The winner of Jen Petro-Roy’s novel is …
We’re very excited today to introduce you to Jen Petro-Roy’s newest middle-grade novel, LIFE IN THE BALANCE, which released this week and has already garnered a star from School Library Journal along with other great reviews.
(Jen has generously offered to send a signed copy of LIFE IN THE BALANCE to one lucky winner–US only. See details at bottom.)
Jen is known for writing “honest books with heart,” about kids who are strong, determined, unsure, struggling to fit in, bubbly, shy, and everything in between. Her other books include P.S. I MISS YOU, GOOD ENOUGH, and YOU ARE ENOUGH, all from Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends.
When she isn’t writing, Jen can be found reading, playing board games, belting out songs in the car to embarrass her two daughters, and working as an eating disorder awareness advocate.
Learn more about her at her website: http://www.jenpetroroy.com
On Twitter: @jpetroroy
And on Instagram: @jpetroroy
Welcome to The Mixed-Up Files, Jen! Please tell us a bit about the novel.
LIFE IN THE BALANCE tells the story of Veronica Conway, who has been looking forward to trying out for the All-Star softball team for years. She’s practically been playing the game since she was a baby and her mom has always been her coach. OBVIOUSLY she’ll make the team. OBVIOUSLY it will be awesome.
Except right before tryouts, Veronica’s mom announces that she’s entering rehab for alcoholism, and her dad tells her that they may not be able to afford the fees needed to be on the team. Veronica decides to enter the town talent show in an effort to make her own money, but along the way discovers a new hobby that leads her to doubt her feelings for the game she thought she loved so much. Soon, Veronica has to learn balance right alongside her mom as she tries to discover what she really wants to do with her life.
What inspired you to write the novel? Did you play softball yourself?
I didn’t play softball myself, but I was a competitive swimmer when I was in middle school and high school. Competitive in the “I swam all summer, for the school team, and for a club team” but not necessarily in the “I was the best one on the team” way. I was one of those kids who really enjoyed sports, but no matter how hard I practiced, I was never amazing, which could get discouraging at times.
As a parent, it’s been interesting—and kind of depressing—to notice how serious and focused kids are expected to be about sports and activities these days. There’s a lot of pressure to specialize and thrive so early, which takes so much of the play and fun out of things. I wanted to explore that push and pull in this story—what does it mean when you love a sport but may not necessarily want to make it your whole life? Is that okay? Is that allowed?
There are very few middle-grade books about alcoholism and addiction. What made you want to write about the subject?
I think that people tend to underestimate the topics that middle grade kids can handle reading about. They are not delicate flowers that need to be sheltered from the world. Kids live in the real world—they have issues of their own, deal with mental health struggles and have parents who are having their own problems.
I was inspired to write this novel by my best friend, who’s a recovering alcoholic herself, with two young children. She’s been sober for years now, but it got me thinking about what it would be like to have a parent struggling with the same issue. Anyone dealing with an addiction and facing it head-on is so strong, but sometimes it’s overlooked how strong their family members can be, too.
As a former librarian, you must be very aware of what kids like. Are there certain types of books they’re looking for during these difficult times?
I think it varies for the kid! I know that even amongst my friends, we all turn to different things for comfort when we’re stressed out. Sometimes people may want to reread old favorites—I know that when I’m stressed out, I love to reread Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries series. Sometimes, it can be nice to escape into a fantasy world where the problems are completely different than anything a reader could experience in “real life”
But sometimes, too, kids may want to read about people dealing with issues just like theirs. It can be comforting to see that you’re not the only one struggling with anxiety or friend or parent problems. It can make you feel like you’re not so alone after all.
Oh, man. I don’t feel that way, especially this past year. It’s been a struggle to balance homeschooling my kids, dealing with my own pandemic anxiety, and trying to write. But even before that, while trying to balance writing and being a parent, I think it’s so important to set aside time for my writing. (It sounds simple, but it’s way harder to actually do). For me, writing is important. It was my dream and what I love to do, and I try to make sure that I can have at least twenty minutes when I need or plan for it. Sometimes being strapped for time actually makes me more efficient.
I think it’s also important to be easy on yourself. I don’t write every day, and I don’t beat myself up for not writing every day. Sometimes we need those days off—weeks off, even—to let the ideas simmer and the story come to us.
You’ve mentioned that your first published novel P.S. I MISS YOU was actually the fifth novel you wrote. What did you learn from writing those other four novels that contributed to your current success?
Keep going and keep writing. I firmly believe that as much as talent is a part of this business, getting a book published comes more down to luck and perseverance. There are so many talented writers out there who may have gotten dissuaded by rejections and stopped writing. I got so many rejections along the way, both from agents and editors, but I think the key to finally getting a book published was to keep writing. With every book, you get better at your craft and improve in a different way. Every published writer out there is still improving and stretching themselves today.
Keep going and you’ll have a chance to get there. If you stop, that’s all there is.
What do you hope readers will take away from LIFE IN THE BALANCE?
My hope is that readers realize that it’s okay to follow their hearts. That no matter what they think people “expect” of them, they still need to follow their own hearts and their own passions. That speaking up and being honest is important. And that being yourself is the best thing of all.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently editing another middle-grade contemporary about Maddie, a competitive rock climber whose workaholic, always-traveling mother returns home to be a surrogate for Maddie’s aunt. It deals with friendship drama, the complications of the mother-daughter relationship, and finding out what “being brave” actually means.
Thank you so much for having me!
Thank YOU, Jen!
Please click the giveaway link below BEFORE SATURDAY MIDNIGHT and like, retweet, and/or follow MUF for a chance to win a signed copy of LIFE IN THE BALANCE. The winner will be announced on Sunday, Feb. 21.
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. As someone who has followed the award closely for many years (and was honored to be a past winner of their manuscript award which recognizes unpublished manuscripts) as well as a member of the review team for the Sydney Taylor Shmooze, a ‘mock’ version of the awards, I am especially thrilled and delighted to welcome author Tziporah Cohen, whose debut novel No Vacancy —about an 11-year-old Jewish girl who, with her Catholic friend, creates a Virgin Mary apparition at a drive-in movie theater to save her family’s failing motel—is a 2021 Sydney Taylor Award Honor Book in the middle grade category.
SEE BELOW for a chance to WIN A COPY of NO VACANCY by Tziporah Cohen!
SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD HONOREE!
Shortlisted for THE NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE!
“With effortless mastery, Cohen weaves the opposing forces of innocence and corruption, right and wrong, love and hate.”—Inderjit Deogun, Quill & Quire starred review
Buying and moving into the run-down Jewel Motor Inn in upstate New York wasn’t eleven-year-old Miriam Brockman’s dream, but at least it’s an adventure. Miriam befriends Kate, whose grandmother owns the diner next door, and finds comfort in the company of Maria, the motel’s housekeeper, and her Uncle Mordy, who comes to help out for the summer. She spends her free time helping Kate’s grandmother make her famous grape pies and begins to face her fears by taking swimming lessons in the motel’s pool.
But when it becomes clear that only a miracle is going to save the Jewel from bankruptcy, Jewish Miriam and Catholic Kate decide to create their own. Otherwise, the No Vacancy sign will come down for good, and Miriam will lose the life she’s worked so hard to build.
And now, here’s No Vacancy author Tziporah Cohen joining us here on the Mixed-Up Files!:
MD: Hi Tzippy, what inspired you to write this story?
TC: The whole idea began while on a mini-vacation in Hershey, PA, where we stayed a couple of nights in a tired motel one summer while I was working on my MFA degree. There was a boy hanging around—maybe 7 or 8 years old—and it turned out he had moved there with his family and they were running the place. I thought it made a great, unique premise for a middle grade novel—a kid living in a motel that her parents were managing. (Kelly Yang’s fantastic novel, Front Desk, hadn’t come out yet.) The boy we met was South Asian, and Hershey is a pretty white town, and I wondered what that was like for him and his family. I had been thinking of writing something from my own Jewish experience, so the boy became an eleven-year-old Jewish girl named Miriam. I wrote the first chapters in that hotel room after my kids went to sleep!
MD: As a debut author, can you tell us about your journey to publication?
TC: It was a long one, as they usually are! I had an idea for a picture book back in 2006 and took an adult education course on writing picture books, which led to some online writing courses, which eventually led to an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I never saw myself writing a novel, but since you can’t do a two-year MFA just writing picture books, I wrote the first draft of No Vacancy over three semesters there. It took several more years of work after graduation before it was ready to submit. I had started looking for an agent but had also submitted the manuscript to Groundwood Books in Toronto, where I now live. When Groundwood sent me an offer of publication, after screaming with excitement, I approached the agents I was interested in with the offer in hand. So my road was a bit backwards at the end.
(The irony is that I never did write that picture book idea that started this whole journey!)
MD: I loved your interview on the Book of Life podcast where you talk about mentor texts—can you briefly explain what a mentor text is, and how you used them when writing NO VACANCY?
TC: Mentor texts are books (in this case) that a writer studies to learn how another author tackles a topic or how they use their craft to form a story. In my case, I wanted to see how other writers tackled the topic of religion and faith in their middle grade novels. There weren’t many out there, but I went back to a childhood favorite, Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. and the more recent Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman, both of which feature girls struggling to sort out their religious identity and what role they want Judaism to play in their lives.
MD: How did you choose the setting of upstate New York?
TC: I love upstate New York. I spent four years at Cornell University, in Ithaca, and while that’s not a small town, it was certainly very different from where I grew up on Long Island, about an hour’s drive from Manhattan. I’ve done many drives through upstate New York since then, going back and forth from Toronto to Long Island, and so it all felt very familiar and easy to picture in my mind.
MD: Are any of these events true to your own life?
TC: Unfortunately, the only event in the book that’s true to my life (outside of the religious observance) is the anti-Semitic experience that Miriam’s mother had. While I was never assaulted like she was, I had the experience of having pennies thrown at me in the halls of my junior high school. Like Miriam’s mom, I remember feeling ashamed. I wish I could redo that moment by confronting the person and—best case scenario—educating them about the hateful origins of that stereotype. And I would have liked to have felt proud rather than ashamed.
MD: I really love how you show both interfaith and interdenominational cooperation between Jews and Christians, as well as how even within Judaism that there are differences of observance such as between Miriam’s immediate family and her Uncle Mordy. Can you talk a little about that?
TC: It was important to me to show some of the diversity of Judaism—how differently people who identify as Jewish see their relationship to Judaism and how many different ways people practice it. I wanted Jewish children from a variety of religious backgrounds to see themselves and their families in the book, and I wanted non-Jewish children reading it to understand that there isn’t just one Jewish experience. So it was very intentional that the different members of Miriam’s family observed Judaism in different ways. My extended family’s Judaism is just as diverse as Miriam’s!
In the book, Miriam’s Christian neighbors support them after an act of anti-Semitism. My favorite stories, in real life and in fiction, are when different communities come together to fight hatred, because we are so much stronger when we are there for each other.
MD: What does it mean to you to win the Sydney Taylor Honor Award?
TC: I grew up reading Sydney Taylor’s All-of-A-Kind-Family books, which were probably the first books I read that were about a Jewish family, if you don’t count The Carp in the Bathtub! I grew up reading books with the Sydney Taylor Book Award stickers on them, and I’ve read innumerable winners to my children. I never even imagined I would write a book for kids, let alone one that would have its own Sydney Taylor Award sticker. It’s mind-blowing and humbling to me that I’m part of this club. I’m still pinching myself!
MD: Wow—congratulations and Mazal Tov, Tzippy! Thanks so much for these thoughtful responses and for sharing your journey with us here on The Mixed-Up Files! Readers can find Tzippy on Twitter at @tzippymfa and on her website http://www.tziporahcohen.com.
To enter for a chance to be the lucky winner of a copy of Sydney Taylor Honor Book NO VACANCY by Tziporah Cohen, click the link below and you can: comment on this blog post, tweet it out and tag us at @MixedUpFiles, or like our post on Instagram at @mixedupfilesmg. (US and Canada winners receive a hard copy, international winners receive an e-book and signed bookmark.)