Category Archives: Authors

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Today we are pleased to host Ami Polonsky on the Mixed-Up Files. She’s the debut author of Gracefully Grayson, releasing on November 4.

From Indie Bound: Grayson Sender has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body. The weight of this secret is crushing, but sharing it would mean facing ridicule, scorn, rejection, or worse. Despite the risks, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Will new strength from an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher’s wisdom be enough to help Grayson step into the spotlight she was born to inhabit?

Q: Welcome, Ami, and congrats on your debut middle grade novel! How would you describe Gracefully Grayson for those who haven’t yet heard of it?

A: Hi, Michele! Thank you so much for having me here on the Mixed-Up Files! Gracefully Grayson is a coming of age story about a transgender girl. Grayson was born into a boy’s body and the book chronicles her journey out of hiding and into plain sight. From a universal standpoint, it’s a story about having the bravery to be who you are, regardless of what others might think.

gracefully graysonQ: Tell us what inspired you to write this story.

A: My son and daughter were young when the idea for Gracefully Grayson came to me. It was the summer of 2011 and, until that point, I’d spent several years as a stay-at-home mom. I could often be found sitting (or lying) on the floor next to my mug of coffee, watching my kids play. We’ve always had a variety of toys in our house — from cars and trucks to dolls and balls — and I never noticed either my son or daughter gravitating toward stereotypically “male” or “female” toys. They both played with everything. I began to wonder just how much of a child’s gender identity was prescribed by the media and adults’ preconceived notions about how to raise a boy or girl. The idea that a child’s blossoming sense of self could be influenced by (potentially misguided) outside forces really bothered me. One of my goals as a parent has always been to raise children who see the world with an open mind. I couldn’t bear the thought of a young child whose true self was being squelched as their world tried to mold them into someone they weren’t, and Grayson’s character was born from that emotion.

Q: Is there a scene in the book that is your favorite?

A: I love when Grayson stumbles upon an envelope containing hints to her true identity. I’ve always been entranced by the idea that all the answers to somebody’s questions about their past could be tied up in a neat package that’s just waiting to be found.

Q: Can you share a favorite quote from the book?

A: “Well, I think to be brave, you have to be scared at the same time. To be brave means there’s something important you have to do and you’re scared, but you do it anyway.”

Q: Wow! So what are some books and authors that have inspired you?

A: The first book I ever loved and read over and over again was Autumn Street by Lois Lowry. I remember reading and re-reading certain passages because I was so impressed by the beauty of the language. Much of the book was, content-wise, over my head at the time, but I think that reading it taught me how beautiful language can be. As a teacher, I loved discussing Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech with my students. I’ll never forget when one of my sixth graders burst into tears when he realized that Sal’s mom had died. Walk Two Moons is a powerful model of an excellent book because the reader experiences the emotions around Sal’s revelations at the same time that Sal does. Creating this parallel experience between characters and readers is something that I strive to do in my own writing.

ami polonskyQ: Gracefully Grayson is your first novel. How was it to get “the call?”

A: Surreal, amazing, baffling…I still don’t think I’ve processed the fact that this is actually happening. I got “the call” on a beautiful October day. I was home with my daughter because she had a day off from preschool. We were in the living room, where she was building a pirate ship out of couch cushions, and my cell phone rang. I went to the kitchen to answer, and saw that it was my agent calling. She’d told me upfront that she always emails with bad news and calls with good news, but as the phone rang and rang, I still couldn’t make sense of why she would be calling me. My daughter was yelling for me to get back on the pirate ship (“the sharks are coming!”) and I was staring at my ringing phone. Finally, I picked up. The phone connection was kind of crackly, but I was able to make out something about “Hyperion” and “incredibly excited,” and the rest is history!

Q: What a great story! Are you working on a second book?

A: I am! It’s another middle grade novel, and it’s about very different characters and a very different situation. I’m really excited about it, but it’s still a baby, so I can’t say much about it just yet!

Q: Where do you like to write? Tell us about your writing routine.

A: When I wrote Gracefully Grayson, I had very little time to myself. About three mornings a week, I’d write at the library while both of my kids were in school. Now, my routine is different. My ideas for the book I’m currently working on come to me when I’m exercising. The combination of movement and listening to music allows me to visualize the next chapter and feel the emotions that need to be conveyed. I take notes as I exercise, and then, the next morning, I write that portion of the book. What could be better — exercise and writing ideas, all in one fell swoop! (And it’s nice to have some serious motivation to climb onto the elliptical every day!)

Q: You’ve been a teacher and literacy coach. Did those experiences help you write a novel for middle grade readers?

A: I never would have become a writer if I weren’t first a middle school Language Arts teacher. From 2001-2006, I taught reading and writing to fifth and sixth graders at Onahan Elementary School in Chicago, and I taught my reading lessons through novels. I had discussion groups going on in each of my four classes, so on any given day, I was discussing up to sixteen middle grade novels with my students. Needless to say, I became very familiar with lots of great books. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the plot structure, pacing, and thematic constitution of the middle grade novel were being burned into my mind. When I eventually sat down to write, I was able to call upon this knowledge and understanding.

Q: Now for the fun stuff! Where would we find you on a Sunday afternoon? What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? Do you have any pets? What’s your best childhood memory?

A: Sunday afternoon…that would be my daughter’s soccer practice. I’m a fan of just about any flavor of ice cream, but given the choice, I will always pick a combination of peanut butter and chocolate. I have a big, deaf, arthritic sixteen-year old mutt named Winnie. She was my first baby and she’s Superdog — I think she might live forever.

And my best childhood memory… One winter when I was about ten, I went skiing with my family.  My parents sent me to ski lessons and I was mad and nervous because I was a shy, timid kid. I was also a very cautious skier. I met a girl named Christy in my ski class, and she was really brave and daring on the slopes. Something about the situation allowed me to crack out of my shell. I remember barreling down the slopes with Christy, trying to “catch air” off of moguls. It was crazy — I was being who I wanted to be, but who I typically wasn’t able to be. I think it’s an important memory because it shows that if the conditions are right, even a timid child can step out of her comfort zone and do something bold.

Thanks, Ami, for visiting today! We’re giving away one copy of Gracefully Grayson. Please enter on the Rafflecopter link below. One random winner will be chosen. Find Ami on Twitter @amipolonsky and visit her site at amipolonsky.com.

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). Visit her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

 

The Industrial Revolution for Kids: Interview and Giveaway

Welcome Cheryl Mullenbach, a former middle and high school history teacher and state education department consultant, to the Mixed-Up Files!

Industrial Revolution for Kids The (2)

Cheryl is here to talk about her new book, The Industrial Revolution for Kids, which  introduces young readers to the Industrial Revolution in a “revolutionary” way—through the usual people, places, and inventions of the time: the incredibly wealthy Rockefellers and Carnegies, dirty and dangerous factories, new forms of transportation and communication. In addition, readers experience the era through the eyes of everyday workers, kids, sports figures, and social activists whose names never appeared in history books.

MUF: This is your second nonfiction book for young readers. Given your teaching experience, American history is a logical choice of subject mattter. But what made you decide to focus on the Industrial Revolution?

CM: I like to tackle traditional topics in history by exploring them through new, fresh perspectives. The Industrial Revolution is usually a popular topic for middle school and high school history courses. The focus for studying the Industrial Revolution in America is usually on the “greats” – Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt. The era had such a major impact on the way we live today. I wanted to scratch below the surface and feature some of the ordinary and overlooked individuals (including kids) who made the Industrial Revolution possible. That’s why readers of The Industrial Revolution for Kids will learn about the contributions of Andrew Carnegie to the steel industry at the same time meeting an 11-year-old boy who was thrown into a room with rats when he was caught breaking windows.

MUF: The Industrial Revolution is a big topic. How did you narrow it down to information that would be most relevant and interesting to kids?

CM: It was challenging to present an overview of 100 years of American history in only 40,000 words! The role of immigrants could hardly be overlooked in any book about the Industrial Revolution. Labor unions. Child labor. Urbanization. And while those at first blush may not be appealing to kids, the stories of real people who were affected by immigration, unions, child labor and urbanization reel in young readers—the five children of Thomas Healy who lost his life in a gunpowder factory explosion in New York; 12-year-old Charles Neudinger whose body was pierced by needles when a machine in a textile factory accidentally trapped him; a group of school boys in Massachusetts who vandalized their principal’s house when they were banned from associating with the local factory girls.

MUF: Wow, those are some incredible stories. Thank you for giving them a voice. The inclusion of twenty-one hands on activities and crafts really extends the learning opportunities provided by the book. Was it hard to come up with ideas? Can you give us a short description of your favorite example?

CM_head1CM: Well, I think anyone who has taught middle school kids becomes quite skilled at designing resources that capture the attention of those little darlings! One of my favorite activities in the book is “Listen to Talking Walls.” It incorporates local history and language arts as well as research skills. Kids are asked to focus on a section of buildings in their community. They analyze the exteriors and interiors to learn about architecture and history. My hope is that kids will look at their surroundings and realize that there’s history all around them.

MUF: Who is the target audience for your book?

I hope middle school history and language arts teachers, public and school librarians, and home school educators will use it as a resource for their students. I think parents will find it a helpful tool to pique a child’s interest in the past. Children who are learning English as a second language will find stories and activities that they can relate to. As educators look for resources to infuse informational text into their curricula, they seek out text in content areas that will motivate students. I think stories of real people, places, and events from the past can intrigue young readers. The format of the “For Kids” series by Chicago Review Press benefits struggling readers. Text is “chunked up” or pulled out in the sidebars woven throughout the chapters. Reluctant readers are pulled in by the archival photos. Many of the photos capture images of young children—getting dimes from John D. Rockefeller, stuffing sausages in a meatpacking plant, selling newspapers on city street corners, and playing on tenement roofs. A college instructor told me she plans to use The Industrial Revolution for Kids with her undergraduates to give an overview of the Industrial Revolution!

MUF: That’s great! According to your website, you have another book forthcoming in 2015. Can you tell us a little bit about that title?

CM: It’s another in the “For Kids” series. The Great Depression for Kids: Hardships and Hope in 1930’s America tells the stories of everyday Americans struggling to live, work, and play during this troubled time. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Readers meet packhorse librarians; Bossy Gillis, the Massachusetts mayor who encouraged kids to skip school to attend the circus; Scotty, a film star’s dog that had his own pink satin sofa; and 7-year-old Betty Jane Kolar, the “world’s youngest magician.”

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Cheryl Mullenbach, and offering a copy of The Industrial Revolution for Kids to one lucky reader. To enter the draw, please follow the rafflecopter link. Winner announced September 23rd. Good luck!

Yolanda Ridge is the author of Trouble in the Trees (Orca Book Publishers, 2012) and Road Block (Orca Book Publishers, 2011).

A Ninny Contemplates Courage

Girl Preparing to Pool Dive

Last week at graduation ceremonies for our daughter, who received her physician assistant degree, one of the speakers gave a piece of advice that made it hard for me to listen to what anyone else said.

“Keep your courage in an accessible place,” she told these future healers.  Immediately I had visions:  a capacious side pocket made for sliding in a hand and pulling out a fistful of pluck;  a small pouch concealing a shining dauntless stone;  a backpack bulging with fortitude.  I could use one of those things, I thought.

So often we talk about finding courage, as if it’s something that wanders off at the first opportunity. I was struck by the idea of keeping it with us, carrying it around, knowing just where to find it at all times.

The young people graduating that day are already far braver than a ninny like me will ever be. Their life’s work will be taking on the sickness and pain of others, of doing everything they can to ease and relieve suffering. They’d already shown their mettle,  learning about the endless complexities of the human body, and if you asked any one of them, she’d say she’d only begun.  A lifetime of learning lies ahead. The room brimmed with excitement and yes, a tinge of fear over what they’d taken on. The speaker’s advice was going to come in handy.

first_steps

I found myself  thinking how the youngest children have no  concept of courage. They know go and see and touch, and the drive to do all those things propels them forward on those first juddering steps into the unknown. Toddlers never know where they’re going till they get there–and there often  lasts only a few moments before it’s on to the next discovery. Yet it takes bravery to leave the safety of a parent’s arms–just watch how often a little guy looks around to make sure Mom or Dad is still nearby.

As kids get older, the need for courage becomes conscious. Some risks are physical, like learning to ride a two-wheeler,  step onto a diving board, or pet that very large dog. Some are social–nerving up to make a new friend, audition for a part in the play, or  go to a very first sleep-over.

The situations that call for moral courage are the ones that the writer (and reader) in me finds most moving and powerful. From early on, even before they can talk, children have a strong sense of right and wrong, of justice and fairness. When my kids played make-believe, the stories they made up were always about good vs. evil, about the kind-hearted and true winning out over the greedy and dishonest. Real life, they discovered, was a good deal more complicated. And the older they got, the truer that became.

In the middle grade novel I’m working on now, my main character hates making choices. She’s slipped through life, getting away with things, not taking responsibility if she can help it–she’s so much like me at age twelve. In my story, she will, at last, face a decision she can’t escape.  She’ll have to find her courage, something she’s not used to keeping in a pocket or other accessible place. She’ll have to hunt and dig and probably ask for some help.

One reason I’m loving writing this book–why I always love writing for middle graders –is how central and powerful questions of right and wrong are to these readers. To be worthy of my audience, I have to think hard and deep, not just about how things should be, but how they are, and what we each, with our one wild, precious life, can do.  Writing for middle graders forces a ninny like me to be brave, and for that I am very grateful.

*****

Tricia is the author of What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren Lost and Found. Her  new middle grade novel, Moonpenny Island, will publish in February.