Category Archives: For Writers

“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.

If I Taught Writing: What I Learned About Teaching Writing from Becoming a Writer…and a Mother

The other day, my six-year-old son and I serendipitously ended up at a classic-car show in our downtown. I didn’t really know he was even that interested in cars. But he was and asked me to take a couple of pictures of him with cars and even a picture of an engine (I think it was an engine).

That night he had me take one more picture of him “working” and then asked me to print the pictures. I was sure they would end up somewhere random, such as crumpled in his pocket or stuck between couch cushions. Instead, that same night he showed me a book he had made all on his own.

If you’re familiar with Chris Van Dusen’s If I Built a Car, you will notice my son follows a similar structure to Van Dusen’s book, even to the end (“If I built a car, that’s just what I’d do.”) The ideas, though, were all my son’s. This is not a child who normally sits down to write for pleasure. But there’s a lot I learned from this experience.

I am a former elementary and middle school teacher. I actually left teaching to pursue a career in writing as well as to start a family. What I’ve learned is that when I return to teaching (it’s inevitable I will), I will definitely teach writing differently.

Here are some tips I have for teaching writing to elementary and middle school students. In other words: If I taught again I would do the following:

  1. As a writer, if I’m not inspired, I’m not inspired. I put my work-in-progress to the side and come back to it when I’m ready.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I wouldn’t expect students to pump out a product when they’re just uninspired. I’d have students do something different for a bit (even something not writing related) and try again later.
  2. Whenever I get inspired by something I see, I try to write it down before I forget it.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students keep a running list of topics. They’d have access to their list to add to it throughout the day. It wouldn’t have to include only topics, either. It could be a funny sentence or the name of a character, etc.
  3. When I’m stuck for an idea, I look at picture books to see if they inspire me. Sometimes I even attempt to write in a similar style to one.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d allow students to write “fan fiction.” If they liked a book, I’d have them do a spin-off of it (for instance, my son’s spin-off of If I Built a Car). Then they wouldn’t have to worry about inventing characters or inventing a plot. They could focus on other aspects of writing.
  4. I find that when I’m running, I get all sorts of ideas (such as the idea for this post!). It clears my mind and allows ideas to flow.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students work on discovering how they can clear their mind. How can they become inspired? Does drawing help? Running? Bouncing ideas off peers?
  5. Unless I’m typing, I am not working at my desk. I edit on my couch in front of the fireplace, and I work through plot issues by spreading my manuscript out on my floor.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that writing at a desk doesn’t work for everybody. I’d allow students to test out different ways of working.

    My second office.

  6. I find a lot of value from reading mentor texts. I learn about different formats, styles of writing, etc. I see what good writing looks like.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have kids use books as much as they could as inspiration for their own writing. If they are writing nonfiction, I’d let them tear apart the nonfiction section of the library. Which book formats do they like? What writing styles do they like? I’d have them do the same with narratives. They would look at humorous books and sweet books and scary books.
  7. Most of my time as a writer isn’t spent writing new material; it’s doing revisions.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I would change the focus of editing away from the grammar. Instead, I’d spend time on how to both add and cut text. I’d do an exercise in trimming a longer piece to figure out what’s really crucial to what they are writing. I’d have them make every word count.

    How I edit a novel. Assistant pictured in background.

  8. Writing fiction requires lots of research. With my latest novel on sled dog racing, I interviewed many mushers, attended sled dog races, and looked up the correct wording on websites.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students do research even when writing fiction. There must be something they need to look up or verify.
  9. Experts are the best source for fact checking. No matter how much book and online research I’ve done on a topic, when I show an expert my work, they find a better way to word something or find a part that should be tweaked.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that kids are even experts on something. A lesson I’d love to try out: have students write down topics they’re experts on (skateboarding, sewing, etc.) Then give one of their topics to a student who’s not an expert in it. Have that student write about it as best they can without any resources. Then have the expert read and edit it for accuracy and word choice.
  10. So going back to my son. I think the biggest lesson I learned about teaching writing is from being a mother. My children watch me write day and night. They see that when I have some spare time, I write—even on vacation. That’s because I really love writing. I did not ask my son to write about his experience at the car show. I think he chose to make a book because he saw me making books.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d be sure to write when my students are writing. I’d share my work-in-progress with them. I’d show them that writing isn’t just something you do in school. It’s a way to express yourself: your likes, your dislikes, your beliefs.

So if I taught again, that’s just what I’d do!

I also asked my fellow middle grade authors, What tips do you have on teaching writing as a writer yourself? Here’s what they said:

Ditch the “trade and grade” style of peer editing and form mini-critique groups in teams of 4. One child reads while the other three follow along, writing down suggestions and then discussing before moving on to the next student’s turn.
– Kym Brunner, author of Flip the Bird

I wish we had done more fun writing exercises in 5th grade. My main advice is, let them have some fun by creative writing. Schools are so focused on structure and preparing for the tests, that writing for fun, is often overlooked.
– Jonathan Rosen, author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

Sit down. Then, no matter how much you want to, don’t stand up until you’ve written something.
– Darcy Miller, author of ROLL

Every first draft is bad. The magic is in rewriting.
– Kristin L. Gray, author of Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge

The hero and the villain in a story either both want the same thing for different reasons, or different things for the same reason. Either way, they’re reflections of each other.
– Katie Slivensky, author of The Countdown Conspiracy

Your writing will never be perfect. But you can always make it better.
– Beth McMullen, author of Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls

Writer’s block could mean that you’re focusing too hard on the wrong things. Back up and try looking at the writing from a different angle.
– Allison K. Hymas, author of Under Locker and Key

Sometimes it’s helpful to plan a story out before you write, but it’s also a-ok to start writing the story and figure it out as you go. The important part is to revise carefully once the first draft is finished.
– Lindsey Becker, author of The Star Thief

It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.
– Gareth Wronski, author of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy

If you confront three of your characters with an identical problem, each should solve it in their own way. What they do tells us so much about who they are!
– Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity

You don’t have to write every single day to be a writer. Thinking and reading counts too.
– Carter Higgins, author of A Rambler Steals Home

No matter how challenging or scary it may seem, it’s important to write a story from the heart—it will make the writing stronger!
– R. M. Romero, author of The Dollmaker of Kraków

Be kind to your curiosity. Embrace the moments when you think, “I wonder…” – especially when the “I wonder” seems silly and strange and like no one else will care.
-Patricia Bailey, author of The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan

Go for a walk, go to the park or the grocery store or anyplace new and soak up the sensory details. Take notes on the sights, sounds, and smells–they will make your writing come alive!
-Christine Hayes, author of Mothman’s Curse

When teaching setting, I like to use the “5 Senses Rule.” Does your story have details the character can see, hear, touch, feel, smell, and taste? If not, you may want to work more on the setting.
– Hannah Kates, author of Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key

So here’s a tip I give to all aspiring writers, young and old: the most important question a writer can ask themselves as they’re developing their story idea or even just when they have that “spark” of an idea is “What If?” That question is the engine that drives the plot. What if there were a young boy who’s parents were dead? And what if he lived with these really terrible relatives? And what if he discovered on his birthday that he was, in fact, a wizard? Oh! And what if there was a wizarding school? I like giving that example of how JK Rowling asked and explored “what if” when she wrote Harry Potter.
– Bobbie Pyron author of many middle grade novels, including the upcoming A PUP CALLED TROUBLE.

What tips do you have for teaching writing?

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