Category Archives: For Writers

Interview and Giveaway with Jessica Lawson

Today we’re pleased to be interviewing middle grade author Jessica Lawson. We featured her novel Nooks & Crannies on Mixed-Up Files back in 2015, and she’s back today to talk about her latest book, Under the Bottle Bridge.

In the weeks leading up to Gilbreth, New York’s annual AutumnFest, twelve-year-old woodcraft legacy Minna Treat is struggling with looming deadlines, an uncle trying to hide Very Bad News, and a secret personal quest. When she discovers mysterious bottle messages under one of the village’s 300-year-old bridges, she can’t help but wonder who’s leaving them, what they mean, and, most importantly…could the messages be for her?

Along with best friend Crash and a mystery-loving newcomer full of suspicious theories, Minna is determined to discover whether the bottles are miraculously leading her toward long-lost answers she’s been looking for, or drawing her into a disaster of historic proportions.

Hey, Jessica! Welcome back to the MUF! Can you tell us how came  up with the idea for this novel?

I always thought of bottle messages as things that were found bobbing up and down in the ocean. For whatever reason, when I was brainstorming new story ideas, I had this picture in my head of a girl finding message bottles in a shallow, empty ravine—a place that used to run with water, but had been dry for hundreds of years.

As for the setting, I’ve always been fascinated by traditional arts—blacksmiths and weavers and candlemakers and such. I wondered what it might be like to live in a modern-day place that really valued those talents, and what sort of encouragement and pressure the children of artisans might be given to continue that work. Those elements blended and I had myself enough to start writing

This is your first crack at a contemporary story. What were the challenges for a writer used to historical settings?

Well, I cheated a little. Under the Bottle Bridge is set during autumn in a modern-day artisan village that’s steeped in tradition and history. While there are modern conveniences like cell phones and yummy pizza restaurants, there’s definitely a thread of the town’s history being very much alive. Each chapter opens with a consecutive piece of village history that leads-up to a reveal that concerns Minna, and the Gilbreth’s annual AutumnFest involves people in period dress…bottom line, you can take the author out of historical fiction, but you can’t always take the historical fiction out of the author.

Honestly, I couldn’t get away from my interest in personal history and how it shapes us. There’s an Alex Haley quote at the beginning of the novel: In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future. I think that, for better and for worse, that’s so true.

In terms of challenges, dialogue had to be more modern than I’m used to writing and school scenes had to reflect modern conveniences.

Your character, Minna, is raised by her uncle and she reads all of the parenting books that he buys for himself—the titles are pretty funny (for example: Rollercoaster: The Oft-Nauseating Ups and Downs of Parenting Kids, Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings That Won’t Leave the House). Have you read many parenting books?

I have not read many, but I am a mom and stepmom to four kiddos (ranging in age from 4 to 22) and I think it’s nearly universal to have the occasional wish that our precious children came with a straightforward handbook. It can be intimidating to be the framing influence in our children’s lives, just as it can be scary to navigate the ups and downs of childhood. Minna reads all of her uncle’s books and has sort of internalized all of the advice. She comes to realize—as does her uncle—that there’s no one answer to life’s trials.

What are themes that teachers, librarians, and booksellers might latch onto when sharing the story with readers?

Family, friendship, and expectations all come into play in this story. There are elements of balancing family expectations and the desire to honor the past while becoming your own person. A new girl in town teaches Minna about pre-judging others. Also, the bottles play with the idea that sometimes the thing you’re searching for isn’t necessarily what you need to feel complete.

I think the book would pair nicely with a student project on traditional artisan skills or interviews with family members to delve into personal history.

Thanks so much, Jessica, for stopping by! We wish you and your new book all the very best!

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To be entered to win an ARC of Under the Bottle Bridge, publishing this September, please leave a comment below.

Two Shining Stars: Kelly Starling Lyon and Vanessa Brantley-Newton

We’re excited to have Kelly Starling Lyons and Vanessa Brantley-Newton here today to discuss their new chapter book series starring Jada Jones. Author Kelly’s answers are in pink and illustrator Vanessa’s are in blue.

Kelly Starling Lyons

Vanessa Brantley-Newton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ll begin with a few questions for Kelly. I often wonder if childhood experiences prompt people to become writers. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I dreamed of being lots of things – a writer, a chemist, a teacher. But becoming an author was the vision that endured. My mom wrote and acted in plays and took my brother and me to children’s theater. My grandmother shared family stories that made me look at history in a new way. My house was filled with books. Storytelling was all around me. I wanted to create that magic too.

What an awesome background for a future author. Did you ever dream of being a writer? If so, how did you get started?

My journey toward becoming a writer began as a kid. I started by penning entries in my diary. I remember unlocking the wooden box that guarded my secrets, taking out my maroon book and writing me into the pages – my fears, my joys, my dreams. It was liberating. I began to win accolades for writing in school. I remember an elementary teacher complimenting a poem I wrote about the beauty of the color black. That meant everything to me.

My path to writing children’s books began when I discovered Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in third grade. It was my first time seeing a black child on the cover of a book. Though I didn’t realize it then, that image filled me with not just pride but drive. One day, I would write pieces of me, people I love and history I cherish into books. I would learn the power of kids seeing themselves. I would learn that writing can heal, inspire, agitate and affirm. That took reflection and study. But the seed was born when I was a child.

It’s wonderful that you’re providing mirrors and inspiration for today’s readers. I’ve often found that authors put their own fears into their stories. What things most scared you when you were young? Did any of those fears make it into your books?

When I was young, public speaking was my biggest fear. I stuttered and didn’t know if I would be fluent when speaking or get stuck on some word. Being asked to read in class or give a presentation set my heart racing. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to writing. I could express myself just like I wanted.

It amazes me that I grew up to be an author who gives presentations all the time. When I do writing residencies at schools, I usually meet at least one child who stutters. That’s why I never insist that kids read their work aloud. I encourage anyone who wants to share. I will support and stand with kids if they’re nervous, but reading in front of their peers is their choice. Jada Jones: Class Act explores Jada’s fear of public speaking. My middle-grade novel in progress, Summer of Aunt Lou, is inspired by my childhood struggle with speech.

I’ve heard some of your wonderful presentations, and it’s hard to believe you ever stuttered. I’m sure children who struggle with stuttering or shyness can relate to your life story and to your book characters. You mentioned teaching writing at schools. It sounds like you have a busy life. Can you tell us a bit about your writing life and schedule?

I write early in the morning when the house is hushed. That’s when my best inspiration comes. I have a file of ideas and often work on a couple of stories at a time. My writing life includes lots of author visits. At schools and libraries, I share the history behind my books, my publishing journey and tips for creating stories. I always leave inspired.

As a night owl, I admire anyone who gets up early and can function. What made you write Jada’s story?

A Penguin editor was a judge for a SCBWI contest. I won money to do nonfiction research, but she also invited me to submit a chapter book for her consideration. I hadn’t written one since my first book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal. But I felt a connection to the genre. I remembered my daughter’s joy at reading chapter books. She loved wonderful series that starred black girls like Dyamonde Daniel, Ruby & the Booker Boys, Nikki & Deja, Willimena Rules and Sassy, but longed for more. I thought about her and the wonderful girls I meet at schools when creating Jada. I wanted to center a smart black girl with a big heart, someone who’s unsure at times but finds her way.

There are some great series out there, but I’m so glad you’re adding to the collection of chapter books for black girls. Do the characters in your series have any connection with your real life?

Yes, the biggest inspiration for Jada was my daughter. She loves science and has collected rocks and shells for years. An adult once hurt her feelings by saying she should stop looking for rocks and find a friend. Her first friends shared her interest. They became a rock-hunting crew. I love how my daughter and girls I know are beautifully and uniquely themselves.

What is one thing you hope readers will take away from your book?

The end of each book has a list of Jada’s rules. The one that really sums up both is: “Dare to shine by being you.”

Such an awesome lesson for all of us, not just chapter book reader. Not only does Kelly’s work as an author shine, Vanessa makes the many books she illustrates shine as well. Thanks so much for joining us, Vanessa.

You’ve shared some samples of your fabulous artwork. Do you use models for your illustrations? If so, are they people you know? Or do you create them from your imagination?

Sometimes I use models, but not very often. They are often people I know or children I know. I love to create characters from my mind!! That is so much for me. I get hair from this one and eyes from that one and lips from another and bodies from yet another, and it’s a cobbled mess of ideas that become something wonderful at the end.

It’s amazing that they look so smoothly put together when they’re constructed piecemeal. You must be very talented to assemble your final illustrations from such different sources. What medium do you use? And can you tell us a little bit about your process?

I usually start with a couple of loose sketches and then scan my sketches into my iMac and then drag them into two programs that I use. One, Corel Painter and the other, Photoshop CS5. I then create another file in Corel Painter that I redraw and then color and then take into Photoshop to clean it up or add collage to it. I usually create and color all my illustrations in Corel Painter and then do any clean ups or textures or collage in Photoshop. It’s a very tedious process, but I really love the results. One piece can take up to 6 hours to finish.

Many times, publishers choose an illustrator, and the author never meets or talks to the illustrator. Did you work together on the book? If so, how was that process?

I’ve admired Vanessa’s work for a long time and dreamed of having a book with her. I was thrilled that she would be the illustrator for the Jada Jones series. We didn’t work together. But I did get to see her sketches and was blown away by how she captured the spirit of Jada, her friends and family. An exciting part of the process is getting to celebrate the release. We’re launching the books at Quail Ridge Books and Richard B. Harrison Library in Raleigh and Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC. So excited about sharing these moments with her.

You know it’s different with each publisher and each writer and illustrator. I have known Kelly for a couple of years now, and she is more like my Sister! LOL! It is not the custom for writer and illustrator to work together.  It is considered taboo, if you will. The editors don’t want the writer to influence the illustrator. They prefer a more organic approach to creating the artwork, and that is by letting each tell a story.

It’s important to give picture book illustrators room to create their own unique contributions to the book. I’m sure you prefer the freedom to generate ideas without too many suggestions from the author.

Sometimes this is very frustrating to illustrators. We really don’t like to be told what a character is supposed to look like. LOL!!! It helps me honestly. I figure let’s picture her together and see what we come up with! It can be frustrating hearing so many opinions from editors, art directors and author. This is a wonderfully told story of a young African American girl by Kelly Starling Lyons, and it was our duty as both author and illustrator to get it right.  It is not often that we see an African America child grace the front cover of middle grade readers or even picture books, and when we do a child of color whether African American, Asian, Hispanic, or Indian, they should be created with dignity and care.

You’ve both created an appealing character in Jada. What are you working on now?

I am working on historical fiction manuscripts and another chapter book. I’m excited about a couple of picture books on the way. Both celebrate family and history which are central themes in my work. They’re about children carrying on traditions and being part of a legacy. Can’t wait to share them.

I am working on three books right now: Mama’s Work Shoes and King of Kindergarten. There is also Hannah Sparkles 2, due out in 2019.

I can’t wait to see these books come out. I’ve added a few questions just for fun.

If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?

A safe and just world.

For all people to find their calling and live their dreams.

To time travel.

To be a Philanthropist, the gift of humor, to take people on trips around the world.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

I love historical and realistic fiction. That’s mostly what I write. But my favorite genre is fantasy.

I have a prophetic foresight.

What super power do you wish you had?

The power to heal everything!

Where can readers find out more about you?  (social media, but also feel free to add in-person appearances if you’d like)

Readers can learn more about me on my website www.kellystarlinglyons.com. They can join my FaceBook author page www.facebook.com/kellystarlinglyons or follow me on Twitter @kelstarly. Please also check out the blog I’m part of – the Brown Bookshelf. Our mission is to raise awareness of black children’s book creators. I’m honored to be on the team. (This is such a great resource. I hope readers will check out this site.)

Please visit vanessabrantleynewton.com or friend me on Facebook@ Vanessa Newton.

Readers can also help Vanessa and Kelly celebrate the launch of  their Jada Jones series in NC at:

Quail Ridge Books on Saturday, September 30. Details here: http://www.quailridgebooks.com/event/kslyons17

Park Road Books on Sunday, October 1. Details here: http://www.parkroadbooks.com/event/local-author-event-kelly-starling-lyons-vanessa-brantley-newton-jada-jones

And at Richard B. Harrison Library on Saturday, October 21.

If you’re in the Raleigh or Charlotte, NC area, you can meet these two extraordinary book creators. Thanks so much for giving us a peek into your work and lives, Kelly and Vanessa. Can’t wait to meet Jada!

Never Too Old for Back-to-School

It’s Back-to-School month for many students, teachers, librarians, and parents. Summer is at its peak, and yet the supermarket aisles are filled with crayons and notebooks and lunch boxes. It’s time to get back to the business of learning.

As authors, we never stop learning, really. At least we shouldn’t. Even though I teach workshops about writing, mentor new writers, and critique others’ work, I still seek out opportunities to learn from those who paved this road I’m lucky to travel.

The best teachers are perpetual students. I believe that with all my heart.

Walking with Jane Yolen at her home, Phoenix Farm, during Picture Book Boot Camp last spring.

It’s important for authors to look for learning opportunities and find ways around all the reasons why we can’t pursue them.  Too far, too expensive, too time consuming, maybe in a few years. Of course, some of those are valid reasons, and no one can do everything their heart desires, but if each of us sought out one mentor encounter a year — attended a lecture, went to a book signing, signed up for an advanced workshop — all opportunity would not be lost on “maybe next year.”

Have you ever been in the presence of someone and I thought, “This is golden. I need to remember everything about this moment?” I look for moments like that. Sometimes I find them among hundreds of people in an auditorium, listening to a speaker. Sometimes, it’s just me, face-to-face with a beloved author, feeling the warmth of their handshake and trying desperately to form words in my mouth that make it sound like I made it past third grade.  That was me at this moment:

Standing on Ashley Bryan‘s front step, Little Cranberry Island, Maine, June 2015.

Here in rural Ohio, I don’t exactly live in a literary hotbed. But, I do live within driving distance to The Mazza Museum, the country’s largest collection of art from children’s literature. I’ve made the trip there to hear dozens of authors and illustrators speak. I’ve sat mesmerized by Tony Abbott, had a conversation with Gary Schmidt. and listened intently to Michael Buckley.

Last winter I drove two hours in the other direction to hear what Kwame Alexander had to say, and one piece of advice he gave the audience made a beeline to my brain and has changed the way I think. “Say yes,” he said. Be that person that says, “YES!” to opportunities.

So what Back-to-School opportunities will our Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors bloggers say “YES!” to this year?  Maybe sign up for that amazing out-of-state-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Take a road trip to hear someone speak?  Attend a presentation at your local bookseller? Listen to a podcast?  Read that craft book on writing you’ve been putting off reading – you know, the one everyone says is “magical?”

It’s time. It’s time to get back to school.