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WNDMG: Jewish-American Heritage Month – Jewish Stories in MG

We Need Diverse MG

Hello Mixed-Up Readers!

Hope you are all well!

If you haven’t been paying attention, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t have, but our own Heather Murphy Capps and Aixa Perez-Praido have brought a great new monthly feature to Mixed-Up Files, called WNDMG, which of course means, We Need Diverse Middle Grade. I know Heather, in particular, has been passionate about amplifying diverse voices, and hopefully, this year, she’ll have good news about her own book to share with everyone. She deserves it, especially since she has put in so much time to promote others.

Honestly, it’s an important item to feature, because every kid should be able to see themselves in books. Every child should be able to read about others just like them, and show those kids being the heroes of stories. Diversity is important, not just in real life, but also in books for kids. So, with all that being said, I was thrilled and honored when Heather asked me to write this month’s post for WNDMG, since May is Jewish-American Heritage Month.

I was even more thrilled, because, unfortunately, I haven’t always felt that warm and fuzzy feeling when it comes to including Jewish stories in kidlt. As a matter of fact, many years ago, when I first started trying to become a children’s book writer, I was told by a decision-maker in kidlit, to make a story less Jewish, so it would appeal to a broader audience. Oh, it happened to be a story based on Jewish mythology. From what I discovered later, I was not alone in that. Many other Jewish authors have told me of similar experiences, where agents or editors told them that their work wouldn’t sell because it was “Too Jewish”. While I do think that things are a little better now than then, I still see some pushback against including Jewish stories. And not just from decision-makers. Even see it from some who are dedicated to promoting diversity in kidlit. It’s not a great feeling when you’re told, we want to be inclusive, but just not to your group.

I’m not sure why that is, but it really needs to stop. Groups should all be trying to amplify each other instead of finding reasons why to exclude someone. Especially, if you’re a part of another group calling for more representation. And if you’re actively trying to exclude Jewish books, maybe ask yourself, why? On that topic, here are a few facts. You know, those pesky little things that get in the way of certain narratives. Jews make up only 2.4% of the population, yet account for an incredibly high percentage of hate crimes being perpetrated against them. Over the last ten years, antisemitism has steadily risen, and it’s not just coming from one political “side”. So, when you’re then told that you don’t qualify for inclusion in talk of books pushing diversity, that you’re not welcome in that club, it’s really mind-boggling, and incredibly hurtful. I’d use other words, but this is a site dedicated to kidlit, so will refrain.

With antisemitism being what it is, it is more important than ever for kids, all kids, not just Jewish ones, to see Jews represented in children’s books. We bridge gaps by not just letting Jewish kids see themselves, but also by letting other kids see Jews and realize that maybe the differences aren’t so great. And whatever differences there are, are to be embraced and learned from. It starts with children, and it’s also what any group would want for themselves.

To my shame, those many years ago, I changed my book to make it “Less Jewish”. Would never do that again. I’m older and wiser. Well, all right, just older. But, I now decided to put a Jewish character into anything that I write. Either the main character or at least, a supporting one. I think with things being the way they are around the world, it’s too important not to. Not going to lie, it’s gonna be tough when I write that sci/fi, alien race invading other dimensions story, but I’m sure going to try and figure out a way.

Maybe Klaatu Cohen? Hmmm, I’ll try and think of something better.

Anyway, with this being Jewish-American Heritage Month, I’m going to do my part to amplify Jewish voices. Jewish stories. Jewish authors. Not just Holocaust books, which are still important, but also books showing Jewish kids just being kids. So, if you’re a teacher, librarian, parent, caregiver, or anyone who helps make reading choices for kids, please seek out some Jewish-themed stories or even stories with Jewish characters to share with the children in your lives. It’d be a mitzvah!

If you need any recs, drop me a line. I’ll make time to answer anyone who writes. Honestly.

And next year, you can pick up a Bnai-Mitzvah-themed anthology that I helped put together called, Coming of Age. It has thirteen stories from twelve great Jewish authors and also one from me! Hey, I had to get some shameless self-promotion in here somewhere!

That’s all for now Mixed-Up Readers. Thank you all for reading, and until my next post, I bid each and every one of you, Shalom!

 

We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

Author Spotlight: Kwame Mbalia & Prince Joel Makonnen + a book GIVEAWAY & exclusive TRAILER REVEAL!

Kwame Mbalia (left), the New York Times bestselling author of the Tristan Strong books (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky; Tristan Strong Destroys the World; and the upcoming Tristan Strong Keeps Punching), has teamed up with Prince Joel Makonnen (right), the great-grandson of Haile Selassie I, the last Ethiopian emperor, to write Last Gate of the Emperor.

The novel, an Afrofuturist adventure novel inspired by the legends and culture of real-life Ethiopia, was lauded by Kirkus as an “enthralling tale of resilience, family, and bravery that will entertain young sci-fi lovers.” It is available now from Scholastic.

Summary of Last Gate of the Emperor

Yared Heywat lives an isolated life in Addis Prime—a hardscrabble space colony with rundown tech, lots of rules, and not much to do. His worrywart Uncle Moti and bionic lioness Besa are his only family… and his only friends.

Often in trouble for his thrill-seeking antics and smart mouth, those same qualities make Yared a star player of the underground augmented reality game The Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk. But when a change in the game rules prompts Yared to log in with his real name, it triggers an attack that rocks the city. In the chaos, Uncle Moti disappears.

Suddenly, all the stories Yared’s uncle told him as a young boy are coming to life, of kingdoms in the sky and city-razing monsters. And somehow Yared is at the center of them.

Together with Besa and the Ibis—a game rival turned reluctant ally—Yared must search for his uncle… and answers to his place in a forgotten, galaxy-spanning war.

Now, CLICK HERE for an exclusive SNEAK PEEK at the book trailer!

Interview with Kwame Mbalia & Prince Joel

MR: Thank you for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files blog, Kwame and Prince Joel. Before we dive in, I’d love to know the origin story behind your collaboration. How did a best-selling children’s author/self-described lover of Dad jokes and Cheezits team up with the great-grandson of Haile Selassie I, the 225th emperor of Ethiopia? 

KM: Through a mutual friend! And with both of us sharing a passion for telling stories about the African diaspora, it was easy to forge a connection through the power of those stories.

The Secret of Worldbuilding

MR: Last Gate of the Emperor is a fantastical tale that incorporates real-life Ethiopian places, culture, history, and food. For instance, the Gebeya (marketplace) is airborne with drones that buzz overhead and food vendors sell traditional Ethiopian fare, such as shiro (ground-chickpea stew) and sambusas (a savory pastry filled with ground beef or lentils). What’s the secret to building a world like the one described in your book? 

KM: Worldbuilding is like building a car. All cars have a frame to put the body of the car on. But the type of frame can be changed, adapted, painted, dressed up all snazzy, etc. Start from your frame, which for me is the community in my world. Where are my characters eating? Where are they attending school? Where are they hanging out…?

In answering these questions like how do characters get around (the engine/wheels) or what goods/industries are there (can’t have leather seats without cows) you’ll find more questions that will help to build out that world.

Creating a Rich and Textured World

MR: A question for Kwame: Like Last Gate of the Emperor, your Tristan Strong novels (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky and Tristan Strong Destroys the World) weave (West) African—and African-American—folklore into the narrative, creating a rich and textured world. What is it about African and African-American folklore that inspires you as a writer? Also, what kind of research did you do for Last Gate of the Emperor?

KM: In answer to the first question, it’s my culture. For research, there are always books and videos, but I find that nothing is better than actually talking with the people. And having someone like Joel on my team is like having the ultimate video game cheat code (not that Yared would cheat, he’s already the best).

Your Story Is Your Power!

MR: Prince Joel, you spent your childhood in exile, in Europe, and knew little about your royal past. You only learned later that you were a descendant of the Solomonic Dynasty, the oldest monarchy in the world, which ruled Ethiopia for over 3,000 years and traces its lineage back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. How did this discovery affect you personally? Did it give you a greater desire to delve into Ethiopian culture, history, and folklore, as demonstrated in Last Gate of the Emperor?

PJM: It absolutely fascinated me and motivated me to seek out even more information about my home country and my family’s history. A main theme in Last Gate of the Emperor is understanding the true meaning of family bond, and showing that it is everlasting, even if you are physically separated from your family and home because of unforeseen circumstances.

In Last Gate, similar to my experience, our main protagonist Yared is on an adventure, unbeknownst to him, which will take him on a journey of self-discovery. My hope is that young readers will be inspired by Yared and motivated to go on their own journey, seek their true core, and embrace it. Your story is your power! It will always be with you and you can use it to fulfill your dreams and do good in the world.

Bookish Inspiration

MR: Now, a question for both of you: What sorts of books did you enjoy as kids? How did these books influence you—as readers, and as novelists?

KM: I read anything and everything. Slowly I began to gravitate to science fiction and fantasy when I looked for other worlds to explore and escape to, while contemporary books by African American authors gave me an anchor to which I could return. Books like the Lord of the Rings and Slam! coalesced in my mind to give me the worldbuilding and the vernacular to create my own worlds.

PJM: As a kid, I enjoyed novels and fables such as The Little Prince, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the Fables of LaFontaine. As a reader, these books gave me a lot of inspiration, exposed me different truths about life at an early age and allowed me to expand my understanding of the world. I learned that there is so much more to life than what is right in front of you, and you can dream up your own world.

Kwame Mbalia’s Writing Process

MR: Kwame, can you tell our Mixed-Up readers a bit about your writing routine? 

KM: Personally, I write when I’m allowed to. Quarantining during a pandemic with kids means writing sometimes falls to seventh on the list of priorities. So a paragraph here, a few sentences there, a panicked writing sprint sprinkled in for good measure, and boom, instant book. Okay, maybe not instantly, but you know what I mean.

A Surprise for Prince Joel

MR: Prince Joel, what surprised you most during the writing, research, and worldbuilding of this novel? 

PJM: Besa!!! She is Yared’s bionic lioness, and she is everything! There are many other things about Addis Prime that are so cool, including “nefasis,” a special backpack outfitted with thrusters, skysails and, of course, the augmented reality game HKO!

Sequel? A movie…? Enquiring MUF Readers Want to Know

MR: Will there be a sequel to Last Gate of the Emperor? I’m dying to know what happens to Yared in the future.  Also, is there a movie deal in the works? This book screams to be made into a film.

KM: We’re working on the sequel! And maybe if everyone screams loud enough at the same time a movie producer will perk up.

And finally, a lightning round!

Preferred writing snack?

KM: Cheezits

PJM: Kinder Bueno, or Reese’s cups

Coffee or tea?

KM: Coffee with Cheezits

PJM: Buna! (Coffee)

 Cat, dog or bionic lioness? (Okay, that’s a trick question…)

 KM: How dare you! (Don’t listen, Besa.)

PJM: Bionic lioness! (Did I mention Besa?)

Favorite song?

KM: Star Wars Rogue One YouTube playlist

PJM: Right now, it’s “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

KM: Robot apocalypse is more likely

PJM: Yea – I’m ready, zombies, let’s go!

Superpower?

KM: Perfect single swipe peanut butter spread

PJM: Ability to sleep while appearing awake and remaining functional

Favorite place on earth?

KM: Next to my wife

PJM: Paris, France. Specifically, the Le George restaurant at the Four Seasons George V hotel on the Champs-Elysées, eating moules marinieres et frites with some Orangina

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they?

KM: A pen, a notebook, and a smartphone with suspiciously strong signal strength

PJM: A music player with an infinity battery, a machete, and my gold Ethiopian cross necklace

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Kwame and Prince Joel—and congratulations on the publication of Last Gate of the Emperor. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know Mixed-Up Files readers will too!

About the Authors

Kwame Mbalia is a husband, father, writer, a New York Times bestselling author, and a former pharmaceutical metrologist in that order. His debut middle-grade novel, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky was awarded a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, and it—along with the sequels Tristan Strong Destroys the World and Tristan Strong Keeps Punching (out October 5)—is published by Rick Riordan Presents/Disney-Hyperion. A Howard University graduate and a Midwesterner now in North Carolina, he survives on Dad jokes and Cheezits. Learn more about Kwame on his website and follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Prince Joel Makonnen is the great-grandson of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia. He is an attorney and the co-founder of Old World/New World, a media and entertainment company focused on telling powerful African stories that inspire global audiences through film, TV and books. He lives with his wife, Ariana, in Los Angeles.

A GIVEAWAY!

For a chance to win a copy of LAST GATE OF THE EMPEROR, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win! 

May New Releases!

This May there are lots of great new middle-grade releases to read. Here are a few coming out this month. Let us know which ones you’re excited to read in the comments!

Metropolis Grove by Drew Brockington

The big city is full of Superman sightings, but here in Metropolis Grove? Every kid in this suburb knows that he’s not real…except newcomer Sonia Patel, who convinces her friends Duncan and Alex to believe! When the trio discover a mysterious cave full of Super-memorabilia, they can’t keep it to themselves, and that sets off a school year full of drama and adventure and more than a few opportunities for a newfound friendship to test its limits. And when they finally figure out the resident of the cave is Bizarro, things get even more out of control!

Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea by Ashley Herring Blake

Hazel Bly used to live in the perfect house with the perfect family in sunny California. But when a kayaking trip goes horribly wrong, Mum is suddenly gone forever and Hazel is left with crippling anxiety and a jagged scar on her face. After Mum’s death, Hazel, her other mother, Mama, and her little sister, Peach, needed a fresh start. So for the last two years, the Bly girls have lived all over the country, never settling anywhere for more than a few months.

When the family arrives in Rose Harbor, Maine, there’s a wildness to the small town that feels like magic. But when Mama runs into an old childhood friend—Claire—suddenly Hazel’s tight-knit world is infiltrated. To make it worse, she has a daughter Hazel’s age, Lemon, who can’t stop rambling on and on about the Rose Maid, a local 150-year-old mermaid myth.

Soon, Hazel finds herself just as obsessed with the Rose Maid as Lemon is—because what if magic were real? What if grief really could change you so much, you weren’t even yourself anymore? And what if instead you emerged from the darkness stronger than before?

Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas

Brian has always been anxious, whether at home, or in class, or on the basketball court. His dad tries to get him to stand up for himself and his mom helps as much as she can, but after he and his brother are placed in foster care, Brian starts having panic attacks. And he doesn’t know if things will ever be normal again . . . Ezra’s always been popular. He’s friends with most of the kids on his basketball team–even Brian, who usually keeps to himself. But now, some of his friends have been acting differently, and Brian seems to be pulling away. Ezra wants to help, but he worries if he’s too nice to Brian, his friends will realize that he has a crush on him . . .

But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra has no choice but to take the leap and reach out. Both boys have to decide if they’re willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they’d rather hide. But if they can be brave, they might just find the best in themselves–and each other.

Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Federico doesn’t mind being a political hostage in the Pope’s palace, especially now that he has a cat as a friend. But he must admit that a kitten walking into a wardrobe and returning full-grown a moment later is quite odd. Even stranger is Herbert, apparently an art collector from the future, who emerges from the wardrobe the next night. Herbert barters with Federico to get a sketch signed by the famous painter Raphael, but his plans take a dangerous turn when he hurries back to his era, desperate to save a dying girl.

Bee never wanted to move to New Jersey. When a neighbor shows Bee a sketch that perfectly resembles her, Bee, freaked out, solidifies her resolve to keep to herself. But then she meets a friendly cat and discovers a mysterious cabinet in her neighbor’s attic—a cabinet that leads her to Renaissance Rome. Bee, who has learned about Raphael and Michelangelo in school, never expected she’d get to meet them and see them paint their masterpieces.

Shark Summer by Ira Marcks

When a Hollywood film crew arrives on Martha’s Vineyard with a mechanical shark and a youth film contest boasting a huge cash prize, disgraced pitcher Gayle “Blue Streak” Briar sees a chance to turn a bad season into the best summer ever.

After recruiting aspiring cinematographer Elijah Jones and moody director Maddie Grey, Gayle and her crew set out to uncover the truth of the island’s own phantom shark and win the prize money. But these unlikely friends are about to discover what happens when you turn your camera toward the bad things lurking below the surface.

The Wild World Handbook: Habitats by Andrea Debbink

The wonder of the natural world surrounds us—from the Amazon rainforest to the snowy peaks of Mount Everest to the green spaces in big cities. And as the threat of climate change grows, it’s more important than ever to show appreciation for our planet by taking action.

The first book in a middle grade series for young environmental activists and nature lovers, The Wild World Handbook offers a roadmap for change and an invitation to explore the outdoors, alongside surprising facts and hands-on STEAM activities. Featuring nine habitats from around the globe, each section includes diverse biographies of outdoor adventurers, scientists, and artists who used their passion and skills to become bold allies for Earth’s natural diversity and resiliency.

Sister of the Bollywood Bride by Nandini Bajpai

Mini’s big sister, Vinnie, is getting married. Their mom passed away seven years ago and between Dad’s new start-up and Vinnie’s medical residency, there’s no one but Mini to plan the wedding. Dad raised her to know more about computers, calculus, and cars than desi weddings but from the moment Mini held the jewelry Mom left them, she wanted her sister to have the wedding Mom would’ve planned.

Now Mini has only two months to get it done and she’s not going to let anything distract her, not even the persistent, mysterious, and smoking-hot Vir Mirchandani. Flower garlands, decorations, music, even a white wedding horse—everything is in place.

That is, until a monster hurricane heads for Boston that could ruin everything. Will Mini come through as sister of the bride and save the day?

How to Become a Planet by Nicole Melleby

For Pluto, summer has always started with a trip to the planetarium. It’s the launch to her favorite season, which also includes visits to the boardwalk arcade, working in her mom’s pizzeria, and her best friend Meredith’s birthday party. But this summer, none of that feels possible.

A month before the end of the school year, Pluto’s frightened mom broke down Pluto’s bedroom door. What came next were doctor’s appointments, a diagnosis of depression, and a big black hole that still sits on Pluto’s chest, making it too hard to do anything.
Pluto can’t explain to her mom why she can’t do the things she used to love. And it isn’t until Pluto’s dad threatens to make her move with him to the city—where he believes his money, in particular, could help—that Pluto becomes desperate enough to do whatever it takes to be the old Pluto again.

She develops a plan and a checklist: If she takes her medication, if she goes to the planetarium with her mom for her birthday, if she successfully finishes her summer school work with her tutor, if she goes to Meredith’s birthday party . . . if she does all the things that “normal” Pluto would do, she can stay with her mom in Jersey. But it takes a new therapist, a new tutor, and a new (and cute) friend with a checklist and plan of her own for Pluto to learn that there is no old and new Pluto. There’s just her.

Strong Like the Sea by Wendy S. Swore

Twelve-year-old Alexis was born in Hawaii and loves exploring her island paradise, but she’s afraid of the ocean, actually afraid of the various creatures who live in it. She still remembers the day a viper moray eel, looking like a monster, startled her when it popped out of a coral reef. When she tried to swim away, she got caught in a riptide until her dad rescued her. Now, even when her friends are surfing and swimming in the ocean, Alex watches from the beach. Alex’s mom works as a civilian contractor for the Navy. Alex thinks it’s cool that her mom works in intelligence on a submarine, but her job requires her to be away from home a lot. When she’s gone, she leaves codes and puzzles for her daughter and friends to solve, including a small prize.

A special birthday puzzle has a new twist―it leads Alex to visit their grumpy older neighbor whom everyone calls Uncle Tanaka, a retired marine biologist. Knowing her mom is away on an assignment, Uncle Tanaka reluctantly allows Alex to tag along as he and his enormous dog, Sarge, collect marine samples. Sarge isn’t the only creature devoted to Uncle Tanaka. A deformed sea turtle that Uncle Tanaka rescued returns to his beach each day, but Alex is leery of it and any other creature hiding beneath the waves. Uncle Tanaka assures her that sea turtles are gentle animals and are ancient symbols of wisdom and good luck.

When Uncle Tanaka’s Parkinson’s disease acts up, making it hard for him to put the stoppers in his specimen vials, Alex is a pair of steady hands ready to assist. She’s starting to believe that maybe old Uncle Tanaka isn’t as grumpy as everyone says. Alex’s courage is put to the test when Uncle Tanaka has a medical emergency and she finds him stranded in his small boat. Alex knows there’s no one else around to help but her. To crack her mom’s codes, she had to be smart and use her problem-solving skills. But now she’ll need to be strong like the sea and overcome her very real fear of the ocean to help save her new friend.

Spells Trouble: Sisters of Salem by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

Hunter and Mercy Goode are twin witches, direct descendants of the founder of their town of Goodeville. As their ancestors have done before them, it is now time for the twins to learn what it means to be Gatekeepers–the protectors of the Gates to different underworlds, ancient portals between their world and realms where mythology rules and nightmares come to life.

When their mother becomes the first victim in a string of murders, the devastated sisters vow to avenge her death. But it will take more than magic to rein in the ancient mythological monsters who’ve infected their peaceful town. Now Hunter and Mercy must come together and accept their destiny or risk being separated for good