Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Donna Barba Higuera!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Donna Barba Higuera, the author of


Lupe Wong is going to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues. She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.

Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously she’s not gonna let that slide.

Not since Millicent Min, Girl Genius has a debut novel introduced a character so memorably, with such humor and emotional insight. Even square dancing fans will agree…

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

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

I grew up in a small central California oil/agricultural desert town. There was an awesome pioneer cemetery and I think the stories I imagined about the people’s names on the headstones were the first stories I made up. And my little kid mind had some super weird stories to tell.

I live in the Pacific Northwest now. My husband is also a Middle Grade novel writer, Mark Maciejewski, of the infamous I AM FARTACUS series. I have four kids, 3 old dogs, fish, frogs, and I have a crow friend who responds to my “Com-n-eat!” call every morning.

A crow friend sounds AMAZING!

What was the inspiration behind LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE?

I love this question! Well…my daughter Sophia (7th grader at the time) was telling us over dinner one night how they were going to have a square dancing section in P.E. She was not happy. She didn’t want to dance. And she didn’t really get what square dancing had to do with her. She proclaimed she was going to dance with her best friend Gracie. To which, my older daughter laughed and said, “Ummh, you can’t dance with Gracie. And not only can you not dance with Gracie, you have to dance with a boy, and you have to say yes to whoever asks you.”

The entire exchange felt so off to me. You too? You’re asking, “They still square dance?” Uh, yeah! They do! A huge percentage of schools still have square dancing as standard curriculum. At such an unsure time in kids’ lives, they have to dance with someone of the opposite sex and hold hands, often for the first time with someone other than a family member.

That was how it started. But the character, Lupe, is based on my kids, and me. But Lupe handles it in a way we would have if we were spunkier and not intimidated to speak up and say what we really wanted to say.

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

Ha! I was painting my fence. My agent, the lovely Allison Remcheck of Stimola Literary Studio, decided to Facetime me to give me the good news.

Yes, I answered and only then noticed I had a lovely streak of cedar-shaded stain down my face.

Allison told me why she was calling, and I quickly forgot my embarrassment at how I looked.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE?

-Square Dancing is the official dance in 28 states.

-There is an endangered earthworm in the northwest called the Giant Palouse Earthworm, which is typically 8 inches long, but has an Australian cousin earthworm that can grow to over 3 feet (and it can spit.)

-Not so much interesting, but disturbing. The origins of some of the songs we are familiar with had some very racist origins. Hard to write about, but necessary. Here’s a link to the article that took this story and Lupe’s journey in another direction.

(Warning: Racist language and offensive slurs)

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

So, I instinctively blurted out, “Land of the Lost”.  But this is a movie, you say? Well, I Googled it so I could find a way to keep it as my answer. There was a Little Golden Book of Land of the Lost- The Unexpected Guests.

And “why” you ask? So my characters could eat giant strawberries of course! But now, I think I’m the one who actually wanted the giant strawberries.

But if placed Lupe, Niles, Andy in Land of the Lost, I think they all have such unique interests; it would be super entertaining to watch Niles studying endangered pachyderms or gastropods, Andy would be dissecting velociraptor dung, and Lupe would be organizing an equal rights movement for Pakuni against the Sleestak, but also, I’d love to see them all jostling to get in front of one another and protect each other from the T-Rex, Grumpy.

That would be an incredible crossover. And who wouldn’t want giant strawberries??

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I am drawn to writing for this age group because it is definitely the age I was most awkward. I think as a writer, the most vulnerable moments in our character’s lives are the most endearing and interesting. So much of my most embarrassing moments as a middle schooler find their way into what I write.

Any hints about your next book project?


I love fantasy and sci-fi! LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE was the first contemporary novel I’ve written. I’m working with the same editor, Nick Thomas at Levine Querido, on my next project. THE LAST CUENTISTA, a book about 12-year-old Petra Peña who rushes to evacuate Earth for a new planet when a comet approaches on a collision course with Earth. Her suspended animation fails during the 370-year journey, so when all the other children are mysteriously reprogrammed and the adults purged, Petra becomes the lone bringer of Earth’s now forbidden stories and her grandmother’s Mexican folklore to a changing humanity. It will be released Fall 2021.

Also, illustrator, Juliana Perdomo, and I have just finalized our picture book, EL CUCUY IS SCARED, TOO!  in which the Mexican boogeyman, El Cucuy is just as afraid as the boy he terrorizes, about moving to a new city with unfamiliar people and places; the boy realizes if he can reassure and help El Cucuy to be fuerte y valiente, then perhaps he can be strong and brave as well. The editor is Emma Ledbetter and it will be released by Abrams Kids, Spring 2021.

Oooh, those both sound great. Can’t wait!

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

The moment I connected with my editor, Nick Thomas. My agent and I were nearing time for submission. I was at a “First Pages” round table at an SCBWI conference (Yay SCBWI!) in Portland, OR. When we’d finished and were leaving, Nick asked if I could chat for a moment about my book. Within a day, Nick had read the book.

Within a week or so, my agent let me know we were going to acquisitions.

Writing can be arduous, until that one moment when it clicks with the right person at the right time. I know this is not the typical path to finding a publisher, so the sequence of events caught me off guard.

It was meant to be. 😀

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading two books.

I am finishing Cherie Dimaline’s, THE MARROW THIEVES. So good!

And I’m about halfway through Darcie Little Badger’s, ELATSOE. Also amazing!

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

Keep a notebook and pen on your bedside table. Those “just before you fall asleep” ideas are either brilliant, or really handy for a good laugh later.

This is so totally true!

BONUS QUESTION: What’s one of your favourite ‘Would You Rather’ questions?

LOL! Lupe and Niles’ “would you rathers” always seem to go pretty gross or cringy.

A good “would you rathers” tells you something about someone’s character. For me, “Would you rather take a leisurely swim in the ocean, or stick your hand in a bucket of eyeballs.”

My answer: Easy, I’d gladly plummet both hands in a bucket of eyeballs.

I am TERRIFIED of the ocean. Fun foot-loss fact: sharks can swim in two feet of water.

(I’m an eye doctor, so the eyeballs thing is sort of not a fair comparison. I touch eyes all day long.)

YIKES!!! When you add in the fun foot-loss fact, that’s a hard choice! 😂

Thank you so much for joining us, Donna!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE!
It’s on shelves now!

Add LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE!
Contest closes Friday, October 2nd at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

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


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!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Joy McCullough!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Joy McCullough, the author of


A girl with a passion for science and a boy who dreams of writing fantasy novels must figure out how to get along now that their parents are dating in this lively, endearing novel.

Sutton is having robot problems. Her mini-bot is supposed to be able to get through a maze in under a minute, but she must have gotten something wrong in the coding. Which is frustrating for a science-minded girl like Sutton—almost as frustrating as the fact that her mother probably won’t be home in time for Sutton’s tenth birthday.

Luis spends his days writing thrilling stories about brave kids, but there’s only so much inspiration you can find when you’re stuck inside all day. He’s allergic to bees, afraid of dogs, and has an overprotective mom to boot. So Luis can only dream of daring adventures in the wild.

Sutton and Luis couldn’t be more different from each other. Except now that their parents are dating, these two have to find some common ground. Will they be able to navigate their way down a path they never planned on exploring?

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

Joy McC

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

Thanks for having me! I grew up in San Diego and now live in the Seattle area with my family. My background is theater and I wrote plays for a lot of years before turning to kid lit. My debut novel was a young adult historical called Blood Water Paint, and I’m super excited to have my first middle grade novel published now with A Field Guide to Getting Lost!

Where did the idea for A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST COME FROM come from?

I was lost in a park! My dad was visiting and we were exploring on Bainbridge Island. We weren’t seriously lost, but we couldn’t find the parking lot and my dad made a joke about being lost in the park. It immediately struck me as the spark of an idea.

Ha! Nothing like real life shenanigans to provide a story idea!

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

That hope is a given.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST?

I got to do a bunch of penguin research, because Sutton’s mom is a scientist studying penguins. Most of the research didn’t end up in the book (though some did), but it was really fun and interesting. I was sad to learn about how climate change is affecting emperor penguin migration.

I also discovered that you never quite know where a story idea might lead. When I first got the spark of Field Guide’s idea, I thought it would be a picture book. And another writer might have made that work, but I couldn’t. Then I thought it might be a chapter book. That’s what I drafted and we put on submission. My editor, Reka Simonsen, saw the potential in the story, but she thought it should be middle grade and the story grew from there!

I already knew I loved Seattle—this is my chosen home—but it was really fun to set a book here and be very specific about the neighborhoods the characters live in and the places they go. It made me love it even more.

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

Ooh, well Luis is a huge fan of fantasy novels, and especially portal fantasies. So I think I might send him to Narnia (during the peaceful reign of the Pevensie siblings, of course). I think I would send Sutton to the world of A Wrinkle in Time, because I think she and Meg Murray would really get along. (And also Luis recommends A Wrinkle in Time to Sutton in Field Guide.)

Was it tricky writing from the perspectives of two main characters? Any tips for writers looking to tackle multiple points of view in their novels?

Dual POV is supposed to be very tricky, and for me it has been on other projects. With this one, it came very simply and I’m afraid I can’t pinpoint why that is. (Hopefully I’ll be able to recreate it again in the future!)

Here are some things that I think are useful to keep in mind:

1) Make each character’s voice distinct enough that a reader could randomly open to a page (without obvious clues) and know from a few sentences which POV they’re in.

And 2) make sure each POV character has equally weighted stakes and desires in the story. Dual POV misses the mark for me when I’m way more invested in one character than the other.

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

Everything? I’ve finally learned never to say never. For many years of being a playwright I thought I’d never write a novel. Then I wrote a whole bunch of middle grade novels and thought I’d never write YA. Then I ended up debuting with YA, but I thought I’d never write picture books. Guess what I’m working on now?

Any hints about your next book project?

My next middle grade is called Across the Pond, and it’s coming in spring of 2021. It’s about an American girl whose family moves into a Scottish castle, and it’s inspired by the time my family spent living in Dundas Castle outside Edinburgh when I was very small. I got to go to Scotland to research, which was an absolute author dream!

So cool! That sounds like a fantastic trip!

What are you reading right now?

I’m eagerly awaiting my turn with Kit Rosewater’s The Derby Daredevils, though my son pounced as soon as it arrived, and when he finished my daughter grabbed it. In the meantime, I’m reading a gorgeous graphic novel called This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews.

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

Keep writing the next thing. With the caveat that of course breaks are important and we all need to fill the well sometimes, I’ve been well-served during a very long journey to publication by always getting moving on the next project as soon as I’ve sent one out the door. My heart pours into the new thing, and it makes the rejections (or later, reviews or other disheartening publishing speed bumps) sting less because my enthusiasm has moved on.

Great words for a writer to live by!

Thank you so much for joining us, Joy!

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

A Field Guide to Getting Lost


Connect with Joy on Twitter, Instagram, or through her website.

Click here to enter to win a copy of A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST!
Contest closes Wednesday, September 2nd at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Adrianna Cuevas!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Adrianna Cuevas, the author of


All Nestor Lopez wants is to live in one place for more than a few months and have dinner with his dad.

When he and his mother move to a Texas to live with his grandmother after his dad’s latest deployment, Nestor plans to lay low. He definitely doesn’t want anyone to find out his deepest secret: that he can talk to animals.

But when the animals in his new town start disappearing, Nestor’s grandmother becomes the prime suspect after she is spotted in the woods where they were last seen. As Nestor investigates the source of the disappearances, he learns that they are being seized by a tule vieja- a witch who can absorb an animal’s powers by biting it during a solar eclipse. And the next eclipse is just around the corner…

Now it’s up to Nestor’s extraordinary ability and his new friends to catch the tule vieja- and save a place he just might call home.

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

Adrianna Cuevas

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

Hola, mi gente! I’m Adrianna, a Cuban-American writer originally from Miami, Florida. I currently live in central Texas with my husband and son. I taught Spanish and ESOL for 16 years before becoming an author. I’m obsessed with attempting baking challenges, watching k-dramas, and plotting with my son new ways to annoy my husband.

Joining you with a newly acquired obsession for k-dramas over here!

What was the inspiration behind THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ?

Nestor is definitely a family story. It incorporates my son’s obsession with zoology, my husband’s military experiences, and my Cuban-American heritage… all wrapped up in our family love-language, sarcasm. I wanted to write a fast-paced, humorous story my son would enjoy and where a Cuban kiddo got to be the hero.

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

My book sold in December of 2018. I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday so I don’t know that I can clearly convey what I was doing when I found out my book sold. I do remember that I proceeded to have an all-caps group text chat with my parents and my sister which included multilingual expletives. I wish I had screenshot it.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ?

First, I found out I absolutely love revision. In the early stages of Nestor, my agent wisely suggested a plot change that required me to rewrite two-thirds of the book. I’m so thankful that happened because it showed me that I could not only be ruthless with my stories, but I had the stamina to keep making them better.

I also learned a lot about my husband’s military experiences. Veterans can sometimes be reluctant to talk about their deployments, my husband included, so it was healing for both of us to have him be my expert while I wrote Nestor.

Finally, in researching this book, my son taught me more animal facts than my brain ever cared to know, the top being a type of frog that gives birth out of its mouth. That’s a huge nope from me.

Okay, that frog fact is MIND-BOGGLING. 

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

I think that Nestor would be great friends with Pablo from Tanya Guerrero‘s excellent book, How to Make Friends with the Sea. Both Nestor and Pablo have had to move frequently, so they have that in common. They are coming to terms with changing family dynamics and I think Nestor’s silliness might help Pablo’s anxiety as well. And they would definitely have a blast sharing Cuban and Filipino food with each other.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

During my teaching career, I taught kindergarten through 12th grade. Middle grade-aged students were my absolute favorite. They still embrace silliness but have a growing sense of justice as they figure out where they fit in the world. I also saw that middle school was when many students tended to grow away from reading as a pastime, so it was my desire to create stories that would continue to engage them.

Any hints about your next book project?

My next book is very different from Nestor since it’s historical fiction rather than contemporary fantasy. It is the story of my heart and I wrote it to honor my family history. It makes me cry every time I read it, a complete torture for someone like me who covers up emotions with snark!

Aw! Looking forward to reading it!

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

The best part of my publishing journey is easily the incredible people I’ve met. I always felt like an odd outsider with my overactive imagination, my drive to create, and my penchant for geeking out over stories. But then I happened upon the kidlit community and found a bunch of weirdos just like me. The opportunity to build up and cheer each other on has been amazing.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished reading The Stitchers by Lorien Lawrence and I absolutely loved it. I’m a huge horror fan and would love to see more creepy stories in middle grade. Lorien’s book was a perfect fit for me. I also read Any Day with You by Mae Respicio. Mae’s first book, The House That Lou Built, is one of my favorites and I loved this multi-generational, touching story. Next on my list to read is Keep it Together, Keiko Carter by Debbie Michiko Florence and Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland. Seriously, how much space do you have because screaming about books is my favorite thing to do behind eating too much Cuban food.

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

Remember your audience! It’s easy to get caught up in stories and prose that your peers admire but keeping in mind that your real readers are middle grade-aged kiddos is important. Surrounding yourself with squirrely, snotty 12-year-olds will keep your voice authentic and ensure that your stories are engaging for their intended audience. Just keep some hand sanitizer ready. 😉

Truer words than ever! 

Thank you so much for joining us, Adrianna!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out

The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez


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

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE TOTAL ECLIPSE OF NESTOR LOPEZ!
Contest closes Wednesday, August 19th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Leah Henderson!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Leah Henderson, the author of


Can you change your fate—and the fate of those you love—if you return to the past? Journey to 1939 Harlem in this time-travel adventure with an inspiring message about believing in yourself.

Eleven-year-old Ailey Benjamin Lane can dance—so he’s certain that he’ll land the role of the Scarecrow in his school’s production of The Wiz. Unfortunately, a talented classmate and a serious attack of nerves derail his audition: he just stands there, frozen. Deflated and defeated, Ailey confides in his Grampa that he’s ready to quit. But Grampa believes in Ailey, and, to encourage him, shares a childhood story. As a boy, Grampa dreamed of becoming a tap dancer; he was so good that the Hollywood star and unofficial Mayor of Harlem, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, even gave him a special pair of tap shoes. Curious, Ailey tries on the shoes  . . . and instantly finds himself transported to 1930s Harlem. There he meets a young street tapper and realizes that it’s his own grandfather! Can Ailey help the 12-year-old version of Grampa face his fears? And, if Ailey changes the past, will he still be able to get home again? Featuring an all-African-American cast of characters, and infused with references to black culture and history, this work of magical realism is sure to captivate and inspire readers.

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


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

First off, thanks so much for having me!

When it comes to learning about me, my heart spot is middle grade, but I also have a few picture books on the horizon and a story in the YA anthology BLACK ENOUGH: Stories of Being Young and Black America. I teach in Spalding University’s graduate writing program.

And one thing all my books have in common, is that I want my characters and kids reading my words to see and believe in their possibilities on the page and in the world.

Where did the idea for THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS come from?

Actually, I was being led by my dog, Boston, in a neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia. He stopped at a statue to do his business. When I looked up, I saw the feet of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson the famous tap dancer and movie star, and started thinking, those shoes definitely have something to say. And as if my dog realized I was finally paying attention to a new story idea, he glanced back at me one more time and then continued on his journey like he’d done his work for the day. The idea spun around in my head for a while longer, but then the pieces thankfully started coming together.

Oh, wow! Good job, Boston! You can’t beat those right time, right place, right brain space moments.

This book has time travel in it which I LOVE! How did you tackle writing a story with all of the good stuff that time travel entails such as time paradoxes and changing the future? (if you can answer that in a non-spoilery way?)

Oh my goodness, there is so much to think about when writing time travel stories. Something I’ve never attempted before. Let’s just say, a lot of revision needed to happen. I kept realizing, “well that doesn’t make sense,” or “that doesn’t work logically.” But I had to go through and write out ever implausible idea first to realize this. But overall, it was a really fun challenge once I got out of my own way and let story take over. Not sure I did it all right, but I definitely had fun trying.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS?

THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS is all about highlighting moments of Black Excellence, so I decided early on that I would name the characters after people and places that exuded Black Excellence. A lot of the people and places that inhabit the story, I was already familiar with, but there were a few who I stumbled upon while doing my research that were wonderful discovers for me, like Mr. Rock, my main character, Ailey’s teacher.

The real John S. Rock was not only a grammar school teacher at one point, he was also a dentist, physician, lawyer, abolitionist, and orator. Talk about living your life with purpose! But that’s not all, he was one of the first African American men to obtain
a medical degree and was the first African American lawyer admitted to practice at the U.S. Supreme Court.

I also learned so much more about the exceptionally talented and generous
Bojangles. Every time I think of him, I can’t help but smile. Among the many things he stood for and believed in, he refused to wear blackface when he performed, even though it was a mainstream expectation of the times regardless of if you were white or Black.

But honestly, something I learned about myself while writing this, was really just how important it is to remember the achievements of those who came before, because they left imprints on the world in both large and small ways, hopefully reminding all of us that we can too if we’re willing to discover our stars.

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

As I said before, I’m a firm believer in everyone seeing their possibilities, and I feel like middle grade is all about what is possible and discovering it. I feel like that is really the time kids are coming into their own, and really begin to decide which ways they might go.

Very true. Love that.

Any hints about your next book project?

Up next are a few picture books: TOGETHER WE MARCH (nonfiction), A DAY FOR REMEMBERIN’ (based on actual events), and a couple others still under wraps. 🙂 Oh, yeah, and I’ll be contributing a story to the MG anthology Calling the Moon edited by Aida Salazar & Yamile Saied Méndez.

So exciting! Can’t wait to read them all!

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

Finding a way to live with the uncertainty of it all. But within that, the AMAZING friendships I’ve been blessed to gain in this business have definitely helped to get me through. Publishing has ups, downs, and waiting involved almost daily! You have to have a healthy way to find balance or you’ll certainly lose yourself and your creative spark along the way.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve actually returned to a book I love, SULA by Toni Morrison. But next up is Rebecca Stead’s THE LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE and THE ONLY BLACK GIRLS IN TOWN by Brandy Colbert.

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

This quote by Ernest Hemingway says it all: “I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

So, stop writing each day before the last scene, sentence, or moment you are certain of. Save it for the next time you sit down to write. You will be excited to return to the page to get it all down.

That is a really good practice to get into. *takes notes*

Bonus Question! You’ve travelled to over FIFTY countries which is so cool! If you could go anywhere in the world, right now, right this second, where would you go?
(Interviewer’s note: This question was sent out pre-pandemic so thank you to Leah for going with it and answering in such a lovely way.)

We are in such uncertain times at the moment with social distancing, masks, and COVID, that I’ve only been able to let my wanderlust dream. And although I have a list two miles long of the places I’d still like to explore (including Madagascar & Tibet), at this very second, a flight wouldn’t be needed.

I’d simply love to hop in the car with my dog and go see my parents and enjoy family. But that’s not a wise possibility right now, so phone calls, Zooms, and FaceTimes are key to my mental travel these days. I’m getting to see friends and family all over the world!

Stay safe everyone, and remember to be appreciative of the little moments especially now!

Casey, thanks again for having me and take good care of yourself.

You too, Leah! Thank you so much for the chat!

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



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

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS!
Contest closes Friday, August 7th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!


Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Anna Meriano!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Anna Meriano, the author of


The third book in the acclaimed, delightful, character-driven middle grade series about a family of Mexican American bakers who also happen to be brujas—witches!

Leo Logroño may have discovered the true nature of her magical abilities, but her education in how to use them in her family’s magical bakery has only just begun. And that isn’t the only bit of trouble in her life: her family’s baking heirlooms have begun to go missing, and a new bakery called Honeybees has opened across the street, threatening to run Amor y Azúcar right out of business.

With two of her sisters on a special spirit-hunting spring-break trip with her tía Paloma, and with Mamá busy guarding the bakery to keep away any more bad luck, Leo must work with her best friend, Caroline, and her sister Isabel to uncover who is stealing from the bakery and find way a way to save the business.

And that’s when a long-lost relative arrives at the door, mischief right behind him. . . .

Anna Meriano’s unforgettable family of brujas returns for one more course of amor, azúcar, and magia.

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

Anna Meriano

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

Hi, super excited to be here! I’m Anna Meriano, the author of the Love Sugar Magic series. I’m a tutor and part time writing teacher in Houston, Texas, where I live with my dog Cisco. I don’t bake, but I love to eat baked goods, and I am part of a real life quidditch team.

A MIXTURE OF MISCHIEF is the third book in the LOVE SUGAR MAGIC series. What was the inspiration behind this series?

I worked with Cake Literary on this series, and from the beginning we wanted to create a series that was fun and light and full of joy where Mexican American readers could see themselves. It’s also been important to me to show Leo growing into her power and getting more sure of herself as the series goes on.

What advice would you give to writers out there working on their own series? Any tips or tricks to keep track of all your plot points and character arcs? How do you make each book complete while leaving room for sequels?

One thing that really helped (besides having the amazing Dhonielle and Sona to collaborate on all my outlines) was having so many characters with different personalities and strengths and flaws. I really wanted Leo to avoid repeating the same mistakes from one book to the next, but luckily there was no shortage of mistakes she could keep making!

I guess my advice is to daydream a lot and think beyond what ends up on the page. When you’re working on the first book, there are almost definitely going to be moments where your brain goes off on a tangent or you realize that a certain moment or emotion could be explored more deeply, but you just don’t have page space to deal with it. Those are the details that are going to resurface when you start thinking about your sequel(s).

Love that! And “…luckily there was no shortage of mistakes she could keep making!” is the most awesomely middle grade outlook of all time. 😂

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

I would love to see Leo make friends with Malú from The First Rule of Punk, or swap stories with Tristan Strong. I also desperately want to send Isabel into The Resolutions so she can make some friends and learn to have a little more fun.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Middle grade is the age that kids are starting to really look at the world around them, and that’s such an exciting space to mentally return to. Fantasy works especially well at this age, because learning the rules of magic isn’t any *more* complicated than learning the rules of middle school. This is also an age where kids are learning to take more responsibility in their own lives, and that makes for great character arcs.

Any hints about your next book project?

Well I have a YA novel, This is How We Fly, coming out in October, which is a loose Cinderella retelling with a real-life quidditch team, a lost cleat, and the kind of angst and friend drama that Marisol would love.

I have a couple of other projects in mind for MG, but nothing far along enough to talk about unfortunately!

Oooh, your YA novel sounds awesome! And so glad to hear you have more middle grade ideas in the works!

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

I talk about this a lot, but I’m always floored by the support I’ve gotten from other book people, whether it’s the rest of the Cake Literary family or folks I’ve met online. It’s so much easier to navigate this industry when you have friends walking the path with you, and I’m really grateful for all of my writer, publisher, librarian, bookseller, and teacher friends who are there for me.

What are you reading right now?

Just finished Blanca y Roja by Anna Marie McLemore (an absolutely stunning book!), and recently listened to Pride by Ibi Zoboi on audiobook (narrated by Elizabeth Acevedo!). Also my last MG book was Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, so I’ve just been on an excellent reading streak.

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

The slotted spoon CAN catch the potato.

Bonus Question: What is your all time favourite recipe to bake?

Meringue because it’s basically pure sugar and it’s one of the few things I know how to bake and it’s safe for celiac family gatherings!

Oooh, delicious!

Thank you so much for the chat, Anna!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out A MIXTURE OF MISCHIEF and the rest of the LOVE SUGAR MAGIC series. All three books are available now!

A Mixture of Mischief


Connect with Anna on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of A MIXTURE OF MISCHIEF!
Contest closes Friday, July 24th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Julie Abe!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Julie Abe, the author of


Sometimes all you need is a pinch of magic…

Eva Evergreen is determined to earn the rank of Novice Witch before she turns thirteen years old. If she doesn’t, she’ll lose her magic forever. For most young witches and wizards, it’s a simple enough test:

ONE: Help your town, do good all around.
TWO: Live there for one moon, don’t leave too soon.
THREE: Fly home by broomstick, the easiest of tricks.

The only problem? Eva only has a pinch of magic. She summons heads of cabbage instead of flowers and gets a sunburn instead of calling down rain. And to add insult to injury, whenever she overuses her magic, she falls asleep.

When she lands on the tranquil coastal town of Auteri, the residents expect a powerful witch, not a semi-magical girl. So Eva comes up with a plan: set up a magical repair shop to aid Auteri and prove she’s worthy. She may have more blood than magic, but her “semi-magical fixes” repair the lives of the townspeople in ways they never could have imagined. Only, Eva’s bit of magic may not be enough when the biggest magical storm in history threatens the town she’s grown to love. Eva must conjure up all of the magic, bravery, and cleverness she can muster or Auteri and her dreams of becoming a witch will wash away with the storm.

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

Julie Abe

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

Thank you for having me, Casey! I write stories about kids going on magical adventures, and my debut MG fantasy, EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH, flies into shelves August 4, 2020. (I can’t believe it’s releasing so soon!)

What was the inspiration behind EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH?

EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH is about a 12-year-old girl with a pinch of magic who’s determined to pass her witch’s test… or she’ll lose her powers forever. I began writing EVA at a time where I didn’t really believe in myself or my writing, even though I wanted to, and those feelings made their way into her character arc.

What were you doing when you found out there was an offer on your book?
(I always love these stories!)

I’d been on sub for several weeks, so the initial excitement had turned into butterflies of nervousness as I wondered if I’d ever get an offer. Then, one day, while at work, I got a call from my lovely agent saying, “You got an offer!” And a few days later, she called again with another offer! It felt so unreal to have an ordinary workday turn into something so special.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH?

1. About how I write: I work best as a plantser – half plotting, half pantsing.

2. About the story: Cloudberries, one of Eva’s favorite fruits, is a real berry! But doesn’t it sounds so enchanting and magical?

3. About craft: Save the Cat has been a particularly helpful book! Love the beat sheets when my plot is stuck.

Cloudberries DO sound magical! They look magical too!

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

I would love for Eva and her friends to fall into the world of NEVERMOOR (Jessica Townsend) or taste the cakes from PIE IN THE SKY (Remy Lai). I adore those two books, and I think Eva would too!

I would 100% read those adventures! 😀

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

There’s so much hope in middle grade, and I find that beautiful and so fulfilling to write.

Any hints about your next book project?

My next project is Book Two of EVA EVERGREEN. I’m so excited to share this new adventure with even higher stakes and, of course, lots of Ember, Eva’s furry companion, planned for 2021!

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

There have been SO many people who have worked on Eva that I might never get a chance to meet. From foreign rights to sales, I’m so grateful for everyone at my US publisher, Little, Brown Young Readers, and my international publishers, for everything they’ve done for EVA.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently rereading El Deafo by Cece Bell. It’s such a great graphic novel that means a lot to me.

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

Enjoy the journey and enjoy connecting with the people you meet! Some of my closest friends are fellow writers I’ve met on the path to publication, and having them in my life has made writing so much more fun and fulfilling.

That is very, very true!

Bonus Question: If you discovered you had magic, what’s the first thing you’d try to do?

I would love to do small magic! Things that might make someone smile or give them a good day. Or some sort of spell to create tasty meals with a snap of my fingers would be convenient, too!

Yes! Cooking by magic would be THE BEST.

Thank you so much for a great chat, Julie!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH! It hits shelves on August 4th!



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

Click here to enter to win a copy of EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH!
Contest closes Friday, July 10th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Supriya Kelkar!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Supriya Kelkar, the author of


As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

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

Supriya Kelkar

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

Thank you for having me! I’m a screenwriter and author of middle grade books and picture books including AHIMSA, THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH, AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD.

Where did the idea for AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE come from?

The idea came from my childhood, growing up in a small town in Michigan that didn’t value diversity.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?  

  1. Just how many purposely bad puns Lekha could make
  2. What a release writing can be
  3. The perfect recipe for paneer pie

Love a good terrible pun!

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

Ooh this is a great question. Maybe to Josh Funk and Brendan Kearney’s LADY PANCAKE AND SIR FRENCH TOAST picture books to tell Lekha’s story in rhyme (and also to see how adorable an illustrated piece of paneer pie can be).

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE is your second novel after AHIMSA and you’ve got more on the way. What’s your process for figuring out the voice of your main character with each new novel?

My process comes from what I learned in the screenwriting classes I took in college. I write character journals for all the big characters, not just the main character, which are like diary entries. I get to know their fears, dreams, and their voice through that exercise.

That’s a great idea! Such a great way to dive into your characters thoughts.

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

I just love what a huge time of change it can be for middle grade characters and how much story you can get out of that. And of course, it’s always a blast connecting to MG readers on school visits to see what they enjoy about these books as well.

Any hints about your next book project?

STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME is historical, middle grade that challenges who is being centered in books considered classics from the period of European colonization.

That sounds amazing! Can’t wait!

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

I think being published was the most surprising part, ha! I had written the first draft of AHIMSA in 2003 and it published in 2017. I have hundreds of rejection letters over the years for so many projects and there were several times when I felt like giving up so getting the call that Ahimsa won the New Visions Award and would be published was a huge, unexpected surprise.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished the PB bio ONA JUDGE OUTWITS THE WASHINGTONS: AN ENSLAVED WOMAN FIGHTS by Gwendolyn Hooks and Simone Agoussoye and am about to start CHIRP by Kate Messner

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

Don’t be attached to your words! This makes revising so much easier and I’ve always seen my books improve with every revision I’ve done.

100% yes! So true!

Thanks very much for chatting with us, Supriya!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE!
It hits shelves on June 9th!

American as Paneer Pie


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

Click here to win a copy of AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE!
Contest closes Friday, May 29th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!


Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Melanie Conklin!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with Melanie Conklin, the author of 


Maddy Gaines sees danger everywhere she looks: at the bus stop, around the roller rink, in the woods, and (especially) by the ocean. When Maddy meets a mysterious boy setting booby traps in the North Carolina woods, she suspects the worst.

Maddy is certain she’s found Billy Holcomb-the boy who went missing in the fall. Except, maybe it’s not him. It’s been six months since he disappeared. And who will believe her anyway? Definitely not her mom or her stepdad . . . or the chief of police.

As Maddy tries to uncover the truth about Billy Holcomb, ghosts from her own past surface, her best friend starts to slip away, and Maddy’s world tilts once again. Can she put the pieces of her life back together, even if some of them are lost forever?

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

Melanie Conklin

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

Thanks for hosting me! I’m happy to be here to talk about my second book for young readers. I started writing about 7 years ago, and it’s been four years since my debut, Counting Thyme. It’s both exciting and terrifying to have a new book enter the world!

Where did the idea for EVERY MISSING PIECE come from?

When I was a child, I often wondered what would happen if I found a missing child. I saw missing child notices sometimes, at the grocery store or yes, on the back of milk cartons. So this is a “what-if” scenario that has been in my mind for a long time. In Every Missing Piece, the main character is an eleven-year-old girl named Maddy who thinks that the new boy in her neighborhood might be a child who went missing six months earlier.

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

As authors, we look up all kinds of weird stuff, right? For this one, I learned that bullfrogs can lay up to 20,000 eggs at once (!), that North Carolina has on average 4 tornadoes per month, and that there is a meteor shower called the Gamma Normids.

20, 000!!! That sounds exhausting! 😂

When you were working on EVERY MISSING PIECE, how did you balance plotting out the action elements of the mystery with the emotional arcs of the characters?

I’ve learned not to worry about getting the plot right during my first draft. Often, my external action is completely wrong for the story the first time around. Once I finish a draft, I step back and examine my plot. Then I can change the plot until it works, and in this case, until it provides the right sequence of clues for a quickly-paced mystery!

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

Wow, what a great question! I think Maddy and crew would’ve to visit the characters in WISH by Barbara O’Connor. WISH is also set in North Carolina, which is my home state. It was super fun to write about settings from my childhood, including pig pickin’s and the secret cemetery that was hidden in the middle of my neighborhood!

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

I love that middle grade stories give you hope. No matter how challenging the circumstances, there is always a dose of hope, and my heart needs that.

That’s one of my favourite aspects too. 

Any hints about your next book project?

My next project is set in New Jersey in a town very similar to my own! It’s another mystery, but this time starring a group of friends and neighbors who have to face some hard truths about their choices as a community.

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

The most surprising part of the publication journey is how wonderfully support children’s authors are. We are a community and I appreciate that.

What are you reading right now?

Right now, I’m reading A WISH IN THE DARK by Christina Soontornvat and RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson.

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

If you want to kick butt at writing, let go! Allow yourself to explore in early drafts. Don’t be too rigid in your writing rules. Give yourself the time and space to discover the heart of your story. The rest can be fixed in revisions!


Thank you so much for chatting with us, Melanie!

Kick-butt Kidlit fans, make sure you check out EVERY MISSING PIECE!
It hits shelves on May 19th!



Connect with Melanie on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of EVERY MISSING PIECE!
Contest closes Friday, May 15th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Tanya Guerrero!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

We’re chatting with with Tanya Guerrero, the author of


He’s only twelve years old, but he’s lived in more countries than he can count. After his parents divorced, he and his mother have moved from place to place for years, never settling anywhere long enough to call it home. And along the way, Pablo has collected more and more fears: of dirt, of germs, and most of all, of the ocean.

Now they’re living in the Philippines, and his mother, a zoologist who works at a local wildlife refuge, is too busy saving animals to notice that Pablo might need saving, too. Then his mother takes in Chiqui, an orphaned girl with a cleft lip—and Pablo finds that through being strong for Chiqui, his own fears don’t seem so scary.

He might even find the courage to face his biggest fear of all…and learn how to make friends with the sea.

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

Tanya Guerrero

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

I’m Tanya Guerrero, a Filipino-Spanish MG author based in the Philippines, (I live in a shipping container home in the suburbs of Manila.) In my free time, I love to bake sourdough bread, grow my own fruits and veggies, obsess over my houseplants, and of course read. I also volunteer for an animal welfare organization, and have my own mini-rescue at home, (don’t ask me how many cats and dogs I have), though, I’m sure my 9-year old daughter would love to tell you each and every one of their names. HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, my debut novel is out on March, 31st, 2020.

What was the inspiration behind HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA?

What happens to my main character, Pablo in HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, definitely reflects a lot of my own experiences as a child. When my parents separated, my sister and I moved to Spain to live with our maternal grandparents. Although, I’d been to Spain before on family vacations, it was a completely different living and going to school there. I barely knew any Spanish, and had to learn quickly. And then there was all the anxiety with missing my parents and my extended family and friends. After a few years in Spain, we moved again, to New York City. We had to start all over again. New place, new schools, new friends. Although I knew how to speak English, the American culture was quite new to me. Even after I managed to settle in, that feeling of being an outsider—an immigrant, never really disappeared. Then, several years later, when I was twelve going on thirteen, I moved back to the Philippines. A new start. Again. It was a strange time for me. I had been away for so long that I felt completely removed from my own culture—like a foreigner even though I’m half-Filipino.

So essentially, everything I went through, inspired Pablo’s story. I made his character half-Spanish and half-American to reflect my mom’s side of the family and the many years I lived in the US. The fact that he feels disconnected to his life in the Philippines, mirrors the same feelings I had when I moved back. Through his character, I show what it was like to learn, to discover, to appreciate the Filipino culture, especially the Filipino people.

I also based a couple of the secondary characters on some real life people I know. For example, Pablo’s mom is fictionalized version of the amazing women I’ve met in the animal welfare network I volunteer in. Heinz the surfer, is inspired by some of my Filipino surfer friends. And even, Lucky the dog, is based on a friend’s rescued Labrador who passed away last year.

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

Well, my story isn’t all that exciting. Unfortunately, because of time zone issues, (the Philippines is 12-hours ahead of Eastern standard time,) a lot of good news happens while I’m asleep. So on the day I found out about the offer on my book, I’d just woken up and was still super groggy. I have this terrible habit of checking my email first thing, so that’s exactly what I did. When I saw an email from my agent, Wendy, my heart skipped a beat. And then I opened the email, and saw that we’d gotten an offer from FSG BYR, which was one of my dream imprints. Since my husband was still asleep, I went to the bathroom and did my happy dance there. I’m secretly glad nobody was around to witness my dorky celebratory dance moves.

That’s still a fun story! What great news to wake up to!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA

  1. Since Pablo’s mom is a zoologist, I did quite a bit of research on wildlife and wildlife rehab, particularly on species that are endemic to the Philippines. His mom is also really into crystals, so I learned a lot about particular kinds of crystals and what their benefits are.
  2. Though I have experienced visiting orphanages in the Philippines, I made sure to speak to several friends who are either fostering children or have adopted children. This gave me a more authentic way to portray how Pablo reacts to his foster sister, Chiqui, and how Chiqui reacts to her new foster home. I also did a lot of research about children that are born with cleft lips—specifically, why it’s prevalent in developing nations like the Philippines, how it affects the children that have them, and what happens pre and post corrective surgery.
  3. I have a couple of scenes that take place in the Monteray Bay Aquarium, since Pablo’s father is a consulting marine biologist there. Since I’ve never visited, I studied their website, travel blogs and Google images, to make sure the scenes felt authentic. Now, I kind of feel like I have actually been there!

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

Pablo feels really alone, not only because he is an only child with a mom that moves them around a lot, but also because of his severe anxiety. I think he would feel a lot less lonely if he had friends that were experiencing some of the same issues as him. So I would love to send Pablo to visit, Charlie from The Someday Birds, Molly from Finding Perfect, and Willow from Counting By 7s. I have a feeling they would become fast friends!

Agreed! That would be a great crossover to read!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Growing up, books were a huge part of my childhood, particularly MG books like Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Wrinkle in Time, and pretty much anything by Judy Blume. These stories were of solace to me, something I could escape to when times were tough. I was pretty much THAT kid who read way past her bedtime with a flashlight under the covers.

Reminiscing about those anxiety-filled middle school years, and how much I relied on those books for comfort, convinced me to shift my storytelling to focus on the upper-MG. Another thing that convinced me, was when I was on sub for a YA thriller I’d written, an editor commented that she thought my voice was more suited for an MG-aged protagonist. So, that’s how I came to write, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, which was my first attempt at writing an MG story.

Any hints about your next book project?

Yes! I actually just finished my second round of revision for my next book, ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, which will be published by FSG BYR in 2021. Here is the short synopsis that was included in the Publisher’s Weekly announcement:

The middle grade novel is about a 13-year-old girl of Filipino and Spanish descent who goes to live with her estranged grandmother in Barcelona to escape a domestic violence situation at home, and who finds new friends, rediscovers family, and uncovers a hidden talent for bread baking. 

My main character is named, Alba, and I hope readers will love her as much as they love Pablo.

That sounds fantastic! Can’t wait to read it!

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

I’ll be completely honest here. When I started writing HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, I had this fear that readers would be turned off by a book set in a different country with a lot of Tagalog and Spanish dialogue. But as soon as my ARCs went out, and I started getting reviews, I was surprised that readers could really relate to Pablo’s story, despite all the cultural differences and language barriers. It’s made me a lot more confident about writing in settings outside of the US, as well as including as much non-English dialogue as I want. I now know that readers are craving for something different, and that perhaps, I can be the one to write those stories for them.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading an ARC by a fellow 2020 debut, FRIEND ME by Sheila M. Averbuch. It’s an MG sci-fi-ish thriller, that has some serious Black Mirror vibes. I also have more MG ARCs lined up next, WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF by Sarah Allen and PEPPER’S RULES FOR SECRET SLEUTHING by Briana McDonald.

I also like to read adult fiction to balance my TBR out a bit. I just started, THE AUTHENTICITY PROJECT by Claire Pooley, which I am loving so far.

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

Craft-wise, I think the most kick-butt advice I can give is to read a lot and to read widely. I have learned so much about writing from reading all types of genres, across all age groups. For example, one thing I learned from reading adult fiction with main characters that are children, is how the adults are always fully-fleshed out characters, which I don’t always see in MG and YA books. This prompted me to make sure that whenever I write adult characters in my own stories, that they are as three dimensional as possible, with their own little character arcs within the larger arc of the main story.

Great advice!

Thank you so much for chatting with us, Tanya!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA! It hits shelves on March 31st!

how to make friends with the sea


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Thanks for reading!