Category Archives: For Kids

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.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

“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!

Middle-Grade Novels featuring South Asian Characters

As a writer of South Asian origin, I am always looking out for books that feature South Asian or middle-eastern characters. I interact with many middle-grade readers of South Asian descent in grades 4-8, so these books are of high interest. This post is about celebrating and sharing such books that were released in 2017 and also seeking out ways to find them.

Firstly, what makes a South Asian character? This means a book that features a character whose culture, people or heritage is portrayed from the southern region of the Asian continent. The countries and islands that make up South Asia are Tibet, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Sri Lanka.

Secondly, how many such books are out there? The CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center School of Education, University of Madison-Wisconsin) receives the majority of new U.S. trade books for children and teens each year, and provides information on the number of children’s books by and about people of color.  According to the 2016 statistics from CCBC, out of 3400 books that they received, 239 of them were by and about Asian Pacifics or Asian Pacific Americans. While it is fantastic that the number of diverse books is increasing by the year, the need for representation is still high.

Thirdly, what can we do to increase the visibility of these books? Ideally, all types of diverse books should be read and enjoyed by everyone. Therefore, here are some suggestions that are not limited to middle-grade readers of South Asian descent.

  1. Show up at diverse author events and buy the books.
  2. Read and share your views about these books with your family, friends, and on social media.
  3. Request or order the books for your schools and local libraries.
  4. Donate your time or money to organizations like We Need Diverse Books that work tirelessly to promote diverse literature.
  5. Add these books to the required reading lists so it helps kids recognize and celebrate different cultures.

With that said, here are some compelling 2017 novel recommendations, featuring South Asian characters and what the authors have to say about the stories:

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar : In her interview for NBC, Kelkar talked about the meaning of Ahimsa and the motivation behind writing the novel. She said, “I didn’t think much about activism when I was I child. I used to write letters to companies protesting things sometimes, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned that writing can be used for speaking up and speaking out. Ahimsa was a principle of nonviolence at a time when conflicts were generally solved through war. This was the first time this unique idea helped create a country. You don’t need to own a weapon to do this. It is within you.”

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan : Hena wrote about her inspiration for the book in her interview with Cynsations. She said, “I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was an “every girl” who happened to be an American Muslim. I hoped that readers of all backgrounds would be able to relate to her as much as I did to the characters I had grown up reading and loving—none of who had resembled me in any way. “

 

 

Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari : Mixed-Up Files did an interview with Sheela Chari. Sheela talked about the interracial friendship in the novel. According to Sheela, the main character “Myla was more like her as a young person – a highly observant girl who felt largely unnoticed by the world.” She said, “Because she was so much like me, it made sense to make her Indian-American, with a family and lifestyle similar to my own. “

 

 

Karma Khullar’s Mustache by Kristi Wientge : Kristi Wientge talked about why it was important for her to highlight her culture in the story at Yayomg. Kristy said, “I love highlighting things we think are SO different, but, in fact, are so, so similar to our “normal.” I’ve traveled and lived in China and England and now in Singapore and without fail, people from each place have a picture of what America is and what Americans are like and they seem to be blown away that I don’t fit neatly into any of those ideas and that I’m very much like they are.”

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani: Nidhi Chanani talked about her story, her art, and activism in an interview with the Horn Book. According to Nidhi, “There are many communities that are underrepresented within books and art. It creates a cycle of prejudice and isolation. Art and books that showcase underrepresented identities can shift our perceptions of difference, of ourselves, and inspire people to make more inclusive art.”

 

Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste: This story features a South Asian Character as the best friend to the main character. Tracey Baptiste talked to Sheri Larsen of Mixed-Up Files about how we can make a difference in the lives of middle schoolers. Tracy said that “Books that accurately represent different cultures and different stories are crucial now so that there isn’t an ingrained sense of “otherness” about people who don’t look the same, or who live differently.”

 

Step Up To The Plate, Maria Singh by Uma Krishnaswami: In her interview with Lee and Low, Uma Krishnaswami said that readers of this story “will see that community and caring cross boundaries of language and race. That friendship is a better choice than hatred and suspicion. I hope they will see that playing ball can be competitive but it can also be a way to come together and heal divisions.”

 

 

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi: Karuna talked to Hena Khan about what it means to have this book out, in terms of inclusion. In her interview for the School Library Journal, Karuna said, “It’s incredible to look back now and realize that I am actually an author, just like the other women of color authors. I always looked up to and dreamed about emulating with my words. I definitely wouldn’t have imagined it being with a book that represents the never-heard voice of Bangladeshi Americans.”

 

Which books on the list are you excited about reading? Please do share in the comments below.