Tuesday, May 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

MALAYNA EVANS: Two things inspired me.

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

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

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

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

ME: In a word, painful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 4, 2019

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

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

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

Melanie Crowder: Lots and lots of daydreaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 25, 2019

Marc Tyler Nobleman Explores WWII History and a Fairy Hoax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 11, 2019

Alice Faye Duncan on Beloved Prize-Winning Poet Gwendolyn Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Acrostic Poem by Alice Faye Duncan (2019)