Alexandra Ott, author of middle graded adventure fantasy The Shadow Thieves

The Shadow Thieves, the thrilling sequel to Rules for Thieves, is a must read for action fantasy enthusiasts in the middle grade space. Ott’s willingness to delve into her characters’ ambiguity brings them vividly to life. People are complex in the real world and reflecting this on the page makes for a compelling story. Plus, I can’t get enough of brave, determined and loyal Alli! She fits right in with the many wonderful girl leads I’ve encountered lately that won’t let me go until I finish. I think I’m going to start calling them ‘the one sitting club’.  (Buy the book: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound)

And now some questions for Alexandra…

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing come from?

I always loved stories, even as a child. My parents read aloud to me often before I was old enough to read on my own, and I’ve been devouring books ever since. I think I was about 7 or 8 years old when I realized that being an author was an actual job, and I’ve wanted to do it ever since!

The Shadow Thieves is the sequel to Rules for Thieves and picks up after 12-year-old Alli Rosco is released from prison. Did you have the sequel story in mind when you wrote the first installment?

I had a loose idea of what would happen in the sequel. I knew which characters I wanted to bring back, what I wanted the focus of the story to be, and how I wanted it to end. But most of the plot details were invented in the process of writing the manuscript. I write most of my books this way; I like to have a plan but also leave plenty of room to explore as I go along.

In Shadow, like Rules, Alli ends up in that gray space between what is right and what is necessary. You illustrate so well how life is messy and things are rarely straightforward. Was this your intention with Alli?

Thank you! Yes, I knew even before I wrote the first book that it was a theme I wanted to explore—how to navigate that gray area, and how to choose between moral responsibility and survival. Alli is often placed in impossible situations where the right answer is never easy, and she has to figure out which choices she can live with and which lines she won’t cross. I think it’s an interesting dilemma to give any character, but particularly one as young as Alli who’s really finding her place in the world for the first time.

The Thieves exist in a fantasy world with touches of magic. I love how you’ve created a world that isn’t flashy or in your face but is just different enough for the reader to feel like she’s left the familiar behind. Did this world evolve or did you map out the rules before you began writing the books?

It was a little of both, I think. I knew going into it what kind of world I wanted to create, and I made lots of notes for myself before I started writing—things like how the governments are structured, the major cultural differences between the two main cities in the books, how their economy and currency works, the rules surrounding magic and how it influences the world, that sort of thing. But I also continued to develop the world as I wrote the story, and filled in a lot of holes in the worldbuilding that I hadn’t worked out beforehand. My goal was to create a world that’s easily accessible and understandable while also feeling fantastical.

I’m currently working on the third in a series so this question is for me! Which was harder to write, book one or two?

They both had their own challenges, but I’d say the second book was harder. With sequels, it’s always hard to find the right balance between including elements and characters that readers love from the first book while also introducing something new. Plus, I had deadlines while working on the second book, so I had to write it much faster than the first!

Who are your favorite authors?

 This is an impossible question to answer! I have so many. Some of my favorite children’s authors are J.K. Rowling, Cornelia Funke, Kate DiCamillo, Shannon Hale, Madeleine L’Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Megan Whalen Turner, and Tamora Pierce, to name just a few.

What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

 Reading, of course!

What are you working on right now?

 I’ve just started writing my next middle grade project. I have to keep the details a secret for now, but I think readers who love adventure fantasy stories with fierce female protagonists—like Rules for Thieves!—will enjoy this one too. I’ll have more information to share about this project very soon!

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

 I love hearing from readers! They’re more than welcome to email me via my website, www.alexandraott.com, or to reach out on social media. I can be found on Twitter as @Alexandra_Ott, on Instagram as @alexottbooks, or on Facebook as alexandraottbooks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Katie Silvensky- The Seismic Seven interview

I am a huge Katie Silvensky fan so I’m extra excited to have her here to day to answer some questions. If you haven’t read her 2017 debut, The Countdown Conspiracy, get on that right now. It’s perfect for summer reading! I also can’t wait to dive into her second novel, The Seismic Seven, which pits seven smart kids against a supervolcano with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Just that description gets my heart racing.

Let’s talk to Katie!

(Buy the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound or purchase from your local bookstore)

You write fast paced, science infused, high stakes thrillers for kids. Tell me a little bit about how that came to happen.

I’m lucky enough to have a career in informal science education, so I get perspectives from kids all the time about what is fun and exciting to them in the world of science. As it turns out, it’s usually what I’m super into, as well! Space travel. Giant volcanos. Prehistoric creatures. When I started pursuing publication seriously just under a decade ago, I knew that would be my angle: use what I was enthusiastic about (and what kids are enthusiastic about) to fuel my books.

My background as a scientist gave me the skillset to research with accuracy and speed to create the scenarios my books are founded on, and my lifelong love of action/adventure stories gave me the mold to work with to create my own. The only thing left to do was to practice, practice, practice, and revise, revise, revise!

Your books have ensemble casts with kids hailing from around the world and from various cultures, races and ethnicities. What kind of research do you do to make sure you get those different voices correct?

As authors, we have an incredible responsibility to our readers in this regard. I have personally made the decision to write only from the POV of my own cultural and racial background, while making sure that my ensemble cast of characters reflects the diversity of our world. I spend a lot of time working to get these varying voices to feel genuine, not perpetuate any harmful stereotypes, and stay respectful and unforced. It’s been a big learning curve—and I know I have much more learning still to do!

To accomplish the above, one thing I do is to read a lot of books by authors that share backgrounds with my characters. I have found this to be incredibly helpful way to get to know differing voices. I also do a lot of research into the modern history of each ethnicity/disability/culture/etc (as well as keeping up on current events). But these are really just first steps—getting voice “right” is as much about what you know and can put into the story as it is about what you don’t know or what should not be put in the story. Therefore, I seek out paid sensitivity readers to help me with characters whose backgrounds are different than my own. Hands down, this has been the most important and most helpful thing to do. I have received incredibly thoughtful feedback from sensitivity readers that has all served to change my narrative and characters for the better. I could not be more grateful for their honesty and work.

I tell everyone who will listen that The Countdown Conspiracy has the best ending of a middle grade book maybe ever!  Do you work up a detailed plot outline before you begin writing or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

I’m definitely a plotter, not a pantser. I create pages upon pages of detailed outlines, character arcs, maps, diagrams, everything! Messily, I should add. These notes aren’t neat or pretty in the slightest. They’re scribbles all over any type of paper I can grab when ideas hit, including junk mail envelopes, receipts, and napkins.

…Though, I have to say, I never wrote down the ending to COUNTDOWN on any of my plotting notes. I knew the ending, but I kept it in my head (or perhaps in my heart) for fear someone, somehow, would find it and get spoiled!

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

 Both of my parents are readers and got me hooked on books from childhood. I was that kid who always carried a book with them. My imagination was enormous and books were like magic!

The first evidence I have of writing came from a notebook I had when I was about 4. (I wrote a story about a girl who got a cat as a present. Clearly, I was destined to be an author.) But it wasn’t until 2nd grade that my love for writing really kicked in. My teacher gave our class a creative writing prompt that I didn’t complete on time because the story wasn’t done. Rather than force me to hand it in unfinished, my teacher encouraged me to keep writing and even began reading it aloud to the room week after week as I added to it. My classmates were always tremendously eager to hear each new chapter. As the “quiet kid”, having attention on me in a positive way that built confidence was a new and exciting thing. Ever since then, storytelling has been a critically important part of my life.

 Who are your favorite authors?

 To name a few (because I could go on all day): Rick Riordan, Richard Adams, Ibi Zoboi, JK Rowling, Douglas Adams, Ammi-Joan Paquette, and Diana Wynne Jones.

 What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

 I like to take nature walks and practice my photography. 🙂

 What are you working on right now?

 Ooooh, right now I have three projects I’m working on. Each very different, but all middle grade and adventuresome. Stay tuned!

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

 I can be reached via the contact form on my website: www.katieslivensky.com. Otherwise, please feel free to follow me on Facebook  or on Twitter.

Thank you so much for the interview, Beth! This has been fun!

 

Books

Title: THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY

Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s

Release date: August 1st, 2017

Blurb: Miranda Regent can’t believe she was just chosen as one of six kids from around the world to train for the first ever mission to Mars. But as soon as the official announcement is made, she begins receiving anonymous threatening messages…and when the training base is attacked, it looks like Miranda is the intended target. Now the entire mission—and everyone’s lives—are at risk. And Miranda may be the only one who can save them.

The Martian meets The Goonies in this out-of-this-world middle grade debut where the stakes couldn’t be higher.

****A Junior Library Guild Selection: Fall 2017****

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26102519-the-countdown-conspiracy

Indiebound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062462558

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Countdown-Conspiracy-Katie-Slivensky/dp/0062462555

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-countdown-conspiracy-katie-slivensky/1124860410

Title: THE SEISMIC SEVEN

Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s

Release date: June 5th, 2018

Blurb: Brianna Dobson didn’t plan to spend her summer saving the planet from total destruction—but what starts as an educational experience shadowing geologist Dr. Samantha Grier in Yellowstone National Park quickly becomes a race to stop a massive volcanic eruption the likes of which the humanity has never seen.

Seven kids. One supervolcano. One chance to save the world.

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35230414-the-seismic-seven

Indiebound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062463180

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Seismic-Seven-Katie-Slivensky/dp/0062463187

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-seismic-seven-katie-slivensky/1126439901

 

Author

Katie Slivensky is an educator at the Museum of Science in Boston, where she coordinates school visits, does presentations with alligators and liquid nitrogen (not usually at the same time), and runs the rooftop observatory program. Katie lives in a suburb of Boston with her two completely absurd cats, Galileo and Darwin, and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Find her online at www.katieslivensky.com, and follow her on Twitter at @paleopaws.

 

An interview with Linda Joy Singleton

Linda Joy Singleton is the author of over twenty five books, ranging from picture books to award winning young adult. What I love about Linda’s books, especially the Curious Cat Spy Club series which I just finished reading, is that her characters feel familiar. I can see traces of my own friends when I was young and my kids’ friends, who seem always to be in my house these days. This character comfort level sucks me in fully and completely. I am ready to go wherever the story takes me.

(Buy the books: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound or purchase at your local bookstore.)

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

My parents surrounded me with books. My earliest book memory is of Pokey Little Puppy, Water Babies and Topsy Turvy Land. By 8, I was writing my own stories. And by 11, I wrote a suspense novel called Holiday Terror. When I was 14, my father took a writing class and taught me how to professionally submit to publishers. I still have some very nice rejections from the short stories I submitted to American Girl Magazine.

You write picture books (most recently the adorable Lucy Loves Goosey), middle grade and YA. Which do enjoy the most?

I am always the most excited by whatever book I’m currently writing. I love all genres and enjoy challenging myself with new projects. With picture books, when a good idea comes to me it feels like the universe has given me a gift. And seeing my words come alive in the drawings is magical. Lucy Loves Goosey was especially meaningful as it was inspired by my little dog Lucy and my young granddaughter who longed for a big sister.

I also have loads of fun writing much longer and more complicated YA books. The last YA I had published was Memory Girl, a futuristic mystery. Before that it was Dead Girl trilogy and The Seer series. I loved the fan emails I received from my The Seer readers. The main question was always, “Will Sabine and Dominic get together?” I was happy to answer yes, and gave my fans a romantic ghost mystery in the 6th book Magician’s Muse. I printed out all the letters and treasure them.

Of course, if I had to chose a genre, middle-grade mysteries hold a special place in my heart. I have had a wonderful time writing the Curious Cat Spy Club, combining my love of animals and mysteries.

In The Curious Cat Spy Club series (for middle grade readers) Kelsey, Becca and Leo solve animal related mysteries and pets play a central role. Did you have a lot of pets growing up? How about now?

As a child we always had many cats and a dog. Our dog Sandy grew up with me. When I left home, I had dogs and cats, too. I currently have two little dogs (Lucy & Roxy) and three cats (Sunny, Kinky & Molly). We have horses, peacocks, guinea hens and pigs on our 28 acres.

The Curious Cat Spy Club series wraps up with The Trail of the Ghost Bunny, set to release on September 1st. Was it hard to leave the kids after six books?

OMG—Very hard!! It breaks my heart. Ending a series is like a tragic empty nest syndrome because my characters have moved out of my head. I used to cry when a series ended—especially Regeneration and The Seer. I couldn’t let the characters go, so I wrote another Regeneration (Cloned and Dangerous) which I posted on Wattpad. Also  I wrote short stories with The Seer and Dead Girl characters: Dark-Lifers Revenge and Dominic’s Story are free online. I recently wrote a new short story for the CCSC titled Dog Rescue Time Warp which will be available soon. Check my website and/or sign up for my author newsletter for how to get this or the spy packet.

Who are your favorite authors?

So many!! I am obsessed with reading and challenge myself to read over 100 books a year. I alternate between adult mysteries and juvenile fiction. My favorite mystery authors are Kate Morton, Marcia Muller, Nancy Atherton, Rhys Bowen, and Victoria Laurie. My favorite juvenile book authors are: Ingrid Law, J.K. Rowling (of course!), Angie Sage, Alex Flinn, April Henry, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman and Jessica Townsend (her new book NEVERMOOR is amazing!).

What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

Walking. I love oceans and lakes and trees. Going on long walks makes me happy.

What are you working on right now?

A new series which is on submission with several publishers. It’s a chapter book series about resourceful kids who care about animals in a unique way. Fingers crossed it sells soon!!

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

My email is  ljscheer@yahoo.com

Also sign up to find out the latest news and giveaways in my newsletter at www.LindaJoySingleton.com.  I answer all fan letters!! 

   

An interview with Tricia Springstubb

Tricia Springstubb is the author of many books for middle grade readers and while I hope you will add them all to your child’s To Be Read list, right now I’m especially fond of the Cody series, the fourth of which, Cody and the Heart of a Champion, was recently released. Cody is a spunky young girl who charges headlong into life without thinking through the consequences. The results are often hilarious but what I really enjoy is being in Cody’s head and experiencing how she puzzles through challenging life choices, some of which may feel familiar to younger middle grade readers.

AND We’re lucky to have Tricia Springstubb here to answer some questions on today’s blog!

(Buy the books: AmazonB&N, IndieBound or purchase from your local indie bookstore)

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

I’ve loved stories as long as I can remember—stories in books, stories my grandmother told me, stories I made up and acted out with my dolls or stuffed animals. Once I learned to read,

I never went anywhere without a book. It wasn’t till I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s, though, that I began to write for anyone beside myself. I’m a self-taught writer, and my evolution from reader to reader-writer was slow.

I laughed out loud reading Cody and The Fountain of Happiness. Her heart is in the right place but sometimes she messes up anyway (I’m thinking of the hypnotizing scenes). Is this the way you envisioned her from the beginning or did she evolve on the page? Where did Cody come from?

I was a shy, timid child, and I’m still not good at taking risks. I tend to write characters who think a lot before they act. With Cody, I wanted to inhabit a different kind of kid, one who was impulsive and confident and seized the day—for better or for worse. Her big heart saves her every time, thank goodness. I have loved writing her

The secondary characters in the Cody books have much more depth than I’m used to seeing in books targeting younger middle grade readers. It gives your books real emotional heft. Was this intentional?

I can’t seem to help writing complicated—complicated characters, plots, themes. It’s kind of a curse. With the Cody books, I tried hard to make things simpler, but never simplistic. I’m so glad you liked the minor characters, because I am very fond of them all, including MewMew, who’s based on my own beloved cat.

The fourth and latest Cody book is Cody and the Heart of a Champion (released in April). How many do you envision in the series? In your mind, how is Cody changing/will change as the series progresses?

The fourth book is the last one—at least for now. It’s set in spring, so it brings the series full circle through the year. Cody has learned a lot about patience, empathy, conscience, the ebb and flow of friendship, the inevitability of change, but she’s still her own high-spirited, big-hearted self, thank goodness.

Who are your favorite authors?

Children’s writers I love include E.B. White, Kate DiCamillo, Linda Urban, Lynne Rae Perkins, Julie Falatko, Rita Williams-Garcia, Naomi Shihab Nye—I could go on and on (I am very bad at picking favorites).  Adults writers include Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Alice McDermott, Joanne Beard and someone I just discovered—Jane Gardham.

What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

Uh oh, another favorite question! I could say read (duh), walk, garden, but since my second grandbaby was born yesterday, I will say: Be a nana.

What are you working on right now?

I have a new picture book coming out with Candlewick Press in 2020. It’s tentatively titled “Khalil and Mr. Hagerty”. I love love love the collaborative process of working with an illustrator, and I’m very excited to be working for the first time with the amazing Elaheh Taherian.

I’m also working on a new middle grade novel, this one about a girl named Loah, whose fearless (possibly foolish) mother is off on a scientific expedition to save the rare (possibly extinct) Loah bird. It’s gone through more drafts than I can count.

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

Readers can contact me through my website triciaspringstubb.com, my Facebook page, or Twitter @springstubb. Whichever way you choose, please do contact me! I can get very lonesome sitting at this desk by myself all day.

So many resources!

There is a lot of good stuff on my website – learn how to start a creative writing club, get the reading group guide for the Mrs. Smith books, or check out where I’ll be in person next!

1. School Visit Information – I love to visit my readers!  Information on how to bring me to your school.

2. Appearance Schedule

3. Reading Group Guide for Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls

4. Behind the Book – an interview about writing Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls

5. Creative Writing Club for Kids – want to start a writing club for kids? check out how I did it!

6. Resources for Writers – interviews with authors and librarians, surveys with young readers and more.

7. How to Encourage a Reluctant Reader – a PDF that shares 15 strategies that work for busy families, nervous kids, and parents who have tried everything.

Coming July 3rd! (which is kind of soon)

I can’t believe it is not even two months until Power Play releases!  How did that happen?  Pre-order today to make sure it is on your doorstep July 3rd. I can’t wait for this book. It’s a lot of fun – perfect for the beach, the lake, the backyard sprinkler, wherever summer might take you.

Pre-order: AmazonBarnes & Noble, IndieBound or visit your local bookstore.

 

“Once again, Abby’s cheeky, first-person, present-tense narration lends immediacy, realism, and humor to her well-intended penchant for precarious adventure.” – KIRKUS

Some questions for debut author Diane Magras, The Mad Wolf’s Daughter

When I was a kid, I wanted to be the girl version of Indiana Jones. And by girl version I mean, I wanted to be exactly like him but not be a boy. It made perfect sense. He had all the fun, the swashbuckling adventures, the near misses, and he got to save the world. What’s not to love?

So it’s been a thrill for me to see characters like Drest take their rightful place in the pantheon of action heroes. She’s smart, tough, loyal, determined but not without flaws. She can be a bit hot headed and doesn’t always make the right choices but her heart is in the right place and she will get the job done, even if it gets a little messy. Add in the compelling medieval setting and period details and The Mad Wolf’s Daughter will keep you up all night. (Buy the book: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound)

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

I’ve always been an avid reader. I grew up in a family where everyone read—there were books in just about every room of our house—and I started reading fairly young. My parents both loved reading aloud to me, but I didn’t make it easy for them: I often interrupted and told them how I thought the story should go. I wrote stories about my toys and their adventures, but really began taking writing seriously when I was 14 years old. I’d read Susan B. Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, which inspired me to write longer stories about more complicated imaginary topics. And then my wonderful English teacher Ms. Plourde, who had always encouraged my writing, told me that people my age sometimes wrote novels. I decided that it was time for me to write a novel. And so I did.

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is set in the 13th-century Scottish headlands. What research did you do to get a feel for the setting?

I’m a bit obsessed with medieval history, and I read a lot of that for fun. For this book, I focused on Britain and Scotland: David Santiuste’s masterful The Hammer of the Scots: Edward I and the Scottish Wars of Independence, which gave me a great picture of medieval Scottish politics, identity, and ways of thinking; Danny Danziger and John Gillingham’s 1215: The Year of the Magna Carta and Danny Danziger and Robert Lacey’s The Year 1000 for a broad look at Britain, social mores, and daily life during those periods; and Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval Castle and Life in a Medieval Village for more in-depth details. Then for a closer look at specific topics: Ewart Oakeshott’s A Knight and His Armor and A Knight and His Weapons and Malcolm Hislop’s How to Read Castles. Those were some of the most helpful books of my text-based research.

I also took research trips to Scotland in 2016 and 2017 to explore the castles and abbeys of the Scottish Borders. Wandering around those historical sites gave me a taste of what it was really like to be in the world I was describing—as well as to show me specific details that I’d read about but never seen, such as murder holes, arrow loops, and those wonderful narrow stairs that make it difficult to siege a castle. Historic Scotland Environment’s in-depth tourist guides and friendly staff helped me put these properties into context.

Drest is a hero for modern times, a girl rising to the occasion and stepping into a role more often filled by boys. What female heroes, fictional or real, were on your mind when you conceived Drest?

Philip Pullman’s Lyra—especially as she is in The Golden Compass: an independent, brave, mischievous, and intensely loyal girl—has always been a character I’ve admired, and I’m sure those qualities influenced Drest.

Gwynna, of Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur, has also been an important character in my consciousness. I love the way she lived with Arthur’s war-band as a full member of its younger people (though her gender was a secret), and how she responded to the gruesome aspects of battle, then eventually made her own decisions about who and what she would be.

Finally, Kelly Barnhill’s Áine from The Witch’s Boy: a strong girl with her own moral code, determined to do what was right for her purposes, gradually growing to understand, accept, and work toward a greater purpose.

Those three protagonists no doubt influenced Drest, but so did all the fiction I read growing up. As you say, boys nearly always filled the role of hero and had the exciting adventures. As a child, I wanted to be like them—to still be a girl, but to be the one with the quest, the one in the armor with the sword, to be just as strong and tough as they were.

This novel is full of heart pounding danger, deception and adventure. I loved the mystery elements and the fast pace! What came first for you – character or plot?

The character of Drest came first, along with a situation—that she was in a family of bloodthirsty villains, and was going to learn about who they really were once she was separated from them. The rest of the basic plot came after that, and I introduced other characters and began understanding them as I went on with the story. I rewrote the whole novel about three times, honing in more and more on the strongest parts of the plot, each time discovering possibilities for secrets (and going back and editing those in throughout). As I rewrote, I also refined the characters—including Drest.

Writing for middle grade readers can be a challenge. What about this age range/genre appeals to you?

I love how smart, eager, and inventive middle grade readers are. They love books, and they take stories seriously. And they appreciate humor, heart, and action—as do I, in a very similar way. I also know from my own experience at that age how much books can make a difference. Being a middle grader isn’t easy, and the right book can be a friend or an inspiration or an escape—or all three. It’s an honor to write for this age group and try to write that book that will make that difference for a reader.

Who are your favorite authors?

I love Susan Cooper, in particular for The Dark is Rising series, which is rich with lore and filled with shivery moments that dig deep inside the reader. Also Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, and Kelly Barnhill, with every work they write. I’m a huge fan of Katherine Langrish and reread her Dark Angels (published in the U.S. as The Shadow Hunt) each year; her historically accurate yet legend-filled medieval Britain and lovely, lovely story is such a pleasure. And I am grateful to Paul Durham for the Luck Uglies series, which awakened me to the lure of middle grade. (When I read the first book, I’d been writing adult historical yet reading middle grade to keep up with my son, and Luck Uglies was such a pleasure that it inspired me to write my own fast-paced middle grade adventure.)

What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?

I love to read fiction and nonfiction, both for pleasure and research. Also, to go outside and wander the woods with my family. When I’m in a country that has them, I’m always visiting castles, abbeys, and other heritage sites, looking for one more detail, one more story, one more fascinating historical fact.

What are you working on right now? Will we see more of Drest in future books?

I’m in the editing stage for the sequel to The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. I’m also working on a third Scottish medieval adventure that’s not a Drest book. It takes place in a different historical period with a different kind of strong female protagonist (and that’s all I can say until I’m done with it).

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

Twitter is my favorite social media platform and readers can find me there at @dianemagras. I’m also on Instagram (@dianemagras) and have an author page on Facebook (@dianemagrasbooks). Readers may also visit my website, www.dianemagras.com, and contact me through my form or email.

 

A chat with Sally Pla, author of Stanley Will Probably Be Fine

It was a thrill to read Sally Pla’s The Someday Birds when it came out last year so I was excited to dig into her newest novel, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. And it lived up to expectations!

Stanley, suffering from a sensory processing disorder, lives in today’s new ‘normal’, dealing with lockdown drills at school, not to mention friend drama. But  his keen awareness of his own anxiety makes him relatable – elements of his struggles will resonate with almost everyone. Stanley escapes into comic books, where good and evil are often clear cut and logical.

I found this pivot away from a taxing reality both brave and heartbreaking.  Stanley reminds us that while the world may not make sense, we need strategies to live in it, and his journey toward doing just that will have you rooting for him all the way. And now, lucky us, some Q&A with author Sally Pla.

(Buy the book: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound)

Who were your favorite authors as a kid?

There weren’t many books in my house when I was a kid. I remember an old copy of Hans Christian Anderson. There was a set of Dickens that my late grandfather found on a sidewalk (the story goes), and carted home in his wheel barrel. There was a beautiful 19th century copy of Tennyson on the shelf (I still have it), a circa 1910 medical book with nightmare-inducing photos, an encyclopedia, and an art book on German Expressionism which was almost as scary as the medical book.

Once I got old enough to bike to the library by myself, my world brightened considerably! Nancy Drew, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E.L. Konigsburg, Aahhhhhh!!!! Also, animal stories! Misty of Chincoteague! Dr. Doolittle! I reread James Herriott’s “All Things Great and Small” series a million times and decided that when I grew up, I’d become a vet in Yorkshire.

Both The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine deal with children suffering from anxiety. What process do you go through to make sure your depictions are accurate?

Charlie in The Someday Birds and Stanley in Stanley Will Probably Be Fine are indeed both anxious. This was no problem at all to write. I have been anxious my whole life. Every physical symptom, every awfulizing, catastrophizing thought those characters have, are thoughts and symptoms and feelings that I have had. They are me; I am them.

Kids deal with things like active shooter and shelter in place drills in school all the time these days. How did you decide this could work as the focus of a middle grade novel?

We had a school principal, when my three boys were in elementary, who had a peculiar code phrase for initiating a drill. He’d get on the intercom and say: “John Lockdown is in the building!”

Now, everyone thought that was kind of funny. At home, my boys would run around playing this James Bond sort of gun chase game, pretending to be “John Lockdown.” They weren’t freaked out by the drills, not really.

But I was. What kind of a world do we have, when school kids accept as normal the possibility of an intruder bursting in and shooting them in cold blood? When they come home and cheerfully play-act about it?

This really bothered me.

I got to thinking: What if we don’t become inured to it? What if we fight against this societal desensitization? And so, further: What kind of a kid would have a problem with the normalization of violence in his life? What would that kid look like, and act like? What could that kid teach us, if we slipped inside his skin for a while?

Stanley is so wonderful, genuine and relatable. Is he based on anyone you know? Where did he come from?

Stanley is just Stanley. He has many of the same issues as Charlie in The Someday Birds, but Stanley has a dark, sardonic little sense of humor about himself and the world. Now that he exists, I love him like my own kin. Thank you for liking him too!

Superhero comic books are Stanley’s escape from reality and you include multiple panels from Stanley’s own comic creation, John Lockdown. Loved these! Did you work closely with an illustrator to get them right or did you do them yourself?

I did do my own version of Stan’s comic panels, just to storyboard it and see what needed to go where. But thank goodness for artist Steve Wolfhard! Steve’s a veteran comic artist whose work can be seen, most notably, on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. I think Steve’s art in the book (and on its cover) is just amazing. Originally, there were to be many, many more panels of Stanley’s comics. I so wish we could have included them all! Gosh darn!

Secondary characters can often feel cliché but yours, primarily Stanley’s messy family, provide depth and richness to the book. How much backstory do you create for them to achieve this, that never makes it to the page?

I write a lot of backstory, and take a lot of different approaches. At first, Stanley had two older brothers, not one. And he had both a dad and mom, but no grandpa… Things shifted a lot. What I like to do, repeatedly, is draw a bubble map with my main character in the center. Then I put each secondary character in a bubble around him. Each secondary character has to challenge the main character in a different, unique way, so the main character is always being tugged in different interesting directions. The bubble maps help me visualize this. Then, the supporting cast’s personalities grow from this. I also do a lot of journaling on each of them, until I can consistently hear their voices in my head.

What are you currently working on?

A love story between a big lonely girl named Alice Eugenia McMann and a woolly mammoth named Snowball, with a lot of cutting-edge genomic science – and an 85 year old best buddy — thrown in. It is not set in Yorkshire.

How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?

Check out www.sallyjpla.com — there’s a “contact me” link! Or email sallyjplawrites@gmail.com.

 

2017 Best Middle Grade Novels

When you think the world is falling apart and you just can’t take it anymore, I suggest a visit to your local bookstore or library. Browse the middle grade shelves. Pick up almost anything. What will you find?

Gold, pure gold.

Middle grade authors produce some of the best and bravest writing I’ve seen, no matter target audience or genre. Novels range from fantasy to contemporary to historical to completely silly and fun. (I have been known to shout “Funny or die!’ on occasion) These books embrace tough subject matter, not shying away from the difficulties of growing up in a complicated world. I appreciate, too, how girl characters are being elevated to positions of leadership and authority. It’s so important for girls to see themselves on the pages.

I say it all the time: what we read matters.

(Want a chance to win one of these titles? See details at the end.)

 

THE 2017 LIST

 

The Someday Birds, by Sally J. Pla (HarperCollins)

Authors talk a lot about ‘voice’ and how important it is to get it right. It’s hard to describe what exactly ‘voice’ is but when you encounter it, you know – you can feel it all the way down to your toes. You are with the character in his or her head, seeing the world through his or her eyes.The Someday Birds is a perfect example. Charlie struggles to fit in and understand the world around him and just when he thinks he’s got it nailed down, well, everything changes. I felt his pain and confusion and admired his passion. If this character suddenly walked into my living room, I would not be at all surprised. He is that real.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

The Countdown Conspiracy, by Katie Silvensky (HarperCollins) 

Holy cow, I loved this book!  Science, adventure, friendships, outer space, robots, bad guys. The stakes are high in this page turner and it will have you on the edge of your seat. Set in a future post war Earth, Miranda Regent is picked as one of six kids training to go to Mars. But things go immediately sideways and Miranda may be the only one who can herself, her family, her friends and, indeed, the world. Plus, this book has the best epilogue ever.

 

 

 

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser (HMH Books for Young Readers)

I loved this big, warm story about siblings trying to save their sprawling home, a New York City brownstone about to be rented out from under them. It’s an important lesson for kids that they are not powerless and their actions can have an impact. The neighborhood setting brings home the notion that children can experience an expansive world without leaving their city block. I read it in one sitting and look forward to the sequel, due next year.

Read an interview with the author here.

New York Times Book Review here.

 

 

Click’d, by Tamara Ireland Stone (Disney-Hyperion)

Best selling author Stone delivers a fun read with tech savvy Allie Navarro at its heart. Allie develops an app at code camp that helps kids make friends and it’s a hit. It might even be enough for her to beat arch enemy Nathan at an upcoming coding competition. But a glitch might bring down more than her game. Allie has to work fast to save her friendships and her chance at winning the competition. Along the way, she learns valuable lessons about what matters most. This story has all the elements of middle grade – friends, family, school – but bundled with the idea that girls can code as well as anyone. And I hope they do.

 

 

Kat Greene Comes Clean, by Melissa Roske (Charlesbridge)

Author Melissa Roske expertly captures the feelings of a middle school girl who finds herself dealing with how messy life can be. Navigating divorce and her mother’s worsening OCD plus a best friend who’s changing before her eyes. Kat’s bravery in dealing with the chaos broke my heart a little bit – kids being strong in the face of adversity gets me every time. But the message that we should never have to face problems on our own and that help is there no matter what is an important one that Roske brings home beautifully.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

 

A Dash of Dragon, by Heidi Lang & Katie Bartkowski (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster)

The premise of this book is completely delightful: A thirteen-year-old chef has a lot to prove as she tries to run a five-star restaurant, repay a greedy loan shark, and outsmart the Elven mafia in this entertaining novel that combines all the best ingredients—fantasy, humor, adventure, action, cute boys, and a feisty heroine. And the authors (who are sisters – cool, right??) deliver. This is the kind of book I would have loved as a kid and stayed up, hiding under my blankets with a flashlight, to finish. Good fun.

Read an interview with the authors here.

 

 

 

Ahimsa, by Supriya Kelkar (Tu Books)

As Ahmisa opens, it’s 1942 and Ghandi has asked families to give one member to the Indian freedom movement. In the case of Anjali, it’s her mother who steps up. As Anjali’s life changes, she’s forced to confront a new reality brought on my her mother’s commitment to the cause. I love stories where a girl is pushed out of her comfort zone and becomes a better, stronger version of herself. Anjali’s path is thrilling to follow and especially timely in today’s world.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

 

The Prisoner of Ice and Snow, by Ruth Lauren (Bloomsbury)

In order to rescue her sister from a maximum security prison, Valor needs to first be thrown in jail and then figure a way to bust out. The audacity of her plan tells us a lot about her character. She’s bold and daring and will stop at nothing to save her sister. I was taken from the start by Lauren’s intricate world building and edge of my seat pacing. There’s also a visual quality to her writing that had this tale unspooling like a movie in my head.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy, by Gareth Wronski (Aladdin/ Simon & Schuster)

This novel has a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sensibility that I found irresistible. After a case of mistaken identity, Holly finds herself in outer space contending with bounty hunters, giant worms, perky holograms, cosmic board games, sinister insectoid librarians, and a robot who is learning how to lie. Things are complicated….and funny…but author Wronski never loses sight of Holly’s humanity and the struggles that abound in middle school.

Read an interview with the author here.

 

 

Karma Khullar’s Mustache, by Kristi Wientge (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

I loved the adolescent angst in this one because if felt so familiar! Twelve and thirteen year old self doubt is unique and this book offers kids a chance to realize they are not alone dealing with all the weirdness. Karma’s body feels a little bit alien and her best friend seems ready to trade up to a newer shinier best friend. Add in her dad as the new stay at home parent, a mom at work all the time and Karma is just confused. And alone. In true Judy Blume fashion, Wientge captures Karma’s emotions with honesty and charm.

 

 

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