Category Archives: Interviews

Food and Friendship: An Interview with Veera Hiranandani

imageWe mostly talk middle-grade here at From the Mixed-Up Files, but I’m also happy when I can give some attention to the little sibling of MG books, the chapter book.

Today I have the honor of visiting with author Veera Hiranandani. We discuss food, friends, and her new Phoebe. G. Green chapter book series published by Grosset and Dunlap/PSS! (an imprint of Penguin Random House).

MUF: Welcome Veera! First of all, tell us a little bit about the first book in your new Phoebe G. Green series, LUNCH WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.

VH: I’ve always been passionate about food and have tried to share that with my kids. I also know a lot of kids who are imagereally into food and I didn’t see many books for kids celebrating that. I have seen a bunch of “picky eater” stories out there, so I wanted to create something for the kids who really love exploring food and also something to inspire the kids who are more reluctant. I had a funny, adventurous character in mind who sometimes gets herself in trouble, but ultimately learns to not only accept what makes her unique, but the differences around her. The book is as much about how Phoebe negotiates her friendships as it is about her love for food. 

MUF: I love that this book is about food. Why did you decide to use food to bring together Phoebe and the new girl, Camille?

VH: Well, I’ve always admired how the French eat and how they teach their children to eat. I wish we’d do more of that in America and banish all the children’s menus! I’d rather restaurants just offer half-portions off their regular menu. If kids see over and over that they are only supposed to choose from hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and mac and cheese, they get the message that they’re only supposed to like those things. So it felt right to have Phoebe enter into a friendship with a child from France. That idea seemed rich with possibilities, both food and friendship related.

MUF: Yes it is, and I love how your book is full of new types of food for most American kids. Did you do a lot of taste testing yourself for research for this book?

VH: I’m always taste testing something for better or worse. Sometimes I reference dishes that we’ve enjoyed as a family and sometimes I did research on more traditional French dishes that I mention in the book (including using my editor, Eve Adler, who grew up in France as a resource). I don’t include very specific recipes in the book because I wanted it to be more about inspiration than the actual recipes. There are many amazing chefs out there who can fill in that information if someone wants to make Beef Bourguignon, Julia Child is probably a better resource than I am for that recipe!

MUF: I think it’s perfect that you introduce your readers to new foods through Phoebe.  What advice can you give kids about trying new foods on their own?

VH: That it’s a life-long adventure. Also, sometimes if you don’t like something the first time, it’s good to give it a few more tries. Camille tells Phoebe in one of the books, “My mom says you taste something the first time to get to know it and then taste it again to become friends with it.”

MUF: Speaking of friends, I love that this book is also about friendship. Phoebe is navigating her old friendship with Sage while making a new friend as well. Do you have any advice for readers who are dealing with the same kinds of changes in their own friendships?

VH: Along with good food, friendship is one of our greatest pleasures in life. But friendship can be a little more complicated than a good meal. Phoebe suddenly finds herself with two close friends and has to figure out how that’s going to work for her. She usually comes to the realization that accepting her friends’ differences, being kind, and being honest is the best way to go. But she doesn’t always take the shortest route getting there. Being accepting, kind, and honest still applies in grown-up friendships too!

MUF: Before you go, can you share a little about the next book in the series, FARM FRESH FUN?

imageVH: I’ve found that one of the best ways to get kids to try something new is having them pick it right out of a garden or cook it themselves. It really empowers them. My kids have gobbled up vegetables they normally don’t love when they’ve picked it out of the ground. They also will eat anything they cook, even something they haven’t wanted to eat when I’ve cooked it alone. It’s so important for kids to connect with food that way. In FARM FRESH FUN, I wanted to have Phoebe experience the thrill of collecting eggs, picking her own spinach, making her own goat cheese, and creating a true farm-to-table lunch. But a day out with Phoebe is always unpredictable and her enthusiasm usually gets the best of her, as it does at the farm, especially when her best buddy, Sage, is involved. 

MUF: Thank you, Veera, for sharing your books (and your love of food) with us!

Readers, Veera’s publisher is offering to give away the first two books in the Phoebe G. Green series to one lucky reader.  Please leave a comment below to be considered.  Only US residents are eligible. Thanks!

And Happy Eating, everyone!

Elissa Cruz eats food.  And she has friends, too.  She is the ARA for SCBWI Utah/Southern Idaho region and cohost of #MGlitchat on Twitter.  She  is happily married to her husband of 19 years, and together they live with their five children.  The husband and children eat a lot food, too, and usually invite their friends along on the adventure. Life is good.

Out of the Nest: Interview with Esther Ehrlich

nest jacketNest (Wendy Lamb Books, 2014) begins on a hot, hazy, and humid day on Cape Cod, when Chirp and Joey begin a friendship that will carry them through the tragic events of their sixth grade year. This debut novel by Esther Ehrlich has earned three stars and Kirkus calls it “a poignant, insightful story of family crisis and the healing power of friendship.”

It just so happens that Esther and I shared the same sixth grade teacher—although not at the same time—and so I reached out to Esther to talk about her amazing book.

JG: I love Chirp, the bird-watching heroine of Nest. Her nickname expresses her character too; how cheerful she tries to remain in spite of events and how se comforts herself by making a nest of blankets in her room. Which came first, the bird-watching idea or her name?

esther_ehrlichEE: I don’t really know which came first! When I write, everything develops in relation to everything else, so it’s hard for me to look back and tease apart what happened when. I do know that when Chirp was a baby she made a chirpy sound that her parents loved. The nickname “Chirp” stuck as Chirp’s love for birds declared itself!

JG: Chirp is Jewish, and occasionally her classmates make her feel like she doesn’t belong. How important to you was it to include the family’s faith in the story?

EE: Being Jewish is an integral part of who Chirp is. I think the range of feelings that she has—comfort and pride in who she is, but also that uncomfortable feeling of “otherness,” of feeling vulnerable and on the outside sometimes—is important to talk about. For Chirp and her family, being Jewish is a huge part of their backstory, a connection to the past. It also impacts their day-to-day life in a very real way, since there are so few other Jews in their community on Cape Cod. There’s a richness, I think, in exploring these layers of a minority identity.

JG: In addition to the challenges in Chirp’s life, we get a peek into her friend Joey’s life. This is handled so deftly and realistically—the helplessness of kids to do anything or even speak of something unspeakably sad. How did Joey’s role in the novel evolve?

EE: I had no idea that Joey was going to be such a central character in Nest. Originally, I imagined him as just one other kid who populated Chirp’s life. But he kept popping up. And I was captivated by his quirky, sweet, troubled self. I wanted to try and see behind the closed door of his family’s home. As I continued to write the story and Joey and Chirp had more chances to interact, Joey revealed himself as a layered, complex character. He became much more vital to the story because he kept proving himself as a loyal, courageous friend.

JG: Depression is so little understood as a disease, and you really capture the despair and lethargy. What inspired you to write about depression?

EE: Sadly, depression is just so common. I really don’t know if there’s anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by it in some way, yet there’s still plenty of stigma attached to it. Though I didn’t write Nest with a conscious agenda in mind, I do think it’s important to give voice to what we know—depression is mysterious, powerful, and can turn families upside-down. I’m convinced that Hannah would have been okay adjusting to the challenges of living with multiple sclerosis, but her depression on top of that was just more than she could handle.

JG: This is your first novel, and it’s getting rave reviews. Tell us about your love of language and story.

EE: Where to begin? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love words and stories. As a young girl, I kept a running list of my favorite names and would speak the names out loud, just to hear the sound and “feel” of them. My mom was a poet and shared her poetry with me, which I think helped shape my love of words. I also had an amazing sixth grade teacher. She was insightful enough to set up a corner of our classroom as a living room and, a couple of times a week, we’d all get cozy on couches and pillows and she’d read to us! What a joy that was! As an adult, I was trained as an oral historian. I learned how to listen carefully to people’s stories, to hear the stories within the stories. It was deeply satisfying work for me. I think it helped me really listen to my characters as I worked on Nest.

JG: In Nest, Chirp takes an unauthorized bus ride into Boston. Have you ever run away from home?

EE: Yes, my friend Penny and I packed up our backpacks one Saturday morning and tromped down to the playground in our town. We were in fourth grade. We set up camp, which meant spreading out a blanket, lining up our books, and arranging our food in a neat row. Then we read, ate, lay in the sun, talked about everything we could think of, including how everyone was probably super worried about us. By the time the sun was straight overhead, we were hot, cranky, and bored. We stalled just a bit more to ensure that people would be really worried about us. Then we packed up and walked home. Of course, no one had noticed that we were gone, which seemed to us like a perfect reason to run away again. We talked about it but never quite put our plan into action…

 

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.