Author Interviews

Donna Gephart Interview + ABBY, TRIED AND TRUE Giveaway

I’m so pleased to shine the MUF spotlight on Donna Gephart’s new novel Abby, Tried and True, which releases next week from Simon and Schuster. Kirkus Reviews calls it, “A touching story about finding inner strength during a challenging time” and educator, Colby Sharp, calls it “phenomenal!”

(Donna has generously offered to send a signed copy of Abby, Tried and True to one lucky winner–US only. See details at bottom.)

All About the Author

Award-winning author Donna Gephart’s previous middle grade novels include: The Paris Project, In Your Shoes, Lily and Dunkin, Death by Toilet Paper and others. Her first picture book, Go Be Wonderful, comes out March 30th from Holiday House. She’s a popular speaker at schools, conferences, and book festivals. Donna lives in the Philadelphia area with her family and her canine office assistant, Benji, a sweet retriever mix. Visit her online at www.donnagephart.com. Autographed copies of her books are available from Inkwood Books.

All About the Book

Please tell us a bit about Abby, Tried and True.

Abby is an introverted 12-year-old whose best friend moves to Israel and she’s sure it’s the worst thing that could happen to her. She’s wrong. Her beloved, hilarious older brother is diagnosed with testicular cancer and everything changes. Abby and her two awesome moms have to help Paul get through surgery and treatments. It’s hard on everyone. Meanwhile, Abby tries to navigate seventh grade without her best (and only) friend by her side in a world that feels too loud and too busy. One of the things that brings Abby joy during this difficult time is the mysterious new boy who moved in next door. Abby explores her feelings for this boy while she also tries to figure out who she is and how she’ll manage the challenges in her life. Colby Sharp did a terrific video review of the book here.

What was the inspiration behind this book? You’ve mentioned it took you seventeen years to figure this book out. Why was it so difficult to write?

About 18 years ago, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Getting through surgeries and week-long treatments in the hospital were some of the most challenging experiences of my life. I wanted to find a way to translate those experiences and emotions into a powerful story for young readers. It took many, many attempts to find my way into telling a deeply meaningful story that would resonate with young readers without it being too overwhelming. I think I managed to do that by telling the story from the sister’s point of view. I also included humor and the hopeful budding new romance between Abby and the boy who moved in next door.

 

All About Being an Introvert

I think a lot of people have wrong ideas about what being an introvert means. Did you do research on introverts, and if so, were you surprised at anything you learned?

The biggest aha moment I had from my research was recognizing that I am an introvert. I always love traveling and meeting new people, so I thought I was an extrovert. But it’s more about the environments in which one thrives. I thrive in a quiet environment where I’m able to be very interior. I can’t stand shallow conversations. I want to talk about things I find meaningful. Some people think being an introvert is the same thing as being shy. It’s not. Being shy means you have a fear of social judgement. Being an introvert means you thrive in a quieter environment, you don’t need a jumble of people around all the time. Solo projects are more appealing than group work. Much of what I learned came from Susan Cain’s research, which she shares in this illuminating TED Talk.

 

What would you like readers to come away with after reading the book?

I never write books in hopes of imparting a lesson or moral. I want readers to feel less alone in the world and more emotionally connected with each other. I hope my books cultivate empathy and remind us to be a bit kinder, a bit more understanding because really, we never know what someone else might be going through.

 

A Tip for Writers

What is your best tip for aspiring middle-grade writers?

I write middle grade because that’s the period in my young life I remember most clearly. I write middle grade because it was a challenging time for me and I felt alone; I don’t want my young readers to feel so alone as they go through their own challenges. I write middle grade because at bookstores and at the library, those are the books I’m most drawn to. If you’re an aspiring middle-grade writer, ask yourself WHY you want to write middle grade? Why does it matter to you on a deeply personal level? Your answers will be the foundation of your journey.

For more writing tips from Donna, click HERE for this archived MUF post.

 

Good advice! What are you working on now?

I’m trying my hand at writing funny chapter books and, of course, I’m writing my next middle-grade novel. After writing about a girl whose brother is diagnosed with cancer, my new book is funny. I think we can all use a little more funny these days.

 

I totally agree, Donna. Thanks so much for sharing!

Please click the giveaway link below BEFORE SATURDAY MIDNIGHT and comment, retweet, follow MUF, etc. for a chance to win a signed copy of Abby, Tried and True. The winner will be announced on Sunday, March 7.

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Allergic: Interview + Book Giveaway!

Do you know a child who would love to get a pet but can’t because of allergies? I was one of those kids. It was great to read graphic novel about a girl just like me. I got to chat with Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter about their book Allergic.

About the Book

Hi Megan and Michelle! Thank you for sharing Allergic with me. Growing up with both a food and pet allergy, I really appreciated a book that addressed both. You did a wonderful job showing how environmental allergy shots work, how it feels to miss out on something because of an allergy, and how you feel when your allergy impacts others. I’m sure it will help those with allergies feel understood and help those without allergies empathize.Allergic book cover

Can you give us a short summary of the book?

Megan: Allergic tells the story of an animal-obsessed girl named Maggie who’s about to get her first puppy…when she finds out she’s allergic to all animals with fur or feathers. Maggie’s still determined to do whatever it takes to find the perfect pet, but she has a lot to learn about her family, her friends, and herself along the way. (And thank you!)

 

When does the book come out?

Michelle : March 2nd!

 

There were so many different middle-grade concepts that you brought up in Allergic: friendship, feeling different, a new baby sibling, family relationships, hiding a secret…Tell us who would especially enjoy this book.

Michelle: I hope kids with and without allergies are able to see themselves in Maggie and can really relate to finding your own place with friends and family.

Megan: I think that kids with allergies will especially relate to Allergic. And because it also deals with so many challenges common to many childhoods, I think that most kids who love graphic novels will like it, too!

 

Michelle, the expressions you conveyed through your illustrations were amazing! I could really get a sense of emotion in each frame. If you had one tip for artists out there on illustrating graphic novels, what would it be?

Michelle: Thank you so much! I love acting out the emotions of the characters myself to feel them. If you caught me at my desk, you’d find me mimicking all the expressions as I draw them. It helps me understand the character and it’s a lot of fun. That and using reference photos, plenty of reference photos.

 

About the Author & Illustrator

Give us a sense of who you are in ten words or less.

Michelle: One artist trying her hardest to create happiness through books.

Megan: Dedicated bookworm and writer.

 

Can you explain to us the process of collaborating on a graphic novel? Megan, how did you convey what you wanted it to look like to Michelle? Were you able to communicate during the construction of the book?

Michelle Mee Nutter (by Greg Marquis)

Michelle Mee Nutter (by Greg Marquis)

Michelle: I loved working with Megan. She had such a strong grasp on the story and we just hit the ground running. It felt so organic to work together and I agreed with so much of the suggested pacing and stage direction but also had so much creative freedom to play around. We had a lot of conversations at the start and talked about ideas, concept art and where we wanted to take it. I feel so lucky to have teamed up with such a wonderful author.

Megan: It’s a little hard to describe because there were so many different stages to the project. Because we teamed up before pitching the project to publishers, we were able to collaborate on the initial vision for the book when I’d only written the first part of the script and a loose outline. After beginning officially working with Graphix, we would go through periods of working more individually (like when I was finishing writing the script and then when Michelle was doing the thumbnails, for example), but then would come together with our wonderful editor Cassandra Pelham Fulton at steps along the way. So it was this really great combination of working together and also giving each other creative space and trusting the vision the other person would bring to the project. As for the script itself, I planned the story beats and stage directions panel by panel, but then Michelle could adjust as she saw fit. Michelle really made so much of the emotion of the story work in ways beyond what I could have imagined. Working with her has been a dream come true!

Megan Wagner Lloyd (by Seth Lloyd)

 

Megan, can you tell us a short summary about your writing (and reading) journey. Did you enjoy writing as a child? Did you read comic books? What authors inspired you?

Megan: I have always been a bookworm. And I wrote in my diary when I was eight that I wanted to write books for children when I grew up! I wasn’t aware of comic books as a kid, but I did love Calvin and Hobbes collections. I also really loved books that had very detailed illustrations, like the Brambly Hedge books by Jill Barklem, The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, and Jan Brett’s work. As I started reading novels, I read mostly fantasy books and animal stories, but my favorite realistic fiction writer was probably Beverly Cleary, as I connected with her humor and her ability to show the world from her kid characters’ perspectives.

 

Michelle, did you always enjoy drawing? What artists inspired you?

Michelle: I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. It was a way for me to create stories and characters that I couldn’t find in the books I had as a kid. Animation was a huge inspiration for me growing up, especially any movie by Hayao Miyazaki. Kiki’s Delivery Service was on a permanent loop in my house as a kid.

 

In what ways are each of you similar to Maggie?

Michelle: I’m very determined like Maggie. When I set my mind to something, I’ll stop at nothing to try and make it happen.

Megan: I bring pieces of myself to each of my characters, and with Maggie I think I channeled both my  anxiousness and determined optimism.

 

Research/Writing/Illustrating

What gave you the idea to write about a pet allergy?

Megan: Like Maggie, I’m allergic to all animals with fur or feathers! I also have a lot of other allergies, but wanted to focus on animal allergies for this story.

 

Megan, how was the process of writing a graphic novel different from a traditional novel? And why did you choose that format? (Be sure to check out her blog post on writing resources for comics and graphic novels here.)

Megan:  I had been wanting to write a graphic novel for several years, but just wasn’t sure where to start. When I had the idea for writing a book focused on a kid with animal allergies, I thought it could be a great fit for the format, and that really motivated me to figure out the whole process.

One big difference for me has been that graphic novels really force me to always consider the physical location and movements of characters. With novels, especially in first person, you can have scenes that are more about the character thinking or reacting to something, really in that space in their own head. But with comics, unless you want to fill panels and pages with just dialogue bubbles, then you really have to consider the location and movement of the characters and what you can do to keep it moving and make space for interesting visual beats.

 

Michelle, how was the process of illustrating a graphic novel different from a traditional picture book?

Michelle: This was my first project I signed on to as an Illustrator. I had only done portfolio pieces or smaller form comics before Allergic. It was a dream come true and I had so much to learn as I went. The biggest difference is how long graphic novels take. We’re talking months and months, sometimes years if you’re lucky. There were a lot of hard nights where I didn’t know if I could do it, but every page you get closer and can feel the excitement building.

 

What is your best time to work? Any special rituals that get you ready and inspired?

Michelle: On my best days, I’m most productive early in the morning. When the sun is just rising and the house is completely quiet. There’s a lot of peace in those moments and I feel really energized. But I have a very bad habit of staying up late and I’m mostly working around 9am or 10am.

Megan: I’m a work-at-home parent, so I just kind of go with the flow. Whenever I try to make a solid schedule, something goes wrong. I try to work when I can whether I feel inspired or not, though everything does go much faster when I feel inspired and/or have a upcoming deadline. Books, TV, and nature are all big sources of daily inspiration for me.

 

What research did each of you need to do for any of the topics in Allergic?

Michelle: I had to research a lot! I never lived with allergies like Maggie does, so I had to research almost every aspect. Megan really helped with that and had so many resources and descriptions to pass down to me. I feel very spoiled working with her!

Megan: For the animal allergies I didn’t have to do much research, as I was using my own experiences as inspiration. I also have a family member who has to carry an Epi-pen, so I had already had some life experience learning about that aspect of allergies, too. I did research allergies in general, and food allergies in particular, to make sure I was conveying factual information. We were also able to have an allergist review the script for accuracy, which was very helpful. In the script itself, I tried to include a lot of links (to things like photo references for what allergy skin testing looks like, for example), so that Michelle wouldn’t have to figure out everything from scratch (hah!).

 

What ended up taking more time than you anticipated?

Michelle: Inking took a lot longer than I anticipated. Working on smaller comics always made inking feel like such a breeze. But for Allergic, the page count was the biggest learning curve. I could really only get through 2-3 pages per day, 4 if I was really powering through.

Megan: It was a bit of a learning curve for me that after I “finished” the script and Michelle did the sketches, the sketches and text combined then became the new working document, and we would re-assess the dialogue, narration, and even sound effects—clarifying and refining—with each round of the art process. But I’m glad we did it that way because I think it helped make the storytelling throughout feel very natural and cohesive.

 

For Teachers

Are either of you doing school visits related to this book? Tell us more!

Michelle: We are! Of course sticking to virtual visits and staying as safe as possible. We’re making presentations for a lot of fun programs and reach kids in the elementary school-middle school range.

 

How can we learn more about each of you?

Michelle: You can find me on instagram @buttersketch and my website is michellemee.com.

Megan: And I’m on Instagram @meganwagnerlloyd and my website is meganwagnerlloyd.com.

 

I hear you have another book coming out together. Can you give a little teaser about it?

Michelle: It’s pretty much under wraps for now, but what you can expect is a lot of fun meeting new characters and following along the ups and downs of having a big family.

Megan: I think it’s fair to say that if you liked the humor and heart in Allergic, you’ll really enjoy our next book, too!

 

Thank you both for your time.

Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter will be giving a signed copy of Allergic to a lucky reader. Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a copy.

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*This giveaway is only available in the United States.

Megan Wagner Lloyd is the author of several picture books, including Paper Mice, Building Books, Finding Wild, and A Fort-Building Time. She lives in the Washington DC area. Visit her online at meganwagnerlloyd.com.

Michelle Mee Nutter graduated with a BFA in Illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators, 3×3 Illustration, Creative Quarterly, and more. Michelle lives in Boston, MA. Visit her online at michellemee.com.

Allergic is available here:

The Seed of Something Great – An Interview with Story Seeds Podcast Creator Sandhya Nankani

A few weeks ago I was visiting a writing class and mentioned a podcast called Story Seeds. At first I thought maybe I was doing a bad job explaining it, but then I realized the collective silence of the room wasn’t confusion – it was utter amazement.

Photo credit: Marj Kleinman

“Is this real?” someone finally asked.

Is it ever! And today I’m sharing my interview with Story Seeds creator and executive producer, Sanhya Nankani. She told me all about the development of this quite amazing project, as well as her path toward producing content for young readers.

CL: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Sandhya! Let’s start with your journey to children’s media – can you give us a glimpse into the path that led you to the work you do now?

SN: Well, I have a pretty non-traditional background and don’t quite fit into a box or a linear path in terms of my path! I studied history, got my masters degree in International Affairs, and once upon a time, planned to work in international development…but I was always passionate about the written word, media, and communication. I finally joined the “publishing” world in 2004 when I was almost 30 – at Weekly Reader Classroom Magazines, where I was part of the literacy magazines group. I edited a magazine called Writing for Teens and also got to work on some proof of concept digital experiments; this was the time when digital magazines were just making inroads.

From there I moved to more formal educational publishing at Scholastic, where I worked in the English Language Arts group on some iterations of their successful product READ 180. This is where I cut my teeth on developing curriculum and teacher materials and parsing standards and began thinking about how to create engaging kids content that can also support curriculum.

Then, in 2008 or so, I ventured out on my own and started my studio Literary Safari!

I’ve always been interested in the intersection between print and new media and how innovations (whether it’s POD, digital content, audio, or apps) can be applied to the content that children engage in and consume, I guess — and playing and experimenting with it. 

CL: What a cool journey! So one of the things coming out of your studio is Story Seeds, which is all about taking an idea and helping it grow into something bigger. That seems to be true of the podcast itself, as well – can you take us through the beginnings of that idea and how it blossomed into a fully produced show?

SN: As an editor of Writing for Teens magazine, I worked with lots of young writers and authors, and there was one project I’d helped launch called The Weekly Writer where an author started a story and kids helped them continue it on a weekly basis — we would pick a paragraph each week. This was a web-based project, but I’ve always thought about the collaborative nature of it and loved working on it. Then, a few years ago, Literary Safari worked as vendor for an educational publisher where we commissioned diverse trade authors to write leveled chapter books for the classroom market. Ideas (what I called story seeds) were provided to us by the publisher and I worked closely with authors to help them grow the seed into a story. During this project – we created 75+ books, including graphic novels – I started thinking about this wonderful author network that I had built over the years and what joy I derived from it, as well as about how the seeds were sometimes not that great and one day I remember saying to myself, “I wonder whether kids would have better ideas than this!”

When we finished the project, I was eager to continue working closely with authors – I had enjoyed it so much, especially the process and challenge of matching authors to story ideas – we worked with Jerry Craft, Derrick Barnes, Traci Sorell, and several more award-winning authors on that project —  and I was eager to find a way to do that for a wider audience.

CL: So collaboration has obviously had a big role in your creative life – can you share a bit more about the role collaboration has played in your various pursuits?

SN: When my daughter was little, we used to do what I called “studio” time, where we would collaborate — she would tell me a story or the beginning of a story, and I would ask her guiding questions and she would talk and I would write and she would draw. I’ve always looked back on that experience and thought about how it was empowering for her as a child to be heard, to get to illustrate and think out loud even when she couldn’t write, and what it meant for us to put our heads together and collaborate — and all of those things definitely inspired the “seed” for Story Seeds – because as a mom, as a creative, as a producer and as an educator, I really believe that young people need spaces where they can be empowered and have their voices heard and centered. 

I’m also very interested in interdisciplinary collaboration – as I’ve seen how people from different technical backgrounds and fields create rich experiences when they come together. I’ve created some apps for kids such as HangArt, for example, and the development of that was driven by the intersection of art & words in the formation of literacy, and showing how they are not separate from each other but support one another in learning and in play. 

CL: Well, your list of collaborators in Season 1 of Story Seeds is pretty impressive – names like Dan Gutman, Jason Reynolds, and Veera Hiranandani just to name a few. How did you connect with so many talented people?

SN: I have always had a radar for noticing new talent and diverse voices. Early in my career I received a grant from the Asian American Writers Workshop for example to help diversify a collection of grades 9-12 Language Arts textbooks published by then Holt, Rinehart and Winston Elements of Literature textbooks. Since then, I’ve also worked with authors, commissioning them to write original works for the publishers that employed me.

Connecting with authors took a bit of digging and detective work to figure out how to reach them and who would be a good match for what. That was something I always loved, but mostly it takes being brave enough to bring an idea to them and ask them if they want to be a part of bringing it to life. That is what I did with Story Seeds – once we had selected ten story seeds and kids to feature on our first season, I made a list of authors who would be good matches for them (it was a bit like matchmaking) and then tracked down the authors or their agents and shared the idea about the show. We were super lucky to have uber librarian Betsy Bird as our podcast host, and she was an incredible

Story Seeds host Betsy Bird | photo by Sonya Sones

resource to us in the match-making process as well, with suggesting authors when as well. I feel very fortunate that most of the authors we approached signed on right away and felt connected to our mission of empowering kids and were excited to collaborate with them.

CL: So with that said, do you have a favorite episode of the podcast?

SN: That is like asking a mom to name her favorite child!!! I love them all and each one, like one of your favorite books, had a special story behind the story – whether it was how the kids were matched up with authors, a production adventure, or the way in which the author and kid connected. What I found amazing was the deeper level of connections each of our “matches” had when they finally met up — that was something none of us could have predicted.

For example, Jason Reynolds and Irthan both had a deep love of music and commitment to social justice which you hear on Episode 10, and Sulaf and Susan Muaddi Darraj both love Agatha Christie on Episode 8, on Episode 1, Dan Gutman and Hannah were finishing each other’s sentences, and on Episode 7, Carlos Hernandez and the twins Siri and Zarana collaborated in a way that went beyond what we had imagined as producers of the show, and well, Veera Hiranandani and Willa were such deep thinkers who shared a common experience of school on Episode 2 and so on. 

CL: Well, one of MY favorite things about the podcast in general is the activity book that goes with it. Can you explain a bit about what the activity book is and how it works?

SN: Yes! IMAGINATION LAB: Experiments in Creativity is a companion to Story Seeds and features QR codes that kids can scan to listen to an episode of the podcast, then launch their own creative experiments in writing, reading, and STEAM. It’s techie yet screenfree! For each episode, we have created activities and printables that go hand in-hand and that showcase themes, author’s craft and tips, and draw listeners into their own imaginations. We tried to tie the activities to different disciplines because we strongly believe that storytelling is a doorway to learn about EVERYTHING in the world. It has made me immensely happy to hear early praise for the book from many teachers and parents, as well as Geek Dad!

CL: As you know, our focus here at Mixed Up Files is middle grade books and resources for the middle grade audience – do you have a favorite middle grade book? How has it shaped your thinking as you work on projects in the media world?

SN: The middle grade books that I’ve recently been drawn to are ones that tell stories that I never had access to as a young person growing up in the United States – or as an immigrant coming here at age 12. Over the past few years, it has been extremely gratifying to read the books of authors Saadia Faruqi (A Place at the Table), Rajani LaRocca (Midsummer’s Mayhem), Veera Heeranandani (The Night Diary), Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington), Roshani Chokshi (Aru Shah series), Varian Johnson (The Parker Inheritance) whose stories reflect my experiences, my middle grade dreams and ambitions (mystery solver, sleuth, etc.!). But I would have to say that the book I most recently read that just knocked me over is Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue which I wrote about here at my Instagram.

CL: SO many great books! My TBR list is already a mile high, but I may have to climb up there and add Daniel Nayeri’s new book to the top 🙂 So what’s next for you, Sandhya? Any new seeds you’re planning to cultivate this coming year?

SN: I always have my thinking cap on about new ways to meet kids & families at the interaction of print and digital media — and am brewing some ideas that are growing out of this pandemic experience and my thinking about where we can go from here in terms of the lessons and opportunities around storytelling and learning.

I’m also actively working to figure out how to make a second season of Story Seeds. The response to the show has been so incredible – it does require resources to continue producing a show that has this production value and to continue to bring authors of this caliber together with kids and to have a host like the wonderful Betsy Bird. So we are looking for sponsors who see the value in reaching kids and families and understand that the power of a podcast is not just as a new media form that is growing, but also that it provides the opportunity to reach listeners directly in their ears and to communicate with them in a meaningful way. We are also shopping around some ideas for an “interactive” book series that features  the original  stories that appeared on Season 1.

At my studio Literary Safari, we’ve been creating a collection of culturally responsive lessons to support teachers in literature instruction for McGraw Hill Education. That has been very gratifying and it’s good to be involved in a project that will have impact and give teachers a permission slip to talk about race, social justice, and inclusion in a meaningful way.

____________________

Many thanks to Sandhya Nankani for taking the time to chat with me! If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out Story Seeds, Literary Safari, and Sandhya on twitter/instagram.

Until next time!