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Interview with Caroline Starr Rose, Author of Blue Birds

Today we are lucky to have an interview with acclaimed author Caroline Starr Rose, whose newest book, Blue Birds, comes out in March. Blue Birds is a story of forbidden friendship told against the backdrop of England’s first settlement in the Americas — Roanoke, the colony that failed. It is a novel in verse told by Alis, a twelve-year-old English settler, and Kimi, a Roanoke girl. The author is offering a special gift to those who pre-order this beautiful book by January 19th. See below for more information.

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Caroline Starr Rose was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B., which was an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book and received two starred reviews. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping by the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. She has taught social studies and English and worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm for experimenting with words, and a curiosity about the past. She lives in New Mexico. Visit her at carolinestarrrose.com.

You have wonderful writing resources on your website, and are so encouraging of other writers. Can you tell us about your own path to publication?

Thank you! I’m happy to hear it. My own path to publication was a long and winding one. I started writing seriously the summer of 1998. I was teaching at the time. My husband was in seminary, and we didn’t yet have children. A whole, empty summer stretched before me. It felt like it was time to get serious about the writing I’d dreamed about forever.

Just a few weeks before school ended I’d shown my students a video about Roald Dahl. He talked about his everyday commitment to sit with his work for two hours, whether he had something to say or not. He also stopped mid-scene so it would be easier to get to work the next day. These two things felt doable, so I dug in.

That summer left me with a horrible first draft — a middle-grade novel about the Oregon Trail. It also set me up for a pattern I followed for years: drafting in the summer, revising and mailing out queries during the school year.

Truly, I spent years trying to figure things out on my own, largely stumbling around in the dark. I didn’t join SCBWI until 2004 (though years later I found I’d written notes to myself about looking into it). I knew no one else trying to get published. This was the era before blogs. At times it was pretty lonely.

May B. (2012), my first published novel, was actually novel number 4. The publication process was not smooth sailing (you can read about it here, on my blog: http://carolinestarrrose.com/plowing-planting-hoping-dreaming/), but everything worked out beautifully in the end. The journey has been challenging, but a blessing in a lot of respects.

What writers influenced you?

Katherine Patterson. Laura Ingalls Wilder. L.M. Montgomery. Lloyd Alexander. Beverly Clearly. Gary Paulsen. Norton Juster.

Do you have a favorite quote on writing?

My friend J. Anderson Coats shared this with me (she’d heard it from author Elizabeth Bear): “Learn to write this book.” This little phrase has been so liberating. I tend to be a rule follower; if I read about a way I’m “supposed” to write, I’ll feel guilty if it doesn’t work for me. I find each book needs to find its own way. I don’t ever approach the process the same way twice. Realizing my round-about, inefficient approach can be what’s best for this particular book at this particular time has been really, really validating.

Blue Birds cover high res

What inspired you to write Blue Birds?

In 2008 I was teaching fifth-grade social studies. We’d gotten to those textbook paragraphs about Roanoke. Reading about the Lost Colony along with my students, I remembered the fascination I’d felt the first time I’d encountered the story: 117 missing people. The word CROATOAN the only clue left behind. I knew I wanted to dig deeper.

As stories often do, the characters circled back to my own experiences, namely my time as a young girl returning to the US after living in Saudi Arabia and later coming home after being an exchange student. In many ways I was a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to really examine those feelings — the fascination, the difference, the distance with what was once familiar, even — in my characters Alis and Kimi.

Tell us about the cover and how it came to be.

When my editor told me Penguin’s art director had Italian twin sisters Anna and Elena Balbusso in mind [to do the cover], I raced over to their website (http://www.balbusso.com/) and was absolutely blown away. I wasn’t sure how they would depict the girls and worried only Alis might make it to the cover (Kimi only wears a skirt — not exactly something you see on your average mid-grade novel!). Thankfully, they understood the story belonged to both girls and wanted to show their equality and unity in the way they were portrayed.

The Balbussos asked if I wanted a color theme. I chose coral and blue, to reflect the coloring of the eastern bluebird. You’ll notice the bird the girls are holding isn’t colored. It’s a wooden representation of the bluebird. The wooden bird and the eastern bluebird become symbols of their friendship. So really, there are three bluebirds on the cover — the carving, Kimi, and Alis.

May B. was inspired by the American frontier and the Little House books. Blue Birds is also historical fiction, about the first English settlers in Roanoke. How do you find inspiration to create these real and relatable characters who live in times very different from ours?

Thank you so much for saying they are real and relatable. Without this, historical fiction isn’t accessible, I think. I always start with the era and immerse myself in reading. But I then come back to feelings. They are what unite us over the ages. Though experiences, responsibilities, and life expectations are so very different now than at other times, our emotional responses are largely the same: fear, sadness, curiosity, loneliness. If I can draw on these things, I can truly meet my characters…and then share them with readers.

Do you travel to research?

I haven’t yet, but I want to! I’m hoping this is the summer it will happen. Up to this point, my “travel” has largely consisted of YouTube videos on repeat.

Tell us a bit about your writing process. Are you an outliner? Do you use notecards or a writing program like Scrivener?

I keep a journal for each book, full of notes, questions, and sketchy ideas that become my starting place. I best fit the “ploster / pantster” definition — someone who knows a few key turning points and has a pretty good sense of character and setting before digging in. Honestly, drafting is angst-inducing. The something from nothing phase is really hard for me.

Scrivener and I aren’t friends. I really tried and wanted to love it, but it didn’t work for me.

Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions?

Blue Birds was really, really hard for me on many levels. So I started wearing pearls. :) Everyday. With jeans. With sweats. With dressy clothes. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to feel some sort of connection with Alis and Kimi. I’m not sure if it worked, but they felt close and I felt close to the story, even when I wasn’t working on it.

Do you hear from readers much? What kinds of things do they say that are rewarding or surprising?

I love hearing from readers! Just the fact they’ve taken time to contact me is meaningful. And to hear people have connected with my characters is especially dear. Probably the most rewarding interactions I’ve had have been with dyslexic readers who have found courage and dignity in May’s story. These letters bring me to tears.

BB PDF pic for blog posts

This post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of the book Blue Birds. Author Caroline Starr Rose is giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book from January 12-19. Simply click through to order from AmazonBarnes and NobleBooks A MillionIndieBound, or Powell’s, then email a copy of your receipt to caroline@carolinestarrrose.com by Monday, January 19. PDFs will be sent out January 20. To see why Rose picked this quote from the book, see her blog post here.

Katharine Manning is a writer and mom of three. She reviews middle grade books at www.kidbooklist.com. You can follow her on twitter @SuperKate.

Interview with Julie Mata–and a Giveaway!


Julie's book portrait (2)

 About Julie:

Julie Mata didn’t realize she was a humor writer until she started writing and it came out…sideways. She admits she has occasionally tried to force funny, which always hurts. Julie is the author of Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, published by Disney Hyperion. Her second novel, Kate Walden Directs: Slug Man from Mars, arrives in May 2015. Both books will also be published in German by CBT, a division of Random House Germany. Julie’s Instagram, KateWaldenDirects, offers fun 15-second filmmaking tips for kids, and you can learn more about Julie on her website, juliemata.com, or by following her on Twitter at @juliehmata.

 

 

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About the Book  (From IndieBound):

Night of the Zombie Chickens is supposed to be Kate Walden’s breakout film. But her supporting actresses-her mother’s prize organic hens-are high maintenance, to say the least. Thank goodness Kate’s best friend Alyssa is the star. She’s great at screaming and even better at killing zombies in creative ways.

But when Alyssa ditches Kate for the most popular girl in seventh grade, Kate suddenly finds herself both friendless and starless. Now, thanks to Alyssa’s new crowd, Kate is the butt of every joke at school and consigned to the loser table at lunch.

If movies have taught Kate anything, it’s that the good guy can always win-with the right script. And her fellow social outcasts may be the key to her own happy ending. Kate hatches the perfect revenge plot against her former best friend, but even though her screenplay is foolproof, Kate soon realizes that nothing-in filmmaking or in life-ever goes exactly as planned. Especially when there are diabolical hens out to get you.

 

Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens is your debut novel. Can you tell us a little about its journey from idea to book?

I knew I wanted to write a middle grade novel but I wasn’t sure what to write about. I was sitting in my kitchen one night and the familiar maxim came to mind, write what you know. My first reaction was, I don’t know much! As I thought more about it, I realized that wasn’t exactly true. My husband and I own a video production business and I once wrote and directed a short film, so I know about film and video production. It occurred to me that kids love to make movies with their friends.  Why not write about a girl who wants to be a Hollywood director when she grows up? Of course, she had to be working on a movie. At the time, we were living on an acreage with a small menagerie that included chickens, so I knew about raising hens. Kids love zombies, so I decided that Kate would make a movie about zombie chickens. And Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens was born!

 

What advice do you have for kids who want to make their own movies?

Kids can learn a lot just by watching movies. For instance, how do the professionals frame their shots and how do they move the camera? They can also try Kate Walden’s method, which is to just do it—make a short movie with their friends.  It’s okay to make mistakes because that’s a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t. My Instagram, KateWaldenDirects, offers quick 15-second filmmaking tips on easy ways to create some cool shots. I cover everything from how to make blood to using a skateboard as a camera dolly. Lastly, I would advise kids to try writing a script instead of just winging it. And keep it fun!

 

What have you got against chickens?

Those evil creatures! Ha, actually I love chickens. I also think eggs are delicious. Some of the chicken behavior in my book came from our own hens’ antics, like roosting (and pooping) in the garage, or climbing into cars and pecking at groceries. For my story, I thought it would be funnier if Kate hates eggs and suspects her mother’s hens are trying to ruin her life. She has to work with them because they have roles in her movie, but she doesn’t trust them!

 

It looks like you’ve got a sequel lined up. Can you tell us about it? Are there more to come after that?

There is a sequel, and I’m thrilled because I recently finished final revisions on it and sent it off! It’s entitled, Kate Walden Directs: Slug Man from Mars. In this story, Kate’s classmates can’t wait to be in her next production…until a know-it-all new boy shows up who also likes to make movies. Kate hopes to impress him with her vast movie-making knowledge. Instead, they become rivals. But can Kate’s slime-spewing sci-fi flick beat the new boy’s gritty crime drama? The film wars are on!

I haven’t heard anything yet about additional books, but I certainly hope there will be more!

 

If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, what would it be?

In my story, Kate and her friend Alyssa have a huge fight and Kate is sure their friendship is over. She even does some mean things to get back at Alyssa. I hope readers take away that friendships are important and despite the confusion and frustration they sometimes cause. Even if mean things are said or done in the heat of a fight, just saying I’m sorry can go a long way toward healing hurt feelings. And, of course, if we want our friends to forgive us, we have to be willing to forgive them, too!

And if I’m allowed a second thing, it would be that it’s great to dream big, but you have to work hard to make your dream come true, and you can’t give up when obstacles get in the way. Kate runs into big problems trying to make her movie, including her fight with Alyssa, but she doesn’t give up trying to finish it.

 

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed KATE WALDEN DIRECTS: NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIE CHICKENS?

The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes, is for a slightly younger audience but I think readers will really enjoy the quirky humor. The Wig: Crazy Summer by Renata Suerth is funny and a great story, and Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald is also loads of fun. There are so many good books out there right now that it’s hard to pick just a few!

 

What’s your favorite thing about middle-grade fiction (as a reader or a writer)?

I love that middle-grade fiction is more complex than early readers but more innocent than YA. Middle grade is perfect because it’s right in the middle. It doesn’t have to deal with boyfriend-girlfriend drama in the same way that seems to be expected in YA these days. MG characters might have similar concerns as YA characters, like friendships, family problems, a crush, but those themes can be treated in a lighter fashion. I love that middle grade readers are perceptive and smart and can read about weightier issues as long as they’re handled well. In fact, I think they appreciate real characters with real flaws. That’s why I love writing middle-grade fiction, and I love reading it for the same reasons.

 

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?

I would advise reading A LOT, but especially new middle-grade fiction. Reading the old classics is great, too, but it’s important to study current styles to see what young readers like and what publishers are buying. I wrote a middle-grade fantasy novel before Kate Walden Direct: Night of the Zombie Chickens (it’s still sitting in my drawer!) and I didn’t follow my own advice. I wrote it in a style similar to middle-grade fantasies I had read as a child. After finishing it, I did the research I should have done earlier and realized that style was dated. Even worse, I read an agent’s description of overused plot elements she didn’t want to see, and almost every element was in my story!

I think it’s also essential to become a member of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). SCBWI provides valuable information and classes, as well as great networking and learning opportunities through their conferences. It’s a wonderful way to meet other authors, gain access to agents and publishers, and make friends!

Thanks Julie!

Julie has generously offered to give away a Zombie Chicken signed copy of Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens. Enter below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 Jacqueline Houtman  learned her way around the insides of a chicken at the University of Delaware. Her next book is a middle-grade biography of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (Quaker Press). 

 

Interview with Gayle Rosengren–and a Giveaway

Fiona & Me

Gayle Rosengren (and Fiona)

About Gayle: Gayle Rosengren grew up in Chicago and majored in creative writing at Knox College.  She never outgrew her passion for children’s books, and she worked in the children’s and young adult services departments of  her local library for several years, enthusiastically sharing her love of books with young people.  After moving to Madison, Wisconsin, she worked first in the reference library and later as a copyeditor at American Girl.  She also published short stories in Cricket, Ladybug, Jack and Jill and Children’s Digest. Now Gayle writes full-time in her home outside of Madison, where she lives with her husband Don and their slightly neurotic rescue dog, Fiona. She is living her dream, she says, writing books she hopes will make the same difference in children’s lives as her favorite books made in hers.   What the Moon Said is her first novel.

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From Indiebound: Thanks to her superstitious mother, Esther knows some tricks for avoiding bad luck: toss salt over your left shoulder, never button your shirt crooked, and avoid black cats. But even luck can’t keep her family safe from the Great Depression. When Pa loses his job, Esther’s family leaves their comfy Chicago life behind for a farm in Wisconsin.

Living on a farm comes with lots of hard work, but that means there are plenty of opportunities for Esther to show her mother how helpful she can be. She loves all of the farm animals (except the mean geese) and even better makes a fast friend in lively Bethany. But then Ma sees a sign that Esther just knows is wrong. If believing a superstition makes you miserable, how can that be good luck?  Debut author Gayle Rosengren brings the past to life in this extraordinary, hopeful story.

What the Moon Said is a Junior Library Guild Selection.

Here is what the reviewers had to say:

“Rosengren, in her first novel, offers an intimate account of a family’s adjustment to country life and the hardships of the Great Depression. It’s easy to root for Esther, who makes the most of each day, wants little, and gives much.”  Publishers Weekly

“A coming-of-age tale gets to the heart of family dynamics in the face of drastic life changes in the earliest days of the Depression.”   Booklist

“…the story triumphs in its small vignettes…”  School Library Journal

“… Sensitive and tender.”     Kirkus

What kind of research did you do about depression-era Chicago and Wisconsin? What was the hardest part?  

I had heard a lot of stories about my mother’s  life on the farm while I was growing up, but it was all in very broad strokes. I needed to fill in lots of details, about life on a farm and especially about farm and city life during the Great Depression.  I first reached out to my mother and she was able to provide a few really nice details, but for the most part her memories were cloudy and unreliable.  So I moved on to books for a general sense of the times, and then I went to my computer to research more nitty-gritty details online.  The hardest part was not taking anything for granted. For example, I originally planned to have the two teachers at Esther’s school distribute candy canes on the last day of school before Christmas.  I suddenly wondered if they would have been wrapped in cellophane at the time, or if perhaps the teachers would have wrapped them in waxed paper. Asking my mother led to a vague, “They must have been…it wouldn’t have been sanitary if they weren’t.”  Unconvinced, I went to my laptop to research candy canes only to discover they weren’t even available to the public until the 1950’s!  Who knew?  So a quick change from candy canes to gingerbread men was immediately made to the manuscript.  I was incredibly relieved I’d caught the error before it made it into print.  All my careful research was nearly undermined by a candy cane!  But this taught me a lesson about research that I won’t soon forget:  Never assume!

Esther’s mother seems to have a superstition for every possible situation. Do you have any superstitions of your own? 

My grandmother lived with us from the time I was eight years old, so she instilled in me the same superstitions that “Ma” drummed into Esther.   Even as a child I had my doubts about the connections between my actions and good or bad luck, but there was no getting around the required actions:  you spill salt, you toss it over your shoulder; you never tell a bad dream before breakfast or –eek!–it will come true; you never put a hat on a bed or someone is going to die(!); and, of course, you never EVER bring an open umbrella inside the house.  There were lots more, but you get the idea.  To this day, I won’t bring an umbrella inside the house until it’s closed, even if I get wet in the process of closing it outside.  It’s silly, and intellectually I know this but even though I don’t really believe in them, I “honor” them rather than tempting fate.  (Which I guess sort of undoes my denial of belief!)  In terms of my own superstitions, I do have a few.  The most significant one is that I always wear my mother’s ring when I do an event about What the Moon Said.  Although my mom knew I had written a book inspired by her childhood and had even read an early draft, she passed away before it was accepted for publication. Wearing her ring makes me feel as if she’s with me, seeing how well her story is being received and how many readers have fallen in love with the character of Esther.  She’d be so happy to know that.

If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from What the Moon Said, what would it be?

That you should follow your heart–trust it to guide you when you must make difficult decisions, as Esther did in the book.

Why do you write middle-grade?

I write middle grade because I think it’s the most fertile ground for planting and nurturing a love of books.  So much is new to middle grade readers.  They’re wide open to all kinds of stories–fiction, non-fiction, biographies, fairy tales, historical fiction, contemporary, mysteries, suspense, silliness.  This time in their lives is when the vast majority of them will discover the joy and excitement of entering the world of a book and be started down the path to being life-long readers.  I love being a part of that very important adventure and discovery.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?

As with writing for any genre, but especially writing for children and young adults, the first step is always to read, read, read what has been published in recent years.  Especially read the award winners and the books on recommended reading lists at libraries.  The children’s publishing market is evolving nearly as quickly as everything else. Read to get a sense of what is out there already and to get some sense of the terrain.  Then forget about what you read and write your own story–not with the thought of making a fortune or a getting a movie deal.  Just with the hope that it will resonate with young readers.  Write from your heart with no other goal than to touch theirs.

Gayle is giving away a signed copy of What the Moon Said. Enter here: a Rafflecopter giveaway

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas. She is currently working on a biography of Bayard Rustin for young readers.