Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Derrick Chow!

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

Today we’re chatting with Derrick Chow, the author of

RAVENOUS THINGS

Twelve-year-old Reggie Wong has a quick temper that’s always getting him into trouble at school, while at home his mom struggles to get out of bed—let alone leave their apartment. That’s why Reggie desperately needs his dad back. One problem: His dad is dead.

Enter the Conductor, a peculiar man who promises to make Reggie’s wish to see his father just one more time come true. All he must do is climb aboard the man’s subway train, which leaves St. Patrick Station promptly at midnight. Desperate to have his dad and happy family back, Reggie takes him up on the offer, only to discover the train is filled with other children who have lost a loved one, just like him. As he speeds through the wild, uncharted tunnels beneath the city, Reggie meets Chantal, an annoyingly peppy girl obsessed with lists and psychiatry, and Gareth, his arch-nemesis and bully since the fourth grade. As each kid steps off the train and into the arms of their lost family member, Reggie can’t believe his impossible wish is about to come true.

But when Reggie comes to the end of the line and sees his father waiting for him, he soon discovers all is not as it seems. He and his unlikely new friends have been ensnared in a deadly trap. Together, the three must find a way to foil the Conductor’s diabolical plot and find their way out of the underground subway where horrors worse than they have ever imagined lurk around every corner. The rats of St. Patrick Station have taken over and they’re absolutely ravenous.

Let’s talk to this incredible author about his awesome book!
This is Derrick. Everyone say, “Hi, Derrick!”

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

Thank you so much for having me on! I’m a writer, illustrator, and comic creator. In other words, I love storytelling in many forms, whether it involves typing in a Word file or putting brush to canvas. Ravenous Things is my debut novel, and I’m so thrilled to have this opportunity to talk about my writing process!

What was the inspiration behind RAVENOUS THINGS?

I was grieving the death of my father when I came up with the idea for Ravenous Things. I knew that I wanted to work through my feelings by putting it on the page, so to speak. In those months after my father’s death, I noticed that I was spending an inordinate amount of time imagining impossible scenarios in which I could talk to him again.

And that’s when it came to me – the image of a little boy stepping off a subway train, entering a subterranean recreation of his childhood home, where his deceased father welcomes him with open arms. That’s the image around which I built up my entire story.

RAVENOUS THINGS has lots of spooky and thrilling elements at play. How did you handle writing scary content while keeping it at a middle grade level?

It was a surprisingly intuitive process, in that, I didn’t need to censor myself at all during the writing process. I simply put myself in the shoes of the twelve-year-old protagonist and envisioned what scenarios I would find most terrifying.

The key was to conjure up dangers and threats that felt consistent with the world I had created, both in terms of tone and aesthetics. The world of Ravenous Things is a dark, urban fairy tale of sorts – with subway rats, a Pied Piper figure, and lots of musical enchantments. Keeping this in mind helped me to stay in the right lane, in terms of scare level.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on RAVENOUS THINGS?

One fun surprise for me was the way this book morphed into a re-imagining of the Pied Piper. For much of my drafting process, that wasn’t my intention. The villain of my novel, the Conductor, lures countless children down to a midnight subway train with the promise of being re-united with deceased loved ones. Then they are whisked away into the wild, uncharted subway tunnels beneath the city.

Well, at one point, I took a good hard look at what I had written so far and did a double take. It was so reminiscent of the Pied Piper tale, that I was surprised I hadn’t noticed. Once I made that connection, so many new creative routes opened-up to me. It allowed me to incorporate a lot of interesting elements from a fable that is, in and of itself, super creepy.

Another surprise was my portrayal of the supporting characters, Chantal and Gareth. At the start of my writing process, they functioned mostly as comedic foils to Reggie, the protagonist. But through various drafts of the book, their emotional arcs came to the forefront. Each of the characters enabled me to explore grief and the way we handle it in very different ways.

Lastly, I discovered that deadlines are my friend. When left to my own devices, I tend to tinker and tweak my stories endlessly. And the indecision! Ooof! Trying to decide which plot twists to go with or what characters I should include or what the chapter titles should be…all that stuff slows my process down immensely. Once I signed my book deal and deadlines were suddenly a thing in my life…well, that seemed to cure all my hemming and hawing as a writer.

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

I would transport Reggie and his pals, Chantal and Gareth, right into the charming town of Avonlea from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books. I adored that series growing up, and I feel my characters deserve a calm, decidedly un-terrifying vacation after all the horrors they encounter in my book.

That’s such a good idea! You know Anne would love to hear all about their adventures!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I love writing for this age group because this demographic is so open to many types of storytelling. They aren’t jaded or closed off to certain ideas yet. Magic, happily-ever-afters, monsters hiding under the bed – the audience at this age is willing to suspend disbelief for all of it. For myself, as an author, it’s endlessly fun playing in that wide open sandbox.

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m working on two projects at the moment. One is a graphic novel, and the other is an idea for another middle grade horror. Stay tuned to find out more!

Fun!

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

I had always thought of writing as a solitary act. It was something I did during the dead of night, in my room, without the expectation that anyone would be obliged to read the words I was typing.

But it turns out this whole publishing thing is truly a team effort. I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many endlessly creative and supportive people. From my fantastic agent, Thao Le; to my wonderful editors at Disney Hyperion, Kieran Viola and Cassidy Leyendecker; to the brilliant designer Joann Hill. I’ve learned so much from all these people during this process, and that’s something I hadn’t anticipated when I first started working on Ravenous Things.

Experiencing the team effort side of things is definitely the best kind of surprise!

What are you reading right now?

I’ve been fortunate enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad. This YA book is such a cozy, heartfelt delight! I can’t wait for readers to meet the four sisters she’s dreamed up!

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

I read an interview with a Hollywood actor once that resonated with me as a writer. He mentioned that, before his big break, his secret to keeping his morale up was to view every audition as the end goal, rather than a means to an end. In other words, he found joy in the audition process itself. Those few minutes in which he was performing for a casting director were a win; they were brief moments during which he was allowed to perform, to display his talents for a captive audience. Whether he landed the gig or not, that audition was something he could always feel proud of.

That’s how I’ve tried to approach every step of this publishing journey. When I first signed with my agent, and I was working on edits to my manuscript, I made a concerted effort to avoid obsessing about whether the book would sell. Instead, I focused on the joy of writing for an audience of one: my agent. That’s pretty much the mindset I adopt at every stage of the process, from working on pass pages for my editors, to putting together a pitch before going on submission to publishers. The moment I get too fixated on the long game is when I tend to trip myself up. Staying present within those smaller moments, and truly reveling in the process is when I feel I do my best work.

That is such a great perspective!

Thank you so much for joining us, Derrick!

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

Add RAVENOUS THINGS to Goodreads!

Connect with Derrick on Instagram, Twitter, or through his website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of RAVENOUS THINGS!
Contest closes Saturday, October 1st at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Tracy Badua!

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

Today we’re chatting with Tracy Badua, the author of

FREDDIE VS. THE FAMILY CURSE

Freddie Ruiz is cursed.

While other people may have bad days, Freddie and his family have had bad generations: from bird poop splatting on him during picture day to the many tumbles and trips that earned him the nickname Faceplant Freddie. He’s learned to lay low and keep himself out of trouble—which means no fun, no friends, and definitely no risks.

But when he discovers a family heirloom, a century-old amulet from the Philippines that’s supposed to bring good fortune, Freddie thinks his luck is finally about to change.

He couldn’t be more wrong. Because the spirit of Freddie’s cranky great-granduncle Ramon is trapped in the heirloom, and the evil spirits responsible for his death have returned with a vengeance. Now, Freddie and his cousin, Sharkey, have thirteen days to break the curse, or Freddie will join Ramon for an untimely afterlife in the amulet.

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

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

Thanks for having me! I’m Tracy Badua, author of the contemporary fantasy middle grade novel Freddie vs. The Family Curse, which came out in May from Clarion Books. I also have a young adult book coming out in January 2023 (This is Not a Personal Statement, from Quill Tree Books), and I do write for adults in my day job as an attorney, but that’s a little less fun than writing for kids.

What was the inspiration behind FREDDIE VS. THE FAMILY CURSE?

Back in 2017, Filipino World War II veterans were finally awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service, and I remember watching the livestream of the Washington DC event from my home in San Diego. It was then that I got this very vague idea of a World-War-II-era item needing to be returned to its owner, and I wrote down a quick note about it in an old notebook that I still have lying around here somewhere. Then I combined that idea with some supernatural elements, and Freddie started coming together. 

Wow – that is so cool! Love the amazing roads a vague idea can take you down!

We love hearing stories about ‘The Call’ here on Kick-butt Kidlit. What were you doing when you found out your book had sold?

When I got the call from my agent, Natalie Lakosil, to let us know we had our first offer, I was working! I had to send her to voicemail because I was in a meeting, but I was anxious every single second until I got a chance to call her back.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on FREDDIE VS. THE FAMILY CURSE?

1) Freddie involves an anting-anting, an amulet that’s believed to bestow good luck, protection, or even magical abilities on the owner. I knew about bits of Filipino folklore like this from stories from my childhood, and I was surprised to find out how much it all varies from community to community in the Philippines. One story can have an amulet bringing good luck, for example, whereas a similar story from a couple towns over could have an amulet making someone almost invincible!

2) One of my aunts remembers reuniting with my grandfather after the Bataan Death March. It was a stunning reminder that what we consider “history” isn’t that far off after all.

3) Trying to do a breakdancing spin is hard. Um, don’t ask me how I know.

Haha! Okay, no asking how you know…but was there video?

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

I think Freddie and Sharkey would love the spooky fall fun of Kalyn Josephson’s upcoming middle grade, Ravenfall. They’re both used to dealing with spirits (both the friendly kind and the maybe-not), and who wouldn’t love a nice mug of apple cider at a magical inn?

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

There’s something wonderful about approaching the world from the perspective of middle-grade characters. The things that are important to them and this target age of readers can be so different from the things that adults stress out about, and it’s refreshing and sometimes heartbreaking.

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m currently waiting on copyedits for my second middle grade book! It’s a contemporary fantasy like Freddie, and it involves celebrity chefs, Filipino folk magic, and a Filipino-Indian-fusion family-owned food truck.

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

It’s so cool to have kids tell you they like your work! Yes, it’s amazing to have older readers offer polite words too, but young readers definitely tell you how it is, and, so far, they’ve been kind and full of praise.

That is for sure one of the best parts! Kid readers are awesome!

What are you reading right now?

I am so late to this game, but I’ve been devouring Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series, and it’s wonderful!

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

Find good critique partners, especially those who are talented in areas that you may struggle with. I consider myself so lucky to have wonderful writer friends who take the time to provide thoughtful feedback (even if they know it’s something I—or any writer— may not want to hear), remind me to slow down and actually describe important things like setting or what characters look like, and let me vent or ask questions about the publishing process.   

Yes! Having people you can talk to throughout the process is SO important.

Thank you so much for joining us, Tracy!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out FREDDIE VS. THE FAMILY CURSE!
It’s on shelves now!

Add FREDDIE VS. THE FAMILY CURSE on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of FREDDIE VS. THE FAMILY CURSE!
Contest closes Friday, September 16th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Rachel Elliott!

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

Today we’re chatting with Rachel Elliott, the author of

THE REAL RILEY MAYES

Fifth grade is just not Riley’s vibe. Everyone else is squaded up–except Riley. Her best friend moved away. All she wants to do is draw, and her grades show it.

One thing that makes her happy is her favorite comedian, Joy Powers. Riley loves to watch her old shows and has memorized her best jokes. So when the class is assigned to write letters to people they admire, of course Riley’s picking Joy Powers!

Things start to look up when a classmate, Cate, offers to help Riley with the letter, and a new kid, Aaron, actually seems to get her weird sense of humor. But when mean girl Whitney spreads a rumor about her, things begin to click into place for Riley. Her curiosity about Aaron’s two dads and her celebrity crush on Joy Powers suddenly make more sense.

Let’s talk to this delightful author about her marvelous book!
This is Rachel. Everyone say, “Hi, Rachel!”

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

Hello! I’m Rachel, she/her. I’m a queer illustrator, artist, and comic-maker. I grew up in rural Oklahoma, and now live in Kentucky. I’m a big fan of baseball, tacos, cats, and comedians. My debut middle grade graphic novel, THE REAL RILEY MAYES, was released in May of 2022. If you love secret codes, parallel cat universes, and dude-ish girls who act out humorous death scenes, you’ll want to read this book.

I’m in!!

What was the inspiration behind THE REAL RILEY MAYES?

I started drawing THE REAL RILEY MAYES as a picture book character, but she grew up on me. When I joined the kidlit community, picture books were *thee* big gig for an illustrator. I drew a character sheet of a girl in pigtails playing with tonka trucks and imagining herself with five o’clock shadow.

The big questions in this girls’ life would probably happen when she was a bit older- but I couldn’t fathom writing a prose novel. Around the same time, Cece Bell’s EL DEAFO came out, and a graphic novel was the perfect fit for RILEY.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE REAL RILEY MAYES?

I did a lot of research to make RILEY’s world as true-to-life as possible. I discovered that some school discipline policies list “drawing a school on fire” (even as a joke) as a more serious offense than killing insects on purpose. I read a recent climate survey from GLSEN and discovered that 95% of LGBTQ students encounter homophobic remarks at school, and 25% are physically harassed at school. I also learned that some school library computers use filtering software that makes it difficult to learn about LGBTQ+ people. RILEY navigates these obstacles with a lot of spirit and “moxie.”  

My fave thing I discovered is a fancy academic social-science article called “Imaginary Worlds in Middle Childhood: A Qualitative Study Of Two Pairs of Coordinating Paracosms..” Basically, a “paracosm” is a fantasy world. The researcher interviewed pairs of friends, ages 10-12, who created fantasy worlds together. This discovery inspired NYANLAND, a fantasy world that Cate invents and Riley steps into.

THE REAL RILEY MAYES (© Rachel Elliott)

The book is a graphic novel and you are both the author and the illustrator (which is very cool!) How do you approach a story when you’re working on both aspects like that? Sketch out pictures first? Outline first? What’s your process like?

Everyone has to fumble a bit to find the right process for them. For example, some comic makers start by writing a script. I have tried this ten times and all I got was ten horrible scripts!

I start with pictures. I sketch a character doing different activities with different emotions. I draw 4-5 squares on a page, draw the character in them, and see what happens when they talk with speech balloons. Eventually that feels too small. I write an outline, and then use graph paper to sketch out scenes that are multiple pages long. One of the first RILEY scenes I drew was set in her gym class. Those pages evolved into chapter four, where Whitney whispers LESBO! at Riley through the volleyball net.

Writing and revising graphic novels is like a triathlon: there’s pictures, words, and page turns to think about. Thankfully my agent, Susan Hawk, is a very observant editorial agent. My editor, Donna Bray, and my art director, Dana Fritts, are both wise and inventive. They helped me develop a revision process that worked for me.

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

Ooh! Each character- Riley, Cate, and Aaron- would each want to be in a different kind of book.

Riley is a jokey kid who draws comics instead of doing homework. She’d step into DOGMAN and make it super-queer.

Imaginative Cate would love to be in an animal-forward fantasy like FLORA AND ULYSSES or maybe REDWALL . 

Aaron, the aspiring stuntman, probably got a SIMONE BILES biography at the Scholastic book fair. I’d like to think one day he’d be on the cover of one of those biographies.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Middle grade readers understand complicated things, *and* are very open-minded and curious. A four year old is curious- they ask 200 questions a day – but there’s a lot of deep things that they won’t understand for a few years. Middle grade readers are ready for those big questions, they just feel a bit of peer pressure when it comes to saying the questions out loud.

This is something RILEY struggles with in the book. She has questions about queerness, about Aaron’s two dads, about why her new friend Cate stays friends with a bully. She doesn’t put these questions into words until she starts drafting letters to her favorite TV comedian, Joy Powers.

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m juggling a couple different graphic novel proposals. It’s hard to say what will happen, but I’m crossing my fingers that a future book will involve at least two of the following: mysteries, siblings, and cats.

Ooooh, already sounds awesome! Can’t wait until you can share more!

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

I was very surprised to find out that many grant-giving organizations are interested in kids’ book projects. RILEY would not have been possible without a generous Artist Enrichment Grant from Kentucky Foundation for Women. They support feminist artists creating work that leads to social change, and RILEY fit their mission.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading THE LAST LAST-DAY-OF-SUMMER by Lamar Giles, and GUNCLE by Stephen Rowley. The first is  the kind of summer reading I loved as a fifth grader: fun adventure with great characters. The second is a humorous and heartfelt adult novel about a gay uncle and former-famous-actor who finds himself parenting his niece and nephew after their mother dies.

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

From other graphic novelists who want artists to avoid injury – Stretch beforehand, and don’t try to make everything perfect.

From Garth Greenwell’s address to Bennington College, at a point in the speech where he felt awkward giving advice – Every artist makes it up as they go along.

This advice was intended for artists and writers, but could apply to many situations, haha!

Absolutely!

Thank you so much for joining us, Rachel!

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

Add THE REAL RILEY MAYES on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE REAL RILEY MAYES!
Contest closes Friday, September 2nd at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Christina Matula

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

Today we’re chatting with Christina Matula, the author of

THE NOT-SO-UNIFORM LIFE OF HOLLY-MEI

Holly-Mei Jones couldn’t be more excited about moving to Hong Kong for her mother’s job. Her new school is right on the beach and her family’s apartment is beyond beautiful. Everything is going to be perfect . . . right?

Maybe not. It feels like everywhere she turns, there are new rules to follow and expectations to meet. On top of that, the most popular girl in her grade is quickly becoming a frenemy. And without the guidance of her loving Ah-ma, who stayed behind in Toronto, Holly-Mei just can’t seem to get it right.

It will take all of Holly-Mei’s determination and sparkle (and maybe even a tiny bit of stubbornness) to get through seventh grade and turn her life in Hong Kong into the ultimate adventure!

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

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

Thank you so much for having me! My name is Christina Matula and I’m a Canadian author of Taiwanese and Hungarian heritage. I mention my heritage right off the bat as the main character in my debut Middle-Grade novel, THE NOT-SO-UNIFORM LIFE OF HOLLY-MEI, is also a Canadian of mixed-Asian descent. I love playing field hockey and swimming, as well as bubble tea, all things in common with Holly-Mei.

What was the inspiration behind THE NOT-SO-UNIFORM LIFE OF HOLLY-MEI?

Until recently, I had been living in Hong Kong for 14 years and it was the most fantastic place: a cosmopolitan center; lush green hills; and a unique mix of Chinese and Western culture. I really leaned into my Asian heritage when I moved there – studying the language and learning about the wonderful local customs, festivals, and folktales. I wanted to share this magical part of the world with others, as well as share a story about someone with a similar background to mine, a Canadian of mixed Asian descent, who moves internationally and learns more about their heritage while also learning more about themselves.

Always love when you get to travel somewhere via a good book!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE NOT-SO-UNIFORM LIFE OF HOLLY-MEI?

i) All the places the kids in the book visit in Hong Kong are places I’ve been many times but writing about them allowed me to take a deeper and slower look at everything, making me appreciate my surroundings even more. 

ii) There is a lot of talk about food in the book and whenever I would re-read or edit, I would get cravings for all the amazing food and snacks I got to eat in Hong Kong.

iii) I loved writing about girls who play sport and thought that I’d like to see more books focusing on that aspect of their lives, so keep your eye out for Book 2 in the Holly-Mei series. 

Navigating friendships (and frenemy-ships) is an important part of Holly-Mei’s journey in this book. How did you tackle writing the ups and downs of a realistic middle grade friendship

Friendships are definitely key for this age group. When I had to be more specific in certain scenes, such as come up with conflict or instances where Holly-Mei stumbles, I had to revisit events and feelings from my own time in middle school. Sometimes that was fun, other times (most times), a bit cringe inducing. But I was always left with a feeling of hope.

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

I would love to put Holly-Mei and her friends in the plot of The Mysterious Benedict Society so they can solve mysteries and save the world. I would love to see them use unique ways to figure out solutions to puzzles and problems.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I love this age. It’s a magical time where kids are starting to question their surroundings but still see things as right and wrong and in black and white – there are no grey areas yet. Their innocence makes me want to root for them and also makes me hopeful that our future is in good hands. Both my kids were in middle grade as I wrote the book, so I was inspired to write something they could both relate to and enjoy.

That’s so wonderful that you were able to share that with your kids.

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m thrilled there will be three books in the Holly-Mei series, all set in Hong Kong at Tai Tam Prep. The next adventure sees Holly-Mei and her friends compete in an all-city sports tournament. Although Holly-Mei tries hard to keep her faults in check, some new insecurities surface, and her competitive nature comes to the forefront. But will her push to win push her friends away? Book 2, The Not-So-Perfect Plan is out April 2023.

Yay! That’s great news!

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

I started out writing picture books and THE SHADOW IN THE MOON, about the lunar Mid-Autumn festival, came out in 2018 with Charlesbridge. But I found that I couldn’t tell the stories I wanted to within the tight word count (under 1000 words). I was too nervous at first to try anything longer, but I decided to let go and see where my thoughts would take me. I found that my stories and voice gravitated towards middle grade.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished BORDERS, a graphic novel by Thomas King, illustrated by Natasha Donovan. It’s about a young Blackfoot boy and his mother who are stuck in limbo between the US and Canadian borders. It touches on the complexities of Indigenous identity while remaining hopeful that understanding is within reach.

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

The simplest advice but the hardest to do: start writing and don’t stop until you’ve finished your story. I spent two years talking about Holly-Mei’s story before actually starting to write – it seemed so daunting to write a whole novel. I found it immensely helpful to outline the whole book before starting and then I chipped away at it one chapter at a time. It’s much less scary in bite-sized pieces.

‘Bite-sized pieces.’ LOVE THAT.

Thank you so much for joining us, Christina!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE NOT-SO-UNIFORM LIFE OF HOLLY-MEI.
It’s on shelves now!

Add THE NOT-SO-UNIFORM LIFE OF HOLLY-MEI on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE NOT-SO-UNIFORM LIFE OF HOLLY-MEI!
Giveaway closes Friday, August 19th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Lisa Stringfellow!

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

Today we’re chatting with Lisa Stringfellow, the author of

A COMB OF WISHES

Ever since her mother’s death, Kela feels every bit as broken as the shards of glass, known as “mermaid’s tears,” that sparkle on the beaches of St. Rita. But when she discovers a different kind of treasure, she accidentally summons an actual mermaid—the wrathful Ophidia.

Ophidia makes Kela a bargain: her ancient comb, in exchange for a wish. And though Kela knows that what she wants most is her mother back, a wish that big will exact a dangerous price…

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

(Image credit: Carter Hasegawa)

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

I write middle grade fiction and have a not-so-secret fondness for fantasy with a dark twist. I enjoy connecting to my West Indian and Black southern heritage in my writing. My debut fantasy A Comb of Wishes was released on February 8, 2022 by HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books. I’m also a middle school English teacher and have taught English for 28 years! I live in Boston, Massachusetts, with my children and bossy cat.

What was the inspiration behind A COMB OF WISHES?

My inspiration for this story came from thinking about two middle grade books I loved, The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler and Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Because of my West Indian heritage, I thought it would be interesting to write a mermaid story set in the Caribbean, and I imagined a brown-skinned mermaid who is a bit dangerous. As I delved into the characters, I knew the story would also touch on the topics of family, regret, love, and forgiveness.

Your book weaves folklore and fantasy around a story that’s also about navigating grief. How did you balance that combination of the fantastic and real-world elements?

Grief is a human emotion that we all experience. Books can be a safe way for children to see and process those feelings. I felt it was important to show a character dealing with these natural feelings of loss while also showing a loving community supporting her.

The story also involves magic. Sometimes adults dismiss fantasy as “fluff” or not “important” but fantasy often allows readers to make connections and process ideas in fresh ways. Magic can serve as a metaphor in these situations. In A Comb of Wishes, Kela has a chance to make a wish that, in her view, will fix everything and restore her world to the way she feels it should be. Having those types of feelings is very natural and relatable, but it also has consequences and delays her acceptance of her painful loss.

Sometimes adults hesitate to give kids books that deal with “heavy” topics. As a teacher, I’ve tried to convey to parents the importance of kids reading all types of books, including the sad ones. For some children who have experienced grief, reading a book can help them not feel alone. It can also help them think about and process their own feelings and build empathy towards others.

So absolutely true.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on A COMB OF WISHES?

First, I learned that sea glass is sometimes called “mermaid’s tears.” In an earlier draft, Kela collected shells, but I changed her hobby when I learned of the negative environmental impacts of shelling. I chose sea glass because it is essentially trash and removing it is not harmful to the marine environment. It was only after I made that change that I learned about the folklore that connected sea glass to mermaids.

Second, I discovered rich lore and traditions around mermaids and water spirits that exist outside of Europe and the popular culture depictions. Ophidia’s character is based on the West African water spirit Mami Wata who is often depicted holding a snake. Ophidia’s physical description and movements are snake-like and her name is a nod to snakes. In Haiti, La Siréne, a figure connected to Mami Wati, is said to carry a mirror that is used as a portal between our world and her mystical realm. As Ophidia does in the novel, La Siréne can transport dreamers to her underwater lair to communicate and advise.

Last, I loved learning about storytelling traditions in the Caribbean. As part of my research for A Comb of Wishes, I interviewed storyteller Diane Ferlatte who shared her experience and knowledge. In her words, “Storytelling comes from the African tradition and is not a spectator sport.” That participatory idea is also explored through the story frame “Crick, Crack,” (sometimes written as “Krik Krak”) which is common on islands like Haiti, Grenada, and others. In communities around the world, oral traditions keep histories alive and create shared experiences through the interplay between the teller, the tale, and the audience.

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

That is a hard question! I think Ophida would love to be part of a world with other magical creatures, even if she chose to remain solitary. Perhaps a world like Narnia!

Kela has such a strong connection to storytelling through her mother. She might like to visit a world like that of Inkheart or The Land of Stories, where she could enter the books that she’s always loved to read.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

As a 5th and 6th grade teacher, middle grade readers are the age I love interacting with the most. Students this age are curious and love a good story that touches on what they care about most. They are passionate, have a strong sense of justice, and care deeply about their family and friends. I enjoy writing stories that touch on these themes, with a dose of magic and adventure thrown in for good measure!

Any hints about your next book project?

My next book is another stand-alone middle grade fantasy. I like to think of it as my “girl in a tower” story with a twist. It is set in a West African inspired world where memory is closely connected to the land and its people.

Oooh, sounds awesome! Can’t wait to read it!

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

One of the most surprising things has been to see and hear where my book has landed around the world. Students have shared seeing it in their local libraries and friends and booksellers have shared pictures of it in bookstores around the country. One co-worker told me she gave her copy of my book to an interested hotel concierge in Spain! It amazes me how far my novel has traveled.

Cool! Always love to see how far a story can reach!

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. I love reading about a world where magic is real, monsters exist, and family stories and cultural traditions are woven in so seamlessly.

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

Make the setting essential. I love description but setting should not be simply a backdrop to a story. The place and time in which your characters live should feel essential and operate in support of the rest of your cast, almost as another character. In that way, it can mirror the emotions and tensions of the protagonist, drive conflict, and create additional layers of resonance for the reader.

Yes! Great advice!

Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out A COMB OF WISHES!
It’s on shelves now!

(Illustrator: Michael Machira Mwangi)

Add A COMB OF WISHES on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of A COMB OF WISHES!
Giveaway closes Friday, August 5th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Sonja Thomas!

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

Today we’re chatting with Sonja Thomas, the author of

SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE

Twelve-year-old Mira’s summer is looking pretty bleak. Her best friend Thomas just moved a billion and one miles away from Florida to Washington, DC. Her dad is job searching and he’s been super down lately. Her phone screen cracked after a home science experiment gone wrong. And of all people who could have moved into Thomas’s old house down the street, Mira gets stuck with Tamika Smith, her know-it-all nemesis who’s kept Mira in second place at the school science fair four years running.

Mira’s beloved cat, Sir Fig Newton, has been the most stable thing in her life lately, but now he seems off, too. With her phone gone and no internet over the weekend at her strict Gran’s house, Mira must research Fig’s symptoms the old-fashioned way: at the library. She determines that he has “the silent cat killer” diabetes. A visit to the vet confirms her diagnosis, but that one appointment stretched family funds to the limit—they’ll never be able to afford cat insulin shots.

When Mira’s parents tell her they may have to give Fig up to people who can afford his treatment, Mira insists she can earn the $2,000 needed within a month. Armed with ingenuity, determination, and one surprising ally, can Mira save her best (four-legged) friend before it’s too late?

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

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

Hi, and thanks so much for having me! My name is Sonja Thomas and I’m a silly introvert who runs on coffee and hugs. I love to dance and sing along with music and I squeal every time I see an adorable animal (Squirrel!).

A recovering CPA, I write stories for kids of all ages in all genres, but middle grade contemporaries are my sweet spot. I’m a contributing author for GOOD NIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS: 100 REAL-LIFE TALES OF BLACK GIRL MAGIC. My debut middle grade novel, SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE, is out now.

What was the inspiration behind SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE?

The inspiration for SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE came from real life. My first cat Whiskey was diagnosed with diabetes and a co-worker had shared with his young son, who has Type I diabetes, that my cat was receiving insulin shots. His son was so excited, that he’d said, “If a cat can get insulin shots, then so can I!” That’s when I knew I had to write Whiskey’s story.

Aw! That is so lovely!

We love hearing stories about ‘The Call’ here on Kick-butt Kidlit. What were you doing when you found out your book had sold?

It was February 2020 and I was doing tax returns when I’d found out that my book had sold! The first thing I did was call my mom. It was incredibly hard to go back to work, but I certainly had a smile on my face all day long. 

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE?

1. I had so much fun researching and trying out different experiments, like grape plasma balls, growing a crystal garden, and building a catapult.

2. I had the best time deciding what fun tee shirt slogans Mira’s STEM Camp teacher would wear. Some I made up myself, like “STEM Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” while others I owned or found online, like “Black Holes Are Out of Sight.”

3. Growing up near Kennedy Space Center, I’d often imagined myself an astronaut, just like my main character, Mira. However, I never thought it was possible for someone like me—a Black female—to go into space. During my research, I was incredibly inspired to learn about women of color who’d accomplished amazing things in STEM. Hopefully readers will be too!  

We need a video series with all of these experiments you did!

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

I would love to transport Mira and Sir Fig Newton into the sci-fi middle grade novel TROUBLE IN THE STARS by Sarah Prineas. Mainly so Mira could realize her dream of going into space. Not only could she study the stars, planets, and galaxies up close, but she’d also get to meet humanoids, reptilians, and insectoids! And I’m sure that after Trouble met Sir Fig Newton, they would choose to shapeshift into a kitten instead of a puppy!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

When I’d started writing with the intention of getting published, I first focused on picture books. After receiving many rejections, I tried my hand at young adult. Again, I received many, many rejections. Then I wrote SIR FIG NEWTON and I’d finally found my voice.

I love writing middle grade because it’s when we’re first discovering who we are, where we fit in, and how to navigate our world. But what I love most is that no matter how difficult the topic, middle grade reads are infused with hope.

Any hints about your next book project?

I can’t talk too much about it yet, but it’s another contemporary middle grade novel, this time set in Portland, Oregon with beavers and bits of magic!

Ooooh, can’t wait!

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

Even though I already knew it takes about two years for a book to be published from the date a book is sold, I now understand WHY. From big picture edits to line edits to copy edits and the list goes on—there are so many steps along the way!

What are you reading right now?

I just finished reading LEARNING TO FALL by Sally Engelfried in one sitting! If you love heartwarming novels with family drama and skateboarding, then definitely add this middle grade debut, releasing September 6th, to your TBR pile.

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

In 2011, I entered a contest hoping to win first prize: a personalized letter from my favorite children’s author, Judy Blume. I didn’t get first place, but was in the top five, and was shocked when I received a personalized email, including this kick-butt advice:

My only advice, never give up, and never let anyone discourage you. Determination is as important as anything.

Writing isn’t easy. But despite all the rejection and self-doubt, I held onto these words and now I’m a kidlit author, just like my idol! 

Awesome! We’re glad you listed to Judy!

Thank you so much for joining us, Sonja!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out
SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE!
It’s on shelves now!

Add SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE to Goodreads!

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

Click here to win a copy of SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE!
Contest closes Friday, July 8th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Sheela Chari!

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

Today we’re chatting with Sheela Chari, the author of

KARTHIK DELIVERS

Karthik Raghavan is good at remembering things. Like his bike routes. Or all the reasons he likes Juhi Shah—even if she doesn’t even know he exists. It doesn’t help that she seems to have a crush on his arch nemesis, Jacob Donnell, whose only job is to humiliate Karthik (and get his name wrong).

Then Karthik’s luck changes when he secretly agrees to be in a play about the famous musician, Leonard Bernstein. But he can’t tell his parents. The family store is in jeopardy, and they need him delivering groceries on his bike to help save it. His mom is also worried about the Financial Crisis, and she’s convinced that studying hard and staying focused is the only way to succeed.

But Karthik is having fun being Lenny. Besides, what if acting is Karthik’s special talent? And what if acting is the one way to catch Juhi Shah’s attention? With all the pressure from his family to succeed, will Karthik be able to really imagine and hope when he’s not sure what will happen next?

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

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

Hi Casey! Thank you for having me on your blog. I’m a children’s author and teacher, and my most recent book, Karthik Delivers, is a humorous middle grade novel about a boy who thinks he might want to be an actor some day.

What was the inspiration behind KARTHIK DELIVERS?

Karthik works as a delivery boy in his dad’s Indian grocery store when he gets the chance to act as a lead in a play about the young Leonard Berstein. One of the reasons Karthik is asked is because of his amazing ability to remember things, especially in list form in his head. I’m someone who keeps lists, too, except I write them down because I’m so bad at remembering! I wanted to write about someone who has an incredible memory but doesn’t know how he will make use of this unusual talent.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on KARTHIK DELIVERS?

1. I loved writing humor! I didn’t think I would be good at it, but seeing the world through Karthik’s eyes was so much fun.

2. I loved learning about Leonard Bernstein’s life — he is best known for writing the music to West Side Story. I grew up playing classical violin and music from West Side Story, and knew I wanted to use Bernstein as a source of inspiration for Karthik, who is also considering a creative path.

3. Success and failure, beginnings and endings, happiness and disappointment — these all go hand in hand. And that’s okay.

Humor is the best! So glad you had fun with it!

Aside from your novels, you also contributed a story to the SUPER PUZZLETASTIC MYSTERIES anthology. How was the process of writing a short story different from writing one of your novels? 

I really love short stories — I enjoy the compressed storytelling, and the ability to focus on a single moment of change in a character’s life. In a mystery story, it’s especially interesting to think about suspense, suspicious characters, and planting clues in a short space. The challenge is getting it all in there and still allowing your detectives to solve a mystery in a satisfying way. 

Wow! That definitely sounds like it would be a challenge! But a fun one!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Middle grade and middle school are a special and transformative time in a young people’s lives, when they are just starting to feel a sense of independence and agency. I love the humor and sensitivity of this age group.

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

Every book is completely different. Some books have come to me very quickly. Others have taken years to complete. Starting is always hard.

But finishing a project is always the best feeling in the world.

What are you reading right now?

I recently finished Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome.

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

Don’t let a single project define you. You will have highs and lows, but the most important part you can do as a writer is to keep writing.

Evergreen advice!

Thank you so much for joining us, Sheela!

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

Add KARTHIK DELIVERS on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of KARTHIK DELIVERS!
Contest closes Friday, June 24th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Katryn Bury!

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

Today we’re chatting with Katryn Bury, the author of

DREW LECLAIR GETS A CLUE

Drew Leclair knows what it takes to be a great detective. She’s pored over the cases solved by her hero, criminal profiler Lita Miyamoto. She tracked down the graffiti artist at school, and even solved the mystery of her neighbor’s missing rabbit. But when her mother runs off to Hawaii with the school guidance counselor, Drew is shocked. How did she miss all of the clues?

Drew is determined to keep her family life a secret, even from her best friend. But when a cyberbully starts posting embarrassing rumors about other students at school, it’s only a matter of time before Drew’s secret is out.

Armed with her notebooks full of observations about her classmates, Drew knows what she has to do: profile all of the bullies in her grade to find the culprit. But being a detective is more complicated when the suspects can be your friends. Will Drew crack the case if it means losing the people she cares about most?

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

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

Hi! Thanks so much for inviting me to interview. My name is Katryn Bury, and I’m the author of Drew Leclair Gets a Clue, a middle grade mystery. My favorite pastimes (other than reading or writing, of course!) is hanging out with my amazing family in our hometown–Oakland, CA.

What was the inspiration behind DREW LECLAIR GETS A CLUE?

I’m a longtime true crime fan (much like my main character, Drew) and I was taking long walks while listening to Michelle McNamera’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark audiobook. In another life, I wanted to be a criminal profiler or a true crime writer. Listening to that book, I wondered what could have been different if I’d had a role model like Michelle McNamera. Thus, Drew Leclair was born, and her hero (based on Michelle), Lita Miyamoto. Once I had that idea, it was so fun to create a character that “profiles” her classmates.

We love hearing stories about ‘The Call’ here on Kick-butt Kidlit. What were you doing when you found out your book had sold?

It was a fantastic day. It was November 2020, and we had just found out the day before that Joe Biden officially won the election. I live in Oakland, so there was a lot of celebration in our neighborhood and we were riding high after lots of stress from the pandemic and the election season. The morning after, I woke up to a call from my agent. We had a pre-empt two book offer from the fantastic Emilia Rhodes. So, another day of celebration commenced!

Sounds like an awesome good news WEEK!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on DREW LECLAIR GETS A CLUE?

I think the first thing I realized writing this book was that I still felt the impact of my years of bullying as a kid. Even as a fun mystery, the bullying really stands out in this book. I think that’s because I was working through something really personal to me. Second, I discovered that mysteries are my favorite genre to write. I love forming clues and red herrings, like Drew does on her crime boards! Lastly, I realized that it’s really hard to talk about true crime in a book for kids without any of the gory details you’d normally get. It was hard to walk that line!

Mystery books are truly one of the best genres. 😀

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

Oh, Nancy Drew for sure! Drew Leclair is named after Nancy Drew, the mystery queen herself. I’d love to see Drew join that famous mystery solving trio to solve a crime. 

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I think there’s something really special that happens in that “between” age. You’re really figuring out who you are, as well as who you want to be. For me, it’s the true coming of age space and I find that time so compelling to write about.

Any hints about your next book project?

Yes! There should be an official announcement forthcoming, but I’ve been told it’s not a secret. Drew Leclair has a second book coming next spring! I really love the character, so getting the honor of revisiting her for a second story was just incredible.

Oh, yay! Congrats!

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

I think the most surprising part has been the fits and starts. I was writing for 30 years before I got an agent, but it was a very slow process. I would write books, send out a handful of query letters, and then give up. I started to pursue it more vigorously in 2017 and that process was slow as well. I probably racked up around 250 rejections. However, when I pitched Drew Leclair Gets a Clue on Twitter for #DvPit (a fantastic program I highly recommend, founded by Beth Phelan), everything happened very fast. I got five offers and, after only two weeks on sub, made a sale. Of course, after that, the wait for pub day was agonizing!

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello Universe. I’ve read almost all of her other books but somehow never got to the Newbery winner. I just love her writing. Next up I’m extremely excited to read Tae Keller’s newest book, Jennifer Chan is Not Alone. I’m a big alien person, and this is one I truly can’t wait for.

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

I give this advice frequently, but here it is: don’t feel bad if you’re sensitive. All along this process, I was advised to “grow a thick skin.” The thing is, that’s hard for sensitive people. And our sensitivity comes out in all sorts of fantastic ways (including really authentic characters!) so I would never suggest you change yourself. Getting rejected is really hard and it’s okay to feel all of your feelings as long as you don’t give up!

So, so, so true and a great reminder.

Thank you so much for joining us, Katryn!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out DREW LECLAIR GETS A CLUE!
It’s on shelves now!

Add DREW LECLAIR GETS A CLUE on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of DREW LECLAIR GETS A CLUE!
Contest closes Friday, June 10th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Meera Trehan!

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

Today we’re chatting with Meera Trehan, the author of

THE VERY BEST HOUSE IN TOWN

Sam and Asha. Asha and Sam. A perfect pair of friends whose differences complement well, and whose main similarity, autism, means they understand each other. They are a fixture, an established thing, just as Donnybrooke, the mansion that sits on the highest hill in Coreville, is the acknowledged best house in town—and Asha’s dream home. But when Sam is accepted into elite Castleton Academy, leaving Asha to navigate public middle school alone, she begins to wonder if the things she is certain about are so fixed after all. Because soon Sam is spending time with Prestyn, Asha’s tormentor whose family also happens to own Donnybrooke, and who have forbidden Asha from setting foot inside.

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

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

I’m Meera Trehan, and my debut middle grade is THE VIEW FROM THE VERY BEST HOUSE IN TOWN. I’m represented by Molly Ker Hawn at The Bent Agency which, as you know, makes me Very Lucky.

Very Lucky Indeed! (*Note: I [Casey Lyall, Kick-butt Kidlit Interviewer] am also represented by Molly Ker Hawn and can verify the above statement as true facts.)

What was the inspiration behind THE VIEW FROM THE VERY BEST HOUSE IN TOWN?

I was inspired to find answers to my own questions as a parent: What do we tell kids we value—kindness, caring—and what do we show them we value—social status, conventional achievement? How does the near universal desire to make our kids happy sometimes lead to so much unhappiness? Also, I was thinking about subtle and not-so subtle form of ableism. I was also thinking about how the forces that can makes friendships fray as kids get older, and all the emotions and questions I’ve had when some of my own friendships have faded.

Eventually, characters and something of a plot came in, and after multiple drafts that coalesced into this book. My publisher has described it as part thriller, part friendship story and part real estate listing, and while I absolutely love that description, I didn’t know that is what the book would become when I first sat down to write.

How did you tackle writing from multiple points of view in this book – especially when one was from the house itself!

This was my first time writing from multiple views—I tried to trust my instincts and remind myself I could always fix things later. The voices of the character of Asha and the over-the-top house, Donnybrooke, came to me early in the process. Writing Donnybrooke was a ton of fun—it was making me laugh, so I just went with it, knowing I could always revise. (And I did. A lot.). Writing from a non-human point of view was actually very liberating—it allowed me to say things and explore themes that just wouldn’t have worked if Donnybrooke had been a person. I did a couple drafts with just Asha and Donnybrooke, but the story felt thin. So then I started writing things from Sam’s point of view to understand the story better, and it became clear that he was such an integral part of it that we needed his voice too.

After I had a solid draft with all three POVs, I made a careful chapter by chapter outline, detailing who would be narrating which events. (There had been a fair amount of overlap as I just tried to pin down each voice). I then did another draft where I wrote one POV at a time to make sure each had its own distinctive voice and arc. And then I revised the story as a whole some more! I suppose it was a lot of work, but I think novels always are—it’s just a question of what kind of work. And this was work that let me tell the story I wanted to tell.

Love behind the scenes tidbits like this! What a smart way to work through the process!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE VIEW FROM THE VERY BEST HOUSE IN TOWN?

Here are three that you can find in my book:

In a medieval European castle, you wanted to have your well inside the castle walls so that your enemies couldn’t poison your drinking supply. I learned this (and many other facts) from David Macauley’s classic book, CASTLE.

I discovered that one version of the Castleton coat-of-arms has three twisted snakes on it. Castleton Academy is the name of the snobbish private school Sam attends, and when I saw that snake coat-of-arms, I had to work it in the story.

And finally, I discovered more types of weathervanes than I’d ever imagined, though I knew as soon as I saw it that the eagle-and-fish weathervane would be the one on top of Donnybrooke.

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

I would transport Asha to GREENGLASS HOUSE by Kate Milford. I think she would love the smuggler’s inn and also Milo and Meddy. I would transport Sam into COSMOS by Carl Sagan; Sam would have a blast not just being immersed in space, but also updating the book with the knowledge we’ve learned since it’s been published. I’m sure Donnybrooke would love to be transported into the pages of Architectural Digest magazine, but that might be too much for its ego.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

The simple answer is that those are the stories I think of. But I think the reasons for that are those middle grade years are a time where there’s so much change, where everything that once seemed settled is now in flux, where there’s intense questioning—and that gives me a lot to write about. I particularly like to explore how friendships and family shape people, and middle grade feels like it’s made for that. And for me, the key elements of a story are honesty and hope, and I think describes middle grade at its best.

I also like that middle grade is such a broad category in terms of tone, length, and genre. As an author, I feel like there’s space for me to experiment in middle grade craft-wise, and I love to see how other authors chose to tell their stories. Finally, I remember so clearly what it was like to be a kid, and I really like kids, so to be able to write for them is wonderful. You have to have a good story that will keep the pages turning, and that is something I appreciate.

Yes! Love that there’s so much room to explore in middle grade.

Any hints about your next book project?

It’s a middle grade fantasy with a lot of snow. When I started drafting, I was in serious denial that I was writing a fantasy—my logic was that since I didn’t know how to write a fantasy, this book I’m writing couldn’t possibly be a fantasy. It just happened to have a little magic in it. Eventually, I realized that maybe I should re-examine my initial premise, lol.

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

When I started I wasn’t really thinking about the writing community, and how important the writer friends I made would be to my journey. This is an incredible community—generous, supportive, and kind—and I’ve made some very close friends who have cheered me on through all of the ups and downs.

I’ve also really lucked out working with Walker/Candlewick. My cover and book design are amazing (thank you Nicole Miles and Maya Tatsukawa!); my editor, Susan Van Metre is so thoughtful and precise; my publicist Karen Walsh is so helpful and responsive. Really everyone I’ve worked with has just been great. When I was writing I was so focused on my words, and not the team that would turn the story into a beautiful book. Seeing what it has become has been the best kind of surprise.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished ELATSOE by Darcie Little Badger. Highly recommend! It’s a real page-turner, deliciously creepy, satisfying, and ultimately thought-provoking. It is filled with a larger symbolism that only adds to the terrific story. Also, ghost dog!

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

Really, I have two pieces: My first is my meta-advice on advice, which is not all advice applies to everyone. There are so many ways to write a book, and so many paths to get there. If you very my advice stressful or invalidating, please feel free to ignore it! I say this because so many times when I was starting out, I would get very stressed by advice, particularly from agents or editors, that I had to do things in a certain way that I knew wouldn’t work for me. It took me some time to trust in my own process.

All that said, my biggest piece of advice is to give yourself time. There are many things that really help my writing process: reading widely inside the age categories and genres I write in, reading widely outside of them, working on craft at the line level, building a writing community and finding critique partners, doing side writing and other exercises to get to know my characters and story, using visuals like maps to understand my setting, doing research to get the details right, taking long breaks between drafts so that I can better approach my work as a reader . . . the list goes on and on.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t do all these things in weeks or even months. It took years and years, and even though I didn’t want it to take that long to be published, my writing is much better for having that time. It takes most writers a long time, and it is completely okay if it is taking you a long time too. Just try to have fun with the process, and don’t be hard on yourself if some days are not good or you need a break. There are so many ways to build your craft!

Absolutely!

Thank you so much for joining us, Meera!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out
THE VIEW FROM THE VERY BEST HOUSE IN TOWN!
It’s on shelves now!

Add THE VIEW FROM THE VERY BEST HOUSE IN TOWN on Goodreads!

Connect with Meera on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE VIEW FROM THE VERY BEST HOUSE IN TOWN!
Contest closes Friday, May 13th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Waka T. Brown!

Hello, friends! Welcome to our first interview of 2022!

Find a comfy seat and relax because it’s time to Kick Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Waka T. Brown, the author of

DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM

As the daughter of immigrants who came to America for a better life, Annie Inoue was raised to dream big. And at the start of seventh grade, she’s channeling that irrepressible hope into becoming the lead in her school play.

So when Annie lands an impressive role in the production of The King and I, she’s thrilled . . . until she starts to hear grumbles from her mostly white classmates that she only got the part because it’s an Asian play with Asian characters. Is this all people see when they see her? Is this the only kind of success they’ll let her have–one that they can tear down or use race to belittle?

Disheartened but determined, Annie channels her hurt into a new dream: showing everyone what she’s made of.

Waka T. Brown, author of While I Was Away, delivers an uplifting coming-of-age story about a Japanese American girl’s fight to make space for herself in a world that claims to celebrate everyone’s differences but doesn’t always follow through.

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

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

I’ve loved stories forever, but my first foray into writing was in screenplays. I received a lot of “encouraging rejections” for them over the years—which kept me going—but I never had a feature picked up. A few years ago, I had a 10-minute short film produced, but that was also around the time I decided to write While I Was Away, which resulted in my participation in Pitch Wars, then finding my agent, and then landing my first book deal. I also have three boys, a husband, and a naughty but loveable pup, and live with them in the Portland, Oregon area.

Cool! Always love to meet a fellow Pitch Wars alum!

What was the inspiration behind DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM?

My first book While I Was Away explored my experiences in Japan as a Japanese American. While Dream, Annie, Dream is fiction, in some ways it’s the flip side of the coin to my first novel, in that it explores what it was like to be one of the only Japanese Americans in Topeka, Kansas during a time where there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment (related to trade friction) throughout the United States.

Even though it’s a story that takes place in the 1980s, I found that there were a lot of parallels with what is still happening today in terms of microaggressions and misunderstandings about what is good/bad representation. As with many current events, the roots of what is happening can be found in history and so that is how the idea for Dream, Annie, Dream was born.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM?

I loved conducting my research for Dream, Annie, Dream! I have many friends who are children of first-generation Asian immigrants, and through them I learned a lot of their parents’ stories and how they ended up in the United States. Some were similar to my own parents’ path; some were quite different and really quite surprising! But the majority of them were able to immigrate here due to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, something that I had never learned about growing up.

I had also read the TIME Magazine article about “Those Asian American Whiz Kids” when it was first published in 1987, but when I went back and read it again for my research, it was fascinating to revisit how Asian Americans were perceived at that time (and how little has changed).

In addition, it was interesting to delve more deeply into how Asians were portrayed in film, the prevalence of casting non-Asian actors in Asian roles, and to analyze some of the problematic themes in the musical The King and I.

For our aspiring writers out there, what do you think are some of the key elements to capturing that ‘just right’ middle grade voice?

Since I came from screenwriting, when I first wrote While I Was Away, I basically gave myself a crash course in middle grade writing through reading a whole bunch of middle grade books, and it was so much fun. Reading these recently published middle grade novels reminded me of why I fell in love with stories as a kid, and it was like I was playing catch up in the best sort of way. Also, I had very kind mentors and more experienced authors offering me writing tips along the way. Finally, my two younger boys are squarely in middle grade territory, and they often regale me with some very eye-opening facts about kids their age!

Oh, excellent! That must have been informative AND entertaining! 😀

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

Hmm… this is a hard one. Part of me would like to transport Annie into a contemporary novel in which characters are used to and welcome diversity, but another part of me would like to transport her back to Prince Edward Island where she could be friends with Anne Shirley. They’re both dreamers, feel like they don’t quite fit in, and don’t let much stand in their way. I loved Anne of Green Gables when I was a little girl and identified with her a lot even though I’m not a red-haired orphan living in the late 1800s. I really hope all kids will find some aspect of Annie Inoue’s story to identify with in the same way.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Middle grade is such an honest but intense age in which kids are navigating that transition from childhood—from a time in which parents are their world—into one in which they have more choices and can be more independent. In hindsight, it was also one of the most difficult times for me growing up (and I know for many other people!) so, if there’s anything my words can do to make the time a little easier to get through, that makes me happy.

Any hints about your next book project?

Well, the book I’m currently working on is The Very Unfortunate Wish of Melony Yoshimura (Summer 2023) which is a contemporary re-telling of the Japanese folktale “The Melon Princess and the Amanjaku.” It’s a bit different from my first two books in that it’s contemporary magical realism. But, like my first two stories, at its center is a spirited, imperfect girl trying to find her way.

Sounds amazing! Looking forward to it!

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

I guess that I can write? Over the years I’ve received so many rejections, and while some have been kind and encouraging, I think subconsciously part of me believed maybe I was receiving all these rejections because I just couldn’t write. Also, when I read other authors’ works, I’m constantly in awe of their prose, creativity, etc. so you could say I have a healthy (unhealthy?) dose of imposter syndrome. So, it’s been surprising in the best way when people reach out and let me know that they’ve enjoyed my stories. It’s something that I always hoped for, and it’s still hard for me to believe sometimes that I’m a published author.

What are you reading right now?

I’m about to dive into Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea.

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

I think all of us experience those times where we encounter obstacles in our writing, whether it’s a plot hole, or we’re just floundering around in the mucky middle, and we just feel “stuck.” So, my favorite advice that I’ve received is so simple, but deserves repeating—“You can fix it later.” Just keep on writing and know that the magic often happens in the revisions.

YES! Such an important thing to remember. Well said.

Thank you for joining us, Waka!

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

Add DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM to Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of DREAM, ANNIE, DREAM!
Contest closes Friday, April 22nd at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!