Author Interviews

DEAR STUDENT ~ An Interview with Elly Swartz

Welcome to my interview with middle grade author Elly Swartz and our sneak peek into her next release DEAR STUDENT – Autumn, a girl with social anxiety and a pet guinea pig named Spud, becomes the secret voice of the advice column in her middle school newspaper.

THE BOOK

DEAR STUDENT by Elly Swartz

Publisher: Delacorte Press

Release Date: February 15, 2022

When Autumn becomes the secret voice of the advice column in her middle school newspaper she is faced with a dilemma–can she give fair advice to everyone, including her friends, while keeping her identity a secret?

Starting Middle School is rough for Autumn after her one and only BFF moves to California. Uncertain and anxious, she struggles to connect with her new classmates. The two potential friends she meets could not be more different: bold Logan who has big ideas and quiet Cooper who’s a bit mysterious. But Autumn has a dilemma: what do you do when the new friends you make don’t like each other?

When Autumn is picked to be the secret voice of the Dear Student letters in the Hillview newspaper, she finds herself smack in the middle of a problem with Logan and Cooper on opposite sides. But before Autumn can figure out what to do, the unthinkable happens. Her secret identity as Dear Student is threatened. Now, it’s time for Autumn to find her voice, her courage, and follow her heart, even when it’s divided.

“A story that shines with honesty and heart.”—PADMA VENKATRAMAN, Walter Award–winning author of The Bridge

THE INTERVIEW🎙️

Hi Elly! It’s wonderful to have you join us. I’m sure our readers are as excited as I am to learn more about Autumn. (And she has a pet guinea pig!💗)

What would Dear Student’s best life quote or hashtag(s) be?

#BraveLikeMe

#GoodWeird

#FearlessFred

Hmm . . . interesting.

Now, Autumn suffers with social anxiety. Such a poignant topic for the times we’re living in. How will this look to the reader at the opening of the novel?

Autumn tucks in as a way of dealing with her social anxiety. She tucks into the pets she loves, her sister Pickle, and staying connected with Prisha, her bff who moved away. Her social anxiety heightens with new friends and new situations. We see this manifest as the thoughts and worries that swim in her head, questioning everything she says and doubting her every action.

How does she grow with and through social anxiety toward the novel’s end?

Throughout the story, Autumn talks about Fearless Fred, “the part of each of us that fear can’t boss around.” (p. 10).

Yeah, now that’s awesome.

By the end of DEAR STUDENT, Autumn has discovered her Fearless Fred, found her voice, and the courage and strength to use it.

To ensure authenticity of Autumn’s social anxiety throughout her story, I worked with Dr. Kathleen Trainor, a therapist who specializes in anxiety in kids.

💚💚💚

Sounds like you did a lot of research for this story.

All of my books are the product of tons of research. I think it might be the lawyer in me. Authenticity and respect are at the cornerstone of my writing. And I am beyond grateful to the many people who shared their expertise and time with me. In Dear Student, the experts I consulted with were:

*a pediatric therapist who specializes in anxiety

*a person who specializes in iguanas and snakes (pregnant ones!)

*a congressman who sponsored the Humane Act bill that prevents the testing of cosmetics on animals and those in his office in charge of the bill

*a Peace Corps volunteer

*educators who kindly shared their Spanish translation skills and input with me

Wow! You definitely did your research.

AUTHOR INSIGHTS👀

Did you know from the start that Autumn was going to write a school advice column and how did you approach creating that setting?

When I first envisioned this book, it was Autumn’s mom who was the secret advice columnist. But as the heart of this story crystalized, it was clear that Autumn needed to own her voice. And the secret voice allowed her to do that.

Why will readers relate to Autumn?

I think we are all a bit like Autumn.

We all have those moments when step into a room and wonder if we fit. If we’re saying the right words, wearing the right clothes, doing the right things. Moments where we wonder if we belong.

I also believe readers, like Autumn, have moments where we find ourselves stuck between friends. Knowing that no matter what we do, no matter which decision we make, one of those friends is not going to be happy.

In the end, I truly think readers will connect with Autumn’s heart.

What can parents, teachers, and guardians take from Autumn’s story to help a child/student they know suffering with social anxiety?

I want them to know their child or student is not alone. We are all working on something. We all have moments where we feel anxious. Where we wonder if our voice matters.

I want them to know that it does matter. That they matter.

STORY CHARM✨

Love your use of a ‘special’ animal friend as Autumn’s alter-voice throughout the novel. Tells us more, please!

Spud!Firstly, share with our readers a little about Spud. 😊

Aw, I love Spud. Spud’s real name is Ajax. And he’s my son’s guinea pig (pictured to the left). I babysat for him while my son moved out west and fell in love with this giant baked potato of a guinea pig and knew I wanted readers to meet him. He is actually a rescue and currently 6 years old!

He’s adorable!

What do you hope young readers will take away from reading Autumn’s book journey?

I hope readers know their voice matters. That strength and bravery can look a lot of different ways. And that true friends will always be there. As Autumn says, “We don’t have to think the same or believe the same things to be friends. But we do always have to be kind to each other. And respectful of each other.” (p. 255-56).

Autumn is a wise girl.

I also hope readers discover that the most fearless thing they can do is be themselves.

WRITER’S CORNER📑

Author visits – Would you share some advice for our teachers, librarians, and homeschoolers on how to prepare students for an in-person verse a virtual author visit?

I love visiting schools – in person or virtually. And, for me, the preparation for my visits is the same. The best visits are when students have read one (or all : ) of my books. It gives us a foundation and very special connection to build on.

What part of writing this story did you find most fun? Most challenging?

I loved writing the Dear Student letters. It brought me back to my middle school self, walking the halls, feeling all the feels. The excitement, the worry, the joy, the self-consciousness, the cliques, the doubt, and the crushes. It was fun to give advice. I hope it helps my readers as they navigate all the feels.

The most challenging part was writing the friend conflict. No spoilers, but there’s something that happens between Logan and Autumn that hurt my heart to write. It wasn’t how I envisioned the story going. But it was the path the story had to take for me to stay true to the characters.

Lastly, from your personal writing journey, what’s the most important parts of writing?

Aw. I love this question. I would say, stay true to your voice. Write what matters to your heart. And be kind to yourself.

📣📣📣

SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM ELLY!📜

Whoopie Pies! There are recipes in the back of the book for Autumn’s Fearless Fred’s Whoopie Pies. And there are even allergy friendly recipes for readers like me who can’t have gluten or dairy.

And now that I’ve gotten you hungry for the book, I just wanted to tell you all the fun things that happen when you pre-order.

Special signed copies! 

If you pre-order DEAR STUDENT (pubs 2/15/22) from Eight CousinsWellesley Books, or The Brain Lair, your book will be signed to the reader of your choosing and you’ll receive a limited-edition bookmark!

Other prizes! 

If you pre-order from Eight Cousins, Wellesley Books, The Brain Lair, or anywhere books are sold, and send proof of purchase to dearstudentpreorder@gmail.com, you’ll be entered to win one of the three prizes below. Winners randomly chosen on 2/15/22. Good luck!

**        Happy Prize. A signed Brave Like Me poster

**        Dear Prize. Handwritten letters to you, your bookclub, your group of friends (up to 20), or your class from me in the style of Dear Student.

**       Virtual Prize. A free 30 minute virtual Q & A with me

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author Elly SwartzElly Swartz loves writing for kids, Twizzlers, and anything with her family. She grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania, studied psychology at Boston University, and received a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.

Elly Swartz is the author of 4 contemporary middle grade novels. Finding Perfect was selected as a 2019-2020 Iowa Children’s Choice Book, a Kentucky Blue Grass Master List Pick, honored as a Child Mind’s Institute Best Children’s Book About Mental Health, and a 2017 Global Read Aloud contender. Smart Cookie was a 2019 ILA/CBC Children’s Choice for grades 3 and 4 and educator Colby Sharp deemed Smart Cookie one of his favorite books for 2018. And in 2019, Becky Calzada, Coordinator Library Services, Leander ISD shared, “Readers of Give and Take will quickly become endeared with Maggie’s spirit and heart. Elly Swartz has written a book where the characters love fiercely, and family is forever.” Give and Take was Elly Swartz Booksnamed one of the best books of 2019 by Pernille Ripp and A Mighty Girl. And on 2/15/22 readers will meet Autumn in Dear Student (Delacorte/Penguin Random House). Autumn is a girl with social anxiety who becomes the secret voice of the advice column in her middle school newspaper.

Connect with Elly at ellyswartz.com, on Twitter @ellyswartz, on Instagram @ellyswartzbooks ` or on her webseries #BooksintheKitchen with author Victoria J. Coe.

It’s been such a pleasure chatting with you! I can’t wait for Autumn’s story to be in the hands of young readers.

Share with Elly your thoughts about her book or maybe even an experience you know of about social anxiety.

As always, thank you for reading!

💙

WNDMG: South Asian Picture Book Biography: Meera Sriram talks about BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL

Hello Mixed-Up Filers! I’m pleased to welcome Meera Sriram, author of BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL (Penny Candy Books, 2021), illustrated by Ruchi Bakshi Sharma,  and other titles for an interview at Mixed-Up Files today.

Hi Meera, thanks for joining us today at Mixed-Up Files.

About BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS is a non-fiction picture book for children (6-11 years). It is  illustrated beautifully by Mumbai-based artist Ruchi Bakshi Sharma. This book is a biography of Amrita Sher-Gil, a remarkable painter and a pioneer of early 20th century modern art. Amrita lived and created art on her own terms. Her father was a Sikh scholar from India and her mother was a Hungarian Jewish opera singer. Throughout her life, Amrita traveled between Europe and India. She was also a woman ahead of her times in a male dominated art world. This story layers Amrita’s journey navigating cultures over her artistic journey trying to discover where her art belonged.

On Amrita being a rebellious artist

Even as a little girl, Amrita hated being taught art. She always believed art came from the heart. Growing up, her art reflected her bicultural identity. While in Paris, she learned a great deal about European art. She painted many portraits of herself, her family members, friends, and lovers of both sexes. And she did this unabashedly. During this time, she also longed to paint what she’d experienced in India. Eventually, she found her “voice” by fusing western techniques and Indian subjects – something that was ground-breaking in the artistic world during that period. Amrita also pushed boundaries in how she centered women in her paintings. As a feminist, her art was unapologetic about brown female nudity, and her work celebrated ordinary, less privileged women at a time when women were mostly objectified in art.

On reading and writing picture books and how they are an integral part of your writing career

I did not read picture books as a child growing up in India. I fell in love with them when I started reading them to my daughter many years ago. I was blown away by the themes, aesthetics, and more importantly, the impact they can have on children. I believe they are an intensely powerful medium as they have the ability to influence young minds. When I noticed the invisibility of children of color as well as the entire gamut of immigrant experiences, I decided to tell our stories. I hope to continue to write about people, places, and experiences less commonly seen in stories for children.

On a moment in your life that inspired this story

I was sitting on my bed in my parents’ home on a summer night in India. Someone sent me a New York Times article on Amrita Sher-Gil pointing out what an incredible story it would make. I’d known about Amrita Sher-Gil. In fact we’d picked up a picture book for my daughter a few years before that. However, the article prompted me to dig deeper. I sat there obsessed for several hours reading up on the internet. During this time I made a small but striking personal connection with some of her experiences, especially around identity, life across continents, and blending cultures while creating. In those wee hours, I found the inspiration to tell her story.

On the process of immersing yourself in Amrita’s story and writing it for children

Initially, I was reading up every news bit, essay, and article I could find on the internet. Later, I managed to lay my hands on an important primary source, two volumes of AMRITA SHER-GIL: A SELF-PORTRAIT IN LETTERS AND WRITINGS (Tulika Books, 2010) by Amrita’s nephew Vivan Sundaram. This is a compilation of Amrita’s letters and writings along with notes by the author offering chronology and context. It also includes over a hundred reproductions of Amrita’s paintings and many amazing photographs. I researched and made notes for months. The narrative flowed out lyrically in my first draft and stayed that way. However, it took me many revisions and ample aid from critique partners to weed out details and extract the essence for her emotional trajectory as she tried to find out where she and her art belonged.

As an Indian American, Meera has lived equal parts of her life in both countries. Previously an electrical engineer, she now writes for children and advocates for diversifying bookshelves. Meera is the author of several picture books including THE YELLOW SUITCASE (Penny Candy Books, 2019), illustrated by Meera Sethi, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (Penny Candy Books, 2021), illustrated by Ruchi Bakshi Sharma and DUMPLING DAY (Barefoot Books, 2021), illustrated by Inés de Antuñano. Her book, A GIFT FOR AMMA (Barefoot Books, 2020), illustrated by Mariona Cabassa, is the winner of the 2021 South Asia Book Award and the Foreword Reviews Indies Silver Award. She has also co-authored several kids’ books published in India. Meera believes in the transformative power of stories and likes to write about people, places, and experiences less visible in children’s literature. For more information, please visit: http://www.meerasriram.com.

THE WOLF’S CURSE ~ Interview with Author Jessica Vitalis + #Giveaway

Welcome to my interview with author Jessica Vitalis, where we chat about her debut middle grade fantasy THE WOLF’S CURSE.

In what Booklist calls a “striking debut,” Vitalis’ novel is a vivid, literary tale focusing on family, friendship, belonging, and grief, wrapped up in the compelling narration of the sly, crafty Wolf. Fans of award-winning titles like “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” and “A Wish in the Dark” are sure to be captivated by “The Wolf’s Curse.”

One intriguing side note about Jessica before we begin. Jessica’s journey to publication is an inspiration to readers, to writers, and to anyone working towards reaching a goal. This is taken directly from her press release: “After 13 years writing, debut author Jessica Vitalis lands six-figure, two-book deal.” 👏👏👏

THE BOOK

THE WOLF’S CURSE by Jessica Vitalis

The Wolf is not bound by the same rules as you are.

The Great White Wolf is very, very old. And she is very, very tired. For hundreds of winters, she has searched for someone to take her place. But she is invisible to most people. In all those years, only three have seen her. One died young. One said no. One is still alive — a 12-year-old boy named Gauge. Everyone in the village thinks Gauge is a witch. He’s been in hiding half his life, all because he once saw the Wolf — and right after that, the Lord Mayor’s wife died. Now his only protector, his beloved grandpapá, is dead, too. The Wolf visits the boy again, this time with an offer. She can save him the pain of growing up. Now that he’s all alone in the world, it may be the only way to escape the bounty on his head. If only his grandpapá’s last words hadn’t been, “Stay away from the Wolf.”

“Thoughtful, creative, and engaging. … Accessible and intriguing worldbuilding, particularly around the Wolf’s backstory, will pique readers’ interests, as will larger questions about life, death, truth, and tradition.” — Kirkus Reviews

“A lyrical tale of loss and survival, tradition and belief, in which tension and secrets build like a towering wave. The Wolf’s Curse is a story of many layers. Young readers will treasure this beautiful debut and hold it close to their hearts.”  — Diane Magras, author of “The Mad Wolf’s Daughter”

 

THE INTERVIEW

Hi Jessica! It’s wonderful to have you drop by. I have to tell you that I’m so excited for this book! Care to give our readers a quick peek inside THE WOLF’S CURSE? Maybe five words to give us an inside view?

Macabre, sweet Grim Reaper retelling

🖤💀🖤💀🖤

CHARACTER

The boy Gauge’s beginnings surely tug at the heart. If you would, share a thought or two from his heart with our readers.

Hello, readers––I’m a boy of twelve winters who would like nothing more than to invite you into the living quarters behind my grandpapá’s shop; there, we can sit by his feet in front of the fire as he whittles and tells stories of his travels far and wide.

Oh wow! Now that sounds intriguing and peaceful, yet adventurous.

Tell us. What about Gauge makes him unique and relatable to young readers?

I think part of Gauge’s appeal is that, despite his young age, he already possesses an impressive skill set in terms of his carpentry and whittling. At the same time, he’s relatable because he’s uncertain about the world and his place in it; young readers will recognize his longing to live up to his grandpapá’s expectations and make the old man proud.

What do you hope young readers of Gauge’s story take with them about death and the process of grief?

Childhood can be a frustrating time; kids want to have agency but sometimes feel trapped or like they don’t have a say in their own lives. This is especially true of kids living with or experiencing trauma; without the foresight that age and maturity brings, it can feel like things will never change. My hope they’ll walk away from this story with the sense that no matter how bad things feel, there’s always room for hope and healing.

A very important take-away.💚

Portraying the Grim Reaper as a Great White Wolf is clever. 🐺  Share how you capitalized on the darkness of a reaper contrasting with the ‘lightness’ of a white wolf to create such a wonderful character.

I’m glad she resonated with you! When I started writing the story, I didn’t have any sense of what kind of character she might turn out to be, so I was delighted when she revealed herself as something other than pure evil. That said, I knew before I started writing that she wouldn’t want to be doing her job––giving her a tangible and relatable personal goal helped create a nuanced and compelling character rather than a stereotypical Reaper. As to her coloring, I was troubled by the trope that Reapers are typically represented by black—this drove me to create a Great White Wolf, which doesn’t actually exist in nature (the closest thing is the Artic wolf, which are sometimes referred to as white wolves).

Interesting fact about wolves.🔍

If the Great White Wolf had a life (or death) quote, what would it be?

Follow your heart. It’s as true as any compass out there.

Which character from the book do you see yourself in most?

I’m 1/3 the Wolf’s snark, 1/3 Gauge’s sweetness, and 1/3 Roux’s practicality!

WRITER’S CORNER📝

You share in your press release how writing the Wolf as an omniscient narrator kind of just happened, evolved as you wrote and edited. How different was it writing in this POV for you? What pitfalls should writers who would like to try it for themselves look out for?

I was having so much fun writing that I didn’t worry about the POV as I drafted; it wasn’t until the revision process that I realized how big of a risk I’d taken. Writing an omniscient, first person, present tense narrator presented some unique challenges in that I needed an explanation for how and why the Wolf knew what was going on when she wasn’t around. The biggest challenge in writing an omniscient voice (especially one that often dips into close third) is to avoid head-hopping; that is, to only switch when you have a compelling reason and to clearly signal when you’re switching characters (usually by using their name at the beginning of the transition).

 Writers go from one idea to another, gathering them until they eventually take shape into a story. But there’s usually material that doesn’t make it into the final cut. Would you share one thing about the story that didn’t make it into the book, but the readers might find intriguing?

I threw out the entire first draft of this book—other than a Wolf, a boy, and a girl, the second draft shared almost no similarities with the first. In fact, Gauge was named Kipling and Roux was named Nyx, and instead of living in Gatineau, they lived in a non-descript country called Bantym. (Early readers said these names didn’t fit with the French-inspired feel of the rest of the story, hence the changes.)

READER’S NOOK📖

For our reading educators: what advice could you share for encouraging reluctant readers? For our reading writers: what writing or life advice has been the most valuable to you?

Educators already do such tremendous work, I’m not sure they need my advice. But if I had one thing to share, it would be to examine any preconceived notions of what reading might look like—picture books, comics, and graphic novels are all great as long as they foster a love of stories. For the writers out there, the advice that has been most valuable on my journey came from Chris Grabenstein, who reminded me that our first job is to entertain readers––if they aren’t engaged in the story, they won’t stick around.

Thank you!

Thank you for having me!

Oh gosh, you’re welcome. But honestly, thanks goes to you for sharing this beautiful story with the world. It’s been such a pleasure chatting with you, Jessica! Much congratulations to you!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica VitalisJESSICA VITALIS is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer. After leaving home at 16, Vitalis explored several careers before turning her talents to middle grade literature. She brings her experience growing up in a non-traditional childhood to her stories, exploring themes such as death and grief, domestic violence, and socio-economic disparities. With a mission to write entertaining and thought-provoking literature, she often includes magic and fantastical settings. As an active volunteer in the kidlit community, she’s also passionate about using her privilege to lift up other voices. In addition to volunteering with We Need Diverse Books and Pitch Wars, she founded Magic in the Middle, a series of free monthly recorded book talks, to help educators introduce young readers to new stories. She was recently named a 2021 Canada Council of the Arts Grant Recipient. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters. She loves traveling, sailing and scuba diving, but when she’s at home, she can usually be found reading a book or changing the batteries in her heated socks. WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | YouTube: MAGIC IN THE MIDDLE

GIVEAWAY

Enter to WIN one of five swag packs for THE WOLF’S CURSE! (US Only.) Ends October 4th. Winner announced via Twitter.

Packs contain: 1 bookmark, 1 postcard, 1 glass bottle w/printed letter from the author, 1 lollipop, & 1 feather

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