Tag Archives: middle-grade fiction

Interview with Celeste Lim, author of The Crystal Ribbon

In a story set in medieval China, Celeste Lim brings a young girl of exceptional heart together with the animal spirits of ancient myth to overcome a dark fate. Wed at age eleven to a three-year-old,  Jing’s life seems like a dismal sentence, and yet it is full of surprise and adventure.  In the interest of full disclosure, Celeste began weaving her tale while in my class at Manhattanville College’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing. From the first evening she read aloud, her writing voice captivated  me and I felt certain that her tale was destined for publication. And now that it’s here, I get to interview her!

Would you tell us a little about your writing background and early writing experience?

Growing up in Malaysia exposed me to a myriad of languages at a young age. We learned Bahasa Malaysia, our national language, in class; English was a compulsory subject as well because we were colonized by the British; and I went to a Chinese school because of my heritage. Therefore, what I has been exposed to growing up taught me that English books were written for and about Western people; Chinese books were written for and about Chinese people; Malay books for and about Malay people, and so on. So naturally, when I attempted to write my first English novel at age seventeen, I wrote a story about three fair-skinned, red-haired sisters who live in New York City, a place I’d only ever read about in books and saw on TV. That manuscript has been sitting in a hidden folder on my computer ever since.

How did you come to write Jing’s story?

Your first class focused on writing from our unique reservoir of seminal experience. I remember how groundbreaking it felt to me to realize that I was actually allowed to write about what I knew in a language that was supposedly foreign to my culture. That was a huge turning point in my writing journey and was also how Jing’s story was conceived.

The Crystal Ribbon’s magical creatures or jing, are important elements in the story. Could you explain more about them here? Did the jing characters spark your imaginyation as a child? Do you have a favorite jing?

This is one of my favorite things to talk about! Just like beings such as fairies and mermaids, jing are mythical creatures that sprung from the lips of storytellers, and since then have consistently appeared in ancient and medieval Chinese literature. The existence of jing came from the Taoist idea that through enough spiritual training, anything is able to attain a higher level of existence. Jing are non-human creatures that, after a hundred years of spiritual training, have attained the ability to speak, and a human level of consciousness and intelligence.

Because these ideas are so much a part of our mainstream religion, as a child I took them for granted, being more intrigued by gnomes and fairies. But now I do actually have a favorite jing–the huli jing, or fox jing! Other than being a very handsome creature, it feels like a very complex character, having the potential to be equal parts good and evil, which is why I chose it to be my character Jing’s unlikely friend.

Although Jing’s world contains magical helpmates, she couldn’t escape being sold into marriage at age eleven. At the hands of her three-year-old husband’s family, she suffers many cruelties. Were these scenes difficult to write? Explain how you approached them.

The novel actually started out as a third-person narrative. As a person living almost a thousand years later, I found it difficult to write in a way that helped me connect intimately to those experiences. But when my editor suggested I switch to first person, the barrier seemed to disappear. First person is not my writing strength, but in this point of view, I was forced to experience everything as Jing.  I found that the words in these scenes came easier and sounded more authentic, raw, and immediate.

Although The Crystal Ribbon is set in medieval China, Jing could be a role model for girls today. What qualities do you think serve her best?

I’ll name two of the traits that I admire in Jing, resilience and introspection. I believe her resilience stems from hope, something that she carefully preserved and did not let her hardships extinguish. Initially, her hope might be that things will eventually change for the better on their own, but I think it is her introspection, her constant self-examination, that allowed Jing to discover the strength to change the course of her life.

Having a first book published can be both thrilling and daunting. Since this is your first experience with having a book published, what surprised you about the process?

It was surprisingly less stressful than I anticipated! I am admittedly a bit of a Hermione Granger when it comes to things I’m unfamiliar with. I remember researching and reading up tons about the publishing process and hearing many anecdotes of bad publishing experiences from fellow authors. But fortunately, I have a good working relationship with my editor. I believe that is a huge reason why I feel safe and reassured in her hands.

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…

Interview and Giveaway with Sarah Jean Horwitz – Author of The Wingsnatchers: Carmer and Grit Book One

Today we welcome Sarah Jean Horwitz, whose debut middle grade novel, The Wingsnatchers:  Carmer and Grit Book One, comes out April 25th from Algonquin Young Readers.

The Wingsnatchers:  Carmer and Grit Book One is a stunning debut about a magician’s apprentice and a one-winged princess who must vanquish the mechanical monsters that stalk the streets and threaten the faerie kingdom.

Aspiring inventor and magician’s apprentice Felix Carmer III would rather be tinkering with his latest experiments than sawing girls in half on stage, but with Antoine the Amazifier’s show a tomato’s throw away from going under, Carmer is determined to win the cash prize in the biggest magic competition in Skemantis. When fate throws Carmer across the path of fiery, flightless faerie princess Grit (do not call her Grettifrida), they strike a deal. If Carmer will help Grit investigate a string of faerie disappearances, she’ll use her very real magic to give his mechanical illusions a much-needed boost against the competition. But Carmer and Grit soon discover they’re not the only duo trying to pair magic with machine – and the combination can be deadly.

The Wingsnatchers is such a wonderful middle grade read. What are your favorite things about middle-grade fiction (as a reader and as a writer)?

One of the things I love about middle grade fiction – and fantasy in particular – is the unadulterated sense of magic and wonder. I don’t mean to say that the middle grade fictional universe is an uncomplicated one; on the contrary, this is the age when most kids are getting quite acquainted with the complexity of their own worlds, and the best stories know this. But there is an absence of outright cynicism, and that’s always a refreshing pond to dive into for a little while – both as a reader and a writer.

What inspired you to write The Wingsnatchers?

I knew for some time that I wanted to write a faerie-centric urban fantasy, but I never really had an idea with teeth to it until one day – as early as 2011, I think – a very specific image fell into my head: a boy in a shabby top hat and a faerie with a mechanical wing sitting on the brim. I was still in school at the time and working on other projects, so I put the two of them on the back burner, but I think I knew, even then, that this was the story to stick with. I just had to know more about them.

One of the things I love most about The Wingsnatchers is the world-building. Both the steampunk world of Carmer and the fairy kingdom of Grit come to life on the page in vivid detail. Can you tell us a little bit about your process in creating such a colorful and lively fantasy world?

Despite how integral the steampunk aesthetic is to the book now, it happened mostly by accident! The story is set (super!) roughly in an alternate 1880’s-1890’s, but that wasn’t always the case. When I started, it was way earlier – think mid-to-late 1700’s – and that wasn’t sitting quite right. Then, when my research into the Industrial Revolution went a bit too far down the rabbit hole and well into the 1800’s, I came across the early history of electric lighting – which, of course, became a central element of the plot and the story world. Building a Victorian-inspired setting from there, especially with a focus on the stage magic and vaudeville scenes, was just plain fun.

I was also, obviously, heavily inspired by Boston and its public parks. My personal map of the Oldtown Arboretum in the book is literally a traced-over and heavily rearranged version of the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain in Boston. I would walk by the Boston Public Garden at night and imagine the globes of the streetlamps powered by faerie lights. I love this city and its unique blend of old and new so much. I hope the fictional Skemantis is a fitting tribute.

Also, some of the coolest elements of the story world actually exist! The Moto-Manse, for example, is based on a Burning Man exhibition I found on Pinterest called the Neverwas Haul. It’s a thing!

Carmer and Grit are such wonderful heroes – and so perfect together. What drew you to writing these characters and what are your favorite things about each of them?

Thank you! Carmer and Grit were inspired by some of my favorite mystery-solving duos – all the way back from the original Holmes and Watson to today’s Joan and Sherlock on the show Elementary, Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural, and even Hiccup and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon. I’m a firm believer in “platonic soulmates” – the one person out there who gets you, man, even if on paper, you may not have much in common. Carmer and Grit literally come from different worlds, but that doesn’t stop them from being a great team. In fact, it makes them better! I wanted to write a story about friends whose differences bring out the best in each other.

I love Carmer’s wry sense of humor and his determination to do the right thing, even if it’s uncomfortable or disadvantageous to him personally. I love Grit’s passion and impulsiveness – even when it gets her into trouble – and her frankness. I wish I could be as no-nonsense as she is!

There are so many interesting secondary characters in the book – from automata cats, to talking puppets, to the wonderful Antoine the Amazifier. Do you have a favorite?

The cats are my favorite, because my best friend hates them. Ha! Okay, let me explain: I was always convinced they were fun and creepy and different, even if they were pretty ridiculous, and she was like, “No, girl, just no,” but I kept them anyway. And I trust her opinion more than anyone’s in the world, but I kept them in anyway. And then not only did the book get published, but those creepy cats made it all the way to the cover! So that will be forever entertaining to me.

Your steampunk world is full of magic and science. Did you do any research while writing The Wingsnatchers? If so, what did you learn?

I did quite a bit of research! And then a lot of it got chucked out the window in service of the story, because magic is cool and I wanted to let magic be cool. Carmer would most definitely not approve. My major areas of research were the history of electric light and Victorian era stage magic and magicians. I obviously wasn’t concerned with writing a true historical fantasy, but I did try to play off the general “look and feel” and some of the driving social anxieties of the time.

The Wingsnatchers is Book One in the Carmer and Grit series. Can you give us any hints about what’s coming next and do you have any book recommendations for fans while we wait impatiently for the book two?

Well, I joked in my debut author group the other day that I was torn between two titles for book two: “Youths Flying Airships and Making Questionable Decisions” or “Everyone is a Little Bit Traumatized From the Events of Book One.” Does that count as a hint?

If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend the wonderful The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, which just won the Newbery Medal. It is the perfect blend of magical and honest and complex-but-not-cynical.

Sarah Jean Horowitz author of The Wingsnatchers: Carmer and Grit Book OneSarah Jean Horwitz is the author of the middle grade fantasy novel CARMER AND GRIT, BOOK ONE: THE WINGSNATCHERS and a member of the Boston Teen Author Festival organizing team. She loves storytelling in all its forms and holds a B.A. in Visual & Media Arts with a concentration in screenwriting from Emerson College. You can find her reading, writing, and occasionally dancing around like a loon throughout the Boston, MA area.

 

You can reach Sarah through her website or at one of these social media links:

Twitter: @sunshinejhwitz

Instagram: @sunshinejh

Facebook: sarahjeanbooks

Website: www.sarahjeanhorwitz.com

Sarah is giving away one Advanced Reader Copy of The Wingsnatchers:  Carmer and Grit Book One (US entries only, please).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Patricia Bailey is the author of  the  middle-grade historical novel The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan (April 2017). She blogs here and at her website patriciabaileyauthorcom.

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