Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Rajani LaRocca!

Welcome Back to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Rajani LaRocca, the author of

RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE

Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and holidays. But Reha’s parents don’t understand why she’s conflicted—they only notice when Reha doesn’t meet their strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—but they are a universe apart.

Then Reha finds out that her Amma is sick. Really sick.

Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor even though she can’t stomach the sight of blood, is determined to make her Amma well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving her Amma’s life.

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

Welcome back to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Rajani! Why don’t we start with some introductions for our new readers – tell us about yourself!

Hi Casey! It’s so great to be back here! I was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now I live in the Boston area, where I practice medicine and write books for kids! I’ve always been an omnivorous reader, and now I’m an omnivorous writer of novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, in poetry and prose.

What was the inspiration behind RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE?

RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is a novel in verse set in 1983 about 13-year-old Reha, who feels torn between the worlds of her immigrant parents and her friends at school. But then her mother is diagnosed with leukemia, and her life turns upside down. Reha becomes convinced that if she can just be the perfect daughter, the daughter her parents want her to be, she can somehow save her mother’s life.

The idea for RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE started as a metaphor: the metaphor of blood, and all that it means in terms of biology, family, and community. While the plot of the book is fictional, many of the emotions in it are ones I experienced as a kid growing up as the child of Indian immigrants.

RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is a novel in verse. What was the creative process for that like? Was it very different from your other novels? What kind of challenges did you run into? 

Because RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is very interiorly focused and emotional, I thought that verse would be the perfect way to write it. However, I didn’t know if I could write a novel in verse. So I read every novel in verse for young readers that I could get my hands on, and just tried.

I spent a long time thinking about this book before I wrote any of it. I had a rough outline, but then I just sat down and wrote poems. The first poem I wrote became a kind of “keystone” poem that became the central poem of this book — and in the final book, it’s just about at the halfway point.

Then, instead of scenes and chapters, I thought of each poem as a snapshot—of a single moment, or a single thought, image, or concept. I wrote poem after poem, and I sometimes wrote them in pairs when a piece of imagery changed over the course of the novel. I found myself dictating into my phone on my commute and waking in the middle of the night to jot notes. Before writing, and while writing, I listened to a never-ending playlist from 1983-1984, and I created my own playlist for songs I featured in the book—because Reha loves pop music as much as I did when I was her age. Unlike my prose novels, where I usually write scenes and chapters in order, I wrote the poems for RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE in any order I wanted, and figured out the “right” order to put them in during revision.

Here’s a link to the RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5XAcxzLHYS4Y4gLAgHZeLK?si=50c9baec83784a7d

Oh, wow! What a fascinating process! And a playlist is always fun! 😀

You also have another middle grade novel that just came out last month! MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL is the companion novel to your debut, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. What was it like continuing with a new story in the same book world you’d created? Did you always know that you were going to write a follow-up book? Since it’s a companion novel, will readers get to see much of the characters from the first book?

I really enjoyed returning to the magical world of MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM! MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL is set in the same town (Comity, MA) during the same summer as the first book but follows a different set of characters — both human and magical. A few of the characters from MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM are mentioned, but we don’t see any of them in this book. I came up with the idea for this book a long time ago, but it took me a while to figure out what exactly the story should be and how it should be told.

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

It might be fun to see the regular kids from Comity plopped into one of Shakespeare’s plays—perhaps A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and see what happens!

That sounds like a recipe for shenanigans!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

The middle grade years are such an incredible time in kids’ lives, when they are still close to their families but are also forming important friendships and becoming more autonomous, as well as learning about what they are interested in and thinking about what values they hold dearest. Middle grade readers are smart and care about fairness and justice. They love to have fun. And they still believe in magic.

The books I remember the best, the ones that made the biggest difference in my life, were ones I read during my middle grade years. And I’m so humbled and honored to be writing books for middle grade readers today.

Any hints about your next book project?

I have three more books coming this year—all picture books. WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET, coming August 24 from Abrams, is about a girl who travels with her mother and grandmother to the tip of India, and what she learns along the way about the love and strength mothers and daughters share. MY LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK ABOUT KAMALA HARRIS, a picture book biography of our amazing vice president, releases August 31. And THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU comes out September 14 from Little Bee Books. It’s a nonfiction book told in rhyming verse that explains the basics of genetics, but also touches on how our choices also make us who we are.

In terms of middle grade, my next MG novel is coming fall 2022 from Quill Tree/HarperCollins. It’s a dual-POV book about identical twin sisters who grow apart but find their way back to each other through music.

So exciting! Can’t wait for more Rajani books!

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

I never expected to meet some of my best friends in my 40s and beyond…but I have, thanks to writing.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading a lot of adult mysteries and YA fantasy.

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

Be kind to yourself. There are times when the writing flows, and times when it doesn’t. Sometimes you have to push through even when the writing is hard. But sometimes it’s a signal that you need a break.

A very important reminder!

Thank you so much for joining us, Rajani!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE (and MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL)! They’re both on shelves now!

Add RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE and MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE!
Contest ends Friday, July 30th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!


Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Chrystal D. Giles!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kid-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Chrystal D. Giles, the author of

TAKE BACK THE BLOCK

Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That–and hanging out with his crew (his best friends since little-kid days) and playing video games–is what he wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year, not the protests his parents are always dragging him to.

But when a real estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks, the neighborhood Wes has lived his whole life, everything changes. The grownups are supposed to have all the answers, but all they’re doing is arguing. Even Wes’s best friends are fighting. And some of them may be moving. Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known. Wes has always been good at puzzles, and he knows there has to be a missing piece that will solve this puzzle and save the Oaks. But can he find it . . . before it’s too late?

Let’s talk to this fabulous author about her splendid book!
This is Chrystal. Everyone say, “Hi, Chrystal!”

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

Hi, thanks so much for having me! I’m a children’s book author, I’ve written some picture books and poetry, but my heart is in middle-grade fiction. My debut novel is a middle-grade contemporary realistic story called TAKE BACK THE BLOCK.

I’ve also had a fairly extensive career in accounting and finance but I can truly say writing for young people is so much more fun! I live outside Charlotte, NC with my husband and son.

What was the inspiration behind TAKE BACK THE BLOCK?

This story was directly inspired by my hometown, Charlotte, NC. My city, like many cities across the nation, is experiencing gentrification and the displacement of marginalized people. Years ago, I started to notice whole communities being wiped away, I really became troubled by the thought of what happens to the children and families when these neighborhoods are transformed.

I couldn’t get that worry out of my mind so I decided to write a story that centered on the up-close view of a community fighting to remain whole.

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

I was at my day job when the first offer rolled in. My agent was kind of expecting an offer from an editor who had loved the book. Just a few days after receiving the manuscript, that editor had sent an email swooning over a scene. I was ecstatic and overwhelmed and happy to have an official offer.

As the week went on, we got some other interest so my agent set an auction for the next week. Ultimately, three editors made offers and I ended with a two-book deal.

Oh, that’s so exciting! Yay for more Chrystal books!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on TAKE BACK THE BLOCK?

  1. I learned about the history of my hometown, and more importantly, the historical Black Americans who’d done so much for it and its residents.
  2. How much I love young people’s style and fashion sense. I wanted my main character, Wes, to be style-obsessed so I made sure to pay attention to how young people dress and the impact of sneaker culture on this generation of kids.
  3. The more detail you put into your story, the more relatable is it to readers. I think new writers tend to skip details that don’t seem interesting in their own minds, I sure used to. But really it’s those specific things that readers relate to most.

Do YOU have a favourite pair of sneakers? If so, which ones?

Just like my main character Wes, I am a lover of Nike AirMax. I don’t have a favorite pair (as I have many, too many) but I am partial to the AirMax 90 style.

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I have such clear memories of sitting alone reading stacks and stacks of books as a girl around the age of ten. In some ways, books were my first friends. I want to write stories for the kids who are looking for themselves and their world in a book. I also write for the kids are who just starting to get interested in the lives of their neighbors and people who have stories different from their own experiences. Middle-grade is the perfect entry point for those explorations.

So true. This is why middle grade is the best!

Any hints about your next book project?

My next project is another middle-grade contemporary novel. I’m in the process of editing it now and the horror stories of publishing your second book are true. I absolutely love the book but the stress of editing during a pandemic all while debuting (during a pandemic) have been a true test.

Readers can expect the new book late 2022 or early 2023.

Seriously. Everyone who debuted/released books during the pandemic is a total super star. I am in awe of anyone who managed to tackle any words this past year.

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

Honestly, that people are reading and relating to my book. I know that must sound pretty simplistic, but really I am constantly surprised (and flattered) every time I’m tagged in a post or see a picture of someone holding my book.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished, THE SHAPE OF THUNDER by Jasmine Warga, last week. It was so good and I still think about it at least once a day.

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

Write the story only you can tell.

Absolutely.

Thank you so much for joining us, Chrystal!

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

Add TAKE BACK THE BLOCK on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of TAKE BACK THE BLOCK!
Contest ends Friday, July 16th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Shakirah Bourne!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Shakirah Bourne, the author of

JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA

Eleven-year-old Josephine knows that no one is good enough for her daddy. That’s why she makes a habit of scaring his new girlfriends away. She’s desperate to make it onto her school’s cricket team because she’ll get to play her favorite sport AND use the cricket matches to distract Daddy from dating.

But when Coach Broomes announces that girls can’t try out for the team, the frustrated Josephine cuts into a powerful silk cotton tree and accidentally summons a bigger problem into her life . . .

The next day, Daddy brings home a new catch, a beautiful woman named Mariss. And unlike the other girlfriends, this one doesn’t scare easily. Josephine knows there’s something fishy about Mariss but she never expected her to be a vengeful sea creature eager to take her place as her father’s first love! Can Josephine convince her friends to help her and use her cricket skills to save Daddy from Mariss’s clutches before it’s too late?

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

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

Hi Casey! I’m so excited to chat with you today. I’m a Barbadian author, still residing in the lovely island of Barbados. My background is in filmmaking, adult literary fiction, playwriting and much more–I love creating stories and experimenting with many different narrative styles. I eventually found my way to writing kidlit in 2017 and my debut middle grade contemporary fantasy, JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA, comes out with Scholastic on July 6th 2021.

What was the inspiration behind JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA?

I decided to enter a writing competition called BURT Award for Caribbean YA Literature, three weeks before the deadline. I had to decide on a story idea quickly, and the first idea that came to mind was inspired by a story I read in English class when I was twelve years old, about a fisherman who became obsessed with a mermaid. 

Though villagers warned him to stay away, he visited her by the river everyday. At night, she took over his dreams; he stopped caring for his family and himself, and one day, villagers found his clothing on the riverbank, and neither he nor the mermaid were ever seen again.

I always wondered what could have happened to them. Who was that mermaid? What if the fisherman’s daughter tried to find him?  JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA became my answer to those questions. I have always had a love for fantastical tales, and this story gave me the opportunity to delve further into Caribbean folklore and create a modern day adaptation set in Barbados.  

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA?

1. I discovered that I can write a book in a short timeframe. In only twenty-one days, I planned a book, wrote the first draft while crying, and still had a few days to spare to re-read and edit before the deadline. I haven’t finished a book so quickly since then.

2. I discovered a passion for writing kidlit. In my adult short fiction I would write stories from the perspective of children, mainly to expose hypocrisy or show irony, but I never thought about writing books specifically targeting kids until the BURT competition. There is a significant lack of Caribbean middle grade books, and I can’t think of even one traditionally published middle grade novel set in Barbados, so now I’m on a mission to encourage and inspire as many Caribbean/Bajan writers as I can to explore this genre. 

3. I discovered even more connections between Caribbean and African mythology in my research, especially with regards to sea spirits and sea goddesses. I started to think more about the history of my antagonist and during revisions, I started to empathize with her and see her point of view. It sparked an idea for a sequel, which I pitched to my editor, who loved it too! Now JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE HEARTMAN is coming out in 2023.

Oh, wow! That’s impressive that you were able to write your first draft so quickly! And so excited to hear about the upcoming sequel!

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

In thinking about the answer to this, I realized that I have read a lot of traumatic and dystopian novels, and there’s no way I’d subject Josephine and Ahkai to such angst (yes, I know they have to battle a sea spirit but that’s not the point). I think I’d let them go book-hopping in some Enid Blyton stories, and add Black representation in those books. They’d have a lot of fun solving mysteries with the Famous Five or Secret Seven, and Josephine and Elizabeth would wreak havoc with elaborate practical jokes in The Naughtiest Girl in School series. 

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I didn’t realize I was writing middle grade at all. When I first queried this book, I claimed that it was Young Adult, and then had to learn the differences between the two. In retrospect, I’ve always been drawn to telling stories through the eyes of 11-13 years olds since this is an important period of transition for kids. This is the time they start questioning their place in their family and other groups; they are curious, and willing to go on adventures, and are quite frank and honest in their observations. I find examining people and setting through this perspective very fascinating, and it lends well to humour through self-reflection and also of the behavior of friends, family and the wider community. 

It really is one of the best ages to write for!

Let’s talk about writing style! When you start a new story – do you plot it out or are you a pantser? What are some of your favourite methods for tackling writer’s block?  

I am a Plotster (who leans more to the plotter side). I like to know the beginning, turning point one & two, midpoint and ending of a story before I start writing. I plan as much as possible because I find that writer’s block occurs when I don’t understand the story or know where it’s going. However, my outline is for peace of mind and it’s just a guide. I still leave room for characters to surprise me and I am flexible enough to include new scenes or other plot elements that appear during the writing process. 

I find the best way to tackle writer’s block is to stop thinking about the story. I either read a book or watch a series, and it’s guaranteed that I’ll be inspired again by a scene, a line of dialogue or even an interesting location. 

Yes! Stepping away is sometimes the best thing you can do. And high fives to a fellow Plotser! 😀

Any hints about your next book project?

Yes! It’s called DUPPY ISLAND and it’s coming out in 2022. It’s about a young filmmaker who follows her family to a silent retreat on a mysterious island to get footage of a rare butterfly, and discovers that the island is haunted by faceless children. It’s inspired again by Caribbean folklore–a douen is a child who has died before they’re baptized. 

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

I am constantly learning about publishing challenges and obstacles, especially for marginalized authors. However, a really surprising and delightful part of the journey is connecting with other debut authors, and realizing that some of your new favorite writers are now your peers. I did not expect to suddenly have access to so many amazing books and people.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading and enjoying:

The Last Shadow Warrior by Sam Subity

The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

Where The Are Monsters by Breanne Mc Ivor

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

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit” – Richard Bach

This is my favourite piece of advice to encourage people to keep going, keep learning, keep improving and to never give up on their dreams.

Always, always, always!

Thank you so much for joining us, Shakirah!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA!
It hits shelves on July 6th!

Add JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA!
Contest ends Friday, July 2nd at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Reem Faruqi!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Reem Faruqi, the author of

UNSETTLED

When Nurah’s family moves from Karachi, Pakistan, to Peachtree City, Georgia, all she really wants is to blend in, but she stands out for all the wrong reasons. Nurah’s accent, floral-print kurtas, and tea-colored skin make her feel excluded, and she’s left to eat lunch alone under the stairwell, until she meets Stahr at swimming tryouts. Stahr covers her body when in the water, just like Nurah, but for very different reasons.

But in the water Nurah doesn’t want to blend in: She wants to stand out. She wants to win medals like her star athlete brother, Owais—who is going through struggles of his own in America—yet when sibling rivalry gets in the way, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates.

As Nurah slowly begins to sprout wings in the form of strong swimming arms, she gradually gains the courage to stand up to bullies, fight for what she believes in, and find her place.

Let’s talk to this outstanding author about her phenomenal book!
This is Reem. Everyone say, “Hi, Reem!”

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

Hi Casey! I’m Reem. I’m Pakistani, live in Atlanta, and have three daughters. My writing career started off with my picture book LAILAH’S LUNCHBOX. I’m honored that it’s gotten awards and done so well. My other books are AMIRA’S PICTURE DAY, my debut middle grade novel UNSETTLED, and an upcoming picture book I CAN HELP. I love writing lyrical stories that reflect my experiences.

What was the inspiration behind UNSETTLED?

Like Nurah, I immigrated to Peachtree, Georgia. Unlike Nurah I moved from Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates whereas Nurah moves from my country of origin, Pakistan. Since this experience was similar to mine, it felt natural to write what I knew. I also wanted to write about an immigrant experience that felt true to me.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on UNSETTLED?  

  1. The power of memory was one thing that struck me while writing this book since it’s loosely based on my life experiences. I can be scatter minded and forgetful, but lots of my stories that I remembered vividly came back to me. I moved when I was thirteen years old, and those experiences shaped who I am today. Interestingly my brothers read my book and had questions about specific experiences and wanted to clarify who said/who did what! It’s fascinating what experiences stay with you and how each person remembers things differently!
  2. This was my first middle grade book and I had never done copyediting before; it’s so hard and tedious and I celebrated when that stage was over. I also was surprised how many people come together for a middle grade book – cover art designer and illustration, interior art, copy-editing, publicity, marketing, editing, seeing pass pages, going through an arc, aah!
  3. How peaceful and therapeutic swimming can be. Nurah loves to swim and when writing this story, I felt like I connected with her and refreshed my mind by swimming laps, lots of them!

The differences in sibling memories is so funny and so true!

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

I feel like Nurah would connect with Jude from OTHER WORDS FOR HOME by Jasmine Warga as they both move to the US. I also think she’d connect with Reha from RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE by Rajani La Rocca as Nurah also has two parts of her, one Pakistani side and one American. I like to think they’d all be friends.

What’s your go-to method to get yourself in the writing mood? Do you have a specific writing spot or special snack? How do you get the words flowing?

I wish I had fun answers for these, but the writing process can be monotonous.

My go-to method is sitting down by my laptop and opening up Microsoft Word. When I get tired of the screen, I try to use a journal and a fancy pen (I like the Sharpie S-Gel 0.7 mm one) if I have one nearby. I love brainstorming with pen and paper although sometimes when I write too fast, I can’t read my writing!

My specific writing spot is my desk nook in the kitchen facing the wall. I like to sit in my usual spot – I find that helps me since I find it hard to write in other places. In the pandemic, I found another writing spot by my upstairs window. I like to write in those two spots in my house. I’ve never been a writer who likes to write in coffee shops. I would get too easily distracted. I also like the smell of coffee but not the taste so I don’t drink coffee. Also, at home I already have too many distractions, but I try to work with my children around.

For a special snack, I don’t really have one, but I’m lucky if I can get a handful of chocolate chips from the freezer. I freeze them because I have really bad self-control. 🙂

Yes! Sometimes taking pen to paper is the best way! I hear you on the trying to decipher your own handwriting problem though, haha!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I wasn’t! I did not want to write middle grade for the longest time. I have to credit my two earlier agents Ilse Craane and Kendra Marcus who encouraged me to write middle grade because they thought I had the voice for it.

I was a picture book writer and wanted to write and work with children who are shorter than me:  I’m 5 feet and three quarters. I was an elementary school teacher and taught second graders.

However, I looooved reading middle grade books and that’s what I exclusively read. I was (and still am!) in awe of middle grade writers.

I attempted my book UNSETTLED in prose, then converted it to verse, and loved that format so much more. It felt much less intimidating to me than a prose novel in middle grade. Now, I enjoy writing middle grade!

Any hints about your next book project?

Gold! … and a character who risks everything to help her family.

Ooooh, I think you’re going to have everyone intrigued by that hint!

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

  1. How long it takes – Unsettled took me 4 years (I took lots of breaks in between, gave up many times, and had a new baby – who’s now 3 years old!) 
  2. How the right editor and agent can make a difference for your manuscript(s). I’ve loved working with my agent Rena Rossner and HarperCollins editor Alyson Day.
  3. How short it takes – after writing Unsettled, my other novel in verse GOLDEN GIRL took me a few months so that was refreshing. I also recommend having an outline before writing, something I learned the hard way!

What are you reading right now?

Right now, I’m enjoying THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate and TWINTUITION by Tia and Tamera Mowry. Also some bedtime stories by Enid Blyton that I had as a child! I also recently finished and loved STARFISH by debut author Lisa Fipps. I tend to read a few books in a go.

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

YOU are your best advocate. Try to speak up when you want something a certain way. It doesn’t hurt to ask for something. Lastly, you only fail when you fail to try.

Absolutely!

Thank you so much for joining us, Reem!

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

Add UNSETTLED on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of UNSETTLED!
Contest ends Friday, June 4th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Payal Doshi!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Payal Doshi, the author of

REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR

It all begins on the night Rea turns twelve. After a big fight with her twin brother Rohan on their birthday, Rea’s life in the small village of Darjeeling, India, gets turned on its head. It’s four in the morning and Rohan is nowhere to be found.

It hasn’t even been a day and Amma acts like Rohan’s gone forever. Her grandmother, too, is behaving strangely. Unwilling to give up on her brother, Rea and her friend Leela meet Mishti Daadi, a wrinkly old fortune-teller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling and secret quest. In the shade of night, they portal into an otherworldly realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy. There with the help of Xeranther, an Astranthian barrow boy, and Flula, a pari, Rea battles serpent-lilies and blood-sucking banshees, encounters a butterfly-faced woman and blue lizard-men, and learns that Rohan has been captured. Rea also discovers that she is a princess with magic. Only she has no idea how to use it.

Struggling with the truth her Amma has kept hidden from her, Rea must solve clues that lead to Rohan, find a way to rescue him and save Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking. Can she rescue Rohan, save Astranthia, and live to see it all?

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

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

Hi Casey! Thank you so much for having me! I’m Payal Doshi and I’m from India. I was born and raised in the city of Mumbai where I lived until I was 27 years old before moving to the U.S. to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, NY. Prior to that I had studied business management, worked in advertising, then magazine publishing, and only after all that did I realize I was happiest when I was writing stories! I love writing middle grade fantasy books with South Asian protagonists and South Asian inspired settings.

What was the inspiration behind REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR?

When I sat to write this book, I wondered if Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, and Nancy Drew can have incredible adventures, why can’t a girl from India have them too? As a kid, I loved to read but I never saw myself in books. A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm. I wanted to change that. So, I decided to write a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture that had kids from India who went off on thrilling adventures and became heroes! It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself.

Diverse representation, especially South Asian representation, is a mission close to my heart. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and know that their stories deserve to be celebrated. At the same time, I wanted to write a story that all kids would enjoy regardless of color, race, nationality, and culture. So, there’s a mystery that needs solving along with an exciting quest, a ticking clock, dark family secrets, unforgettable friendships, a fantastical world, and my favorite, magic!

It sounds like an amazing story!

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

I was at the salon getting a manicure! I was new mom at the time. My daughter was a year old, and my manuscript had received rejection after rejection. I was heartbroken, tired, and sleepy, and I told my husband I needed a giant dose of self-care. So, off I went to get my nails done! As the nail technician was working on my hand, my phone buzzed. Having left my husband alone with my daughter, I imagined (insert mom-guilt here!) a catastrophe had taken place. So, I awkwardly reached over, apologized for hitting my manicure-in-process hand and clumsily unlocked my phone. And there it was—an email from the publisher at Mango and Marigold Press saying she loved my book and wanted to set up a call. I gently placed my phone back down and grinned so widely that I’m sure anyone who saw me must have wondered if I was okay! My heart had never beaten that fast before!

What a great moment!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR?

1) My first draft which I wrote nearly ten years ago, all 70,000 words of it, was written with white characters who lived in the English countryside. I hadn’t realized how much the books I read (and loved) as a kid—books with white kids in western countries—had subconsciously trained my mind into thinking that those were the only types of stories people wanted to read, not stories about kids who looked like me.

2) I’m a 80% plotter and 20% panster and I love researching and outlining!

3) I’m not a writer who can successfully do writing sprints or churn out a large chunk of words. I’m a ‘take each day as it comes’ kind of writer and I don’t set word goals. I’m thrilled if I get 500 words or 1500 words in day – it’s not about how many words I can write in a session, it’s about trying my best to write everyday or as often as I can, which sometimes can be only once or twice a week.

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

My first thought is to have them transport into The Chronicles of Narnia or His Dark Materials, but I’m thinking my characters have already had a lot of adventures and near fatal quests so maybe I’d have them vacation in the world of Anne of Green Gables! They’d get to visit Canada, meet incredible kids like Anne, Diana, and Gilbert, and enjoy the peaceful and gorgeous countryside. Ultimately though, I would want them to end up in Darjeeling and Astranthia because I know that’s where they will be the happiest!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

My desire to write for children came instinctively. I believe it’s because I was a young middle schooler when I fell in love with reading. As I writer of fantasy fiction, I love that a child’s mind is free of the constraints and boxes that we, as adults, put ourselves and others into. Kids are ready to suspend belief, be taken on adventures, and are eager for new stories, new worlds, and new perspectives. They have that glorious child-like wonder! And as I mentioned before, I wanted South Asian kids feel seen in books and at the same time I wanted to add to the message that any kid from any part of the world can love and enjoy these stories and relate to the characters. We are unified by the human experience and despite our different backgrounds, we share similar hopes, dreams, and fears.

Any hints about your next book project?

I’m currently writing the sequel to Rea and the Blood of the Nectar which is planned for a Fall 2022 release! I can tell you that there is a new character with many shades of grey, who I hope readers will enjoy reading about!

Oooooh, sounds intriguing!

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

The most surprising part of my publishing journey came after 2 years of querying when I’d reached the point where I had accepted that my book was not going to find any takers. I was utterly heartbroken, but I found the courage to come up with a new story idea and write an outline. Three days after, I received an offer from my publisher. The lesson I learnt was that I was so focused on selling REA that it embodied whether I considered myself a success or a failure. And in the glaring light of failure, I realized my passion was writing stories, so if one book didn’t work out, I would try with another and keep going.

What are you reading right now?

A Wolf for a Spell by Karah Sutton.

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

My favourite piece of kick-butt advice is to never give up on yourself. And to aspiring writers out there it’s to keep writing until they reach that final period. First drafts are notoriously hard to write and are meant to be terrible but it’s much easier to mold a fully written story than to keep revising and perfecting what has been written only to have an incomplete manuscript by the end of it.

Very wise words!

Thank you so much for joining us, Payal!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR!
It hits shelves on June 15th!

Add REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR!
Contest ends Friday, May 21st at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Graci Kim!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Graci Kim, the author of

THE LAST FALLEN STAR

Riley Oh can’t wait to see her sister get initiated into the Gom clan, a powerful lineage of Korean healing witches their family has belonged to for generations. Her sister, Hattie, will earn her Gi bracelet and finally be able to cast spells without adult supervision. Although Riley is desperate to follow in her sister’s footsteps when she herself turns thirteen, she’s a saram–a person without magic. Riley was adopted, and despite having memorized every healing spell she’s ever heard, she often feels like the odd one out in her family and the gifted community.

Then Hattie gets an idea: what if the two of them could cast a spell that would allow Riley to share Hattie’s magic? Their sleuthing reveals a promising incantation in the family’s old spell book, and the sisters decide to perform it at Hattie’s initiation ceremony. If it works, no one will ever treat Riley as an outsider again. It’s a perfect plan!

Until it isn’t. When the sisters attempt to violate the laws of the Godrealm, Hattie’s life ends up hanging in the balance, and to save her Riley has to fulfill an impossible task: find the last fallen star. But what even is the star, and how can she find it?

As Riley embarks on her search, she finds herself meeting fantastic creatures and collaborating with her worst enemies. And when she uncovers secrets that challenge everything she has been taught to believe, Riley must decide what it means to be a witch, what it means to be family, and what it really means to belong.

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

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

Hi Casey! I’m Graci Kim, the author of THE LAST FALLEN STAR. I’m a Korean-Kiwi author based in Auckland, and I write magic-infused books for magic-infused readers.

What was the inspiration behind THE LAST FALLEN STAR?

There were several things that inspired THE LAST FALLEN STAR, one of which was my love for my two younger sisters. The three of us are wildly different but we are best friends. My relationship with them inspired Riley and Hattie’s unbreakable sisterhood in the book. The folktales and myths that my parents and halmeoni (grandma) told us when we were little also inspired the book. In fact, one of the origin myths about the Korean peoples—about a bear and a tiger who wished to become human—became the foundation for THE LAST FALLEN STAR. Lastly, my experience growing up as an Asian diaspora kid in a Western country, and often feeling stuck between my two identities inspired Riley’s journey of self-discovery in the book.

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

I had just gotten my bloods taken (and already feeling a little faint…) and I was literally lying on a clinic bed getting a 12 week scan on my pregnant belly when the message came through. Talk about an emotional moment!!

Oh, wow! Definitely!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE LAST FALLEN STAR?

Three of the realisations I had while working on THE LAST FALLEN STAR:

(1) Wow, work doesn’t feel like work when you’re doing something you love. How did I just sit here for 12 hours straight, just writing? I think this is what I was born to do…

(2) Is this a dream? Someone please pinch me. Argh wait, no! If this is a dream, don’t let anyone wake me up! Let this be for real!

(3) Um, how is Rick Riordan human?

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

I have this unusually vivid image of all the characters in the Rick Riordan Presents series getting together and taking a summer camp trip to the Percy Jackson universe. It would be utter chaos. Can you imagine the drama? The monsters? The quests? Riley and the crew would LOVE it. Yes, if only…

That would be AMAZING!!! Where do we sign the petition to make this happen? Such a good idea! 😀

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I actually fell into writing middle grade, and have counted my lucky stars for it since! The Last Fallen Star started off as a YA book, and Riley was an almost sixteen-year-old girl. Then when my agent took the manuscript out on submission, one editor gave us a Revise & Resubmit request, asking if I’d be willing to age it down to a middle grade. I gave it some thought, and realised it was the best thing I could do for Riley and her story. The rest is history. 🙂

Any hints about your next book project?

There are, of course, the sequels to The Last Fallen Star that are currently in the works. But my very next book project may in fact be in a completely different age category….

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

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

Just how many incredible people it takes to publish a book. You see a book and you see the one name on the cover, usually. But it takes many teams of people working tirelessly behind the scenes to make a book come to life. I am so much more appreciative of this now than I ever was before, and I’m so grateful for my team over at Disney Hyperion for all the incredible support they have given me.

What are you reading right now?

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong. Just started. Eeek, I think I’m going to be a wreck.

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

Never forget that you, too, have a voice. You, too, deserve to be heard. If you have a story to tell, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot share. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Don’t forget to dream big! The future is ours. 🙂

Absolutely! Love that!

Thank you so much for joining us, Graci!

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

Add THE LAST FALLEN STAR on Goodreads!

Connect with Graci on Twitter, Instagram, the Gifted Clans website, or her author site!

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE LAST FALLEN STAR!
Contest ends Friday, May 7th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Kaela Rivera!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Kaela Rivera, the author of

CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS

Living in the remote town of Tierra del Sol is dangerous, especially in the criatura months, when powerful spirits roam the desert and threaten humankind. But Cecelia Rios has always believed there was more to the criaturas, much to her family’s disapproval. After all, only brujas—humans who capture and control criaturas—consort with the spirits, and brujeria is a terrible crime.

When her older sister, Juana, is kidnapped by El Sombrerón, a powerful dark criatura, Cece is determined to bring Juana back. To get into Devil’s Alley, though, she’ll have to become a bruja herself—while hiding her quest from her parents, her town, and the other brujas. Thankfully, the legendary criatura Coyote has a soft spot for humans and agrees to help her on her journey.

With him at her side, Cece sets out to reunite her family—and maybe even change what it means to be a bruja along the way.

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

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

Hi, everyone! Thanks for having me. So, I’m Kaela Rivera, author of CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS, and daughter of Mexican-American and British parents. I’ve been a myth, legend, and overall fantasy nerd since I was a child. I started out on books my Nan in England sent me on Celtic and Norse mythology and eventually hunted down more obscure legends and stories from the Americas that I also adore. Growing up, I hunted the woods by my home with a wooden bow and arrow I’d made myself, hoping to find a fantastic adventure. When I grew up, I decided to write them into existence instead. 

What was the inspiration behind CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS?

CECE was inspired by a couple things intersecting at just the right time in my life, around the end of 2016 and early 2017. I’d recently reconnected with my Mexican side of my family, and my abuelo’s stories of growing up in northern Mexico in the 1920s-1930s really inspired me and helped me feel connected to that part of my culture. At the same time, I’d been mulling over an idea–how would we treat people if we could physically hold their souls in our hands?–and I suddenly realized I could pair the two together in a sister-rescue adventure that could double as a love letter to my abuelo’s stories. Soon enough, the earliest draft of CECE was born. 

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

Hah! Great question–it’s kind of a funny story. I was at my day job, editing marketing copy like I do, and it was about lunch time. I saw my agent’s call pop up on my phone and dashed to the nearest windowed stairwell (with a wonderful view of a lake, I might add) because I knew we were waiting to hear back about how acquisitions went. I held my breath and accepted the call. It was good news–I started gasping as my agent, Serene, told me the acquisitions loved it and wanted to make an offer–but a caveat quickly followed.

See, originally, CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS was written as a YA. And the HarperChildren’s team loved the story, but they thought they could sell it better in the MG fantasy market. So my agent proposed to me their idea. That quickly sent my excited mind sideways into deliberation mode. I’d always wanted to write middle grade books (and had already written a few), but I had thought publishing one would be farther into the future, and I’d never changed a book from one age group to another like that before. My agent gave me a couple days to think about it, and my editor and I had a call soon thereafter to talk about what MG changes would look like. Fortunately, we landed on a great place, and I started to get excited about what the MG version of CECE would look like. 

So once I accepted, HarperChildren’s made the official offer for a future-MG version of the book, and then I let myself get excited as the contract was finalized. My mom and I went out to dinner, I had some special chocolate desserts (I almost never get desserts out at dinner restaurants, so I assure you, this was a moment of great luxury), and I soaked in all the excitement I’d been storing up. It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful process, and I’m still immensely grateful for every part. 

Oh, wow! What a great story! That sounds like it was an exciting time!

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS?

I learned so many weird and fun facts while researching for Cece’s adventure! Here are some of the most interesting ones I can remember off the top of my head: 

   1. In case you were wondering, hawks do, in fact, eat chickens. The reasons I had to research that were mostly revised out of the book, but I will always have this mostly useless information in my head now.

   2. Most places in the world during the 1920s and 1930s did not have automobiles. In fact, it was really only the USA, England, and a few sparse areas in northwestern Europe that did, and it was only the wealthy who could afford them. So if you’re ever reading historical books set outside the USA during this era, you probably won’t see a lot of the things you associate with the era, like early automobiles, early electric lights, etc. 

   3. Mariachi outfits are actually glamorized and modernized versions of charro outfits, which were worn by Mexican horseman in the seventeenth century (and the inspiration for a lot of American cowboy styles, too). They were originally outfits born out of necessity because the Spanish ruling class had strict rules about what lower classes were allowed to wear, but they transformed into a symbol of national pride and identity centuries later, around the early 1900s. Cool, right?

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

My first instinct is to say other books I’ve written because I’d love to see how my main characters all interact together. It would be hilarious! But I realize that’s a little self-indulgent, so I’ll pick something else. It’s hard to narrow down, though! On one hand, I’d love to see how Cece and Coyote got along with Leonora and her sisters from Anna Meriano’s Love, Sugar, Magic series, but then I’d also love to see Cece bond with Eva from Julie Abe’s Eva Evergreen: Semi-Magical Witch because I think the girls would really get each other. I’d even like to see her and her criatura friends interact with characters from a gritty YA because I’d love to see how Cece’s kindness could soften hardened hearts. There are too many fun possibilities!

I guess I’ll just have to satisfy myself with doing a big piece of multi-dimensional fanart depicting Cece hanging out with other witches and brujas. 

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

While CECE wasn’t initially a middle grade book, I’ve always loved writing middle grade stories because there’s greater room in that age group to capture the beautiful place where hope and hardship live together in people’s hearts. I love keeping magic alive and welcomed, and talking about the difficult things kids have to face. As you grow older, and the books get older alongside you, I’ve always felt like we lose a bit of the wonderful, bright hope, as if we think it’s no longer as realistic. But it is. It brilliantly, bravely, still is. Like C.S. Lewis once said, “some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” And he was right. There’s just so much room for magic to breathe alongside rough reality, in middle grade books. It’s perfect for the children of that age who deal with difficulty amid their hopes. And I crave that balance even as an adult.

Beautifully said and very true.

Any hints about your next book project?

Why, yes! So imagine–this is just a hint, right?–another adventure in Cece’s world. But this time, into Devil’s Alley, and this time, the secret entrance will close in just a few days, and this time, the true villain hides in the shadows and pulls all the right strings.

I have another project going on, this one a YA, which will center on blood, flower magic, and an Aztec-inspired fantasy kingdom with a thousand-year secret.

Follow my Instagram or Twitter for more hints and updates!

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

Hmm–I think transforming CECE from a YA to an MG was the thing that surprised me the most. At first, I thought I’d have to do the MG revision as a rehaul before HarperChildren’s would make an offer, since they hadn’t read any of my MG work yet. I didn’t know they could just stipulate that in the contract, and I definitely didn’t know they would trust me to do it. But they did, and I did, and I was grateful and excited for the opportunity!

That definitely counts as a pretty big and excellent surprise!

What are you reading right now?

Right now, I’m reading the second book in Anna Meriano’s Love, Sugar Magic series (Loving it! I can’t get enough of the sisters!), an ARC of The Last Windwitch by Jennifer Adams (Storm horses! A hedgewitch! So cool!), and the latest volume of Space Boy by Stephen McCranie (a Sci-fi interstellar love story thriller graphic novel series I can’t say enough good things about). 

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

Savor good things. That sounds straightforward, but especially in an industry like publishing, we often get distracted by all that needs to be done, stress over our fears and our inadequacies, and get disappointed or exhausted by things outside our control. But there is so much power in gratitude. It’s not always easy, but it’s one of the best ways to take care of yourself–and even to teach yourself to be a better writer. When you take time to savor the good things in your life, or a quiet moment in your present, or all of that and more, you give yourself inspiration fodder. That fodder can be transformed into beautiful writing, like straw into gold, that can then become a good thing someone else savors. So then it grows. 

Isn’t that a lovely thing to think about? 

It is!

Thank you so much for joining us, Kaela!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS!
It’s on shelves now!

Cover illustration by Mirelle Ortega and cover design by Catherine Lee

Add CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of CECE RIOS AND THE DESERT OF SOULS!
Contest ends Friday, April 23rd at 11:59 pm EST

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Jenn Bishop!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!

Today we’re chatting with Jenn Bishop, the author of

WHERE WE USED TO ROAM

When Emma starts sixth grade, things finally begin to change. She may still be in the shadow of her older brother, Austin, the popular high school quarterback, but she’s made artsy new friends who get her way more than her bookish best friend, Becca.

But things are changing for Austin, too. After undergoing surgery for a football injury, Austin has become addicted to opioid painkillers. By the end of the school year, everything blows up with Austin—and Becca. When their parents decide to send Austin to rehab and Emma to stay with family friends in Wyoming for the summer, Emma seizes the chance to get away.

Wyoming turns out to be a perfect fresh start, especially after Emma makes friends with Tyler, a kindred spirit who doesn’t judge her—then again, he doesn’t know what she did to Becca. Still, Emma can’t hide forever…or go back to the way things were with Austin or with Becca. But can she find a way to confront the truth and move forward?

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

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

Thanks so much for having me! I’m a middle grade author based in Cincinnati, Ohio. All four of my novels (The Distance to Home, 14 Hollow RoadThings You Can’t Say, and Where We Used to Roam) are contemporary stories about kids with big hearts in tough situations.

What was the inspiration behind WHERE WE USED TO ROAM?

I knew I wanted to write something set in Wyoming, but it took me a while to figure out what the story was. Let’s just say this book looked very different at draft 1, 8, and the finished copy. It’s also inspired by something that was unfolding around me both in New England, which I’d just left, and Ohio, where I had just moved — the opioid epidemic.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on WHERE WE USED TO ROAM?

A lot of the things I discovered while working on this book were craft-related — as well as lessons about myself. I learned that sometimes setting something aside for a little while is the only way to figure things out. I learned that it’s okay to completely re-write your book after the 9th draft — especially if you have good reasons and a plan. And I learned that some characters can get in the way of what you are trying to do and the only thing you can do is cut them out (and it’s okay because they’re fictional!).

That setting things aside lesson is KEY!

This is your fourth book! For our aspiring authors reading this, what are some tools that you use to help create a different voice with each new book?

This is something I am still actively working on. I think the biggest part is getting to know your character. It can take a while, and it certainly does for me — longer, it seems, with each subsequent book. But if you put in the time to consider the totality of a character–how they fit into their family, their personal history, how their friendships or lack thereof have shaped them, etc. — you will end up with a person. And just like how each person has a unique voice, so will your character.

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

Ooh! You know, I’ve recently read a few MGs that have characters who would make great friends for Emma, the protagonist from Where We Used to Roam: Izzy from Jennifer Blecher’s Stick with Me and Georgia from Caroline Gertler’s Many Points of Me. Izzy and Georgia are both artists and would be real kindred spirits with Emma.

That sounds like an excellent crossover!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

Middle grade books were the books that cemented my status as a reader. I fell in love with reading stories that made me feel big feelings, which is what the middle grade books I read as an upper elementary student did.

Any hints about your next book project?

While nothing’s been officially announced yet, I think it’s safe to say that I will have a fifth book coming out, tentatively in 2023. It’s a return to the sports world for me: a basketball-centered story set in Cincinnati with multiple POVs. I’m deep in the revision cave with it at the moment, just peeking my head out every now and then for fresh air.

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

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

This is a hard answer, but in truth, it’s the attrition along the way. I have met so many writers with more talent than me who have given up or simply not had the same opportunities or luck. There’s a lot of failure in publishing, for everyone: so many more no’s than yeses, even many books into a career. Never mind everyone’s on their own journey — some with more luck than others. What looks like a drought can appear to be fertile ground years later. I’ll be curious to see what the middle grade landscape looks like five, ten, twenty years down the road.

What are you reading right now?

I have been on a nonfiction kick lately — right now reading two different grownup books: Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolkar and Sometimes You Have to Lie by Leslie Brody. The latter is a biography of Harriet the Spy author Louise Fitzhugh and the former chronicles an American family with 12 children, 6 of whom develop schizophrenia. I’ve developed a real interest in psychology-related nonfiction in recent years. Up next is Christina Soontornvat’s All Thirteen.

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

Read! Read in your genre, but read outside of your genre too. Reading enriches us as writers, but it also can help give us some of the raw material we need for our stories. And in times like these, it can be such a comfort to settle into a good book. It doesn’t just feed your mind; it feeds your soul.

Yes, yes, yes! Exactly this. 😀

Thank you so much for joining us, Jenn!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out WHERE WE USED TO ROAM!
It’s on shelves now!

Add WHERE WE USED TO ROAM on Goodreads!

Connect with Jenn on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of WHERE WE USED TO ROAM!
Contest ends Friday, April 9th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Lisa Fipps!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!
Today we’re chatting with Lisa Fipps, the author of
STARFISH

Ever since Ellie wore a whale swimsuit and made a big splash at her fifth birthday party, she’s been bullied about her weight. To cope, she tries to live by the Fat Girl Rules–like “no making waves,” “avoid eating in public,” and “don’t move so fast that your body jiggles.” And she’s found her safe space–her swimming pool–where she feels weightless in a fat-obsessed world. In the water, she can stretch herself out like a starfish and take up all the room she wants. It’s also where she can get away from her pushy mom, who thinks criticizing Ellie’s weight will motivate her to diet. Fortunately, Ellie has allies in her dad, her therapist, and her new neighbor, Catalina, who loves Ellie for who she is. With this support buoying her, Ellie might finally be able to cast aside the Fat Girl Rules and starfish in real life–by unapologetically being her own fabulous self.

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

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

I’m so glad to be joining you! I’m a Hoosier. Haven’t heard that word before? It means someone from Indiana. I graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor’s in journalism. Then I was a reporter, editor, and page designer for companies in Indiana and Texas. Being a journalist allowed me to hone my writing and editing skills. It also gave me an ear for authentic dialogue, plenty of ideas for characters, and the skills to design my own flyers, bookmarks, etc., which helps a lot. I transitioned out of journalism and into marketing several years ago. I’m currently the director of marketing for a public library, in addition to being an author of middle-grade novels.

Oh, wow! Very cool that you’re bringing all of those different experiences to your writing!

What was the inspiration behind STARFISH? And what made you decide to write it as a novel-in-verse?

Starfish was the book I needed when I was a kid. I was fat and bullied relentlessly. I wish someone would have told “Little Lisa” that she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, that she could stand up for herself, that she had a right to be seen and heard. I also wish I would have known how to reach out to get help to deal with all the emotions I felt. Since Starfish wasn’t on library and bookstore shelves when I was little, I wrote it. I write in free verse because that’s how stories come to me. It allows me to tell a story packed full of emotion but with few words.

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 “call” moment is a bit different than most. My agent, Liza Fleissig with Liza Royce Agency, pitched Starfish to Editor Nancy Paulsen. I’d written Starfish as a young adult novel. Nancy asked if the three of us could talk on the phone. During the call, Nancy said she thought I should rewrite Starfish as a middle-grade novel. She said if it were middle-grade that I’d be able to reach the kids who are being bullied while they’re being bullied and be able to give them the tools they needed to deal with it. And maybe, just maybe, I’d also reach the bullies and get some of them to stop. Nancy’s a genius that way. She’s such an expert in children’s literature. I’m blessed beyond measure to work with her. I agreed to rewrite it, and she bought the book.

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on STARFISH?

I realized even the tiniest change can have a huge impact. I tend to write tight, because of my years as a journalist. But through Nancy and the copy editors, I found even more ways to tighten, tighten, tighten. I learned a lot about the book publishing industry’s way of editing. It’s different than journalism. Journalists use the Associated Press style guide. A lot of those rules are all about saving space. For example, journalists use numbers when it comes to 10 and up. Publishing uses the word ten, etc. And I learned that there’s always something to learn. And I like that. I have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about anything and everything.

That’s such a good way to be!

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

Wow! Fun question! I think I’d want Ellie, Viv, and Catalina to be in a novel for adults, to see what their lives are like when they’re in their thirties. When I create characters, they live on in my head, in my life. I’d like to know how they’re doing, what they’re up to, how they’ve made their mark in the world.

As someone who always wants to check in with characters and see how they’re doing, I would love that!

Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?

I’m drawn to writing. Period. But what I like about middle-grade, in particular, is that kids don’t tolerate bad writing. An adult might keep reading a book even if it gets boring in spots or doesn’t ring true because they want to see how it ends or they’ve paid good money for the book. Kids won’t. So, you have to up your game as a writer if you want to write for kids.

Any hints about your next book project?

Stay tuned for an exciting announcement. But what I can say is that I’m always working on books. Note the plural. I have several going at one time.

Oooh, exciting! Can’t wait until you can share the details!

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

Journalism is incredibly competitive. You keep everything you know a secret. You want to get the scoop. Have the edge. But fellow authors are so willing to share tips that help them with agents, editors, writing, marketing, etc. It’s a community. I love that.

What are you reading right now?

I bought a copy of any ALA Youth Media Award nominee or winner that I didn’t already own, so my to-be-read pile is quite lengthy, at the moment. I’m also going to be a panelist for several upcoming events, so I’m reading books by my fellow panelists. I tend to read primarily middle-grade novels, a smidge of YA, and then some books for adults. When it comes to books for adults, I usually read nonfiction. Right now, I’m reading I Never Said I Loved You by Rhik Samadder, A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne, and Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. I choose books based on research I’m doing for middle-grade books, what I’m dealing with as a person, or just because it’s something I don’t know yet. I’m a bit eclectic when it comes to books and music.

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

I print or write down every good thing people say about my writing. I place it in a jar. Then, whenever I start to doubt myself or life is kind of crummy, I go through them. I’m inspired. Encouraged. Refueled.

Love that idea!

Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa!

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

Add STARFISH on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of STARFISH!
Contest ends Friday, March 26th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!

Kicking Back with Kick-butt and Angela Ahn!

Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!
Today we’re chatting with Angela Ahn, the author of
PETER LEE’S NOTES FROM THE FIELD

Eleven year-old Peter Lee has one goal in life: to become a paleontologist. Okay, maybe two: to get his genius kid-sister, L. B., to leave him alone. But his summer falls apart when his real-life dinosaur expedition turns out to be a bust, and he watches his dreams go up in a cloud of asthma-inducing dust.

Even worse, his grandmother, Hammy, is sick, and no one will talk to Peter or L. B. about it. Perhaps his days as a scientist aren’t quite behind him yet. Armed with notebooks and pens, Peter puts his observation and experimental skills to the test to see what he can do for Hammy. If only he can get his sister to be quiet for once—he needs time to sketch out a plan.

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

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

Thanks for inviting me, Casey! My name’s Angela Ahn. My family immigrated from Korea to Canada in the early 70’s. I grew up in Richmond, BC and Vancouver, BC and except for 2 years in Hong Kong, and 2 years in Toronto, Vancouver has always been home.

I went to UBC for many, many years and earned many, many degrees, some of which have proven useful. 

I am married with two kids, and probably couldn’t survive without my coffee machine. 

What was the inspiration behind PETER LEE’S NOTES FROM THE FIELD?

I won’t repeat it here, but in the acknowledgments section at the back of the book, I tell a long, potentially tragic, but ultimately uplifting story about a girl (my daughter), and her stuffed dinosaur which was purchased at the gift shop at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. For one long day, we thought the aforementioned dinosaur was lost, but turns out it actually was just unceremoniously jammed into a drawer. I know it sounds crazy, but that dinosaur was the spark for this story. 

Love when ideas come from the most unexpected places!

Your main character, Peter, has dreams of being a paleontologist. What was your dream job when you were a kid?

I’m not trying to elicit sympathy here, but I honestly do not remember dreaming of being anything. Perhaps I had no imagination, or if I’m getting truly introspective here, I suspect it was because as a child of immigrants, I think our family tended to focus on practical ambitions, like “Get a good job!” It was more a question of what on earth am I decent at, and how can this translate into a job? I always did well in social sciences in school, so guess what, I did a double-major in English and History. What can you do with that degree? High school teacher! I only lasted 5 years. Just because you’re a good student in a subject doesn’t mean you can actually teach it. 

What were three interesting things you discovered while working on PETER LEE’S NOTES FROM THE FIELD?

I learned about asthma. I have an acquaintance who had a child with asthma and she didn’t know it at the time, but when she was talking about her son’s health, I listened intently because I knew I was writing this character who had asthma. I ultimately got a writer friend, Sophie Gonzalez, who has asthma herself, to read an almost completed draft so she could offer comments to add more authenticity to Peter’s experience. 

I had to re-learn a lot about dinosaurs. At one point, I’m not bragging here, but I was kind of an armchair expert. My kids were obsessed so we watched a lot of documentaries on dinosaurs, and had a lot of information books. But as their interests changed, those books started to collect dust. I even gave some away! (I regretted that decision, I must say.) So I had to reacquaint myself for the book. 

Lastly, I learned that writing is definitely not a solo effort. It takes, not a village, but maybe a very large family of people helping you along the way. 

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

I think L.B. would have her mind blown if she could travel between parallel worlds like in The Golden Compass. Peter would probably fit right in with the trio of boys in Mrs. Bixby’s Last Day as they fumble around together to try and do something sweet for a beloved teacher. 

Why are you drawn to writing middle grade?

I guess I’m not the most mature 40-something mom out there. I love the voice of a tween, what can I say? I’m a kid at heart.  

Any hints about your next book project?

Maybe not realistic contemporary? Wait and see!  

Ooooh, exciting! Looking forward to when you can share more!

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

I never realized how hard it would be to actually hear what people think about my books. Reviews are the best and the absolute worst. I’m a Gemini. 

What are you reading right now?

I just finished Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston–amazing. I won’t give away the big twist at the end, but it’s the kind of book that just compelled me to finish it as soon as possible. I am in the middle of a Whale of the Wild  by Rosanne Parry now, and there is this scene that reminded me so much about the real story from, I think 2018, of the orca that kept the body of her dead calf afloat for over 2 weeks that’s just very heartbreaking. 

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

 My first book was published when I was 45 years old. It was the first children’s book I had ever attempted. Don’t think there is a straight-line for your own individual creative journey. 

Love that! And it’s so important to remember.

BONUS QUESTION: What is your favourite dinosaur?

Brachiosaurus! (Must read the acknowledgements section of the book to find out why I’m deeply attached to this kind of dinosaur).  

Thank you for joining us, Angela!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out PETER LEE’S NOTES FROM THE FIELD!
It’s on shelves now!

Add PETER LEE’S NOTES FROM THE FIELD on Goodreads!

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

Click here to enter to win a copy of PETER LEE’S NOTES FROM THE FIELD!
Contest ends Friday, March 12th at 11:59 pm EST

Thanks for reading!