Tag Archives: middle-grade fiction

Meet Carol Weston, author of Ava and Taco Cat

Welcome Carol Weston, author of the new novel AVA AND TACO CAT. On top of her middle grade novel writing career, Weston is also the “Dear Carol” advice columnist at Girls’ Life Magazine and a prodigious letter writer to The New York Times (40 published and counting). She’s here to discuss palindromes, Judy Blume and where she got the inspiration for Ava’s hometown.

Carol Weston, author of Ava and Taco Cat

Carol Weston, author of Ava and Taco Cat

Why kids’ books?
Back in college, when I studied French and Spanish literature, I dreamed of being a writer, but I didn’t imagine that I’d find my voice while impersonating a fifth grader. And yet I am so happy that after numerous magazine articles and books for teens and adults, I started writing for children. When my own daughters were little, I wrote a series about Melanie Martin and her brother Matt the Brat, and now I tell the tales of Ava Wren and her sister Pip and their word-nerd parents. Melanie lived in Manhattan; Ava lives in Misty Oaks.

Why Misty Oaks?
For 21 years, I’ve been the Dear Carol advice columnist at Girls’ Life Magazine. About five years ago, I received a snail mail letter and I remember noticing that the return address was “Misty Oaks.” Misty Oaks! It is evocative, isn’t it? Somehow a seed was planted. When I’m overwhelmed with my real life, I tell my husband, “I’m going to Misty Oaks,” then head into our daughter Emme’s room–now our guest room–and I wrestle with the latest manuscript. Fiction writing is hard work but oddly calming too.

Did you say Emme?
Yes! Emme is our second daughter. It’s not Emma or Emily; it’s Emme. When she was ten and grownups misheard her name, I’d sometimes hear her say, “It’s E-M-M-E. It’s a palindrome.” Maybe that planted a seed too! Note: Emme is now a grownup herself and she’s an important reader for me. I’m about to hand her the third Ava book, AVA XOX, to get her notes and input. It’s wonderfully lucky to have trusted family members read a manuscript before my “real” editors. Emme gives me great feedback and knows she can say, “This page doesn’t work” and that I will still love her to pieces.

Ava and Taco Cat

Ava and Taco Cat

What can you tell us about the new book?
In AVA AND TACO CAT (note the palindrome!), fifth grade Ava really really wants a cat, but when she and Pip sneak into the rescue center, complications begin. Ava becomes obsessed with her new pet, and her semi-neglected best friend Maybelle ends up making a new friend. This is hard on Ava (as it is on so many kids that age). To distract herself, Ava starts collaborating with Pip on a picturebook about fish. Ava rhymes and Pip draws, and they have high hopes that it will get published. But nope, nothing is that easy and there are lots of twists and turns before things work out.

Things work out?
Hey, it’s a kids’ book! One of my favorite things about writing for kids is that it’s not like a Shakespeare play where you almost expect corpses to litter the stage at the end. No way. Lots of page-turning adventures, but when you are reading a book for kids, spoiler alert, things usually do turn out okay.

Even for their picturebook?
Oh no! Alphabet Fish does not go the distance. Nor should it. Truth told, I found a similarly fishy manuscript in an old file in my filing cabinet –so maybe I did aspire to write for kids sooner than I’d remembered. But without telling you much more, let me say that when Ava finally starts to write about a subject closer to her heart, the story she tells finds a much wider audience. Including one person who–oops, I’d better stop before I spill too much!

Carol Weston and kids meet Judy Blume

Carol Weston and kids meet Judy Blume

Is there one living children’s book author you admire?
There are many! But Judy Blume is right up there. Here’s a photo of her with me back when my girls were… girls.

 

 

 

 

 

Want more Carol? Here she is with her cat talking about Ava and her cat.

Andrea Pyros is the author of My Year of Epic Rock, a middle grade novel about friends, crushes, food allergies, and a rock band named The EpiPens.

Indie Spotlight: BookEnds, Kailua, Hawaii

Today we’re talking with Pat Banning, owner and manager  of BookEnds , the only independent general interest bookstore on Honolulu’s island of Oahu.  Kailua, a short trip through a mountain tunnel from Honolulu, is noted for its great BookEnds front #2beaches, but also for its charming local shops, of which BookEnds (www.facebook.com/pages/BookEnds) is one.Bookends is  crammed full of new and used books—a playful place for all ages, with a special interest in children’s books.

MUF: Pat, please describe the unique atmosphere you have created at BookEnds.
Pat: We really like the shop to be a welcoming, casual, non-frightening place; to keep kids ever-alert for new things and creatures who might have joined the store- even before you can read, a space with interesting things inside.BookEnds Desk critterBookEnds drawing

MUF: Years ago when Borders opened a branch in nearby Kaneohe, many people said oh dear, what’s going to become of BookEnds? But now Border’s is nowhere to be found. And then there’s the whole electronic book thing.   What’s your survival secret?
Pat: I think the secret MAY be in staying just-big-enough to have a reasonable inventory, small enough to be quick on our feet, to make changes that we see meets the demands of our VERY discerning customers in Kailua….our biggest strength is our very very loyal customer-base.

Hanging out at BookEnds

Hanging out at BookEnds

Pat & Friends

Pat and friends

MUF: On an urban island with a population of just under a million yours is THE independent general interest bookstore. Ever consider cloning yourself? Expanding?
Pat: We’d love to expand; we never have enough space to keep our books reined in! And we’ve got some fun ideas for a BIGGER kid’s section, but….. even thought about another branch, but the thinner you spread your flavor, the less taste there is! So, no cloning, but we’re happy to give helpful hints to others…..

MUF: It’s obvious you folks love children’s books. How do you chose what to carry in your store?BookEnds Books
Pat: We try to carry stuff we love, we try to read as much early material as we can get, and we take the really good advice of the sales reps who sell us publisher’s lists. A well-written children’s book should be just as entertaining for a grown-up as for a child, so if we like it, chances are a lot of kids will like it too.

MUF: As middle-grade authors (and readers) we have to ask: what favorite titles, new and old, fiction and nonfiction, are you recommending to middle graders these days?Pegasus Origins
Pat: We love the Percy Jackson series, the Pegasus series, the Copper Dark is RisingSeptimus Heap series, the Susan Cooper books, the Sisters Grimm, the Series of Unfortunate events…there are really so so many great things coming out right now, that it’s hard to keep up…..Harry Potter started a huge demand for Sisters Grimm Mirrorsfantasy, but there is still a lot of reality-based fiction that is excellent……I have to admit that I don’t get a lot of NON-fiction coming Heap Magykthrough the door these days , for middle-readers, anyway.

MUF: Since you carry used books along with new, chances of finding an old favorite in your shop are pretty good. Can you think of some rare children’s titles or editions you have in stock that we might have trouble finding anywhere else?
Pat: We’ve got a really nice cache of Raggedy Anns that you don’t see often, some of the old Ant and Bee books, a few early Nancy Drews, a very old Little Black Sambo.BookEnds Raggedy Ann & Andy

MUF: Tell us a little about your Kailua neighborhood. If a family made a day trip to BookEnds, would there be family-friendly places nearby to get a snack or meal after browsing? What other family activities and attractions would be available nearby?
Pat: Well,  there’s the park, and the beach really close, Book Ends Beachthe community pool and tennis courts, lots of shopping, and Kailua has the gamut of restaurants, from Macdonalds and Subway, pizza of all types, to Indian and Mexican foods and lots of healthy salads. And of course, coffee for mom and dad….and we’re all waiting to see what Target, opening soon! is going to mean for us here.

Readers, have any of you been to this shop?   If not, and if you’re planning a visit to Honolulu, do include that trip over the Pali to Kailua for a book-lover’s holiday.  If you live on Oahu  already, why not un-chain yourself and drive to the windward side to experience a real bookstore!

 

Sue Cowing is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012, HarperCollinsUK, 2013).

 

 

 

 

 

BookEnds drawing

 

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.

csr5

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.