Author Interviews

American Dog: Brave: An Interview with Author Jennifer Li Shotz

I’m excited to have had the chance to interview Jennifer Li Shotz, author of the bestseller Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine. This book was made into the 2015 movie Max. Jennifer has written many other dog books, as well as a new series titled American Dog. Two of those books, Brave and Poppy, are coming out on April 7 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers).

Before I begin my interview, here is a brief description of American Dog: Brave:

Brave is a stray dog surviving on the streets after a hurricane in San Antonio, Texas. He’s skittish and starving, but when he encounters 12-year-old Dylan, everything changes. Dylan is having a tough time himself and feels like he and Brave can help each other—if Brave doesn’t destroy his mom’s new couch or ruin Dylan’s friendships first.

Thanks for joining us, Jennifer. I enjoyed reading American Dog: Brave. I am a dog person myself, so I especially loved the story. Being the author to so many books featuring dogs, I’d love to know your connection. Did you grow up having dogs? Why such an interest?

Dog lovers, unite! Though I just want to start by saying that I’m also very much a cat person—I don’t discriminate. Cute and fluffy is cute and fluffy. My son is super allergic to cats, though, so we’re a dogs-only household.

Believe it or not, I only had dogs for a very brief period in my childhood—maybe a year or so—but it was during a really tough time when my parents first separated. I was about 7 years old I think. The dogs’ names were Mork and Mindy (look them up, kids—nanu nanu!), and they were the light of my life. I still remember lying on the floor with Mork, who was a big yellow Lab-retriever mix. I’d put my head on his belly and tell him all kinds of things, like whether I was feeling sad that day or the latest divorce updates, as if he were my oldest friend in the world. In response, he’d blast me on the cheek with some sweet puppy breath, and our BFF status was sealed. Those moments of feeling so connected to him and safe with him are what made me a dog lover for life.

Now my family and I have a 3-year-old rescue mutt named Vida. She was a stray in Puerto Rico who was brought to New York by an amazing organization. She’s the sweetest, goofiest, snugliest, and most unbelievably stubborn dog you’ll ever meet. She can open baby gates and our front gate with her snout, and she once stole an entire pork roast off the counter. Don’t tell her this, but I don’t mind her antics, because I know she’s a friend to my kids the way Mork and Mindy were to me.

I always find it interesting what ideas shape a story. You incorporated many interesting topics in your book: the stray dogs in Texas, the aftermath of a hurricane, the Blue Lacy, and ranchers. Were any of those jumping-off points for this story?

Any of those things could be interesting on their own, but I’m less interested in the thing itself and more curious about how a child experiences or sees it. That’s the jumping-off point for every story. Whether it’s epic or mundane, anything can stir up intense feelings for a young person.

So, let’s say it’s a big natural disaster, like a hurricane. How would an 11- or 12-year-old feel when the wind is louder than a freight train and the roof is rattling so hard it feels like it’s going to get sucked up into the air? How about after that event is over—does the world feel like a safe place anymore? Grownups are shaken too, of course, and in many ways kids are more resilient than we are, but the experience is very different and unique for them.

How would a young person feel encountering a sweet, sad stray dog on the street? A grownup might think, well, that dog is breaking my heart, but we don’t have room for it in the house, or I can’t afford the vet bills and the food, so I have to walk away. But a kid? No way—a kid’s whole being gets invested in that dog as soon as their eyes meet. That’s what drives my curiosity—and the story!


Great point (us writers are taking notes). I love how each book in the American Dog series is set in a different state. How do you pick which state to start with?

Every state has its own fascinating mix of geography, history, local identity and culture, and native or prominent dog breeds—we just had to pick someplace to start! Texas was an easy choice because 1) Texas is awesome, 2) there are so many different cultures and experiences and such rich history there, and 3) the Blue Lacy is a really cool dog that’s not very widely known. It seemed like a setting that could offer lots of storylines and ideas—and it was!


Which has been your favorite to write and why?

Hmmm, that’s a hard choice because I love them all, but I’ll go with American Dog: Poppy because I’m a native Californian and I love and miss my home state so much. Hopefully the book captures some of the essence of California life. Also: surfing dogs. What could be bad?


Which has been the most difficult to write and why?

Difficult isn’t quite the right word, but American Dog: Star, which comes out in the fall, was the most challenging of this new series. The main character is a boy with dyslexia, and it was so important to me to capture his experience in a way that felt real and true. These days there are definitely more opportunities for kids with learning or other issues to see themselves in a book or story, but they’re still somewhat rare, and it’s important to get it right.


Can you share with us some of the fun things you did or places you went for research for any of the books in this series?

Have you Googled “surfing dogs” lately? I’ll never get all those hours of my life back, but it was worth every second. Go try it now—trust me on this one.


Wow! Fascinating! Thank you, Jennifer for sharing so much about your new series. American Dog: Brave and American Dog: Poppy are both available on April 7.

JENNIFER LI SHOTZ is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine., about the coolest war dog ever. She is also the author of the Hero and Scout series. A senior editor for Scholastic Action magazine, she lives with her family and Puerto Rican rescue dog, Vida, in Brooklyn. For the occasional tweet, follow her @jenshotz.

A Chat About GLOOM TOWN by Author Ronald L. Smith & An Engaging Challenge For Readers!

Hi Everyone! How are you all doing? Social distancing and self-confinement is not something any of us expected to be doing, right now. Such an abrupt change to our lives can make us feel withdrawn and lonely. But there are ways to combat that feeling of isolation. One way is through reading and writing. Just as exciting is doing that with others through the internet. If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll find a little creative exercise I created for you to do. Those who participate will have a chance to win a prize!

But don’t scroll yet! Take a peek at my next creepy book spotlight and what the author has to say about his writing journey. It’s seriously an amazing, creepy middle grade read.


by Ronald L. Smith

A delightfully creepy novel from a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award winner imbued with magic and seafaring mythology. Lemony Snicket and Jessica Townsend meet Greenglass House, with a hint of Edward Gorey thrown in.

When twelve-year-old Rory applies for a job at a spooky old mansion in his gloomy seaside town, he finds the owner, Lord Foxglove, odd and unpleasant. But he and his mom need the money, so he takes the job anyway. Rory soon finds out that his new boss is not just strange, he’s not even human—and he’s trying to steal the townspeople’s shadows. Together, Rory and his friend Isabella set out to uncover exactly what Foxglove and his otherworldly accomplices are planning and devise a strategy to defeat them. But can two kids defeat a group of ancient evil beings who are determined to take over the world?

Another delightfully creepy tale from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award–winning author Ronald L. Smith.


Hello Ronald! It’s such a pleasure to have you visit us. Let’s begin with an area most readers are curious about: What is it about writing stories that makes it all worth it for you?

Selfishly, it’s a dream come true to do this for a living.  I feel very lucky to have such a cool job. But what’s really rewarding is knowing that kids will read my books and (hopefully) like them.

Did any book(s) from your childhood influence or encourage you to . . .

    1. Want to read more?


    1. Become a writer?

                    Yes. One of my favorite books as a kid was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Elanor Cameron. I also loved Ray  Bradbury, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. All of these books fired my imagination and set me on a path of becoming a writer. 

How do you think authors, librarians, teachers, and parents can encourage a love of reading in middle schoolers?

I think they’re all doing a fantastic job. There has to be a story for every kid. The librarians and teachers are on the front lines in suggesting books that will appeal to every one of them, no matter their background. Also, it’s not just books. Comics, graphic novels and poetry also help kids become better readers of novels. So don’t discourage any kind of reading at all!

So very true!

Describe for us the town in which you set Gloom Town and why this story had to be told there?

Hmm. Well, I write organically, and just kind of discovered Gloom Town as I was writing it. I wanted a locale that felt out of time. Kind of like 19th century England but with odd details in the mix as well. The seaside setting was a surprise to me, but once that came to me I really began to love it. Ships, mariners, the docks—it all came together to create a setting I really loved.

I love how the town revealed itself to you as you were writing the story.

What was your favorite part of the story to write?

I like the creepy stuff, so it has to be Lord Foxglove and his minions!


What makes your main character Rory different from other characters you’ve written?

He has a lot on his shoulders and will do whatever it takes to keep his family safe. He is bright and confident, brave and curious. His home life is different from that of my other characters. His mom is a singer, and her friends are artists and performers, so he has grown up in a creative, avant-garde community.

Why will middle schoolers relate to Rory and/or your other characters in Gloom Town?

Hopefully, they’ll see a bit of themselves in these characters and experience every bit of joy, fear and happiness that they do!

What do you hope readers will take-away with them after reading this story?

Be brave. Fight for your family. Don’t take a job at a spooky mansion.


Food advice: What’s your favorite writing snack?

I don’t really have one. I take a break at noon for lunch. I usually have some tea in the afternoon. But if I had to answer I’d say anything salty and crunchy!

Writing advice: What do you do when the writing just isn’t flowing?


Walk away for a while. Read someone else’s novel. Take a walk and clear my head.

One favorite idea-generating method you use is . . .?

Sometimes when I get stuck I imagine that the book is a film. What would happen next if this were a movie, I ask myself. Sometimes it works, Sometimes it doesn’t.

Sounds like a pretty effective method.

Care to share a favorite middle grade book of yours?

His Dark Materials from Philip Pullman and The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience with us. All the best to you, from your Mixed-Up Files family!




Ronald L. Smith is the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award-winning author of Hoodoo, The Mesmerist, The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away, Gloom Town, and Black Panther: The Young Prince. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.




Dear Readers, thank you for joining in to learn more about Ron’s mysterious story of GLOOM TOWN! Are you ready for your home-schooling exercise? Create your own fictional town – Name & a brief Description – in the comment section below along with your Twitter handle for a chance to win a copy of GLOOM TOWN! I can’t wait to see what you come up with! Giveaway runs from today until April 1st, (US only). Winner will be announced via Twitter.

Interview with Anne Bustard, Author of Blue Skies!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Today, I am pleased to welcome to our site, Anne Bustard, author of Blue Skies, which came out March 17th from S&S Books for Young Readers!

JR: Hi, Anne and thanks for joining us today!

AB: Thanks for having me! It’s a special treat to be on this blog!

JR: First off, I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy, and loved it. I felt both, happy, and so, so sad. For those who don’t know about the book, can you tell us a little bit about the book and the idea for this story came from?

AB: I’m quite touched by your compliment. Thank you ever so much!

Blue Skies is a story about 5th grader Glory Bea Bennett, who has never given up hope that her daddy will return from WWII. So when the Merci Train boxcar from France is scheduled to stop in her small Texas town, she’s certain that Daddy will come too.

The idea for this book came by serendipity. I discovered the existence of the Merci Train during a summer teacher workshop over fifteen years ago, and I knew in an instant that I wanted to write a story about this magnanimous display of gratitude. The Merci Train was a French grassroots effort that thanked the U.S. for all we did for them before and after the war. So in 1949, they sent 49 boxcars filled with gifts to the U.S., one boxcar for each state, and one that was divided between Washington D.C. and the Territory of Hawaii.


JR: The book has some humorous parts as well. How difficult is it to summon humor when you’re writing some pretty emotional scenes?

AB: What a great question! Writing humorous scenes and conversations within this story was a welcome and necessary relief for me, and I hope for readers as well. The Gladiola Gazette columns were, dare I say, the easiest. I imagine that’s because they were written in Penny Pfluger’s voice, rather than Glory Bea’s. I was thrilled when my wonderful editor suggested I add more.


JR: I think your editor was right! You write a lot of historical fiction, which I love. What about that genre appeals to you?

AB: I like to think of myself as a lifetime learner and research is one of my happy places. Reading and writing historical fiction allows me remarkable access to the past, much of which is new to me. Not only do I gain insights into a particular time, I often have an aha! about my own past, as well as the now. Hopefully, readers do too.

JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point? 

AB: I had the desire to write l-o-n-g before I ever attempted to tell a story. About a year after I finally took the plunge, I realized I needed help. Since I love school, I took a class with Kathi Appelt. When it concluded, she recommended that we form a critique group. So we did. That was over twenty years ago and I’ve been in a group almost every year since.

SCBWI, Highlights, Rice Continuing Education, VCFA, and the amazing Austin writing community have all played a major role in my writing development, success, and life. I owe them all enormous gratitude.

The earliest “polished” draft of Blue Skies is dated March 3, 2003. Back then it was a picture book. Several drafts later, an editor showed interest and wondered if it could be a middle grade. I loved that idea. At VCFA in 2009 and 2010, I completed a draft of the “train” novel. I sent it to several agents, all of who passed. In 2017, I reread it, saw ways to improve it, and dug in again. With the help of my critique group and agent, it was revised many more times. My agent found a fabulous editor and then we worked and reworked it together.


JR: I read a lot of fascinating things on your website,, such as that you grew up in Hawaii, and now live in Texas. I love both places, and have also lived in many different areas. How do you think that living in a variety of places has helped your writing?

AB: Guess what? I’ve moved! After decades in Texas, I reconnected with my college sweetheart and we married. Now I live in Canada, and travel back to Texas often.

You’ve asked a terrific question and I’m not sure I know the answer.

Did living in each new environment increase my curiosity, heighten my senses, or powers of observation? Maybe. I am certain that each move presented an opportunity to grow. Perhaps that has helped my awareness of the need for my characters to grow and change.


JR: Congrats on the move and the marriage! But have to ask, can you still hula well?

AB: Haha! I don’t know about well, but I did dance at my wedding reception a year and a half ago. 

JR: This is perhaps the MOST important question of this interview. I read that you used to own your own bookstore. How awesome was that?

AB: I loved the bookstore! It was a children’s-only store and we had the best staff and customers in the world! Opening up boxes of books, hand-selling them, interacting with other booksellers, and meeting authors and illustrators was the best!


JR: What’s your writing process like?

AB: I am not a plotter, though I do have a feeling about how I want the story to end. I dive into a first draft with joy. Somehow I’m able to turn off my critical brain because it’s a first try. I know that revisions, oh so many revisions, will follow.

I generally write in order, but at some point I leap ahead and write the last scene. After that draft, I do extensive journaling in order to delve into the characters and their motivations. Then the rewriting begins and I share the first chapters with my critique group. Eventually they’ll see a whole draft or two.

Often I’ll seek more outside readers before sending it to my agent. She’s editorial, yay! so we work on it until she thinks it’s ready to send out. (Note: everything I’ve sent her has not made the cut.) I research a lot up front, and continue in a lighter vein after the first draft through the last.


JR: I also have to have the last scene in mind before I write anything. What’s your favorite book from childhood?

AB: I have several, but I’ll mention two because I can’t decide: The Secret Garden and My Side of the Mountain.

JR: What’s your favorite movie?

AB: When Harry Met Sally. Besides the main storyline, the vignettes of older couples talking melt my heart every time.


JR: I watch When Harry Met Sally at least once a year! Something people would be surprised to learn about you?

AB: My superpower is hanging pictures on walls without measuring.


JR: A superpower that every little kid dreams about! 🙂 What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and is there any advice you can give to writers looking to break in?

AB: The first lecture of my first semester at VCFA, Louise Hawes spoke about character desire. She asked us to wonder: What does your protagonist want? The answer, she said, should drive our stories. This question guides and grounds my work.

As for advice to writers looking to break in: never give up, it’s okay for a manuscript to rest for years, and a reminder that you only need one yes (from an agent or an editor)!


JR: What are you working on next?

AB: I’m writing a middle grade story inspired by an unconventional (and historical) public event in Texas.


JR: How can people follow you on social media?  

AB: I’m on Facebook, as of last fall, Twitter, and earlier this year, Pinterest. Come by anytime and say hi!


JR: Thanks so much for stopping by and chatting and the best of luck with Blue Skies!

AB: Thank you, mahalo, and merci beaucoup, for this interview!


JR: Thanks again to Anne Bustard and make sure you go out and get Blue Skies!