Tag Archives: middle grade books

Interview with Debut Author Leah Henderson

Today, I’m thrilled to talk to author Leah Henderson about her debut (which released today!), One Shadow on the Wall, a story inspired by a young boy she saw sitting on a beach wall while traveling in Senegal.

JA: Welcome to From the Mixed-Up Files and congratulations on your debut! I love success stories, so tell us yours. What did your journey to publication look like?

LH: My greatest success with this book isn’t just getting it published, but finally getting out of its way and letting it tell its story. A story which in every way found me—not the other way around.

After I saw that boy sitting on the wall for the briefest of seconds and jotted down what I thought his day might be like, I was shocked when my professor thought my scribblings were the beginning of a novel. I was so worried about telling this story about a boy and a place I did not know well that I was finding every excuse I could not to work on it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a story that was important to tell, but I did not want to mess up. I just knew it wasn’t my story to tell and told my professor exactly that. But what I was forgetting, and what my dad later reminded me of was that I was standing in the way of kids whose life experience was similar to that of Mor’s would be losing a possible opportunity to see themselves in a book. Growing up, I remember feeling invisible on the page and I did not want that for them, but I also remembered how hurtful harmful representation was and did not want to be the cause of any more. We have had more than enough already. So true success for me and this project came when I just let go and I realized this wasn’t about me and what I was afraid of, it was about trying to tell these kids story in the best way that I could. I put learning about them and their experiences first.

As far as book publication goes, so many people stepped in to keep me on this path. After my first professor encouraged me to start this novel, my next professor encouraged me to show him “more pages of Mor,” then when graduation day came and I thought Mor could take a bit of a rest (for a long, long time) someone else stepped onto my path and asked, “what’s going to happen to Mor?” And with her endless encouragement I finished the novel and sent it out. Although every query was met with ‘no’, one of the agents encouraged me to keep writing. Many of the other replies had mentioned their uncertainty about where a book like this might be placed in the market, but this agent focused on a hope that I continue writing. And even though I have always loved Mor and the cast of characters that fill his world, I did decide to put them away and started a new project. Then about nine months later I was at a conference with the agent who had been so encouraging and they asked to see the project again. This time their answer was different. They wanted to represent One Shadow on the Wall. Shortly after that we sent it out to a group of editors (including one who had requested it), and within the blink of an eye, Mor had found a home. Leading up to that day was a long, meandering road, but I needed to take that journey for myself and for this story.

Book jacket for One Shadow on the Wall

JA: How has living abroad (and traveling widely) changed your life?

LH: Seeing the world informs so much of who I am and how I see things. I have met some of the most fabulous and gracious people on my travels, people that have left a lasting impression of what it means to live each day with heart and thanks.

JA: What other unique settings might show up in your work because of your travels?

LH: My family lived in the Middle East for a bit and I saw and experienced so many wondrous moment that I hope to one day sprinkle in a story or two. There is also a funny story from my time in China that I would love to one day figure out, but we shall see. I really never know where my next story will come from till a character or a scene is filling my head, demanding my attention.

JA: Where are you headed next?

LH: Vietnam is high on my list, but Senegal and Mali are always calling out to my heart and head to come back to a place that truly feels like home—West Africa.

JA: What made you want to be a writer?

LH: I have always enjoyed getting lost in stories. When I was growing up and we would visit historic places and learn about the people who passed through them, I was always curious about a person’s life before and after their grand adventures. I wanted to know those stories. And sometimes I was able to find them out, but often there wasn’t much more information, so I used to wonder and create my own stories for their lives. I always wanted to know what glimpse of a possibility they saw for themselves from the beginning. Were they always brave? Did they always care? Or did something happen that profoundly changed the course of their lives? These questions often lead to even more questions, and soon I was creating my own characters and writing my own tales.

JA: Did you have a teacher, librarian, or family member who particularly encouraged you to pursue your dream?

LH: My parents have always cheered me on in anything that I have set out to do. But in terms of writing, it was something that I kept coming back to again and again. I’d always enjoyed it and one day I just said: Why not? We should always pursue the things that bring us joy. So I did. No matter the time of the day I was jotting down stories and often felt incomplete if a day went by and I hadn’t scribbled something down, even if it was only a few paragraphs.

After that, there was really no turning back. My parents have always been big on telling my brothers and me to explore any possibility, so I decided to go study the craft of writing and get an MFA. And that is really when my love of writing became so much more.

JA: What’s up next for you, Leah? Any more short stories that might turn into your next book?

LH: As far as other short stories turning into something more, a picture book idea of mine quickly morphed into my next novel. Like Mor in One Shadow on the Wall, the main character in this book had a lot more he wanted to say than a picture book could hold. It is very different from this project though it still centers around family and seeing your possibilities. Vague I know, but it’s about a boy, his love for his grandfather, and a pair of magical shoes.

JA: That sounds intriguing! I can’t wait. Thanks for joining us on The Mixed-Up Files and best of luck, Leah!!

Leah has always loved getting lost in stories. When she is not scribbling down her characters’ adventures, she is off on her own, exploring new spaces and places around the world. One Shadow on the Wall (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum) is her debut novel. Leah received her MFA in Writing from Spalding University and currently calls Washington D.C. home. You can find her on Twitter @LeahsMark or through her website at leahhendersonbooks.com.

Indie Spotlight: Linden Tree Books, Los Altos CA

MUF: We’re speaking today with Dianne Edmonds, co-owner of Linden Tree Books (“Where Imaginations Grow”) a lively, mostly-children’s bookstore in Los Altos, California (www.lindentreebooks.com)
Diane, your shop has undergone interesting changes from the past, not only in location but transitioning from children’s recordings to books. What is the atmosphere you’ve created as a bookshop, and what are your goals for the future?
Dianne: Linden Tree has had many positive changes in the last 6 years. We’ve centered our brand and logo around the message: “Where imaginations grow”.  By dropping the word children from our store name, we can emphasize the notion that any person of any age can let their imagination grow. We will always be known as a specialty children’s store but we didn’t want our name limiting how customers view us.  In addition, we foster a sense of creativity and enlightenment in all aspects of our store.  The layout of the store transitions from one section to the next with bright orange signage; our displays capture thematic topics and seasonal happenings.  We have small chairs and ottomans in the picture book area and larger chairs in the teen and adult sections.  Multi generations can come into the store together and find a plethora of books and accessories to allow their imaginations to grow.
Our goals for the future include an on-line web store, continuing our vast assortment of events and public outreach as well as continuing to foster the love of reading within our community.

MUF: Your staff has been described as “literary matchmakers.” How do they go about helping customers find the next, best book?
Dianne: Our literary matchmakers are the best in the industry! We have a phenomenal staff that is recognized by customer’s near and far. Being a “Matchmaker” requires two things: first, you need to know what books are available, their content and audience. This requires spending a LOT of time reading and listening to the opinions of fellow coworkers. Linden Tree Books is blessed with staff that are sincerely interested in what we recommend to our clients, so this is pretty fun and educational. We dedicate time at staff meetings for book talks, all our staff attends our local fall trade show, and everyone joins our team with the desire to let their imagination growSecond, every staff member is trained to be well versed in the art of the interview: asking short, easy questions and understanding the responses. We also have to understand reading levels, comprehension/appropriateness level (i.e., a 10-year-old might read at an 18-year old’s level but they won’t be able to understand nearly as much, and most books at that level will be very inappropriate), what the book(s) are needed for and why, and what the parent is comfortable with. It all starts with the first and best question along the lines of “What have you read recently and enjoyed? Why?” Treating each customer as an individual and not type casting while listening for intonations in their voice or body language is also very critical.
All of this can only be learned by people who like people, and by spending time with the customers. It’s a bit like solving a mystery in a detective novel. Solving the match making mystery in 4 minutes can be really hard; however, there is NOTHING like witnessing a customer discover a book you love and recommend.

MUF: An independent bookstore’s collection has to be curated. How do you decide what books to carry in your shop?
Dianne: First, Jill Curcio, Co-owner, vets every title as she meets with publishing reps and reviews front list titles.  Then we carefully manage the number of inventory turns within the year of all titles.  If customers continue to buy specific titles on a regular basis, we will carry the book.  If the metrics fall below our minimum, even if it’s near and dear to our heart, we have to let it go.  Our customers dictate what they want, we listen to those purchasing habits and respond according.

MUF: As middle-grade authors, we’d love to know what titles, new or old, fiction or non-fiction, you find yourselves recommending to readers ages 8-12 these days?
Diane: How many pages can we fill on your blog? Seriously, we could provide you with pages of titles that are the go-tos for this age group. The Inquisitor’s Tale, (Adam Gidwitz), Spy School (Stuart Gibbs) et al, Books of Elsewhere by Jacqueline West, Fish in a Tree (Lynda Hunt), Ms Rapscott’s Girls (Elise Primavera), and The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann usually make the cut. I’m also super partial to the Ramona books, the Little House books, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth Speare.
More from our Matchmakers:
–The Boy Who Saved Baseball-John Ritter
–Every Soul a Star– Wendy Mass
–A Wrinkle in Time-Madeline L’Engle
–Harry Potter-J K Rowling
–Hoot- Carl Hiassen
–The Blackthorn Key – Kevin Sands
–Three Times Lucky – Sheila Turnage
–Connect the Stars – Marisa de los Santos
–Jackie Haha – Robert Patterson
–Dragon Rider – Cornelia Funke
Frogkisser! – Garth Nix
–Princess Academy – Shannon Hale
–The Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan
–Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library-Chris Grabenstein
–The Girl Who Drank the Moon-Kelly Barnhill
–Pax-Sara Pennypacker
–Charlotte’s Web -E.B. White
Jennifer Bertman’s The Book Scavenger and The Unbreakable Code (forthcoming) and The Defiant (M. Quint), because of the local connection to San Francisco locations. Chris Grabenstein’s books, especially Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, because of the tech/game connection.
–The Wild Robot -Peter Brown
–Mrs. Bixby’s Last Day-John D. Anderson
–Some Kind of Courage -Dan Gemeinhart
–Hello Stranger-Steadman
–Summerlost-Ally Condie
–The Warden’s Daughter-Jerry Spinelli
–The Real Boy-Anne Ursu
An upcoming book that we’ll be sure to put into everyone’s hands is Lemons by Melissa Savage, about a girl who has lost her mother and has to get used to a whole new town with a grandfather she’s never met. Another favorite is Full Cicada Moon, set during 1969 and the moon landing, about a girl who’s half black and half Japanese who wants to be an astronaut, and the mindset of the time that she has to overcome.

MUF: When the middle-graders turn thirteen, they’re eligible for a very special book group at your store. Please tell us about it.
Dianne: Linden Tree hosts a special program called the Linden Tree Teen Advisory Board for kids aged 13 through 18. Currently the program has nineteen kids from ten different schools who volunteer their time to attend Board meetings, help set up our in-store events and run events of their own. Just recently, the Teen Board hosted a Harry Potter Trivia event. They also get the opportunity to read pre-release books and meet authors. It’s been invigorating and fun! When we decided to start this program, we were hoping for at least 12 applications for 10 volunteers spots; for the first round, we had 50+ applications! It was amazing and showed us that there is such a need for these young, avid readers to have a place with their “people” to feel comfortable and be with like-minded readers. Being around this talented group really provides hope for the future of literature.

MUF: Do you have any events or activities coming up that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
Dianne: We have just started a program for 7 to 12-year olds we call the Linden Tree Page Turners. We have an RSVP list of 50 readers who come to the store to be interviewed about what they love to read! They share their favorite books, give us their thoughts, and we turn them around into a newsletter for adults who want to know what kids are reading. We are really looking forward to seeing what sort of information they share with us.

MUF: I believe you also carry puppets, games, and other book-related items at Linden Tree What are some favorites?
Dianne: The puppets and stuff animals are very popular, especially those with a tie-in with a book, like: the new -Knuffle Bunny, Uni the Unicorn, etc-  o the classic -Lyle, the kid from Snowy Day. Madeline- to the glorious mix of both: Max and Ruby, and all the Boynton stuffies. The Folkmanis brand of puppets sell very well at our store. Also, puzzles, coloring books, origami and magic trick sets are popular. Harry Potter themed sidelines always have a customer base.

MUF: If a family came to Los Altos to visit your store, would there be family-friendly places for them to have lunch or a snack after shopping? And if they could stay a little longer, are there unique family activities or sights nearby they shouldn’t miss?
Dianne: Los Altos has a very inviting downtown. To start with, we are next door to a fabulous bakery, Manresa that features a seasonal selection of handmade breads and pastries as well as a full expresso and tea shop. There is also a unique family friendly restaurant called Bumble. Bumble is a local organic restaurant created for locals and families to gather and enjoy a healthy meal and relax with friends over coffee or a glass of wine while children can check in a bright, sunny Playroom.  Their menu serves brunch and midday cafe offerings and changes seasonally to make the most of locally sourced, organic ingredients.  Also within a block of our store is a skateboard store (Skateworks) several outdoor art sculptures and plenty of sidewalk benches and two ice-cream establishments.

MUF: Thanks, Diane for telling us about your shop and for sharing so many of your favorite titles!  Readers, why not celebrate National Independent Book Store Day this Saturday by visiting Linden Tree Books (or, if you live too far away, your nearest independent shop) and picking up some of these books?




Spies Like Us

When I was a kid, my grandmother took me to see The HMS Pinafore, a Gilbert and Sullivan musical that premiered roughly one hundred and thirty nine years ago. It’s a story of mistaken identity that takes place on the high seas. Never mind that the elaborate costumes and high heeled shoes seemed utterly impractical for sailing, I was mesmerized. One thing in particular caught my attention and still drifts along behind me to this day. Buttercup, who the plot reveals to be an epic failure as a nanny (think the anti-Mary Poppins), sings a song called Things Are Seldom What They Seem. In the song, she offers a slew of ridiculous examples in support of this statement: skim milk masquerades as cream; highlows pass as patent leathers; jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers.

Other than the milk reference I had no idea what she was going on about but the thought that what you see is not always what you get lit up my young imagination like a match in a gallon of gasoline. Imagine my delight to discover there were a number of authors taken with this idea, too. They wrote about spies. Who knew there were people out there in the world whose job it was to pretend to be something other than themselves? It’s no wonder that a geeky elementary school student who often wanted to blend into the walls would find this appealing. I started in on the spy novels and never looked back.

To this day I read and write about spies and spying and how things are never quite as they appear. And lucky for us, middle grade is chock full of spectacular spy writing. In no particular order, some of my current favorites. They’re not top secret so feel free to share.

  1. Spy School, by Stuart Gibbs (first in a series). Ben Ripley may only be in middle school, but he’s already pegged his dream job: C.I.A. or bust. So he’s thrilled when he’s recruited to the C.I.A.’s top secret Academy of Espionage. Only, it turns out, Ben hasn’t been brought in because the C.I.A. expects him to succeed. Instead, he’s been brought in as bait to catch a dangerous enemy agent. Now, Ben needs to step up his game before he ends up dead. Can he solve the crime, get the girl and save the day?
  1. Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz (first in a series). They told him his uncle died in a car accident but fourteen year old Alex Rider knows that’s a lie. Still, nothing could prepare him for the news that his uncle was really a spy for MI6 , Britain’s top secret intelligence agency. Recruited to find his uncles killers, Alex finds himself caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
  1. Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead. When 7th grader Georges moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a 12 year old coffee drinking loner and self appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer’s first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend?
  1. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. First published in 1964, this novel is the grandmother of all middle grade spy books. Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?

Do you have a favorite spy novel? I’d love to hear about it! Until then, make sure no one is following you…