Friday, June 26, 2020

Things I Tried to Bring to 'The Great Chicago Fire' Graphic Novel

When I was presented with writing the script for The Great Chicago Fire: Rising From the Ashes, I was a little intimidated. Chicago school kids study this topic inside and out. They become experts. Their teachers are already experts. Stacks of books have been written about this subject. What could I possibly bring to this that hasn't already been done?

As I began compiling research into this fascinating moment from history, I couldn't help but be impacted by current events happening all around me. A ban on Muslims entering America. Immigrants turned away at the southern border. Condemnation of refugees. Looking back at 1871 Chicago, Irish Catholic immigrants like Mrs. O'Leary were at the bottom of the social pecking order. And therefore easy to scapegoat.

So that's how I landed on telling the story through the eyes of two poor immigrant kids. While the graphic novel is nonfiction in that it relays the facts of the fire and includes first-hand accounts, I did use a device for the narrative arc: The fictive Franny and J.P., our protagonists, take us through the story and, I hope, make readers feel as if they're there in the action. Together with these siblings—and an orphaned puppy because we need kids to really care about what happens in the fire—we race down burning streets, past collapsing buildings, and into the lake to cool off.

I wanted kids to identify with Franny and J.P. and think about how frightening this disaster would feel. Unfortunately, devastating fires are not a thing of the past, as we see with Australia's terrifying wildfires in late 2019 and ongoing fires in the American West. I also wanted young readers to think about social issues, too, like how their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents might have been treated when they arrived in America. And how we currently treat newcomers to our shores. The Irish who populated American cities in the middle of the 1800s were fleeing famine, starvation, and oppression, seeking a better life where their kids could thrive and prosper. How different is that from today's immigrants?

And through these protagonists' eyes twenty years later at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, we see the city reborn with skyscrapers, new inventions and ideas, and hope. This part of the story was essential to me, in that when we write books for children, we need to give them hope. And we need to show them that while devastating things can and do happen in life, we can move forward. We can emerge better for it. Chicago burned to the ground, and it was terrifying. But like the phoenix that became a symbol of the city's rebirth, Chicago rose from the ashes.

Why should a child read this book? To start to understand that history isn't an isolated moment but rather a continuum. A raging river. And that we, both as individuals and as a people, learn from the hard times and work toward making things better. In the current moment of pandemic, economic instability, and push for social justice that is Summer 2020, let's hope again that we emerge from this better both as individuals and as a society.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Remy Lai's 'Pie in the Sky' a Sweet but Sad Graphic-Novel Hybrid

One of my favorite recent reads is Pie in the Sky by debut author-illustrator Remy Lai. Winner of the SCBWI Sid Fleischman Humor Award and an NPR "Best Books of 2019" selection, Pie has received all kinds of love since its publication last year from Henry Holt. A hybrid graphic novel blended with traditional novel, it's like a perfect cake: the emotional content is challenging, but the humor keeps it light.

Middle-grade readers will go through a range of feelings as they get to know 11-year-old Jingwen. Not only has his mother uprooted the family to Australia, forcing Jingwen to adapt to a new home and new language, but he's got to be the responsible big brother to his utterly annoying younger sibling, Yanghao.

As the story unfolds, we learn about Jingwen and the almost paralyzing sadness he experiences over the loss of his father. Baking fancy cakes together on Sundays brought them closer — toward a "pie in the sky" dream of someday opening up a cake shop and leading a better life. But Jingwen carries too much sadness and guilt to adapt, and Lai shows us all the hurt: feeling like a literal alien at school, watching his little brother soar, realizing his old friend has forgotten him, disobeying his mother's orders.

Pie in the Sky satisfies on so many levels, accomplishing that most enviable feat of making readers laugh through their tears. This is a must-read.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Cindy Copeland's Graphic-Novel Memoir 'Cub' Celebrates Journalism

I grew up reading newspapers at the breakfast table each morning, starting on the funny pages and gradually working my way into the news sections. When I reached high school, I knew that my natural nosiness about other people, knack for eavesdropping, and love of language and wordplay were a good combination for working on the school newspaper. On to college to study journalism formally, and then work at national newspapers. I absolutely loved walking into the newsroom every day, and I can't read enough about Nellie Bly, Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, and other female journalists.

When I stumbled onto Cub (Algonquin, 2020) by Cynthia L. Copeland, I fell hard! Race to the bookstore and pick this book up for the budding journalist in your life! Both funny and smart, Cub is Cindy's memoir in which she recalls being a 12-year-old reporter shadowing a local news reporter. Set in 1972-73, there’s so much here: Watergate, Vietnam, ERA, groovy fashions like bell bottoms. John Denver. How girls and women were treated at the dinner table and in the newsroom. As well as the shifting sands of friendships and the agony of first crushes.

A complete joy and a good prompt for discussing how far we've come and how far we still need to go.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Heartbreak, Hope of a Better Life in Graphic-Novel Memoir 'Stars'

World Refugee Day is coming up this Saturday, June 20, and for parents and teachers who want to better understand the refugee experience as they talk with their kids, there are plenty of books to turn to. Among the best I've seen is the new nonfiction graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered (Dial, 2020), written by Somali refugee Omar Mohamed in collaboration with Victoria Jamieson, the Newbery-Honor winning author-illustrator of the beloved Roller Girl (Dial, 2015).

The story is told from the perspective of Omar, who was forced to flee his home at age four with his baby brother, Hassan, after their father was killed and they became separated from their mother. Their childhood was spent in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, and young readers might find it shocking to see how different life is for refugee kids compared to their own day-to-day concerns. The boys go to bed hungry, spend hours in line for basic necessities like water and food rations. School is something Omar can only dream about, and once he's able to attend classes, he feels conflicted that he has to leave his little brother behind. Especially powerful is what happens to Omar's female classmates.

The back matter makes Omar's experience even more real, as he talks about where he's living now and the life he leads today. And how he's working to help other refugees who also dream of a better future. I found myself close to tears throughout. This is an important book for all readers, no matter the age, and for every day—not just World Refugee Day. As we work with children to understand the covid pandemic and how it impacts populations in our cities and around the world, as well as the anti-racism protests and calls for social justice, this is another part of that conversation about building a more just and inclusive world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

'Go With the Flow' the Graphic-Novel Period Book We All Need

Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann are the brilliant team behind Go With the Flow (First Second, 2020), the informative graphic novel that examines periods in all their embarrassing, confounding glory. While the four friends featured in the story are sophomores in high school, this book is the perfect thing to hand to middle-schoolers who want to learn more about the mysteries of menstruation, cramps, tampons, and fighting the system. While I know it's a fictional tale of friendship, I read it as a nonfiction primer on periods.

Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha challenge their school to put feminine hygiene front and center, and keep the tampon and pad machines stocked as a basic service (basic human right) for their students' well-being. Thought-provoking, humorous, spot on (okay, my puns are terrible), you can see how these talented author-illustrators did it via First Second's Comics Relief discussion. Well-written and beautifully illustrated in a palette of reds, Go With the Flow is the book I wish I'd had back in the day—and wish I could have shared with my daughter in her preteen years. A great pairing with American Girl's The Care and Keeping of You.

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.