Monday, April 28, 2014

Crystal Chan's Own Experiences Influence Enchanting 'Bird'

Chicago children's author Crystal Chan knows what it's like to feel a little different. Growing up as a mixed-race kid in Wisconsin, she has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. With her beautifully written new middle-grade novel, Bird (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), Crystal mines her experiences to powerful effect. Bird was published in January and already has garnered a series of strong reviews. 

Bird tells the story of 12-year-old Jewel, who was born the same day that your brother died. As the only mixed-race family in her rural Iowa town, life is a bit lonely for Jewel. When a new boy arrives on the scene, Jewel is grateful to have finally found a friend. But the boy's presence has an unsettling effect on her family, especially since he is named John, the same name as her late brother. Suddenly the layers of her family's silence begin to unravel, and Jewel has to choose between her loyalty to them or to her newfound friend.

Question: You were a volunteer with SCBWI for years before you hit with Bird. Can you talk about your journey to publication – how long you were writing, what you were writing, how you went about finding an agent? Did you have previous manuscripts before you hit with Bird?

Crystal Chan: I started writing about five years ago, and I started writing middle-grade after trying and failing to write picture books – I was at a picture book writing workshop with Esther Hershenhorn, who pegged me as a novelist. I, however, wanted soooo badly to write picture books (I like pictures). Distraught, I participated in NanNoWriMo to prove her wrong, only to find out that yes, I could write 50,000 words in a month. So that put me on the novelist’s path.

I did have a previous manuscript – that was how I found my agent, Emily van Beek. I went to a writers’ conference and submitted my first 20 pages for a critique, and the reader, Kathi Appelt, loved my manuscript and wanted to read the whole thing! After that, she put me in touch with her agent and other agents she knew. So that’s how I met Emily.

As for Bird, fast forward about a year; I went to another writers’ workshop with Namrata Tripathi, who read the first 50 pages of my work in progress. When we went out with my finished, original manuscript, the editor said, "Thanks but no thanks on this manuscript – but I want to acquire the WIP I read: I can’t stop thinking about it." So we sold Bird as a first-draft partial, as a debut, which was a crazy process, let me tell you.

Q: You've talked about growing up in a mixed-race family in the Midwest, much like Jewel in Bird. What inspired your story? What was your "ah-ha" moment like when you realized you had this story on your hands? Can you talk about the writing of the book?

CC: I had just gone to a SCBWI conference, where Kathi Appelt was speaking, and she had just come out with her book at the time, Keeper, which is about a girl who thought her mother turned into a mermaid because her mother was lost at sea. Afterward, I was sick and home from work. I had also finished my first manuscript and was fretting that I might not have another idea for another novel. Ever. I was thinking about this for hours, and finally I got so sick of myself that I said, "Crystal, either you get up out of bed and write your next book, or you go to sleep because you’re sick. But you’re not going to lie in bed thinking about not writing your next book."

And then I started thinking more about Keeper, and how I loved that story. And I thought, "A girl who thinks her mother was a mermaid – that’s such a great idea – but what if… instead... there was a boy who thought he was a bird? What would he do?" And instantly I saw a small boy, about five years old, jumping off a cliff because he thought he could fly. Then the voice of the protagonist, Jewel’s voice, started speaking, and I got out of bed and wrote the first chapter.

Q: Bird weaves together a variety of threads – loss, grieving, hope, feeling like an outsider – along with magic realism and a sort of mysticism. What are some of the influences in your life that readers might see in your writing?

CC: Goodness – there’s so much of myself in Bird. Growing up mixed race in a white town in the '80s made me a pro at being an outsider (grins). So I was able to draw on a lot of my own personal experiences on not being understood, being overlooked. And I grew up Catholic. While my opinion on Catholicism varies from day to day, going to Catholic school as a kid really helped teach me the depth of symbolism and mysteries. And in a funny way, I draw on that upbringing when I consider symbolism and patterns, enigmas and character rituals, while crafting a novel.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your book? What do you hope to accomplish? 

CC: My goal for writing is to tell the truest story possible, no matter how uncomfortable that truth is for my characters – or for me! As for my readers, I hope kids will begin to understand that there are lots of different ways of viewing the world (as Jewel’s family members and best friend all have different perspectives), and that there are a lot of mysteries out there that grown-ups just can’t explain. Even though we like to think we can.

Q: What will we see from you next? 

CC: I’m working on a young adult novel that is very different – but you’ll have to wait a bit to hear about it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Michele Weber Hurwitz and 'The Summer I Saved the World'

“It is very often the ordinary things that go unnoticed that end up making a difference.” This bit of wisdom imparted from a history teacher to 13-year-old protagonist Nina is the inspiration behind Michele Weber Hurwitz's sweet new middle-grade novel The Summer I Saved the World. . . in 65 Days. Nina plans to do 65 small, anonymous acts of kindness for her family and neighbors—one for each day of her summer vacation. And along the way, she learns about her neighbors, her family, as well as herself. Publisher's Weekly says it's a story that should "give hope to those who think one person can’t possibly make a difference."

Question: Where did you get the idea for The Summer I Saved the World. . . in 65 Days? What made you want to write this story?

Michele Weber Hurwitz: I had several thoughts that I wove together for this story. First, we hear so much about paying it forward and random acts of kindness, but sometimes the amount of problems in our world overwhelms me, and I wondered – does doing good really do any good? Is it making a difference?

Second, I read an amusing little item in my local paper's police blotter about a woman who called the police when a girl she didn't recognize was delivering cookies around her neighborhood. Something else besides chocolate chips could have been in those cookies, you know! Anyway, I thought, wow, how do people really react when random good comes their way? Perhaps it's not always in a positive way.

Third, I worried about how technology has altered family life and neighborhoods, and how we live in this era of a sort of "disconnected connection." Lastly, I read about a class at the University of Iowa where the professor had students write down each day three positive events or experiences – no matter how big or small – and how this changed their perspectives. I started doing that too. We tend to focus on the negative, or what goes wrong, instead of recognizing small, good things that go right every day.

Q: As with your debut novel, Calli Be Gold, you show ordinary kids being extraordinary in their own quiet way. Do you feel like you're building on a theme in your writing? Do you feel like you're doing your own good in the world, in having kids think about the nature of our day-to-day interactions with each other and the world?

MWH: I am a big fan of ordinary kids, and I think they're sometimes overlooked because they may not stand out in a crowd. My heart also melts for quiet kids, because I was one myself, and we live in such a "loud" world. When you think about it, ordinary is amazing. Quietly, sneakily, understatedly, wonderfully amazing. Ordinary is warm blueberry muffin. Ordinary is birds flying in a V and a favorite pair of jeans and a baby's first smile. Ordinary is everything!

Both Calli Gold and Nina Ross, the main character in The Summer I Saved the 65 Days, are contemplative, understated, ordinary girls, so yes, there is that connective theme in the two books.

Just as we admire a character for her bravery or confidence, I hope when kids read my books, they get the sense of how important kindness and being considerate are. I received an email from a girl named Lucy after she read Calli Be Gold. She wrote: "Calli inspires me to be open and kind to everyone. She makes me want to be myself. I love her honest thoughts and good heart."

I have that pinned up on my wall above my computer because letters like that are my inspiration.

Q: Sometimes books can be classified as "quiet" and garner little support from their publisher. But your editor, Wendy Lamb, introduces the book with a warm message for readers. Did you feel like your publishing house was behind your efforts? 

MWH: Definitely. Wendy is such an intuitive editor and has been a joy to work with. In the early drafts, I think she knew more about the story than I did! She gently encouraged me to go deeper into the story at points where I was skimming the surface. The publicity department at Random House also has been extremely supportive. But, I have to say, I'm much more knowledgeable this time about promotion. It's like your second baby – you know so much more what you're doing the second time around!

Q: In the book, your main character comes up with 65 "little things" she can do for others in her sleepy cul-de-sac. Was it hard to come up with all those ideas? Can you talk about your creative process for writing and organizing the book?

MWH: It wasn't hard to come up with the 65 things. There are a lot of characters in the book, and their situations and antics kept providing me with ideas. One reclusive neighbor never comes outside, so Nina bakes brownies and leaves them on his doorstep. Another, a widow with grown children, has broken her leg, and Nina thinks of many small but significant ways to help. I had a lot of fun writing about how some of Nina's anonymous good deeds go awry and a suspicious neighbor
(with an overactive imagination) takes them the wrong way.

As for my creative process, I start with a character and his or her voice, and that drives my story.
I have a basic idea for the plot, but that seems to define itself as I write. I definitely edit as I go along. And I need time away from my computer to mull things over. I try to walk every day. I don't take my phone or listen to music; it's my thinking time. I live in Chicago and I really missed walking outside this winter! It's just not the same on a treadmill.

 Q: How much do you believe in the power of stories to shape young readers? What are the books that helped shape and influence you? The books you remember reading when you were young?

MWH: I think stories have enormous power to shape young readers. I hear from a lot of kids when I visit schools and the sentiments they share with me are thoughtful and perceptive. They get things so much more than we realize.

There are many talented authors whose books I love, including John Green (of course, who
doesn't?), Rainbow Rowell, Lois Lowry, Sarah Weeks, Linda Urban, Rebecca Stead, Jennifer Holm, and Tom Angleberger. When I was young, I was obsessed with Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell and must have read it a dozen times. I loved the story, but I also fantasized about the idea of escaping my suburban house and living on my own island, away from my two annoying younger brothers.

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

MWH: I hope kids will realize that small good things are much bigger than they seem. And, that doing good doesn't have to be about raising tons of money or spending a Saturday cleaning up a park (although those efforts are certainly wonderful). But more just about being a good person. Cliché, I know, but ask kids what they like best about their teachers. Invariably, they'll say: "she's nice." Ask yourself what stuck with you from your day. Maybe someone held a door open when your arms were full of grocery bags, or shared tomatoes from their garden, or made you laugh. We all know these kinds of gestures resonate, we just have to do them!

Q: What are you working on next?

MWH: After writing two middle-grade books in the voices of girl main characters, I wanted to explore writing in a boy's voice. I'm having some fun with that! I've also been working on an idea about two girls whose chance meeting during one winter break changes both of their lives. I need to do some walking to think more about these ideas, and hopefully, this spring's weather will cooperate!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Thinking Green With Holly Schindler's 'Sunshine and Lucky'

 Just in time for Earth Day comes an uplifting middle-grade read from Holly Schindler about the power one person can have in the world. The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky tells the story of fifth-grader Auggie Jones, who lives in a poor section of town with her grandfather, Gus. When a wealthy classmate’s father launches the House Beautification Committee, the homes he's targeting are ones like Auggie’s. But creative Auggie plans to prove that there’s more to her—and to her house—than meets the eye. Making use of old car parts and discarded machinery, Auggie and Gus discover a new artistic talent: turning other people's trash into treasure. Folk art, to be specific, prompting an interesting look at the meaning of art and beauty.

Kirkus Reviews says Sunshine and Lucky explores "vibrant themes of community, self-empowerment and artistic vision delivered with a satisfying verve."

Question: You are the author of two YA books. What made you want to write for a younger audience?

Holly Schindler: I taught piano and guitar lessons while chasing my first book deal. I really just thought the lessons would help me pay my bills. But when I started interacting with the kids, I was absolutely shocked at how similar they all seemed to the kids I’d known when I was in school! They were all so familiar, in fact, that I began to try my hand at writing for the juvenile market. Right at the very start, I tried my hand at both YA and MG—though my first publications were YAs, I’d actually been writing for the younger set all along, too.

Q: The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky is a fun story that will have young readers grabbing their arts and craft boxes and getting to work. Where did your idea for Auggie and Gus come from? What was the “ah-ha” moment like when you realized you had a story on your hands?

HS: All writers hit “make-or-break” moments, when rejection starts to play with their minds, and they wonder if they should just join the circus. I hit mine about four years into seeking my first pub deal. I pushed through it, obviously. When I got back to work, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky was the first thing I drafted. Initially, it was a picture book. But the first editors who saw the book said the concept of folk art was too advanced for the picture book readership. So I went about reinventing the 1,000-word picture book as a 45,000-word MG novel. Not an easy task!

But from the very beginning, I saw Gus so clearly—it was as though I was looking through Auggie’s eyes straight at him. And her voice has always been crystal clear. From the first moment I saw Gus and heard Auggie’s voice, I think I knew I had a story. I held onto that all the way through multiple rewrites.

Q: Auggie taps into her inventive, imaginative side in resolving some of the challenges she faces. Does your story have a message for readers about thinking creatively, and reusing and repurposing what we have around us?

HS: I love repurposed items. I always have—even before anyone used the words “repurposed” or “upcycling.” When I was a kid, I went to auctions with my folks—farm auctions were always full of needlework on reused burlap, or stools made out of a Coke crates, or dresses made from feedsacks. My favorite part of Auggie’s story is her poetic eye—she doesn’t see things as they really are, but as they could be (which is why she speaks so heavily in metaphor and simile). Her ability to see things as they could be is a big part of why she becomes an artist, why she can pick up a rusted pipe and see a dancer. I’d like to think that after spending time with Auggie, readers will have acquired a bit of her poetic eye, and begin to see the broken necklace in their jewelry box or the busted remote control car under their bed in a new light.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? What do you hope young readers take away from your stories?

HS: I hope young readers feel inspired; I hope they feel their voices matter, every single one of them. I hope they feel as though the world can be anything they make of it.

Q: What will we see from you next?

HS: My next YA, Feral, releases this August.