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Melissa Hart Interview & Book Giveaway – Avenging the Owl

Avenging the Owl by Melissa HartI recently had the chance to read Avenging the Owl—a new middle-grade novel by Melissa Hart. I also had a chance to interview Melissa and get the inside scoop on her book. Now, you can get the inside scoop, too. Read on . . .

T. P.: Thanks for giving me an opportunity to chat with you about your new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl. I’m sure that your own volunteer work at a raptor center and your brother with Down syndrome must have both been major sources of inspiration for the story you created. This made me wonder: Where did your overall idea for Avenging the Owl come from?

MELISSA: You’re absolutely right; I drew upon my eight years of volunteering at a raptor rehabilitation center for the setting details in Avenging the Owl, and my brother is the inspiration for Eric in the novel. But the idea came from a high school boy with whom I volunteered at the raptor center one summer. He’d left his mandatory school community service until the last minute, and the only venue left was the raptor center. Problem was, he hated birds. My husband and I worked an evening shift with him every week, and I got to watch him go from sullen and resentful to gradually intrigued by the injured and orphaned raptors. Eventually, he grew so enamored of them that he came back the following summer to volunteer. He’s the boy I had in mind when I crafted Solo Hahn’s character. Later, I took a good look at Han Solo in Star Wars and used his narrative trajectory (from apathetic mercenary to committed helper), as well. Solo starts out caring only about surfing and material possessions, and then gets to know fellow raptor center volunteers Lucas and Leah and begins to take joy in helping those in need.

T. P.: What a cool inspiration for your story! I always enjoy getting a glimpse into how much real-life experiences sometimes shape a fictional narrative. I also like how you modeled Solo Hahn’s character arc after that of Han Solo in Star Wars. I must confess: That similarity slipped right past me as I read Avenging the Owl, but I certainly see it in retrospect!

Now you’ve got me wondering: What was the timeline for creating your story? What was the journey like from your initial experience with the reluctant high school volunteer . . . to your “Ah, ha! I’ve got myself a story!” moment . . . to when you began outlining or drafting . . . to your final draft that was ready for submission?

MELISSA: It took me about a year and a half to write Avenging the Owl–multiple drafts. I’d written two YA novels (currently mildewing in a desk drawer) before I started work on the middle-grade novel, so I knew about narrative arc and structure and all that. For Avenging, I got a 12-foot piece of butcher paper, divided it into several sections, and then taped it around my office walls. I used different colored markers to jot down key plot points and character conflicts and motivations for each chapter, so that I could easily see a graphic representation of the novel as it took shape. (I really love pre-writing visuals like highlighter pens and multicolored cluster diagrams, etc. Sometimes I even sketch images of my characters, though I can’t draw at all.)

A friend of mine who was a literary agent at the time suggested Solo’s obsession with B-movies and the insertion of screenplay scenes. And my editor at Sky Pony Press, Julie Matysik, had really good suggestions for keeping Solo’s character consistent in the final drafts. He got pretty lusty for Leah in a previous draft (as did Eric), and I toned it down a little for middle-grade readers.

Glad you saw the Star Wars/Han Solo parallel, by the way–read it again, and you’ll catch all sorts of cool Star Wars parallels and references!

T. P.: Although the similar Solo Hahn-Han Solo character arcs slipped past me, I did manage to catch at least some of the Star Wars references you slipped into your story! (Lucas and Leah come to mind. . . .) Now if only you could have inserted a Pacific Northwest-based Big Foot-Wookiee comparison. . . . 🙂

Anyway, focus I must. . . .

I love your use of butcher paper to create a visual plot outline as part of your prewriting process. I’m very much a visual-kind-of-guy (I wield a minimum of 4 colors of highlighters when adding things to my calendar), so I know my brain would appreciate the big-picture overview your prewriting approach must provide.

Once you finish prewriting and complete your initial draft, what’s your favorite aspect of the revision process? How about your least favorite?

MELISSA: I love revision so much more than writing the first draft. With the first draft, I’m pretty angsty and neurotic, and I drink way too much coffee and eat way too many cookies. But the second draft feels like a big lump of clay that I can trim or add to as needed. My favorite part of revising a novel involves adding humor. I love looking at every paragraph and gauging where it might be funnier, and what would make it funnier. Sometimes, I’ll draw upon real life for the humor. For example, there’s a scene in Avenging the Owl in which my character who has Down syndrome karate kicks someone who’s called him a “retard.” That’s art imitating life–my younger brother actually did this to a kid once, for exactly the same reason.

My least favorite part of revision is cutting word length. I didn’t have to do that with Avenging, but I frequently have to cut my essays down for magazines and newspapers. It’s excruciating to have to cut 500-1000 words from a piece I really love, but if I believe in the mission of a particular magazine or newspaper and want my work to appear in its pages, I’ll do it.

T. P.: I loved the scene with Eric’s rather unexpected karate kick! Not only was it a blast of humor, but it made me cheer for Eric all the more. It’s pretty cool how you were able to draw on a real-life experience for that scene.

Now let’s go to the flipside of real-life inspiration. What are one or two events or scenes in your story that you really like but that sprang completely from your imagination?

MELISSA: Most of Avenging the Owl came from my imagination–I love to “imaginate,” as my nine-year-old daughter says.

Two of my favorite scenes take place at the top of the butte, where Solo and Eric end up after some pretty eventful hikes. I took as the inspiration a butte (a solo mountain) in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, but the scenes are pure fiction. In the first butte scene, I love how being surrounded by nature affects Solo. It calms him down in the midst of his angst and jolts him into another reality–one in which he feels grounded and peaceful and optimistic. He really gets how magical the natural world is, and he’s able to let go of a lot of anxiety about his parents and his living situation for an hour and focus on weird insects and plants and birds. Plus, as Solo discovers, hiking up a butte is always a good excuse to eat cookies.

In that second scene, near the end of the book, he and Eric flee to the butte as a refuge. And then (no spoilers here!) someone dear to him discovers the tranquility of the place, as well, which starts them on the path to healing a really difficult relationship. I hike almost every weekend with my husband and daughter; we’re the best versions of ourselves when we’re surrounded by trees and rivers and mountains. I hope these “imaginated” scenes will inspire readers to get outside!

T. P.: Well, Melissa, I’ve never hiked up a butte, but I do love cookies. So . . . let’s use that as a springboard for one final question: If you were all alone on top of a butte, working on your next novel, what kind of cookies would you be eating?

MELISSA: Well, I really adore these flourless chocolate cookies that our local bakery, Crumb Together, sells. But for a hike, I’d want homemade oatmeal chocolate chip. I’d probably sneak some whole wheat flour in there, too, but the chocolate is essential.

T. P.: Okay, Melissa, you’ve officially made me hungry. . . . But I must stay strong and finish this post. Otherwise, people won’t get the opportunity to win a copy of your book! So . . . I’ll leave it at this: I enjoyed Avenging the Owl, and I also enjoyed getting a glimpse into what led you to write the story in the first place. Thanks for sharing with the Mixed-Up Files!

Want a chance to win a copy of Avenging the Owl by Melissa Hart? Entry is easy! Just comment below by leaving an answer to one simple question:

What kind of cookie would you take along for eating at the top of a butte?

The lucky winner will be selected on Friday, 6/24/16.


Author Melissa HartAlong with Avenging the Owl, Melissa Hart is also the author of her memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family, and her YA memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood. Along with writing books, she teaches Literature for Laurel Springs, a distance-learning high school based in Ojai, California. To learn even more about Melissa and her writing, visit her website at www.melissahart.com.


T. P. Jagger The 3-Minute Writing TeacherAlong with his MUF posts, T. P. Jagger can be found at www.tpjagger.com, where he provides brief how-to writing-tip videos as The 3-Minute Writing Teacher plus original, free readers’ theater scripts for middle-grade teachers. He also has even more readers’ theater scripts available at Readers’ Theater Fast and Funny Fluency. For T. P.’s 10-lesson, video-based creative writing course, check him out on Curious.com.

 

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!

somewhere among

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)