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Interview with Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu + Giveaway

Today we have on the blog an interview with Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu, author of SOMEWHERE AMONG, a beautiful and haunting debut novel in verse about an American-Japanese girl struggling with the loneliness of being caught between two worlds when the tragedy of 9/11 strikes an ocean away. Read on for the interview and a chance to win this lovely book!

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What inspired SOMEWHERE AMONG?

Our life in Japan! I have lived and raised my children in a binational, bicultural, bilingual, multi-generational home in Tokyo for the past 24 years. Clashes, comedic scenarios and common ground have provided much introspection. Although I don’t see myself as a writer of Asian topics, there were a few things I wanted to share in children’s non-fiction magazine articles and picture books. I found it difficult to fill in the spaces of what American children know.

I started a children’s photo blog in 2006 when my youngest child was in fifth grade. That satisfied the desire to show modern Japan. I later started a novel set in Texas (my home state). After the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, I had to ground myself in Japan. Emotions and images and memories of our life and our nations’ shared history rushed into poems that turned into this story.

At the story’s center is a paper doll that a woman had handed me on the train in my early days here. The doll came with the message “May Peace Prevail on the Earth.” I had tried to write a picture book about that, but the story was too big for 32 pages.

The 2011 disaster spurred me to write about Japan and the paper doll was the inspiration and motivation to try to tell its story again.

What kind of research did you do to tell this story?

I had started out with what I remembered. Then after the first draft, I used news reports, newspaper articles, weather data, and websites like NASA’s. The storyline didn’t change much from the first drafts. Through revisions it was a matter of making sure the timeline was correct and layering details.

The school and family life details were inspired by but altered from our experience. My children went through the Japanese public system and we lived in a multi-generational home. I couldn’t have written this story without that experience. It would have been very shallow.

Hearing the story of 9/11 from the perspective of an American living overseas is fascinating. Is that something you planned from the beginning, or did it come out in the writing process?

I didn’t set out to write about 9-11. This story came about through grounding myself by reminiscing. Sitting down to write about our life and memories here, I couldn’t get very far before 9-11 came up.

However, the sinking of the Japanese fishing boat, the Ehime Maru actually came up first. That incident exemplified the struggle (I especially felt) to reconcile the history and tragedies that my children’s two nations share. I distinctly remember that sadness and the months of TV coverage. The fishing ship tragedy happened in February 2001.

So, through writing this story, I was dragged into dealing with 9-11 again. I was dealing with aftershocks at our Tokyo home and the grief of the tsunami damage from a distance. It was not easy to deal with this. I could have easily avoided writing this story.

What are some books of poetry or novels in verse you would recommend for kids?

Oh! I have to say that I have limited access to English books because of price and place. I cannot afford all the books I would love to buy and our local library only has two or three short shelves of Newbery winners. No verse novels.

The only verse novel I had read before I started Somewhere Among was Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Holly Thompson’s young adult novel, Orchards, had arrived just before the earthquakes of 2011. I knew it was about suicide so I didn’t get to read it until after the aftershocks and I had written my first draft. I discovered and read Susan Taylor Brown’s Hugging the Rock. I also learned of and read Thanhha Lai’s middle grade Inside Out and Back Again after it had won the Newbery. I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming last summer. All of those are wonderful.

Since attending Highlights Foundations Verse Novel workshop in 2012, I have read and enjoyed the work of instructors Virginia Euwer Wolf, Sonya Sones, and Linda Oatman High and attendees K.A. Holt, Sarah Tregay, and Madeleine Kuderick. There are future verse novelists from that group to watch out for.

Helen Frost, Margarita Engle, Mariko Nagai, Leza Lowitz and Holly Thompson’s books are on my wish list. There are many other verse novels I would love to read. Most of them are for young adults. I read and write mostly for middle grade readers 9-12 so middle grade novels are my first choice of purchase now.

Children’s poetry anthologies aren’t particularly age-specific. All anthologies and books by Lee Bennett Hopkins are great. My children loved You be Good I’ll be Night by Eve Merriam. Talking Like the Rain by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy Kennedy. My favorite children’s poets are Joyce Sidman, Janet Wong, Helen Frost, Charles Ghigna, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Coatsworth.

I enjoy the video interviews that Lee Bennett Hopkins and Renee La Tulippe produce about children’s poets. There are so many wonderful things done for poetry for children. Sylvia Vardell’s blog www.poetryforchildren.com . Poetry Minute for younger readers www.poetryminute.org and Poetry 180 for older readers www.loc.gov/poetry/180

 

Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu lives in Tokyo, Japan. Her work has been published in Hunger Mountain, Highlights, Highlights High Five, Y.A.R.N., and other magazines. She received a grant from the Highlights Foundation to attend Chautauqua in 2009. Somewhere Among won the 2013 Writers’ League of Texas award in the middle grade category and is her debut novel.

For a chance to win a copy of SOMEWHERE AMONG, please leave a comment below by noon Eastern time on Monday, May 30th. If you tweet about the contest, we can give you an extra entry. Continental U.S. only, please (sorry! It’s the postage!).

Katharine Manning sighed her way through the lovely SOMEWHERE AMONG. She is a middle grade writer of dreamy fantasies and fast-paced soccer books. To see more of her raving about middle grade books, visit Kid Book List. You can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter.

Indie Spotlight: The Twig Book Shop, San Antonio TX

Twig books frontIt’s always a pleasure to feature an independent shop that has thrived for decades! We’re talking today with Claudia Maceo, manager of  The Twig Book Shop of San Antonio.  Twig front sign

MUF: How did your shop get its unique name?
Claudia: The legend behind the name of the store is that the previous owner had purchased it from a man who had named the store after himself. Wanting to have a fresh start, at a cocktail party the new owner was discussing the options for a new name for the store. As is not unusual at a party where there might be alcohol, the literate attendees tossed around a few quotes including the one from which The Twig Book Shop sprang. Alexander Pope – “’Tis education forms the common mind; just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined”

MUF: Great Story! One reviewer recounting a visit to your shop spoke of its “innocent charm.” What sort of atmosphere have you tried to create for your customers? twig interior #2
Claudia: Given the limited space, we want people to be drawn in by the warm colors of the wood and wall color. There are winding ways through the children’s section and nooks and crannies along each wall. Our cash wrap is in the center of the store and has a huge old Italian-made chandelier from a previous Twig owner that has been placed in our care. We have two entrances- the front-front door and the back-front door. We do have some quaint hand-lettered price signs and computer-generated section signs that I would hope seem “innocent” or quaint.

MUF: A small independent shop has to/gets to be very selective about the titles it carries. How do you decide what books to carry?
Claudia: We have several publisher reps who have known us over the years who advise us wisely. They, after all want us to do well, too. That, and our buyer has been at this job a long time; Susanna was the manager before I was. Our “floor” staff also are great listeners tuned into what customers are asking for.Twig LondonTwig Sarah PennypackerTwig DiCamillo

MUF: How do you help browsers find “the” book. As middle-grade authors, we’re curious to know—what books old or new, fiction or nonfiction do your booksellers find themselves recommending to middle-grade readers these days?
Claudia: When a customer comes to us asking for a book, we usually look it up in the system first, but then we go to the shelf with the customer. That is where the magic occurs – wonderful conversations about reading likes and dislikes, favorite books read, or in the case of a gift, what the reader knows about the intended recipient. We sell a lot of the award winners, classics and the popular authors like Pennypacker, DiCamilo, Henkes, Barnett, London… there are so many.

MUF: The Twig is known for its strong collection of Texana and Texas history. Any especially fine books appealing to ages eight through twelve?Twig Mysterious TrunkTwig, Boy in the Alamo, Margaret Cousins
Claudia: We have sold over 100 copies of Goodnight San Antonio which includes local sites and bits of history. There is the age-old classic The Alamo by Margaret Cousins, an Alamo A to Z that includes a bit more text than a typical alphabet book, and the Mr. Barrington’s Mysterious Trunk series that fictionalizes a variety of events in Texas history.

MUF: Most long-successful book shops like the Twig have a strong connection to their communities. Give us an idea what you and San Antonio do for each other.
Claudia: We are very involved with many organizations like church groups and schools, libraries, and literary organizations, non-profits and charities. We provide books for bookfairs, conferences, and author visits that sometimes includes making donations of the proceeds to the non-profits.Twig logo

MUF: If a family from out of town came to visit The Twig, would there be family-friendly places nearby where they could get a snack or meal after ward? And if they could stay a little longer, are there some unique sights and activities nearby that a family shouldn’t miss?
Claudia:
We are located at the Historic Pearl Brewery where all the shops and restaurants are locally owned and operated for a distinctive shopping and dining experience. This summer and fall, several new building projects will be completed like an artistic water feature for kids, informal dining, and a shaded plaza.
We are also on the Museum Reach of the Riverwalk which is the turnaround basin for the river taxis. Along this branch, or reach, a bat colony lives under the Camden St. bridge, water fowl make their homes here, and locks make the river navigable from downtown to Pearl. Within a mile or two of Pearl are the San Antonio Museum of Art, the new children’s Do-seum, and the Witte Museum.

screenshot_2228Thank you , Claudia, for telling us more about the Twig. It sounds like a treasure for those who live in  San Antonio and a great place to visit.  Readers, put this one on your map!
And remember, tomorrow is Independent Bookstore Day, so buy a book or two or more to support the stores that you want to thrive.  Independents are the future!

Sue Cowing lives in Honolulu and is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012)

 

 

Interview–and Giveaway–with Steve Brezenoff

Steve Brezenoff is the author of young adult novels Guy in Real Life; The Absolute Value of -1; and Brooklyn, Burning, as well as over a hundred chapter books for younger readers, including The Field Trip Mysteries, Museum Mysteries, and Ravens Pass series. He grew up on Long Island, spent his twenties in Brooklyn, and now lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their two children.

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Steve joins us to talk about his middle-grade Museum Mysteries series.

Description from IndieBound: ” Join four friends as they take in culture and solve crimes in the Capitol City museums. Because of their parents’ jobs in the museums, the kids have unprecedented access to the exhibits, and because of their brains, they solve mysteries that leave the pros scratching their heads. Discussion questions, writing prompts, a glossary, and nonfiction resources continue the reader’s learning experience long after the story ends.”

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The Museum Mystery series is one of several series you have written for Capstone. Can you tell us a little about the process of developing and writing a series?

I’ve done (or am in the midst of) five series for Capstone. The Museum Mysteries, The Field Trip Mysteries, Back to the Titanic, and Ravens Pass, as well as the Twice-Told Tales under the name Olivia Snowe. (I’ve also contributed titles to a series of sports books under the shared author name Jake Maddox, and a series that morphed into Ravens Pass under the name Jason Strange.)

When it comes to series for this market (school and library), series development is a different animal from trade publishing, primarily because librarians don’t want series that must be read in a particular order. It’s a difficult feat to provide books in order to readers, so being able to read out of order without losing any aspect of the story is ideal. The exception in my case is the Titanic series, which is ordered.

Because of this, development tends to be more thematic. That is, the story is not continuous, so we’re developing characters and scenarios. And because these are all work-for-hire titles, much of this work is done in-house at the publisher before I’m onboard. For example, for the Field Trip Mysteries, the idea of four sixth-graders going on field trips and solving mysteries came from Capstone. I created and developed the characters and placed them on field trips that, initially, came from the publisher as well. As the series went on, more of that became my responsibility. The Museum Mysteries in many ways grew out of the Field Trip Mysteries–they’re thematically very similar. In that case, I was given the four museums to bounce off of, and then developed other details–characters, backgrounds, parents, etc.–on my own.

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If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from the Museum Mystery series what would it be?

I’m tempted to talk about science or art history or American history–in other words, one of the themes behind the four museums featured in the series. But the truth is I’ve been more focused on writing about these characters in a way that shines a light on race and gender and sexuality in a way that I haven’t seen much in chapter books for younger readers, readers at the bottom of the middle-grade range. It’s no secret that most of my fiction takes place in Minneapolis/St. Paul, or a very vaguely fictionalized version of the metro area. I try to make sure, therefore, that the characters reflect the Twin Cities I’ve come to know and love since moving here ten years ago.

It’s no surprise, then, that what has garnered the most positive reaction has been the diversity of the cast. The cover of one of the first Museum Mysteries titles, The Case of the Missing Museum Archives, features main character Amal Farah wearing her hijab. It was such a small gesture, to be honest, but it got a lot of very positive attention.

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There’s so much to like about the Museum Mysteries: An engaging plot with a diverse cast of characters, great illustrations, and (especially appealing to me) lots of science. It seems to me that reluctant or struggling readers would really enjoy them. What has been the response?

I think the response has been good, particularly to the diversity of the cast.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed your Museum Mysteries?

Well, obviously the Field Trip Mysteries, which are thematically very similar to the Museum Mysteries. There’s a great resource for young mystery fans here and here.

Some may know you more for your young adult titles. How does your approach differ in writing for the different age groups?

It might be a symptom of writing mysteries for younger readers rather than the readers’ age, but I tend to rely more on an outline from the outset for my chapter books than for my longer novels for older readers. I can’t even begin a Museum Mystery without knowing everything about the crime, the suspects, and how it was done. With a longer novel, I tend to just start writing, knowing little more than a couple of characters, maybe a setting, and I see where it takes me before I step back and think about outlining.

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Can we look forward to more middle-grade books from you?

There are two more Museum Mysteries in August of this year. And for spring 2017, we’re trying something new with the Field Trip Mysteries. I’ve pulled Sam, Cat, Gum, and Egg out of retirement, and next year they’ll star in four new You Choose mysteries, where readers can make choices for the junior sleuths and try to solve the crime. Stakes are high, and some endings will leave the culprit on the loose.

Steve has kindly offered to give away a set of two signed books from the Museum Mysteries series–The Case of the Stolen Spacesuit and The Case of the Missing Mom. Comment below before midnight on Friday, April 15 for a chance to win. The winner will be announced Saturday, April 16.

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers, Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).