Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Mark Oshiro!

It’s time to Kick Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Mark Oshiro, the author of

THE INSIDERS

Three kids who don’t belong. A room that shouldn’t exist. A year that will change everything.

San Francisco and Orangevale may be in the same state, but for Héctor Muñoz, they might as well be a million miles apart. Back home, being gay didn’t mean feeling different. At Héctor’s new school, he couldn’t feel more alone.

Most days, Héctor just wishes he could disappear. And he does. Right into the janitor’s closet. (Yes, he sees the irony.) But one day, when the door closes behind him, Héctor discovers he’s stumbled into a room that shouldn’t be possible. A room that connects him with two new friends from different corners of the country—and opens the door to a life-changing year full of magic, friendship, and adventure.

Let’s talk to this wonderful author about their fantastic book!
This is Mark. Everyone say, “Hi, Mark!”

Photo Credit: Zoraida Córdova

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Mark! Why don’t we start with some introductions – tell us about yourself!

I’m Mark Oshiro, a kidlit author of both young adult and middle grade. I’ve written Anger is a GiftEach of Us a Desert, and my upcoming MG debut, The Insiders. When I’m not writing, I’m usually doing something outdoors, petting a dog, or on a rollercoaster. 

What was the inspiration behind THE INSIDERS? 

The origins of this book come from the very first manuscript I ever completed, back when I was a freshman in college. It was roundly rejected by everyone I sent it to. (I also didn’t understand that maybe you should send it to agents ONLY, and I definitely printed it out and sent THE WHOLE THING to a bunch of editors. I held on to a copy of it all these years and revisited it when I was looking at old projects for inspiration! The idea itself was pretty simple: I wanted to write a story with a gay Latino as the protagonist, and I had this idea of him finding a magical closet that took him on adventures. It was a way for me to reclaim the notion of being “in the closet.”

Oh, wow! I love that you never gave up on the story!

This is your first middle grade novel (yay!) after starting in YA. Why were you drawn to writing for a younger age level?

I wanted to challenge myself, first of all. I’ve read a lot of middle grade over the years and respected how difficult it seemed to write for that age level. I’m happy to report that it was indeed a challenge! But much like my inspiration for writing young adult fiction, I needed the kind of literature coming out now when I was a kid. I write with that mindset: there’s always a queer kid of color out there who needs to feel a little less alone.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE INSIDERS?

First thing—and this is kinda cheesy—I learned that I could write middle grade! I honestly wasn’t sure I could when I started, but I’m glad I did after having written and published two other books. 

Second thing: There’s a joke about Capri Sun that’s probably my favorite silly moment in the book, and it caused me to seek out Capri Sun again, and that drink STILL slaps. And there are so many more flavors now! 

Third Thing: I still don’t know how time works. In literally every story I’ve ever written that takes place over more than a couple days, my copyeditors have all found incredibly bizarre mistakes concerning the progression of the days of the week. In an early draft of Anger, I fully skipped Wednesday every week; in Desert, I once had a day passing in four hours; and in The Insiders, my copyeditor pointed out that my protagonist couldn’t count days at ALL. I believe all of this says more about me than anything else.

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

I’m cheating because it’s not out yet and none of you can read it yet, but the world of The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton. It’s the start of a middle grade fantasy series, and Dhonielle has so cleverly re-thought the tradition of a magical school, and I am certain the characters of The Insiders would thrive there. 

AH! So jealous that you’ve read it! So excited for when it’s out next year!

For our writer friends reading this, what are your best writer’s block busting tips?

I stop writing and go do literally anything else that isn’t writing. Push-ups, a bike ride, a hike, an hour of video games, chores around the house—all of it gets my brain focusing on other things and usually shakes something free in my mind. It’s also possible that writer’s block is happening because you need to refill your creative well or take a break. I know we’re all stressed and overworked right now, and the best thing I’ve learned in the last couple years is that I have to take time off or burnout will take control of me.

Any hints about your next book project? 

So, I’ve been frighteningly prolific since I finish writing the first draft of The Insiders at the end of February 2020. Publishing is weird in that we’re often working on projects that are years out from release. I’ve actually finished three books since then, and they’re all in various stages of editing right now. I have two books out next year. Both are middle grade! One is a big ol’ secret, and the other is my second book for Harper Collins. It’s not a sequel to The Insiders, but another speculative fiction standalone about regret, time travel, and the most annoying magical companion of all time. I also have a third YA out in the near future, and it’s a contemporary thriller about a cult. 

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

The support of educators and students. I grew up believing that books taught in school had to have been out for a billion years, that they had to be “classics,” and that generally speaking, only old and/or dead white men were used in that setting. I have lost count of the number of classrooms, schools, educational programs, reading clubs, book clubs, and literacy programs have used my YA books in an educational setting. Like… I’m also slightly sorry that my book made some kids do homework, but I’m still SHOOK. I never expected it in my wildest dreams, and I’m so thankful. 

What are you reading right now?

Actually… nothing. Which is okay! I just got off deadline a couple days before this interview when I turned in a rewrite of my next MG book for Harper Collins. So I am currently on a (brief) word break while I reset my brain. I’ve got my fourth book of the year (I am not exaggerating that, HELP) due in November and have to start it soon!

That IS okay! It’s important to remember to take breaks!

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

Don’t compare yourself to anyone but yourself. I say that in terms of being an author AND being a person. There is a vast difference between what is presented to the world and what is actually happening, and there is much we don’t see—in art, in humanity—that affects the presentation. When it comes to writing, I compare my current works with what I’ve done before, since I want to continue growing in my craft, but I do the best I can not to compare what I do with what others are. 

Yes. Exactly this!

Thank you so much for joining us, Mark!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE INSIDERS!
It’s on shelves now!

Add THE INSIDERS to Goodreads!

Connect with Mark on Twitter, Instagram, or through their website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE INSIDERS!
Contest ends Friday, September 24th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Jessica Vitalis!

It’s time to Kick Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Jessica Vitalis, the author of

THE WOLF’S CURSE

Twelve-year-old Gauge’s life has been cursed since the day he witnessed a Great White Wolf steal his grandpapá’s soul, preventing it from reaching the Sea-in-the-Sky and sailing into eternity. When the superstitious residents of Bouge-by-the-Sea accuse the boy of crying wolf, he joins forces with another orphan to prove his innocence. They navigate their shared grief in a journey that ultimately reveals life-changing truths about the wolf––and death.

Let’s talk to this wonderful author about her excellent book!
This is Jessica. Everyone say, “Hi, Jessica!”

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Jessica! Why don’t we start with some introductions – tell us about yourself!

Thank you for having me! I’m a Columbia MBA-wielding children’s author with a passion for dark, magical stories. I’m also a mother of two teen girls and the keeper of two adorable (but mischievous) cats as well as one sweet dog. As an American expat living in Canada, I spend most of the time I’m not writing trying to stay warm.

What was the inspiration behind THE WOLF’S CURSE?

I was standing in front of my bookshelves, casting about for inspiration, when I noticed my worn copy of THE BOOK THIEF. I wondered what kind of story would emerge if I tried writing a book with Death as the narrator. And so THE WOLF’S CURSE was born!

What were you doing when you found out there was an offer on your book? (We always love these stories here at Kick-butt Kidlit!)

I was sitting at my computer when a notification of a new email from my agent flashed across my screen. I’d only been on submission for three weeks, and after several years on submission for various projects with my previous agent, I didn’t expect any news for several weeks, if not months. I opened the email and discovered not only that it was a very attractive offer from one of my dream publishers, but that they’d offered a two-book deal. I started shrieking and (ugly) crying; my daughters heard the commotion and ran in the room. I read them the email and the three of us danced and cried for the next several minutes while I tried to calm down enough to call my agent and hold a (semi) rational conversation. You can read the full story of how I got my agent and two-book deal (and see the photo my daughter snapped when she first ran into the room) here.

That photo is the BEST! Love the joy on your face!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE WOLF’S CURSE?

The most interesting discovery is that the attitudes and rituals surrounding death look different all around the world. For example, a traditional practice among Buddhists in Tibet is Sky Burials, where bodies are placed at the tops of high peaks in order to feed vultures as part of the food chain. The Tinguian people of the Philippines wash their loved ones bodies, dress them in finery, and seat them at the front of the house for up to several weeks. The realization that there are many different ways to grieve and honor the dead opened a door that allowed me to develop my own rituals for THE WOLF’S CURSE.

The second thing I learned while writing THE WOLF’S CURSE is that, despite my best intentions, my stories are probably always going to combine elements of dark and light. I’d written five full manuscripts before this novel, and they were all fairly heavy. When I decided to write a book with Death (or a death-like character) as the narrator, I decided I would have fun with it—I thought perhaps I’d write an adventure or even a comedy. Although there are elements of adventure and humor in the story that emerged, no one will ever accuse me of having written a comedy!

Finally, I learned a lot about wolves, including the fact that although they have a reputation for being independent (hence the term “lone wolf”), they are actually pack animals and extremely loyal. Did you know they often mate for life?

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

What a fun question! Both Gauge and Roux are interested in seeing the world, so they’d probably enjoy leaving their French-inspired medieval/renaissance lives and exploring the modern world. I think they would get along with Kitty from Yvette Clark’s GLITTER GETS EVERYWHERE, so perhaps they could tag along with her in both London and New York?

That sounds like an adventure and a half!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

My first attempt at a novel was a memoir and my second was a young adult novel. At the same time, I was exploring picture books. My critique partners kept telling me that my picture book attempts all sounded like the first chapters of middle grade novels. It wasn’t until I finished David Almond’s KIT’S WILDERNESS that I realized middle grade was the perfect fit for the stories I wanted to tell. 

Any hints about your next book project?

The only thing I can say at this point is that the premise is both the exact opposite of, and a perfect complement to, THE WOLF’S CURSE!

Ooooh! Can’t wait to hear more!

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

How long it’s taken; I wrote six books over the course of thirteen years before landing my first book deal!

What are you reading right now?

I just finished Heather Kassner’s THE PLENTIFUL DARKNESS (so gorgeous and creepy and heartfelt!), and I’m getting ready to start THE MANY MEANINGS OF MEILAN by Andrea Wang. 

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

Never give up!

NEVER EVER!

Thank you so much for joining us, Jessica!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE WOLF’S CURSE!
It hits shelves on September 21st!

Add THE WOLF’S CURSE to Goodreads!

Connect with Jessica on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE WOLF’S CURSE!
Contest ends Friday, September 10th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Sarah Moon!

It’s time to Kick Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Sarah Moon, the author of

MIDDLETOWN

Thirteen-year-old Eli likes baggy clothes, baseball caps, and one girl in particular. Her seventeen-year-old sister Anna is more traditionally feminine; she loves boys and staying out late. They are sisters, and they are also the only family each can count on. Their dad has long been out of the picture, and their mom lives at the mercy of her next drink. When their mom lands herself in enforced rehab, Anna and Eli are left to fend for themselves. With no legal guardian to keep them out of foster care, they take matters into their own hands: Anna masquerades as Aunt Lisa, and together she and Eli hoard whatever money they can find. But their plans begin to unravel as quickly as they were made, and they are always way too close to getting caught.

Eli and Anna have each gotten used to telling lies as a means of survival, but as they navigate a world without their mother, they must learn how to accept help, and let other people in.

Let’s talk to this awesome author about her wonderful book!
This is Sarah. Everyone say, “Hi, Sarah!”

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Sarah! Why don’t we start with some introductions – tell us about yourself!

Thank you so much for this! Things to know about me — I’m a teacher in Brooklyn, I just finished my 17th year teaching. I have a hilarious, brilliant, opinionated four year old and a wonderful, patient wife. I am an extremely amateur knitter and I love reality tv. 

What was the inspiration behind MIDDLETOWN?

I wrote MIDDLETOWN for my sister. I am the youngest of three, and my sister and I were the ones who were home once our parents got divorced. We were 12  and 15 and found ourselves alone, together, a lot. While our lives couldn’t have looked less like Eli and Anna’s, I remember feeling like it was just her and me in our little lifeboat, and so no matter how different we were from each other or how much we fought, we were always going to have to figure out how to keep the boat from tipping over. We’re still like that, I think, all these years later.

The other thing I wanted to write about was being a queer kid in a small town, which was very much my experience. It’s odd — the book is really, really different from my life, but it’s also probably the most autobiographical thing I’ll ever write.

Two sisters, Eli and Anna, are at the heart of this book. What do you think are some key factors in writing realistic sibling relationships?

Ha! I’ve never thought about that. I think it’s about doing something that’s almost impossible to do as a sibling — seeing each person as a whole and also as a part. There’s who Eli is, there’s who Anna is, and there’s who they are to each other. The parts that they show to each other, the parts they try (and fail) to hide from each other, the parts that hurt each other, and the parts that make the other person who she is. We’ll get into this more later, but I have a real *thing* about the complexities of the lives of young people, and so I think that, for me, that extends to their relationships. Nobody is just one thing, not to themselves, and not to anybody else, either. I wanted their relationship to be just as layered as the sisters themselves.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on MIDDLETOWN?

How many Middletowns there are! I thought they were all in the northeast, but I was wrong. I also learned, as I always do when trying to write a book, that I avoid conflict on that page just as much as I avoid it in life and I always have to go back and force myself to make the characters have  the conversation they are/I am avoiding. I learned that it is indeed possible to write a book during a pandemic with a toddler, though I’m not super sure I’d like to learn that again.

Oof! That definitely sounds like a lesson that would last a lifetime!

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

Anna gets sent to I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER to learn that she’s not as alone as she thinks she is, and Eli gets sent to I FELT A FUNERAL IN MY BRAIN for exactly the same reason. 

MIDDLETOWN is a middle grade novel that also feels like it could be a bridge into YA. What drew you to writing for this age group?

Sooooo, I didn’t really understand that if you write a book with an 8th grade protagonist, then it’s going to be middle grade (despite the fact that I’ve done this twice now), so there’s that. But the truth is that, while I love the high schoolers that I work with, my heart is always with middle schoolers. Throughout my teaching life, even when I’m working with older kids, I always find a way to connect with middle schoolers because they are my bread and butter. They are hilarious, honest and figuring out themselves in a way that is both excruciating and exhilarating. I invited Kacen Callender to speak at my school last year, and one thing that they said that struck a particular chord is that we write for the age group where we experienced our first trauma. I’d never thought about it like that, and I also haven’t been able to get it out of my head, so that’s probably a factor for me, too. It wasn’t easy growing up queer in my town, I came out when I was 14. I will probably always write for queer 14 year olds, just like I will probably always teach to the queer 14 year old in any classroom I’m in. 

Any hints about your next book project?

A few things! A proper middle grade that takes place at Family Week in Provincetown, and a time-hopping love story, both of which may orr may not include a plethora of queer 14 year olds. 

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey? 

Everything about my publishing journey has been surprising and unlikely, and also in some ways very predictable because it’s very much a result of growing up as the child of a writer. The most surprising part of my publishing journey still is the moment that my heart leapt out of my chest because The Arthur A. Levine, who had just published the anthology I’d co-edited with Celeste Lecesne of the Trevor Project, told me that I should send him what I would be working on next. But the only reason that happened was because I met Celeste when I was a 12 year old kid on my bike in Provincetown because he and my mother worked together at the Fine Arts Work Center, and so it was that I ran into him again 15 years later outside of a theater in New York and said, hey, I have this idea for a book, and six months later, I was sitting in The Arthur A. Levine’s office with my jaw on the floor. I try to be very upfront about both the unlikeliness of my story and the ways in which the industry is greased for a story like mine.

Oh, wow! That’s amazing!

What are you reading right now?

I’m always reading too many books. Blackout (six powerhouses in one book — each page is a gift); All Adults Here (all things Emma Straub always); Time to Stir (a book about the Columbia strike in 1968, see aforementioned time-hopping love story), and While Justice Sleeps (a political thriller from the political genius of Stacey Abrams? Yes, please). 

Just finished BLACKOUT over here and love, love, loved it!

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

When I was 16 and woebegone about my wish to write but my deep, deep doubts about having any talent at all, my stepmother asked me, “Do you know what you have to do to be a writer?” I said, “No,” quite plaintively. She said, “You have to write.” I think about that every day.

That is totally it.

Thank you so much for joining us, Sarah!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out MIDDLETOWN!
It’s on shelves now!

Add MIDDLETOWN on Goodreads!

Connect with Sarah on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of MIDDLETOWN!
Contest ends Friday, August 13th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Rajani LaRocca!

Welcome Back to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Rajani LaRocca, the author of

RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE

Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and holidays. But Reha’s parents don’t understand why she’s conflicted—they only notice when Reha doesn’t meet their strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—but they are a universe apart.

Then Reha finds out that her Amma is sick. Really sick.

Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor even though she can’t stomach the sight of blood, is determined to make her Amma well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving her Amma’s life.

Let’s talk to this fantastic author about her amazing book!
This is Rajani. Everyone say, “Hi, Rajani!”

Welcome back to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Rajani! Why don’t we start with some introductions for our new readers – tell us about yourself!

Hi Casey! It’s so great to be back here! I was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now I live in the Boston area, where I practice medicine and write books for kids! I’ve always been an omnivorous reader, and now I’m an omnivorous writer of novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, in poetry and prose.

What was the inspiration behind RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE?

RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is a novel in verse set in 1983 about 13-year-old Reha, who feels torn between the worlds of her immigrant parents and her friends at school. But then her mother is diagnosed with leukemia, and her life turns upside down. Reha becomes convinced that if she can just be the perfect daughter, the daughter her parents want her to be, she can somehow save her mother’s life.

The idea for RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE started as a metaphor: the metaphor of blood, and all that it means in terms of biology, family, and community. While the plot of the book is fictional, many of the emotions in it are ones I experienced as a kid growing up as the child of Indian immigrants.

RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is a novel in verse. What was the creative process for that like? Was it very different from your other novels? What kind of challenges did you run into? 

Because RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is very interiorly focused and emotional, I thought that verse would be the perfect way to write it. However, I didn’t know if I could write a novel in verse. So I read every novel in verse for young readers that I could get my hands on, and just tried.

I spent a long time thinking about this book before I wrote any of it. I had a rough outline, but then I just sat down and wrote poems. The first poem I wrote became a kind of “keystone” poem that became the central poem of this book — and in the final book, it’s just about at the halfway point.

Then, instead of scenes and chapters, I thought of each poem as a snapshot—of a single moment, or a single thought, image, or concept. I wrote poem after poem, and I sometimes wrote them in pairs when a piece of imagery changed over the course of the novel. I found myself dictating into my phone on my commute and waking in the middle of the night to jot notes. Before writing, and while writing, I listened to a never-ending playlist from 1983-1984, and I created my own playlist for songs I featured in the book—because Reha loves pop music as much as I did when I was her age. Unlike my prose novels, where I usually write scenes and chapters in order, I wrote the poems for RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE in any order I wanted, and figured out the “right” order to put them in during revision.

Here’s a link to the RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5XAcxzLHYS4Y4gLAgHZeLK?si=50c9baec83784a7d

Oh, wow! What a fascinating process! And a playlist is always fun! 😀

You also have another middle grade novel that just came out last month! MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL is the companion novel to your debut, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. What was it like continuing with a new story in the same book world you’d created? Did you always know that you were going to write a follow-up book? Since it’s a companion novel, will readers get to see much of the characters from the first book?

I really enjoyed returning to the magical world of MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM! MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL is set in the same town (Comity, MA) during the same summer as the first book but follows a different set of characters — both human and magical. A few of the characters from MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM are mentioned, but we don’t see any of them in this book. I came up with the idea for this book a long time ago, but it took me a while to figure out what exactly the story should be and how it should be told.

If you could transport any of your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

It might be fun to see the regular kids from Comity plopped into one of Shakespeare’s plays—perhaps A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and see what happens!

That sounds like a recipe for shenanigans!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

The middle grade years are such an incredible time in kids’ lives, when they are still close to their families but are also forming important friendships and becoming more autonomous, as well as learning about what they are interested in and thinking about what values they hold dearest. Middle grade readers are smart and care about fairness and justice. They love to have fun. And they still believe in magic.

The books I remember the best, the ones that made the biggest difference in my life, were ones I read during my middle grade years. And I’m so humbled and honored to be writing books for middle grade readers today.

Any hints about your next book project?

I have three more books coming this year—all picture books. WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET, coming August 24 from Abrams, is about a girl who travels with her mother and grandmother to the tip of India, and what she learns along the way about the love and strength mothers and daughters share. MY LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK ABOUT KAMALA HARRIS, a picture book biography of our amazing vice president, releases August 31. And THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU comes out September 14 from Little Bee Books. It’s a nonfiction book told in rhyming verse that explains the basics of genetics, but also touches on how our choices also make us who we are.

In terms of middle grade, my next MG novel is coming fall 2022 from Quill Tree/HarperCollins. It’s a dual-POV book about identical twin sisters who grow apart but find their way back to each other through music.

So exciting! Can’t wait for more Rajani books!

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

I never expected to meet some of my best friends in my 40s and beyond…but I have, thanks to writing.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading a lot of adult mysteries and YA fantasy.

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

Be kind to yourself. There are times when the writing flows, and times when it doesn’t. Sometimes you have to push through even when the writing is hard. But sometimes it’s a signal that you need a break.

A very important reminder!

Thank you so much for joining us, Rajani!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE (and MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL)! They’re both on shelves now!

Add RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE and MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL on Goodreads!

Connect with Rajani on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE!
Contest ends Friday, July 30th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!


Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Chrystal D. Giles!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kid-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Chrystal D. Giles, the author of

TAKE BACK THE BLOCK

Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That–and hanging out with his crew (his best friends since little-kid days) and playing video games–is what he wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year, not the protests his parents are always dragging him to.

But when a real estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks, the neighborhood Wes has lived his whole life, everything changes. The grownups are supposed to have all the answers, but all they’re doing is arguing. Even Wes’s best friends are fighting. And some of them may be moving. Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known. Wes has always been good at puzzles, and he knows there has to be a missing piece that will solve this puzzle and save the Oaks. But can he find it . . . before it’s too late?

Let’s talk to this fabulous author about her splendid book!
This is Chrystal. Everyone say, “Hi, Chrystal!”

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Chrystal! Why don’t we start with some introductions – tell us about yourself!

Hi, thanks so much for having me! I’m a children’s book author, I’ve written some picture books and poetry, but my heart is in middle-grade fiction. My debut novel is a middle-grade contemporary realistic story called TAKE BACK THE BLOCK.

I’ve also had a fairly extensive career in accounting and finance but I can truly say writing for young people is so much more fun! I live outside Charlotte, NC with my husband and son.

What was the inspiration behind TAKE BACK THE BLOCK?

This story was directly inspired by my hometown, Charlotte, NC. My city, like many cities across the nation, is experiencing gentrification and the displacement of marginalized people. Years ago, I started to notice whole communities being wiped away, I really became troubled by the thought of what happens to the children and families when these neighborhoods are transformed.

I couldn’t get that worry out of my mind so I decided to write a story that centered on the up-close view of a community fighting to remain whole.

What were you doing when you found out there was an offer on your book?

I was at my day job when the first offer rolled in. My agent was kind of expecting an offer from an editor who had loved the book. Just a few days after receiving the manuscript, that editor had sent an email swooning over a scene. I was ecstatic and overwhelmed and happy to have an official offer.

As the week went on, we got some other interest so my agent set an auction for the next week. Ultimately, three editors made offers and I ended with a two-book deal.

Oh, that’s so exciting! Yay for more Chrystal books!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on TAKE BACK THE BLOCK?

  1. I learned about the history of my hometown, and more importantly, the historical Black Americans who’d done so much for it and its residents.
  2. How much I love young people’s style and fashion sense. I wanted my main character, Wes, to be style-obsessed so I made sure to pay attention to how young people dress and the impact of sneaker culture on this generation of kids.
  3. The more detail you put into your story, the more relatable is it to readers. I think new writers tend to skip details that don’t seem interesting in their own minds, I sure used to. But really it’s those specific things that readers relate to most.

Do YOU have a favourite pair of sneakers? If so, which ones?

Just like my main character Wes, I am a lover of Nike AirMax. I don’t have a favorite pair (as I have many, too many) but I am partial to the AirMax 90 style.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I have such clear memories of sitting alone reading stacks and stacks of books as a girl around the age of ten. In some ways, books were my first friends. I want to write stories for the kids who are looking for themselves and their world in a book. I also write for the kids are who just starting to get interested in the lives of their neighbors and people who have stories different from their own experiences. Middle-grade is the perfect entry point for those explorations.

So true. This is why middle grade is the best!

Any hints about your next book project?

My next project is another middle-grade contemporary novel. I’m in the process of editing it now and the horror stories of publishing your second book are true. I absolutely love the book but the stress of editing during a pandemic all while debuting (during a pandemic) have been a true test.

Readers can expect the new book late 2022 or early 2023.

Seriously. Everyone who debuted/released books during the pandemic is a total super star. I am in awe of anyone who managed to tackle any words this past year.

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

Honestly, that people are reading and relating to my book. I know that must sound pretty simplistic, but really I am constantly surprised (and flattered) every time I’m tagged in a post or see a picture of someone holding my book.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished, THE SHAPE OF THUNDER by Jasmine Warga, last week. It was so good and I still think about it at least once a day.

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

Write the story only you can tell.

Absolutely.

Thank you so much for joining us, Chrystal!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out TAKE BACK THE BLOCK!
It’s on shelves now!

Add TAKE BACK THE BLOCK on Goodreads!

Connect with Chrystal on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of TAKE BACK THE BLOCK!
Contest ends Friday, July 16th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Shakirah Bourne!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Shakirah Bourne, the author of

JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA

Eleven-year-old Josephine knows that no one is good enough for her daddy. That’s why she makes a habit of scaring his new girlfriends away. She’s desperate to make it onto her school’s cricket team because she’ll get to play her favorite sport AND use the cricket matches to distract Daddy from dating.

But when Coach Broomes announces that girls can’t try out for the team, the frustrated Josephine cuts into a powerful silk cotton tree and accidentally summons a bigger problem into her life . . .

The next day, Daddy brings home a new catch, a beautiful woman named Mariss. And unlike the other girlfriends, this one doesn’t scare easily. Josephine knows there’s something fishy about Mariss but she never expected her to be a vengeful sea creature eager to take her place as her father’s first love! Can Josephine convince her friends to help her and use her cricket skills to save Daddy from Mariss’s clutches before it’s too late?

Let’s talk to this magnificent author about her incredible book!
This is Shakirah. Everyone say, “Hi, Shakirah!”

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Shakirah! Tell us about yourself!

Hi Casey! I’m so excited to chat with you today. I’m a Barbadian author, still residing in the lovely island of Barbados. My background is in filmmaking, adult literary fiction, playwriting and much more–I love creating stories and experimenting with many different narrative styles. I eventually found my way to writing kidlit in 2017 and my debut middle grade contemporary fantasy, JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA, comes out with Scholastic on July 6th 2021.

What was the inspiration behind JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA?

I decided to enter a writing competition called BURT Award for Caribbean YA Literature, three weeks before the deadline. I had to decide on a story idea quickly, and the first idea that came to mind was inspired by a story I read in English class when I was twelve years old, about a fisherman who became obsessed with a mermaid. 

Though villagers warned him to stay away, he visited her by the river everyday. At night, she took over his dreams; he stopped caring for his family and himself, and one day, villagers found his clothing on the riverbank, and neither he nor the mermaid were ever seen again.

I always wondered what could have happened to them. Who was that mermaid? What if the fisherman’s daughter tried to find him?  JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA became my answer to those questions. I have always had a love for fantastical tales, and this story gave me the opportunity to delve further into Caribbean folklore and create a modern day adaptation set in Barbados.  

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA?

1. I discovered that I can write a book in a short timeframe. In only twenty-one days, I planned a book, wrote the first draft while crying, and still had a few days to spare to re-read and edit before the deadline. I haven’t finished a book so quickly since then.

2. I discovered a passion for writing kidlit. In my adult short fiction I would write stories from the perspective of children, mainly to expose hypocrisy or show irony, but I never thought about writing books specifically targeting kids until the BURT competition. There is a significant lack of Caribbean middle grade books, and I can’t think of even one traditionally published middle grade novel set in Barbados, so now I’m on a mission to encourage and inspire as many Caribbean/Bajan writers as I can to explore this genre. 

3. I discovered even more connections between Caribbean and African mythology in my research, especially with regards to sea spirits and sea goddesses. I started to think more about the history of my antagonist and during revisions, I started to empathize with her and see her point of view. It sparked an idea for a sequel, which I pitched to my editor, who loved it too! Now JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE HEARTMAN is coming out in 2023.

Oh, wow! That’s impressive that you were able to write your first draft so quickly! And so excited to hear about the upcoming sequel!

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

In thinking about the answer to this, I realized that I have read a lot of traumatic and dystopian novels, and there’s no way I’d subject Josephine and Ahkai to such angst (yes, I know they have to battle a sea spirit but that’s not the point). I think I’d let them go book-hopping in some Enid Blyton stories, and add Black representation in those books. They’d have a lot of fun solving mysteries with the Famous Five or Secret Seven, and Josephine and Elizabeth would wreak havoc with elaborate practical jokes in The Naughtiest Girl in School series. 

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I didn’t realize I was writing middle grade at all. When I first queried this book, I claimed that it was Young Adult, and then had to learn the differences between the two. In retrospect, I’ve always been drawn to telling stories through the eyes of 11-13 years olds since this is an important period of transition for kids. This is the time they start questioning their place in their family and other groups; they are curious, and willing to go on adventures, and are quite frank and honest in their observations. I find examining people and setting through this perspective very fascinating, and it lends well to humour through self-reflection and also of the behavior of friends, family and the wider community. 

It really is one of the best ages to write for!

Let’s talk about writing style! When you start a new story – do you plot it out or are you a pantser? What are some of your favourite methods for tackling writer’s block?  

I am a Plotster (who leans more to the plotter side). I like to know the beginning, turning point one & two, midpoint and ending of a story before I start writing. I plan as much as possible because I find that writer’s block occurs when I don’t understand the story or know where it’s going. However, my outline is for peace of mind and it’s just a guide. I still leave room for characters to surprise me and I am flexible enough to include new scenes or other plot elements that appear during the writing process. 

I find the best way to tackle writer’s block is to stop thinking about the story. I either read a book or watch a series, and it’s guaranteed that I’ll be inspired again by a scene, a line of dialogue or even an interesting location. 

Yes! Stepping away is sometimes the best thing you can do. And high fives to a fellow Plotser! 😀

Any hints about your next book project?

Yes! It’s called DUPPY ISLAND and it’s coming out in 2022. It’s about a young filmmaker who follows her family to a silent retreat on a mysterious island to get footage of a rare butterfly, and discovers that the island is haunted by faceless children. It’s inspired again by Caribbean folklore–a douen is a child who has died before they’re baptized. 

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

I am constantly learning about publishing challenges and obstacles, especially for marginalized authors. However, a really surprising and delightful part of the journey is connecting with other debut authors, and realizing that some of your new favorite writers are now your peers. I did not expect to suddenly have access to so many amazing books and people.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading and enjoying:

The Last Shadow Warrior by Sam Subity

The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

Where The Are Monsters by Breanne Mc Ivor

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit” – Richard Bach

This is my favourite piece of advice to encourage people to keep going, keep learning, keep improving and to never give up on their dreams.

Always, always, always!

Thank you so much for joining us, Shakirah!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA!
It hits shelves on July 6th!

Add JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA on Goodreads!

Connect with Shakirah on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA!
Contest ends Friday, July 2nd at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Liselle Sambury!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Liselle Sambury, the author of

BLOOD LIKE MAGIC

After years of waiting for her Calling—a trial every witch must pass in order to come into their powers—the one thing Voya Thomas didn’t expect was to fail. When Voya’s ancestor gives her an unprecedented second chance to complete her Calling, she agrees—and then is horrified when her task is to kill her first love. And this time, failure means every Thomas witch will be stripped of their magic.

Voya is determined to save her family’s magic no matter the cost. The problem is, Voya has never been in love, so for her to succeed, she’ll first have to find the perfect guy—and fast. Fortunately, a genetic matchmaking program has just hit the market. Her plan is to join the program, fall in love, and complete her task before the deadline. What she doesn’t count on is being paired with the infuriating Luc—how can she fall in love with a guy who seemingly wants nothing to do with her?

With mounting pressure from her family, Voya is caught between her morality and her duty to her bloodline. If she wants to save their heritage and Luc, she’ll have to find something her ancestor wants more than blood. And in witchcraft, blood is everything.

Let’s talk to this brilliant author about her fabulous book!
This is Liselle. Everyone say, “Hi, Liselle!”

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Liselle! Why don’t we start with some introductions – tell us about yourself!

I’m a Trinidadian-Canadian author and describe my brand of writing as “messy Black girls in fantasy situations.” Blood Like Magic is my debut novel.

What was the inspiration behind BLOOD LIKE MAGIC?

I really just wanted to write a fun witch story and thought it would be interesting to set it in Toronto. I was living away from my hometown at the time and felt really homesick, so setting the story in Toronto was a way to feel more connected to my city. Overall, I wanted to create the sort of Black girl led fantasy I would have loved to read as a teen.

What were you doing when you found out there was an offer on your book?

I was at work! I used to do social media marketing at a travel company, and I was just doing my usual thing when my phone lit up from my agent about hopping on a call. I immediately ran off to call her, because I knew we had interest from my now editor Sarah. I thought it was going to be a call saying we were going to second reads aka that more people at the publisher were going to read it first and maybe it could go to an editorial meeting, but it ended up being an offer. So, it was a very happy surprise.

Love that!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on BLOOD LIKE MAGIC?

I learned a lot about my own family history and how they went from being enslaved in the United States, to being given land in Trinidad and Tobago, to immigrating to Canada. I learned what rotten sugar cane tastes like (I needed to describe it in the book) first from my grandma’s account and then accidentally from personal experience. And finally, I learned quite a bit about slavery practices in Canada that were very much concealed in my education.

How did you tackle the world building with BLOOD LIKE MAGIC? Was there one key aspect that you built everything else around or did it grow organically from the plot or something else entirely?

I initially did not plan any world building which I came to regret later. I had the idea that they needed to use blood to use magic, and that otherwise they would have a gift that didn’t require blood. I basically ran with that, and I added rules as I went, and edited things that didn’t work. It was the same with the DNA modification in the book. I essentially just ran with the idea that there now existed a machine that made simple modification of genes in living humans possible, and like the magic, built things as I went on. I would not recommend this method because I had to do a lot of editing, but that’s how it came together.

Sometimes a book just wants to take a twisty-turny path on its way to being finished, right? 😀

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

This is hard because so many fantasy worlds are terrible, and I’m already so mean to my characters. I feel like I owe it to my main character Voya to transport her to the world of Like Home by Louisa Onomé. It’s set in a neighbourhood very near Toronto, and it’s got this wonderful group of friends that I feel like she would love, since her friends are basically just her family members. I also think she would enjoy the break from non-magical conflict and would appreciate helping Chinelo in standing up for her neighbourhood. Like Home very much examines the reputation of certain neighbourhoods and how they can be treated like moveable objects instead of real people. I think that’s definitely something Voya could get behind and that she would be happy to do everything in her power to help out.

Any hints about your next book project?

I am working on the sequel to Blood Like Magic, which I won’t chat much about because there would be so many book one spoilers, but I will say that I’m excited about it. I also have a young adult novel called Butcherbirds coming in 2023 which has a mysterious inherited mansion, family secrets, complicated mother-daughter relationships, and ghosts.

So excited for both of those!

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

To me, the most surprising thing has been the genuine and strong connections that I’ve made with other authors along my journey. When I first joined the writing community, I truly didn’t expect that—writing is a solitary activity after all. But the friendships that I’ve made as I’ve gone along on my journey have been the thing that has played the biggest role in me not giving up, in me fighting to get my stories published, and in helping me through bad times and hyping me in good times.

What are you reading right now?

Right now I’m reading the physical book of Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas, which is a spooky Peter Pan inspired fantasy, and on audio I’m listening to Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire because I’ve heard so much about this series and I had to try it out for myself.

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

Focus on what you can control—the writing.

In this industry, it’s very easy to get caught up in things like wanting to be on lists, or featured in blogs, or getting into a book box, etc. Almost all of that, you don’t have control over, and so it can be so frustrating or devasting when you don’t get any of those accolades that you wanted. It’s very easy to get consumed by those things. But when you focus on writing the best book possible, that’s something you have full control over. Now, I always say to myself “you wrote the best book you could” and move on, and good things that happen are great, but I can’t freak out if something I wanted doesn’t come because I already did the work. I already did my best. My job from now is to do that on the next book, not obsess over what I did or didn’t achieve with the first. I just find that attitude to be very freeing.

Such good advice and one of the most important things to always try and remember!

Thank you so much for joining us, Liselle!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out BLOOD LIKE MAGIC!
It’s on shelves now!

Add BLOOD LIKE MAGIC on Goodreads!

Connect with Liselle on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of BLOOD LIKE MAGIC!
Contest ends Friday, June 18th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Reem Faruqi!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Reem Faruqi, the author of

UNSETTLED

When Nurah’s family moves from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peachtree City, Georgia, all she really wants is to blend in, but she stands out for all the wrong reasons. Nurah’s accent, floral-print kurtas, and tea-colored skin make her feel excluded, and she’s left to eat lunch alone under the stairwell, until she meets Stahr at swimming tryouts. Stahr covers her body when in the water, just like Nurah, but for very different reasons.

But in the water Nurah doesn’t want to blend in: She wants to stand out. She wants to win medals like her star athlete brother, Owais—who is going through struggles of his own in America—yet when sibling rivalry gets in the way, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates.

As Nurah slowly begins to sprout wings in the form of strong swimming arms, she gradually gains the courage to stand up to bullies, fight for what she believes in, and find her place.

Let’s talk to this outstanding author about her phenomenal book!
This is Reem. Everyone say, “Hi, Reem!”

Welcome to Kick-butt Kidlit, Reem! Tell us about yourself!

Hi Casey! I’m Reem. I’m Pakistani, live in Atlanta, and have three daughters. My writing career started off with my picture book LAILAH’S LUNCHBOX. I’m honored that it’s gotten awards and done so well. My other books are AMIRA’S PICTURE DAY, my debut middle grade novel UNSETTLED, and an upcoming picture book I CAN HELP. I love writing lyrical stories that reflect my experiences.

What was the inspiration behind UNSETTLED?

Like Nurah, I immigrated to Peachtree, Georgia. Unlike Nurah I moved from Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates whereas Nurah moves from my country of origin, Pakistan. Since this experience was similar to mine, it felt natural to write what I knew. I also wanted to write about an immigrant experience that felt true to me.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on UNSETTLED?  

  1. The power of memory was one thing that struck me while writing this book since it’s loosely based on my life experiences. I can be scatter minded and forgetful, but lots of my stories that I remembered vividly came back to me. I moved when I was thirteen years old, and those experiences shaped who I am today. Interestingly my brothers read my book and had questions about specific experiences and wanted to clarify who said/who did what! It’s fascinating what experiences stay with you and how each person remembers things differently!
  2. This was my first middle grade book and I had never done copyediting before; it’s so hard and tedious and I celebrated when that stage was over. I also was surprised how many people come together for a middle grade book – cover art designer and illustration, interior art, copy-editing, publicity, marketing, editing, seeing pass pages, going through an arc, aah!
  3. How peaceful and therapeutic swimming can be. Nurah loves to swim and when writing this story, I felt like I connected with her and refreshed my mind by swimming laps, lots of them!

The differences in sibling memories is so funny and so true!

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

I feel like Nurah would connect with Jude from OTHER WORDS FOR HOME by Jasmine Warga as they both move to the US. I also think she’d connect with Reha from RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE by Rajani La Rocca as Nurah also has two parts of her, one Pakistani side and one American. I like to think they’d all be friends.

What’s your go-to method to get yourself in the writing mood? Do you have a specific writing spot or special snack? How do you get the words flowing?

I wish I had fun answers for these, but the writing process can be monotonous.

My go-to method is sitting down by my laptop and opening up Microsoft Word. When I get tired of the screen, I try to use a journal and a fancy pen (I like the Sharpie S-Gel 0.7 mm one) if I have one nearby. I love brainstorming with pen and paper although sometimes when I write too fast, I can’t read my writing!

My specific writing spot is my desk nook in the kitchen facing the wall. I like to sit in my usual spot – I find that helps me since I find it hard to write in other places. In the pandemic, I found another writing spot by my upstairs window. I like to write in those two spots in my house. I’ve never been a writer who likes to write in coffee shops. I would get too easily distracted. I also like the smell of coffee but not the taste so I don’t drink coffee. Also, at home I already have too many distractions, but I try to work with my children around.

For a special snack, I don’t really have one, but I’m lucky if I can get a handful of chocolate chips from the freezer. I freeze them because I have really bad self-control. 🙂

Yes! Sometimes taking pen to paper is the best way! I hear you on the trying to decipher your own handwriting problem though, haha!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I wasn’t! I did not want to write middle grade for the longest time. I have to credit my two earlier agents Ilse Craane and Kendra Marcus who encouraged me to write middle grade because they thought I had the voice for it.

I was a picture book writer and wanted to write and work with children who are shorter than me:  I’m 5 feet and three quarters. I was an elementary school teacher and taught second graders.

However, I looooved reading middle grade books and that’s what I exclusively read. I was (and still am!) in awe of middle grade writers.

I attempted my book UNSETTLED in prose, then converted it to verse, and loved that format so much more. It felt much less intimidating to me than a prose novel in middle grade. Now, I enjoy writing middle grade!

Any hints about your next book project?

Gold! … and a character who risks everything to help her family.

Ooooh, I think you’re going to have everyone intrigued by that hint!

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

  1. How long it takes – Unsettled took me 4 years (I took lots of breaks in between, gave up many times, and had a new baby – who’s now 3 years old!) 
  2. How the right editor and agent can make a difference for your manuscript(s). I’ve loved working with my agent Rena Rossner and HarperCollins editor Alyson Day.
  3. How short it takes – after writing Unsettled, my other novel in verse GOLDEN GIRL took me a few months so that was refreshing. I also recommend having an outline before writing, something I learned the hard way!

What are you reading right now?

Right now, I’m enjoying THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate and TWINTUITION by Tia and Tamera Mowry. Also some bedtime stories by Enid Blyton that I had as a child! I also recently finished and loved STARFISH by debut author Lisa Fipps. I tend to read a few books in a go.

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

YOU are your best advocate. Try to speak up when you want something a certain way. It doesn’t hurt to ask for something. Lastly, you only fail when you fail to try.

Absolutely!

Thank you so much for joining us, Reem!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out UNSETTLED!
It’s on shelves now!

Add UNSETTLED on Goodreads!

Connect with Reem on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of UNSETTLED!
Contest ends Friday, June 4th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Payal Doshi!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Payal Doshi, the author of

REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR

It all begins on the night Rea turns twelve. After a big fight with her twin brother Rohan on their birthday, Rea’s life in the small village of Darjeeling, India, gets turned on its head. It’s four in the morning and Rohan is nowhere to be found.

It hasn’t even been a day and Amma acts like Rohan’s gone forever. Her grandmother, too, is behaving strangely. Unwilling to give up on her brother, Rea and her friend Leela meet Mishti Daadi, a wrinkly old fortune-teller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling and secret quest. In the shade of night, they portal into an otherworldly realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy. There with the help of Xeranther, an Astranthian barrow boy, and Flula, a pari, Rea battles serpent-lilies and blood-sucking banshees, encounters a butterfly-faced woman and blue lizard-men, and learns that Rohan has been captured. Rea also discovers that she is a princess with magic. Only she has no idea how to use it.

Struggling with the truth her Amma has kept hidden from her, Rea must solve clues that lead to Rohan, find a way to rescue him and save Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking. Can she rescue Rohan, save Astranthia, and live to see it all?

Let’s talk to this tremendous author about her terrific book!
This is Payal. Everyone say, “Hi, Payal!”

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Payal! Why don’t we start with some introductions – tell us about yourself!

Hi Casey! Thank you so much for having me! I’m Payal Doshi and I’m from India. I was born and raised in the city of Mumbai where I lived until I was 27 years old before moving to the U.S. to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, NY. Prior to that I had studied business management, worked in advertising, then magazine publishing, and only after all that did I realize I was happiest when I was writing stories! I love writing middle grade fantasy books with South Asian protagonists and South Asian inspired settings.

What was the inspiration behind REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR?

When I sat to write this book, I wondered if Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, and Nancy Drew can have incredible adventures, why can’t a girl from India have them too? As a kid, I loved to read but I never saw myself in books. A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm. I wanted to change that. So, I decided to write a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture that had kids from India who went off on thrilling adventures and became heroes! It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself.

Diverse representation, especially South Asian representation, is a mission close to my heart. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and know that their stories deserve to be celebrated. At the same time, I wanted to write a story that all kids would enjoy regardless of color, race, nationality, and culture. So, there’s a mystery that needs solving along with an exciting quest, a ticking clock, dark family secrets, unforgettable friendships, a fantastical world, and my favorite, magic!

It sounds like an amazing story!

What were you doing when you found out there was an offer on your book? (We love these stories here at Kick-butt Kidlit!)

I was at the salon getting a manicure! I was new mom at the time. My daughter was a year old, and my manuscript had received rejection after rejection. I was heartbroken, tired, and sleepy, and I told my husband I needed a giant dose of self-care. So, off I went to get my nails done! As the nail technician was working on my hand, my phone buzzed. Having left my husband alone with my daughter, I imagined (insert mom-guilt here!) a catastrophe had taken place. So, I awkwardly reached over, apologized for hitting my manicure-in-process hand and clumsily unlocked my phone. And there it was—an email from the publisher at Mango and Marigold Press saying she loved my book and wanted to set up a call. I gently placed my phone back down and grinned so widely that I’m sure anyone who saw me must have wondered if I was okay! My heart had never beaten that fast before!

What a great moment!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR?

1) My first draft which I wrote nearly ten years ago, all 70,000 words of it, was written with white characters who lived in the English countryside. I hadn’t realized how much the books I read (and loved) as a kid—books with white kids in western countries—had subconsciously trained my mind into thinking that those were the only types of stories people wanted to read, not stories about kids who looked like me.

2) I’m a 80% plotter and 20% panster and I love researching and outlining!

3) I’m not a writer who can successfully do writing sprints or churn out a large chunk of words. I’m a ‘take each day as it comes’ kind of writer and I don’t set word goals. I’m thrilled if I get 500 words or 1500 words in day – it’s not about how many words I can write in a session, it’s about trying my best to write everyday or as often as I can, which sometimes can be only once or twice a week.

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

My first thought is to have them transport into The Chronicles of Narnia or His Dark Materials, but I’m thinking my characters have already had a lot of adventures and near fatal quests so maybe I’d have them vacation in the world of Anne of Green Gables! They’d get to visit Canada, meet incredible kids like Anne, Diana, and Gilbert, and enjoy the peaceful and gorgeous countryside. Ultimately though, I would want them to end up in Darjeeling and Astranthia because I know that’s where they will be the happiest!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

My desire to write for children came instinctively. I believe it’s because I was a young middle schooler when I fell in love with reading. As I writer of fantasy fiction, I love that a child’s mind is free of the constraints and boxes that we, as adults, put ourselves and others into. Kids are ready to suspend belief, be taken on adventures, and are eager for new stories, new worlds, and new perspectives. They have that glorious child-like wonder! And as I mentioned before, I wanted South Asian kids feel seen in books and at the same time I wanted to add to the message that any kid from any part of the world can love and enjoy these stories and relate to the characters. We are unified by the human experience and despite our different backgrounds, we share similar hopes, dreams, and fears.

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m currently writing the sequel to Rea and the Blood of the Nectar which is planned for a Fall 2022 release! I can tell you that there is a new character with many shades of grey, who I hope readers will enjoy reading about!

Oooooh, sounds intriguing!

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

The most surprising part of my publishing journey came after 2 years of querying when I’d reached the point where I had accepted that my book was not going to find any takers. I was utterly heartbroken, but I found the courage to come up with a new story idea and write an outline. Three days after, I received an offer from my publisher. The lesson I learnt was that I was so focused on selling REA that it embodied whether I considered myself a success or a failure. And in the glaring light of failure, I realized my passion was writing stories, so if one book didn’t work out, I would try with another and keep going.

What are you reading right now?

A Wolf for a Spell by Karah Sutton.

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

My favourite piece of kick-butt advice is to never give up on yourself. And to aspiring writers out there it’s to keep writing until they reach that final period. First drafts are notoriously hard to write and are meant to be terrible but it’s much easier to mold a fully written story than to keep revising and perfecting what has been written only to have an incomplete manuscript by the end of it.

Very wise words!

Thank you so much for joining us, Payal!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR!
It hits shelves on June 15th!

Add REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR on Goodreads!

Connect with Payal on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR!
Contest ends Friday, May 21st at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Graci Kim!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Graci Kim, the author of

THE LAST FALLEN STAR

Riley Oh can’t wait to see her sister get initiated into the Gom clan, a powerful lineage of Korean healing witches their family has belonged to for generations. Her sister, Hattie, will earn her Gi bracelet and finally be able to cast spells without adult supervision. Although Riley is desperate to follow in her sister’s footsteps when she herself turns thirteen, she’s a saram–a person without magic. Riley was adopted, and despite having memorized every healing spell she’s ever heard, she often feels like the odd one out in her family and the gifted community.

Then Hattie gets an idea: what if the two of them could cast a spell that would allow Riley to share Hattie’s magic? Their sleuthing reveals a promising incantation in the family’s old spell book, and the sisters decide to perform it at Hattie’s initiation ceremony. If it works, no one will ever treat Riley as an outsider again. It’s a perfect plan!

Until it isn’t. When the sisters attempt to violate the laws of the Godrealm, Hattie’s life ends up hanging in the balance, and to save her Riley has to fulfill an impossible task: find the last fallen star. But what even is the star, and how can she find it?

As Riley embarks on her search, she finds herself meeting fantastic creatures and collaborating with her worst enemies. And when she uncovers secrets that challenge everything she has been taught to believe, Riley must decide what it means to be a witch, what it means to be family, and what it really means to belong.

Let’s talk to this superb author about her incredible book!
This is Graci. Everyone say, “Hi, Graci!”

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Graci! Why don’t we start with some introductions – tell us about yourself!

Hi Casey! I’m Graci Kim, the author of THE LAST FALLEN STAR. I’m a Korean-Kiwi author based in Auckland, and I write magic-infused books for magic-infused readers.

What was the inspiration behind THE LAST FALLEN STAR?

There were several things that inspired THE LAST FALLEN STAR, one of which was my love for my two younger sisters. The three of us are wildly different but we are best friends. My relationship with them inspired Riley and Hattie’s unbreakable sisterhood in the book. The folktales and myths that my parents and halmeoni (grandma) told us when we were little also inspired the book. In fact, one of the origin myths about the Korean peoples—about a bear and a tiger who wished to become human—became the foundation for THE LAST FALLEN STAR. Lastly, my experience growing up as an Asian diaspora kid in a Western country, and often feeling stuck between my two identities inspired Riley’s journey of self-discovery in the book.

What were you doing when you found out there was an offer on your book?

I had just gotten my bloods taken (and already feeling a little faint…) and I was literally lying on a clinic bed getting a 12 week scan on my pregnant belly when the message came through. Talk about an emotional moment!!

Oh, wow! Definitely!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE LAST FALLEN STAR?

Three of the realisations I had while working on THE LAST FALLEN STAR:

(1) Wow, work doesn’t feel like work when you’re doing something you love. How did I just sit here for 12 hours straight, just writing? I think this is what I was born to do…

(2) Is this a dream? Someone please pinch me. Argh wait, no! If this is a dream, don’t let anyone wake me up! Let this be for real!

(3) Um, how is Rick Riordan human?

If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?

I have this unusually vivid image of all the characters in the Rick Riordan Presents series getting together and taking a summer camp trip to the Percy Jackson universe. It would be utter chaos. Can you imagine the drama? The monsters? The quests? Riley and the crew would LOVE it. Yes, if only…

That would be AMAZING!!! Where do we sign the petition to make this happen? Such a good idea! 😀

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I actually fell into writing middle grade, and have counted my lucky stars for it since! The Last Fallen Star started off as a YA book, and Riley was an almost sixteen-year-old girl. Then when my agent took the manuscript out on submission, one editor gave us a Revise & Resubmit request, asking if I’d be willing to age it down to a middle grade. I gave it some thought, and realised it was the best thing I could do for Riley and her story. The rest is history. 🙂

Any hints about your next book project?

There are, of course, the sequels to The Last Fallen Star that are currently in the works. But my very next book project may in fact be in a completely different age category….

Oooh, exciting! Can’t wait until you can share more!

What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?

Just how many incredible people it takes to publish a book. You see a book and you see the one name on the cover, usually. But it takes many teams of people working tirelessly behind the scenes to make a book come to life. I am so much more appreciative of this now than I ever was before, and I’m so grateful for my team over at Disney Hyperion for all the incredible support they have given me.

What are you reading right now?

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong. Just started. Eeek, I think I’m going to be a wreck.

What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

Never forget that you, too, have a voice. You, too, deserve to be heard. If you have a story to tell, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot share. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Don’t forget to dream big! The future is ours. 🙂

Absolutely! Love that!

Thank you so much for joining us, Graci!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE LAST FALLEN STAR! It’s on shelves now!

Add THE LAST FALLEN STAR on Goodreads!

Connect with Graci on Twitter, Instagram, the Gifted Clans website, or her author site!

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE LAST FALLEN STAR!
Contest ends Friday, May 7th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!