Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Stephanie Burgis!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re talking with Stephanie Burgis, the author of 

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON HEART

Once upon a time, in a beautiful city famous for chocolate and protected by dragons, there was a girl so fearless that she dared to try to tell the greatest story of all: the truth.

Silke has always been good at spinning the truth and storytelling. So good that just years after arriving as a penniless orphan, she has found her way up to working for the most splendid chocolate makers in the city (oh, and becoming best friends with a dragon). Now her gift for weaving words has caught the eye of the royal family, who want to use her as a spy when the mysterious and dangerous fairy royal family announce they will visit the city. But Silke has her own dark, secret reasons for not trusting fairies …

Can Silke find out the truth about the fairies while keeping her own secrets hidden?

From the author of the magical The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart comes a second magical adventure perfect for fans of Cressida Cowell, Cornelia Funke and Peter Bunzl.

Let’s talk to this wonderful author about her fantastic books!

This is Stephanie. Everyone say, “Hi, Stephanie!”

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

Hi, Casey! I grew up in a college town in Michigan, spent a while living in Vienna, and now I live in a small town in Wales, surrounded by castles and coffee shops. I write fun MG fantasy adventures and also romantic historical fantasy novels for adults, and my cat supervises all of it by pinning me down, purring, every day to make sure I stay still and write. 🙂

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON HEART is the second book in your Tales from the Chocolate Heart series. Where did the idea for this series come from and what was it like working on the sequel?

Whenever I sit down to figure out what to write next, I start by making a “love list” full of things I really love in books (and/or in life). Two of the things I love most are dragons and chocolate, especially hot chocolate – and it was when I put those two elements together that the first book (The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart) was born! Originally, I intended it to be just one standalone book, because I knew that my fierce dragon-girl heroine, Aventurine, would finish her main storyline by the end of that book. By the time I was halfway through, though, I’d fallen in love with her fabulous new best friend, Silke, and I knew that she had to star in her own story.

I love it when a character demands their own story!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on the series?

I loved researching the way chocolate was made in the 18th century (because I based my imaginary city of Drachenburg, in the kingdom of Drachenheim, on an 18th-century German city) and the kind of chocolate treats that would be served in the gorgeous chocolate house where Silke and Aventurine work.

I discovered that I could learn to love chili-flavored hot chocolate (which was clearly going to be my dragon-heroine’s favorite kind!) if I only drank enough cups of it.

And I discovered that I could do bigger, more structural rewrites than I’d ever dared before, as I massively rewrote the second book to dig far deeper into my fabulous heroine’s (carefully guarded) vulnerabilities and make her arc the story she deserved.

Oh, my goodness. Chocolate research has to be the best kind of research.

Writing fantasy books can be a ton of fun, but they’re also a lot of responsibility. You’re creating a whole new universe to play in! What kind of things do you think about when you’re world-building? Any tips for budding fantasy writers?

I tend to loosely base my fantasy worlds on real historical periods, with all the changes you’d extrapolate from adding magic/dragons/fairies/etc to the world and its history. That gives me a solid kind of base to get started on. But it is so important not to let yourself get bogged down in the way things were in our world. For instance, because Drachenburg feels like a late-18th-century German town (with magic), I found myself starting to automatically write all the soldiers as male – and then thought, WAIT. Why should I? Why shouldn’t there be openly female soldiers in this world, in the ruling privy council, and so on? So world-building became a process of questioning my own automatic assumptions about the way things “had” to be in a setting like this one.

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

Well, honestly, I’d love to transport them into the world of my first trilogy, Kat, Incorrigible! I think they’d all have so much fun together. 🙂

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I’ve always loved MG fantasy for the sheer sense of wonder and adventure and joyful discovery. Writing it now is my way of tapping back into those feelings.

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m not allowed to talk about it yet! (Argh. I am terrible at keeping exciting secrets!) But I can promise you that there WILL be a next MG book project coming very soon. 🙂

Oooooooooooooh, book secrets!!! We can’t wait to hear all about it!

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

That publishing is so unpredictable! I used to think that once an author sold their first book, they would just steadily keep selling books forever. (Ha!) But the first book I wrote after my first trilogy just wasn’t marketable – and it helped so much to turn to other professional writers and find out just how normal that part really is. Some books will sell and some won’t, and sometimes it’s about quality and sometimes it’s just about finding the right moment. (For example, my adult novel Masks and Shadows didn’t sell when it first went out on submission in 2005, for marketing reasons, but it did sell in 2014, when it finally felt right for the political moment.)

For myself, I’ve found that it’s utterly impossible to guarantee that any new book concept will definitely sell – but I CAN guarantee that I *won’t* be able to sell a book if I try to write it to please other people instead of myself. I’ve never sold a book that I didn’t truly love and that didn’t really spark for me.

A good reason to always write what you love!

What are you reading right now?

So many books at once! I’m usually rotating 5-6 at once. But the two most relevant ones I’m reading right now are Robin Stevens’s Death in the Spotlight and Eloise Williams’s Seaglass.

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

“Never give up, never surrender!” (Thank you, Galaxy Quest!) Seriously, professional writing is a challenging and stressful career, with so many important decisions dependent on factors that are out of a writer’s control. You have to stubbornly hang onto the sheer joy of writing, force yourself to focus on the good parts, and also learn to live with rejection and keep going. It’s totally okay to cry and vent to all of your friends when you’re rejected. But then send that story right back out to the next agent/editor/magazine on your submission list, and get started on writing the next one!

By Grabthar’s hammer…that’s some advice to take to heart!

 

Thank you for joining us, Stephanie!

 

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out the TALES FROM THE CHOCOLATE HEART series! THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON HEART is out now!

 

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Add THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON HEART on Goodreads!

Get in touch with Stephanie on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website.

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON HEART!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!
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Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Hena Khan!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re talking with Hena Khan, the author of the

ZAYD SALEEM, CHASING THE DREAM series!

Fourth grader Zayd Saleem has some serious hoop dreams. He’s not just going to be a professional basketball player. He’s going to be a star. A legend. The first Pakistani-American kid to make it to the NBA. He knows this deep in his soul. It’s his destiny. There are only a few small things in his way.

For starters, Zayd’s only on the D-team. (D stands for developmental, but to Zayd it’s always felt like a bad grade or something.) Not to mention, he’s a bit on the scrawny side, even for the fourth grade team. But his best friend Adam is on the Gold Team, and it’s Zayd’s dream for the two of them to play together.

His mom and dad don’t get it. They want him to practice his violin way more than his jump shot. When he gets caught blowing off his violin lessons to practice, Zayd’s parents lay down the ultimate punishment: he has to hang up his high tops and isn’t allowed to play basketball anymore.

As tryouts for the Gold Team approach, Zayd has to find the courage to stand up for himself and chase his dream. – Power Forward (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream #1)

Let’s talk to this fantastic author about her awesome books!

This is Hena. Everyone say, “Hi, Hena!”

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Photo Credit: Havar Espedal

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

Thanks for hosting me! I’m a writer who lives in Maryland, which is where I was born and raised by Pakistani immigrants to the U.S. People are amazed to hear that I have lived within the same five-mile radius my entire life, except for a study abroad to Spain while I was in college! I’m a mom to two teen boys and love to travel with my family, bake decadent desserts, and read in bed. I feel very lucky to be able write books that help introduce a bit about my background and culture to readers!

Where did the idea for the ZAYD SALEEM, CHASING THE DREAM series come from?

Like so many ideas, it came from something that really happened—but not to me. When we were driving to his parents’ house one day, my husband told me a story that I hadn’t heard before—about how he as a kid had the brilliant idea to sneak into the gym to play basketball when his mom dropped him off at school for violin lessons. He got away with it for a while, until he left his violin in the car when he got out, and his mom discovered it later. Thinking he needed it, she returned to the school to give it to him. And of course she went to the music room, and he wasn’t there. The story made me laugh as I imagined him hatching up this plan and getting busted! And that was the spark for the series about a basketball-obsessed boy who makes mistakes but has a good heart and a loving and family full of personalities that mirrors ours in many ways.

Ah! What a sneaky dude! Such a great backstory!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on the series?

First, I discovered that it’s incredibly satisfying to write a series, because you get to know your characters after writing the first book, and then have the chance to stick them in different situations and scenarios in future books and already know how they are going to feel or react, like they are real people.

Second, I realized that even though I wrote a sports-themed series, I could still include story lines I love to write about, like friendship, family, and culture, and that they had just as important a place in the stories.

The third and most interesting thing I found out though was probably the fact that my friends don’t think I’m funny in real life! After several of them read POWER FORWARD, the first book in the series, they said, with a with a mix of shock and accusation in their voices, “its really FUNNY!” or “it made me laugh and I didn’t expect it to be FUNNY!” or “good job, I didn’t know you could be FUNNY.” So there’s that. I wasn’t offended. 😀

Zayd, your main character, is a basketball player with dreams of making it big. Are you a big basketball fan or are you into some other form of sportsball?

I am a big basketball fan, and even though I can’t dribble or shoot a layup to save my life, I live in a household where everyone else plays regularly. We are all big fanatics. March Madness, the NCAA college basketball tournament, has almost a sacred role in my family and brackets are serious business. For the NBA, we are Washington Wizards fans, like Zayd Saleem and go to a handful of games each season, which is always exciting and at times heartbreaking. It was super convenient when writing this series to be able to bounce ideas (no pun intended) off of my husband and kids, and to have in-house fact checkers and helpers for designing games and play sequences.

That is so cool! I love how involved your family was with the whole process.

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

Beverly Cleary is my children’s literary hero, and I grew up immersed in her books, rereading them over and over again. I would love Zayd and his family to get to know Ramona Quimby and her cast of characters like Beezus and Henry Huggins and to share little adventures in their neighborhood together.

I would 100% read that crossover!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I read the most when I was in my middle grade years and spent a lot of free time with my nose in a book. It’s when books spoke the loudest to me, and when characters I connected with helped to shape me. I wanted to write for the age group that can get truly lost in the magic of a story and forget the world around them, and grow as they connect with stories and absorb details, all while being entertained.

Any hints about your next book project?

Yes! I’m finishing up another middle grade novel about four sisters that I hope will be ready for publication next summer! It’s actually inspired by my favorite book of all time, Little Women, and in some ways is a love letter to that book. I can’t wait for others to read it.

Sounds great! Can’t wait to read it!

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

Probably how much of being an author involves doing things that don’t come naturally to me. I know I like to play with words and tell stories. I know that I like to edit, sometimes even more than I like to write. But apart from learning how challenging and confusing the publishing industry can be to navigate, I didn’t realize that I would be tested in new ways and need to develop public speaking skills, take on a social media presence, learn to get out of my comfort zone and network and promote my work and so on. Authors need to get out there these days more than ever.

What are you reading right now?

I read YA and MG books almost exclusively and have a huge stack to read! At the moment I’m reading an ARC of the anthology BLACK ENOUGH, which I’m enjoying very much, and next on my list is The VANDERBEEKERS AND THE HIDDEN GARDEN by Karina Glaser.

Love the Vanderbeekers!

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

Probably that we all can get better at the things we are passionate about through practice and commitment—whether it’s hitting a ball, writing a beautiful sentence, or baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Everyone who has success has put in time and effort, and gotten up when they fell and tried again. As the amazing author Jacqueline Woodson said, “Brilliance is passion recognized.” We all have passions, and have to put in the work if we ever hope to be recognized as brilliant one day!

Yes! So true!

Thank you for joining us, Hena!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out the whole Zayd Saleem series!

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Add ZAYD SALEEM, CHASING THE DREAM on Goodreads!

Get in touch with Hena on Twitter, FacebookInstagram, or through her website.

Click here to enter to win a copy of POWER FORWARD, ON POINT, and BOUNCE BACK!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!

 

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Saadia Faruqi!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re talking with Saadia Faruqi, the author of

MEET YASMIN!

Meet Yasmin! Yasmin Ahmad is a spirited second-grader who’s always on the lookout for those “aha” moments to help her solve life’s little problems. Taking inspiration from her surroundings and her big imagination, she boldly faces any situation, assuming her imagination doesn’t get too big, of course! A creative thinker and curious explorer, Yasmin and her multi-generational Pakistani American family will delight and inspire readers.

Let’s talk to this wonderful author about her delightful books!

This is Saadia. Everyone say, “Hi, Saadia!”

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

Thank you for having me! I’m a Pakistani American writer, interfaith activist, and a mom of two kids. I’ve written a short story collection for adults called Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan, and also an early reader series for kids in K-2 called Meet Yasmin!

Where did the idea for MEET YASMIN come from?

It came from my daughter when she was in kindergarten, who didn’t enjoy reading about a lot of white girls doing awesome things. She made her feeling about the lack of diversity in kidlit very clear, even though she was too young to know what she was talking about in academic terms. She just instinctively felt left out because none of the main characters in her books looked like her. So I thought maybe I should do something about that.

I love that you took action to create this series for her – and that other kids around the world get to read them now too!

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

I was vacationing in Norway with my family. It had actually taken so long that I’d almost forgotten about this series and was already working on other manuscripts. So it was a very fun addition to an already wonderful holiday, but I must admit it distracted me and my kids had to tell me to focus on them instead of texting back and forth with my agent!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on MEET YASMIN?

I learned so much during this process.

(1) the art portion of an early reader series takes much longer than the text, and the entire publication process of this book is really complicated and long. Very long.

(2) My kids come up with the best stories for Yasmin!

(3) Early readers can be as important as any other age group in teaching something or sending a message.

That is so cool that your kids help come up with the stories! High fives to the whole crew.

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

I think Yasmin and her family would have fun in the Magic Treehouse series. Yasmin loves to learn but she is also very curious and imaginative. She would have an incredibly good time traveling to different historical periods in history with her Mama and Baba, and maybe even her grandparents.

Why were you drawn to writing in this category – anything in particular about the younger end of the middle grade spectrum?

I was drawn first and foremost by the lack of South Asian main characters in the early reader series. It’s really an egregious absence especially in current times where diversity and multiculturalism are growing so rapidly and a vast number of readers in that age group are South Asian. So I wanted to write a series that many of our kids can relate to, identify with and grow to love.

Any hints about your next book project?

Fellow author Laura Shovan and I recently announced a book deal with Clarion/HMH for a co-authored Middle Grade novel A Place at the Table, coming spring 2020. It’s a dual narrative about two first generation girls from very different religious and cultural backgrounds who are navigating America while their mothers still work towards citizenship.

Laura’s been on the blog before! We’ll have to have you both on when the new book comes out. Can’t wait to read it!

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

The joy and love that readers, their parents, teachers and librarians are showing Yasmin has come as a complete shock. If I was ever doubtful about the need for this series, my doubts would have been erased by the emails and messages I get every single day from around the world saying they’re exactly what they’d been searching for.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading The Boy, the Boat and the Beast by Samantha M. Clark. My son has already read it, and now he’s waiting for me to read it so we can talk about it!

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

Never give up. Incidentally this would be Yasmin’s advice as well. In every Yasmin story, she has a major failure moment. She makes a mess of a painting, or she accidentally tears her mom’s shirt, or she gets lost. We all have those moments, several times a day. The key is to be like Yasmin and figure out a solution. Sometimes the solution comes through imagination and creativity. Sometimes it presents itself. But never give up on the task you’ve set out to do.

Words to live by!

Thank you so much for joining us, Saadia!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out the whole Meet Yasmin series!

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Add MEET YASMIN! on Goodreads!

Get in touch with Saadia on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of MEET YASMIN!, YASMIN THE EXPLORER, and YASMIN THE PAINTER!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Paula Chase!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re talking with Paula Chase, the author of

SO DONE

When best friends Tai and Mila are reunited after a summer apart, their friendship threatens to combust from the pressure of secrets, middle school, and the looming dance auditions for a new talented-and-gifted program.

Fans of Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together will love this memorable story about a complex friendship between two very different African American girls—and the importance of speaking up.

Jamila Phillips and Tai Johnson have been inseparable since they were toddlers, having grown up across the street from each other in Pirates Cove, a low-income housing project. As summer comes to an end, Tai can’t wait for Mila to return from spending a month with her aunt in the suburbs. But both girls are grappling with secrets, and when Mila returns she’s more focused on her upcoming dance auditions than hanging out with Tai.

Paula Chase explores complex issues that affect many young teens, and So Done offers a powerful message about speaking up. Full of ballet, basketball, family, and daily life in Pirates Cove, this memorable novel is for fans of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish and Jason Reynolds’s Ghost. 

Let’s talk to this amazing author about her incredible book!

This is Paula. Everyone say, “Hi, Paula!”

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

Hi, thanks for having me. I find myself talking more in GIFs and emoji’s lately.  I wish I could say it’s because I write for kids, but it’s because I spend way too much time on social media and in an assortment of Groupme chats and I’ve found it a more pleasant way to communicate. So if I could find the perfect ones to let you know who I am I think they’d be the Spongebob on fire GIF because I have a full time day job, a high school aged daughter, am married and I write books. Emojis that best describe me are the rolling on the floor laughing emoji, a bunch of random colored hearts and the kissy-winky emoji. And now you know who I am. I think.

Strangely enough, I do think that provided some great insight! (Thumb’s up emoji.)

Where did the idea for SO DONE come from?

My book ideas don’t so much come from anywhere as they’re a response to things I want to process from a young person’s perspective. SO DONE was about sorting through the emotions of feeling left behind and being tired of being under the control of your best friend. The devil is in why she feels left behind and why she’s tired of something that’s essentially been the structure of the relationship since it’s beginnings. That’s the fun of telling a story – those details.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on SO DONE? 

You can’t hear a thing a person says to you if you have ear buds in plugged into the sounds of waves crashing. And…did you mean about the book? Wait…okay. I discovered that my characters could go a long way to help adults understand that when kids act out it’s usually because of something going on in their environment. Adults should already know this, but I think we’re constantly caught up in our own stuff and brush off that kids have stuff too. Also, that middle grade fits me. I really enjoy writing for a younger audience. And finally, I discovered that I’m not at all squeamish about covering topics that some might feel belong in YA instead of MG.

I definitely agree that there’s a lot of tough topics out there that MG readers NEED to be reading about to be given that opportunity to know that they’re not alone. I’m glad that there’s authors like you out there providing that outlet for them.

Your book focuses on the friendship between the two main characters, Jamila and Tai. What’s the most appealing part of writing about the inner workings of a friendship for you? The most challenging?

Every single one of my books is a friendship story. Friendships fascinate me because they’re complex. We don’t realize that until we’re older. We don’t realize that sometimes friendships end and that’s okay.  The most challenging is being fair to the friendship. I don’t want to create a one-dimensional character who is a pain in the butt just because another character needs something to rise against.  And it can be hard to flesh out to fully formed characters and their motivations within that friendship.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade? 

After I wrote my YA series people kept telling me that my voice matched middle grade better. And they’re right. Since I had a character already in that age group, I just thought about what her story was and So Done came about.

Any hints about your next book project?

It stays revolved around characters from The Cove. This time it will feature the boys, Simp and Rollie, and expand more on their friendship, which has its own issues. But I want to stress it’s not a “boy” book. I want us to get rid of that notion. Still, I’m excited to explore Simp and Rollie’s friendship because it’s good for readers, boys and girls, to have books that have boy characters diving into emotional territory usually reserved for girl characters.

That sounds awesome! I think readers will be excited to have a chance to dive deeper into those characters.

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

That I’m still on it. There’s nine years between my last YA book and So Done. There were a lot of times, in those years, that I thought maybe I was done writing books. I’m glad that wasn’t the case, but those years were a drought in more ways than one.

What are you reading right now?

Due to the sheer lack of time I go through binges – which is supposed to mean I get it done in one weekend. But this one got interrupted with life. I finished Everything I Know About You and Two Naomis and am still reading Where the Watermelons Grow. There’s some really great MG out there. Barbara Dee and I are hitting the road with a panel about covering tough topics in MG. So hopefully we’re coming to a fest or conference near you.

Ooh, yes! Come to Canada!

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

Living life one day at a time doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared. By that I mean, we should all live in the moment because tomorrow isn’t promised. But that doesn’t mean you stand by and let things happen. Having goals and trying to reach them is what life is all about. The journey is the fun part!

So true!

Thank you so much for joining us, Paula!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out SO DONE. It’s on shelves NOW!

So Done

Add SO DONE on Goodreads!

Get in touch with Paula on Facebook, Twitter, or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of SO DONE! Contest ends October 15th!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!

 

KBKL Mega Middle Grade Mystery GIVEAWAY!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Since August, we’ve been putting the spotlight on middle grade mystery and shared posts from fourteen awesome authors! Now, to celebrate the end of this series, we’re hosting a giveaway! Click here to enter to win one copy of every book featured. That’s right!

You could win FOURTEEN (14!) SUPER COOL MIDDLE GRADE MYSTERIES!

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This giveaway is open to Canada and the US only and closes on Friday, October 5th.

Missed out on our magnificent MG mystery posts?
Check out the links below and read them all!

Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight on: MYSTERY Previous Posts

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Tarpley

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kara LaReau

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Sheila Turnage

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Henry Lien

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jill Diamond

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Casey Lyall

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kat Zhang

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: C.M. Surrisi

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Dora M. Mitchell

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Deen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Lauren Magaziner

KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Tarpley!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) continues this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Natasha Tarpley!

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We Are Here: Place as a Character in The Harlem Charade

It’s easy to overlook a place. Walking the same sidewalks, or passing by the same buildings, houses, and stores every day, we tend to take the communities and neighborhoods where we live or spend time for granted. But sometimes a place isn’t content fading into the background; sometimes a place wants to be noticed, and it finds ways of getting our attention. The Harlem neighborhood in New York City, famously known as a mecca of African American arts and culture, definitely captured my attention and plays an essential role in the plot of my middle grade mystery, The Harlem Charade.

I lived in Harlem during the late 1990s and early 2000s, at a time when Harlem was undergoing major transformation as a result of a wave of gentrification (still happening today). Every week it seemed like more old businesses, structures, and long-time neighbors had disappeared and been replaced by new residents, new luxury apartment buildings, and corporate stores. One day, while walking up Malcolm X Boulevard, I felt compelled to look up at the scaffolding around a nearby construction site. Hanging there was a portrait by the street artist Brett Dizney, painted on a piece of scrap wood, of a Harlem resident and a quote about that person’s recollections of the neighborhood. I started seeing the portraits everywhere, popping up in surprising places, telling often overlooked stories, whispering, “we are here. We are here.”

Like many of the remnants of Harlem’s past, Brett Dizney’s portraits also eventually vanished, but they stayed in my memory for years afterwards, and became the inspiration for The Harlem Charade. In The Harlem Charade, Alex, Jin, and Elvin, the book’s three 12 year-old protagonists, must learn about Harlem’s history in order to save the neighborhood from a greedy politician who wants to turn it into a themed amusement park called, Harlem World. As I watched so much of Harlem’s past disappear, I started to think about all the stories of a community that get lost in the wake of new development—like Dizney’s portraits. What is worth preserving about a place, and who gets to decide?

In the book, I wanted my characters to not only wrestle with these questions, but also to create a scenario in which they were forced to look at, experience, and participate in their community in new ways. My hope was that The Harlem Charade would encourage readers, too, to explore their own neighborhoods, to identify the things that were valuable and worth preserving, and to play an active role in making their communities better.

After leaving Harlem in the 2000s, I returned to the South Side of Chicago, where I was born and raised, and now reside. This is an underserved area of the city that is much maligned (as Harlem once was)—reports of violence and poverty are staples on the nightly news. But it is also a place where thousands of African Americans settled after migrating from the South in search of a better life during the Great Migration. It is a place of parks, community gardens, people greeting you when you pass on the street, backyard barbeques, and families still striving to make a good life. In The Harlem Charade, I especially wanted to encourage kids who might live in neighborhoods that are considered unappealing by others, to learn about the history, the complexities, and, yes, the magic that exists in their communities.

Natasha Tarpley

Natasha Tarpley is the author of the best-selling picture book, I Love My Hair!, as well as other acclaimed titles for children and adults. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship among other awards. When she is not writing books, Ms. Tarpley can usually be found reading them. She has also taken up the cruel and unusual hobby of running marathons. Ms. Tarpley is the co-founder of Voonderbar! Media, a multicultural children’s book media company. She lives with her husband and the ghosts of two cats on the south side of Chicago.

Add THE HARLEM CHARADE on Goodreads!

Connect with Natasha on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE HARLEM CHARADE!

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Thank you for checking out our Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY series! Missed a post? Check out the links below!

Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight on: MYSTERY Previous Posts

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kara LaReau

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Sheila Turnage

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Henry Lien

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jill Diamond

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Casey Lyall

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kat Zhang

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: C.M. Surrisi

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Dora M. Mitchell

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Deen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Lauren Magaziner

 

KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kara LaReau!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) continues this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Kara LaReau! 

Bland Sisters

Unintentional Mystery, Intentional Humor: Writing The Uncanny Express

The Uncanny Express was the first mystery I ever wrote, and my decision to write a whodunit was fairly arbitrary: The Jolly Regina, the first story in the Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, took place on a ship and played with all the tropes of pirate and seafaring stories. It felt right that the second story should take place on a train, and what better tropes to celebrate than all things Agatha Christie, particularly in her masterpiece Murder on the Orient Express?

I already knew this book was going to be hard to write, especially as the second book in a trilogy, but I had no idea just how hard: the twisty plotting, the suspects and their alibis and motivations, getting the homage to Agatha Christie just right. And on top of all of that? It had to be funny. Thankfully, I just needed to follow Agatha Christie’s lead. The premise of her mysteries lends itself to a comic setup: the earnest detective set among eccentric characters is pretty much the straight man-funny man archetype, and I already use that archetype quite a bit throughout the series. Jaundice and Kale are the ultimate straight men — or would that be straight sisters?

But I don’t go “straight” to comedy when I write. My first (and second, and third) drafts are completely devoid of humor, or any detail, really. They’re all business, usually just the dialogue and direction that moves the plot forward. As I flesh things out and the characters come to life and the natural rhythms of the story become clear, the humor manifests, and it’s almost as if the jokes start telling themselves.

Some of the humor is in the naming of the characters, one of my great joys as a writer. I love finding just the right name to fit a character, and I especially love names that are fun to read and read aloud. For instance, my stand-in for Christie’s Hercule Poirot is the great detective Hugo Fromage, which is French for big cheese. A tweedy, put-upon maid is named Vera Dreary. Another character on the Uncanny Express is Countess Ima Goudenoff, which inspired this exchange:

“What is your first name, if I might ask?” inquired the great detective.

“It is Ima,” said the countess.

Ima Goudenoff?” Jaundice said.

“You are,” said Kale, patting her sister’s hand.

I love a good joke (obviously), but I also love using literary and cultural references to enhance my humor. Sometimes, my references are meant for kids, and other times, they can be a bit more sophisticated and adult. For instance, here’s a little joke that cheekily references Murder on the Orient Express:

“Everyone looks guilty,” Jaundice whispered.

“Well, they can’t all have done it,” said Kale. “How silly would that be?”

I hope that kids of all ages will enjoy The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, so I’ve included all kinds of humor — physical comedy, wordplay, even a bit of scatological humor (despite those who might pooh-pooh it) — for maximum entertainment. Also, I think the best stories are the ones you can come back to again and again, and discover something new and different and funny each time. I especially love going back to stories I loved as a kid and discovering whole new meanings with my (semi-)adult sensibility. It’s like a gift that keeps on giving.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write another mystery — though I’ve learned to never say never when it comes to writing stories. I’m glad I can say I wrote one, and I like to think that it works as a funny, punny read and a solid whodunit. I hope you agree.

Kara LaReau

Kara LaReau was born and raised in Connecticut. She received her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and later worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press. She is the author of picture books such as UGLY FISH, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and Good Night Little Monsters, illustrated by Brian Won; an award-winning chapter book series called The Infamous Ratsos, illustrated by Matt Myers; and a middle-grade trilogy called The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, illustrated by Jen Hill. Kara lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and son and their cat.

Add THE UNCANNY EXPRESS (THE UNINTENTIONAL ADVENTURES OF THE BLAND SISTERS #2) on Goodreads!

Connect with Kara on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of THE UNCANNY EXPRESS (THE UNINTENTIONAL ADVENTURES OF THE BLAND SISTERS #2)!

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Stay tuned for our final Spotlight on MYSTERY series post from Natasha Tarpley!

Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight on: MYSTERY Previous Posts

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Sheila Turnage

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Henry Lien

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jill Diamond

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Casey Lyall

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kat Zhang

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: C.M. Surrisi

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Dora M. Mitchell

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Deen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Lauren Magaziner