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Author Ali Standish discusses The Mending Summer, the power of healing and writing honestly about addiction

 I’m jumping up and down because I get to interview Ali Standish for the launch of her sixth book, The Mending Summer. Ali is also the author of the critically acclaimed The Ethan I Was Before, How to Disappear Completely, August Isle, The Climbers and Bad Bella. She grew up in North Carolina and spent several years as an educator in the Washington, DC, public school system. Ali has an MFA in children’s writing from Hollins University and an MPhil in children’s literature from the University of Cambridge. You can visit her online at www.alistandish.com

Before our discussion officially gets underway, I want to make one thing clear. I’m not an unbiased interviewer. I had the great honor to serve as Ali’s  MFA thesis advisor at Hollins University Summer Graduate Program in Children’s Literature & Writing. It gives me great joy to speak with her now about new middle grade, The Mending Summer.

  • Water plays a central role as a healer and teacher in The Mending Summer. Why did you choose a lake as a setting? How did lakes figure into your own childhood?

 What a great question, Hillary! And thank you so much for having me. I am no unbiased interviewee either.

I think you’re absolutely right that the lake both heals and teaches. That was my experience attending camp each summer on the shores of Lake Wylie, SC. Being around a body of water, be it a lake, a river or an ocean, has always been both uplifting and humbling for me. Water reminds us of how beautiful and wonderous life can be—what’s more majestic than watching the sun set over the sea?—but it’s also something we can’t control or tame, or really even fully understand. It forces us to let go of the idea that we have total agency over our own lives. In children’s literature, we tend to want to emphasize the power of agency, but for children like Georgia whose lives have spun out of control, it’s important to show that there are things, like another person’s addiction, that we don’t have power over. When we relinquish that idea, we can start to focus on what we can control, which is how we treat ourselves.

  • Georgia’s father is an alcoholic, whose drinking increasingly interferes with his ability to be a reliable parent. You don’t shirk from showing us scenes when he becomes “the Shadow Man,” weaving to the front door or even passed out. And yet, you offer the reader many moments, often in flashback, of magical father/daughter engagement. When someone is suffering from alcoholism it’s easy to fall into the trap of defining them only by their disease. You carefully weave in Daddy’s interests from his passion for music to his love of stories. How did you balance this portrait so carefully?

I was very intentional about wanting to show the essence of Daddy’s character—funny, loving, creative—instead of making him into a caricature of an alcoholic or a simple villain. Because my own family members have struggled with alcoholism, and I’ve had many years to process that, I had a lot of empathy for Georgia’s daddy. I think anyone who has loved an alcoholic or an addict has that empathy, even if it is buried under feelings of betrayal, anger, or loss. We know the person underneath the disease, and it’s important to continue to honor, celebrate, and love that individual, even if it needs to be from a distance. Equally, though, it was important to me not to shy away from the more painful scenes where we see how much alcoholism has changed Daddy, or minimize the impact it has on Georgia.

I hope that in showing him from both those angles, readers who may be impacted by addictions in their own family might feel some comfort. If alcoholism can turn a man like Daddy into the Shadow Man, then maybe they will feel less shame and confusion about why it’s happening to their loved ones. Alcoholism can affect anyone.

  • The Mending Summer braids together elements of mystery, adventure, and fantasy, while still giving quite a bit of weight to Georgia’s shifting feelings. She’s quite emotionally intelligent and sensitive. When you were Georgia’s age, were you aware of your own conflicting feelings? How did you figure out how much time to give to Georgia’s interior life versus the exterior action?

 Kids of alcoholics often develop that kind of emotional intelligence early on as a defense mechanism. It’s important to be able to read the room, the situation, the person sitting across from you, so that you can anticipate what’s coming next. I think it took me longer than Georgia to turn that sensitivity inward. It wasn’t until after my family members had been in recovery for a while and our family had stabilized that I was able to understand my own feelings around things. And what I found was that I had swung between healthy ways of dealing with things (focusing on my own achievements, hobbies, relationships with friends) and unhealthy ways (not reaching out for support or sharing what was going on, but instead turning my turbulent emotions inward). In The Mending Summer, that tug-of-war becomes concrete in the form of the wishing lake, and the two children Georgia meets there. Externalizing the struggle in that way meant that there was plenty of room for action and adventure, so that the story (I hope!) didn’t become too weighed down by Georgia’s internal conflict.

  • Aunt Marigold, with whom Georgia stays with in the country during her mending summer, is a potter. Not only does pottery work as a powerful metaphor but eventually Georgia learns how to shape her own clay pieces. How did you come to weave this element into the book?

At first, I actually experimented with Aunt Marigold teaching Georgia piano, but that didn’t feel quite right. With pottery, you are creating a physical object out of a lump of mud (okay not exactly but you get the gist!). That power to create something whole becomes an important counterbalance to Georgia’s home life, which is fracturing into pieces. I experimented with pottery a few summers at camp and always wished I had been able to do more with it. Pottery also has a long history in North Carolina, where I live and where the book is set. Seagrove, NC, is the largest community of active potters in the country!

  • Aunt Marigold, who is actually a great aunt, is one of my favorite characters. She “walked barefoot through the garden and read William Faulkner at the table and wore overalls like a man.” Did you base Aunt Marigold on a real person? If so, I want to meet her!

Me too! Alas, she is not based on a real person, though I did have an image of Sissy Spacek in my mind when I was writing her… I do like to think that I have my own version of Aunt Marigold inside of me—a strong woman who is unapologetic about who she is, and who can be both surprisingly tender and fiercely protective. We all deserve an Aunt Marigold to give us the resolve to keep going when times get tough.

  • A lonely looking gravestone, a mystery room, odd sounds, and eerie characters all figure into this story. There were places I found myself turning on the reading lamp a little brighter. How did you feel about scary stories as a kid? How did you manage to weave in some many spooky moments and yet have the overall story feel uplifting?

I LOVED spooky stories as a kid. Still do! I remember how devastated I was when I first realized that I was too old to really enjoy Goosebumps anymore. I had no idea how to fill the void! I think many young readers are drawn to these kinds of mysteries that carry a hint of danger. My stories are usually about a kid who is struggling with something tough, but they always have room for a few southern gothic tropes. But those locked doors and spooky gravestones always have a human story behind them which, once uncovered, usually have something in them to support the protagonist on their journey to healing. So…come for the scares, stay for the character development—hah!

  • The story includes quite a bit of adventure and some thrilling moments. Did you know in advance that this story would go there? Or did it take you by surprise?

 I did know that it would go there. What happens at the lake mirrors what is happening in Georgia’s psyche. Since she went to some dark places, it was only natural that the lake would, too. Of course, the adventures start out as quite exciting and fun, and that was one of the ways that I tried to keep balance in the book between exploring the tough stuff but threading it through with the kind of mystery and adventure I loved reading as a middle grader.

  • Nature is a both fearsome and healing. In many ways, I was getting some Bridge to Terabithia I’m assuming Katherine Patterson is an influence. I’d be curious to learn a little bit about some of your favorite middle grade books and why you love them.

 I will happily take that comparison, thank you very much! (No take-backsies.) Bridge to Terabithia was a hugely influential book for me. You know how sometimes you see a tree that grows around a large stone, or some man-made object? I feel like my soul kind of grew around that book. It even inspired an entire fantasy world in my backyard—Narbithia (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was also a favorite!). That book gave me a blueprint for how to exercise my imagination, while also showing me the supreme power of story to make readers feel.

More recent favorites include Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me(okay, not that recent, but a perfectly plotted book, in my humble opinion, and one that any aspiring writer can learn so much from) and this year’s Newbery winner, Tae Keller’s When You Trap a Tiger. In fact, I had the honor of blurbing the latter (and will continue to mention this for the rest of my life when given the most minuscule opportunity). When You Trap a Tiger is also a book that blurs the lines between magic and a child’s inner-turmoil. It weaves together Korean folklore with a universal story of family history, love and loss in a beautiful, haunting way.

  • Are you an outliner, panster or a hybrid writer?

 I write books like Boomers drive cars. (At least the Boomers in my family!) I know where I want to start and where I want to go, and I’m pretty sure I know how to do it, but I’m sure as heck not going to bother with a GPS. So there will inevitably be some wrong cars (and some choice language) but eventually, I usually find my way.

  • Anything else you’d like readers to know about The Mending Summer?

Importantly, the cast includes a grumpy cow named Ruby. Why does no one mention her?!

Just kidding, mostly I just want educators, librarians, and young readers to know that there are stories out there for kids who are impacted by alcoholism and addiction. Hopeful, engaging stories that might make them feel less alone and that might help guide them toward making healthy choices, rather than self-destructive ones. And while they deal with serious issues, these stories are necessary to keep on classroom and library bookshelves, because you never know which child might be walking into school each morning with this weighing on their shoulders.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the  Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

Big Ideas in Middle-Grade Novels

Writers of children’s books are often asked: “When are you going to write a book for adults?” This is a question that almost always causes consternation on the part of the writer, the subtext being that children’s books are somehow lesser creations and offer little in the way of big ideas or insight into the human condition. Readers of children’s books, however, know the folly of such a question. Books for children contain much wisdom, the kind that those who ask the above question would do well to ponder. Here below are just a few such passages. There are so many more, and I’d love to hear your favorites in the comments section.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE

“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” – J.K. Rowling

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS

“It’s our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – J.K. Rowling

CORALINE

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Neil Gaiman

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIAR & SPY

“Boredom is what happens to people who have no control over their minds.” – Rebecca Stead

THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT

“It is important that you say what you mean to say. Time is too short. You must speak the words that matter.” – Kate DiCamillo

THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW

“For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.” – C.S. Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes, explained Reason quietly, as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.” – Norton Juster

THE BATTLE OF THE LABYRINTH

“But remember, boy, that a kind act can sometimes be as powerful as a sword.” – Rick Riordan

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

“It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.” – Lucy Maud Montgomery

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHARLOTTE’S WEB

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” – E.B. White

THE TWITS

“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” – Roald Dahl

WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO

“A mistake made with good in your heart is still a mistake, but it is one for which you must forgive yourself.” – Linda Sue Park

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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