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.

Winner of Gracefully Grayson

Congratulations, Heather DiAngelis! You’ve won the copy of Gracefully Grayson, which will release on November 4.

gracefully graysonYou will be receiving an email from us shortly.

Thanks to all who entered!

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…