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Summer Reading: Summer Fun

As the weather is warming up, summer reading season begins. Why not create some summer reading traditions to make reading even more fun? Below are a few ideas.

 

  • Get outside! Lean into the nice weather and explore outside reading spots. This could be the front porch, the shade of a tree, or a local park. This can make summery books come alive even more, gives readers some fresh air, and can turn reading into a place-based habit. Patricia Bailey’s Take A Hike: An Outdoor Adventure Book List article provides excellent recommendations for books to read in the great outdoors.

 

                     

 

 

  • Have special snacks! Whether it’s popsicles or homemade lemonade, having a refreshing summer treat reserved only for reading time can solidify the joys of reading for young readers. This Easy Homemade Lemonade recipe from Lovely Little Kitchen is something young readers can help make too!

 

 

  • Take a weekly trip to your library! Many local libraries host summer reading programs with reading suggestions and prizes included. This turns summer reading into an exciting event, fosters a reading community, and encourages the discovery of new books. For more information about reading challenges (and how to make summer reading fun), check out Stacy Mozer’s post on Encouraging Summer Reading.

 

 

  • Plan it out! Make an activity out of selecting a summer reading list. You can cut stiff paper into 3 x 6 inch rectangles and invite each young reader in your life to print the names of the books they want to read this summer on the front of it and decorate the back with drawings of their favorite summer place to read. Now they have a visional representation of books they want to read and a bookmark all in one. For a free printable bookmark with other summer reading ideas, you can check out my No Rules Reading.

 

Summer reading can define the season and creating traditions that celebrate reading can help create lifelong readers. Plus, summer reading is something the whole family can enjoy!

WNDMG Wednesday – Author Interview with Doan Phuong Nguyen

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

Interview with Doan Phuong Nguyen

on her middle grade debut, Mèo and Bé

I was so excited to interview the author of middle grade novel, Mèo and Bé, releasing on May 25, 2023. One look at the description and I was hooked. This book is sure to become a childhood favorite that will live in hearts for years to come. Read my interview with Doan Phuong Nguyen to learn more about this beautiful and gripping story and the woman who wrote it.

Author Doan Phuong in blue princess dress and crownBook cover girl and cat under a tree

Let’s Talk Inspiration

Ines: Doan Phuong, the description of this story alone tells me that readers will be in for an emotional ride, one that will tug at all the heartstrings. Can you tell us how the inspiration for this story came to you?

Doan Phuong: Mèo and Bé is definitely an emotional ride and it definitely tugs at my own heartstrings. It was hard writing such difficult scenes because I wanted to protect Bé from the horrors of war, but alas, she had to go through the hard scenes to find a happy, hopeful ending! There were so many tears as I wrote this, and I hope readers will feel the same.

This novel was inspired by my adopted aunt’s childhood. She was abused and mistreated by her stepmother as a young child, and also abandoned by her biological mom. Fortunately, she was able to find a happy family when my paternal grandmother adopted her. But the seed of my aunt’s painful childhood tugged at me, and I knew there had to be a story in there. As I started writing, my aunt’s story became greatly fictionalized, but the emotion of being left behind was still there. My father and my Vietnamese grandparents (when they were still alive) have told me many stories of life during the Vietnam War, and I wanted to write a novel that told a mostly unwritten perspective from the war – of what regular life might have looked like for some people, and some of the horrors that children may have experienced during the war.

Many of the settings in this novel—from Bé’s home to the city where she ends—are based on my own family history, my grandparents’ home, and the city where I grew up in Vietnam. I hope all of these elements will make this novel feel more real to my readers.

What Conversations Do You Hope to Spark?

Ines: One of the first thoughts that came to my mind while reading the description for Mèo and Bé is how I could see this beautiful story as a classroom read. Can middle-grade students expect school visits from you? What conversations are you hoping your historical fiction will spark?

Doan Phuong: I would absolutely love to be read in classrooms everywhere. Mèo and Bé is a novel that speaks to the atrocities of war, but also one of hope. When students learn about the Vietnam War in schools, we don’t hear very much about what life was like during the war, the fear of the unknown, the worry that the fighting could destroy your village and the worry that your life could be in danger.

At school visits, I’d love to speak about the Vietnam War, but I would also love to introduce more about Vietnamese culture and the country itself, what it was like growing up, what it’s like visiting today.

In my novel, I share a few Vietnamese folktales in the narrative (such as The Legend of Mai An Tiêm—how watermelons came to Vietnam, and the story of Chú Cuội, the man on the moon). I’d love to share more of these fairy tales to school audiences because they are so unique and not often known outside of the Vietnamese community.

I also have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I would love to inspire children to write their own stories one day. When I was in school, I loved when authors visited. They inspired me so much to be an author one day, and I hope I can inspire children to reach for their dreams.

Furry Friends Are The Best Friends

Ines: Mèo is a powerful character. A real support animal if ever there was one. Was Mèo’s character always a part of the story, or did he develop as the story unfolded in your drafts?

Doan Phuong: Mèo’s evolution has been so interesting! In the early drafts, Mèo was such a tiny part of the story. He was there, but not that big of a character. Some critique partners wanted me to kill him because it wasn’t realistic that he’d survive through some of the events of the book, but then my literary agent thought he should be a larger part of the narrative. (He doesn’t die—don’t worry!) So, I revised the novel and Mèo became this sweet support animal/best friend to Bé, who supported her and helped her throughout the novel. He is a big part of how Bé survives and finds a hopeful ending! My editor asked me to revise the novel further, and we also get to meet Mèo’s siblings and his mother at the beginning of the novel.

This novel discusses a lot of hard, difficult topics that aren’t middle-grade friendly (such as sex slavery, domestic abuse, parental abandonment), but I didn’t want it to be a YA. When I was rejected in the past, some of the critiques were that this wasn’t a children’s novel. However, my editor and I worked very hard to make this novel very child-friendly, and I think Mèo is one of the reasons that it has succeeded in becoming an upper middle grade book. The tough, violent scenes also happen off screen, and we worked hard to soften the narrative to make it more palpable to younger audiences. However, because of the topics that are touched upon, this novel is best suited for ages 11 and up.

We Love Tropes

Ines: A quick Google search tells us that the found family trope is very popular in books for teens and older readers, but making familial bonds with friends at the middle-grade level is equally as important, if not more. According to the Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute, “[middle school students] are just beginning to be able to see themselves from an outside perspective. Making community connections are critical at this age.” Was it always your intention to incorporate this concept into the story? Or, did the found family aspect develop as you realized it was something that Bé needed?

Doan Phuong: I have always loved the idea of found family. For me personally, when my family immigrated to America from Vietnam, I lost my extended family members (my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins all stayed behind) and these family members had been so important to me in my earlier childhood years. However, in America, we were able to find family friends who bridged this gap. I was fortunate enough to have two American grandmothers and uncle (who had started as family friends, but our love for one another grew so they became my extended family.) So this idea of found family is very personal to me.

In this novel, Bé loses her biological family, but she gains an assortment of found family members. The women in the underground bunker, where she’s kept after she’s sold, protect her and become a village of loving mother and auntie figures. She also gains a new sister, and later a new adoptive mother.

To me, I wanted my readers to know that you can find found family anywhere. You just have to look and love people.

Tell Us Your Favorites

Ines: I truly believe this story will live in readers’ hearts long after they close the back cover. Are there any books or authors that left you feeling that way, effectually inspiring this gripping story of your own?

Doan Phuong: Thank you! I hope so too! I love so many amazing middle grade novelists. I love Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014). That was the first novel that I read that was based on real events, and it inspired me to use my own family history for future novels. I also loved Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again (2011), which touches on events in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Thanhha Lai’s work inspired me to write my own Vietnamese stories.

About Mèo and Bé

Eleven-year-old Bé hasn’t spoken a word since her mother left. She hangs on to the hope that one day they will be reunited, but after two years of waiting, it’s becoming more difficult. Her father–who is now frail and helpless after a stroke–can do little to protect her from her stepmother, Big Mother, who treats Bé like an animal and a servant. Thankfully, Bé has a secret friend, her little kitten Mèo, to comfort her in the worst of times. Maybe if she just steers clear of Big Mother and is obedient, everything will be okay.

Unfortunately, Big Mother has other plans. She accuses her of stealing, and Bé is drugged and sold. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a locked underground bunker being held captive with a group of young women. Bé is too young to understand why they’re prisoners, but at least she still has Mèo! He was hiding in her shirt when she was taken. As weeks pass, Bé makes a friend her own age, Ngân, even without speaking, and Mèo becomes a solace for the women–being available for cuddles and catching the mice that annoy them.

Suddenly, a violent uprising enables the imprisoned women and girls to escape, only to realize the wider world of war is just as dangerous. Can Bé and Mèo, and their newfound friend, Ngân, find their way to a safe place they can call home–even though the world is literally exploding all around them?

Pre-Order Links:

Lee and Low, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, Indiebound, Mainstreet Books, Parnassus Books

More About Doan Phuong Nguyen

Doan Phuong in blue dress seated in grassy field

 

Doan Phuong Nguyen was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States when she was in elementary school. After growing up in the South, she settled in the Midwest. Doan Phuong loves anything pink and cute but enjoys writing incredibly sad, emotionally evocative novels. She received her MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. This is her first middle grade novel. Find her at doanphuong.com and on Instagram and TikTok @doanphuongwrites. Visit her website doanphuong.com.

 

((If you enjoyed this interview with Doan Phuong, you’ll love this interview of author K. Ibura.))

A Work in Progress: Jarrett Lerner Interview + Giveaway

A Work in Progress

Jarrett Lerner —Interview

I am been following author/illustrator Jarrett Lerner on Twitter for years. What really caught my eye is how during the pandemic he posted drawing activities for kids. He is the author/illustrator of the humorous EngiNerds and Geiger the Robot series as well as the new Nat the Cat series. Now he has a new book out written in verse on a more serious topic.

About the Book

Hi Jarrett! I was so honored to get to read A Work in Progress. Can you give us a short summary about the book?

Thank you! Here’s the official description from my publisher:

Will is the only round kid in a school full of this ones. So he hides…in baggy jeans and oversized hoodies, in the back row during class, and anywhere but the cafeteria during lunch. But shame isn’t the only feeling that dominates Will’s life. He’s also got a crush on a girl named Jules who knows he doesn’t have a chance with—string beans only date string beans—but he can’t help wondering what if?

Will’s best shot at attracting Jules’s attention is by slaying the Will Monster inside him by changing his eating habits and getting more exercise. But the results are either frustratingly slow or infuriatingly unsuccessful, and Will’s shame begins to morph into self-loathing.

As he resorts to increasingly drastic measures to transform his appearance, Will meets skateboarder Markus, who helps him see his body and all it contains as an ever-evolving work in progress.

 

Tell us who would especially enjoy this book?

I worked had to make sure this book would be enjoyable for as many readers as possible. The book is physically big – 360-something pages – but is only 18,000 words long (other Middle Grade books of that page length contain probably four or five times that many words). It’s also highly illustrated. I hope kids (and adults!) who see bits of themselves in Will’s story will read it, and that they’ll find comfort and hope. But I also hope just as many, if not more, kids (and adults!) will read it, too, and hopefully be left with greater empathy for their peers.

 

I saw your tweet about misconceptions of eating disorders. What misconceptions did you address in your book?

I think the biggest misconception is that disordered eating and eating disorders are things that are only developed by girls. Growing up, when I was going through what Will goes through in the book, I sought out books that addressed body image, disordered eating, and body dysmorphia (though I certainly hadn’t learned all those terms yet). I found very few, and all of them had two things in common: the protagonists were girls, and they were always extreme cases. It wasn’t until a couple years ago, when I had already begun working on what would become A Work in Progress, that I first read a book about a boy who had a troubled relationship with their body and food and eating, but whose troubles didn’t require medical intervention. I hope Will’s story helps fill that still-enormous gap in the literature. We need those books that I did find on shelves back when I was in middle school, but we also need ones about the kids silently suffering with problems that fall just short of grabbing adults’ attention. Unfortunately, when it comes to bodily insecurity and disordered eating, there are a tremendous number of kids suffering.

 

About the Author/Illustrator

How did your childhood help to shape this book (both content and format)?

Will’s story is a fictionalized version of my own. My own story took place over more time, and featured a larger cast of characters. In order to make the book as powerful as possible, I had to compress time and characters. And while having had all these experiences certainly gave me the ability to authentically tell this story, that doesn’t mean it was easy. Making A Work in Progress was the toughest creative challenge of my life. I’d been trying for over a decade to get the story out of me in a way that felt “right.” It wasn’t until I finally landed on the idea of telling the story as if it were being set down in real time in Will’s private notebook/sketchbook that things started moving in that “right” direction. And Will’s notebook looks very much like my own notebooks did back when I was his age – a mishmash of free verse, doodles, and drawings.

 

What authors and/or illustrators would you say influenced your writing and illustration style?

So many. Too many to name. There’s a quote I think about (and share) nearly every day of my life: “Reading is breathing in, writing is breathing out.” Pam Allen said that. It’s just brilliant. And so very true. You can’t write well without reading. And you can’t draw well without “reading” drawings. These two things – reading and writing (and drawing, if you tell stories visually) – are two parts of the same process. The more you do one, the better you get at the other. So I read constantly, and have been influenced by so, so many. Along with that, I’m constantly exposing myself to new authors and illustrators – always seeking to be influenced in new ways and continue growing as a creator.

 

Do you share any personality traits with Will Chambers and/or Markus?

I think there’s a part of me in every one of my characters. I’m not sure if it starts that way, or if the process of writing and drawing them engages my empathy in a way that I just, by the end of it all, feel so connected and close to them. I guess, when it comes to Will and Markus, I’d say that I’m just where Will is at the end of book – he’s still himself, but he’s trying his best to adopt some of the approaches to life that Markus embodies and shares.

 

 

For Artists

I love how the artwork adds an additional layer to the story. Do you incorporate the artwork in your brainstorming/early draft? Please share your process.

Yes. I start all of my projects longhand, usually in composition notebooks. I write and draw, back and forth, sometimes leaning more heavily on one or another – whatever language, verbal or visual, I can use to get my ideas out of my head and down onto paper at any given moment. Usually, once I’ve got a clearer idea of the story I’m trying to tell, I try to figure out what specific format will best serve the story. Sometimes, I decide that it’s best to stick with just text, that I want my readers to provide all the story’s visuals in their imagination. Sometimes I decide text with occasional illustrations will be ideal to tell a story in the most funny or exciting or powerful or emotionally resonant (or whatever I’m going for) way. And sometimes, I have to sort of create my own form. My editor has taken to calling many of my upcoming books “hybrids,” because the usual terminology can’t really capture what they are. They’re not traditional chapter books, but not full graphic novels – I’ve taken to telling each part of a story using whatever tool best accomplishes what I want that part to do. There are a lot of other creators who’ve begun doing this. Each season, more and more books get published that defy these easy classifications. I think it’s one of the most exciting trends in publishing right now, and will only grow in the coming years.

 

And are these illustrations done by hand or on a computer?

I work on all my art on paper, but once I’ve got a clear conception of what a final piece needs to be, I work digitally. The art you see in my books is all done on an iPad Pro using an Apple Pencil (second generation) and the Procreate app.

 

What’s your art background? Were you a writer or illustrator first? And how did the second one happen?

I’m self-taught, so to speak. Growing up, I took every art class and every creative writing course offered in school. But I don’t have any formal training in either writing or drawing. I read, and looked, and copied and copied and copied, gradually finding my own approach and processes and developing my own style.

More About Jarrett

How can we learn more about you?

Website: jarrettlerner.com

Twitter and Instagram: @Jarrett_Lerner

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@JarrettLernerBooks

 

Thanks for your time, Jarrett!

Thank YOU! Really excellent questions. I appreciate them very much, and the opportunity to share.

 

Jarrett will be giving a copy of  A Work in Progress to a lucky reader. Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a copy. (U.S. addresses only)

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