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Interview with Chris & J.J. Grabenstein, co-authors of SHINE!

Today at MUF we’re talking with Chris & J.J. Grabenstein, co-authors of the middle-grade novel, SHINE! (Random House Children’s Books), which James Patterson says is, “Inspirational, commonsensical, and a whole lot of fun.” We got the writing partners — and life partners! — to tell us about their new book, how they work together, and what’s next for them.

 

Shine!

Mixed-Up Files: J.J., we understand the idea behind SHINE! was yours. Can you talk about what sparked the idea? What made this the story you decided had to get written?

J.J.: I guess living in New York City has made me hyper aware of how hard everybody here strives to get ahead. What pre-K your child gets into, theoretically, will help determine whether they get into Harvard. Growing up in an environment where accomplishments and awards were highly prized, I wish I had read a book that said who you are as a person is even more important than landing on the honor roll or winning the lead role in the school musical.

We know that J.J. has helped behind the scenes on many of Chris’ other books, but how was the process here different than in the past?

CHRIS: In the past, J.J. has been my first editor. She reads everything before anyone else and encourages me to cut out the boring parts. She also lets me know if anything takes her out of the story. An odd word or phrase. An illogical leap. Confusion of any kind. But, in the end, those books are my books and I get the final say (even though I typically take all J.J.’s notes and make all her suggested changes).

On SHINE! we were equals. Both our names would be going on the cover. We both had to be happy with every word.

MUF: What did your collaboration look like?

CHRIS: Well, first we spent months blocking out a very detailed outline. VERY detailed.

That’s a technique I learned from James Patterson. When I work on a project with him, he creates an extremely detailed outline with all the twists and turns plotted out. I execute a first draft from that outline and check in with him every month with new pages.

With J.J., we checked in every day.

We also discovered that we have extremely different writing techniques.

In college, I majored in Communications at the University of Tennessee. J.J. studied music and theater at Northwestern (yep, that’s why the hero of our book’s father is a music teacher). At the end of my freshman year at UT, I took a typing test. We needed to do 30 words a minute before we could take any sophomore level courses. From then on, every assignment we turned in had to be type written.

When I graduated, I could type over one hundred words a minute. In fact, working as a temporary typist was how I supported myself when I first moved to New York City to pursue a writing and comedy career.

So now, when I write, I think through my fingertips.

J.J., on the other hand, has a theatrical background. For years, she toured the country doing musicals. She also appeared Off Broadway in the long-running hit NUNSENSE. Today, she works as a voice actor, creating lots of different characters. (She narrated my HAUNTED MYSTERY series from Random House.)

When J.J. writes, she wants to act out all the scenes. And play all the characters. Something I was doing in my head and sending down to my keyboard (and she thought I was just typing). This led to some very interesting scenes in the writing room.

Chris and JJ Grabenstein

MUF: Did you ever disagree at points on what direction the book should go? If so, how did you resolve that?

J.J.: Not on the overall direction. On individual scenes? Yes. If neither one of us could convince the other to see it our way, then we realized there was something fundamentally wrong with both approaches. So, we’d chuck whatever we were championing and work out a solution that made both of us happy.

MUF: Do you find collaborating on a book with someone else harder or easier than doing it solo?

CHRIS: In a lot of ways, it’s much easier. Someone else is helping you map out the journey and make decisions along the way. Then, if you take a wrong turn, it’s not entirely your fault!

MUF: What’s it like when you get editorial notes back? How did you decide to tackle those edits? What was the division of labor there?

J.J.: We were very fortunate to have Chris’s longtime Random House editor Shana Corey working with us on SHINE! In fact, we often say, her name should be on the cover, too. She was a true third partner throughout the whole two-years and six drafts it took to get the book right.

Like I’ve seen Chris do (from time to time), I’d whine a little about the editorial letters and all the notes. After all, what we had turned in was perfect, right? But then, the next day, I’d also do what I’ve seen Chris do countless times: Realize Shana was right. And the book would be better if we made her suggested changes, cuts, or additions.

MUF: What projects are next for you both?

CHRIS: Well, let’s see…my first picture book, NO MORE NAPS, from Random House will be coming out in February. There will be a fifth Lemoncello book, MR. LEMONCELLO AND THE TITANIUM TICKET, coming in late summer, 2020 to be followed by the first book in what we hope is a new Middle Grades series. I also edited and contributed to a collection of short stories for the Mystery Writers of America that will be out in June. James Patterson and I will have, I think, three books coming out in 2020, including the 7th in the popular TREASURE HUNTERS series. And, I am doing a new Audible Original entitled STUCK, where I get to make a cameo appearance.

J.J.: Well, after reading Chris’s list, it looks like I have a lot of first editing to do! I’ll also be heading back to the sound booth to record books and voice overs for all sorts of clients. I’m also happy to report that I will be appearing in the Audible Original STUCK. Chris and I play goofy cartoon characters at a game-arcade/restaurant called Chuck and Ernie’s.

MUF: Do you both read quite a bit of middle grade? What are some of your favorite recent MG titles? Any recs for us?

CHRIS: I do read (and listen) to a lot of Middle Grade stories. My recent faves include Steve Sheinken’s BORN TO FLY, R.J. Palacio’s WHITE BIRD, Stuart Gibbs’ CHARLIE THORNE, and Jerry Craft’s NEW KID.

J.J.: I read a ton of Middle Grade books. Because Chris writes a ton of ’em every year.

MUF: Tell us a little bit about SHINE! for our readers. 

CHRIS: Well, the gang at Random House always knows how to summarize a book better than me! Here’s what they say:

“Who do you want to be?” asks Mr. Van Deusen. “And not when you grow up. Right here, right now.”

Shine on! might be the catchphrase of twelve-year-old Piper’s hero–astronaut, astronomer, and television host Nellie Dumont Frisse–but Piper knows the truth: some people are born to shine, and she’s just not one of them. That fact has never been clearer than now, since her dad’s new job has landed them both at Chumley Prep, a posh private school where everyone seems to be the best at something and where Piper definitely doesn’t fit in.

Bursting with humor, heart, science, possibilities, and big questions, Shine! is a story about finding your place in the universe–a story about figuring out who you are and who you want to be.

MUF: If you have anything else to add, please feel free!

We’re excited to see the numerous ways teachers and librarians have already brought SHINE! to life in their schools. We’re also thrilled that the folks at Random House put together such a fantastic Educators’ Guide for the book. (Click here for the Educators’ Guide to SHINE!)

 

Cynthia Leitich Smith of the new HarperCollins imprint, Heartdrum

The latest diversity in children’s book data released by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows the publishing slice for American Indians/First Nations books stayed relatively flat. This percentage increased only slightly from the 2015 data (0.9%) to 1% reported in 2018. The excellent infographic, Diversity in Children’s Books 2018 by David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen, visually represents this striking data.

There is a need for action.

The first step has been around a long time for the readers and educators who have found it. It’s the abundance of exceptional Native content produced by exceptional Native creators. I highly recommend digging into Native kidlit and giving these books a try. You’ll be glad you did.

A solid and promising second step came recently from a major publishing house. HarperCollins Children’s Division is taking a step forward with the announcement of their Heartdrum imprint. Better yet, this exciting new imprint will be led by two awesome and talented individuals, Cynthia Leitich Smith and Rosemary Brosnan. Today, we are honored at From the Mixed-Up Files to have Cynthia Leitich Smith graciously answer a few questions about Heartdrum.

Cynthia, welcome! Thank you for being our guest and sharing this great news about Heartdrum.

What does having a Native imprint at major publishing house mean to you personally, now and for the future, as an author, advocate, and enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation?

It’s a signal that Native voices and artistic visions are more fully welcomed and embraced by children’s-YA book publishing per se. It is a noteworthy and encouraging intersection between the industry and the intertribal Native literary community—most importantly, young readers, centering Native children and teens.

When we think personally, “community” is the first, most important word that comes to mind.

As excited as all us Native Kidlit fans are for the news of the Heartdrum imprint, we mustn’t look past the tremendous creative work that has been and will be released in the future from independent publishers. Can you touch on some of those wonderful houses?

We must remember that tribal presses and Native-owned presses are and should always be the leaders in this industry conversation. We must also pay tribute and continue to support small presses that have been at the forefront of bringing Native voices and visions to kids from the start.

When seeking out Native literature, we’re all blessed to have high-quality titles from houses like Salina Bookshelf, Lee & Low/Tu Books, Charlesbridge, Cinco Puntos, Levine Querido, Native Realities Press, and Chickasaw Press (among others).

(A huge shout out to Lee & Low for taking a strong leadership position in encouraging more diversity and accountability within publishing as an industry and to Tu editor Stacy Whitman for bringing more Native voices in speculative/genre fiction into the world.)

This moment is also a testament to the importance and guidance of groundbreaking elder authors and illustrators like Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Michael LaCapa, Tim Tingle, Lucy Tapahonso, Joy Harjo, Joseph Bruchac, Louise Erdrich, and Simon Ortiz…to new and rising stars like Christine Day, Dawn Quigley, Darcie Little Badger, Eric Gansworth, Julie Flett, Monique Gray Smith, David Alexander Robertson, Angeline Boulley, and Brian Young (among others).

Likewise, we should all be sure to herald breakout individual titles on big-house publisher lists from new sensations like At Mountain’s Base, written by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila/Penguin Random House), Fry Bread, written by Kevin Noble Malliard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (Roaring Brook/Macmillan) and the forthcoming We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade (Roaring Brook/Macmillan)(among others).

(A huge shout out to Traci Sorell for her leadership in the Native children’s-YA literary creative community.)

Together, these Native literary and visual artists have proven that authentic, well-crafted Native writing and illustration can entertain, inform, delight, foster empathy, validate and connect.

And their accomplishments didn’t come easily. They have persevered and broken through barriers of bigotry, misconceptions, and stereotypes—navigating and pushing against literary defaults to non-Native conventions and sensibilities. And that battle is still ongoing.

What is Heartdrum’s origin story?

Turning to the Heartdrum imprint, it should be noted that credit for the idea goes to Ellen Oh at We Need Diverse Books. And of course, she—like so many of us—was made more aware of the Native children’s-YA publishing book landscape in part from the hard work of folks like CCBC, former ALA President Loriene Roy, the American Indian Library Association, Drs. Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, and rising voices like Kara Stewart and Alia Jones.

Ellen and the CCBC team are wonderful examples of friends who went above and beyond.

Remember that every act of support from each of us makes a difference.

Every Native or non-Native teacher who shares an authentic Native-focused book—especially when it’s not November; every Native or non-Native family member or friend who gives one to a beloved child….

As a fan, I’ve enjoyed the recent resurgence in Native-created content. Can you highlight some of these changes which have given Native creators in the industry the space they deserve?

Last year, author Debby Dahl Edwardson organized LoonSong: Turtle Island, a workshop for Native writers, that led to deep friendships and ah-ha moments that will long impact children’s literature in exciting ways.

This year SCBWI welcomed me to its Board of Advisors, and I’m working with a terrific committee of luminaries on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Bank Street College featured several Native voices at this fall’s book festival.

Just last month, educator Jillian Heise organized and moderated a Native author panel at NCTE. And Native representation was up at that conference across the board.

KidLitCon has announced that Dawn Quigley will be their upcoming keynote speaker.

Children’s librarians introduced authors like Traci Sorell and Kevin Noble Maillard to elementary students at their schools.

Native booksellers like Red Planet Books & Comics in Albuquerque and Birchbark Books & Native Arts in Minneapolis (among others) have become essential destinations.

Of late, Meghan Goel, the children’s book buyer and programming director, at Austin’s legendary independent bookstore, BookPeople, reached out to ask how she and the store could better support Native voices, and she took positive action from there, including writing a related article for Publishers Weekly.

The work of today’s veteran advocates is echoed and carried forward from Indigo’s Bookshelf: Voices of Native Youth.

I could share so many more examples—including this interview at Mixed-Up Files!

All of this is to say: We’re talking about a steadily building groundswell of support, over many years, that has been the most successful when Native voices have taken the lead and true friends have listened respectfully and responded proactively in cooperation.

What role do you envision for Heartdrum in advancing Native literature and literacy?

The Heartdrum imprint is another next step forward. Actually, it’s a leap of faith.

Twenty years ago, a big-house editor, Rosemary Brosnan, took a risk on my first book, Jingle Dancer, a contemporary Native story about a young girl bringing together regalia with the help of women of every generation of her family and community. Launching the Heartdrum imprint with her feels as though our journey has come full circle. And now, we’ll begin again with the goal of helping to nurture and lift more Native creative folks and books, to benefit generations of young readers.

A house with the reach and resources of HarperCollins, dedicating itself to this initiative, will be a game-changer for the future of children’s-YA book publishing.

Heartdrum will offer page-turning, heartfelt, sometimes joyful, sometimes reflective books that will speak to generations of young readers.

My hope is that Heartdrum books will validate fellow Native literary and visual artists of all ages—from preschoolers to elders. I also hope that educators will take note of our emphasis on tribally specific, contemporary (and perhaps futuristic) stories to recognize that Native people hail from distinct Nations with past, yes, but also a present and future.

We’ll be inclusive when it comes to the intersectional identities. There is so much diversity within Indian Country—intertribally, culturally, linguistically, in terms of faith, socio-economic status, body type, gender, orientation, and so on. If, say, a Native author with a disability reflects that experience on the page, we’re not going to say, “Your layers of identity are too much for the mainstream market to process.” We understand that the human experience is not a check-one-box proposition.

Joy, fun, and humor will be ever-present in the mix with more serious themes.

We’ll prioritize the needs of kid readers, especially Native kids.

Beyond that, I hope friends and colleagues take this moment to reflect on their relationship to Native literature and diverse and inclusive literature more broadly. And that’s something we’ll continue to do, too.

We must all be asking ourselves with each step forward: How can we do better?

I’m also deeply grateful that WNDB and HarperCollins are making it possible to organize annual workshops for Native writers to nurture their writing journeys. No doubt that some writers we’ll be working with will go on to publish with the Heartdrum imprint and some will go on to publish with other houses.

We’ll be filled with joy about them all!

 

 

Would your favorite childhood books get published today?

Writer friends often gripe that classic and modern classic children’s literature is rife with so many of the no-nos we are counseled to avoid. So much exposition! Too much description or flowery language! So episodic. Too much showing not telling. Not to mention the subtle or not so subtle references to dads reading Playboy magazine that I keep finding as I re-read some of my childhood favorites. (Although I’m sure they were all the kinds of dads who subscribed to the magazine because the articles were really good.)

As anyone who has been following my previous posts might guess, I have been caught up in the theme of old-fashioned vs modern and what still feels fresh no matter the decade or era. Continuing in this vein, this time the question I am asking is: would classics that are still in print and greatly enjoyed by young people today, actually get published today?

I posed the question to many different kinds of people in the children’s book publishing industry and in the writing community, both in the US and the UK, and have been having some really interesting conversations. Because my personal taste tends toward the character-driven quieter dramas of everyday life rather than the big action, adventure etc., and those are the kinds of books I want to write, I asked about mid-to-late-century books from authors like Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume, or older ones like Ballet Shoes and Anne of Green Gables, as well as ‘modern classic’ UK favorites like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.

I realized that this is a large question and might only be answerable on a case by case basis. And that one could think about it as both a philosophical exercise and as the basic question of ‘if x manuscript landed on an editor’s desk today would it be published?’ But I invited people to take the question in any direction that felt interesting to them and now I would like to share a few answers.

In Short: the answer is NO. And YES.

Kendra Levin, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, said: “Here’s the thing about this question, which is a good one: it’s very hard to imagine an alternate world where those classics you mentioned– Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, Roald Dahl, et al– weren’t already published in the past. …one reason I feel books like those don’t get published as much today is that these classics already exist, and are so enduring that anything similar will feel like an also-ran when compared with them.”

This answer both stopped me in my tracks and finally answered what has been bothering me enough to keep exploring it. It seems obvious now and perhaps I have been dense or obtuse because I so love some of these books of the past I was depressed that I couldn’t set out to write one myself. (Never mind personal talent or ability!) But Kendra’s answer reminded me of seeing Pulp Fiction when it first came out. I went to see it three times! I had never seen or experienced anything like it. But if it came out today it wouldn’t be so astounding and beloved because so many movies now look like it or have used its structure. It’s simply the difference between something being an original, done for the first time, and something being derivative. Indeed, we already have Judy Blume.

Wanted: More Mirrors

But Kendra added something that shifted the question and reframed it in an important way:

“What I think more and more people are recognizing is that, while we have many books that do live alongside Ramona, Fudge, and the Dahl catalog, the vast majority of those books continue to represent children who already have the privilege of seeing themselves and their lives reflected in many, many books. There are very few, if any, books about a black (or Latinx or indigenous or Asian-American or…or…or…) girl who does all the things Ramona does, in her own way that’s unique to her life and world– fight with her sister, worry about being creative enough, mishear song lyrics, get into trouble, and so on. Writers and publishers and booksellers have a responsibility to work together to present far more books reflecting the many experiences that have been held outside the gates of published literature, and those are the books that can become the classics of the next hundred years. And many writers and publishers and booksellers are working on this very project as we speak– and I predict that more will commit to it more deeply in the years to come.”

So Kendra thinks that on one hand, something exactly like Ramona or Fudge would not necessarily be published today, but on the other hand, a new Ramona or Fudge can–it just might not look like what some people may picture when they say “a book like Ramona” or “a book like Fudge.” To her, it’s about redefining what you consider a potential classic and expanding the way you create comparisons; resisting putting books into the same boxes they have been put into for the past decades. She said, “The books of Cleary and Blume and Dahl are often called ‘universal’ and we have to recognize that they are not truly universal– and also that a book about a character who is living a different experience than Ramona’s or Fudge’s or Matilda’s can be just as ‘universal’ as these characters are said to be.”

Clever…But Racist

Indeed, I hope the paths toward books published today that will be tomorrow’s classics are wide and infinite. Candy Gourlay, a British-Filipina author, whose Costa-shortlisted book BONE TALK has just been released in the US, and who often speaks about how growing up she didn’t know that characters who looked like her could also be in books, responded to my question like this:

“My books at home as a child were not very contemporary as my parents bought those ‘Children’s classics’ collections sold by door to door salesmen and only discovered Enid Blyton when I moved schools. Nevertheless I loved Tom Sawyer and Heidi and Black Beauty etc. Recently someone on Twitter called me out when I mentioned how much I loved Tom Sawyer on a blog. Why, she asked, do you recommend a racist book? First of all I was not recommending it … I was just stating that this was a book I loved … but I guess she was right in that, saying I loved it was a recommendation. I was stung and terrified that she was right. I re-read Tom Sawyer. It was every bit as clever and well written as I remembered it. But yes, it was racist. Not about black people but about Native Americans. I wrote a blog about it.”

Recently, Candy was tagged on Twitter by teachers discussing how Bone Talk would be a good companion to studying Robinson Crusoe. She said: “I realised they would be studying it on the basis of the primitivism of my heroes, which seems dangerous to me. So I created resources for my website that responded to these issues.”

I highly recommend reading Candy’s thought-provoking and soul-searching post as she grapples with the complicated legacy of the books she loved as a child, and also watching the video she includes of Grace Lin’s PBS video about what to do when your beloved books are racist. Also check out the classroom resources she created for teaching today’s children a classic story alongside her own novel.

Separating the Author from the Book

Then there are the problems with the authors themselves. In 2018 there were several news stories revealing that plans to commemorate Roald Dahl in the UK with a special edition coin a couple of years before had been scrapped over concerns about his anti-semitic views. But during his lifetime, in both the UK and the US, Roald Dahl’s anti-semitic views were known but unremarked on in a way that I cannot imagine an author getting away with today without having their career shattered. Or perhaps I am being naive. Either way, the Dahl books are still staples in libraries, bookstores and homes—including ours—and they are still adored by both old and new generations of readers.

Conclusion: La-di-da-di, We Likes to Party

Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick: their 1984 song La-di-da-di has been sampled over 500 times

Fashions and styles change, but enduring stories do not. Reading Anne of Green Gables today, I am tempted to skip large swathes of description that might bog down or bore (fairly or unfairly) a child of today. It is also largely episodic. Then there is the uncomfortable bit where the bad guy who sells Anne the hair dye that turns her hair green is a German Jewish peddler. But the story itself, about an orphan with spunk who loves beauty and tugs on everyone’s heartstrings—characters’ and readers’ alike—is evergreen. Beyond the classic book that is still in print after more than a century, the story keeps undergoing artistic iterations in the form of plays, movies, graphic novels and TV series, including the latest one on Netflix Anne with an E.

For me personally, Kendra’s answer finally made me see that I was on a path that was taking me in the wrong direction. But also that all is not lost for future Ramonas and Fudges—as well as Toms and Annes—whatever they might look like, whatever their names might be, whatever their small and large dramas, and whatever is unique to their particular world.

Recently I have been obsessed by a TED Talk on originality given by famed musician, DJ, and producer Mark Ronson. He explains that when sampling first started 30 years ago, artists didn’t do it to “cash in on the familiarity.” But rather because they heard something in that music that spoke to them and “they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music.” He shows how one song, La-di-da-di by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick has been sampled over 500 times, by musicians as various as the Notorious B.I.G. to Miley Cyrus. But it’s not derivative because each time it is reimagined and used in a different way. Each musician, or creator, takes an idea—a sample—but makes it their own. He gives the example of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album, which captures a long-lost sound, but without the very 21st century personality and firebrand that was Amy Winehouse, the project would have risked being pastiche. Instead, she brought the ingredients that made it urgent and of the time. Mark Ronson’s take is that you can’t “hijack nostalgia wholesale” because it leaves the listener feeling sickly. You have to take an element of those things and bring something fresh and new to it.

I love this idea and would argue that this is a good metaphor for any art or artist. And in particular for children’s book writers. For me it is personally a productive way to think about the classics, and what we—any of us, from any background—might choose to create for the children of today, and the future. What do you think?