An Interview with Alan Gratz, Author of BAN THIS BOOK

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing Alan Gratz and his latest middle-grade novel, Ban This Book. Gratz is the bestselling author of a number of novels for young readers, including Samurai Shortstop, The Brooklyn Nine, Prisoner B-3087, Code of Honor, Projekt 1065, The League of Seven series, and his latest two novels Refugee, the story of three different refugee families struggling for freedom and safety in three different eras and different parts of the world, and Ban This Book, which he’ll be discussing here. A Knoxville, Tennessee native, Alan is now a full-time writer living in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

Before we start the interview, here’s a little bit about Ban This Book, a timely and important novel I know will be close to the hearts of everyone who reads this blog.

It all started the day Amy Anne Ollinger tried to check out her favorite book in the whole world, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from the school library. That’s when Mrs. Jones, the librarian, told her the bad news: her favorite book was banned! All because a classmate’s mom thought the book wasn’t appropriate for kids to read.

Amy Anne decides to fight back by starting a secret banned book library out of her locker. But soon things get out of hand, and Amy Anne finds herself on the front line of an unexpected battle over book banning, censorship, and who has the right to decide what she and her fellow students can read. In the end, her only recourse might be to try to beat the book banners at their own game. Because after all, once you ban one book, you can ban them all …

First let me say how much I adored this book. Aside from it being a love letter to children’s book aficionados, it deals with such a topical subject these days: the First Amendment. Was there a particular incident that inspired you to write this book?

Thanks! There wasn’t one particular event that prompted this book, no. I’ve never had a book I’ve written  banned or challenged–at least, not that I know of. And I’m not being cute here–the ALA thinks that 85-95% of books challenged or banned each year go unreported. 85-95%! That’s a huge number! In 2016, there were something like 325 reported challenges and bans. That means that THOUSANDS more books just disappear from shelves every year, and no one hears about them because no one makes a stink about them. So it’s entirely possible that one of my books has been banned, and I don’t know it!

We here at The Mixed-Up Files obviously have an affinity for E.L. Konigsburg’s book. Was there a particular reason you chose From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as the book to kickstart Amy Anne’s crusade? Had you ever considered a different book?

I love From the Mixed-Up Files, so that was one of the reasons I chose it. But I also wanted a book about a kid who had a crazy home life and decided to run away. I already knew that’s the kind of life I wanted Amy Anne to lead, so I was looking for a book with a main character she empathizes with. I could have used one of her other favorite books, I suppose: Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Indian Captive, and more. But From the Mixed-Up Files had the running away and is so much fun in other ways, it was perfect. All that remained was confirming that it had been challenged–which it was, in 1994, in Minnesota, for being “anti-family” and encouraging kids to “lie, cheat, and steal”!

I love the boldness of the title as if it’s challenging the real-life Mrs. Spencers of the world who want to ban books. Was that the title from the start or did it change?

Yes, Ban This Book was always my first choice for the title, and there was never any discussion of changing it, thank goodness! I was definitely inspired by Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, a book which, when I worked in a bookstore, we had to keep on a shelf in the back room until someone asked for it because, of course, people took Hoffman’s challenge seriously! We’ll see if anyone dares take my book’s title challenge seriously… 🙂

You began your career as a novelist writing young adult books, but switched over to middle-grade. What do you see as the main difference between the two categories, and why did you make the switch?

Ah, that’s a great question. Yes, the first three books I wrote were YA–Samurai Shortstop, Something Rotten, and Something Wicked. YA was hot at the time (as it still is!) and I was excited to be a part of this renaissance in YA lit. And those books found an audience, for sure. But then I got the idea for The Brooklyn Nine, which was my first proper middle grade novel, and that’s when–BOOM–it hit me like lightning. THIS was what I REALLY wanted to be writing. I LOVE middle school. I know that sounds weird–most people want to forget middle school ever happened. But I loved middle school when I was a kid, and I taught middle school before I was a novelist. I was like, “Why am I writing for high school when my heart is in middle school?” B9 was the book that opened the floodgates for me, and I haven’t gone back! Code of Honor has an 18-year-old protagonist, so TECHNICALLY it’s YA, but even then I wrote it “clean” so it could be shared with middle schoolers, and that’s really where it has found its audience too. Everything since Something Wicked in 2008 has been for middle grade, and I made it my goal to be the King of Middle Grade Books! I’m not quite the king yet–maybe a duke? 🙂 But I’m working on it.

As to the difference between the two, YA, to me, is about a young adult finding his or her place in the larger world. Middle grade is about a kid finding his or her place in the family or school. The smaller world. Sometimes that smaller world spills out into the larger world–see Refugee or Ban This Book. But at its heart, I think middle grade has a smaller scope. I’ve always put it like this: let’s say you write a book about a kid whose parents are getting divorced. If it’s YA, the teenager is thinking, “Did my parents ever love each other? What is love? Is love an illusion? Will I ever find it?” Big questions. If you write that same story with a middle grade protagonist, your kid is asking, “Which parent’s house am I going to keep my toys at? Which school do I go to? Whose house am I going to have my birthday party at?” That to me, in a nutshell, is the difference between YA and MG. And I much prefer to write (and read!) the latter kind of story.

You mention in the acknowledgements that this was a very different kind of book for you to write. After writing in several genres–historical, fantasy, thriller–were there any challenges in switching to contemporary realism, particularly from a girl’s point of view?

I’ve written about girl protagonists before–in The Brooklyn Nine, The League of Seven, and Refugee–but I needed to give a girl the entire book and not share with anyone else! 🙂 This story just always felt like it was a girl’s to tell, for me. Not sure why. Part of it is that my wife was very much like Amy Anne when she was a young girl–escaping the chaos of daily life in books–and that was definitely an inspiration. But were there any challenges? Not really. Contemporary realism is the world I live in, so I was finally able to write what I was seeing and feeling. And as an empathetic person, I try to see and understand the world from many points of view, not just my own, and not just as a writer. So I’m not afraid to write from the point of view of someone who ISN’T a white, middle-class, cisgendered man.

One last question, and I’m sure you get it a lot. You’re extremely prolific–fourteen novels and eight short stories in about eleven years. Where do you get your ideas?

Ha! Well, I get them from all over the place. I’m always listening for ideas on the radio, in podcasts, watching for them in movies and other books, trying to catch them in conversations with other people. Anything and everything is fodder for a story!

And okay, I lied. I have another question: Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?

Sure. I just turned in the first draft of a new book which, if everything goes as it should, will be out in Fall of 2018. It’s called Grenade. It’s about the Battle of Okinawa. I got to visit Japan a few years back, and while I was there I met an old Okinawan man who was a boy on Okinawa during World War II. He told me that the day the Americans invaded, the Japanese Army took all the Okinawan middle school boys out of school, lined them up, and gave each of them a grenade. Then they told the boys to go off into the forest and not come back until they had used their grenade to kill an American soldier. That’s the first chapter of the book! (How’s that for a hook?)

A great hook! Looking forward to it. Thanks so much, Alan, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

For more about Alan and his books, visit his website. And connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Dorian Cirrone
Dorian Cirrone's most recent middle-grade novel is the award-winning,THE FIRST LAST DAY. She has published several books for children and teens and is the Co-Regional Advisor of SCBWI-Florida. Visit her at www.doriancirrone.com

When Your Publisher Closes Their Door

When Your Publisher Closes Their Door you stand there and stare at it.

After the shock wears off, you reach for the handle. Only there’s one problem; it’s locked. Worse? You don’t have the key.

If you’re like me, you might collapse against that door in defeat. You may even cry for a bit.

But then…

But then you realize there’s got to be another way. You look around. There’s three other walls, each with a window. There’s also a ceiling and the floor you’re standing on, of course. You’re not Spiderman so scaling walls isn’t your thing. You’re not Rumpelstiltskin, so stomping your way through the floor isn’t an option (although, after that tantrum you threw, you’re pretty sure you’d be strong enough to do it if you didn’t fracture your bones first). You’re not without tools – you’re equipped with a pencil, a pad of paper and your trusted companion.

No, not your dog.

Your laptop.

Sunlight pours in through the windows and you begin to realize things aren’t as gloomy as you once thought.

You glance out each window.

One has a literary agent.

The other an editor.

The third window has a glare. You don’t know what’s behind it but you’re convinced it’s a monster.

You stand up, brush yourself off and go to the window with the agent. She smiles. You write something on your pad of paper and press it against the window. The agent holds up a note asking you to open the window. You can’t believe it! An open window! You have a nice conversation with this agent and you realize how much you like her. She’d be a great champion for your work. Unfortunately, she decides she’s not the best person to represent this project.

You’re crushed.

But, once she steps away, you see there are other agents. They also tell you to leave the window open. For your next project.

So you glance at the editor and head in her direction. Before you even reach her window, she puts up a note. Even from this distance you see what it says. It’s an offer. She wants to publish your book. You stop in your tracks. An offer!

The editor asks you to open the window. And so you do. She hands you the contract and you start to review it.  You glance back at the closed door behind you and your heart sinks. You’ve been down this path before. Your editor was great. REALLY great. But the expertise of a literary agent to help you with your contracts (amongst other things) would have been worth her weight in gold. You tell the editor how grateful you are and return to the agent. Unfortunately, she sticks with her decision. So you kindly reject the editor’s generous offer (but not without a huge knot in your stomach and sweaty palms because you question if you’re making a mistake). She tells you to keep the window open and so you do.

But for this book, you’re out of options. Sure, you could shelve it and bring it back out later but you have readers and they’re waiting for this final story in the series. And so you sit in the center of the room, too depressed to write. Heck, you’re too depressed to even talk to your friends.

You turn off social media.

You close the blinds.

You can’t deal with it anymore.

You’re shutting down.

In fact, you’re not even sure if you want to write anymore. The rejection is too hard. The obstacles too cumbersome.

And even as you write this, the pain is still real and raw and you start crying all over again.

But then something stirs in you. Maybe it’s hunger. It’s been a while since you’ve eaten anything. But you feel something else. Something that feels like determination. Either way, you get up. Your legs are wobbly but you gain your footing quickly. You decide you want to go to that window with the glare.

It could be something fantastic on the other side.

Or it could be a monster.

You could find success waiting for you.

Or you could get gobbled up.

Either way, you win.

You’ve still got your pen and paper. If it’s a monster, you can simply write your way out of the belly of the beast.

When you finally reach the window you see a familiar face. It’s one of your friends! She knocks on the glass and waves. You open the window. She urges you to join her. You’re intimidated and overwhelmed but you take her hand and climb out. She promises to show you the ropes – it’s a steep learning curve, but you can do it. And so you embrace your new journey of self-publishing. You do it right though. You hire editors, cover designers, formatters, and submit your book for review.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Because you write more books. And those windows are still open. The editors and agents are waiting. And you definitely want to work with them again.

The point is, even though things got rough, you didn’t give up. You explored your options. And you made the choice that was right for you. And only YOU get to decide how to measure your success.

And just so you know you’re not alone, you do some research and realize there are other children’s authors who succeeded in the face of failure:

Kate DiCamillo faced 473 rejections before finally obtaining a publishing contract.

The story of JK Rowling’s rejections is well known but even she continued to face rejection after the success of Harry Potter.

Madeleine L’engle, Rudyard Kipling, Anne Frank, and Beatrix Potter all faced rejection.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was a self-published serial before being acquired by Feiwel and Friends. It went on to win prestigious awards.

The Secret Zoo is another self-published middle-grade novel that was later acquired by a publisher. School Library Journal called it a “…fast paced mix of mystery and fantasy…”

 

Author Daniel Kenney is making a living wage with his self published endeavors in middle-grade books.

For the older crowd in children’s literature there’s even more success stories.

Authors of The Fat Boy Chronicles self-published their book. They met success in schools and quickly went on to sign with a traditional publisher.

Christopher Paolini self published Eragon before it was picked up by Knopf books.

Tiger’s Curse was self-published by Colleen Houck, who is now a NYTimes bestselling author.

Amanda Hocking is another successful self published author who sold over nine million copies of her books before signing with St. Martin’s Press.

And this recent article in PW featuring author Intasar Khanani’s book deal reveals the power of great writing, including that of self-published authors.

For the picture book crowd, there’s been success as well.

There’s Pete the Cat 

The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep

And let’s not forget about How to Talk to Girls .

So when that door closes in your face, remember success comes in many forms and only you can decide which window you want to climb through.

 

Amie Borst is the author of the Scarily Ever Laughter series; Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood, and Snow Fright. She’s a champion of all authors, traditional, indie and everything in between. Because as they sing in High School Musical, We’re All in This Together.  You can find her on her website www.amieborst.com

Amie Borst
Amie Borst is the author of the Scarily Ever Laughter series featuring Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood and Snow Fright. You can find her on her website www.amieborst.com

Interview and Giveaway with Janet Sumner Johnson

I’m so excited that I got the opportunity to talk with Janet Sumner Johnson about her Contemporary Middle Grade novel, THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY – now in paperback!

Please tell us a little bit about The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society.

The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society is about two best friends, Annie and Jason, trying to find a way to save Jason’s house from foreclosure. Because foreclosure means Jason will have to move, and that is just not okay with either of them. Their plans range from the pretty decent (like finding Jason’s dad a new job), to the pretty crazy (like selling an appendix on ebay). But even more, this story is about friendship, and what that really means. 

What inspired you to write this story and/or these characters?

Much of this story was inspired by my own childhood. I had a best friend named Jason who had to move away when we were five. It was horribly tragic! But the foreclosure aspect came from the big housing crash that happened around 2009. I had a friend who faced losing her house, and I can still remember the haunted looks on her kids’ faces. I wondered what it must be like to go through foreclosure as a kid, and that question was the driving force of this story. I wanted to help kids see that even if we can’t control everything in our lives, we are never powerless. THEY are never powerless. 

What do you hope readers will take away from Annie and Jason’s adventure?

Haha! Oops, guess I got ahead of myself with the last question, but in addition to the whole not being powerless thing from above, I hope that readers will think of their own best friends. That they will remember all the good times, and also remember that sometimes, if we are being a true friend, we won’t get what we want. And that’s okay. Because helping a friend feels so much better than getting what we want. 

We know no writer is created in a vacuum. Could you tell the readers about a teacher or a librarian who had an effect on your writing life?

I have known so many great teachers and librarians in my life, but one in particular gave me the encouragement I needed to think that maybe, just maybe I could succeed with writing. English was always my weakest subject. I had to work hard in it, but I always loved my English classes best. My 10th and 12th grade English teacher was Mrs. Johnston. She made me look at literature in a new way, and learn to appreciate even the things I didn’t love (A Tale of Two Cities, I’m looking at you!).

When I got to college, one class required me to interview someone who worked in a field that interested me, and I chose her.  Honestly, I don’t remember much of what I asked her, but I do remember that at one point, she told me how she’d always been so impressed with my writing, and knew I would do well if I decided to go that direction. Such a simple thing, but her words were what I needed to hear. Because of that interview I majored in English, and allowed myself to believe I could write a book. Thank you, Mrs. Johnston!

What makes your book a good pick for use in a classroom? Is there any particular way you’d like to see teachers use it with young readers/teens?

The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society is a great pick for use in the classroom because it’s a quick, humorous read that deals with some serious topics. It is a gateway to discussion of important issues that affect so many students (poverty, friendship, bullying, dealing with stress, keeping secrets). In addition, there is a discussion guide that is geared for use in a classroom. Not only are there some great discussion questions that encourage social skills, self-confidence, and empathy for others, but there are a lot of fun extension activities across all subjects (math, economics, science, etc.). I would love to see classes using these questions and activities to enrich their learning.

What was your favorite book growing up? How did it influence you as a person and/or as a writer?

 I went through phases. Ramona by Beverly Cleary and Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume really spoke to me when I was in 4th grade. The whole Narnia series by C.S. Lewis was my go to in 6th. L.M. Montgomery was my author in Junior High (Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Pat of Silver Bush (my favorite!), and everything else she wrote). Robin McKinley’s Beauty, Outlaws of Sherwood, and more filled what little free reading time I had in High School.

I don’t know that any one book influenced me more than another, but all of these stories taught me that reading was more than just something I enjoyed. These stories helped me cope with my own stresses. They made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Like I was good enough just the way I was . . . even if I got into trouble a lot (Ramona), or if I didn’t like a certain aspect of how I looked (Anne), or if life didn’t go the way I wanted (Robin of the hood, Beauty). I still love escaping into books, and it really means so much to me when I hear from kids who have had a similar experience with my book.

 

Janet Sumner Johnson lives in Oregon with her husband and three kids. She bakes a mean cinnamon twist and eats way more cookies than are good for her, which explains her running habit. Though her full-time occupation as evil tyrant/benevolent dictator (aka mom) takes most of her time, she sneaks in writing at night when her inner funny bone is fully unleashed. You can learn more about her on her website, on Facebook, on Instagram, and Twitter.

 

 

To celebrate the paperback release, I have 4 signed paperbacks of
The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society to give away!
Enter to win a signed copy by commenting below! Winners will be chosen randomly and announced on this post on Tuesday, Oct. 24th.

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Patricia Bailey
Patricia Bailey is the author of the middle-grade historical novel The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan. She blogs here and at her website www.patriciabaileyauthor.com.