Category Archives: For Kids

Interview and Giveaway with Jen Swann Downey

swordinthestacks

It’s our pleasure here at the Mixed Up Files to interview the fabulously funny Jen Swann Downey, author of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS series. The second installment, SWORD IN THE STACKS, has just released from Sourcebooks Jaberwocky. After stumbling upon the secret society of time-traveling ninja librarians, Dorrie has finally joined Petrarch’s Library as an apprentice! One day, she’ll actually go on missions to rescue people whose words have gotten them into trouble. For now she’s taking some interesting classes:
• First and Last Aid: When Nobody Else is Coming
• Spears, Axes, and Cats: Throwing Objects with Precision and Flair
• Codes, Invisible Inks, and Smoke Signals: Keeping Secrets 101

But on a training mission to 1912 England, Dorrie finds herself dangerously close to a member of the Stronghold – the Library’s biggest enemy. This is her opportunity! Dorrie can spy on the enemy, find the missing key…and become a real Lybrarian!

But if she makes a mistake, Dorrie could lead their enemy right to the very place she’s trying to save…and everyone she cares about.

It’s been a couple of years since the Ninja Librarians first began their adventures. What was the genesis of the idea for this series? I think the seed for the series was planted when I saw the phrase “Petrarch’s Library” scrawled on a notebook I found in our never-very-organized, and always-very-clutterful house. Everyone in the family denied being the scrawler, but the phrase ignited my imagination, especially after I looked it up and found it associated with a collection of books that the 14th century humanist and poet, Petrarch, had carried around with him when he traveled on the back of a donkey. That made me laugh, because the phrase had suggested some sort of grand magnificent library. But then I thought, well, even a small collection of books IS a sort of imaginary grand magnificent place because each of the books is a doorway into a different world of ideas, and knowledge, and story.

Suddenly I was imagining “Petrarch’s Library” as a solid, if sprawling building, made out of library chambers from different times and places knitted together by magic into one incredible super-library.

Since I was a kid, I always had the feeling that librarians were masquerading at doing something mundane while actually doing something incredible, mysterious and magical. It seemed reasonable that the work of librarians who staffed the imaginary Petrarch’s Library would defend and protect the flow of information in shall we say, some additional warrior-ish direct action ways!

Dorrie and Marcus have hair-raising adventures in lots of locations throughout history. Tell us a little bit about your research process. You are so kind to dignify my flailing attempts at understanding and conveying history as “a research process”. : )   I love history. I’m quite sure I don’t do any justice to any standards of academic research, but I love rolling around in the past in any way I can. For these first two books, once I settled on a place and time that would figure in the story, I would spend far too much on used books from Amazon to get a general sense of the “wherein” and then do more particular research as I needed to know more. I stare at paintings and statues, read historians’ accounts, and most satisfyingly of all – read uninterpreted original source material. For instance, parts of SWORD IN THE STACKS take place in 1912 London. I loved reading newspapers from the era to get a feel for the time, and how various sectors of society felt about the suffrage question.

The overarching theme of these books seems to be freedom of speech, a very relevant issue-not just for libraries. What do you hope readers will take away from this series? Since I was a young kid, I’ve been awed by those who have spoken “truth to power” often at great cost to themselves.  I am enjoying, through these fantasy adventures, posing questions about what exactly we mean by intellectual freedom, why it might have value, and what it means to uphold such a principle in every day life.

I hope readers who may not have thought about these things in a while, or lately, or ever, will join me in that questioning. About how for instance, a chasm can exist between theoretical support for the principle of intellectual freedom and the actions we take or don’t take when confronted with speech/writing we find dangerous, stupid, hurtful, or otherwise offensive.  It’s tempting to ignore cases of censorship of viewpoints we don’t share, or viewpoints we actively disagree with.

What are some of the challenges to series writing? Are sequels easier than writing the first book? When I wrote the first book, I chose to devote a good deal of my efforts to world-building. I reveled in (and gnashed my teeth at!) the challenges of making the clear rich fantasy vision of the alternate world inside my head and heart come alive for readers. When I began the second, I felt both tantalized and scared by the fact that the world now existed. My new main job would be to create a compelling story for Dorris and the rest of the Library’s inhabitants to live out WITHIN that world, and I wasn’t sure I could come up with enough story! I felt like a kid who, determined to build a club-house, bends all will to the task, and after much effort succeeds in nailing on the last shingle, but then isn’t quite sure what to DO with the clubhouse!

As I began to imagine Dorris’s story for the second book, it was hard not to think about the possibility of a “disappointing” sequel, which generated Fear and Self-Consciousness. I don’t know about you, but those two cats do not fuel creative flow for me!  I had to take back ownership of the book-writing somehow, and make it a creative act that wasn’t about pleasing others, but myself. Which sounds very vague. My specific strategy was to give myself a specific craft challenge.  I was very aware of the flaws I perceived via hindsight in my first book, especially in terms of plotting. The task I set for myself was to do a better job of plotting. One that I could feel was an improvement over the plotting in book one, even a small improvement. That if I could do that, no matter what else I achieved or didn’t with the book, I could feel good about that.  Somehow that really grounded and motivated me all at once.

You have an amazingly imaginative sense of humor. Please tell us about what kind of kid you were and how you grew to be such a wieldy wordsmith. Oh gosh. What kind of kid was I? I’m sure I was a trial to many neighbors and teachers.  I was a big time pretend kid.  I read a lot. A lot! But I was also loud and boisterous and a tree climber and a creek wader. I was an idiot. I had no sense of perspective. I always had a big plan: Bike to NYC, join the circus, run a restaurant out of our moldy basement.  I lectured the older teens on the block about smoking. I reveled in attics, basements, garages, storm drains, and all the rest of the unclaimed territories in which new civilizations could be erected. I took to writing early, mostly for its usefulness in writing ransom notes. I wrote letters, indignant childhood diary entries, purple poetry, and yearning paeans to each person I fell in love with, but didn’t really write stories until I was deep into matron-hood.

What’s your favorite part of being a children’s author? Writing for people who still believe that anything is possible.

If you could travel back in time to when you were first beginning to write toward publication, what advice would you give yourself or aspiring writers? Don’t rush. Don’t rush. Don’t rush. When you’re sure that your manuscript is in stellar shape, and you’re positive that the very first agent, or second at least, will fall in instant love with it…STOP.  Freeze your computer in a block of ice.  Lock it in a safe and swallow the key. Hire a cadre of badgers to bury it in the forest (wrapped nicely in protective plastic, naturally) but DON’T SEND OUT THE MANUSCRIPT.  Give yourself at least a month. Work on something else.  Another story. A macrame project. Anything. But give yourself time to be able to see the manuscript anew. When you were sure that there was nothing left to improve. Then send it out, and good luck!

Do you have any exciting plans for this summer, or do you do most of your traveling in books? My exciting plans include excavating the garden out of the weeds (I should have it ready to go just in time for the first snowstorm), teaching the family’s new dog not to pull all the arms out of all the family sockets whenever during our walks he sees a squirrel, or a cat, or a popsicle stick, or anything really;  and yes, exploring the Mongol Empire from my book-page origami airplane. You know…just in case Dorris and Marcus and Ebba have to maybe perhaps possibly visit there…..

And finally, what exactly are all seventeen uses for a flaming arrow? Or does one have to become a lybrarian to find out? We denizens of Petrarch’s Library believe in the free flow of useful information and would be more than happy to share:

The Seventeen Uses of a Flaming Arrow

1. Lighting surprise party birthday cake candles.
2. Severing a rope down which your enemy has only made it halfway     down.
3. “Safely” igniting explosives.
4. Illuminating dark archive passages in an exhilarating manner.
5. Beginning a useful stampede at a royal ball.
6. Trimming the hedges.
7. Checking depth of fetid well into which one is about to spelunk.
8. Low-tech signal flare.
9. Simultaneously catching and cooking your supper.
10. Instant wound cauterizer.
11. Encouraging tediously bad actors to exit stage left.
12. Quickly disposing of outdated curtains.
13. Entertainment of small children or easily pleased adults.
14. Testing air quality in an underground cavern.
15. Keeping angry book-burners at bay.
16. Impromptu fondu maker.
17. The ultimate literary exclamation point.  : )
We are giving away a hot-off-the-press copy of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: SWORD IN THE STACKS to one lucky winner! All you have to do is tell us an 18th use for a flaming arrow in the comments below!

JenSwannDowneyJen Swann Downey’s non-fiction pieces have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, Women’s Day, and other publications. She is the author of the middle-grade novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND. Her second novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: SWORD IN THE STACKS is also now available from Sourcebooks. Jen divides her time between libraries and other places, and will never stop looking for lickable wallpaper.

Make your own Summer Reading Bingo game

Maybe you’re a teacher, a parent, or an aunt whose niece and nephew are visiting for two weeks and you want a way to create something fun around reading? You want it to be less formal than a summer reading program and more individualized to your young readers. What to do? Book Bingo! It’s one of the easiest ways to craft a completely personalized set of reading challenges for the readers in your life.

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Use this online bingo card generator to write your own squares.

 

Creating a reading bingo card can be as easy as drawing a table in Word, hand drawing a grid, or printing out one of the hundreds you can find online, such as this one from the fine folks at Scholastic. You can also use an online bingo card generator (used to make this one pictured above) where you can customize each square, put in your parameters (three across? or the traditional five down and across?) and then stipulate how many you want generated. The squares will be in varied places so that friends, siblings (or classmates) all have different cards.

It was fun digging around online and seeing the variety of spins on book bingo for kids. Some go for a book per square while others focus more on the act of reading. My favorite kid-friendly reading bingo cards have a mix of types of books and then an emphasis on where and when you read:

  • Read outside.
  • Read on the grass.
  • Read in the kitchen.
  • Read after dark.
  • Read before lunch.
  • Read after swimming.

I also love the challenges with a canine twist: Read a book about a dog; read a book to a dog (or a stuffed animal); read a book about an animal that isn’t a dog.

And that middle “Free” square you usually have on a Bingo card? Keep it book-centric with something like “Readers Choice” or “Recommend a book to someone else.” Oh, and don’t forget to make a book bingo card for yourself!

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Reads & A Giveaway For National Donut Day

There’s good news if you like donuts (or doughnuts)! Today is National Donut Day—a good excuse to indulge. Even better, some shops traditionally give out free donuts today to celebrate the event.

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Surprisingly, a company with the words Dunkin or Krispy in their names did not invent this holiday. It was created in 1938 by the Salvation Army to honor the women who served donuts to soldiers on the front lines in Europe during World War I. (Fun, but slightly gross, fact: The donuts were often cooked in oil inside the soldiers’ helmets.) While the holiday began as a fund-raiser in Chicago to help those in need during the Great Depression, the tradition of celebrating this delicious dessert continues.

For those of you who want to skip the sugar and calories, but still observe the holiday, here are some great books in which donuts figure prominently. Whether the donuts represent the bond between characters, the pride of a town honoring its founder, or a sought after breakfast treat, they’re a sweet addition to any story.

Read on to find out about these fabulous books and to see how you could win an autographed copy of Lily and Dunkin and a ten dollar gift certificate to Dunkin Donuts.

9780553536744Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart

In this poignant novel that tackles transgender and bipolar issues, Norbert Dorfman, who hates his name and loves donuts, is nicknamed Dunkin by his new friend Lily Jo McGrother, who was born Timothy McGrother. Early in the novel, a heartfelt passage shows readers the importance of donuts in Dunkin’s difficult life: “I wish Dad were here. He loves Boston Kreme donuts, too. I doubt they have donuts where he is. When Dad was in a good mood, he could chow down half a dozen donuts in one sitting. Sometimes a whole dozen, except for the couple Mom and I would eat. And Dad wouldn’t even get big from eating all those donuts, except that one time when they changed his meds and he ballooned like the Goodyear Blimp.” In a starred review, Booklist called the novel a “sensitively written work of character-driven fiction that dramatically addresses two important subjects that deserve more widespread attention.”

9780544340695The Center of Everything by Linda Urban

Soon-to-be-twelve-year-old Ruby Pepperdine is trying to make things right in her life since her beloved grandmother passed away. The story is set in a town founded by a fictional character, Captain Bunning, who invented the donut in 1847. (In a note from the author, Urban tells how she made up the story after reading about Captain Hanson Gregory’s invention of the donut. See The Hole Story of the Donut below for more about Captain Hanson.) Ruby hopes her problems can be solved by a town tradition that involves making a wish on your birthday and tossing a quarter through a hole in a bronze donut held by the statue of Captain Bunning. While donuts play an important role in the plot, according to one reviewer, donuts also figure into the structure of the story. Meg Wolitzer writes that the novel “travels a satisfying, circular path that deliberately echoes the shape of a donut …” The novel earned several starred reviews and has been praised for its depiction of family, friends, and community.

9780147508577Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

In this novel about Albie, an only child who struggles with learning difficulties, donuts represent an important bond between Albie and his babysitter, Calista. Not only does she let Albie use his allowance to buy donuts each day, she also helps Albie forget about the bullies in his life by drawing The Adventures of Donut Boy and Art Girl, a comic based on Albie’s love for donuts and Calista’s love for art. Albie soon learns to take pride in the things he does best, and Calista learns a bit from Albie, too. In a starred review, Booklist called the book “a heartfelt portrait of a child searching for nothing more than a safe place to thrive.”

9780142404157Homer Price by Robert McCloskey

Originally published in nineteen forty-three, this classic tells about Homer Price, who lives in a small town in Ohio called Centerburg. It’s a place where you can win a hundred dollars by eating all the donuts you want; where houses are built in a day; and where Homer can foil four bandits using nothing but his wits and his pet skunk. In one story, Homer’s tendencies to get involved in outrageous incidents find him tending to an out-of-control donut-making machine in his uncle’s diner. Generations of reviewers have praised the humor in these stories.


9781492614012Danny’s Doodles: The Squirting Donuts
by David Adler

Something has gone wrong in Danny and Calvin’s fourth-grade classroom. Mrs. Cakel has transformed from a rampant rule-enforcer to a quiet excuse-accepter. Has she been replaced with an alien? Has she undergone a top-secret personality makeover? Danny and Calvin decide there’s only one way to find out what’s really going on: spy. But spying soon leads to a greater mystery filled with dog chasing, jelly-injected donuts, prune butter-included experiments, riddle mania, and more! Booklist wrote that “the book artfully portrays a dynamic friendship between seeming opposites that points to ways of making better choices without losing the fun.”

9780062343208Stick Dog Tries to Take the Donuts by Tom Watson

It’s morning, and the dogs are hungry. So Stick Dog and his team of strays are off on another outrageous canine caper—this time to take the donuts. To snatch some breakfast treats for his hungry pals, Stick Dog will need to stop a moving truck, outfox a man on a telephone pole, and calm down a very caffeinated Karen. But that’s not all. He’ll also need to manage the greatest confrontation in history when his good friend Poo-Poo comes face-to-face with the ultimate enemy—a squirrel.

9780544319615The Hole Story of the Donut by Pat Miller, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch

Who knew the donut was invented by a New England mariner? Turns out in 1847 the inventor, Hanson Crockett Gregory, worked as a ship’s cook. But hungry sailors complained that his breakfast of sugary fried dough balls had greasy, raw centers. That’s when Gregory got the idea to cut holes out of the center and fry the dough like that. The rest, of course, is pastry history.

To celebrate Donut Day, Donna Gephart has generously donated an autographed copy of Lily and Dunkin, and I’m offering a ten-dollar gift certificate to Dunkin Donuts. For a chance to win one of these prizes, tell us in the comment section about a kids’ book that features donuts or just tell us about your favorite donut before midnight Sunday, June 5. I’ll pick two winners at random and announce who they are on Tuesday, June 7. (Continental U.S. only, please.)

Dorian Cirrone has written several books for children and teens. Her middle-grade novel, The First Last Day ( June 2016, S&S/Aladdin) is available for preorder. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @DorianCirrone. She gives writing tips and does occasional giveaways on her blog at: http://doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/