Author Archives: Julie Artz

Interview with Debut Author Leah Henderson

Today, I’m thrilled to talk to author Leah Henderson about her debut (which released today!), One Shadow on the Wall, a story inspired by a young boy she saw sitting on a beach wall while traveling in Senegal.

JA: Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files and congratulations on your debut! I love success stories, so tell us yours. What did your journey to publication look like?

LH: My greatest success with this book isn’t just getting it published, but finally getting out of its way and letting it tell its story. A story which in every way found me—not the other way around.

After I saw that boy sitting on the wall for the briefest of seconds and jotted down what I thought his day might be like, I was shocked when my professor thought my scribblings were the beginning of a novel. I was so worried about telling this story about a boy and a place I did not know well that I was finding every excuse I could not to work on it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a story that was important to tell, but I did not want to mess up. I just knew it wasn’t my story to tell and told my professor exactly that. But what I was forgetting, and what my dad later reminded me of was that I was standing in the way of kids whose life experience was similar to that of Mor’s would be losing a possible opportunity to see themselves in a book. Growing up, I remember feeling invisible on the page and I did not want that for them, but I also remembered how hurtful harmful representation was and did not want to be the cause of any more. We have had more than enough already. So true success for me and this project came when I just let go and I realized this wasn’t about me and what I was afraid of, it was about trying to tell these kids story in the best way that I could. I put learning about them and their experiences first.

As far as book publication goes, so many people stepped in to keep me on this path. After my first professor encouraged me to start this novel, my next professor encouraged me to show him “more pages of Mor,” then when graduation day came and I thought Mor could take a bit of a rest (for a long, long time) someone else stepped onto my path and asked, “what’s going to happen to Mor?” And with her endless encouragement I finished the novel and sent it out. Although every query was met with ‘no’, one of the agents encouraged me to keep writing. Many of the other replies had mentioned their uncertainty about where a book like this might be placed in the market, but this agent focused on a hope that I continue writing. And even though I have always loved Mor and the cast of characters that fill his world, I did decide to put them away and started a new project. Then about nine months later I was at a conference with the agent who had been so encouraging and they asked to see the project again. This time their answer was different. They wanted to represent One Shadow on the Wall. Shortly after that we sent it out to a group of editors (including one who had requested it), and within the blink of an eye, Mor had found a home. Leading up to that day was a long, meandering road, but I needed to take that journey for myself and for this story.

Book jacket for One Shadow on the Wall

JA: How has living abroad (and traveling widely) changed your life?

LH: Seeing the world informs so much of who I am and how I see things. I have met some of the most fabulous and gracious people on my travels, people that have left a lasting impression of what it means to live each day with heart and thanks.

JA: What other unique settings might show up in your work because of your travels?

LH: My family lived in the Middle East for a bit and I saw and experienced so many wondrous moment that I hope to one day sprinkle in a story or two. There is also a funny story from my time in China that I would love to one day figure out, but we shall see. I really never know where my next story will come from till a character or a scene is filling my head, demanding my attention.

JA: Where are you headed next?

LH: Vietnam is high on my list, but Senegal and Mali are always calling out to my heart and head to come back to a place that truly feels like home—West Africa.

JA: What made you want to be a writer?

LH: I have always enjoyed getting lost in stories. When I was growing up and we would visit historic places and learn about the people who passed through them, I was always curious about a person’s life before and after their grand adventures. I wanted to know those stories. And sometimes I was able to find them out, but often there wasn’t much more information, so I used to wonder and create my own stories for their lives. I always wanted to know what glimpse of a possibility they saw for themselves from the beginning. Were they always brave? Did they always care? Or did something happen that profoundly changed the course of their lives? These questions often lead to even more questions, and soon I was creating my own characters and writing my own tales.

JA: Did you have a teacher, librarian, or family member who particularly encouraged you to pursue your dream?

LH: My parents have always cheered me on in anything that I have set out to do. But in terms of writing, it was something that I kept coming back to again and again. I’d always enjoyed it and one day I just said: Why not? We should always pursue the things that bring us joy. So I did. No matter the time of the day I was jotting down stories and often felt incomplete if a day went by and I hadn’t scribbled something down, even if it was only a few paragraphs.

After that, there was really no turning back. My parents have always been big on telling my brothers and me to explore any possibility, so I decided to go study the craft of writing and get an MFA. And that is really when my love of writing became so much more.

JA: What’s up next for you, Leah? Any more short stories that might turn into your next book?

LH: As far as other short stories turning into something more, a picture book idea of mine quickly morphed into my next novel. Like Mor in One Shadow on the Wall, the main character in this book had a lot more he wanted to say than a picture book could hold. It is very different from this project though it still centers around family and seeing your possibilities. Vague I know, but it’s about a boy, his love for his grandfather, and a pair of magical shoes.

JA: That sounds intriguing! I can’t wait. Thanks for joining us on The Mixed-Up Files and best of luck, Leah!!

Leah has always loved getting lost in stories. When she is not scribbling down her characters’ adventures, she is off on her own, exploring new spaces and places around the world. One Shadow on the Wall (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum) is her debut novel. Leah received her MFA in Writing from Spalding University and currently calls Washington D.C. home. You can find her on Twitter @LeahsMark or through her website at leahhendersonbooks.com.

Interview & Giveaway – Pixie Piper author Annabelle Fisher

Book jacket for Pixie Piper and the Matter of the BatterI’m so excited to chat with Mixed-up Files’ own Annabelle Fisher and celebrate the release of her newest middle grade, Pixie Piper and the Matter of the Batter. This is the sequel to her 2016 release, The Secret Destiny of Pixie Piper. Read all the way to the end for a chance to win a copy of this fun, Mother Goose-inspired two-book set.

JA: How long did it take you to write Book Two?

AF: I spent over two years writing and revising The Secret Destiny of Pixie Piper before it ever went to my editor, Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow. But I’d only written a couple of paragraphs of description for Pixie Piper and the Matter of the Batter. However, Virginia gave me a contract for two books and the second book was scheduled to be published one year after the first! That meant I had to work on all the different stages of getting the first book ready—revising, responding to copyediting, proofreading, checking chapter illustrations, etc.—while writing and revising the second book. Sometimes I felt like Taz, the whirling, maniacal Looney Tunes character. But I turned in the sequel on May 16th, 2016 and it releases today. Phew!

JA: How was it different than writing the first book?

AF: When I finish a book I always have trouble letting my protagonist go, so I was excited to be able to follow Pixie into her next adventure! But as a writer I don’t outline; I like to see where the story takes me. Except that in a sequel, you have many of the same characters and you’ve already started them on a journey. The trick was to stay open to the possibilities of plot while keeping the promises of Pixie’s magical mission.

JA: Did any feedback you received on the first book impact your writing in the sequel?

AF: Yes! The kids I spoke to in classes and libraries loved the funny parts of Pixie Piper best. So I worked hard to make sure the sequel had plenty of humor too.

In Pixie Piper and the Matter of the Batter, I gave Pixie’s Goose cousins and Aunts humorous traits. For example, the head Aunt is ancient and wears a Mother Goose hat the size of a traffic cone. She never takes it off. She’s snarky, but she loves her goose, La Blanca, who greets Pixie by biting her backside. There are also humorous baking accidents—one of which produces flying biscuits. And as in the first book, lots of humorous rhymes. I won’t give away anymore specifics, but I do use some ‘can’t-miss humor tools’ such as hyperbole, metaphors and similes, and villains that are a mix of scary and absurdly silly.

JA: Was it harder to write the sequel?

AF: Well, I thought it would be easier!

The arc over the two books was always clear to me: How would Pixie Piper change from a girl resisting her Mother Goose heritage (so that she can be ‘normal’) to one who yearns to join her magical Goose family and take up their mission? But of course an arc isn’t a plot. The arc is the overarching structure and the story’s goal. The plot is the motor that keeps it running. For plot, you need to know what is at stake for your protagonist.

The first book takes place on the estate where Pixie lives. (She’s the caretaker’s daughter). Once she is enticed by a Goose Lady Aunt to become a Goose Girl apprentice, she must prove herself ‘braver than brave’ and ‘truer than true’. Pixie helps hatch a magical gosling that she must protect from Raveneece Greed, an old enemy of the Goose Ladies. She must also protect her rhyming power, which Raveneece is trying to steal. So the first book is about proving herself worthy to become a part of Mother Goose’s “legacy.”

The second book takes place at Chuckling Goose Farm, where the Goose Ladies and their apprentices use their rhyming powers to bake magical birthday cakes that make wishes come true. Once again, I needed to figure out what was at stake. After a rocky start, I went back to the idea of family and how the generations work together to preserve Mother Goose’s legacy. They are passionate about the rule that their magical cakes be distributed randomly, so that all people have a chance to get their wish. The ancient Goose Lady Aunt who heads the family is a direct descendant of Mother Goose and she seems to hate Pixie right from the start. The bond they finally form is hard won. But after the two begin to love each other, their old enemy returns. Once again, Pixie must be braver than brave to save her great-great-great grandmother and the legacy of Mother Goose.

Thanks for joining us, Annabelle. Readers, please comment below for a chance to win a set of Pixie Piper books!

Using Humor to Lighten Heavy Topics

via GIPHY

E.B. White once famously said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” And yet, analyzing how other authors have used humor is one of the best ways to learn how to do it in your own work. When asked to think of middle-grade authors who write humor well, folks like Dav Pilkey, Tom Angleberger, Brandon Sanderson, and Jeff Kinney come to mind. Their books make readers of all ages laugh out loud.

But what I want to talk about today is using humor to lighten up heavy topics in middle-grade. Humor arises when authors set readers up with certain expectations and then subvert them in an unexpected way. There are many ways to do this, but here are some of the most common:

Humorous Language:
Puns, plays on words, and even just words that sound funny (just try saying collywobbles, blubber, or discombobulated without laughing) are a great way to interject humor into a story that is otherwise serious. Including a character who often says the wrong word (saying prism instead of prison), who regularly gets idioms wrong (another one bites the rust), or who often makes punny jokes is a great way to inject a little humor. Metaphors and similes are great humor-generators, especially when they’re unexpected. So is freshening up an old cliché. A great example of this is when Trudy Trueit uses “scare the fingernail polish off of me” to describe a teacher in My Top Secret Dares & Don’ts. “Scare the pants off” would have been a cliché, but she makes it into the perfect MG-appropriate phrase with humorous results.

Misunderstandings:
When two characters misunderstand each other, comedy can ensue. In Rosanne Parry’s The Turn of the Tide, the cultural misunderstandings between two cousins, one raised in the US and one raised in Japan, add a dose of levity to a story that deals with the aftermath of a devastating tsunami.

Book jacket for Kate Messner's The Seventh WishHumor as a Motif:
Although Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish nearly broke my heart, the family plays a somewhat absurd word game throughout the story that adds some much-needed levity and sweetness.

Using Physicality for Laughs:
This is the Larry Curly and Moe style of humor that involves trips, spills, fights, and other humorous incidents involving movement and the human body. John David Anderson uses this effectively in Ms. Bixby’s Last Day to add a little humor to a real tear-jerker of a story.

Book Jacket for I Am FartacusToilet Humor:
Never underestimate the power of a good fart joke. Just ask Mark Maciejewski, whose debut, I Am Fartacus, has as many fart jokes as the name implies.

The Magical or Unexpected
Whether it’s the magical wish-granting talking fish in The Seventh Wish or a talking monument in Tricia Springstubb’s Every Single Second, the magical or unexpected is a great way to add humor.

The Absurd
Using absurd characters or situations is a great way to inject some unexpected humor into your story. Dobby from Harry Potter is probably one of my favorite examples of this (and one of my favorite heroes in the series) because he’s always doing something ridiculous and ridiculously funny. But so is the bakery owner, who is extremely devoted to the quality of his very highly priced cheesecake, in Ms. Bixby’s Last Day.

Voice
An unexpected or unusual voice can add humor to a story too. Part of the reason the combination of Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly in Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale works so well is because they are such unusual characters who are different from each other. The cementing of their friendship and their somewhat absurd adventure to rescue a library book, a caged bird, and a dog, is a story full of laugh-out-loud moments even though all three girls are dealing with heavy family situations. Gary Schmidt’s Okay For Now is another example of two contrasting characters, sarcastic/angry Doug and his friend Lil Spicer, have voices that add humor to a story colored by abuse and bullying.

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