Kicking Back with Kick-butt and David A. Robertson!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with David A. Robertson, the author of

THE BARREN GROUNDS

Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children forced away from their families and communities, are brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They each feel disconnected, from their culture and each other, and struggle to fit in at school and at their new home — until they find a secret place, walled off in an unfinished attic bedroom.

A portal opens to another reality, Askí, bringing them onto frozen, barren grounds, where they meet Ochek (Fisher). The only hunter supporting his starving community, Misewa, Ochek welcomes the human children, teaching them traditional ways to survive. But as the need for food becomes desperate, they embark on a dangerous mission. Accompanied by Arik, a sassy Squirrel they catch stealing from the trapline, they try to save Misewa before the icy grip of winter freezes everything — including them.

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

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

This is always such a loaded question! I’m a Cree/Sottish/English/Irish writer and I live in Winnipeg with my family. I have a wife and five children, with two dogs and one cat. I’ve written about 25 books in my ten-year professional writing career, from graphic novels to picture books to young adult novels to middle grade novels to memoir to literary fiction.

All of my books have been about Indigenous people—their histories, communities, cultures, contemporary struggles, resiliencies, strengths, and more. I chose to write about Indigenous people because I didn’t have books when I was a kid, certainly not like kids have now. I feel so lucky to be writing books in a time when so many Indigenous artists are sharing their stories through literature, music, dance, art. It’s exciting to be a part of the Indigenous arts scene in Canada. 

Where did the idea for THE BARREN GROUNDS come from?

From a lot of different places. I’ve wanted to tell a story about the foster care system in Canada for a long time, and have been waiting for the right time and the right idea. This felt like all of that. I wanted kids to learn about how the foster care system treats Indigenous children, and what cultural disconnect can do to a kid, their family, their community, their identity. And also, what reconnection can do, how empowering it is.

A focus I’ve had, as well, is to take classic literature and reimagine it through an Indigenous lens. So, this series (The Barren Grounds is the first in a series called The Misewa Saga) is influenced by Narnia. I think it walks a delicate line of honouring that story, which I love, and becoming something all its own. I’m proud of the book in this way.

Finally, I wanted to incorporate Cree stories of the sky, to retell them through my own voice, and to see what messages I could send to kids through that retelling. The Barren Grounds takes the legend of Ochek, fisher, and how he became the constellation western society calls The Big Dipper. It becomes a story that not only addresses the foster care system, but also land protection and stewardship. About how colonialism has impacted people and the environment.  

It sounds like a truly incredible story. Looking forward to reading it!

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

1. That writing middle grade fantasy is really hard, but really rewarding. 

2. That it was extremely important to focus the story on Morgan, a female Cree protagonist. I want kids to feel seen and empowered when reading her. I want to offer a new kind of hero that can exist outside the pages of a book. 

3. That legends never die. That sounds cliched. But a legend like Ochek and the summer birds remains relevant today, and has messages in its story that people need to hear. 

In THE BARREN GROUNDS, your two main characters travel to another reality called Askí. For our aspiring writers reading this – how did you approach creating a new reality? Were there certain world-building elements that were key to having the rest fall into place?  

I think you just have to be able to imagine the entire world. Where everything is. The logic of the world. The people who populate it. Its history. Its struggles. Everything that makes up what it is. If you understand that world, you can write within it in an authentic way. So if you follow the logic and description of the world you’ve created, even if it’s a fantasy story, it rings true. It’s a place that people can imagine themselves in. That they want to live in. Or at least visit.

This is the first book in The Misewa Saga series which is very exciting! How do you plan out your plots when you’re working on a series? Do you like a visual system with post-it notes and charts or something else?

No, nothing like that. What I did was write a detailed synopsis for the first book, so I knew exactly what would happen and when. I used that as a road map, to guide my writing all the way to the end. And for the entire series, I wrote summaries for books 2 and 3 initially, so I knew where it all ended before I even started writing The Barren Grounds. And when it came time to start writing book 2, which I’m done now, I wrote a detailed synopsis for it, too, to create another roadmap. So it’s all a document that I follow; I wish it was more exciting! 

It doesn’t have to be exciting when it works! 😀

What is your favourite thing (or things if you can’t pick just one) about writing middle grade?

Well, I like imagining kids reading the book and getting lost in it. I love thinking that maybe one kid will find their favourite book ever, and it will stay with them all their life. I have books like that, and it’s such a special thing. In writing middle grade itself, I think it was just creating real characters, making them say real things, and having fun with their quirks and personalities and how they moved through the world I created for them. 

Any hints about your next project?

I have so many coming up, that it’s hard to hint at any one thing. I have two picture books coming out in the next two years, two more instalment in The Misewa Saga, three graphic novels, a memoir, another non-fiction book, and a lot of anthology projects. So, it’s more like: I have a lot coming, so please look out for my books! 

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

Winning the governor general’s award was surprising and shocking, and what it did for my career was incredible. I never expected to win anything as a writer, I just wanted to write good stories. So it’s surprising to me when your work gets recognized by awards, or award nominations (because you lose more than you win!). 

What are you reading right now?

Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

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

Read. A lot. 

Evergreen advice!

Thank you so much for joining us, David!

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

Add THE BARREN GROUNDS on Goodreads!

Connect with David on Twitter, Facebook, or through his website.

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE BARREN GROUNDS!
Contest closes Friday, September 18th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

KBKL Spotlight on Canadians: Naseem Hrab

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A big Kick-butt Kidlit welcome to picture book author Naseem Hrab!

Hi, Naseem! Tell us about yourself!

I’m Naseem Hrab and I’m the author of two picture books: Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend and Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings, illustrated by the super-talented Josh Holinaty and published by Owlkids Books. I live in Toronto, Canada with my four-year-old goldfish.

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Tell us a bit about your latest/upcoming project?

My latest picture book is called Weekend Dad and it’s illustrated by Frank Viva. It’ll be published in Spring 2020 by Groundwood Books. It tells the story of a little boy visiting his dad’s new apartment after his parents get separated and it features a letter my dad wrote to me when I was nine-years-old. It’s the least funny thing I’ve ever written on purpose.

What are you reading right now?

The Comic Hero’s Journey: Serious Story Structure for Fabulously Funny Films by Steve Kaplan. All my picture book manuscripts play out like little movies in my head and I really look to television shows and movies for inspiration.

Who is a Canadian author or illustrator that you’d like to see more people discover?

Oh gosh! This is a super hard question. If I can only pick one I’m gonna pick the illustrator of the Ira books. Is that allowed? Josh has illustrated so many awesome picture books and nonfiction books—from Liam Takes a Stand to A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality to The Space Adventurer’s Guide. I love his style—it’s incredibly unique, thoughtful and fun!

What’s been the most surprising part of your publishing journey so far?

How emotional it’s been! I think there’s a lot of feelings and pressure that come with getting published—lukewarm reviews, okay-sales, etc., etc. Sometimes things can start to feel a bit glum! Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings is about a little boy who wants to sit in his sadness for moment and feel his feelings after an upsetting day. And I think that’s great advice for writers and illustrators! All you can really do is check in with your feelings for a moment when a publishing upset occurs … and then re-focus on your craft.

When a reader picks up your books, they can always expect to find…

Laughter and/or tears and/or farts.

What’s the most Canadian thing you’ve put in a book?

My sense of humour? … See what I did there? I even spelled “humour” the Canadian way.

What would you like to see more of in the world of Canadian children’s literature?

Stuff I’ve never seen before, so I won’t be able to tell you what that is until I see it! 😉

If you could spend a day inside of any book, which one would you choose?

I’d pick The Log Driver’s Waltz by Wade Hemsworth and illustrated by Jennifer Phelan. I loved watching the Canadian animated short that this book is based on when I was a child and the book captures the spirit of the film so beautifully. It’s absolutely stunning.

Lastly, we always end with: what’s your best piece of kick-butt advice?

Whether you’re looking for an agent or an editor—try to find someone who gets you and your work. Someone who understands what you’re trying to do with your story. Someone who can help you achieve your goals. (This advice could work for dating, too!)

Excellent! Thank you so much for joining us, Naseem!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, add Naseem’s books on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to the Spotlight on Canadians Giveaway! You could win one of 25 prize packs featuring books from all of our amazing creators!

Naseem Hrab Prize Pack – a copy of IRA CRUMB FEELS THE FEELINGS!

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Other available prizes:

Joanne Robertson Prize Pack – a signed copy of The Water Walker!

Sarah Raughley Prize Pack – all three books in the Effigies series!

Join us on Friday, March 8th when we talk with author Tom Ryan!

KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Tarpley!

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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