Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Reese Eschmann!

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

Today we’re chatting with Reese Eschmann, the author of


A girl with hearing loss and a boy adjusting to life in a new country connect through their love of comics and get entangled in their own fantastical adventure.

Twelve-year-old Etta Johnson has Loud Days where she can hear just fine and Quiet Days where sounds come from far away and she gets to retreat into her thoughts. Etta spends most of her time alone, working on her comic book about Invisible Girl, the superhero who takes down super villain Petra Fide and does all the things Etta thinks she can’t.

But when Louisa May Alcott, a friendly Goldendoodle from across the street, disappears, Etta and the dog’s boy, Eleazar, must find their inner heroes to save her. The catch? LMA has run onto a magical train that mysteriously arrived at the station near Etta and Eleazar’s houses. On-board, they discover each train car is its own magical world with individual riddles and challenges that must be solved before they can reach the engine room and rescue LMA.

Only, the stakes are even higher than they thought. The train’s magic is malfunctioning and spreading a purple smoke called The Fear through the streets of Chicago. Etta and Eleazar are the only ones who can save the city, save Louisa May Alcott—and save each other.

Let’s talk to this superb author about her magnificent book!
This is Reese. Everyone say, “Hi, Reese!”

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

Hi! Thank you so much for having me! My name is Reese Eschmann, I’m from Chicago, and I’m a kidlit author! ETTA INVINCIBLE is my debut middle grade. It’s a contemporary fantasy about magical trains, new friendships, and choosing hope over fear. I’m also the author of HOME FOR MEOW, which is a fun-filled chapter book series about a cat cafe! Before I became an author, I worked as a school social worker. When I’m not writing, I enjoy taking naps with my lazy hound dog, gardening, and baking!

What was the inspiration behind ETTA INVINCIBLE?

When I was in grad school, I would take the elevated train in Chicago to campus. In December, Chicago has something called the “CTA Holiday Train” which is a festive, decked-out train car covered in pulsing string lights that sometimes surprises people on their daily commute. It’s such a bright contrast to the other gray trains and the equally-gray winter days, and it also struck me as strange that you could just have this zany, fun experience in the middle of the day, but then you still have to get off the train at your stop and go about your business as usual. I was inspired to write a magical train that was just as weird and magical and (seemingly) impermanent. I want readers to see the train as I do: filled with endless possibilities, a place to return to over and over again. But I also want them to know that sometimes coming back to face the real world after going on an adventure is the most magical thing we can do.

LOVE that.

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

I was at work! I got an email from my agent that said, “Hey! I’m at the dentist! Can I call you when I’m done?” which is pretty hilarious. My heart started pounding immediately—I knew the only reason my agent would want to call me from the dentist chair is because she had good news! But I assumed the news was only that there was an editor who was interested in ETTA and wanted to take it to acquisitions. I never dreamed that there was already a deal on the table! I took an early lunch break and sat on the grass outside the school where I was working. I remember that it was a gorgeous, warm day—unusual for early spring in Chicago! My agent called me and told me that we had an offer from my wonderful editor, Alyson Heller, and the team at Aladdin books! The rest is history 🙂

Okay, that is one of the best offer stories yet!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on ETTA INVINCIBLE?

I discovered that Chicago has a bunch of underground train tunnels that were built over a hundred years ago. The tunnels were made for miniature trains that were supposed to carry cargo around the city. They connected to a bunch of the big department stores downtown, but they were never actually used because the mini train project lost funding before it was completed and there were issues with the building permits. A lot of people didn’t even know the tunnels existed—until they flooded the basements of a bunch of department stores in the 90s!

I also re-discovered how much I love Louisa May Alcott! The dog in ETTA INVINCIBLE is named after her. At first, I was paying homage to my childhood love of LITTLE WOMEN in the name only, but as I worked on ETTA INVINCIBLE, I started incorporating more and more of Louisa May Alcott’s wisdom into the book. I found so many similarities between the themes of her work and my own, especially when it comes to forging your own path in the world. I love Louisa May Alcotta, and I’m so happy she ended up becoming such a big part of my book!

Finally, while working on ETTA INVINCIBLE I discovered how fun it is to collaborate with an illustrator! I got to work with the amazingly talented artist Gretel Lusky to bring some of Etta’s comic panels to life! It was so cool seeing how, with just a few panel descriptions, Gretel could illustrate something more beautiful than I even imagined! She really brought the superhero character Invincible Girl to life, and her illustrations make me giddy every time I see them! I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with her.

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

I think Etta and Eleazar would love hanging out with Maya, Eli, and Frankie from the MAYA AND THE RISING DARK series by Rena Barron! They’re all kids from Chicago who have magical adventures and end up becoming heroes themselves, so Etta and Eleazar wouldn’t have to travel too far to end up in Maya’s world! They’d probably all go to C2E2, one of the Chicago Comic Cons, dressed as their favorite heroes. I wouldn’t be surprised if some magical shenanigans went down while they were there, and it was up to the five of them to save the Con!

We need this crossover to happen!!!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I love middle grade because you can merge so many themes and genres into one story. Middle grade aged kids have so much happening to them at once—new friendships and first crushes and wondering whether magic is real. I love the freedom in middle grade that allows me to tackle emotional coming-of-age themes and difficult situations in

the middle of a fun, whimsical adventure. In ETTA INVINCIBLE, I wanted to take a character with a more literary voice and throw her into a Roald Dahl-esque story. She fights gummy worms and mechanical dragons and emerges from her story with a heart full of hope and bravery. Middle grade stories are able to balance silliness and sadness in such an approachable, refreshing way, and I absolutely love getting to work in this space as an author!

Any hints about your next book project?

I’ve got a couple projects in the works, but one that I’m really excited about includes a journey to space! I was inspired to write it when I went on a writing retreat to Death Valley National Park on the California/Nevada border. It’s a certified Night Sky Park, which means it has some of the best stargazing in the country. After a long day of writing, we’d drive into the desert and sit on top of our car, staring at the stars. It was a really wonderful experience and I’ve been itching to write a journey into the stars ever since!

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

The most surprising part of my publishing journey has been realizing how many steps there are to getting a book published! I think I underestimated how many times I’d have to read my own book—hah! After completing multiple rounds of revision with my editor, there were still copy edits, sensitivity reads, and multiple proofreading rounds to get through! I knew that publishing takes a LONG time, but I didn’t fully understand how many people are involved in getting your book ready for publication!

So. True.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading some Junie B. Jones books! They’re so funny and help me get in the right mindset for writing kidlit! I’m also excited to read THE TRYOUT by Christina Soontornvat, and I recently finished MAYA AND THE LORD OF SHADOWS, the third book in the MAYA AND THE RISING DARK series by Rena Barron. It was AMAZING and such a perfect, thrilling end to a wonderful middle grade series.

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

While writing ETTA INVINCIBLE, I learned how important perseverance and community are for people pursuing a career in writing or publishing. There have been so many times during this process when I’ve been close to giving up, but both Etta is a character who perseveres when things get tough, and her story reminds me that I can keep going, too. I’m incredibly grateful to have a wonderful support system of agents and editors, friends, family, and other writers around me to encourage me and give feedback when I need it. I wouldn’t be here without them! So my kick-butt advice would be that it’s okay to lean on other people and trust them when you’re struggling. Writing (or any other job) doesn’t have to be lonely or solitary, and, as Etta says in ETTA INVINCIBLE, perfection isn’t real—you shouldn’t feel pressure to make your life or your work “perfect” before sharing your accomplishments with others.

Absolutely. A hard thing to remember sometimes, but an important one!

Thank you so much for joining us, Reese!

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

Add ETTA INVINCIBLE on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of ETTA INVINCIBLE!
Contest closes Friday, December 16th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt, Kathie MacIsaac, and Colleen Nelson!

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

Today we’re chatting with Kathie MacIsaac and Collen Nelson, the authors of


There is no single path to the job of your dreams. What does it take to become a stuntperson? How does a
mathematician spend her days? When does a barber become the center of a community?

In this refreshing take on a careers book, meet twenty-five individuals of different backgrounds, genders, and abilities who have found their careers through a wide range of experience, education, intention, and inspiration.

From Joshua Jones, who built a business where he could thrive as a Deaf interior designer, to Teresa Tam, whose hunger for knowledge led her to the position of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, each of these dreamers found ways to dig deep into their passion, to gain experience and knowledge, and to turn that into a job.

Let’s talk to these outstanding authors about their phenomenal book!
This is Kathie and Colleen. Everyone say, “Hi, Kathie and Colleen!”

Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Kathie and Colleen! Tell us about yourselves!

Kathie: Hi Casey, and thanks so much for having us! 

I’m Kathie, and I run the children’s department in a public library in Manitoba. I’m also a co-founder of the MG Book Village website, and I blog about books at Bit About Books with Laurie Hnatiuk. This is my first nonfiction book, and I’m very excited to have it in the world.

Colleen: I’m Colleen and I teach middle years. This is my sixteenth book, but my first non-fiction and I’m also so excited to have it out in the world!

What was the inspiration behind IF YOU CAN DREAM IT, YOU CAN DO IT?

K: We wanted young readers to see a wide variety of jobs and people passionate about what they do. And it was important to us that kids see they don’t have to have their life figured out before they leave high school.

Absolutely true and a really great point to make.

How did this partnership come to be? What was it like working with a co-author?

K: Colleen and I knew each other from a committee on which we sat, and then we started the MG Lit Online Book Club together at the start of the pandemic. We realized how well we worked together, so when the idea for the book arose, we knew we could collaborate on it. We each did our profiles individually, frequently checking in to discuss our progress, but I’m still amazed how our similar writing styles make it difficult to tell who wrote which profile!

That’s so cool!

Can you each share an interesting thing you discovered while working on IF YOU CAN DREAM IT, YOU CAN DO IT?

K: So many of the people we profiled didn’t have straight paths to their jobs. Many didn’t discover what they loved to do until they were in their 20s and had some life experience. I think it’s really important for kids to see they can change their minds about their futures.

C: I loved learning about the obstacles people faced and how they overcame them. Many of the folks we talked to were so inspiring. Social justice was an element that ran through a lot of jobs in unexpected ways. 

How did you decide which individuals to include in IF YOU CAN DREAM IT, YOU CAN DO IT?

K: We spent a LOT of time researching online to find individuals who loved their jobs and had a unique angle that readers might find interesting. For example, we profiled a female smokejumper and an NHL scout who work in traditionally male-dominated fields. It was also important to focus on diversity so all kinds of young readers could see themselves represented in the book.

What’s your favourite part about working on non-fiction projects?

K: I love conducting interviews. I spoke to so many interesting people, and I found it fascinating to hear their stories and the paths that led them to where they are today. 

C: I’m mainly a fiction writer so I liked the feeling of accomplishment that came after completing a profile. Unlike a book that takes months (and months!), I could complete a profile in a few days. It was satisfying!

Any hints about your next book project? (Either together or individually?)

K: I can’t say much at this point, but keep your eyes open for another collaboration from us.

C: I have a middle grade book out this spring and I’ll work on anything with Kathie! She was the best writing partner I could have asked for.

Oooh, exciting! Can’t wait!

What has been the most surprising part of the publishing journey for each of you?

K: I wasn’t expecting long periods of time between stages of publishing a book. I had to learn patience and trust the process.

C: How seamlessly the writing feels. Readers won’t know there were two writers working on this book. I also love Scot Ritchie’s illustrations–they add a whimsical feel to the book.

What are you reading right now?

K: I’m currently reading Secondhand Dogs by Carolyn Crimi, a story about a pack of rescue dogs that have to learn to work together and protect each other.

C: I’m reading ‘Framed’ by James Ponti. My students and I love his City Spies series. My read alouds at school are ‘Butt Sandwich and Tree’ by Wesley King and ‘Dry’ by Neil Shusterman. I also love audio books and am almost finished ‘American Dirt’ by Jeanine Cummins.

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

K: Be open to collaborating with another person on a writing project. Sharing ideas and letting the process unfold organically can lead to a great partnership.

C: Don’t be limited to one genre or type of writing because it’s familiar. Taking a risk and trying something new turned into one of my favorite writing experiences.

Both excellent points!

Thank you so much for joining us, Kathie and Colleen!

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


Connect with Kathie on Twitter or Instagram!
Connect with Colleen on Twitter or Instagram!

Click here to enter to win a copy of IF YOU CAN DREAM IT, YOU CAN DO IT!
Contest closes Thursday, December 8th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Caris Avendaño Cruz!

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

Today we’re chatting with Caris Avendaño Cruz, the author of


Marikit is used to wearing recycled clothes. Her mother, the best seamstress in the barrio, has become an expert at making do ever since Marikit’s father and brother were lost at sea. But for her tenth birthday, all Marikit wants is something new. So when her mother gifts her a patchwork dress stitched together with leftover scraps from her workshop, Marikit vows to never wear it. That is, until the eve of her birthday, when shadow creatures creep into their home, attempt to take Marikit away, and upend the very life she knew.

When she’s swept away from the human world, Marikit discovers that her dress is a map, one lovingly crafted to lead her to safety in the magical lands of the Engkantos. She trudges through the enchanted lands of mythical creatures, making friends out of monsters and challenging gods. With the help of her friends, including an exuberant firefly and a cursed boy, Marikit journeys through the land of the Engkantos to find the key to saving her family, all without being eaten alive.

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

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

So happy to be here! I am Caris and I’m from the ever sunny—and sometimes stormy—Philippines. I write for cool digital brands: travel magazines, design blogs, quirky inventions, and swanky furniture! Surprisingly, the world has so many things to write about, but my favorite projects are stories about young heroes with Filipino heritage and adventures that feature our traditions and lore.

What was the inspiration behind MARIKIT AND THE OCEAN OF STARS?

Marikit and the Ocean of Stars is inspired by my mother and grandmother. My grandmother—we call her Inang—has a vintage sewing machine where she’d make all sorts of things out of fabric: dresses, curtains, blouses, beddings, and so on! When she passed on, my mother followed in her footsteps. She inherited Inang’s sewing machine and the knack for remaking old clothes into new things. That’s where the idea for Marikit’s unique map dress came from.

One lovely thing about my mom and Inang is that they celebrate their birthday on the same day. Sometimes, I think there’s a magical bond between them—the kind of bond Marikit and her mother have, too!

Love the family history woven into your story!

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

My agent let me know about the auction. It was early morning in the Philippines, I had a cup of coffee in my hand, baiting my breath and waiting for her email. We went through calls, I panicked, and got teary-eyed when we finally chose a publisher. It was a wonderful moment when my editor welcomed me. That was when everything started to feel so real.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on MARIKIT AND THE OCEAN OF STARS?

First, I discovered that I was a chaotic Pantser! I think it’s because Marikit was written in such a way that allowed me to not outline things first. Surprisingly, the second thing that I learned is that later on, not outlining would give me a big headache during revision! I’m so grateful to my editor who was so, so patient with me. 

Third and most important of all, I learned a lot about our folklore. It feels so exciting to discover more of our pantheons, how they’re described differently per region, and the way our ancestors’ faith and imagination worked. It’s so fun to read Creation stories, the many ways humans originated—from being baked in a kiln, to emerging in a split-open bamboo pole!

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

Oh, I would skyrocket Marikit to Sanlagita. Marikit was comped to Lalani and the Distant Sea, and both stories draw a lot of inspiration from Filipino folklore and the bond between a mother and daughter. I’m sure Marikit will help Lalani get across the dangerous sea, fight the scary creatures along the way, and hopefully find a cure for Lalani’s mother. 

That sounds like an epic crossover adventure. 😀

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Children are amazing! They’re brave and honest, constantly curious, and always open to learning. Their intentions are pure, even when they get themselves in trouble! I find them inspiring, and I always wish I still have some of those traits—the shiny ones that keep our hearts in the right place.

The world is changing so quickly that I want to write books that will anchor tomorrow’s generation to our wonderful past. I want to give them a glimpse of our history, some fragments of our folklore, and leave them breadcrumbs so that they could go back and unearth what was almost forgotten. I want them to know that there is more to discover and that in seemingly mundane things, there is also an adventure.


Any hints about your next book project?

With similar tones to Marikit, I am writing another middle-grade book with hints of our myths. It stars young heroes of color, too, and I cannot wait for you to meet them!

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

It still feels unreal that I get to do this! As a person of color writing outside the U.S.—and all this happening during a pandemic— everything feels like a miracle. I know that getting published is like going through the eye of a needle—and I am grateful—but there are still so many stories by writers of color that need to be told, and I hope the industry widens the gap in their door for us.

What are you reading right now?

I am reading Riss M. Neilson’s Deep in Providence! It’s such a rich, magical book about three girls who lost their friend in an accident. Overcome with a desire to bring her back, they use old magic to conjure a spell, but things done in the dark will find a way to catch up, and the girls not only had to face this dread but the many secrets that start to unravel too.

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

That the world is moving and changing and growing, and so should we. I’m always stuck in my head, sometimes repeating things that I can no longer do something about—especially when I propose a new project or submit a revision! I think it’s okay to feel a bit of fear and regret, but there should be a moment when we take a deep breath and bravely step out with new hope. To open our hearts, and accept the lessons ahead, for as the characters in Marikit would say: we’ll learn more along the way. 

Really, really love this advice. Words to take to heart!

Thank you so much for joining us, Caris!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out MARIKIT AND THE OCEAN OF STARS!
It’s on shelves now!


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

Click here to enter to win a copy of MARIKIT AND THE OCEAN OF STARS!
Contest closes Friday, November 18th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Salma Hussain!

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

Today we’re chatting with Salma Hussain, the author of


Mona Hasan is a young Muslim girl growing up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, when the first Gulf War breaks out in 1991. The war isn’t what she expects — “We didn’t even get any days off school! Just my luck” — especially when the ground offensive is over so quickly and her family peels the masking tape off their windows. Her parents, however, fear there is no peace in the region, and it sparks a major change in their lives.

Over the course of one year, Mona falls in love, speaks up to protect her younger sister, loses her best friend to the new girl at school, has summer adventures with her cousins in Pakistan, immigrates to Canada, and pursues her ambition to be a feminist and a poet.

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

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

Hi Casey and the Kick-Butt Kidlit team! I’m a debut author of a Middle Grade coming-of-age & immigration novel for tweens, THE SECRET DIARY OF MONA HASAN, based on my own immigration story from the Middle East to Canada.

What was the inspiration behind THE SECRET DIARY OF MONA HASAN?

Whe my older daughter was 5, she turned to me sleepily at bedtime and asked me, “Mama, you were born outside of Canada, right? Were you a regular kid just like us?” That set off the spark! I felt strongly that only a child could answer my child’s question and I created a novel around what a “regular kid” born outside of Canada might be like.

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

My lovely agent sold the book quickly. It was on submission for only about three weeks or so. I was at home when I found out the news and celebrated by ordering in from my favorite restaurant! (It was still pandemic times so….)

It sold in three weeks! That’s awesome! Glad you were still able to have a little celebration even though it was at home.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE SECRET DIARY OF MONA HASAN?

— Continuity is so important in all novels novel but particularly so in those written in diary format! I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to keep the pace engaging with so many weekends and holidays and festivities in the school calendar.

— The important and defiant role of humour in my book.

— 95% of the success in completing a novel lies in consistency and persistence. The rest of the secret sauce is in your self-confidence.

Never thought about how challenging a diary format would be! And you’re so right about consistency and persistence!

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

I cannot choose only one  book! I’m going to say that I would love for MONA to meet with Margaret of ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET, because my book deals with many of the same themes. Secondly, MONA simply HAS to meet Adrian from THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE 13 3/4 because my book employs a similar tone to that British classic.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I was drawn to writing a character who is 11 going on 12. I love this age for the humour and hope it represents. At various times, I toyed with somehow making this book for an adult audience but I did want to remain in a child’s voice throughout and that was then considered “middle grade.” 

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m drawn to creating compelling characters! I’m working on three different projects (1 YA and 2 adult) and it remains to be seen which one calls for me to finish it first!

Oooh, exciting! Can’t wait until you can tell us more!

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

Still processing this one! I’ve been surprised by so much! I guess the most surprising part is just how much the publishing journey oscillates between feeling like it’s moving way too fast and then at other times, feeling like it’s moving like molasses.

What are you reading right now?

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Putlizer prize winner in 2022). It is the comedy of a gay man fleeing the humiliations of love, middle-age, and failure by accepting invitations that lead to a trip around the world and back, at last, to face his final demon: himself.

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

Be your own hero.

Yes! Love this.

Thank you so much for joining us, Salma!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out

It’s on shelves now!


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

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE SECRET DIARY OF MONA HASAN!
Contest closes Saturday, November 5th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Derrick Chow!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the inspiration behind RAVENOUS THINGS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

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

Any hints about your next book project?

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


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

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

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

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

What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

That is such a great perspective!

Thank you so much for joining us, Derrick!

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

Add RAVENOUS THINGS to Goodreads!

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

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

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Tracy Badua!

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

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


Freddie Ruiz is cursed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

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

Any hints about your next book project?

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

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

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

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

What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

Thank you so much for joining us, Tracy!

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


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

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

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Rachel Elliott!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m in!!

What was the inspiration behind THE REAL RILEY MAYES?

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

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

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

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

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

THE REAL RILEY MAYES (© Rachel Elliott)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

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

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

Any hints about your next book project?

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

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

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

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

What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

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


Thank you so much for joining us, Rachel!

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

Add THE REAL RILEY MAYES on Goodreads!

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

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

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Christina Matula

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

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

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

Any hints about your next book project?

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

Yay! That’s great news!

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

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

What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

‘Bite-sized pieces.’ LOVE THAT.

Thank you so much for joining us, Christina!

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


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

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

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Lisa Stringfellow!

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

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


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

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

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

(Image credit: Carter Hasegawa)

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

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

What was the inspiration behind A COMB OF WISHES?

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

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

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

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

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

So absolutely true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

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

Any hints about your next book project?

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

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

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

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

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

What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

Yes! Great advice!

Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa!

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

(Illustrator: Michael Machira Mwangi)

Add A COMB OF WISHES on Goodreads!

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

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

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Sonja Thomas!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aw! That is so lovely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

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

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

Any hints about your next book project?

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

Ooooh, can’t wait!

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

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

What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome! We’re glad you listed to Judy!

Thank you so much for joining us, Sonja!

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


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

Contest closes Friday, July 8th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!