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.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Skila Brown Explores Guatemala's Wrenching Past in 'Caminar'

Debut author Skila Brown takes a hard look at politics and war with Caminar, a historical novel written in verse. The story is set in Guatemala in the 1980s. It's a coming-of-age story about a boy named Carols, who must decide what it means to be a man during a time of war. Exploring violence and loss through individual poems from Carlos's perspective, it shows the confusion of being caught in a conflict that takes its toll on both young and old. Kirkus Reviews called it "a moving introduction to a subject seldom covered in fiction for youth."

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Skila Brown: I think I might write about things that greatly upset me. In the novel I’m revising now, people are dying from starvation. In Caminar, a boy suffers a devastating loss because of politics and war. Both stories began with my own interest in a subject. Caminar evolved from years of reading about Guatemala’s history and struggles and specifically about the internal conflict there that was especially violent during the 1980s.

I grappled with questions like, “How could I have been going to school and learning to read while kids like Carlos were dealing with something so much harder? How could my own government have contributed to this awfulness in the way that they did? How could this have gone on so close to where I live without me knowing anything about it?”

I think writing Carlos’s story was a way to help me sort out some of my angst and also hope that I’d be doing something about it — making sure this story was getting told.

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

SB: The greatest achievement as a writer would be to know I’ve made someone think — think about the world in a different way, question the facts in front of them, empathize with a character in way that broadened the reader’s world. Even just to make one person think deeply would feel like a big accomplishment.

Q: What are you working on next?

SB: This week I’m working on revisions for my next novel in verse, due out in 2015. It’s about the perilous journey of the Donner Party in 1846. I also just saw the sketches for a picture book I have coming out in 2016. (They are amazing!) It’s a fun blend of poetry and non-fiction — all about sharks.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Matt London Blends Eco and Adventure with '8th Continent'

Debut novelist Matt London's The 8th Continent takes on one of the most curious yet fascinating yet stomach-churning eco-nightmares, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. An action-adventure series from Razorbill for readers 8 to 12 years old, The 8th Continent publishes Sept. 16. Two sequels are planned for 2015 in what Kirkus Reviews describes as "Fast-paced action, cool inventions and remarkable robots combine for an auspicious opener."

It tells the story of Evie and Rick Lane, siblings who try to avenge their father's arrest by the international police agency Winterpole. They take off in search of part of the formula that will convert the churning oceanic mess known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch into an eighth continent. But they're up against their bullying classmate Vesuvia Piffle, whose aim is to build a giant pink continent of her own made of plastic. The two sides race around the world and to the bottom of the ocean in search of what they need to create their own brave new world.

Question: What inspired you to write The 8th Continent?

Matt London: So many things inspired The 8th Continent! When I was a kid, it was always the science fiction books that got me super excited to read. Maybe growing up in a family of scientists had something to do with it. Beyond my personal connections, I draw a lot of inspiration from real science. Universal translators, superstructures, terraforming, and advanced artificial intelligence are all technologies that feature prominently in The 8th Continent. And then there are seasteads, these artificial islands people are trying to build in international waters, so the owners can declare their seasteads countries, independent of any existing government! The heroes of my book, Rick and Evie, concoct a similar plan.

More than anything, what inspired me to tell this story was learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's scary to think that we are all contributing to these giant blankets of trash in our oceans, but there is plenty we can do to help.

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

ML: First and foremost, I want to tell a good story. It's good to have lofty goals, but if you don't wallop 'em with an amazing tale filled with action, twists, and memorable characters, no one will stick around to receive your message. That said, pollution is a serious issue. Regardless of your politics or thoughts on climate science, there are things each of us can do to make the Earth a cleaner, healthier place. I want readers to finish The 8th Continent and realize there is stuff we can do to help. Science is cool. Saving the planet is cool. And hopefully they'll go to The 8th Continent website to learn more about it!

Q: Hey, there's an online game associated with the book! Can you tell us more about this?

ML: In The 8th Continent game, you get to play as Rick or Evie Lane, the two heroes of the book. You have to use your father's garbage morphers to stack trash in a fast-and-furious puzzle-y, action-y kind of way. If you stack fast enough, you can transform the garbage into a beautiful eighth continent. The art is gorgeous and the gameplay is a ton of fun. The game will be hosted first on Funbrain and then will live on the website.

It was really important to me to have an interactive component to The 8th Continent. As a professional game writer and designer, games are very close to my heart, and the elements that make a great game feature prominently in my writing. For example, the labyrinths Rick and Evie navigate, the items they have to gather, and the adversaries they have to face all draw inspiration from games. Classic adventure games like King's Quest and Sam & Max influenced the tone, while building games like Minecraft and Sim City influenced the world. Gamers will feel right at home in the universe of The 8th Continent. Reluctant readers, perhaps readers (like me) who sometimes neglect reading to play games, will love this book.

Q: What are you working on next?

ML: More 8th Continent! Book 2, Welcome to the Jungle, comes out in February, and Book 3, Born to Be Wild, next summer. I'm super busy continuing the adventures of the Lanes. The best part is, each book is bigger and wackier than the one before.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Poet Tamera Wissinger Is Back With 'This Old Band'

I don't focus enough on poetry with this blog, and that's something I am hoping to fix. Today I talk with Tamera Will Wissinger, who has a keen ear for rhyme and poetry. Her first book, Gone Fishing: A Novel In Verse (2013, Houghton Mifflin) was honored as a 2014 Best Children's Book of the Year and an ALSC 2014 Notable Children's Book. Illustrated by Matthew Cordell, it is a story about kids and their dad having a fishing day told through a variety of poetic forms and poetry techniques.

Back with a second rhyming book, This Old Band, which published last week with Sky Pony Press, Tamera puts a fun spin on a popular nursery rhyme while teaching the youngest readers about counting and noises. This one is hilariously illustrated by Matt Loveridge.

Question: What draws you to poetry and sharing it with children? Do you write in other forms and genres, or do you feel like you've found your niche with poetry for young readers?

Tamera Wissinger: Poetry through nursery rhymes and stories is the first type of storytelling that I loved when I was young. That led to a love of reading and then writing. I’ve always been intrigued about finding ways to share my own poetry with children who are beginning to explore language and stories. Rhythm and rhyme are an engaging way to do that. I do write in other forms and genres including traditional picture books and middle grade novels.

Q: Where did you get the idea for This Old Band? What was your ah-ha moment like?

TW: My initial ah-ha moment came after a trip to Wyoming and Montana with my husband and friends. I had visited the western United States before, and on this trip I carried my pen and paper with me, taking note of the rugged, intriguing places as we traveled through. I was particularly struck by the richness of character in the people, ranch life, the land, the wildlife. It was so different from my Midwest orientation that I wanted to try to capture that in a story for young readers. For a while, I struggled with a different picture book draft that didn’t quite work, so my second ah-ha moment came when I changed course and revised the manuscript to include this musical counting cowboy and cowgirl band, while keeping the setting and characters that were my initial influences.

Q: Can you talk about your creative process? Do you write in the wee-small hours of the morning, or late at night? Do you read your poems aloud and fret over every word? What's it like?

TW: My favorite time to write is in the morning, after breakfast and a workout. Of course writing isn’t always that tidy, so I’ll write whenever I have a chance. Sometimes that’s very early morning before or during breakfast and other times it’s late at night.

When I’m starting a project I just let the words come tumbling out in a sort of freethinking way I suppose – my first job is to simply capture the essence of the story or poem on paper or computer. I don’t worry about anything besides just grabbing the idea before it slips away. From there I begin to assess and structure.

Along the way as I’m working out details of story, characters, setting, pacing, if and how it will rhyme, I do read aloud – especially if it rhymes and has a strong rhythm pattern. It’s also useful to listen to someone else read my work aloud to me. I do consider every single word as part of my final edits. Some of the last questions I ask myself before submitting are, “Have I made this as strong as possible? Are there words in here that aren’t carrying their weight? What can be cut altogether, or traded for something more exciting or descriptive?”

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

TW: I hope that young readers are engaged and having fun while they’re reading and that they’ll want to come back to my books more than once. Maybe my hope is that they’ll feel a connection to the story, characters, setting, those with whom they’re reading. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

Q: What are you working on next?

TW: Next up for me is a cumulative rhyming picture book called There Was an Old Lady Who Gobbled a Skink, set to release with Sky Pony Press in 2015. It is a perilous waterside story and a tribute to the traditional, Old Lady and Fly folktale. In my story the narrator worries, “Why would she think to gobble a skink? Perhaps she’ll sink!”

Friday, June 6, 2014

48 Hour Book Challenge Meets #WeNeedDiverseBooks


Hey, did you know the ninth annual 48 Hour Book Challenge is going on this very minute? The clock is ticking as you read this, so grab a stack o' books and get at it.

What is the 48 Hour Book Challenge, you ask? Here's how it works: chose your starting time within the weekend and read as much of the time as you want. The books are anything from middle-grade to YA to adult. And you can blog about it during that time too. Some people go without sleep and read the entire 48 hours. Others challenge themselves to be part of the 20 Hour Club. Just 12 hours makes you a participant and eligible for prizes – PRIZES! – so there's a pace for everyone. Visit the force behind this effort, MotherReader, for a clear rundown of the system.

And in solidarity of the cause of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, this year's challenge is dedicated to reading, sharing, and reviewing books that show diversity. So included here in this post are a few diverse children's books to add to the list.

Grace Lin said it best in a recent Publisher's Weekly article when she noted that multicultural books aren’t just for minorities. “If non-minority kids don’t get diverse books, they will grow up with only stereotypes” of people of color.

My debut middle-grade, Cupcake Cousins, is an attempt at bridging that gap. It features almost-10-year-old cousins who don't necessarily look the same – one African American, the other freckled – but share the same love of cooking. And the same desire to avoid the hideous pink flower-girl dresses their moms want them to wear for the aunt's upcoming wedding. It's a humorous cooking caper with plenty of kitchen disasters and wacky relatives, and the kids just happen to have a mixed race family.

Fellow Chicagoan and all-around good egg Crystal Chan has a terrific book that features a multicultural storyline. Titled Bird (Atheneum, 2014), it explores family secrets hidden from a mixed-race race girl named Jewel and her grieving family. Jewel's brother, Bird, died the day she was born. And all her life, she has been living in his shadow. Her parents say that it's Grandpa's fault, that he drew a malevolent spirit—a duppy—into their home.

Skila Brown's Caminar (Candlewick, 2014) is set in 1981 Guatemala. It tells the powerful story of a boy who must decide for himself what it means to be a man during a turbulent time of war. It's a novel in verse, and it was inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war.

N.H. Senzai's Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2014) tells the story of 12-year-old Ariana, whose comfortable life hits the skids when her cousin Laila arrives from Afghanistan. Laila is charming, with perfect manners, and before Ariana knows it, she's taken her best friend too. School Library Journal writes: "It is refreshing to see such a vastly multicultural cast in children's literature, and no character is portrayed as stereotypical or overly generalized. The glossary of terms in the back is also a nice touch. Recommended for any fan of multicultural literature or realistic fiction."

These are just a few books that feature diverse characters and authors. And that is the message behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, which is rocking the children's book publishing industry. For those who need a bit of background, it burst onto the scene in late April when BookCon announced an all-white, all-male line-up of authors. In response, a group of children's authors joined forces with the shared mission to "promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process."

As an NPR article reports, a University of Wisconsin study revealed that less than 8 percent of children's books in 2013 were written by or about people of color at a time when almost half of American children come from a minority background. Walter Dean Myers wrote a powerful essay in The New York Times, asking "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?" And his son Christopher Myers wrote about "The Apartheid of Children's Literature" in the same issue.

From author Grace Lin's blog 
I believe a lot of good will come of this campaign. Already some initiatives are emerging.
  • Lee & Low Books/Tu Books is launching a second New Visions Award for a middle-grade or YA fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. The award winner will receive a cash prize of $1,000 and a book contract with Lee & Low’s Tu Books imprint.
  • First Book has launched a $1 million campaign called The Stories for All Project. It's an initiative to provide books that "better reflect the rich and growing diversity of the population, including minorities, LGBT and special needs populations." They hope to promote multicultural books and authors, pledging to purchase 10,000 copies of multicultural titles to distribute to young readers from low-income families.
  • And according to author Ellen Oh, founder of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, a first-ever Children’s Literature Diversity Festival is in the works. Plans are for it to be held in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2016. Festival details are still to come, but read more in the PW article: “This will be a celebration of diverse authors and authors who write diversely. A festival where every panel, every event will be to celebrate diversity in all of its glory.”

Friday, May 9, 2014

Loss, Redemption in Tracy Holczer's 'Secret Hum of a Daisy'

Tracy Holczer 's delicate and beautiful The Secret Hum of a Daisy (Putnam Juvenile, May 1, 2014) is her debut novel, but the way she handles themes of family and reconciliation is with the touch of a pro.

It is the story of Grace, age 12, who desperately wants a home all her own while her mother has the urge to keep moving. Just when Grace finds the courage to tell her mother how she really feels about always moving around and her desire for roots, her mother tragically drowns. Grace is forced to live with a grandmother she's doesn't even know. But when Grace discovers clues in a mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on, she feels her mom might be showing her how finally to find her way home.

Question: Your book is about grieving and loss, but it's also about finding joy and love and our place in the world. Where did the idea for Grace and her grandmother and the bird art come from? What was your "ah-ha" moment when you decided to start writing your story?

Tracy Holczer: There really wasn’t one aha-moment, but more like a series of them. Grace came to me first. I had such a clear image of her sitting on the top step of a farmhouse porch that needed some repair. I had actually written a short story some time before with a child very similar to Grace, so when I saw this girl, the original short came into play.

That’s where Grandma was, and the idea that this girl had just lost her mom. The bird art evolved from an angel collection. Originally, Grace and Mama liked to pour over garage and yard sales looking for imperfect angels. Only the broken and misshapen would do. But then I wanted Mama to be more proactive and create, plus I had the origami in the story and so I needed the images to align a little better. Since they were already crazy about garage sales, the junk art just seemed like the right choice.

Q: What drew you into writing for children? Have you always been a writer? And have you always known middle-grade would be your home? Can you talk about your journey to publication?

TH: When I was a young child, I thought I wanted to be a writer. But in that same way you want to be an astronaut or a ballerina. It’s not a real job choice, it’s a dream. I loved writing and I loved books but when I was young, it took me awhile to figure out I was in charge of my own destiny and that if I really wanted it, I should work as hard as I could and hope for the best. When I had my third daughter and was able to quit my job, it was a wonderful, enriching hobby where I could attend conferences and workshops and do something that was all mine. When a writing teacher suggested I might try writing for kids, it was a natural fit.

Publication took a long time. I started writing for kids in 2002, and had been dabbling in other forms before that. I wrote a drawer book and then started working on Secret Hum around 2006. But family was my first priority so writing took a very long time. It also wasn’t the right time in my life to take on a career. But eventually, when my youngest was ten, I felt that might be a good time to dip my toe in the water and see if there was any interest. Figuring publication would be at least two years away from a deal, and who knows when/if a deal might happen, I felt that would be a good time to be working. And I was right.

Q: Your book is pasted with praise from some of the biggest stars of children's literature, with Richard Peck calling it "a lyric about love and loss," Patricia Reilly Giff saying it "will steal your heart," and Margarita Engle pronouncing it "poetic and tender." That's heady company! Do you just happen to hang around with Newbery medalists?

TH: Hahahaha! No! I wish. My fabulous editor, Stacey Barney, did that. She sent the book out and came back with this amazing praise. She surprised me with each one, and it was, and still is, very surreal.

Q: Grace is defiant yet so vulnerable, and she's trying to deal with weighty issues for a girl so young. What sort of reader are you hoping to reach with Secret Hum? What do you hope young readers take away from your story?

TH: I’m hoping to reach all readers, from 10 to 110. I think there is something in the story for everyone. Loss and redemption, hope and grief are so universal, that I wanted this book to be a salve for those who might have experienced these emotions. I have always loved a good cry and I cried all the way through writing about Grace. So although I never sat down to write a tear-jerker, I did sit down to write the kind of story I like to read, and I hope there are others out there, lots of others!, who have the same taste in books that I do.

Q: What will we see from you next?

TH: Another feisty girl named Samantha Rossi. The Natural History of Samantha Rossi is a story about 12-year old Sam who wants to be a scientist during a time when the door is just starting to open for girls with this sort of dream. Set during the Vietnam War, when Sam’s father comes home changed, she’s hopeful she can turn to her science books for the answer in how to turn him back. She comes from a great big Italian family, who, of course, have their own ideas about how to fix things. There are once in a lifetime friendships, daring expeditions, and lots and lots of meatballs. Sam will hit shelves in Summer 2016.

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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tracey Fern Sails for Adventure With 'Dare the Wind'

Who doesn't love a daring adventure story when she sees it? And when it's a non-fiction picture book? All the better. When it features a brave lass at the helm? Unbeatable. And there we have Dare the Wind: The Record-breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud
by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, published only last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Dare the Wind tells the story of young Ellen Prentiss, who was born "with saltwater in her veins." Her father nurtured her interest in the sea, and Ellen learned navigate and sail on her own. When Ellen grew up, her love for adventure never waned, and her husband was given command of a clipper ship built for speed. With the Gold Rush on, Ellen raced from New York, around the tip of Cape Horn, and into San Francisco to stake her fortune. She not only navigated the clipper safely, but she set the world record for speed along the way.

Question: You're a Massachusetts gal, and so was Ellen Prentiss. Is that what drew you to her story? Could you talk about the "ah-ha" moment when you decided to write a book about this daring seafarer?

Tracey Fern: I'm always on the lookout for great real-life stories that feature a unique person mixed with a dash of adventure or discovery.  My "ah-ha" moment came when I picked up David Shaw's book, Flying Cloud, on a whim.  I knew instantly that I had to write about Ellen. Ellen's story – a young woman performing a traditionally male role, clipper ships, a race, storms – had it all! It was an added bonus that she was from Marblehead, Massachusetts, which is one of my favorite towns.  I love walking the narrow, cobbled streets, imagining Ellen learning to navigate ships in the harbor.

Q: All of your books are about lesser-known characters in history. Where do you get your ideas? And how do you know whether to run with an idea or not? Can you talk about your creative process?

TF: I find ideas from all types of sources.  I've always been an avid reader and many of my ideas come from books, magazines, newspapers, and websites. But I've also gotten ideas from things I've heard on National Public Radio or TV. I have a huge "idea" file that I constantly add to whenever I run across an interesting story. Many of these ideas go absolutely nowhere, but I find that if I return to an idea a few times, then it's time to do a bit of research to see if I think the character is unique enough or interesting enough to support a picture book. I usually work on multiple projects simultaneously, so that if I get stuck on one, I can set it aside to percolate while I work on something else. A picture book can take me several years to write, with multiple revisions and lots of input from my writer's group until I think it is ready to submit to an editor.

Q: You seem to mine history for your books and magazine articles. What draws you to narrative non-fiction? 

TF: I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to history. I've always just been a bit of a history nerd. Something about real people and their stories is very inspiring to me.  I love to figure out what motivated them!

Q: Both Ellen Prentiss and Barnum Brown of Barnum's Bones – as well as the subjects of Buffalo Music (Clarion, 2008) and Pippo the Fool (Charlesbridge, 2009) – have wonderful things in common: They pay attention to details. For Ellen, it's reading the sea. And for Barnum, it's finding fossils amid the everyday landscape. What is it about paying close attention to the little things that made for success for these two characters? What are you trying to show young readers?

TF: It's interesting that you ask! I've never thought about this similarity and wasn't consciously trying to show this to young readers. But I do know that as a writer, I try hard to pay attention to the "telling details" that help me show character traits! I seem to be drawn to somewhat obsessive characters – people who are passionate about what they do. I think I try to show young readers that following a passion can result in some amazing things!

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

TF: I hope to write books that young readers will enjoy and will want to read again and again. I hope my books are rich enough with character and detail and significance and fun that readers will not only enjoy the story, but will also be intrigued enough to explore the subject further. Creating more history nerds would be awesome!

Q: What will we see from you next?

TF: I'm very excited about my next book!  It will be a picture book about Noah Webster entitled, W is for Webster, to be illustrated by Boris Kulikov, who also illustrated Barnum's Bones. It will be published by Margaret Ferguson Books at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

WWII Nurses' History in Mary Cronk Farrell's 'Pure Grit'

March is not only Women's History Month, it's also National Reading Month. So what better way to celebrate the two than with a gripping read about some remarkable women at a crucial time in America's history. Mary Cronk Farrell's Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific (Abrams, February 2014) is designated for a third- to seventh-grade audience, but its appeal is much broader. I've talked about this title with parents and grownup friends as well as my own kids, and I simply cannot recommend this book enough. Not only does it detail the harrowing accounts of what these brave women went through, but it also looks at the frustrating treatment they endured upon return to the United States.

Pure Grit tells the story of U.S. Army nurses who enlisted for peacetime duty during the early 1940s. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II, their lives were turned upside down. One hundred and one American Army and Navy nurses serving in the Philippines suddenly found themselves treating wounded and dying soldiers in makeshift jungle hospitals. Told with page-turning urgency and illustrated with archival photographs, Pure Grit conveys the plight of these nurses struggling to help the wounded while bombs were exploding all around them.

Captured by the Japanese as prisoners of war, the nurses went on to endure three years of disease and near-starvation. This is a part of American history I knew nothing about, and I am so grateful Mary Cronk Farrell devoted the time necessary to write Pure Grit. It truly is a story of sisterhood.

Question: Pure Grit is incredibly well-researched. How long did this project take you from "ah-ha" moment to written manuscript. Can you talk about how you researched the manuscript and the people you connected with along the way?

Mary Cronk Farrell: I worked on researching Pure Grit over a span of about five years, though I was not focusing steadily on the project. I made concentrated efforts for a few months at a time and then would need to turn my attention elsewhere, for instance I also researched and wrote Journey to the Top of the World during this time as well as writing two drafts of a novel and researching and writing an historical picture book manuscript.

This worked well for Pure Grit because it took time to search for the nurses’ family members, other people I wanted to interview, and photographs. I followed a number of dead ends, as well as being passed from person to person to track information and waiting to hear back from people. In some cases, I have email and snail mail conversations that carried on over two or three years. I had not done a project of this scope before, but my stop-and-go, zigzag method is common, I suppose, for a working writer.

My favorite part was connecting with the nurses’ grown children, and, of course, meeting Retired Army Nurse Mildred Dalton Manning who was the last surviving POW nurse. She lived to be 98 and died a year ago this month.

Q: This is a book that stayed with me long after I'd finished reading it. I called up my parents and told them to look for it, and I've asked friends about their knowledge of these American nurses' experiences. Your book seems appropriate for adults and young readers alike. What made you target a young audience?

MCF: At this point in my career, I am focusing on writing for young people, so that is the main reason I targeted that audience for this book. But I always imagined adults would read it, too. There have been other books written for adults on the topic, but Pure Grit will reach a different segment of adult readers. I intentionally wrote the story to be a quick read for people who live busy lives, and included many photographs to make the story accessible to people who are used to getting information through images.

U.S. Army Nurse Corp Women imprisoned in Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, Philippine Islands, 1943. (courtesy of Sandy Thor) 

Q: Fire in the Hole, Journey to the Top of the World, Daughters of the Desert. History and historical fiction seem to be your genres of choice. What draws you to this type of storytelling?

MCF: I’ve always loved learning history, but I’m not sure why. As a child reader, historical fiction was my favorite genre. In my middle-school years I read an average of a book a day and most of them were historical fiction. I do know that I’m drawn to stories of people who’ve overcome adversity, because I’ve needed to learn how to do that in my own life. Books have always been an inspiration to me during the rough patches of life, and being able to write one like Pure Grit, which I know will inspire others, is an honor and privilege.

Navy Nurses in Leyte shows U.S. Navy Nurses liberated from Los Ban᷈os Internment Camp, Laguna de Bay, Philippine Islands, February 23, 1945.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your writing? What do you hope to achieve?

MCF: Besides inspiring people through telling the story of these women’s resilience and courage, I hope readers will ask what we can learn from history. I hope people will be moved to have compassion for our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Not feel sorry for them, not ignore them because they volunteered for duty, but truly see their needs and be moved to listen to their pain and share their struggles.

Q: What will we see next from you?

MCF: My next book is a biography of Labor Leader Fannie Sellins, who was shot to death on the picket line in a 1919 Pennsylvania coal strike.