Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Kyle Lukoff!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Kyle Lukoff, the author of


When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl. His parents gave him a pretty name, his room looked like a girl’s room, and he wore clothes that other girls liked wearing. After he realized he was a trans boy, Aidan and his parents fixed the parts of life that didn’t fit anymore, and he settled happily into his new life. Then Mom and Dad announce that they’re going to have another baby, and Aidan wants to do everything he can to make things right for his new sibling from the beginning–from choosing the perfect name to creating a beautiful room to picking out the cutest onesie.

But what does “making things right” actually mean? And what happens if he messes up? With a little help, Aidan comes to understand that mistakes can be fixed with honesty and communication, and that he already knows the most important thing about being a big brother: how to love with his whole self.

When Aidan Became a Brother is a heartwarming book that will resonate with transgender children, reassure any child concerned about becoming an older sibling, and celebrate the many transitions a family can experience.

Let’s talk to this awesome author about his amazing book!

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

Kyle Lukoff

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

Thank you! I feel very welcomed. I’m joining you here as the author of A STORYTELLING OF RAVENS (illustrated by Natalie Nelson), WHEN AIDAN BECAME A BROTHER (illustrated by Kaylani Juanita), and the MAX AND FRIENDS series (illustrated by Luciano Lozano). I’m also an elementary school librarian, and have been working at the intersection of books and people for almost 20 years!

Yay! We love librarians here at Kick-butt!

Where did the idea for WHEN AIDAN BECAME A BROTHER come from?

A potato.

I mean, not really, but kind of really. I had been mulling over the prospect of writing a picture book about a trans boy for awhile, but couldn’t come up with any ideas that weren’t boring or reductive. And then one day I was home sick from work, making breakfast, and in the middle of grating a potato I had this vision in my head of a little trans boy showing off his newly-decorated bedroom. And the story grew from there.

What was it like working with the illustrator, Kaylani Juanita, and seeing your words come to life on the page? Any tips for other picture book writers starting out on a new partnership with an illustrator?

Here’s the thing about picture books: unless you illustrate it yourself, or are part of a package deal (spouses, siblings, etc.), or are far more famous and powerful than myself, the author has little to no control over the illustrator, or the illustrations! So I actually didn’t work directly with Kaylani at all. I did get to have a bit of input, because everyone wanted to make sure that the illustrations were accurate and respectful, but aside from a few details all of the illustrations are Kaylani’s own interpretation (with input from the editor and art director, of course).

Watching someone else bring my words to life is absolutely breathtaking. The experience is hard to describe, because as soon as I see the illustrations any of my blurry mental images are swept aside, and I can’t imagine the book existing any other way. The only advice I’d have to aspiring writers is trust that the editor and artist are as invested in the vision of this book as you are; and, if your visions vary, it will hopefully be only for the best. Letting go of the control of your work is hard, but the ability to do that will serve you well in traditional publishing.

Excellent advice!

Now, what were three interesting things you discovered while working on WHEN AIDAN BECAME A BROTHER?

I discovered that sometimes my instincts are worth trusting–I had been encouraged to give up on AIDAN, and refused.

I discovered that sometimes, if you’re lucky, after a lot of lousy drafts inspiration can actually strike, and the true story will reveal itself to you in a way that feels nothing short of miraculous.

I discovered that it’s worth pushing for what you believe in, and listening to advice on how best to deliver that message.

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

I want to see what Aidan would do with Harold’s purple crayon. Probably something extremely cool. I would also like him to hang out with Taylor from THE RABBIT LISTENED, I think they could build something amazing together, and also take care of each other when it doesn’t go well.

Why were you drawn to writing picture books?

My writing tends towards the spare, but hopefully not the sparse, and since picture books skew towards a low word count, that instinct is a helpful one. And I have a deep love for formalist poetry–sestinas, villanelles, sonnets. And picture books are very much like formalist poetry, with the added challenge of having to appeal to the kids being read to and the adults reading it. I love writing within rules and constraints, so picture books are a perfect fit.

Any hints about your next book project?

A GHOST. Maybe.

Oooh, intriguing!

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

I keep telling myself that eventually I’ll feel like a real writer, but so far it hasn’t happened yet. I feel a little more like a real writer than I felt a few years ago, but it’s an extremely slow process and I’m constantly surprised that people I don’t know are reading my books.

What are you reading right now?

I’m answering these questions in a variety of drafts, and since I read approximately one book every 2-3 days, that answer has changed from “Line of Beauty” by Andrew Hollinghurst to a collection of very bleak short stories from Finland to re-reading one of my favorite books about food, “An Everlasting Meal” by Tamar Adler, with some other books in between.

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

I am a huge, huge proponent of giving up on something that isn’t working. Almost every book I’ve successfully published is something that I gave up on at some point, and came back to on a whim. I also dropped out of law school (and am much happier as a librarian) and completely gave up on my dream of being a journalist (and now write fiction which is way less stressful, for me at least). Give up on things and see what comes next!

 So true! You never know where a new path will lead!

Thank you so much for joining us, Kyle!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, check out WHEN AIDAN BECAME A BROTHER!
It’s on shelves now!

When Aidan Became a Brother.png


Connect with Kyle on Twitter or through his website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of WHEN AIDAN BECAME A BROTHER!
Contest closes Friday, November 15th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!


Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Jerry Craft!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Jerry Craft, creator of


Seventh grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade.

As he makes the daily trip from his Washington Heights apartment to the upscale Riverdale Academy Day School, Jordan soon finds himself torn between two worlds—and not really fitting into either one. Can Jordan learn to navigate his new school culture while keeping his neighborhood friends and staying true to himself?

Let’s talk to this marvelous author about his excellent book!

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


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

I was born in Harlem, grew up in near by Washington Heights and have wanted to be an artist as long as I can remember. I had trouble getting published, so I started my own publishing company  which I used to bring nearly three dozen books to life during a twenty-year span. In 2014 I illustrated The Zero Degree Zombie Zone for Scholastic. My biggest and best book, New Kid, was published in February of 2019 by HarperCollins.

AND recent winner of the Kirkus Prize! Congratulations!

Where did the idea for NEW KID come from?

It’s inspired by my life. Like me, the main character, Jordan Banks, wants to be an artist, but his mom sends his to a fancy private school instead of letting him go to the art school of his dreams. And like me, Jordan is also one of the few kids of color in his entire grade. It’s loosely based on my four years attending a private high school in the Riverdale section of New York City, as well as a lot of the experiences from my two sons going to a private school in Connecticut.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

Mainly cartoonists such as Charles Schulz, Morrie Turner and a lot of the Marvel Comics artists from the 70s and 80s. But I think the graphic novels that inspired me most when developing New Kid were Smile by Raina Telgemeier, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and Stitches by David Small.

Why were you drawn to illustration?

Is that pun intentional? I think it is. I’ve just ALWAYS loved to draw. And the fact that I can make a living creating the books that I wished I had when I was a kid, has been an amazing experience.

To hear kids say that they’ve never finished a book before, but they’ve read New Kid multiple times is just amazing.

Graphic novels are such a cool art form and one that many kids are interested in both reading and creating. What’s your process when you dive into a new project? How do you decide what will be written narrative versus illustrated?

Well, the writing and development of the characters is the most important. And for me, humor also plays a big role. Without that, it’s just pretty pictures. Nice to look at, but not a book that a kid bonds with to the point of the book almost becoming a friend. If you look at the Wimpy Kid books, the art is fairly simple, but it’s the writing that has made it a universal hit.

The story arc is also crucial. What happens? As well as individual character arcs. Do they learn? Do they grow? Will they be better or worse as a result of what will happen to them?

I think creating a book that is almost like a friend is the dream! Great tips!

What were three things you discovered while working on NEW KID?

First, I am still amazed at how many rewrites it took to get it to the stage where it was ready to be published. Characters that were added. Characters that were removed. Scenes that were moved or deleted . . . Second, how long it took to illustrate. I think I drew at least 15 hours a day from January 2017 until February 2018. And I’m doing it all over again while working on the next two books.

Third, how important it is to have the right team around you. Everyone knows the creator’s names, but New Kid is the book that it is because of the help of my agent, my editor, my colorist, my proofreaders, my marketing team, my amazing PR people, my audio book crew . . .  And that’s before it even got to the reviewers, teachers, and librarians, and bookstore folks who have made it a success.

Any hints about your next book project?

New Kid two is called Class Act, and will follow Jordan, Drew, and Liam through their eight grade year. Or in their case “second form.” And most of the other main characters will return. I hope to be done by November of this year for a planned back to school release in 2020.

Oooh, can’t wait to check it out!

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

Finally getting the opportunity to show what I can do. I’ve always wanted to create stories showing kids of color as just regular kids. Going to school, playing video games, having normal conversations. So I’m very grateful to HarperCollins for giving me a chance to show that there is indeed a need for stories with POC that are both happy and fun.

What are you reading right now?

I literally draw all day, so there’s not a lot of time for me to read. So I rely a lot on audio books. BUT, I did snag an advanced reader copy of Guts, which is Raina’s next graphic novel which will be released in September.  So I am setting aside time for that.

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

I almost said “don’t give up!” But, that needs to go hand-in-hand with “constantly learning and improving.” You can’t just continue to do the same thing and expect different results. I think New Kid is the best thing I’ve ever done, but Class Act will be even better because of all the things I learned, and how I’ve grown, along the way.

So true! Thank you for a great chat, Jerry!

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

New Kid.png

Add NEW KID on Goodreads!

Connect with Jerry on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or through his website!

Click here to win a copy of NEW KID!
Contest closes Wednesday, October 30th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!


Jerry’s Full Bio:

JERRY CRAFT is an author and illustrator. New Kid is his middle grade graphic novel that has earned five starred reviews, including one from Booklist magazine, which called it “possibly one of the most important graphic novels of the year.” Kirkus Reviews called it “an engrossing, humorous, and vitally important graphic novel that should be required reading in every middle school in America.”

He is the creator of Mama’s Boyz, a comic strip that was distributed by King Features Syndicate from 1995-2013, and won five African American Literary Awards. Jerry is a co-founder of the Schomburg’s Annual Black Comic Book Festival. He was born in Harlem and grew up in nearby Washington Heights. He is a graduate of The Fieldston School and received his B.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts.

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Debbie Ridpath Ohi!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Debbie Ridpath Ohi, illustrator of


A girl, a flamingo, and a worried potato star in the third book in New York Times bestselling author Michael Ian Black and illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s series about feelings—and why they’re good, even when they feel bad.

Potato is worried. About everything.

Because anything might happen.

When he tells his friends, he expects them to comfort him by saying that everything will be okay. Except they don’t. Because it might not be, and that’s okay too. Still, there’s one thing they can promise for sure: no matter what happens…they will always be by his side.

Let’s talk to this fantastic creator about her amazing books!

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

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

My name is Debbie Ridpath Ohi, and once upon a time I used to be a computer programmer/analyst. Now I write and illustrate children’s books for a living! I still pinch myself every so often, to make sure I’m not dreaming.

I’M WORRIED is your third collaboration with Michael Ian Black. What’s it like collaborating with an author on a story? What’s your favourite part of the process?

For picture books, or at least the ones I’ve worked on so far, I don’t really collaborate with the author during the creative process. The author works with our editor to polish the picture book manuscript, and I only tend to receive it when it’s ready for me to start illustrating. Sometimes after I start talking to my art director and editor about illustrations, we find that the text needs to be tweaked a bit. If that’s the case, this discussion is between the author and editor, not me and the author.

Not all publishers work like this, but this has been the case with the picture books I’ve worked on so far with Simon & Schuster, Random House and HarperCollins.

Depending on the book and situation, I will occasionally reach out to an author for some input. In an I’M WORRIED spread showing things that Potato is worried about, for example, I asked Michael Ian Black for some ideas and ended up incorporating a bunch of these into the illustration:

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Who are some of your artistic influences?

Just to name a few of my illustrator influences: William Steig, Bill Watterson, Jules Feiffer, Charles Schulz, Edward Gorey.

You also have written and illustrated a number of your own picture books. How is that experience different for you?

Yes, mainly because I felt more free to change things around as well as to experiment. I come from a writing background (I got my awesome agent because of my middle grade writing plus I worked for years as a nonfiction freelance writer) and have waaaaaaay too many story ideas for picture books and middle grade than my current work schedule can support. Oh, for Hermione’s Time Turner! I’m constantly striving to find the right balance between contracted book projects, work-related events and working on my own writing projects.

I will always enjoy illustrating other people’s stories (especially Michael Ian Black’s stories), but I am also finding myself yearning to get more of my own writing out there: picture books, chapter books, graphic novels and middle grade.

Oh, my goodness – the things we could get done with a Time Turner!!!

What artistic tool could you never live without?

My favorite sketching tool: Pentel Pocket Brush Pen.

I love the variable ink line! Learned about this from David Small at an SCBWI Los Angeles Illustrators’ Intensive session.

My current obsession, though: CRAYONS.

Why were you drawn to illustration?

I’ve always loved to draw.

As I grew up, I especially enjoyed making comics for myself, family and friends. I’ve always loved the challenge of conveying a narrative through sequential art.

I’m hoping to do graphic novels someday! I already have some ideas. One of the challenges is streamlining my process. One of the reasons I opted for sequential art format in my contribution to Colby Sharp’s THE CREATIVITY PROJECT is because I wanted to test this. What I found: my current process takes way too much time. I’ve been talking with other graphic novel illustrators about their process in hopes of improving mine.

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m having so much fun illustrating Linda Sue Park’s new picture book story, GURPLE & PREEN! It incorporates photographic elements (crayons!) as well as illustrative, and it’s been exciting to experiment with new techniques. This new book is scheduled to come out from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers in 2020.

I’m also working on a middle grade novel, and am also excited about my next illustration project: I’M HAPPY, the next picture book in the I’M… series written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by me (Simon & Schuster).

Exciting! Can’t wait to hear more!

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

Like many in the industry, I consider myself an introvert. When I first began working on my middle grade novels, I remember thinking how I much I enjoyed that part of the creative process, and how terrified I was at the idea of having to go out and TALK to strangers (in the process of networking and promotion).

What I found, to my shock: that despite my utter conviction that I could never learn to do it and would always hate it, that I COULD learn how to get out there and meet people in person. It drives me a little crazy whenever people tell me how lucky I am, that I’m so natural at talking with people at work events, etc., because they don’t realize how scary it all was in the beginning, and how hard I’ve worked at improving. It’s still scary, and I continue to need improving! But it’s easier now, and I even (*gasp*) have fun doing it, especially when I’m talking to young readers.

To other introverts out there: I highly recommend QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING by Susan Cain. I discovered her through this TED talk:

What are you reading right now?

I usually have a bunch of books on the go in various formats (print, digital, audio). Right now, it’s:

THE MAGPIE’S LIBRARY by Kate Blair (Cormorant Books)

TRACE by Pat Cummings (Harper)



The latter two are the result of a recent vacation in Rome. 🙂

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

Resist comparing your own progress to others, especially on social media. Focus on enjoying your own journey at your own pace.

Also: if you are considering writing picture books for publication – READ MANY, MANY PICTURE BOOKS FIRST. So many new picture book writers assume that writing picture books is easy because they’re so short. Yes, it’s easy to write a picture book — the challenge is writing a picture book that will sell.

Both very excellent points! Thank you so much for joining us, Debbie!

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

I'm Worried.png

Add I’M WORRIED on Goodreads!

Connect with Debbie on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website, blog, or
YouTube channel!

Click here to win a copy of I’M WORRIED!
Contest closes Saturday, October 19th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!



Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Rebecca Donnelly!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Rebecca Donnelly, the author of


Cora Davis’s life is garbage. Literally. Her professor parents study what happens to trash after it gets thrown away, and Cora knows exactly how it feels–to be thrown away. Between her mom and dad separating and a fallout with her best friend, fifth grade for Cora has been a year of feeling like being tossed into the dumpster.

But Cora has learned a couple of things from her parents’ trash-tracking studies: Things don’t always go where they’re supposed to, and sometimes the things you thought you got rid of come back. And occasionally, one person’s trash is another’s treasure, which Cora and Sybella learn when they come across a diary detailing best-friendship problems. Told in two intertwining points of view, comes a warm, wry story of friendship, growing up, and being true to yourself.

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

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

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

Hi! I write middle grade and picture books, and I’m a children’s librarian. Those two careers go really well together, and I think doing one helps me get better at the other. I’ve been a librarian for about 12 years, and my first book, How to Stage a Catastrophe, came out in 2017. My second novel, The Friendship Lie, came out in August, and my first picture book, Cats Are a Liquid, comes out in October.

Where did the idea for THE FRIENDSHIP LIE come from?

Most of my middle grade fiction ideas start with an image or a first line. In this case, the line was “There was garbage in the bathtub again,” which presents an image that requires some explanation. That led to my MC’s dad being a garbologist (someone who studies garbage the way an archaeologist studies ancient civilizations—pretty similar, if you think about it), and from there came Cora and Sybella’s friendship problems, Cora’s parents’ divorce, and the kooky diary that helps the girls find their way again.

That’s a fantastic first line!

Friendship is at the heart of this book and it’s an important theme for many middle grade novels. What kind of friendship advice would you give to middle grade Rebecca?

Middle grade Rebecca was kind of a mess, friendship-ly speaking. I would tell her that it’s okay to want to be by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you always have to be by yourself. Friendship is worth it.

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

I learned a lot about recycling! For example, did you know that the chasing arrows symbol on plastic bottles in the US doesn’t mean it can be recycled? The numbers are a code based on the type of plastic used. Tl;dr, check with your local waste hauler.

Also, I learned that in the adoption world, older dogs are known as “senior dogs,” which accords them a measure of respect, I feel.

And I learned that there really was an Earth Week in April 1974, at exactly the same time Nixon was feeling the pressure from Congress about Watergate. Coincidence?

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

Cora and Sybella would love to spend some time in a fantasy world like their own Aquafaba, and Kyle would go anywhere with dogs, so a book about merdogs would be ideal. But while they wait for that, they can hang out with the Vanderbeekers of 141st St from the wonderful series by Karina Yan Glaser. It’s got animals, crafts, snacks, domestic adventure—the kids would love it.

Oh, I think they could definitely get up to some shenanigans with the Vanderbeekers! 😀

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I was a big middle grade reader. YA wasn’t as available when I was a teen as it is now, so when I think about my favorite books from when I was younger, it’s middle grade. Writing middle grade is very introspective for me, because I can think back to what it felt like to be a kid and read that type of book.

Any hints about your next book project?

It’s nonfiction! My editor at Holt asked if I had ever thought about writing longer nonfiction (my first nonfiction picture book comes out next year) and my answer was basically, I have now! I wrote a proposal, which was accepted, and now I’m into the preliminary research phase, which is glorious. You have all the possibilities and none of the realities.

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

The pendulum swing between disappointment and elation. A canceled contract here, a new opportunity there. A bad review here, a…less bad review there. I wouldn’t say I’m used to it, but I’m learning to expect it as a regular feature of a creative career.

What are you reading right now?

Besides the reading I’m doing for my nonfiction project, I’ve recently picked up an adult mystery (my comfort reads) called A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee, set in Calcutta during the British Raj, and Tillie Walden’s YA graphic novel On a Sunbeam, set in space. With fish ships.

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

When you feel down about any particular thing in your own career, try thinking like a librarian, by which I mean, look at the field of kidlit as a whole. There is incredible art being made every day. There are stories being told, and readers being created, and you have a role in that process. Even if you feel that you’re not moving forward, you can advance the field. You can be an advocate for kids and books. That’s part of the work, too. It’s crucial.

Yes! We’re all part of the big picture! I love that! Thanks for joining us, Rebecca!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE FRIENDSHIP LIE!
It’s out now!

The Friendship Lie.jpg

Add THE FRIENDSHIP LIE on Goodreads!

Connect with Rebecca on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of THE FRIENDSHIP LIE!
Contest closes Saturday, September 14th at 11:59 pm EST.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Karuna Riazi!

Welcome back to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Karuna Riazi, the author of


The game begins again in this gripping follow-up to The Gauntlet that’s a futuristic middle eastern Zathura meets Ready Player One!

Four years after the events of The Gauntlet, the evil game Architect is back with a new partner-in-crime—The MasterMind—and the pair aim to get revenge on the Mirza clan. Together, they’ve rebuilt Paheli into a slick, mind-bending world with floating skyscrapers, flying rickshaws run by robots, and a digital funicular rail that doesn’t always take you exactly where you want to go.

Twelve-year-old Ahmad Mirza struggles to make friends at his new middle school, but when he’s paired with his classmate Winnie for a project, he is determined to impress her and make his very first friend. At home while they’re hard at work, a gift from big sister Farah—who is away at her first year in college—arrives. It’s a high-tech game called The Battle of Blood and Iron, a cross between a video game and board game, complete with virtual reality goggles. He thinks his sister has solved his friend problem—all kids love games. He convinces Winnie to play, but as soon as they unbox the game, time freezes all over New York City.

With time standing still and people frozen, all of humankind is at stake as Ahmad and Winnie face off with the MasterMind and the Architect, hoping to beat them at their own game before the evil plotters expand Paheli and take over the entire world.

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

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

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

Happy to be here! I’m Karuna Riazi, and I like to describe myself as a girl who drinks a lot of tea, reads a lot of books and wears a lot of hats! Those hats currently include grad student, middle school educator and author of middle grade and young adult speculative fiction – most notably, The Gauntlet (S&S/Salaam Reads, 2017) and The Battle (S&S/Salaam Reads, releasing this coming August 27)!

THE BATTLE is the sequel to your awesome middle grade debut, THE GAUNTLET.

For our aspiring authors at home, can you tell us a bit about what goes into writing a sequel? Did you always know there was going to be a book two? Did you plan ahead when you were writing book one?

The Battle honestly took a lot to build, particularly since my contract was originally for one book! My editor decided another one would be great thanks to the overwhelming and humbling outpouring of love for The Gauntlet from readers – thank you, guys! This was fabulous and a happy surprise for me, but also different from other authors who already have a two-book deal and are aware of what particular loopholes they need to leave in their first book.

I had room to work with based off the sprawling world that is Paheli and some mysteries that we agreed would be better to leave unsolved – just in case. Having a tenacious villain with a grudge also helped, too. I would say for any aspiring authors at home that my general perspective is to remember the words “just in case” and “standalone with series potential.” Don’t overthink it or plan too early but do set up the field if you want to return to that world!

If you were sucked into a game, who would you hope to have with you on your team and why?

If I were sucked into a game, I’d want to have my close friends and critique partners with me – in particular, if I could choose, Axie Oh (author of Rebel Seoul), Kat Cho (author of Wicked Fox) and Nafiza Azad (author of The Candle and the Flame). We put our heads together a lot to support each other and hash out problems, so I know that we work well together and that we’re all fierce, tough ladies who won’t go down without a fight!

That is a wicked good team! You would totally crush it!

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

Hmm, three interesting things. I learned that it actually takes a lot to translate the mechanics of a video game into words. You have to think of yourself in a game, rather than outside and manipulating the game – there goes all those, “He clicked,” or “She moved the joycon.”

I also learned that, when you’re writing a video game into a book, it’s just like research: you need to learn when to stop going further down the rabbit hole. The thing about video games, in comparison to books, is that you have limits on which pathways you can go down and how many side quests can be tossed in!

And, probably most interesting to me, I learned that I can absolutely write a sequel even if I feel like it’s killing me halfway through.

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

This is a good question, and I’m not entirely sure. Focusing on my protagonists…I think Farah would love to be somewhere else where she could be headlong in an adventure (and preferably by herself so she wouldn’t have to worry about Ahmad), so perhaps the world of The Westing Game, which is one of my forever favorites! I feel like Ahmad would rather stay home and relax after the adventure he’s had in The Battle, and hang out with his friend Winnie!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I love middle grade, since I was a middle schooler myself! There are a lot of things to love about the young adult category, but when I need comfort or reassurance in the worst way, it’s my middle grade favorites I head back to.

It’s often surprising to people that, after I tell them all this, I admit that the first words out of my mouth when Sona and Dhonielle (my bosses and the CEOs of diverse book packager Cake Literary) told me they thought The Gauntlet should be a middle grade title was “I can’t write middle grade.” I loved the category so, so much that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do justice to it in the way that my middle grade heroes (Kate DiCamillo, for instance, or Anne Ursu) could do it so well. But they urged me to reconsider as they thought I would have a great middle grade voice and, apparently, I do! I’m still not sure of it myself but kids do like The Gauntlet, which I find reassuring, and I’m continuing to work hard on writing middle grades that do my love of them justice.

Any hints about your next book project?

As soon as I find out, you’ll be the first to know! I’m currently in between contracts (and seeking representation) and trying to use this liberating, and frightening, blank space to write stories I can have fun with and be proud of. Stay tuned!

Can’t wait to hear more when you can share!

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

I think being published with Salaam Reads, as one of the lead titles, has been one of the most surprising and wonderful aspects of this entire journey. Even in my wildest dreams as a teenager longing to be an author, I never would have imagined becoming one under the very first Muslim-focused imprint. To be part of something so historical and empowering for a marginalized community has been incredible and such an honor.

What are you reading right now?

I am currently reading a lot of picture books. It’s wonderful. I’m in heaven! (My recommendations if you want some happiness in your life: Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed and Mommy’s Khimar by Jamillah Thompkins-Bigelow – both Salaam Reads titles!)

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

Do what is right for you, and put yourself first as a reader! Feel like writing longhand? Go for it! Want to write a thrilling supernatural novel full of vampires and werewolves? Knock yourself out! I’ve been reminding myself a lot, and been reminded by some fabulous authors and mentors, that writing should be fun and fulfilling and not torturous or you sloughing through a book because it’s what you think readers will want. Readers have fun when you, as a writer, have fun with your process and your story.

Yes, yes, yes! So true. Thank you so much for joining us, Karuna!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE BATTLE!
It hits shelves on August 27th!

The Battle.png

Add THE BATTLE on Goodreads!

Connect with Karuna on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of THE BATTLE!
Contest closes Sunday, August 18th at 11:59 pm EST.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Anne Ursu

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Anne Ursu, the author of


When you’re an identical twin, your story always starts with someone else. For Iris, that means her story starts with Lark. Iris has always been the grounded, capable, and rational one; Lark has been inventive, dreamy, and brilliant—and from their first moments in the world together, they’ve never left each other’s side. Everyone around them realized early on what the two sisters already knew: they had better outcomes when they were together.

When fifth grade arrives, however, it is decided that Iris and Lark should be split into different classrooms, and something breaks in them both. Iris is no longer so confident; Lark retreats into herself as she deals with challenges at school. And at the same time, something strange is happening in the city around them, things both great and small going missing without a trace. As Iris begins to understand that anything can be lost in the blink of an eye, she decides it’s up to her to find a way to keep her sister safe.

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

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

Anne Ursu

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

I am the author of six books for young readers, the mom of a twelve-year-old boy, and keeper of several dysfunctional cats. I procrastinate from writing by teaching writing at Hamline University’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and the Highlights Foundation.

Where did the idea for THE LOST GIRL come from?

I was interested in the way schools are often unequipped to deal with students who have learning or emotional issues, and particularly the way shy and anxious girls’ troubles can be ignored because they aren’t causing problems. At the same time, I was interested in the way society talks about girls together, as if the relationships are automatically dysfunctional. All of that, plus an interest in art theft and a sign I passed outside of an antique store became The Lost Girl.

This book has an unusual narrator. What was the reason behind that?

As I was writing, I kept hearing this first person narrator addressing Iris. So in one draft I just finally put that narrator in, and three fourths of the way through I knew exactly who that narrator was, and it brought the whole book together for me. Writing is weird.

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

1) The collective noun for ravens is an unkindness.

2) The smallest mammal in the world is the bumblebee bat.

3) Kids actually dissect owl pellets in classrooms.

Note: I looked up the bumblebee bat after reading this and it’s also adorable.

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

They have to go to Hogwarts, right? Lark would be in heaven, and Iris would call Malfoy a mole rat.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Because it’s the best. The readers are the best. You have so much freedom to play in middle grade—with form and structure and reality—and the readers will just go with you, as long as you’re telling them a story.

Any hints about your next book project?

I vowed I would not write a high fantasy again and then was smited with an idea for one. I’m about 60 pages into a book that, right now, is about a girl sent to a reform school for girls in a kingdom beset with attacks by monsters. What it is about when I finish it—well, who knows?

It already sounds awesome! Can’t wait to hear more about it!

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

That every single book will require its own process, and you’ll never feel like you know what you’re doing.

What are you reading right now?

I am reading Christina Soontornvat’s forthcoming A Wish in the Dark, which is outstanding.

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

“Anne. Just finish the dang draft. You can fix it later.”

Relatable!!! Thank you so much for joining us, Anne!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE LOST GIRL! It’s out now!

The Lost Girl.png

Add THE LOST GIRL on Goodreads!

Connect with Anne on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of THE LOST GIRL!
Contest closes Wednesday, August 7th at 11:59 pm EST.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Gail D. Villanueva

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Gail D. Villanueva, the author of


When superstitious Sab sees a giant black butterfly, an omen of death, she knows that she’s doomed! According to legend, she has one week before her fate catches up with her — on her 11th birthday. With her time running out, all she wants is to celebrate her birthday with her entire family. But her sister, Ate Nadine, stopped speaking to their father one year ago, and Sab doesn’t even know why.

If Sab’s going to get Ate Nadine and their father to reconcile, she’ll have to overcome her fears — of her sister’s anger, of leaving the bubble of her sheltered community, of her upcoming doom — and figure out the cause of their rift.

So Sab and her best friend Pepper start spying on Nadine and digging into their family’s past to determine why, exactly, Nadine won’t speak to their father. But Sab’s adventures across Manila reveal truths about her family more difficult — and dangerous — than she ever anticipated.

Was the Butterfly right? Perhaps Sab is doomed after all!

Let’s talk to this awesome author about her excellent book!

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


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

Hi! I’m Gail D. Villanueva. I’m a Filipino author born and based in the Philippines. I’ve been a web designer since forever but in the recent years, I decided to fulfill a dream I had when I was a kid: become a published writer. I still can’t believe it, but my dream is actually going to come true when My Fate According to the Butterfly comes out from Scholastic Press on July 30, 2019. It’s so surreal!

Where did the idea for MY FATE ACCORDING TO THE BUTTERFLY come from?

I first heard of the black butterfly superstition from my grandmother. It was a common Filipino belief that the appearance of a black butterfly means someone close to you has died. Ironically, my grandmother didn’t believe in it herself, and yet I did. I believe I even saw the butterfly when she passed away.

Maybe it was a way for me to cope, to believe there’s life after death and that my loved ones aren’t totally gone. Or maybe it was a way to explain the unexplainable. Either way, I know a lot of Filipinos who could attest to this superstition—that the black butterfly is real.

But what if there really is no question about the existence of the black butterfly? What if it was truly an omen or a message from the other side? From there, I expanded on this idea and thought about my younger sister, who would have panicked at the sight of it had it been real. And since I’ve always wanted to write a story that focuses on sisters, the premise of My Fate According to the Butterfly was born.

The earlier drafts of the story were so much darker than the one published, which is understandable, since I wrote that version during hard times. But with editor’s help and guidance, My Fate According to the Butterfly found its place between magic, reality, and hope.

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

I live in the Philippines, so we’re twelve hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. My agent and publisher are both in New York, so when my agent forwarded the offer email to me, it was already Friday night here.

My husband and I were eating pizza and watching a TV movie when my phone dinged. I saw the email subject and screamed—it was an offer for Butterfly! I squeezed my husband tight (while screaming in the middle of the night), then ran to the kitchen to wake up my sleeping duck, Sundae, and danced around with him (I’m weird, I know. Haha). I also woke up my dogs, cats, chicken, turtles, and other ducks. They will never know I got an offer that night, but I’m sure the animals felt my happiness and excitement.

Ah! I love that it was a celebration with the whole family! 😀

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on MY FATE ACCORDING TO THE BUTTERFLY?

  • Life in the Philippines, though in some ways universal, can still be surprising to folks who have never been here. For example, I had to make it very clear that “summer” in the Philippines begins in March, not July. We only have two seasons here—wet and dry seasons—so we technically don’t have summer. Our dry season tend to be very hot, quite like your summers, and it’s also when kids are on “summer break.” So, while we also do summer-y things here (no school, going on vacations, etc.), it’s still very different since it happens on different months.
  • Unlearning ableist language is an ongoing process. As much as I tried my best to make sure I don’t perpetuate ableism by using “lame,” “crazy,” or “dumb” in a negative sense, I still slipped. It was only one time, and it’s lucky my editor and the production team caught it, but I still felt ashamed. It just goes to show that I still have a lot to learn.
  • A lot of things in My Fate According to the Butterfly are based on real life but were fictionalized to fit a story that mixes reality, magic, and everything in between. Researching for Butterfly gave me a deeper understanding of addiction and its effects on families, as well as the importance of rehabilitation.

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

I think I’d want Sab and her ate (pronounced as “ahh-teh”), her big sister, Nadine, to visit the world of Remy Lai’s Pie in the Sky. It’s set in Australia, and Sab and her Ate Nadine have never been to Australia. Ate Nadine will have a hell of a time babysitting Sab, Jingwen, and Yangho, but I think these kids are going to have so much fun hanging out together! (Remy is my friend but we’ve never met in person yet. But when we do, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a blast so it’s only natural for characters to get along too!)

Yes! What a fun choice! I would definitely read that cross-over!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I’ve always loved reading middle grade. Like, 85% of my mini library at home are middle grade books. So, it’s only natural that I’d be drawn to writing middle grade too. On a more personal note, my middle grade years are some of the best ones of my life.

Any hints about your next book project?

The new book I’m working on is another MG that also has a Filipino protagonist. But this time, the story takes readers to a fictional island in present-day Philippines. It explores Filipino magic a bit more, discusses the consequences of our actions, and shows love in its various forms. At the same time, it also talks about the importance of respecting consent and boundaries. And oh, this book has a very loyal and adorable doggo 🙂

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

Every day, it still surprises me that there are people who want to read my story. Even more surprising is that there are folks who actually like it! I guess writing has been just a hobby for so long, it’s hard for me to get used to the idea that Scholastic will publish my book and there are people outside my family who will buy and read it.

And we can’t wait to read more!

Speaking of reading: what are you reading right now?

I received an ARC of Elsie Chapman’s All the Ways Home and I’ve just re-read it again (for the third time now). It’s just wonderful! You’re so going to want that book on your shelves (the story is as beautiful as its cover). Also, my copy of Lisa Moore Ramee’s A Good Kind of Trouble just arrived. I can’t wait to read it!

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

Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep learning. The moment we stop learning, we stop improving.

So totally true! Thanks very much for chatting with us, Gail!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out MY FATE ACCORDING TO THE BUTTERFLY! It hits shelves on July 30th!

My Fate According to the Butterfly.png


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

Click here to win a copy of MY FATE ACCORDING TO THE BUTTERFLY!
Contest closes Wednesday, July 24th at 11:59 pm EST.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Lisa Moore Ramée!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Lisa Moore Ramée, the author of


Twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)

But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?

Shay’s sister, Hana, is involved in Black Lives Matter, but Shay doesn’t think that’s for her. After experiencing a powerful protest, though, Shay decides some rules are worth breaking. She starts wearing an armband to school in support of the Black Lives movement. Soon everyone is taking sides. And she is given an ultimatum.

Shay is scared to do the wrong thing (and even more scared to do the right thing), but if she doesn’t face her fear, she’ll be forever tripping over the next hurdle. Now that’s trouble, for real.

Let’s talk to this lovely author about her wonderful book!

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


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

Hi! I’m originally from Los Angeles, but now live in Northern California with my husband, two children and two cats. I went to school here (San Francisco State for undergrad and Cal State East Bay for Master’s) and raised my kids here, so it feels as much like home as SoCal. I didn’t start writing until post-college, which seems unusual compared with most writers I know. My first book attempts were horror novels since I was a huge Stephen King fan, but after my daughter got to about fourth grade, I fell in love with middle grade books and I’ve been writing for kids ever since.

Where did the idea for A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE come from?

I loved Judy Blume growing up, and I wanted to write stories like that. Books that were more like a friend than a story—with one huge difference—as a Black author, I wanted main characters that were Black. So AGKOT started out as a pretty simple straightforward friendship story. But as I was writing it, I saw almost every day on the news a horrible story about someone Black being killed by police, and I started to wonder how seeing those types of stories would affect a Black child. How would they see themselves? What would they think the world thought of them? I felt any contemporary book with a Black main character needed to explore this issue.

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

It was really funny actually. I had been trying to get an agent for many years and had started to worry it might not happen, so I started looking for a job and found a great one. Ironically, when I was interviewing for the job, I was also interviewing agents, because I had finally gotten a “yes.” My book went out on submission the day after I started my new job, and it got offers sort of crazy fast. I had to excuse myself from training to take calls from my agent. When we accepted the offer from Balzer + Bray, I came back inside and basically screamed at my boss that I had sold my book. She of course thought I was quitting. But I’m still working there. My team has been hugely supportive of my author journey.

Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing! Talk about making an impression at the new job! 😀

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE?

1) I had to do a lot of research on how to jump hurdles—although I am still unable to jump one! But it was interesting learning about things like a lead leg, and how hurdles do a high kick chorus line to warm-up.

2) I was surprised to learn that, just like when I was in junior high, it is still pretty common for students to separate themselves by race.

3) Oh, I went back to my old junior high, and while it is still named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is now a middle school and the front doors are (oddly) painted sparkly silver.

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

Tough question! I’d probably send her through the looking glass to Wonderland—see what I did there? There’s some problems there for sure, but I have always loved the fantastical elements, and the sheer madness of Wonderland. Also, there’s a lot of classic books that would be problematic for a Black girl, but I think Wonderland is just so nuts, skin color would be the least of your worries.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Primarily because when my daughter was about nine, we were reading so many middle grade books and the sound of that specifically aged MG voice got stuck in my head. Then, once I started thinking up stories for that age group, I saw that it was such a sweet spot for me. You can tackle tough topics, but also have some silliness and almost any topic is a great big question mark for that age. It’s rife with material!

Any hints about your next book project?

The main character in my next book struggles to stay invisible, friendless, and not hurt anyone with her powerful thoughts. Of course, she’s going to be challenged on all three of those desires!

I’m intrigued already! Can’t wait to hear more about it!

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

This will sound a little too self-deprecating, but after so many years of rejection, having people say they loved my work, was HUGELY surprising (and of course amazingly wonderful). Also surprising—and I heard this a lot so I shouldn’t have been surprised—is how slow publishing is. When my book sold in 2017 and I was told it would come out fast, I was shocked to find out that meant 2019. Lol.

What are you reading right now?

I got two books in the mail at the same time and couldn’t help but start reading them both! Karen Strong’s Just South of Home and Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High.

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

Think of your writing more like Twitter—you only get so many characters. Don’t be precious and overblown and take 15 words when you only needed three. Sharpen your editing knife until it is as sharp as cut glass, and cut out everything you can.

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

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE!
It’s available now!


Add A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE on Goodreads!

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

Click here to win a copy of A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE!
Contest closes Monday, July 15th at 11:59 pm EST.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Margaret Dilloway!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Margaret Dilloway, the author of


When twelve-year-old Cady Bennett is sent to live with the aunt she didn’t even know she had in the quaint mountain town of Julian, she doesn’t know what to expect. Cady isn’t used to stability, or even living inside, after growing up homeless in San Diego with her dad.

Now she’s staying in her mother’s old room, exploring the countryside filled with apple orchards and pie shops, making friends, and working in Aunt Shell’s own pie shop—and soon, Cady starts to feel like she belongs. Then she finds out that Aunt Shell’s pie shop is failing. Saving the business and protecting the first place she’s ever really felt safe will take everything she’s learned and the help of all her new friends. But are there some things even the perfect pie just can’t fix?

Let’s talk to this marvelous author about her fantastic book!

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

Margaret Dilloway sm

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

Hi! Thanks for having me! I write middle grade realistic contemporary as well as fantasy (MOMOTARO series, Disney-Hyperion), plus women’s fiction. I usually write about the intersections of race and social class in some way, shape, or form, even in fantasy. SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES is my 7th published book! In my spare time, I like to perform long-form improv and hike and bake.

Where did the idea for SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES come from? 

I had written about a pie shop in a women’s fiction book that never got picked up, and I was kind of obsessed with the idea. The main character, Cady, came from some experiences I had as a parent. Specifically, many years ago, my son had a reading buddy who lived in a similar kind of situation, and who had a hard time in school because of it.

There’s a nod to one of my favourite shows in this book: THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE-OFF! If you were to make a signature bake (in any category), what would it be? (Also, who’s your favourite? Mel, Sue, or Mary? *This is a Paul Hollywood free blog.*)

I accidentally came up with a recipe for really yummy gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, only because I was out of some stuff and I had to experiment.

My favorite is Mary!

Love a happy accident with delicious results!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES?

-You can find a recipe for any pie flavor combo you can think of on the Internet. Carrot pie? Check! Strawberry basil? Check! Apple-fennel? Check! You can put your own twist on them and make it your own.

-Immigration law is a hodgepodge of unrelated, illogical rules. The wait time to get into the US with documentation from Central and South America is 20 years. All of it needs to be thrown out and completely reworked by a bipartisan committee.

-Gopher snakes shake their tails like rattlers, so they get mistaken for rattlers, but are harmless.

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

Narnia because I think Cady and Jay would end up ruling the land instead of the Pevensies.

Yes! And I could totally see them swapping recipes with the Badger family. 😀

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

The subjects I wanted to write about lent themselves best to this age level.

Any hints about your next book project?

It’s about a 6th grader with social anxiety and a heart condition who starts doing improv as a way to manage her symptoms and finds it changes her life in unexpected ways (so basically my life story) It’s called FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS and will be out next year!

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

That each book never gets easier. I hear that’s true with every author, though.

What are you reading right now?

HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado. It’s brilliant. Remember the spooky childhood story about the woman with the ribbon around her neck? She reimagines it. Many more, too.

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

The only way out is through. So if you’re feeling stuck or whatever, the only way out of your spot is to work through it.

Yes! Always keep going! Thanks so much for joining us, Margaret!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES! It’s out now!



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

Click here to win a copy of SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES! Contest closes Wednesday, June 26th at 11:59 pm EST.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!


Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Remy Lai!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re talking with Remy Lai, the author of


When eleven-year-old Jingwen moves to a new country, he feels like he’s landed on Mars. School is torture, making friends is impossible since he doesn’t speak English, and he’s often stuck looking after his (extremely irritating) little brother, Yanghao.

To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she’s at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they’ll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama.

Told in prose and graphic novel elements, this middle-grade novel is about a boy’s immigration experience, his annoying little brother, and their cake-baking hijinks!

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

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

Remy Lai.png

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

Thank you for having me here! I’m a writer-illustrator based in Brisbane, Australia. I have two dogs. Sometimes I eat ice cream for breakfast.

Where did the idea for PIE IN THE SKY come from?

For a long time, I had an image in my mind, of two brothers secretly making cakes. When I figured out that they couldn’t speak English, the story that would become PIE IN THE SKY clicked into place. From there, I borrowed things from my childhood, about moving countries and learning new languages.

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

It was early morning over here (which was probably around 5pm in New York). I was having my coffee and nervously waiting for a call from a fantastic editor who wanted to have a chat. An hour before the scheduled chat, my phone rang. It was a US number I didn’t recognise. I thought that I had converted the time wrongly and that it was the editor calling.

But turned out, it was my agent Jim The Beard (yes, he lets me call him that), using a different line then the one he used when we chatted previously. I had told him to call me if PIE IN THE SKY got an offer, no matter the time and day, but when I heard his voice, I didn’t dare assume I had an offer. Also, a publishing offer usually comes after a phone call with an editor, followed by an acquisitions meeting (Don’t quote me on this!), and I hadn’t even spoken to the first editor.

“What’s up, Jim The Beard?” I said, acting nonchalant but dying inside.

Very, very, very calmly, he said, “So . . . good news . . .” And then he told me that Macmillan had placed a pre-empt.

We both screamed and squealed a lot.

Oh, my goodness – that’s the best! How exciting!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on PIE IN THE SKY?

1. Drawing and writing about cake makes me want to eat cake for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Sadly, there is a limit to how much cake an adult can eat in a day. For kids, I think the limit is infinity. They’re so lucky.

2. Americans hardly use the word “toilet.” Your bathrooms don’t actually have baths in them.

3. Most people don’t realize how many people it takes to get a book ready for the shelves.

What was that collaborative experience like for you as an author/illustrator? 

I loved every minute of it. I’m constantly bowled over by every single person in every single step of publishing, from my editor Brian Geffen to my book designer Carol Ly to my colorist MJ Robinson to the copy editors, the proofreaders, the marketing team, the publicity team, the school and library team, the media and advertising team. They work so hard and have so much love for kids’ books. They’re the best!

You are an artist as well as an author (which is so cool)! How did you decide which parts of PIE IN THE SKY should be illustrated? Did you go with the flow or did you have a plan for which parts had to be in prose?

I’m a pretty intuitive writer, so during the early stages of writing PIE IN THE SKY, I went with the flow. During later revisions, my Relentless Editor (really, that’s his name plaque haha) would ask me questions and make me think deeper about my choices. It was really cool realising why my intuition chose what it chose.

It’s so neat how those threads can appear without us seeing it the first time through!

Any hints about your next book project?

Like PIE IN THE SKY, it’s also a graphic novel/prose hybrid. It’s about a twelve-year-old boy who goes on an international flight on his own, without his parents’ knowledge, to prove that he’s not a baby anymore.

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

What a roller coaster of emotions it is. One moment you’re ecstatic, the next you’re jealous, and then dejected, and then terrified, angry, grateful, joyous, zen hopeful, and then one day you find yourself making a deal with Satan in exchange for a solution to a plot hole. Just kidding. Satan finds the tortured souls of writers to be too gristly.

What are you reading right now?

I’m drafting a middle-grade manuscript, and I don’t read middle-grade during this period, so I’m reading a fantastic adult fantasy—Jade War by Fonda Lee (it’s an ARC, the book will be out in July).

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

Have fun.

Yes! Important to never forget that part!

BONUS QUESTION: if you were a cake, what type of cake would you be?

Some days I’m all light and happy like an airy chiffon cake. Some days I’m all philosophical and complex like a layered cake.

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out PIE IN THE SKY! It’s out now!

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Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!