Donna Gephart and THE PARIS PROJECT: Interview + Giveaway

Today I’m thrilled to be talking to Donna Gephart about her newest middle-grade novel, The Paris Project. Donna is an award-winning author, whose middle-grade novels also include: In Your ShoesLily and Dunkin, Death by Toilet Paper, How to Survive Middle School and others.

To learn more about Donna and The Paris Project read on. And to throw your hat in the ring for a chance to win a signed copy, write us a note in the comments section before Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, at 11:59 PM. I’ll pick a winner at random and announce it next Thursday.


What was the spark that inspired you to write The Paris Project?

There wasn’t a spark with this one. I thought I was writing a funny book about three Jewish guy friends when Cleveland Rosebud Potts marched across the pages of my notebook. Those first five pages I wrote in my notebook are close to the first five pages of the finished book. I sensed this character had an important story to tell and I’d be a fool not to pay attention to her.


Why was it important for you to write about a child having a family member in jail?

We have a big problem with mass incarceration in our country. That’s not news to anyone. What doesn’t get talked about as much is the effect that has on family members still at home. What happens when there is a loss of one income in a household? What happens when it’s expensive to travel to visit a loved one in jail? What happens when a child can’t even touch her parent because a facility chooses to have video visitations instead of in-person ones? Cleveland and her family deal with all these things and more.

I write books for young people to feel seen and to feel less alone in the world, but I also write so others can see a problem that may not affect them directly and develop empathy and understanding for those who are dealing with it. How else will we grow to understand each other and help make life better for each other?


What is it about middle-grade readers that makes you enjoy writing for them?

Middle grade readers are making the transition from childhood to adulthood. I can’t think of anything more dramatic. It’s a difficult transition, fraught with high-intensity emotions. I write to help young people navigate those changes and figure out their place in the world. I write the books I would have loved to have at that age, to help me understand what was going on and how I fit into the scheme of it all. I also write about kids with grit and determination to give young readers hope and agency in their own lives.


Did you have to do any particular research while writing The Paris Project?

I do research for each of my novels, even though they are fiction. For this one, I wanted to see what the inside of a video visitation center looked like. I wrote to and called the appropriate authorities to ask for permission and while they said they see no problem with it, no one would actually grant me the permission. So one day, my husband and I went to a video visitation center and sat with the families awaiting time with their loved ones. When the doors opened and the visitors were called in, my husband and I headed in, but I saw a guard at the door and decided to duck out at the last moment. None-the-less, while we were there, I did a lot of observing and listening to get those scenes right in the book.

My last book, In Your Shoes, found me inside a local funeral home, getting a tour and asking lots of questions. For Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, I took the online test to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy! And I interviewed a spelling bee champ who made it to the national bee in DC while writing As If Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President!

Research is always interesting for me. I love learning new things.


What would you like readers to come away with after reading The Paris Project?

I’m always hoping to widen young reader’s worlds/minds/hearts with my work.

For The Paris Project, I hope kids who deal with financial insecurity will feel seen, and those who don’t will have a deeper understanding of what it’s like to go without money and how it might make a person feel. I also hope to shine light on the effect of parental incarceration on children and families. I include statistics and a “Child’s Bill of Rights” in the back of the book.

There’s a LOT to discuss after reading this book. It would make an excellent book club choice. And as a bonus, there’s a recipe for limeade spritzers in the back that could be served for book club members.


You’ve mentioned that the first draft of your novel, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, was written during National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO). Since November is almost upon us, do you have any advice for writers who might be tackling writing a novel next month?

Do as much pre-planning as you can before you begin. Character bios, setting ideas, concepts for the big scenes and a possible ending.

It was a great experience in teaching me to sit down every day and keep the fingers moving across the keyboard, keep the story moving forward.

I also blogged about the experience to give myself public accountability. That helped me keep at it on the days I really didn’t feel like it. There are always days you don’t feel like writing.

It’s amazing how a handful of pages a day, consistently, turns into a whole novel at the end of the month.

Allow yourself lots of time to revise that novel. It took me months to revise Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, even though I wrote it in 29 days.


And speaking of writing, what’s up next for you?

I can’t believe it, but I’m finishing up my eighth novel. Abby, Tried and True will come out from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers next year. And I have a picture book, Go Be Wonderful, from Holiday House the year after that.


Thanks so much, Donna, for taking the time to join us at The Mixed-Up Files and for providing a signed copy to a lucky winner!


More about Donna:

Donna is a popular speaker at schools, conferences and book festivals. She has taught creative writing at a school in West Palm Beach, FL. Donna lives in the Philadelphia area with her family and her canine office assistant, Benji, a sweet retriever mix. You can visit her online at for resources, reading guides and more.


More about The Paris Project:

Cleveland Rosebud Potts has a plan. If she can check off the six items on her très important Paris Project List she will make it out of the small-minded and scorching town of Sassafras, Florida, to a rich and cultured life at The American School of Paris.

Unfortunately, everything seems to conspire against Cleveland reaching her goal.

Cleveland is ashamed of her father and angry that her mother and sister are never around because they have to work extra shifts to help out the family. Her Eiffel Tower tin has zero funds. And to top it all off, Cleveland’s best friend Jenna Finch has decided she’s too fancy for her and her neighbor Declan seems to be hiding something.

As Cleveland puts her talents to the test, she must learn how to forgive family for their faults, appreciate friends for exactly who they are, and bloom where she’s planted—even if that’s in a tiny town in central Florida that doesn’t even have a French restaurant. C’èst la vie!


Naked Mole Rat Saves the World by Karen Rivers

Ever read the title of a book and know instantly that you must find out more about the story?

When I first saw the title of our next spotlight, I couldn’t help being filled with all sorts of questions. What’s up with this mole rat? Why did the day have to be saved? And how does he do it?

And wait! A mole rat?

Haha! I know. I’m being a little overly dramatic, but this goes to show how much value a title can hold. Let’s meet this mole rat.

Can Kit’s super-weird superpower save her world?

Kit-with-a-small-k is navigating middle school with a really big, really strange secret: When she’s stressed, she turns into a naked mole rat.

It first happened after kit watched her best friend, Clem, fall and get hurt during an acrobatic performance on TV. Since then, the transformations keep happening—whether kit wants them to or not. Kit can’t tell Clem about it, because after the fall, Clem just hasn’t been herself. She’s sad and mad and gloomy, and keeping a secret of her own: the real reason she fell.

A year after the accident, kit and Clem still haven’t figured out how to deal with all the ways they have transformed—both inside and out. When their secrets come between them, the best friends get into a big fight. Somehow, kit has to save the day, but she doesn’t believe she can be that kind of hero. Turning into a naked mole rat isn’t really a superpower. Or is it?

“A warm coming-of-age story populated with a cast of memorable characters.”
—Kirkus Reviews

The book releases on October 15, 2019 by Algonquin.


It’s wonderful to have you visit us here again, Karen. Welcome!

Kit is such an intriguing and endearing character. What characteristics did you know you had to include within her?

Kit, like most of my characters, came to me fully formed as herself, right from the beginning. I knew she had to be stronger than she knew, but I also knew that she was going to have occasionally overwhelming anxiety herself, that would be secondary (in her mind) to her mum’s more paralyzing version. I also wanted her to be brave, in particular brave to be herself, even when others might think it’s “weird” (to rollerskate, to believe in magic, to tie ribbons to trees in the park, to blow bubbles). And I knew she would be funny, of course.

Just hearing you describe her in your own words makes me like her even more.

We all know how important it is for young readers to relate to the characters they read. How will young readers relate to Kit?

I think a lot of kids around the age that kit is in the book are on the cusp of young adulthood, while also still wanting to stay kids. Kit very much wants to hold on to her kid-like qualities. I know some kids like this, who feel like they are being left behind because their friends are more like teenagers already, even when they aren’t quite ready.

That’s a very important reality during the transformation between tween and teen, and it’s not talked about enough. Glad you’ve mentioned it here. What is your favorite part of the world you’ve created for Kit and why?

I love the magic more than anything — all of it, from the literal to the metaphorical. I also love the way both kit and Clem find their power in surprising ways. Both of them are exploring the scarier, darker sides of their realities in these brave and surprising ways.

Was there anything about Kit that surprised you?

When I started writing, I didn’t realize that sometimes she was going to be angry or that she was going to show her anger on the page, that she could be unforgiving. I happen to have a twelve year old of my own now (although she was younger when I was writing this story) and this ability to flip back and forth between joy and fury turns out to be very real. It felt true on the page, too, but I hadn’t necessarily anticipated it.

Would you have been friends with Kit as a middle schooler?

Oh, definitely. She’s kind and fierce and funny and loyal AND she roller skates!

She definitely sounds like fun! What’s the most important element from this story you hope readers take with them once they’ve finished the book?

That everyone has something going on beyond the version of themselves that they present and that you see at school. You don’t have to scratch the surface very deeply to realize that we all have many, many layers. You never know what someone else is going through, and you definitely can easily underestimate what they are capable of if you forget to look beyond their outward appearance. And of course it’s also a book about forgiveness, about acknowledging that not everyone always does the right thing.

Another hidden truth during those middle grade years. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Kit and Clem’s story and for helping young readers explore who they are through them. All the best from your Mixed-Up Files family . . .

Karen Rivers’s books have been nominated for a wide range of literary awards and have been published in multiple languages. When she’s not writing, reading, or visiting schools, she can usu­ally be found hiking in the forest that flourishes behind her tiny old house in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives with her two kids, two dogs, and two birds.

Find her online at and on Twitter: @karenrivers.


A B 😉: Emojis and the alphabet

Usually I blog about plot, character, and story, but my thought for today is on the more basic level of letters, sounds, and meanings.

My five-year-old knows phonics and lives in a word-saturated environment. This leads to such frustrations as trying to sound out “CVSPharmacy,” a word that, despite its appearance, begins with an “S” sound and has no “P,” “H,” or “hard C” sounds in it at all. This led her to the revelation that the letter “C” itself starts with an “S” sound, while the letter “S” starts with an “E” sound.

“’S’ should be spelled ‘see’ and ‘E’ should be spelled ‘ess!’”

I then explained that the letter “F” in “farm” is an unvoiced letter “V” that got its shape warped by hanging around with the letter “E,” while the letters “P” and “H” in “pharmacy” are filling in for a letter “Φ” that got left behind in Ancient Greece.

“English is dumb,” she concluded.

“Dumb with a ‘Silent B,’” I agreed. But what else would you expect from a language that developed on an island of Celts who got successively invaded by Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans, Normans, and Vikings?

The five-year-old is drawn to letters, but she 😍😍😍 emojis. These symbols are colorful, fun, and offer no barriers to a five-year-old’s level of understanding–except perhaps for 💩, which too closely resembles chocolate soft-serve.

Emojis add emotion and emphasis to casual texts, can replace words or entire sentences, and have become a necessary part of functional literacy in the digital age. Importantly, emojis are more accessible and easier to decipher than the rule-breaking glyphs and phenomes of English.

When you think about it, it’s a wonder that anyone ever learns how to read and write in English. It seems almost inconceivable that anyone would opt to learn English as a second language, especially if their native language actually spells things the way they are pronounced.

English is infected with weird idioms and slang, exceptions that swallow every rule, words like sheep and deer that can be both singular and plural, people saying things “literally” when they really mean them “figuratively,” and armed camps that will fight to the death over the Oxford comma.

Emojis, in contrast, offer lower levels of drama:

🐑 = Singular

🐑🐑 = Plural

👍 = Using the Oxford comma

👎 = Deleting the Oxford comma

The traditionalist in me wouldn’t trade the challenge of English for all the emojis in the 🌎. The English toolbox of 26 letters can express every 💡 a human can have. No language is more versatile. Or, if another language’s word offers a nuanced shade of meaning that English doesn’t yet have, English will steal that word.

English wasn’t designed to be versatile and nuanced. English became versatile and nuanced after centuries of borrowing from other languages. Which makes it logical to assume that English will eventually begin incorporating emojis.

As English readers become more comfortable mixing text and symbols on their phones, will we start seeing 🔥 incorporated into more formal communications?

🤹 becoming an expected part of advertising?

⚖️ having a legal meaning in contracts?

❤️ becoming a common name?

How long before 🤣 and ☀️ are included in the dictionary?

Will there be a time when we start teaching emojis in school alongside the alphabet?

Will future Sesame Street episodes be brought to us by 🍉, 🐺, and by the number 7?

💬 your 💭💭in the comments 👇.