Author Archives: Michele Weber Hurwitz

Taking a kindness cue from kids

The election is finally over. Whether or not the candidate you supported came out victorious, I sincerely hope that we, as a nation, can move forward. Not only move forward, but heal.  Somehow become less divisive and more unified. And realize that our differences may not be as great as they seem.

This campaign was not only like no other in history, it also took a dramatic toll on many Americans’ mental health. In October, the American Psychological Association found in a survey that 52 percent of American adults found the election to be a “very” or “somewhat significant” source of stress. Adding to the stress, the survey found, was social media. Arguments, stories, video, comments, and images on social media that ranged from factual to hostile to inflammatory heightened people’s concerns and frustrations. A common theme emerged around the country — therapists reported that their patients felt more worried and less safe.

As a middle grade author, I couldn’t help thinking throughout the campaign: what about our kids? What are they hearing, seeing, and taking in? How is it affecting them? What are we showing them and teaching them, with our words and our behavior? What will they remember? And how will they act when they become adults…and voters?

I visit many schools and I honestly can’t think of one that didn’t have some type of kindness effort in place. Jars in classrooms to write a “put up” or “shout out” about a classmate. A wall of kids’ names who were observed doing random acts of kindness. A mural where kids wrote their wishes for a better world. Kindness Week. “It’s Cool to Be Kind.” The Great RAK Challenge. Kind words in chalk on a playground sidewalk or adorning posters in hallways. The message is clear in schools: Be kind, act kind, do kind things. This is the KIND of person you should be.

marian-hs-omaha-ne I even recently read about a girl who designed an app for use in a school cafeteria so everyone could find a seat at lunch and no one would have to sit alone.

Amazing, right?

When I observe these efforts at schools and see how they impact kids, I’m always blown away by the positive and hopeful messages. And I can’t help thinking that many adults need to take a cue from kids, and schools, for that matter.

michigan-girl-scouts-7-ypsilanti-eventSeems to me like there’s a really confusing dichotomy. Kids are taught to be kind and helpful and never to bully or tease. Then the exact opposite behavior is displayed by some (not all) people during the campaign — insults swapped back and forth, raging arguments on social media, fights during rallies. It got ugly. And sad. How could kids possibly make sense of this? They couldn’t. No one could.

That’s why I hope we can move forward from this moment and be better. Be kinder to each other. Listen more, talk less. Certainly argue less. Next time you’re in a school, read some of those kindness walls and posters. If our kids grow up with these messages ingrained in their heads, we’ll have nowhere to go but up.

And on a personal note, because I live in Chicago, I’ll add my tearful joy to the chorus of my city on the Cubs World Series win. They brought a ray of optimism to a year when many of us couldn’t find a lot to be joyful about. The grittiness and “never give up” attitude was a balm to heal our nation’s soul. Go Cubs!

gty-world-series-game7-end-25-jrl-161102_16x9_992Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days (Penguin Random House) and Calli Be Gold (Penguin Random House). She has a new middle grade novel coming fall 2017 from Aladdin Books. Connect with her online at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

 

 

 

The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat

Author Christina Soontornvat says she spent her childhood behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in Weatherford, Texas with her nose stuck in a book, never dreaming that one day she’d become an author. She studied engineering, then planned to be a science museum educator, but while expecting her first child, she found she had lots of stories to tell. And today, Christina’s first middle grade novel, The Changelings, debuts! It’s the story of Izzy and her sister Hen, who vanishes in the forest. Izzy discovers that Hen has been stolen away to the land of Faerie and it’s up to Izzy to bring her home.

Q: Congratulations, Christina! Where did you get the idea for The Changelings? What inspired you to write this story?

A: I have always been intrigued by the Changeling myth that tells how fairies steal human babies and swap them out with a shape-shifter to fool the parents. That myth prompted so many questions for me: What do the fairies do with the human babies they steal? Why would a Changeling agree to leave Faerie and go live with boring old humans? My book imagines some of the answers. I started writing it as a story for my two nieces. The first time I told them the premise — that the little sister is kidnapped by the Pied Piper and her older sister has to go rescue her — my younger niece got scared and started crying! But my older niece was hooked. She asked me to keep going and write the whole thing down. So I did. I am so glad she asked!

ChangelingsCoverSmallQ: Do you have a favorite character? What do you love about him or her?

A: Oh, man, this is very hard for me because I feel like Izzy and the Changelings are real kids, and I love them all so much. But out of everyone, the Changeling girl, Dree, is extra near and dear to my heart. She looks different than all the others — her skin is translucent, so you can see straight through her. Dree is very self-conscious about this and longs to look “normal,” and she deals with her insecurities by being super sarcastic and catty to everyone. When she and Izzy first meet they are at each others’ throats. But by the end, they become so close. They risk their lives for each other. For me, those fierce friendships are a defining feature of the middle grade years. To this day, my dearest friends are the ones from my childhood.

Q: Is there a scene from the book that makes you tear up or laugh?

A: I have always loved the scene where the main character, Izzy, meets Lug (a Changeling) for the first time. Lug is so sweet and bighearted. He immediately considers Izzy to be a friend, but she is more than a little freaked out by him and by being in this strange new world. That dissonance made for a fun time writing the dialogue in the scene!

Q: Did you always want to be an author? Which books shaped and influenced you as a young reader, and today?

A: When I was growing up, I never dreamed that I would be an author. I always loved to read and tell stories, but for most of my young adulthood I was on track to be a mechanical engineer! I would get ideas for stories, but I would never write them down because I thought you had to be born with a certain talent to be a writer. When my first daughter was born, I realized just how fast time goes, and I decided that if I was ever going to do anything with writing I needed to get the courage and start.

When I was young, I loved reading fantasy. I gobbled up Roald Dahl, Tolkien, Susan Cooper, and the Narnia books, and also read tons of folktales and Greek myths. A fair amount of Calvin and Hobbes, too. I still tend to gravitate toward fantasy written for any age. The His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, the Seraphina books by Rachel Hartman, and The Magicians series by Lev Grossman are some of my favorites.

Soontornvat_24Sep15_Cathlin McCullough PhotographyQ: Tell us about your writing routine. When do you like to write, and is there anything special you do to settle in, such as play music or drink tea?

A: Having a routine is so important for me now, but when I started out I just wrote whenever I could get a scrap of time between caring for a newborn and working a full time job! My brain works best in the morning, so I usually try to write first thing in the day and save all my other work for after lunch.

My writing day usually goes like this: 1. Drop the kids off at school. 2. Play my book playlist really loud on my drive back home. 3. Pour a fresh cup of coffee and get to work! 4. Lunchtime hits and I’m totally wiped. Unless I’m on a deadline and then I pour more coffee and force myself to keep going!

Q: Describe your creative process.

A: I don’t usually start writing a book until I know the ending. I have to write my character toward that end, but I usually don’t know exactly how to get them there. That discovery of everything that happens in the middle is something I really love about drafting. My kids help me when I’m working on something new. I usually tell them a version of the book out loud while we’re driving. Speaking the story and hearing their reactions help me a) get excited about the project and b) pinpoint where the pacing needs work.

Q: You live in Austin, Texas. Tell us about the vibrant writing community there and how it’s helped you as a writer.

A: Our SCBWI chapter is comprised of the best humans on earth. Everyone — from newbies to NYT bestselling authors — is very active in the meetings and events, and so supportive of each other. I’ve turned to the more experienced writers for wisdom and advice countless times. If I didn’t have them to lean on I would be lost in this crazy, confusing world called publishing!

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I just turned in the sequel to The Changelings. Writing a book on deadline was really different and really, really hard. I’m giving myself about a week to rest my overtaxed brain cells and then I’m going to start my next project. It’s the story of a boy who escapes the jail he was born in, and must take shelter in a temple to hide from the watchful eyes of the warden’s daughter. It’s set in a city modeled after Bangkok, Thailand, so I am really excited about it.

Q: And now some fun questions! Where would we find you on a Sunday afternoon? What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? And, do you have any pets?

A: Sundays I’m with the family, and because it’s usually sweltering in Austin we will probably be swimming. We have a few secret swimming holes that we love and I can’t tell you about. Sorry.

Green tea ice cream is my favorite. If you put adzuki beans and whipped cream on top you will be my best friend forever.

Tico is my only pet. He is a jaguar trapped in a tabby cat’s body.

 

Thank you Christina, for visiting with us today at the Mixed-Up Files! Please check out Christina’s website here for more info on her and The Changelings.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, Calli Be Gold (both Wendy Lamb Books) and the upcoming Makers Vs. Fakers (fall 2017 Aladdin Books). Find her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

 

The end of August (sigh)

And here it is. The last, sweet day of August. In many places, kids have been back in school for a couple of weeks, but there’s something about this day that signifies the definite end of summer. Labor Day approaches, and soon after that, the first hint of coolness in the air. The first leaf to tumble from a tree, the getting dark earlier. The sigh of another season going by.

Back in June, my hopes were high and my bucket list was long. Things to do, places to go, foods to eat, house repairs to tackle, and of course, my plan to write under a shady tree, or at the beach, or any number of places I can’t write during a cold Midwest winter when I’m stuck inside.

I started out well enough, fleshing out an idea for a new story that had been simmering in my head for a while. Even though I have two middle grade novels coming in 2017 and 2018, there’s always the nagging tap on the shoulder for a writer: you must start something new. Get to it! Time’s a wastin’!

But I should know by now that summer’s not my best time to write. Summer, with her long lazy hours of daylight, is just too beguiling. trees & clouds

The very breath of the fleeting season grabs my senses and takes over. Shouts of kids jumping on a backyard trampoline, the trickle of watermelon juice down my chin, the sun on my face, the glorious smell of flowers mixed with burgers sizzling on the grill. My concentration fades like a pink sunset. My focus flits about like a dancing butterfly. I’ve forgotten how to put together a sentence that makes sense or let alone, is creative. The heat has undoubtedly melted my brain. Somewhere around the end of July, I give in, pushing my story notes to the corner of my desk. I’ll get back to it later, I think. But there’s an art fair to browse, or an outdoor concert in the park, and I don’t.

Weirdly though, with the turn of the calendar tomorrow to September 1, something happens. The change to the new month that’s so identified with fall, and suddenly, my brain seems to wake up from its summer snooze. And as the leaves on the tree outside my writing space begin to turn, my half-formed ideas usually start to come together too. Maybe this is a habit from all those years of going back to school? Who knows. Even though summer and all its sweetness is over, there’s nothing like the feeling of getting my butt back in the chair and doing what I love. Creating a world that didn’t exist before I wrote it.

writingHappy end of August and beginning of September. Apples. Football. Flannels. Time for a new bucket list.

 

 

 

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold (both Wendy Lamb Books) and the upcoming Makers Vs. Fakers (fall 2017, Aladdin Books). Find her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.