Author Interviews

Interview with Helen Rutter, author of the MG debut, THE BOY WHO MADE EVERYONE LAUGH + a giveaway!

Let’s give a hearty Mixed-Up Files welcome to Helen Rutter, author the MG debut, The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh. Praised by children’s author Jacqueline Wilson as “Very funny, very touching, and very truthful”—and featured as a Waterstones Book of the Month—the novel was released in the U.K. by Scholastic on February 4, 2021. It will be available in the U.S. on August 3.

Here’s a summary:

Billy Plimpton has a big dream: to become a famous comedian when he grows up. He already knows a lot of jokes, but thinks he has one big problem standing in his way: his stutter.

At first, Billy thinks the best way to deal with this is to . . . never say a word. That way, the kids in his new school won’t hear him stammer. But soon he finds out this is not the best way to deal with things. (For one thing, it’s very hard to tell a joke without getting a word out.)

As Billy makes his way toward the spotlight, a lot of funny things (and some less funny things) happen to him. In the end, the whole school will know—

If you think you can hold Billy Plimpton back, be warned: The joke will soon be on you!

Q&A with Helen Rutter

MR: So glad to have you with us, Helen. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files! Huge congratulations on having published your first novel.

HR: Thanks so much for having me! It’s so exciting that the book is coming out in the U.S. The whole publication process has been a wonderful series of lovely moments, and this really is a big one!

Struggling with Stuttering

MR: Billy Plimpton, the protagonist of the book, struggles with stuttering. I can relate, because I too have a speech disorder—spasmodic dysphonia. Although my voice problem is different from Billy’s, I connected deeply to the character’s challenges and frustrations. As a non-stutterer, how were you able to capture Billy’s story with such authenticity? Was there research involved?

HR: The research came through raising my son, who is a stutterer. Over the years, we have been to speech therapy together, and I’ve witnessed all the ups and downs that come with growing up with a stutter. As most parents would attest, watching your child struggle and then learn how to deal with challenges is a pretty powerful thing. It’s no wonder he inspired me to write my first novel!

Inspiration for Billy

MR: As above, the idea for The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh came from your son, Lenny, who has a stutter. I’m guessing that Lenny was instrumental in the formulation of Billy’s character. Did he have any specific thoughts and suggestions? Any objections? What did Lenny think of the final product? 

HR: He was a HUGE part of the process. I read him each chapter when I’d finished it, and he would let me know when I had really hit the mark. It was such a lovely experience, and offered opportunities for us to talk about things that had happened to him. Also, he told me when things did not work, usually when I used words that “kids just don’t say anymore, Mum!” He really enjoyed hearing the drafts of the story as they developed, and he was an excellent proofreader as his grasp of punctuation and grammar is far better than mine!

When we found out that it was actually going to be published, Lenny was thrilled. He has been involved in TV interviews here in the U.K. and has loved every second of it! He’s much older now, and his stammer has changed a lot. He no longer struggles with it in the same way, and it doesn’t define him like it once did. Because of that, his stutter is not as apparent as it used to be, which gives him more confidence. When it does come back, he realizes that it’s just a tiny part of who his is. I think the story is a great reminder of that.

Creating a Nuanced Antagonist

MR: At school, Billy is bullied mercilessly by a classmate, William Blakemore. I’ve never experienced deliberate cruelty because of my speech disorder, but I could empathize with Billy’s pain and humiliation. As a writer, how do you humanize a bully? What advice would you give to other writers who want to create a nuanced antagonist?

HR: Blakemore’s character grew a lot over the editing process. It took time to get enough of his backstory into the book, in order to give his character depth, without apologizing for his behavior. I didn’t want to hold back on the bullying, to show how brutal and heartbreaking it can be, but I also had to show glimpses of where Blakemore’s bullying behavior came from. For every character, you need to show that their life and personality are complicated, contradictory and nuanced, and to do that they have to do things that are not always expected.

The Joke’s on You

MR: Despite his stutter, Billy dreams about being a comedian when he grows up. His biggest fan is his beloved grandmother, Granny Bread. What is it about comedy—and about the act of telling jokes—that appeals to Billy? For someone who is reluctant to speak in class, telling jokes onstage seems like a herculean task.

HR: The size of the task is what made it so appealing to write. I love an against-all-odds story! Sometimes we are drawn to something that seems beyond our reach for that very reason. I also wanted to show that just because Billy stammers, he still has a lot to say. It’s easy to assume that people who stammer are nervous or shy, and that certainly is not the case with Lenny. He is incredibly confident. He never stopped talking, raising his hand in class, or making his voice heard, however hard it seemed.

Many kids who stammer do withdraw, so I wanted to show in Billy that even though he was tempted to retreat and stay silent, the need to tell jokes and make people respond to him in a positive way had more power. Lenny definitely doesn’t want to be a comedian in real life (he would prefer to be a drummer), but I do know a comedian with a very strong stammer, so when I had the idea of using comedy, I knew it was rooted in reality.

How to Respond to a Stutterer

MR: As a stutterer, Billy is hyperaware of how people react to him when he speaks. He’s even created four categories of listeners: The Encouragers; The Mind Readers; The Jokers; and The Waiters. How did you come up with these categories? Can you tell us a bit about each? Also, what advice would you give to people who interact with a stutterer? What should—and shouldn’t—they do?

HR: This section of the book was Lenny’s favorite. It came from how I had witnessed people responding to him, and he said that it felt like I had climbed inside his head!

The Encouragers do just that; they try and help by telling him to “keep going” or “slow down.” Generally, very kind people, but  encouraging is not that far from interrupting and, as it says in the book, “Telling someone to relax when they are clearly struggling is like shouting, ‘Run faster!’ at someone being chased by a tiger.” They would if they could.

Mind Readers finish the sentence, trying to guess what a stammerer is going to say (and often getting it wrong, as far as Billy is concerned).

Jokers mimic the stammerer. I’ve seen this done to Lenny so many times. You may think that it’s just kids who would do this, but  I’ve seen more adults do it. I think it’s an attempt to be playful, and I think it happens when a person doesn’t know that it’s a stutter they’re hearing. This is definitely the most shocking response I have witnessed.

Waiters are the best category as far as Billy (and Lenny) are concerned. This is what I would always try to do. It’s harder than you may think. People aren’t the most patient, but it’s a useful skill to practice and I’m grateful to Lenny’s stammer for reminding me to be more patient!

An Actor’s Life Is (not) for Me

MR: Before writing your first novel, you were an actor and stand-up comic. What prompted you to make the switch from acting to writing? Also, can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers about your path to publication?

HR: I loved acting, but after having kids the reality of auditioning and touring lost its appeal. In fact, I started to dread the calls from my agent instead of hoping for them, so I knew it was time for a change. After I had Lenny, I began to write and perform comedy as well as write plays and theater shows. I completely fell in love with writing–more so than any performing I was doing, so when I had the idea for this story, I knew that it was not a theatre show, but a book. It was an exciting moment!

A very quick draft followed, and I realized it was all character and no plot–and so the editing began! I found my wonderful agent and then things went super fast when she sent it out to publishers. After an auction, I was pleased to sign a two-book deal with Scholastic. It felt like I had just the right amount of luck and serendipity, as well as a pretty thick skin!

Writing Rituals

MR: What your writing process like, Helen? Do you have a specific routine or word-count goals? Any writing rituals?

HR: No word count goals; I think that would stress me out! I go and sit in my writing shed in the garden most days after school drop-off, and when the procrastination is out of the way, some writing usually happens.

MR: Finally, what’s next on your writing agenda? 

HR: I’m working on book two, which is about a boy called Archie Crumb. He and his mum are really struggling, and just when he thinks things can’t get any worse, he bangs his head and his wishes start coming true! He has no idea if it’s all for real or just a huge set of strange coincidences. I guess, ultimately, the book is about hope, and how we can put positivity out into the universe.

Lightning Round!

MR: Oh! One last thing. No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Chocolate, of course!

Coffee or tea? Decaf tea for me. I don’t need to make my brain any busier!

Favorite joke? What did the drummer name his two daughters? Anna One Anna Two.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay.

Superpower? Flight. No, invisibility. No, flight. No… How about decisiveness?!

Favorite place on earth? My home.

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? I am assuming I’m not allowed to say my family or dogs? I’m also assuming that sensible items such as a lighter, water and a boat are not what you’re after either. In which case, I will say suncream, a snorkel/mask, one of those notepads with an attached pencil.

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Helen—and congratulations on the upcoming publication of The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too.

HR: Thanks so much. I am thrilled that you enjoyed the book. Fingers crossed at some point that I can come over to the US and see it in the shops!

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!!!

For a chance to win a copy of The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account–for a chance to win! 

All About Helen

Helen Rutter lives in the English countryside, just outside Sheffield, with her comedian husband, two children, and two lovely dogs, Ronnie and Billy Whizz. When she is not tapping away in her writing room, she loves walking the dogs, playing board games, and reading. Before writing her first novel, Helen wrote and performed her work on the stage. She has even done some stand-up comedy, and before that she was a jobbing actress. She now much prefers to write the stories than be in them. Learn more about Helen on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Interview with Lauren Tarshis, author of the super popular I SURVIVED series, now with a new 9/11 graphic novel

I SURVIVED: THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

Photo Credit: David Dreyfuss

Lauren Tarshis is the author of the New York Times bestselling I Survived series of which there are 20 and counting! Each of these historical fiction books focuses on an iconic event from history, and tells the story through the eyes of a child who was there. The theme of the series is resilience: how human beings can struggle through even the most difficult experiences and somehow not simply survive but heal — and ultimately thrive. Now in time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the bestselling I Survived the Attacks of September 11 has been adapted to graphic novel format to become I SURVIVED: THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, written by Lauren and illustrated with a gorgeous, realistic and contemporary art style by Corey Egbert. The Mixed-Up Files is excited to welcome Lauren Tarshis to our blog.

 

Meira: Hi Lauren, thanks so much for joining us over on The Mixed-Up Files!
The original I Survived the Attacks of September 11 was first published in 2012. What was the impetus to adapting it into a graphic novel in 2021?

Lauren: Scholastic proposed the idea of transforming my series into graphic novels, and at first I didn’t understand their reasoning. The stories were already written, right? But I trust the Scholastic team so much — my editor Katie Woehr cares as much about my series as I do, and understands how much work, care, and LOVE I put into creating each book, taking complicated topics and trying to make them accessible to kids, and bringing my characters to life for my readers. And so I green-lighted the Titanic graphic novel, which was an incredible experience. Fortunately Scholastic was able to hire Georgia Ball to write the scripts, and she captures my stories so perfectly for this format. And the artists they have chosen create such glorious worlds for my books. What a joy it’s been — first Titanic, then Shark Attacks, and most recently I Survived the Nazi Invasion. September 11 was a natural choice because of the anniversary. And what I’ve realized is that these books make my stories accessible to an entirely different audience of readers, including kids who either don’t like to read or struggle to read. And this is so exciting to me.

Meira: In I SURVIVED: THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 one really feels like they are there. At the end in an Author’s Note you talk about how you lived in New York at the time but was en route from a trip abroad without your children, and your own personal terror at not being with them as you were rerouted back to London. Having been in New York on that fateful day myself, with my husband who worked in the World Financial Center, I really felt how well you capture the city, the mood, and what happened. I love the choice to tell the story through the eyes of a boy whose father is a firefighter. It’s a brilliant choice as the firefighters are such heroes in the fabric of New York City—even before this act of terrorism, —and so many of their lives were tragically lost. Did you consider other eyes from which to tell the story before settling on Lucas’s?

Lauren: Thank you so much for these kind words. I actually struggled through several drafts of this book before I realized that ultimately this book wasn’t just about September 11, but about an NYFD family. I started from scratch, delved into the culture and history of the NYFD, and also created a pretty “big” front story of Lucas dealing with concussions and the loss of football as a focus and a way of coping with his father’s injury from a warehouse fire years before. The size and depth of the character’s front story varies depending on the nature of the historical event I’m writing about. 9/11 is so intense and aspects are so complicated and potentially overwhelming for young readers. Focusing on other aspects of Lucas’s life enabled me to tell the story in a way that was appropriate for my younger readers.

Meira: How do you conduct research for the books in which there is less of a personal connection and you are not immediately familiar with the setting, time period and community? How do you put yourself into the shoes of a child through which you tell the story?

Lauren: I travel to all of the places I write about (with the exception of the bottom of the North Atlantic to see the Titanic wreckage and to the shores of Japan to research the 2011 tsunami). I want to walk in my characters’ footsteps, see and feel what they are feeling. For 9/11, of course, this was easier because I grew up in CT, went to college in NYC and work in NYC. Those two towers were part of my own landscape. But for other settings, those visited are so important. Another important step in researching the books is talking to people who actually experienced the event, or who have had stories passed down, or reading diaries of letters.

Meira: Can you talk a little bit about the themes of the I Survived series—on one hand kids have a lurid fascination with disaster, on the other hand your books offer a strong sense of resilience, which in this current time seems more important than ever. How do you achieve this balance?

Lauren: This is a great question. The theme of the series is resilience and healing — I try not portray a realistic sense of how we cope with loss, how we can slowly heal, how we can help each other and ask for help. But I’m also trying to write engaging adventure stories that kids — including struggling readers — will read. Finally, I want to build their knowledge in history, science, or important cultural touchstones and references points. I would say that I give equal weight to these three strands of the series.

Meira: What was it like to see your words come to life in this way? Authors whose books are turned into movies are often asked how it feels to see their characters with specific features, and their story acted out. What is it like to see your story told in this graphic format?

Lauren: I do feel that the experience of the graphic novels has been akin to seeing my books turned into an animated series. It’s been wonderful — because the team has done such a superb job. I’ve been dazzled by all of the artists who have worked on the series, and Corey Egbert was such a fantastic choice for this book.

Meira: I read an interview with you in which you mention how you started the series for your son and as an answer to reluctant readers. Can you talk a little bit about that here in light of this now being a graphic novel. (And I ask as the mother of two sons who find even short text tedious, especially if the font is small, but will devour anything in graphic format regardless of font size.)

Lauren: I so related to your boys, because not only were my boys reluctant readers but I struggled to read. And so these are the readers I’m picturing as I’m writing the books, and these are the readers I’m hoping will especially love the graphic novels.

Meira: Are there plans for more of the series to become graphic novels? Or for new I Survived books?

Lauren: We just finished I Survived the Grizzly Attacks, 1967, and the team is working on I Survived Hurricane Katrina. There are more planned after that, but we haven’t yet decided which topics.

Meira: What advice would you have for writers looking to break into series writing, in particular for reluctant readers?

Lauren: I would say that reluctant readers “deserve” access to important stories, fascinating chapters in history, characters who will inspire them and fortify them as they face challenges. Just because a child doesn’t love to read doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply curious about the world. Writers for reluctant readers have to work a little harder to make stories that much more engaging, to pull the reader through the book using suspense, rich descriptive details, and humor. These readers need to feel deeply connected to the characters, and invested in what happens. I will also say that there is no more rewarding audience to write for. NOTHING is more inspiring and motivating to me then en email from a kid saying “I hate to read but love your series!”

Meira: Is there anything I haven’t thought to ask that you’d like our readers to know?

Lauren: I just want to thank you for the chance to be a part of your wonderful blog, and for your thoughtful questions.

Meira: The pleasure is ours, thank YOU!

I SURVIVED: THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 can be purchased here or or wherever fine books are sold.

Interview with Alex London for BATTLE DRAGONS, Plus Giveaway

Alex London is joining us on From the Mixed Up Files today to talk about the first book in his brand new middle-grade fantasy series BATTLE DRAGONS. Alex is the author of more than 25 books for children, teens and adults, including the middle-grade series DOG TAGS, TIDES OF WAR, WILD ONES, and ACCIDENTAL ADVENTURES. His latest series launches on Sept. 21 with BATTLE DRAGONS: CITY OF THIEVES, which is a super fun adventure. Here’s the description:

Cover of Battle Dragons: City of Thieves by Alex LondonIn a modern mega-city built around dragons, one boy gets caught up in the world of illegal dragon battles and a high-stakes gang war that could tear his family apart.

Once, dragons nearly drove themselves to extinction. But in the city of Drakopolis, humans domesticated them centuries ago. Now dragons haul the city’s cargo, taxi its bustling people between skyscrapers, and advertise its wares in bright, neon displays. Most famously of all, the dragons battle. Different breeds take to the skies in nighttime bouts between the infamous kins―criminal gangs who rule through violence and intimidation.

Abel has always loved dragons, but after a disastrous showing in his dragon rider’s exam, he’s destined never to fly one himself. All that changes the night his sister appears at his window, entrusting him with a secret…and a stolen dragon.

Turns out, his big sister is a dragon thief! Too bad his older brother is a rising star in Drakopolis law enforcement…

To protect his friends and his family, Abel must partner with the stolen beast, riding in kin battles and keeping more secrets than a dragon has scales.

When everyone wants him fighting on their side, can Abel figure out what’s worth fighting for?

Doesn’t it sound awesome? Until you can get your dragon paws on your own copy, let’s go behind the scenes of the book’s creation. And make sure you read to the end to enter the giveaway.

Samantha: Hi Alex! Welcome to From the Mixed Up Files. I loved BATTLE DRAGONS: CITY OF THIEVES. Tell us where you got the idea from?

Headshot of Alex London | Photo by Gina Clyne Photography

Alex London | Photo by Gina Clyne Photography

Alex: Thanks so much!  The short pitch is that it’s The Fast and The Furious meets How to Train Your Dragon, except that I hadn’t actually seen those movies or read those books when I began this project. Of course, I’ve corrected that oversight now (and am kind of obsessed with the gleeful story-telling chaos of the Fast and The Furious franchise.

As to my inspirations, there are endless sparks that ignite the ideas in any novel, but this one combined so many influences that fueled my imagination when I was a middle schooler. It combines my love of cyberpunk like Akira and Blade Runner with my love of fantasy, of dragon lore, and ultimately of stories set in that middle school time, when young people start to come into their own and realize how much bigger, complicated, and wonderful the world is than they ever dreamed. I wanted to write a story that would have appealed to me in middle school, but that would’ve also expanded my imagination for what kind of a world was possible.

There are sibling rivalries and new friends and high stakes souped-up dragon riding action. There are also, I hope, a lot of laughs!

Samantha: You’ve incorporated a lot of dragon story lore (with the dragons keeping a hoard, for example), but you’ve also expanded on the roles of dragons, like having them be taxis, school buses and cleaners. How did you decide what to keep and what to add for this story?

Alex: Writing a mash-up of genres gave me the freedom to pick and choose what dragon lore was useful or interesting to me. What of my main concerns was using the lore that would make the dragons feel familiar and recognizable, without being derivative or boxing me in to any narrative corners. So, flying and hoarding and breath weapons were a must, but speaking English to humans, as they do in some wonderful dragon tales, was not something I wanted.

Samantha: I love all the different types of dragons you’ve come up with for the story. What inspired each one?

Alex: I couldn’t possibly go into detail on each one here, but I did develop a basic dragon taxonomy when I began, essentially dividing them into Short-Wing, Medium-Wing, and Long-Wing dragons, each more suited to different jobs for humans, and within each category a wide variety of species, from Infernal Long wings whose fire their hot breath from high in the clouds, the short winged Blue Foot, which are like the Honda Accords of the Drakopolis. Then there are the different Reapers, medium winged dragons who make the best battlers with their wide variety of breath weapons and skills, and the related Wyvers, pulled straight from mythology, but in my story, used mostly by the secret police. It’s a lot of fun researching and inventing dragons and their abilities! I spend a lot of time thinking of it like a card game, Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering. In fact, I even invented a game just like that for the story!

Samantha: Abel and his brother Silas and sister Lina are all very different. Are you closest to one of them or do they all have similarities to you in different ways?

Alex: I’m probably most like Abel, with my ADHD and tendency to catastrophize, though, like Lina, I’m idealist who broke more than a few rules as a teenager, but like Silas, I can slip into an inflated sense of self-righteousness if I’m not careful. This is the first series I’ve written since becoming a parent, however, so I do find myself identifying a lot more with their parents than anyone else! I hope I could stand up the gangsters and the secret police as well his Abel’s parents do!

Samantha: If you were one of your dragons from Drakopolis, which one would it be and what would be your favorite thing to hoard?

Alex: Oh, I would want to be Karak, the Sunrise Reaper, because describing him was just so cool! The scene where he meets Abel and Roa was the first I thought of, even before I starting writing.  And I think I would probably hoard books…because I kind of do already!

Samantha: You’ve written both contemporary and fantasy books, but you said in an interview that the fantasy book Redwall helped you become an avid reader. As a writer, do you enjoy writing one genre more than another?

Alex: I like writing everything! As this fantasy-sci-fi mashup with real themes of middle school probably demonstrates, I can’t confine myself to just one genre. The world is so full of stories, I’d hate to limit myself to just one kind.

Samantha: Do you have any tips for teachers and librarians who are trying to encourage reluctant readers to read more?

Alex: Choice! Letting readers choose their own reading—even if it doesn’t seem like great literature to us—matters. I read far more Calvin and Hobbes as a kid than I did prose novels, and far more illustrated nonfiction magazines than ‘literature’ and far more “trashy novels’ than ‘great books’ and now I’m an avid and critical reader and a fairly prolific writer. People come to it in their own time and in their own ways, and I think we need to model following our interests and knowing when to put books down if they aren’t working for us. Life is too short and there are too many good books to force ourselves to read ones we hate. For every “reluctant reader’ out there, there are books that will feel like their were written just for them. They just need the chance to find them.

Aside from choice, I think removing the stigma from not loving to read could help. We put a lot of moral weight on reading, but I know brilliant people who don’t read much of anything and total monsters who are bookworms. I think reading is a source of great joy, insight, and inspiration, and I want to invite kids into it, but I don’t see any use for shaming them when they aren’t.

Samantha: Finally, can you give us a sneak peek at book 2 in the series? When is it coming out?

Alex: It will be called BATTLE DRAGONS: CITY OF SPEED. I don’t know the publication date, but I do know that there will be high stakes dragon races, new and wonderful breeds of dragons, and new friends and enemies for Abel and his crew. It’s gonna be a high stakes, high speed, high flying romp, that I hope readers love!

Samantha: I can’t wait!

Enter the giveaway below by July 30 for your chance to get one of three copies of BATTLE DRAGONS: CITY OF THIEVES plus a signed bookplate.

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