Tag Archives: middle-grade fiction

Do You Think the World is Ready?

I don’t shock easily, but two recent incidents had me reeling.

The first happened during a creative writing workshop I ran for kids in Grades 4-6. At the start of the workshop, several kids mentioned which of my books they’d read. Then one girl raised her hand and shyly announced that she wanted to read my books, but her mom wouldn’t allow her. “She says they have bad words,” the girl reported.

I tried to seem blase. “Has your mom read any of my books?” I asked her.

“No,” the girl admitted.  “But she’s seen the covers.”

I assured her that I was always careful not to use “bad words”–and that it wasn’t fair to judge a book by its cover. But how a parent viewed any of my covers and decided the text contained inappropriate language  was a mystery to me. And the sad thing was, this girl was an enthusiastic writer who clearly craved access to all sorts of books.

The other incident occurred at the start of an elementary school’s Read Aloud Day. Because my books fall into the  upper elementary/ middle school category, I was assigned a fourth grade class, as was the local middle school principal.  As the two of us chatted before the program, he asked what books I had on the horizon.

I told him about my upcoming middle grade novels:  TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin, S&S/Sept. 20, 2016), which is about a mom-less girl’s experience of puberty, and STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S, March 2017), which is about a girl who has a crush on the girl playing Juliet in the middle school production of Shakespeare’s play.

The principal’s face turned pink. He laughed nervously. “Oh,” he said. “Do you think the world is ready?”

I explained that all my books were wholesome, completely appropriate for tweens. I hoped he’d express enthusiasm, maybe even extend an invitation to the middle school, or say he’d mention the books to the school librarian.  But he didn’t do either. Instead, he changed the subject.

I’ve been thinking about  both of these incidents  a lot lately, in light of Kate Messner’s recent dis-invitation from a school uncomfortable with her newest MG, THE SEVENTH WISH. That book, which I deeply admire, is about a girl whose older sister has a heroin addiction– a topic the school decided was inappropriate for its students .

What scares me is not so much outright book-banning, because that happens in the bright light of day, and often leads to heightened interest in the banned book, anyway.  What I find even more troubling is “quiet censorship,” the sort of thing that happens when an adult decides the world, or a school, or a classroom, or a particular kid “isn’t ready” to read about certain topics. And so he doesn’t extend the invitation, or order the book–not because the book isn’t good, or isn’t written at the right level, but because the subject makes him nervous. It’s a type of book-banning–but because it happens under the radar, it’s difficult to detect.

When Kate Messner was disinvited from a school, she had an overt act, the revoked invitation, to react to, and she did so eloquently and effectively, both on her blog and behind a podium at ALA 2016. But many authors who tackle challenging subjects just won’t get the initial invitation, or their book simply won’t get ordered by the library.  So how do they even know they’ve been “quietly censored”? And how can they–or their readers–protest? After all, schools and libraries are free to make their own choices, as they should be.  If they choose not to order a certain book, who’s to say the choice was motivated by the book’s challenging or controversial subject, and not by the author’s writing style?

I keep coming back to the realization that kids are older than we think they are, older than we were when we were their age.  Girls are menstruating at younger ages, getting eating disorders at younger ages (this is the subject of my upcoming eighth novel STUFF I KNOW ABOUT YOU (Aladdin/S&S Sept. 2017).  The internet has exposed all of our kids to a cruel, violent, judgmental world. If we don’t allow kids to read MG novels that reflect the world they live in, one of two things will happen. Either kids will turn off reading realistic fiction altogether (and with the internet constantly beckoning, that’s a real concern)– or they will crash the gate, choosing, and perhaps sneaking, YAs that are too explicit and dark for their years.  As any parent of a teen knows, once a kid starts reading YA fiction, he/she seldom wants to discuss the edgier content with an adult. Isn’t it better to allow access to books specifically geared toward a MG sensibility–the way  THE SEVENTH WISH is?  And shouldn’t we as adults want to stay in the conversation–even when (or especially when) the conversation makes us nervous?

We can’t be in favor of diversity in kidlit without welcoming books that include all sorts of previously ignored characters: kids of color, LGBT kids, kids in nontraditional families, kids coping with a family member’s addiction, kids coping with mental illness (like Dunkin in Donna Gephart’s  beautiful LILY AND DUNKIN).  There’s nothing inherently “wrong” or “inappropriate” about these characters–they’re just kids on the basketball team, kids on the school bus, kids in the play. And they deserve to be represented, read about, identified with, empathized with.

The world is ready.

Barbara Dee’s next book, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published on September 20, 2016.

Indie Spotlight: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville NC

malaprop's logo #2Independent bookstores are undoubtedly one of the most hopeful things  going for writers and readers today.  With special pleasure this month we feature Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (www.malaprops.com) which spoke up and pushed back pushed back in North Carolina this spring.  We are talking today with General Manager Linda-Marie Barrett.malaprop's front #1
MUF:
During the recent controversy over gender laws in your state, you appealed to authors and businesses not to boycott bookstores as part of their protest. Was the response encouraging? What role do you think bookstores like Malaprops can play in shaping independent and inclusive outlooks, particularly in the young?
Linda-Marie:After our open letters to authors, published in Shelf Awareness, in which we urged authors not to boycott us, we received very encouraging and supportive letters and phone calls from authors, publishers and other booksellers. Independent bookstores like Malaprop’s Malaprop's Thanksare often the only space in communities where controversial ideas are discussed. Independent bookstores are guardians of freedom of expression. We host authors and carry books that nurture inclusivity and awareness of different ways of being in the world.

MUF: Describe the atmosphere you have created in your shop.   What do you want people, especially young people, to experience when they visit? malaprop's interior #2
Linda-Marie: We hope most to be welcoming, inspiring and safe. We want to be a place where people relax when they enter our doors, find their next great read, laugh at some of our silly gift items, and engage with our booksellers and learn something new. We love our young readers and encourage them to find books that open their minds and their hearts and spark imagination.

MUF: What’s a good day at Malaprops?
Linda-Marie: Every day is a good day, but the best day for me is when I have a conversation with a customer malaprop's languagesand learn something from them that I can apply in my own life. I love when matching readers with books that might change their lives, or at the very least, bring a smile and a lightness to their hearts.

MUF: Malaprop’s is a relatively small shop. How do you decide what titles to carry and feature at your store?
Linda-Marie: We are not small for an independent bookstore, but we are very selective about what we bring in. We purchase based on what our customers have loved in the past, what we see being favorably reviewed in media we respect, and according to our tastes, too. We carry all of the favorite books of our staff. We also look for those special books that readers won’t find anywhere else. We like to surprise and delight our customers.Malaprop's Mr. PuffballMalaprop's League of Seven

MUF: As middle -grade authors, we’d love to know what titles, old and new, fiction and nonfiction, you find yourself recommending to ages 8-12 these days? Linda-Marie: I love Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars by Constance Lombardo, and The League of Seven by Alan Gratz. Lombardo and Gratz are local authors whose reads have a lot of heart, humor, and imagination. Lombardo illustrated Mr. Puffball and her drawings are hilarious!

MUF: Does Malaprop’s have any activities or events coming up in July or August that would be of particular interest to middle-graders? Malaprop's Harry potter
Linda-Marie: Our big event will be the Harry Potter midnight release party. Too much fun!

MUF: If a family from out of town came to visit your store, would there be family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could have lunch or snacks after shopping?
Linda-Marie: We are fortunate to be surrounded by family friendly restaurants. Great places to eat are Early Girl, Laughing Seed, Tupelo Honey, and Loretta’s.Malaprop's interior #1

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for talking with us, Linda-Marie.  Readers, have you been  to Malaprop’s or think you’d like to visit?  Please add your comments.

Sue Cowing 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 Jen Swann Downey

swordinthestacks

It’s our pleasure here at the Mixed Up Files to interview the fabulously funny Jen Swann Downey, author of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS series. The second installment, SWORD IN THE STACKS, has just released from Sourcebooks Jaberwocky. After stumbling upon the secret society of time-traveling ninja librarians, Dorrie has finally joined Petrarch’s Library as an apprentice! One day, she’ll actually go on missions to rescue people whose words have gotten them into trouble. For now she’s taking some interesting classes:
• First and Last Aid: When Nobody Else is Coming
• Spears, Axes, and Cats: Throwing Objects with Precision and Flair
• Codes, Invisible Inks, and Smoke Signals: Keeping Secrets 101

But on a training mission to 1912 England, Dorrie finds herself dangerously close to a member of the Stronghold – the Library’s biggest enemy. This is her opportunity! Dorrie can spy on the enemy, find the missing key…and become a real Lybrarian!

But if she makes a mistake, Dorrie could lead their enemy right to the very place she’s trying to save…and everyone she cares about.

It’s been a couple of years since the Ninja Librarians first began their adventures. What was the genesis of the idea for this series? I think the seed for the series was planted when I saw the phrase “Petrarch’s Library” scrawled on a notebook I found in our never-very-organized, and always-very-clutterful house. Everyone in the family denied being the scrawler, but the phrase ignited my imagination, especially after I looked it up and found it associated with a collection of books that the 14th century humanist and poet, Petrarch, had carried around with him when he traveled on the back of a donkey. That made me laugh, because the phrase had suggested some sort of grand magnificent library. But then I thought, well, even a small collection of books IS a sort of imaginary grand magnificent place because each of the books is a doorway into a different world of ideas, and knowledge, and story.

Suddenly I was imagining “Petrarch’s Library” as a solid, if sprawling building, made out of library chambers from different times and places knitted together by magic into one incredible super-library.

Since I was a kid, I always had the feeling that librarians were masquerading at doing something mundane while actually doing something incredible, mysterious and magical. It seemed reasonable that the work of librarians who staffed the imaginary Petrarch’s Library would defend and protect the flow of information in shall we say, some additional warrior-ish direct action ways!

Dorrie and Marcus have hair-raising adventures in lots of locations throughout history. Tell us a little bit about your research process. You are so kind to dignify my flailing attempts at understanding and conveying history as “a research process”. : )   I love history. I’m quite sure I don’t do any justice to any standards of academic research, but I love rolling around in the past in any way I can. For these first two books, once I settled on a place and time that would figure in the story, I would spend far too much on used books from Amazon to get a general sense of the “wherein” and then do more particular research as I needed to know more. I stare at paintings and statues, read historians’ accounts, and most satisfyingly of all – read uninterpreted original source material. For instance, parts of SWORD IN THE STACKS take place in 1912 London. I loved reading newspapers from the era to get a feel for the time, and how various sectors of society felt about the suffrage question.

The overarching theme of these books seems to be freedom of speech, a very relevant issue-not just for libraries. What do you hope readers will take away from this series? Since I was a young kid, I’ve been awed by those who have spoken “truth to power” often at great cost to themselves.  I am enjoying, through these fantasy adventures, posing questions about what exactly we mean by intellectual freedom, why it might have value, and what it means to uphold such a principle in every day life.

I hope readers who may not have thought about these things in a while, or lately, or ever, will join me in that questioning. About how for instance, a chasm can exist between theoretical support for the principle of intellectual freedom and the actions we take or don’t take when confronted with speech/writing we find dangerous, stupid, hurtful, or otherwise offensive.  It’s tempting to ignore cases of censorship of viewpoints we don’t share, or viewpoints we actively disagree with.

What are some of the challenges to series writing? Are sequels easier than writing the first book? When I wrote the first book, I chose to devote a good deal of my efforts to world-building. I reveled in (and gnashed my teeth at!) the challenges of making the clear rich fantasy vision of the alternate world inside my head and heart come alive for readers. When I began the second, I felt both tantalized and scared by the fact that the world now existed. My new main job would be to create a compelling story for Dorris and the rest of the Library’s inhabitants to live out WITHIN that world, and I wasn’t sure I could come up with enough story! I felt like a kid who, determined to build a club-house, bends all will to the task, and after much effort succeeds in nailing on the last shingle, but then isn’t quite sure what to DO with the clubhouse!

As I began to imagine Dorris’s story for the second book, it was hard not to think about the possibility of a “disappointing” sequel, which generated Fear and Self-Consciousness. I don’t know about you, but those two cats do not fuel creative flow for me!  I had to take back ownership of the book-writing somehow, and make it a creative act that wasn’t about pleasing others, but myself. Which sounds very vague. My specific strategy was to give myself a specific craft challenge.  I was very aware of the flaws I perceived via hindsight in my first book, especially in terms of plotting. The task I set for myself was to do a better job of plotting. One that I could feel was an improvement over the plotting in book one, even a small improvement. That if I could do that, no matter what else I achieved or didn’t with the book, I could feel good about that.  Somehow that really grounded and motivated me all at once.

You have an amazingly imaginative sense of humor. Please tell us about what kind of kid you were and how you grew to be such a wieldy wordsmith. Oh gosh. What kind of kid was I? I’m sure I was a trial to many neighbors and teachers.  I was a big time pretend kid.  I read a lot. A lot! But I was also loud and boisterous and a tree climber and a creek wader. I was an idiot. I had no sense of perspective. I always had a big plan: Bike to NYC, join the circus, run a restaurant out of our moldy basement.  I lectured the older teens on the block about smoking. I reveled in attics, basements, garages, storm drains, and all the rest of the unclaimed territories in which new civilizations could be erected. I took to writing early, mostly for its usefulness in writing ransom notes. I wrote letters, indignant childhood diary entries, purple poetry, and yearning paeans to each person I fell in love with, but didn’t really write stories until I was deep into matron-hood.

What’s your favorite part of being a children’s author? Writing for people who still believe that anything is possible.

If you could travel back in time to when you were first beginning to write toward publication, what advice would you give yourself or aspiring writers? Don’t rush. Don’t rush. Don’t rush. When you’re sure that your manuscript is in stellar shape, and you’re positive that the very first agent, or second at least, will fall in instant love with it…STOP.  Freeze your computer in a block of ice.  Lock it in a safe and swallow the key. Hire a cadre of badgers to bury it in the forest (wrapped nicely in protective plastic, naturally) but DON’T SEND OUT THE MANUSCRIPT.  Give yourself at least a month. Work on something else.  Another story. A macrame project. Anything. But give yourself time to be able to see the manuscript anew. When you were sure that there was nothing left to improve. Then send it out, and good luck!

Do you have any exciting plans for this summer, or do you do most of your traveling in books? My exciting plans include excavating the garden out of the weeds (I should have it ready to go just in time for the first snowstorm), teaching the family’s new dog not to pull all the arms out of all the family sockets whenever during our walks he sees a squirrel, or a cat, or a popsicle stick, or anything really;  and yes, exploring the Mongol Empire from my book-page origami airplane. You know…just in case Dorris and Marcus and Ebba have to maybe perhaps possibly visit there…..

And finally, what exactly are all seventeen uses for a flaming arrow? Or does one have to become a lybrarian to find out? We denizens of Petrarch’s Library believe in the free flow of useful information and would be more than happy to share:

The Seventeen Uses of a Flaming Arrow

1. Lighting surprise party birthday cake candles.
2. Severing a rope down which your enemy has only made it halfway     down.
3. “Safely” igniting explosives.
4. Illuminating dark archive passages in an exhilarating manner.
5. Beginning a useful stampede at a royal ball.
6. Trimming the hedges.
7. Checking depth of fetid well into which one is about to spelunk.
8. Low-tech signal flare.
9. Simultaneously catching and cooking your supper.
10. Instant wound cauterizer.
11. Encouraging tediously bad actors to exit stage left.
12. Quickly disposing of outdated curtains.
13. Entertainment of small children or easily pleased adults.
14. Testing air quality in an underground cavern.
15. Keeping angry book-burners at bay.
16. Impromptu fondu maker.
17. The ultimate literary exclamation point.  : )
We are giving away a hot-off-the-press copy of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: SWORD IN THE STACKS to one lucky winner! All you have to do is tell us an 18th use for a flaming arrow in the comments below!

JenSwannDowneyJen Swann Downey’s non-fiction pieces have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, Women’s Day, and other publications. She is the author of the middle-grade novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND. Her second novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS: SWORD IN THE STACKS is also now available from Sourcebooks. Jen divides her time between libraries and other places, and will never stop looking for lickable wallpaper.