Category Archives: Reading

An Interview with Alan Gratz, Author of BAN THIS BOOK

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing Alan Gratz and his latest middle-grade novel, Ban This Book. Gratz is the bestselling author of a number of novels for young readers, including Samurai Shortstop, The Brooklyn Nine, Prisoner B-3087, Code of Honor, Projekt 1065, The League of Seven series, and his latest two novels Refugee, the story of three different refugee families struggling for freedom and safety in three different eras and different parts of the world, and Ban This Book, which he’ll be discussing here. A Knoxville, Tennessee native, Alan is now a full-time writer living in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

Before we start the interview, here’s a little bit about Ban This Book, a timely and important novel I know will be close to the hearts of everyone who reads this blog.

It all started the day Amy Anne Ollinger tried to check out her favorite book in the whole world, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from the school library. That’s when Mrs. Jones, the librarian, told her the bad news: her favorite book was banned! All because a classmate’s mom thought the book wasn’t appropriate for kids to read.

Amy Anne decides to fight back by starting a secret banned book library out of her locker. But soon things get out of hand, and Amy Anne finds herself on the front line of an unexpected battle over book banning, censorship, and who has the right to decide what she and her fellow students can read. In the end, her only recourse might be to try to beat the book banners at their own game. Because after all, once you ban one book, you can ban them all …

First let me say how much I adored this book. Aside from it being a love letter to children’s book aficionados, it deals with such a topical subject these days: the First Amendment. Was there a particular incident that inspired you to write this book?

Thanks! There wasn’t one particular event that prompted this book, no. I’ve never had a book I’ve written  banned or challenged–at least, not that I know of. And I’m not being cute here–the ALA thinks that 85-95% of books challenged or banned each year go unreported. 85-95%! That’s a huge number! In 2016, there were something like 325 reported challenges and bans. That means that THOUSANDS more books just disappear from shelves every year, and no one hears about them because no one makes a stink about them. So it’s entirely possible that one of my books has been banned, and I don’t know it!

We here at The Mixed-Up Files obviously have an affinity for E.L. Konigsburg’s book. Was there a particular reason you chose From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as the book to kickstart Amy Anne’s crusade? Had you ever considered a different book?

I love From the Mixed-Up Files, so that was one of the reasons I chose it. But I also wanted a book about a kid who had a crazy home life and decided to run away. I already knew that’s the kind of life I wanted Amy Anne to lead, so I was looking for a book with a main character she empathizes with. I could have used one of her other favorite books, I suppose: Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Indian Captive, and more. But From the Mixed-Up Files had the running away and is so much fun in other ways, it was perfect. All that remained was confirming that it had been challenged–which it was, in 1994, in Minnesota, for being “anti-family” and encouraging kids to “lie, cheat, and steal”!

I love the boldness of the title as if it’s challenging the real-life Mrs. Spencers of the world who want to ban books. Was that the title from the start or did it change?

Yes, Ban This Book was always my first choice for the title, and there was never any discussion of changing it, thank goodness! I was definitely inspired by Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, a book which, when I worked in a bookstore, we had to keep on a shelf in the back room until someone asked for it because, of course, people took Hoffman’s challenge seriously! We’ll see if anyone dares take my book’s title challenge seriously… 🙂

You began your career as a novelist writing young adult books, but switched over to middle-grade. What do you see as the main difference between the two categories, and why did you make the switch?

Ah, that’s a great question. Yes, the first three books I wrote were YA–Samurai Shortstop, Something Rotten, and Something Wicked. YA was hot at the time (as it still is!) and I was excited to be a part of this renaissance in YA lit. And those books found an audience, for sure. But then I got the idea for The Brooklyn Nine, which was my first proper middle grade novel, and that’s when–BOOM–it hit me like lightning. THIS was what I REALLY wanted to be writing. I LOVE middle school. I know that sounds weird–most people want to forget middle school ever happened. But I loved middle school when I was a kid, and I taught middle school before I was a novelist. I was like, “Why am I writing for high school when my heart is in middle school?” B9 was the book that opened the floodgates for me, and I haven’t gone back! Code of Honor has an 18-year-old protagonist, so TECHNICALLY it’s YA, but even then I wrote it “clean” so it could be shared with middle schoolers, and that’s really where it has found its audience too. Everything since Something Wicked in 2008 has been for middle grade, and I made it my goal to be the King of Middle Grade Books! I’m not quite the king yet–maybe a duke? 🙂 But I’m working on it.

As to the difference between the two, YA, to me, is about a young adult finding his or her place in the larger world. Middle grade is about a kid finding his or her place in the family or school. The smaller world. Sometimes that smaller world spills out into the larger world–see Refugee or Ban This Book. But at its heart, I think middle grade has a smaller scope. I’ve always put it like this: let’s say you write a book about a kid whose parents are getting divorced. If it’s YA, the teenager is thinking, “Did my parents ever love each other? What is love? Is love an illusion? Will I ever find it?” Big questions. If you write that same story with a middle grade protagonist, your kid is asking, “Which parent’s house am I going to keep my toys at? Which school do I go to? Whose house am I going to have my birthday party at?” That to me, in a nutshell, is the difference between YA and MG. And I much prefer to write (and read!) the latter kind of story.

You mention in the acknowledgements that this was a very different kind of book for you to write. After writing in several genres–historical, fantasy, thriller–were there any challenges in switching to contemporary realism, particularly from a girl’s point of view?

I’ve written about girl protagonists before–in The Brooklyn Nine, The League of Seven, and Refugee–but I needed to give a girl the entire book and not share with anyone else! 🙂 This story just always felt like it was a girl’s to tell, for me. Not sure why. Part of it is that my wife was very much like Amy Anne when she was a young girl–escaping the chaos of daily life in books–and that was definitely an inspiration. But were there any challenges? Not really. Contemporary realism is the world I live in, so I was finally able to write what I was seeing and feeling. And as an empathetic person, I try to see and understand the world from many points of view, not just my own, and not just as a writer. So I’m not afraid to write from the point of view of someone who ISN’T a white, middle-class, cisgendered man.

One last question, and I’m sure you get it a lot. You’re extremely prolific–fourteen novels and eight short stories in about eleven years. Where do you get your ideas?

Ha! Well, I get them from all over the place. I’m always listening for ideas on the radio, in podcasts, watching for them in movies and other books, trying to catch them in conversations with other people. Anything and everything is fodder for a story!

And okay, I lied. I have another question: Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?

Sure. I just turned in the first draft of a new book which, if everything goes as it should, will be out in Fall of 2018. It’s called Grenade. It’s about the Battle of Okinawa. I got to visit Japan a few years back, and while I was there I met an old Okinawan man who was a boy on Okinawa during World War II. He told me that the day the Americans invaded, the Japanese Army took all the Okinawan middle school boys out of school, lined them up, and gave each of them a grenade. Then they told the boys to go off into the forest and not come back until they had used their grenade to kill an American soldier. That’s the first chapter of the book! (How’s that for a hook?)

A great hook! Looking forward to it. Thanks so much, Alan, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

For more about Alan and his books, visit his website. And connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

The Heart of Middle Grade Adventure

The Heart of Middle Grade Adventure with Sean EasleyI recently went on an impromptu trip to Colorado that changed the way I think of the word “adventure.”

You’d think I would already have learned all I need to know about adventure. After all, middle grade adventures make up the core of my writing. But that’s the thing about this journey of life, and about story itself: it’s often surprising. It takes you to new places where you don’t know what’s coming. It leads you to lands where you can explore who you are and see your life, even your identity, in a different light. And it often does so through the people you encounter, and the bonds you build.

A buddy of mine has had a rough summer full of the kind of life that starts to get to you after a while, and really wanted to head out to the mountains and spend a few days recuperating in the great outdoors. So we packed up a couple tents, a few sleeping bags, and headed out. And while we were out there hiking backwoods and swinging in hammocks and sitting around campfires, I started thinking about the whole genre of middle grade adventure. How it’s like that unplanned, unexpected trip into the unknown, and what makes that special. Why the books I remember so fondly from my youth books contained stories of expansive journeys and daring-dos, and why, after all these years, I came back to take kids on similar adventures.

Adventures Are Born of the Unexpected

We all know the tropes of this kind of fiction. Sometimes new threat is dropped in a character’s lap. Something out of the ordinary shakes the protagonist’s life, and whisks our hero away to a new and unfamiliar world. A friend calls and says, “Hey, wanna go on a trip?”

In the writing business we often call this the “inciting incident”—the inception of events that are beyond the protagonist’s everyday experience. This is where adventures begin.

In other genres, the call that sets the events of the story in motion can be emotional or close to home—the interest of a potential relationship, the solving of a mystery, the thwarting of a villain—but a call to adventure takes the hero away from home in a literal sense, setting them on a path they haven’t trod before. Our protagonist must actually leave home to find their destination. They leave to find themselves.

Adventures Contain Uncertainty

As I gathered my camping gear (what little I own) and climbed into the car we’d take on our journey, none of us knew where it would take us. We had an general idea—a trajectory—but anything could have happened to derail our plans. And it did.

At one point on our journey, we ended up at a mall, where I regaled my friend with stories of the mythical corn dog place I loved growing up. As I’m about to name the place—a chain I haven’t seen anywhere in ages and thought had gone completely out of business—we rounded the corner to find that exact restaurant. The angels sang the Hallelujah Chorus. Light shone down from heaven, and I was able to share a deep-fried goodness I haven’t had in years with my buddy.

It seems that uncertainty is an essential component in any adventure. If the stories we read were all laid out from the beginning and our protagonist never strayed from the plan, what would be the point? The characters would be simply going through the motions, and the reader would end up just flipping pages out of boredom.

Adventure requires those little uncertainties, because that’s what breathes life into the experience.

Adventures Are Personal

Stories matter to readers because they matter to the characters taking us with them. Those journeys aren’t just from one geographical location to another—they have to move from one emotional place to another, as well.

As readers, our brains are always working, always struggling to reconcile what we know with what we see in the world around us. This is especially true of young readers, who haven’t settled on which lenses they’ll use to look at the world when they grow up. Stories offer new lenses, new perspectives.

On our little excursion, I too had some things niggling at the back of my mind, coloring the world around me. Questions about how to handle things of life, worries about what to do in situations that were waiting for me back home. But it was the color of those lenses that affected my thinking, my experience. This was true of my friend, as well. The new experiences of our short adventure—though far more limited in scope than the stories of, say, Fablehaven, Keeper of the Lost Cities, or Peasprout Chen—helped me process and make decisions I was avoiding. It was clarifying, and made our trip all the sweeter.

We didn’t leave who we were behind when we went on the trip. We carried it all with us. Just like the characters in a book see their world through the lens of how it’s changing them, specifically. And that gives meaning to the journey.

Adventures Are Relational

None of that would have happened, however, without people to go on the journey with. Few of us go through life fully alone. It’s the relationships we make—the people we meet along the way, the side characters and opposing forces and allies—who take a hike in the woods and turn it into a true adventure.

If you think about your favorite sprawling stories, I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion. The journey is better with friends. Harry Potter’s story is nothing without Hermione, and Fred and George, Neville and Luna. What would Howl’s Moving Castle have been without Calcifer, or the scarecrow, or even Howl himself?

Characters—people—populate the words on our pages, and they can’t be neglected. It’s those characters who provide the unexpected. They set us on our paths and share wise truths and give us the input we need to become better people.

Sean Easley looking out over mountainsThis is the power of fiction: to take us on an unexpected, uncertain journey, to change our hearts and introduce us to new friends. Kids need those adventures. And middle grade fiction is specially positioned to impact who those kids are going to be in the long run. To teach them who to be. To empower them to grow, and envision the mountains beyond what they can see.

It’s a unique gift, and a unique responsibility.

For examples of some middle grade adventure stories that do a great job of incorporating these elements, you can check out another post I wrote, Upper-MG Authors to Adventure With.

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The Miracle of Reading

Back in early 2003, I was the stay-at-home-mother of three young children – two boys and a little girl ages nine, six, and four respectfully. One area I focused on with them was reading, tons and tons of wordage and illustrations that I could use to teach and guide them.

Then the month of November arrived, and I gave birth to our fourth child, another boy – CJ. From an early age, this child ate books for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He was a story fanatic. Once he could crawl, he’d empty our bookshelves and examine each book with distinct precision. Each illustration fascinated him. Each word he learned to visually recognize made him howl or giggle. It was nothing for me to find him sitting atop a mound of books, one in his hand as he flipped through the pages.  He seemed a bit slow to verbalize, but that wasn’t a problem to him. He would find images of what he wanted or needed and waddle over to show me. He always found a way through his books to get his needs and wants met. But by around his twenty month old mark, I  noticed he didn’t make many verbal sounds and the ones he did didn’t sound right.

I took him to our pediatrician. After a round of physical action tests it was determined that CJ was born with Apraxia of Speech – a neurological disorder where no pathways from the brain to the mouth muscles exist. Simply put, he was likened to a stroke victim whose brain could no longer send messages to his/her mouth to speak.

At twenty-two months old, CJ began speech therapy. One hour three times a week for three straight years. (Therapy continued until he was in third grade.) You might be thinking that was a lot for such a little guy. It was. But he was absolutely resilient. Why? Because his therapist used letters and words that he recognized from his numerous hours of story hunting through books. Each and every time we went to speech therapy, his therapist and I could see him hunger for more and more single sounds and consonant blends. Remember his way of pointing at images in his books to get what he wanted? Well, what I didn’t know was that this is an actual form of therapy given to young kids until they can verbalize on their own. The little bugger had figured this out all by himself.

I don’t know if there are studies out there to verify my findings. But from our family’s personal experience, I will tell you that I attribute CJ’s joy in therapy to his lust for reading. And that’s because he was introduced to books almost from birth. He’s proof that, from our youngest age, we long to communicate our thoughts and emotions to others and we hunger for knowledge to be fed to us.

And if you’re wondering how CJ is now, he’s a well-spoken thirteen-year-old eighth grader, who is at the top of his class academically and participates in athletics and activities with no verbal issues. To this I bow humbly to the books he’s so loved and to the act of reading.

Reading truly is a miracle. It helped CJ find his voice because every child deserves a voice.