Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Inviting a Variety of Voices and Cultures to the Bookshelf

Today marks an effort by book lovers and bloggers to celebrate Multicultural Children's Book Day. It's an opportunity to introduce readers young and old to new characters and voices, to step inside worlds we're not familiar with and meet families that are new to us. I think of it like those early years of school, when we piled together on the reading rug and were transported to new places.

This past Friday at the cozy 57th Street Books on Chicago's South Side, the Chicago writing community gathered to hear four authors talk about their books and to call for more variety in publishing through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Their stories are worth checking out.

Photo by Betsy Rubin
From left: Crystal Chan, Ami Polonsky, Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, and Natasha Tarpley.
Claudia Guadalupe Martinez is the author of two middle-grade novels, the award-winning The Smell of Old Lady Perfume and Pig Park (both from Cinco Puntos). Claudia calls Chicago home now, but she grew up in El Paso, Texas. The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is set along the border, both literally and figuratively, as the main character, Chela, is on the cusp of adolescence. It's a heartfelt portrayal of a family in turmoil and the pain of growing up.

Her more recent book, Pig Park, tells the story of Masi, who fears what's ahead as her neighborhood becomes like a ghost town since the biggest business, a lard company, has moved out. She begins to build a giant pyramid in the nearby park in the hopes of attracting visitors. From the jacketflap: "Pig Park is a contemporary Faustian tale that forces us to look at the desperate lengths people will go to in the name of community–and maybe love."

Natasha Tarpley's I Love My Hair and Bippity-Bop Barbershop are celebrations of African American identity as well as universal rites of passage all children can identify with. As noted at the panel discussion: "We all have hair! We all get haircuts! We all brush our hair!" These are beautifully written and adorably illustrated books that will resonate with readers of all stripes. Natasha is also the founder of Voonderbar productions, an independent publishing company that produces multicultural books for children.

Ami Polonsky's debut novel, Gracefully Grayson, poses the question, What if who you are on the outside doesn't match who you are on the inside? It tells the story of sixth-grade Grayson who is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender's body. Kirkus Reviews calls it "A kind and earnest look at a young transgender adolescent’s experience."

Crystal Chan's Bird (Atheneum) is about a girl who belongs to the only mixed-race family in her town and the tragedy that haunts them. Crystal tapped into her experiences growing up in Wisconsin as one of the few mixed-race kids in her community. School Library Journal calls Bird a "powerful story about loss and moving on."

Looking for more multicultural titles to explore? PragmaticMom has some great lists, as does School Library Journal.
Standing room only for the Jan. 23 SCBWI South Chicago panel discussion on diversity in children's literature, part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Stinky Socks Behind Louise Galveston's 'By the Grace of Todd'

What can happen when kids leave their socks under the bed for too long? In her clever middle-grade debut By the Grace of Todd (Razorbill, 2014), Louise Galveston tackles that (somewhat disgusting) question. Twelve-year-old Todd is really, really messy. He's so messy that his dirty sweat socks have spawned a civilization of ant-sized people called "Toddlians." When a malicious neighbor learns of Todd's secret, conflict ensues.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books says, "The gratifying conclusion sees the Toddlians to safety, and an epilogue that reveals that the whole story has been recounted by an elder of Toddlandia suggests that the Toddlians might return for future adventures, sure to be welcome news to the fans of both the smart and the gross that will take to this one."

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Louise Galveston: I have five sons ages 17-5. They generate a lot of stinky sweat socks! When my editor pitched the premise of a boy who inadvertently grows a civilization from his lucky baseball sock, I felt like I definitely had the expertise to run with the idea! I was especially glad the book dealt with bullying and being true to yourself despite being mocked. I definitely dealt with that in middle school.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

LG: My first mission is to give kids (and boys in particular) a reason to read. Once they're hooked by the fun (and sometimes gross) stuff, I want them to relate to and care about the characters so that the lessons they learn along the way go down easily. But most of all I want kids to fall in love with reading!

Q: What are you working on next?

LG: The sequel to By the Grace of Todd–In Todd We Trust–comes out in March! In this book, the Toddlians (the tiny people that grow from Todd's sock and worship him as their god) decide they need to find a more responsible leader. It's full of first crushes and hair-raising adventures as the little people build an "ark" and attempt to sail to a new destiny.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Ghost Dogs, Magic Behind Edith Cohn's 'Spirit's Key'

Edith Cohn’s delightful debut novel Spirit’s Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) weaves magic into an appealing girl-and-her-dog story. It tells of 12-year-old Spirit Holden, who lives among the islanders on tiny Bald Island. When dogs begin dying and the islanders become ill, Spirit's family is blamed. With the help of her ghost dog, Sky, guiding her, Spirit taps into her own power and finds a way to help.

Kirkus Reviews calls Spirit’s Key "an inventive story with a fresh setting and an upstanding moral compass." And Booklist, in a starred review, says, "Themes of belonging, standing up for what is right, and wildlife conservation pervade this strong debut." 

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Edith CohnSpirit’s Key had several inspirations. The first was a dog named Marisol who went missing. She belonged to a friend of mine, and we searched the city for Marisol for months. I kept seeing her everywhere–even though it was never really her, and I got the idea about a ghost dog–about my friend never having closure. Later I decided I wanted the setting of the book to be an island, and I was deeply inspired by Ocracoke and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which is a truly magical place. 

I was also inspired by my niece who went through a vegetarian phase, and I got to thinking about how kids that age are still figuring out what they think and still forming their beliefs. And then the idea that people's house keys can tell the future? That came from a handmade key ring I was wearing at the time.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

EC: This is terribly ambitious, but I hope to write books that inspire people to see the world in a slightly different way. I hope people might see how fear is the root of hatred and injustice. I hope they might be a little kinder to each other and to animals. 

Q: What are you working on next?

EC: I am working on two books. One is a middle-grade fantasy and the other is a slightly futuristic middle-grade. I'm in the early stages of both, so I can't say anymore about them. There's magic in keeping the writing secret for a little while.

Monday, December 1, 2014

First Families Inspire Behrens' 'When Audrey Met Alice'

Rebecca Behrens' When Audrey Met Alice (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2014) makes a great read for anyone with an interest in the First Family or the agonies of being a First Daughter (see Turkey Pardon). Rebecca has great fun with the juxtaposition of her character Audrey Rhodes, who finds life in the White House to be confusing and confining, with Teddy Roosevelt's wild-eyed daughter Alice. Only when Audrey discovers Alice Roosevelt's old diary does she begin to feel better about her arrangement at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A story of holding on to your sense of self despite the chaos around you, this story hits with readers young and old.

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Rebecca Behrens: I was a tween during the Clinton administration, and I always wondered what Chelsea Clinton's life was like in the White House: making the Yellow Bedroom her own, dealing with Secret Service agents chaperoning her dates, and having the media report on her grades, hobbies, and appearance. I wanted to explore the awesome and awkward aspects of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for an ordinary girl, in a very extraordinary situation. That inspired Audrey's character.

And I've always been fascinated by Alice Roosevelt, the spirited and sometimes shocking daughter of Teddy Roosevelt. I thought it would be cool to have a contemporary First Daughter interact with Alice through a fictionalized diary–and interesting for readers to see how a First Kid's life in the White House once was, and might be today.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

RB: First and most of all, I want to tell a good story! I'm always hoping that the book I write will be one that engages and entertains young readers. With When Audrey Met Alice, I also hoped that readers might be inspired to "meet" Alice Roosevelt and other First Daughters themselves by reading and researching after finishing the book. I like blending contemporary and historical fiction because I think it offers a window into the past–especially to readers who might be hesitant to try historical fiction. And, finally and hopefully without making it seem like my writing is didactic(!), I try to write about girls who are curious, smart, and resourceful–because those are the sharp-cookie heroines I loved to read about as a kid, and also because I think that's important for young readers.

Q: What are you working on next?

RB: My next book is Summer of Lost and Found, another middle-grade novel that blends contemporary and historical fiction. It will be released in early 2016 by Egmont USA. In it, a girl’s father mysteriously disappears and her botanist mother drags her to Roanoke Island for a research trip, where the girl decides to solve the mystery of the Lost Colony with the help of a peculiar local boy. I also have two historical short stories that will be published soon: Thatagirl! will appear in Scholastic classroom magazines in Fall 2014/Spring 2015, and A Piece of Cake will appear in Cricket magazine, in 2015 or early 2016 (date to be determined).

Monday, November 17, 2014

4-H Inspires Rebecca Petruck's 'Steering Toward Normal'

Rebecca Petruck's Steering Toward Normal (Abrams, 2014) is a must-read. Not only has it been an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce New Voices selection, a Spring Kids Indie Next List title, and an ABC Best Books for Children, Vanity Fair's Hollywood dubbed it a "book we'd like to see made into a film," made the L.A. Times' Summer Books Preview, but the Christian Science Monitor named it one of 25 Best New Middle Grade Novels. Phew! Not bad for a debut effort!

And she has one of the best covers ever!

Steering Toward Normal tells the story of Diggy, who has big plans for his eighth-grade year. He's ready to compete in the Minnesota State Fair, has a 4-H girl in his sights, and has conspired with Pop for April Fool's Day. But when his classmate's mother dies, a secret is revealed: Pop is this boy's father, too. Now Diggy has to figure out what family really means.

So what does this Minnesota girl (currently living in North Carolina) as well as former 4-H'er have to say about the writing life?

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Rebecca Petruck: Steering Toward Normal began as a very different short story inspired by a photograph of two boys posed as if they were tough, but whose adolescent bodies betrayed their innocence. Though they were about the same age, I came to think of them as brothers and started wondering how that might have happened and what that would mean for them.

That story was only meant to be a writing exercise for a class during my MFA program. My planned thesis was about a teen girl in Idaho figuring out how to respect a mom who had always been passive in her marriage. (Also, there were potatoes.) But those two boys kept niggling at me, and I had set the story in a place I knew (Minnesota). The book kept growing around me without me trying!

It took me a while to find my way to the steers, though. I started with dairy cows (all that milk to deal with!) then fancy chickens (fun but too frou-frou for Diggy and Wayne), and finally stumbled on show steers. I fell for the competitors I interviewed. They all were very sincere in saying it’s better not to get too attached to the steers, while being very clearly attached to their steers. It was like meeting Diggy and Wayne in real life.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

RP: I want to write stories for all those decent, ordinary kids out there trying to cope with a crazy world, so they know it’s okay to not understand what’s going on and to make mistakes even when they’re doing their best. I remember being perplexed by decisions my parents made, partly because many were bad decisions, yet I had to live with the consequences.

In Steering Toward Normal, several bad decisions made by adults lead to a total shakeup of Diggy’s world, so he clings even harder to a decision he had made for himself: to win Grand Champion Steer at the Minnesota State Fair. It saves him, though not in the way he expected.

Steers are only and ever beef cattle, so the thing about raising them is there is always an end date—they are sold to the packer for slaughter. Approaching a situation like this, year after year, and learning how to cope with the heartbreak is what has prepared Diggy to cope with his current difficult situation. He doesn’t realize it, of course, and there are times when he wants to give up. But raising steers has taught him how to keep his heart open, despite the inevitable pain, and that ends up being the gift he shares and that saves his family.

I think that’s part of what growing up is: learning to keep our hearts open in an imperfect world.

Q: What are you working on next?

RP: Will Nolan Eats Bugs is inspired by a National Geographic article about the nutritional value of eating insects. Since then, entomophagy has been spotlighted in other media outlets and become something of a niche foodie trend.

The idea of insects as an everyday part of our regular foodstuffs fascinates me. I was well into work on the project before I realized I was again writing a novel with a major element centered on food production! Steering Toward Normal features beef cattle. Bugs features a class presentation gone wrong when Will “serves” insects for snacks. The problem for me of course is that I’ll have to eat insects to ensure veracity in the WIP. I hope my next book involves chocolate!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Gayle Rosengren Taps Family Lore for 'What the Moon Said'

Gayle Rosengren knows her way around books. A former children's and young adult librarian, a reference librarian, as well as copyeditor – for the American Girl books, no less – she's got storytelling down. 

Her lovely debut middle-grade novel What the Moon Said (Putnam, February 2014) tells the story of 10-year-old Esther, who knows how to avoid bad luck: toss salt over your left shoulder, never button your shirt crooked, and avoid black cats. But none of those tricks can stave off the hardships that come with the Great Depression. Esther's father is out of work, and her family is forced to leave their home in Chicago and resettle to a Wisconsin farm. Think outhouses, no electricity, hard-scrabble living. But as Booklist writes, "Esther’s positive attitude offers a fine model for readers of this engaging historical fiction."

Question: What inspired you to write your book? 

Gayle Rosengren: I was inspired by stories my mother told me about her childhood, especially because many of them took place on a farm. I was a horse-crazy city kid who always dreamed of living in the country with my own horse, dogs, cats, cows, etc., not to mention babbling brooks, woods, and big green spaces to run wild in. This made my mom's stories especially wonderful to me, even though many of them included things like outhouses and extreme temperatures and lo-o-o-ng walks to school. But even more inspirational was the fact that my mom and I were very close, and my grandmother lived with us for most of my childhood, so it often felt like I had two mothers – one very soft, and the other rather prickly but both very protective of me. What the Moon Said was my way of celebrating both of them for teaching me most – if not all – of what I know about love.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?  

GR: We didn't have much in the way of money when I was a girl, so school and public libraries were godsends. I could check out a stack of novels – reading material for a week or 
two – and not pay a penny. I read horse books and dog books, mysteries and survival stories, historical and contemporary fiction, never realizing that I wasn't just being entertained, I was being informed. I learned about families and places much different from my own. I learned things I probably never would have learned otherwise (I still know what to do for a poisonous snake bite, thanks to a Trixie Belden mystery). And identifying with the characters in fiction helped to make me a more empathetic person.
Books made me more aware of the differences between people but even more importantly of the things we all have in common, no matter where we live or what our circumstances. We all have people and things in our lives that are dear to us, and we all are confronted with problems large and small on a regular basis. We have to make choices. And we have to live with the results of those choices.

Reading fiction gave me vicarious life experience to add to my far more limited personal experience. And I loved reading so much – having all those great adventures, making all those fictional friends – that it seemed the most natural thing in the world to want to create stories for future young readers.   Finally, by turning new readers into book lovers at this age, they will almost certainly be life-long readers. What book-lover can resist the temptation to be a part of this chain?  Not I.

Q: What are you working on next? 

GR: My next book is coming out in August of 2015, also from G.P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin Young Readers. It's called Cold War on Maplewood Street, and it takes place during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. While my first book grew out of my mother's experiences, this one came purely from my own.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a terrifying week for people all around the world. Yet many people under the age of 50 know little if anything about it. They have no idea how close the world came to nuclear war in that showdown between Russia and the United States. But this was an important time in our history, and I think it needs to be remembered. My book tells the story through the eyes of a young girl whose beloved brother Sam has recently joined the Navy, and she is afraid that his battleship is among those standing between Cuba and the Russian ships. It's a story about family and fear and friendship, but most of all about one girl's coming of age while confronting an uncertain future.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Chick-Lit for Chicklets With Jen Malone's 'At Your Service'

Every writer has an interesting path to publication. For Jennifer Malone, author of At Your Service (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X, August 2014), a book contract came looking for her. And after proving she had plenty of writing chops for the first title, Jennifer landed five – count 'em five – more book deals, for both middle-grade and young adult fiction.

At Your Service is a fun read, telling the story of thirteen-year-old Chloe who works with her dad as a concierge at a fancy New York City hotel. She gets to enjoy plenty of perks with her job, but when a family of royals shows up, Chloe's patience and her hospitality are put to the test.

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Jennifer Malone: My situation is a bit unique (well, less so than anyone would think, but kind of a publishing secret) in that my editor actually commissioned me to write this story, and the inspiration came from her! She had read something else of mine and thought I had a good middle-grade voice that would work with this concept. Five or so authors were asked to submit sample pages, and I was thrilled when they chose mine, and even more thrilled when I was given carte blanche to develop the story idea beyond the premise and really take ownership of it!

Question: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JM: I hate that a lot of tweens who were big readers as younger kids start to drift away from reading for pleasure, as required reading texts get more intense and, frankly, less interesting to them (not that there aren’t some great classics out there and not that I don’t think a good foundation of classics is necessary, so don’t get me wrong!). But personally, I really want to write books that remind kids (and the occasional grown-up!) that reading can be pure, escapist fun. I like to think of my books as “chick-lit for chicklets.”

Question: What are you working on next?

JM: I’m co-writing a series with a good friend of mine, Gail Nall, called RSVP,  which follows four tween besties as they form a party-planning business on their tiny (and very quirky) North Carolina island. We pitched it to Simon and Schuster as Babysitters Club meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and the first one comes out next May. It’s been so much fun to write these girls – I cannot even tell you! After that I have two young adult titles forthcoming with HarperCollins.