphere today. Throughout the series, they face Apep serpents, a mummy army, even a renegade Nile that defies the rules of gravity.

But I had the most fun with solutions. Many of the solutions the kids and their ancient sidekicks dream up somehow blend ancient and modern: our science and their magic, or, Jagger’s iPhone with the princess’s fruit slices (sorry, you’ll have to read the book to figure that one out). I looked for solutions that would underline how bizarre something as mundane as plastic would be to someone who lived thousands of years ago. And, conversely, how their practices, beliefs and artifacts (read magical amulets!) would strike today’s kids. The spots where I manage to combine these are, in my humble opinion, the highlights of the series.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your story?

ME: Above all, I hope some kids see themselves in this book. Jagger and Aria are suspiciously similar to my own two little people, in part because I believe the world needs more books that show kids like mine that some heroes look like them. And, if a few kids out in the world realize ancient Egypt, and really history in general, is way cooler than they’d previously thought, well, that would give me the feels in a very good way!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Mysterious Fantasy in Melanie Crowder's Latest, 'Lighthouse'

Maybe you already know Melanie Crowder for her award-winning middle-grade books. Or you discovered her much-acclaimed young adult titles. Whether it's Audacity, Three Pennies, An Uninterrupted View of the Sky, A Nearer Moon or Parched, she's established herself as a deft and versatile writer who's not afraid to tackle challenging, emotion-packed storytelling. Melanie's latest, the mysterious fantasy The Lighthouse Between the Worlds (Atheneum, 2018), is a fast-paced story of a mother already gone, a father who disappears via a portal to another world, and a kid who has to figure it all out. Its much-anticipated sequel, A Way Between Worlds, publishes in October

Question: Portals to other worlds, stolen magic — what draws you to writing fantasy? What inspires your imagination as you plot and create these characters and so meticulously build their worlds?

Melanie Crowder: Lots and lots of daydreaming.

No, seriously! I’ve always had this overactive imagination that’s not super helpful when it comes to being a rational adult, but that’s absolutely clutch when it comes to leaving this world behind and imagining new ones.

Q: Because the author sets the rules, writing fantasy can be liberating compared with other genres. Does it come easy for you? Or do you have to really work to create these worlds and the laws that govern them? Did you grow up reading fantasy? Do you consume a steady diet of it now?

MC: Yes, I grew up reading fantasy! How did you know? I loved fantasy. Devoured it. Anything with dragons or a prophecy. Or a girl on a horse or a sword in a stone. The truth is, I read a lot less fantasy now than I did when I was young. I’m so busy writing — I don’t have time to read much for fun. That’s one of my goals for this year, to carve out more time to read.

I always wanted to add my own stories to the world of fantasy lit, but it’s tricky since there are so many wildly imaginative stories already out there. Because I had read so much of it, the hardest part for me was narrowing in on this portal story and the magic system that would frame it. I actually wrote a full draft for this book that was promptly chucked into the recycle bin (!) and then, with my editor’s guidance, started all over again, from scratch.

So while I wouldn’t say it was easy to find my way into the right story, once I did, building the different worlds was pure fun!

Q: You write for middle-grade readers as well as YA, you tackle historical fiction as well as fantasy, in verse and in prose. Phew! Versatility is clearly your middle name. Can you talk about your creative process and how you decide on audience, subject, and style?

MC: I’m not one of those writers who has a million ideas for new stories at any given time. I’ve got two or three kicking around in there, and if I’m really lucky, one of them has that lightning strike, goose-bumpy, electric feeling that grabs ahold of me and doesn’t let go. It doesn’t happen often, so when it does, I pay attention.

I don’t want to have a singular voice or style as a writer. I want to let each story dictate how it wants to be told, and I hope to remain open to wherever these stories may lead me…

I tend to know whether the story is YA or MG right away, so I usually send a teaser to that editor once I’m hooked. Sometimes that’s all it takes, and other times I want to explore the story a little more fully to tease out the voice or the characters before I let anyone see it. My editors and agent give me a huge amount of creative freedom — something I’m incredibly grateful for.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your books? What do you hope to accomplish with your storytelling?

MC: You know, it’s different with every book. I always want to tell a good story. I always want to honor the subject, characters, and readers. But no matter what genre of story I’m telling, there’s always some larger thematic thread running through the narrative that I hope will stick with readers long after they’ve closed the book.

In A Nearer Moon is an adventure, a sister story, a fantasy about sprites and curses and heroes. But beneath all that, it’s about those festering emotions: regret, guilt, shame, and how they poison everything if you let them. It might be something I struggled with as a young person. For example, my middle grade The Lighthouse Between the Worlds is similar — it’s a world-hopping, fast-paced adventure. But a careful reader might notice that it’s also about the dangers of isolationism and the value of building diverse coalitions.

If I’ve done my job well, all that undercurrent stuff is just that, floating beneath the surface, something a reader connects with on an instinctive level while they’re frantically flipping pages to find out what happens next!

Q: A sequel to The Lighthouse Between the Worlds! How long do readers have to wait? And any other stories in the works as well?

MC: Yes! A Way Between Worlds will release October 1 of this year, and I can’t wait!

I also have a yet-to-be-announced historical YA coming in 2020 that is different from anything I’ve ever written before and SO much fun. What can I say? I love this job.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Marc Tyler Nobleman Explores WWII History and a Fairy Hoax

There's the dream of completing a manuscript. Then maybe landing a literary agent. And finally, imagining the day a book publishes and appears on a bookstore or library shelf. For Marc Tyler Nobleman, 2018 proved to be a doubly satisfying year with the publication of two fantastic nonfiction picture books from Clarion. His Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot's World War II Story was illustrated by the wildly talented and prolific Melissa Iwai and — fulfilling another dream: winning awards — was named an ALSC Notable Children’s Book and an NCTE Orbis Pictus Award Honor. His Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real was illustrated by the also wildly talented and prolific Eliza Wheeler.

As a fan of picture book biographies and historical accounts, I was thrilled to come across the story of a 1917 photograph "documenting" a fairy sighting. I'd heard snippets of this account over the years and was completely intrigued. And as someone obsessed with WWII stories, I was eager to read about a Japanese attack on the U.S. mainland. When I realized Marc was the teller of both these tales, I had to reach out.

Question: Fairy tales, a WWII bombing run over Oregon. In 2018 you published two very different but equally fascinating nonfiction picture books. What was that experience like?

Marc Tyler Nobleman: I'm honored anytime a book I wrote gets published, though there is indeed something special about having two books out in one year. Though put out by the same imprint, I sold the manuscripts at different times and did not know at first that they'd come out within six months of each other. I like that they're both unconventional topics for a picture book and quite different from my previous two nonfiction picture books (both on creators of superheroes). It's fun to show range.

Q: What drew you to the story of the Cottingley fairies? Why did you want to write that book?

MTN: I'm drawn to true stories that haven't been done in picture book format, and I love a good twist — even better if there's a supernatural element involved. My previous few books had male leads, and I was happy to focus on females. I felt the story would be a great springboard for discussions with kids on the nature of belief, the necessity of verifying information as best you can before disseminating it, and even the gray areas of lying!

Q: The story of a Japanese bomber’s missions over U.S. soil is equally fascinating. Were you hooked from the moment you read about it?

MTN: Yes. I learned of Nobuo Fujita's bombing raid when he died in 1997; a friend showed me his obituary from The New York Times. I'm not a war buff or a Japanophile, which made it even better — I learned on the go. It just goes to show that we don't always know what we're interested in! And in any case, this is not your typical war story.

Q: Writing nonfiction for children, the bar for authors is set very high. Can you talk about how you research and write your books? What is your creative process like?

MTN: Research is hide and seek with the world, and just as addictive as playing hide and seek with your friends in the back yard. My nonfiction is heavily researched, calling upon as much primary source material as possible. I read as much as I can, take copious notes all in one long Word doc, and then pull out all of the info I would like to include to form an unstructured outline of sorts.

Of course given my preferred format, I can't fit every juicy nugget I include on that wish list, but that's part of the fun/challenge of writing: not what you put in, but what you leave out. I write my nonfiction as a narrative, trying to drop the reader in at an exciting moment, and I avoid forward-looking statements ("Little did he know that one day, what he was about to do would be infamous," etc.). I want the reader to be immersed in the story as if it's happening live, and teasing the future like that pulls some readers out of the world you're (re)creating, albeit subtly.

Q: Why nonfiction for young readers? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you hope kids take away from your books?

MTN: I consider my work nonfiction for all ages, but with special focus on young readers. I want to remind them as best I can that
a) history is exciting
b) history still matters today
c) nonfiction is non-boring.
It has that stigma among many kids, and my fellow writers and I are always looking for ways to overturn that misperception. Of course nonfiction CAN be boring; the way we tell it counts for a lot. I hope kids who read my books will realize that struggles are valuable, persistence is essential, and some heroes are very quiet about it.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Alice Faye Duncan on Beloved Prize-Winning Poet Gwendolyn Brooks

Author Alice Faye Duncan is on a roll right now. Just last month her nonfiction picture book Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop (Boyds Mills Press, 2018), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, won a Coretta Scott King Honor for illustration, among a bouquet of other honors. And now she's out with another powerhouse book, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks (Sterling Children's Books), which published last month.

Here on the South Side of Chicago, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks is a patron saint. She attended local schools, began her writing career at age 11, and called Chicago her "headquarters." A neighborhood park displays a statue in her honor, one of just two statues in the entire city featuring a representation of a real female historical figure rather than a female ideal. Anything "Gwendolyn" is worth exploring, frankly, so stumbling across a new book celebrating the life of this wildly talented writer, I was enthralled. 

A Song celebrates Gwendolyn Brooks' life — the role her parents played and how the community influenced her — in free verse while at the same time showcasing a few of her poems for young readers to discover. Illustrated by Xia Gordon, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks is certainly worth spotlighting for Black History Month, but it should be part of classroom discussions the whole year through —for lessons relating to poetry and language, perseverance, barrier breaking, the Great Migration, the Great Depression, Civil Rights struggles, to name just a few.

I reached out to Alice, who works as a school librarian in Memphis, to find out what inspired her to write about this Chicago literary luminary. Creative wonder that she is, Alice answered in an acrostic rather than traditional Q & A format. Enjoy her response below!

Gwendolyn Brooks lived on the South Side of Chicago for ALL of her life.  However, she was born in Topeka, Kansas.

When I was a kid, I read her poems in Poetry Anthologies and English Text Books. Song in the Front Yard was a favorite. 

Etheridge Knight visited my Memphis school when I was in the sixth grade. It was 1978. He was my first encounter with a living poet. 

Nobody knew Etheridge Knight when he showed-up that day. Poet Phyllis Tickle made the introduction, and I was smitten. 

Digging around Knight's life in 2015 turned my attention to Gwendolyn Brooks. She nurtured his poetic genius from an Indiana jail. 

Only Good Friends love you through incessant mess-ups. Miss Brooks remained devoted to EK through all of his flubs and foibles.  

Love is like that. I learned from research that Gwendolyn Brooks practiced kindness as a religion. She was not churchy or holy-rollie. 

Young people weighed heavy on her heart. She wrote about them and for them in poems like We Real Cool and Life of Lincoln West.

No poem swings alliteration, assonance, and allegory like a GB poem. She mastered figurative language with undulating grace. 

Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her poetry book Annie Allen. She was the first Black writer to win the prestigious prize. 

Reviewers praised her skill for composing polished sonnets, while she also exalted the earthy language and spirit of common folk. 

One is inclined to compare Miss Brooks to a Black Candle giving light across the ages. She said, "We are each other's harvest."

One is inclined to compare her to a flower, furious and flourishing, teaching us how to BLOOM during these inhospitable conditions. 

Keziah Brooks (Gwen's mother) prophesied to South Side Neighbors back in 1925 that Gwen would be a poet, "Like Paul Dunbar."

Spirit NEVER told my Mama that I would rise to meet Dunbar's star. I was a lazy student until...one college teacher called me, "Gifted."

An Acrostic Poem by Alice Faye Duncan (2019)

Monday, December 10, 2018

Meg Fleming and Diana Sudyka's Collaboration on 'Sometimes Rain'

Sometimes you come across a book that hits you just exactly, precisely, square-on right. Maybe it's a particular word choice that thrills you. Maybe it's an image that delights. When I picked up Sometimes Rain (October 2018, Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster), written by Meg Fleming and illustrated by Diana Sudyka, what struck me was the way the language and illustration so perfectly combine to complement each other and make for a powerful, evocative reading experience.

A celebration of the four seasons, Sometimes Rain takes young readers through the natural world's changing rhythms: snowfall, storms, sunny days, and turning leaves. There are endless launching points for discussion — focusing attention on what's happening outdoors in the natural world as well as indoors with our clothing choices, explorations of the calendar, celebrating holidays, how we deal with change, and how we interact with nature.

Diana Sudyka
The bio for Meg (I Heart You; Ready, Set, Build!) says she's a voice teacher, and her obvious love of language comes through with each word she's selected. And Diana's distinctive style (she's done the covers for Trenton Lee Stewart's Secret Keepers and The Mysterious Benedict Society series, Tricia Springstubb's Every Single Second, Gail Carson Levine's Writing Magic) makes you linger over every page.

This book will appeal to nature enthusiasts, the animal obsessed, STEM fans, the umbrella-and-boots crowd, poetry lovers — you name it. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls it a "celebration of the impermanence and unpredictability of seasons" and "a delight for pluviophiles and heliophiles alike." Add word-lovers to the list too.

I asked both author and illustrator to stop by for a chat, and they were kind enough to collaborate on this interview. I'm so grateful to Meg and Diana for taking time out of busy schedules to share a bit about the making of Sometimes Rain. And as an aside: I'm so happy to cheer on authors from my former hometown of San Francisco (Meg) and my current hometown of Chicago (fist-bumps to Diana).

Question: What struck me about Sometimes Rain and made it seem like a real standout from the pack is the perfect combination of lyrical language and evocative illustration. Each word, each image seem so well thought out. What's your creative process like? Does it come to you fully formed? Or do you labor over months and months for just the right detail?

 Meg Fleming: Thank you! Well, my creative process is a little different for every project. I’d say that most of my ideas begin with a whisper— one or two words maybe. Next, I get a strong emotional pull. Finally, whether in rhyme or prose, there’s some kind of pulse where I actually feel a beat, or a rhythm. While the whisper is like a subtle invitation or reminder, the emotion is harder to ignore. Emotion is persistent. It winds the strings of an idea until it’s so taught, I need a pen like a dog needs a bone. And once the pulse shows up— I can’t contain myself.

After that, it’s a pretty spastic and messy process. But it’s more fun than anything I know. I roll out a wasteful amount of butcher block paper and grab whatever writing utensil I can get my hands on and I start spewing stanzas until I’ve exhausted all possibilities. And then I piece the puzzle together—circling my favorite images and turns-of-phrase, and reordering words in exchange for a more satisfying rhyme or stronger emotion. And yes, I take words to the woodshed like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t like to waste them. I’m a firm believer in economy of words. So… you’re probably thinking… you sure said "sometimes" a lot.

I did. Sometimes was my whisper. It was my invitation. It’s the part that made me wonder more. And so, I let myself use it. A lot.

Diana Sudyka: Thank you! Meg’s words so beautifully evoke the essence of each season, and when I read the manuscript it made me think of my time as a child spent playing outdoors in every season here in the Midwest. Settling on what to specifically depict and visual motifs, though, was initially kind of messy. I was given complete creative freedom, and initially that’s wonderful, but when you have a more open-ended manuscript (i.e. something that doesn’t have a clear narrative, or based on a historical figure) it can become daunting. So…sometimes ideas do come to me more fully formed, but this was more a case of start sketching without a clear direction, and the themes will eventually take shape.

There were just so many directions I could have taken! I was undecided if my illustrations should be a series of vignettes, or if there would be definite characters and narrative that we follow through the seasons. I eventually settled on four children as characters we follow playing through the seasons, then the images grew organically from there. The swirling line motif that you see throughout the book grew from being able to see the vapor from one’s breath when it gets cold, but me and Beach Lane liked it so much, we decided to make it recurring. I submitted some early roughs that ultimately we didn’t feel like were hitting the right mark aesthetically, so that was a little setback. But in hindsight, I am glad that we started over. I learned so much in making these illustrations.

Q: Typically, authors and illustrators aren't in much communication as the book goes through the publishing pipeline. Did you offer suggestions or comments to each other? Did you communicate at all?

Meg: I don’t think Diana and I had direct contact with each other until the whole creative process was complete, did we? I mean… we met in the usual way— I was crazy about Diana’s work and I stalked her Instagram account like any good writer should!

But there were a few times when Andrea Welch and Lauren Rille, our Editor and Art Director over at Beach Lane, reached out to me for clarification. Turns out, when you say "sometimes" a lot, there’s a vast amount of room for interpretation! Anyway. Andrea and Lauren asked me to describe what a few of those stanzas meant to me with the hope that it might inspire an image or idea for the story. I still can’t get over Diana’s beautiful interpretation of this story. I've said it before, and I'll say it a million times more: her work is magic!

Diana: Yes, that is typical. Having a go-between in the form of an art director in the initial stages of a project like this can be helpful in streamlining art direction and feedback, though. For Sometimes Rain I wasn’t directly in contact with Meg until she reached out after, I think, Beach Lane had shown her the second round of revisions I had made? Prior to this, there were a couple spreads I was really stuck on coming up with the right image, and Beach Lane reached out to Meg for some ideas. It was very helpful to have that input from Meg. Overall, it’s been so great to have contact with Meg. She has been so wonderfully supportive of what I created for Sometimes Rain. I often never hear what an author thinks of the work I did for their manuscript.

Q: I see this book as having staying power — teaching kids to recognize the seasons, what's happening in nature, how we interact with the natural world throughout the year, as well as offering a soothing, cozy reading experience. I wanted a cup of hot cocoa and a warm blanket when I read this! How do you hope kids and adults experience your book?

Meg: I am so glad to hear that this book got you all cozy and cuppa cocoa-y!

I really hope that Sometimes Rain inspires both children and adults to go outside and play. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, but it offers brilliant insight on how our connection to the outside world is slipping and what kind of impact that slip-up has on our relationships with each other and the environment. Diana’s illustrations in this book are nothing short of a magnificent romp through the seasons and I’m hoping it will give kids (and parents) a chance to unplug and listen, smell and feel the outside world in an everyday way.

Diana: That’s exactly what I wanted my illustrations to inspire: to recognize the changing seasons, to observe those changes throughout the year, and feel that there is beauty and opportunity to play in every season. That we are part of this cycle too. I often think of the book Last Child in the Woods and the massive shift we have seen in the way children play and a disconnection to nature. Adults too. How can we address climate change and be good stewards of the earth if we don’t support this critical, early bond children have with the natural world?

Side note from Kate: I had Last Child in the Woods on my mind when I wrote my Cupcake Cousins series — I was very interested in portraying kids interacting with nature during all seasons. Clearly there's something going on here!

Q: Reading Sometime Rain, I was reminded of a few other delightful books that have us in boots and out exploring the world. Specifically Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day. Do you see other classic or contemporary books that Sometimes Rain fits on the shelf with? Or books that inspired you as you wrote/illustrated?

Meg: I adore The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, and it makes me so happy to hear that Sometimes Rain provided an opportunity to pause and think on life in that way… dragging a slow stick through the snow. 

I'm happy to see Sometimes Rain on any child's bookshelf! I've heard a few reviewers note that they would set it on the shelf with Red Sings From the Treetops by Joyce Sidman as well as All The World by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee.

Diana: Oh, I love Ezra Jack Keats. The Snowy Day is so elegant and brilliant. When I was creating my illustrations for Sometimes Rain, the book that was in the back of my mind most. So was I Am a Bunny by Ole Rison and illustrated by Richard Scarry. I love this early era of Richard Scarry’s work. The detail he gave to the flora and fauna in Bunny’s world are field-guide worthy, and of course each season is beautifully represented. There is a painting of Bunny surrounded by butterflies, and in Sometimes Rain my illustration of the dog chasing butterflies was sort of my homage to that scene by Scarry.

Q: You're both so talented, it's exciting to think of what else we'll see coming from you. What's in the works?

Meg: I do have a few projects in the pipeline — one I can talk about, one I can’t talk about, and others that that are still seedlings. I am thrilled about my next book that will hit the shelves in Spring 2020. It’s called Here Comes Ocean, illustrated by Paola Zakimi and published by Beach Lane Books, and it follows a child who discovers that along with every rolling wave comes a new ocean creature and with that another possibility for adventure. And I have another book after that… but it’s still top secret!

Diana: It was such a great experience working with such a talented writer as Meg. In May 2019 Abrams will be releasing When Sue Found Sue about paleontologist and explorer Sue Hendrickson who found the most complete T-rex skeleton. It’s written by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by me. And then I illustrated What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrette about astronomer Maria Mitchell. It should be out in Fall of 2019 also with Beach Lane. Beyond this I am really hoping to publish my own author/illustrator project.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

'Breakfast Club' for Middle School in Dana Alison Levy's 'It Wasn't Me'

Picking up one of Dana Alison Levy's deftly written middle-grade novels, you know you'll find a satisfying balance of humor and earnest emotions. Author of the irresistible The Misadventures of the Fletcher Family, its sequel The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, and the rollicking This Would Make a Good Story Someday (all published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers), Dana is back with It Wasn't Me and what Kirkus Reviews calls (in a STARRED review, no less!) “A timely, introspective whodunit with a lot of heart.”

Jax Fletcher from previous books is among the five suspects of a hate crime perpetrated against a middle-school classmate — photos defaced with gay slurs and threats, another incident in the school’s darkroom. In an ode to the 1985 John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club, the six are rounded up to resolve the crisis, forced together to hash through complex feelings and complicated issues.

Publishing today, It Wasn’t Me has already been named a Junior Library Guild Selection, an Amazon Editor’s Best Book of November, and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2018. Dana was kind enough to take the time for a few questions:

Question: With your previous titles, you’ve shown you have a great sense for comedy as well as a talent for exploring relationships. What do you enjoy more — writing the funny stuff or digging into more serious topics?

Dana Alison Levy: Writing funny stuff is…well…fun! I really enjoy it and find it comes pretty easily. (Though it is always interesting when editorial notes include things like “What kind of noise would butter make hitting someone’s face?” or “Would she have time to think all of that while falling into the shower stall?”).

All of my books touch on some more serious topics, even while I try to make people laugh, but It Wasn't Me is definitely the most serious. And I found I wanted to dig in, to push my characters a bit more, to make things harder for them, so that they could struggle through and hopefully find a way forward. We are living in challenging times, when a lot of kids feel alone, certain that no one else can understand them. I hoped that by putting Theo and the others through some hard conversations and uncomfortable moments, readers could find their own truths.

Q: This feels like a nod to The Breakfast Club. Where did the inspiration come from for this story? What made you write It Wasn’t Me?

DAL: This was one of those books that sprung fully formed, Athena-out-of-the-head-of-Zeus-style. From the first moment I thought of it, I had the main characters, the story arc, the setting…it really hasn’t changed that much from that first spark. These characters and the premise are definitely based on the iconic Breakfast Club teen hit from the 1980s, but reimagined for middle school. And instead of spending a day in detention, they were spending a week digging into a restorative justice effort. It offered so many possibilities: a discussion of stereotypes, a deep dive into school communities and how they function (or don’t), and a lot of comedy. It was so clear in my mind, actually, that I spent a few days madly Googling middle-grade titles in case anyone had already written it, and I just didn’t know it.

The piece that I really wanted to explore, beyond the characters, was the idea of restorative justice. I am fascinated by this challenging and complex but ultimately really effective way of looking at crime, punishment, justice, and redemption. Restorative justice is used in schools, tribal courts, juvenile centers, and more. The process the students engage with in It Wasn't Me is a version of something far more complicated and sophisticated. But it dovetailed so neatly with my initial question of “Who are these kids, really? And what lies behind the stories they share?”

Q: Why do you write for middle-grade readers? What made you choose this audience?

DAL: I have always thought that books for elementary, middle-school, and high-school readers are some of the best books ever written. From picture books to YA novels, there are true literary gems in all these categories. I thought this as a kid, as a college student and young adult, and as a parent. And I believe it with all my heart as an author. Middle-grade readers (kids roughly ages 8-14) are going through such a challenging and interesting time. The world is opening up in both good and bad ways, and there are so many questions: huge questions about inequality and injustice, more personal questions about bodies and friendships. Books offer a vital way to get some answers. Or at least not to feel so alone.

Q: You’ve been publishing a book a year, give or take. What’s the deal there? Don’t you sleep? Can you talk about your creative process? What does your writing life look like?

DAL: Hah! Well, first of all, it’s more a book SOME years…I didn’t have a 2015 book, and won’t have a 2019 book. So the rhythm is a bit erratic. But the irony is that I write really fast, and I have plenty of ideas, but it still takes a looooooooong time to go from idea to actually writing. I can’t really explain it, often I feel like I’m wasting time, but I’m coming to realize it is part of the process. I liken it to a computer program updating in the background…it’s moving along, slowing everything down, and you can’t see anything happening, but it’s necessary. I think my stories deepen and develop in the back of my brain while I’m doing other things. Usually, once I start writing, it goes pretty quickly. I do typically outline my books, and then follow the outline, writing in a linear way. I am always gobsmacked by writer friends who write the climax, then go back and write some cool scene that takes place early in the book, then write another chapter that just begs to be written…and finally stitch it all together. I pretty much start at the beginning and write straight through to the end.

Q: What are you working on next?

DAL: I have my first young adult novel coming out in 2020, which I’m really excited about! It’s a contemporary YA called Above All Else, about two teens who have been planning for years to climb Mount Everest the spring of their senior year. But now that they are in Nepal and starting the climb, they have to face the realities of who they are now, what dreams they really carry, and how they feel about each other and the mountain they're climbing. It’s definitely an adventure story and a friendship story and a love story all wrapped up together. I’m also working on a few different middle-grade ideas…some further along than others. The ideas are always the easy part. It’s getting them out of my brain and onto paper that’s the challenge!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Stepping Up to the Plate With Heather Lang's 'Anybody's Game'

In celebrating Women's History Month, we've heard about bold women who changed society through their ground-breaking actions, from astronaut Mae Jemison to marathoner Bobbi Gibb to "dangerous" activist Jane Addams. Through the #31Women31Books campaign, we have stacks and stacks of picture book biographies ready to introduce us to even more historical figures who upended traditional roles and set women on entirely new and exciting courses.

One of those figures is Kathryn Johnston, who broke barriers for young baseball fans in the 1950s. In Heather Lang's exciting Anybody's Game: The Story of the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball (Albert Whitman & Company, March 2018), illustrated by Cecilia Puglesi, we see how this dynamic girl changed Little League forever.

Heather is no stranger to topics like this, offering up an impressive list of titles spotlighting barrier-busting women: Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine, The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall, and Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion. She took a few minutes to talk to us about her fascinating books.

Question: Who is Kathryn Johnston, and how did you learn about her?

Heather Lang: Kathryn Johnston was the first girl to play Little League Baseball. Back in 1950 girls weren’t welcome on Little League teams. Kathryn loved baseball more than anything and wanted desperately to play on a real team. So she cut off her braids and tried out as a boy!

As a child, I adored baseball. I didn’t go anywhere without my mitt and played catch constantly with my father and brother. I played on a travel softball team in fifth grade, and I continued to play throughout middle school and high school.

When my kids began playing Little League, those special memories came flooding back. I decided to see if there was a story there. When I read about Kathryn’s struggle to play, I tried to imagine what my childhood would have been like without baseball and softball, and that was the spark for Anybody's Game.

Q: What is your creative process like? How do you find ideas, and how do you take them from spark in your mind to bookshelf?

HL: Sometimes I go looking for ideas, and sometimes they find me. When I go looking for a person to write about, I usually start with a subject that interests me. One day I made a list of my top five fears, and two picture book biographies came from that exercise: Swimming With Sharks and Fearless Flyer. Exploring and researching personal fears (like sharks and flying) is challenging, but so rewarding!

I read widely to identify the right person to write about, but I always have a gut feeling when I’ve found them. Next the treasure hunt begins, and I dig into the research. No two research experiences are alike. One of the things that surprised me most is how generous experts are with their time and knowledge. And I try to do experiential research for every book, which can be a little scary sometimes. I have been paragliding, scuba diving, and horseback riding all in the name of research! My favorite research moments by far are meeting with the women I am writing about. I was so fortunate to spend time with Alice Coachman, Eugenie Clark, and Kathryn Johnston.

I don’t start writing a first draft until I have done a lot of research, thinking, and free writing about the book. What is the story going to be about? How am I going to enter this story? What’s my angle? Is it going to be focused on an event or cover a larger time period? What are the themes? What narrative style suits the story? Will I incorporate quotes? What’s the narrative arc? There are so many choices, false starts, twists, and turns. I am fortunate to be in an awesome critique group who supports me every step of the way.

Q: Your stories spotlight remarkable women from history who many people might never have heard of.  What are you trying to accomplish with your books?

HL: I always try to create a book that will teach and inspire kids. There are so many lesser-known women from history who have accomplished extraordinary things. I hope kids will see how these brave women from the past made things better for us today. Nothing makes me happier than when kids want to dig deeper into a topic or person. And I hope my books will inspire kids to follow their own dreams and persevere through challenges.

Q: Who has been the most fascinating woman you’ve written about?

HL: Yikes that’s a tough one. If I had to choose, I’d say Eugenie Clark, who was the first scientist to dive in and study sharks in their natural environment. I was amazed at her courage and the depth of her knowledge and passion. I got lost in the research. I read dozens of her scientific publications, even though I knew I didn’t need to for the book, and I have become a huge shark fan. I began the project with an intense fear of sharks and could never have anticipated that journey from fear to passion—all inspired by Eugenie Clark.

Q: Who’s next?

HL: My next picture book biography is about tree canopy biologist Margaret Lowman, and it is near and dear to my heart for so many reasons. Meg was one of the first scientists to really climb up into the canopy and explore its enormous biodiversity. She has done such important work to protect our trees, and she works tirelessly to mentor girls and women interested in the field. Last summer I spent an incredible week with Meg in the Amazon!

She is a phenomenal person and scientist.