Category Archives: Author Interviews

“Pumpkin Spice Secrets” — Interview with Author Hillary Homzie

Happy October!! If you love pumpkin, I have got an amazing thing for you, a pumpkin spice BOOK!  I am so excited to have Author Hillary Homzie, one of our very own MUF-ers to interview today.

 

 

Her new book is called

Pumpkin Spice Secrets: A Swirl Novel 

It is the first middle grade novel in the new Swirl series by Sky Pony Press

Here are some great reviews for this fantastic new book:

“No one understands the tangled emotions of middle-school crushes better than Hillary Homzie. I have a serious crush on Pumpkin Spice Secrets!” — Claudia Mills, author of Zero Tolerance and Write This Down

“Sweet, smart, and entertaining, Pumpkin Spice Secrets is sure to appeal to tween readers!” — Barbara Dee, author of Star-Crossed and Halfway Normal

“Homzie laces key ingredients in her latest middle school story: empathy topped with a froth of fun!” — Candice Ransom, author of Rebel McKenzie

“[F]rothy and sweet enough that tween readers will drink it right up.” — School Library Journal

Hillary, thank you for joining us today. Our readers are so excited to learn more about you, your writing process, and this book in particular:

Why do you like writing for middle grade readers?

For various reasons, I remember vividly what it is like to be a tween. One might argue it’s because I’m emotionally stuck, and that might very well be true. I write to my younger self, reinventing my own history. Socially, once I hit about nine, my social skills left the premises. It’s taken me a long time to learn the basics. And maybe because I had to work so hard at how to interact with peers, I remember that period so well.

What was your favorite part about writing this book?

In Pumpkin Spice Secrets, Seventh grader Maddie Campbell is not the alpha in the friendship. Her best friend, Jana Patel, is much more confident and athletic and activated. Maddie is the reasonable friend. The one who keeps her feelings in check and others tell their problems to. Not the one that other kids whirl around. And, honestly, in many ways that’s been me socially. While I was usually the leader creatively in my friendships (I might be the one to make up the story that we would act out), in other ways, I was that kid just waiting for the invitation versus creating the event to invite others to. Yet others often confessed stuff to me because I appeared so grounded and thoughtful. I don’t think it’s atypical for authors to be the observers versus the doers. But, usually, nobody wants to read about the observers. But in this book, I did tackle a character who usually plays second fiddle socially, the listener, and that just felt very true to my own experience. Learning to not just observe and be proactive socially is something I’m still working on!

 

Can you share an excerpt from the book that gives us a flavor of your character’s voice? How did you find your character’s voice?

 

With my frappé in my hand, I race to our table to intercept the women before they sit down.

And then somehow I don’t see the boy walking in front of me to stand at the back of the line.

And then somehow I slam my plastic cup right up against him.

And then somehow the lid flips off my iced pumpkin spice frappé and it all spills onto his shirt. I mean all of it. The whipped cream, the caramel swirls, the sprinkles and the icy rest of it.

The boy jerks back and lets out a groan of surprise. His voice is surprisingly deep.

“Uh oh! Spill!” cries somebody. Chairs scrape against the floor. I can feel eyes on me.

“Sorry. Sorry. Sorry,” I say, at first not looking up.

And then I do. And I wish that I hadn’t because the boy looking at me is cute. Really cute. Like if he were a yearbook picture, I would stare at it all day. His eyes are sky blue. His teeth are whipped-cream white. He’s got a swirl of curly reddish-brown hair on his forehead that’s shaggy but still not messy, almost windblown or something. He’s got these adorable dimples and his eyes look extra alive somehow. Freckles dust his nose.

I think I’m saying something like, “I’ll get. Napkin. Now.” But I’m not really sure.

“It’s fine, seriously,” says the boy. A staff person comes over and hands him a rag, and says she’ll be back with a mop.

“I actually need to cool off,” says the boy, waving his hand in front of his face like a fan. “Just got back from practice. It was really hot.”

He’s just too cute. I worry that he might be a mirage or a figment of my imagination. That I might have inhaled too much sugar. But of course I really haven’t had any of my frappé yet, since it’s dripping off this boy.

But I do know that I’m scrambling for the napkins. There’s a stack of brown ones on a service counter to the left. They’re in my fist and I almost embarrass myself further by starting to wipe the pumpkin-colored swirly sludge off his shirt, but I stop myself in time.

I try not to show any sign of distress, even though I feel so stupid right now. Breathe, I tell myself. Breathe. Among my friends I’m the calm one. The reasonable one. The one you can talk to and who won’t blab.

 

In order to find Maddie’s voice I just dove into my own inner insecurity. The one who overthinks and idiotically assumes everyone is looking at her.

 

Do you do research for your books? If so, can you tell something about your research process?

Yes, I always do some research. In Pumpkin Spice Secrets, Maddie, who hates public speaking (in this way, we’re different as I rather enjoy it) must participate in a debate in her social studies class. I had to research debates, and specifically what the requirements of a seventh grade social studies team project might look like. For that, I jumped online and read lots of teacher blogs. I also watched YouTube videos of actual middle schoolers debating. This book had a very tight deadline, so I didn’t have time to actually attend some debates in person, but YouTube was my friend!

How long was it from the first glimmer of a story idea to your book launch day?

 

Okay, believe it or not—8 months

Do you have any interesting stories to share about how this book came about or things you encountered while writing it?

Well, I think I’ll elaborate on the quick turnaround time. The folks at Sky Pony approached me to write the first book in their new Swirl Line for tween girls in February of 2017.  I was excited to be able to launch a brand new imprint and eagerly said yes! By early March, I wrote the first five chapters. Luckily, I had been thinking abut this character, someone who was public speaking phobic, for quite some time, so I had an idea of how to write her. By April 13, I was done with the first draft. By the end of April, I was done with second draft and by May 11, I was returning the copyedit, and then, on October 17, my book was officially launched. So, yes, Pumpkin Spice Secret had a fast pass to publication! That’s a good problem, honestly, although not without a little bit of pressure.

Which of your four middle grade books is your favorite? Why?

That’s a really tough question! In addition to Pumpkin Spice Secrets, I’ve written Things Are Gonna Get Ugly, The Hot List, and Queen of Likes. I also have a chapter book series, Alien Clones From Outer Space. And I can’t choose a favorite among them. My grandmother had five children and she used to say she couldn’t pick her most beloved child. She said it would be like picking out a favorite finger. However, that being said, there’s nothing more exciting than introducing your new baby to the world, and that baby would definitely be Pumpkin Spice Secrets!

Can you give us a hint about the next book you are working on?

I’m working on a character-driven chapter book series that will debut in September of 2018. I’m super excited about it because the main character is exuberant, brave and troublemaking. She’s pretty much the opposite of me as a little kid, and it was fun to write about so different from msyelf. Although it’s contemporary realistic fiction, I think in some ways it’s wish fulfillment.

I wish I could have been less afraid, even if it meant making more mistakes. As a helicopter parents (who’s trying to reform), I think we all need to embrace mistakes, and I’d recommend that parents read the parenting book, Blessings of a Skinned Knee. I’m just tired of beating myself for being flawed—so much better to see each mess-up as a learning experience. It’s the make lemonade theory of life! I’m trying to get used to drinking lemonade on a regular basis.

 

Jen, thanks so much for interviewing me. It’s definitely not a lemonade day. It’s a sweet and happy occasion to be interviewed during the launch of a new book. It’s definitely a pumpkin spice day!

An Interview with James Ponti (+ Giveaway)

I’m so excited to welcome author James Ponti to the blog. I had the good fortune to sit next to him at a luncheon once, and by the time I finished the meal, he had not only encouraged me with my next project, but also graciously contributed some ideas about possible themes. So if you ever find yourself in the same room with him, grab that nearby seat! In the meantime, read all about his background, his books, and his writing process below.

James began his career as a writer for television and film before turning his talents toward writing books for kids. He is the author of many young adult and middle-grade novels, including the Dead City trilogy and his new FRAMED! series, which began with Framed!, an Edgar nominee for Best Juvenile Novel, a Parents’ Choice Award Winner, and a Florida Book Award winner. The book is also on the Sunshine State Young Readers Award list in two categories: Grades 3-5 and 6-8. He recently published Vanished!, the second book in the series.

First, congratulations on the success of the series. Framed! and Vanished! are complete page-turners, which are funny and suspenseful at the same time. How did you come up with the characters of Florian Bates and his friend Margaret?

Thank you and thank you so much for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!

When we think of mysteries, the first elements that come to mind are plots, crimes, clues, suspects, etc… That’s all good, but when we think about the mysteries we love, we almost always think about the characters, so I knew from the beginning that the most important element of the books would be Florian and Margaret.

I wanted two kids working together and I wanted the basis of the books to be their friendship. It was important that they be realistic with relatable middle school problems and while I knew they were going to be exceptionally clever, I wanted that cleverness to be fair to the reader. I hate it in a mystery when a detective just happens to know some arcane piece of trivia that solves the case or when coincidence and happenstance are the linchpins to the solution.

I wanted Florian and Margaret to solve the cases based only what was on the written page so that the reader could play along. To do that, I came up with TOAST, the Theory of All Small Things. It’s the method of observation and deduction that they use and it’s a skill that any kid could develop.

TOAST led me to Florian. I asked myself what type of kid would come up with this and it dawned on me that it could be a survival technique developed by someone who moves all the time and is constantly trying to read changing social landscapes. Florian’s parents work in museums and he’s grown up in Boston, London, Paris, and Rome. Each time, he has to solve the mystery of being in a new place, avoiding the bullies, and looking for safe harbor in a social setting. Now he’s moved to Washington and must do it all again, but luckily this time the first one he meets is his neighbor Margaret.

 I wanted them to have a yin and yang quality in that he’s more European while she’s very American. He’s socially awkward and she’s confident and athletic. But the most important part of the dynamic is that she’s the first kid who’s ever realized that he’s amazing. She sees greatness in him that he doesn’t and she brings it out.

Speaking of TOAST (Theory of All Small Things). Tell us about how you developed that concept–and the great acronym.

I developed TOAST during endless airport layovers. To pass time, I got in the habit of trying to see what I could figure out about the other people waiting at the gate with me. It’s really amazing how much we broadcast about ourselves without saying a word. I would come up with backstories based on everything from clothes, to luggage, to hairstyles. I actually got kind of good at it, and when I decided I wanted to a middle grade mystery series I knew where I wanted to begin.

I thought the technique needed a name that readers could hold onto so I decided to come up with an acronym. I wish I had a great story like I was eating breakfast and looked at a piece of toast, but the truth is, I came up with it in about thirty seconds as a lucky fluke. I said to myself, “TOAST, the Theory of All Small Things.” I liked it because it felt like an acronym that a kid would devise.

A funny side note has been translating it into other languages because the acronym only works in English. I asked that they be food related like the one that’s used in the French translation which is GRATIN, which stands for the le Guide de Recherche et Analyse de Tout Indice Negligeable. (I always knew I was a cheesy writer.)

I get the idea from reading about you and talking to you in person that you never have a shortage of stories to write about. Where do you get your ideas?

My mother was a great storyteller and from an early age I learned that the key to finding ideas was in small details. (No wonder I came up with the Theory of All Small Things.) I’ve always been attracted to the little unnoticed development that turns into something more important or the small action that is a microcosm of something much larger. As a result, I’m always looking for them.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to be empathetic and look at situations from other perspectives and to not take yourself too seriously. I have stumbled and bumbled my way through fifty-one years of life and more often than not I’ve been the punch line. If I couldn’t laugh at myself, I don’t know that I’d have many stories to tell.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process of how you get from the kernel of an idea to a complete story? Do you think about theme at all in the beginning or is it something that develops as you write?

I don’t consciously think about theme, but I think a theme of outsiders trying to find their place in the world is at the heart of everything I write. (I also think it’s at the heart of virtually all MG fiction because that’s what our readers are trying to figure out.)

If I think of a potential story, I usually start asking questions to try to tease it out. Hopefully these questions lead to ever more interesting questions and when I feel like I have something workable, I’ll run it by my wife Denise to see if she thinks there’s something to it. If it makes it past the Denise test, I’ll try to write three to five chapters. If at that point I still think it’s interesting the real fun begins.

How did you get into writing for kids, and how has writing for television influenced you as a novelist?

I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think I would ever write novels because I was always a slow reader as a kid. My first love was movies, so when it was time for college I majored in screenwriting at the University of Southern California.

I ended up writing kids television for Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and PBS.  I loved it and I loved writing for that age so when I finally decided to try my hand at novel writing it seemed only natural to stay with that same audience.

My television career has dramatically impacted my writing style in many ways, most notably pace, structure, and dialogue. My first two series have been told in first person and I think that’s an extension of scripting dialogue.

You were born in Italy and so was Florian. How did that influence his character?

I wanted Florian to have an outsider’s viewpoint because I think that really helps give a detective a fresh perspective. At first I imagined that he was British and when I told my brother Terry he said that detectives are always British, and said I should make him Italian like me. The second he said that, I knew that’s what it should be. So I gave him my background only I flipped it. I had an American mother and Italian father and was born in Italy but grew up in the United States, so I gave Florian the opposites – an Italian mother and American father, but he was born in the states and grew up in Europe, most recently Italy.

The mystery in Framed! involves the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and in Vanished! it’s the Kennedy Center. Could you give us a tease about the location or premise of Book Three without it being a spoiler?

I love famous locations as settings and from the beginning knew that I wanted to tap into the cultural institutions of Washington, D.C. as backdrops for these mysteries. I like them for a number of reasons including the fact that they give you colorful settings populated by a broad range of characters. I also love that readers can look up the places and if they’re in Washington they can visit them. I think that makes the story feel that much more real.

I wanted the third book to be a bit of a love letter to all the librarians who’ve been so supportive of my books so I decided to make the mystery library based. All of the suspects are librarians who are named after actual librarians I know. This led me to picking the primary setting as the Library of Congress and additional settings at the Folger Shakespeare Library and DC Public Library. I went and visited them all for research just as I had for the National Gallery and the Kennedy Center.

One last question that I know the answer to but would be remiss in not asking, given the name of this blog: What was your favorite book when you were growing up and how did it influence you?

I was an incredibly reluctant reader as a kid, but one book managed to slip through the cracks and that was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I loved it and it imprinted on me in a significant way. I have always loved museums and the thought of exploring one on my own at night was the greatest fantasy I could think of. I think that the influence can be found in the fact that Florian’s parents work in museums and that realistic big city settings are part of both book series I’ve written.

When I decided to take a crack at writing kids books, the first one I picked up to read was The View from Saturday, also by E.L. Konigsburg. And when I wrote Dead City, I wanted to send her a copy with a note saying that I couldn’t have written it if it weren’t for her. To my amazement, throughout my life we’d been living in the same Florida beach community where I grew up.

Thanks so much, James, for taking the time to give us such great answers.

Readers can learn more about James at his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Teachers and librarians interested in curriculum guides, as well as an interactive mystery game, which students can play in their school library, click here:

Read all about the books below and enter a raffle to win an autographed paperback of Framed! by leaving a note in the comments section before midnight on Oct. 1. I’ll pick a winner at random and let you all know who the lucky reader is on Tues., Oct. 3.

So you’re only halfway through your homework and the Director of the FBI keeps texting you for help …What do you do? Save your grade? Or save the country? If you’re Florian Bates, you figure out a way to do both.

Florian is twelve years old and has just moved to Washington. He’s learning his way around using TOAST, which stands for the Theory of All Small Things. It’s a technique he invented to solve life’s little mysteries such as: where to sit on the on the first day of school, or which Chinese restaurant has the best eggrolls. But when he teaches it to his new friend Margaret, they uncover a mystery that isn’t little. In fact, it’s HUGE, and it involves the National Gallery, the FBI, and a notorious crime syndicate known as EEL.

Can Florian decipher the clues and finish his homework in time to help the FBI solve the case?

 

Middle school is hard. Solving cases for the FBI is even harder. Doing both at the same time—well that’s just crazy. But that doesn’t stop Florian Bates!

After helping the FBI solve an art theft at the National Gallery and uncovering a DC spy ring, Florian’s finding life at Alice Deal Middle School a little boring. But that’s all about to change! His FBI handler, Marcus, has a job for him! Is it a bank robbery? Counterfeit ring? International espionage? Actually it’s middle school pranks…

Sounds pretty ordinary except that the pranks are happening at a prestigious private school attended by the President’s daughter who may—or may not—be involved. So Florian and Margaret are going undercover to see if they can use their TOAST skills to figure out what’s going on before the media gets hold of the story. However, once the crime-solving pair arrive at the school, they discover that there’s a lot more than a few pranks going on and the conspiracy of silence reaches all the way to the top. Then a student vanishes in the middle of a concert at the Kennedy Center and things take a sinister turn!

Can Florian and Margaret save the day? Or are they about to get toasted?

Author Jodi Kendall – Interview & Book Giveaway

I recently had the opportunity to chat with author Jodi Kendall about her debut middle-grade novel, The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City, which releases on October 3rd. Read on for a glimpse into the inspiration for Jodi’s story . . . and for a chance to win a signed copy!

The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the CityT. P.: Thanks, Jodi, for stopping by MUF to chat about The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City. Our interview is quite fitting for two reasons. First, I live in the city. And second, my daughter is convinced she wants a pet pig. I let her scoop the cat’s litter box instead.

Anyway, since I haven’t seen many pigs in the city, I’ve got to know—where did you get the inspiration for your city-dwelling porcine pal?

JODI: I grew up in a big city in the Midwest. When I was thirteen years old, my college-aged brother showed up one holiday season with a surprise piglet in his arms! He had saved a runt from certain death at a nearby farm. Her name was Ellie, and she was a typical farm breed that grew big and fast. Ellie lived inside our house for six months. As you might imagine, we had quite our share of pig adventures! While the main plot of The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City is loosely inspired by this childhood experience, the book is a work of fiction.

T. P.: Wow! That brings to mind two different questions. First of all, exactly how big did Ellie the pig get during her 6 months in your house?

JODI: I had to call my dad to answer this one! He thinks Ellie was about 180 pounds when she finally moved out. Here are a few pictures.

Author Jodi Kendall with Ellie

This is thirteen-year-old me bathing her, and another one when she had grown really big… From the snow out front, I’m guessing it was maybe a month or two before she left our family in April. (I remember because it was my Mom’s 50th birthday and, while us kids all loved Ellie, Mom said that her leaving our house was the best present she ever got!) We had this small room attached to our kitchen – we called it the dinette – where Ellie stayed when we were at school. But when we were home, we let her out, and she roamed our house and explored around the yard, too.

Ellie the Pig

T. P.: As for the second question your real-life-pig-in-the-city experience brings to mind, what’s one event in your novel that was inspired by something that actually happened with Ellie?

JODI: There’s a scene when Hamlet the pig bullies her way into the kitchen, figures out how to open the fridge with her snout, makes a huge mess on the floor, and the main character’s little sister, Amelia, is standing on the kitchen countertop swatting at the hefty pig’s rump with a fly swatter trying to get her to back away. That’s a true story! Pigs are highly intelligent animals and motivated by food. Our pet pig, Ellie, also bit into aluminum cans with her teeth to make it spray soda everywhere (she liked the taste). Ellie learned how to open lower cabinet doors, and she knew there was food inside cans. While she couldn’t open soup cans with her teeth, she did peel off the labels. At one point we had 2-3 dozen cans of unknown content because she tore off all the labeling!

T. P.: It looks like 180 pounds worth of pet pig provided plenty of inspiration! Now let’s go to the flipside of real-life inspiration. What’s a favorite pig-focused scene or event in your story that sprang completely from your imagination?

JODI: There’s a scene in which Hamlet the pig escapes the family’s tiny city townhouse backyard by jumping over the fence into the neighbor’s adjacent property – and this is a very ornery neighbor who is NOT a fan of chaos, noise, or the Shilling family. It was a fun action scene to write (that leads to some consequences and character growth, too).

[SMOOTH SEGUE ALERT #1!]

T. P.: Speaking of characters. . . . As the author, I’m sure you love Josie (the story’s protagonist) and Hamlet the pig; otherwise, you’d never have told their story! Aside from them, who’s your favorite character in the story? What makes that character stand out to you?

JODI: Hands-down, Josie’s college-aged brother – the oldest of the five Shilling kids – Tom. He’s hilarious, confident, and always breaks the tension in the family with a good one-liner. His character was a blast to write!

[SMOOTH SEGUE ALERT #2!]

T. P.: Speaking of writing. . . . What’s next for you? Do you have another project in the works?

JODI: I just finished up the sequel to The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City, which is very exciting. It will publish in Fall 2018. We’ve been secretive about the content, title, and cover art, so interested readers will just have to wait and hear the news. 🙂 But I’m currently working on a new book proposal, a third book that’s unrelated to my first two middle grade novels. And you can bet that there’s an animal adventure involved!

T. P.: A hush-hush sequel??? I can’t believe you’re going to keep us in suspense like this, Jodi! Regardless, I sure do appreciate you taking the time to come visit us here at the Mixed-Up Files. Now, as we anxiously await details about your next novel, I suppose we could offer our readers a chance to win a copy of your current one. . . .

*  *  *  *  *

Want a chance to win a SIGNED copy of The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City by Jodi Kendall plus some bonus swag? Entry is easy. Just comment below by answering one simple question:

If YOU could live in a city with any farm animal, what animal would it be?

You can also earn BONUS entries by sharing this post on Facebook, Tweeting about the giveaway, visiting Jodi’s website, signing up for Jodi’s author e-newsletter, and/or following her on Instagram. Entries will be accepted through the day of the novel’s official release—Tuesday, October 3rd.

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Children's author Jodi KendallTo learn more about Jodi Kendall and her writing, visit www.jodikendall.com. You can even download free bonus resources for The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City, including an in-depth Classroom Curriculum Guide.