Cross-Curricular

Middle Grade Author Michele Weber Hurwitz tackles an environmental mystery in her latest book, Hello from Renn Lake

I’m so thrilled to interview MUF contributor Michele Weber Hurwitz about her newest middle grade book, Hello from Renn Lake (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children’s, May 26 2020). The book centers on 12-year old Annalise Oliver whose family owns and runs a lakeside cabins in Renn Lake, Wisconsin. As a young child Annalise discovered she could communicate with the lake. However, when an algal bloom threatens the lake, she can no longer hear Renn. Annalise and her friends desperately search for a way to save their beloved lake and their community.

Michele, I just love how you alternate between 12-year-old Annalise Oliver, and centuries old Renn, the lake. And then Renn’s cousin, Tru, the river, also has a voice. How did you come up with making the lake and river actual characters in the book? (Also, I was so happy you included Violet, a small quiet lake.)

In my first draft, I didn’t have the lake and river narrating. In fact, it was a quite different story early on, but there still was a main character who had been abandoned as an infant. I had such a strong visual scene in my mind. One moonless night, a baby girl was left near the back garden of a store in a small Wisconsin town, and across the street, an ancient lake that had been part of people’s lives for eons, was the only witness. Because of the unique and mystical bond that develops between the girl and the lake, I realized at some point the only way to fully tell this story was to include the lake’s perspective. I loved that Ivan narrated his own story in The One and Only Ivan, but I wasn’t sure if an element of nature could do the same. But the idea took hold and wouldn’t let go, so I took a leap of faith. Once I gave Renn a voice, the story flowed (pun intended) from there. Tru’s point of view and Violet’s experience are vital pieces of the narrative as well. Also, I decided that all of the nature elements would not have a gender.

When did you discover that Annalise can communicate with the lake?

I always knew there would be a magical realism aspect where Annalise is able to sense what Renn is thinking and feeling, partially due to events that occurred the night she was abandoned. There’s a poignant backstory scene when she’s three years old and first discovers her connection with the lake. To her, it’s the most natural thing, and she’s surprised to later learn that not everyone can “hear” a lake. When I was writing, I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water” – that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Throughout history, people have lived near water – it’s an essential ingredient of life. Even our bodies are made up of mostly water – more than sixty percent.

I wasn’t that familiar with the potential toxicity of algal blooms in lakes. How did you first get interested in them? What sort of research did you do?

A crisis with the lake was going to be a cornerstone of the plot, I just wasn’t sure what the problem would be. But around the same time I was drafting, I read about harmful algal blooms (HABs) and how they’ve been increasing in all bodies of water in recent years. It’s another effect of climate change, and also polluted stormwater runoff that causes algae to grow out of control. HABs steal precious oxygen and also produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals, birds, and even dogs. Three dogs died last summer after swimming in a lake with a toxic bloom. This unsettled me so much that I knew I had to write about this issue. I did a ton of research online and also worked with amazingly helpful people at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Division of Public Health to make sure the info was accurate, even though this is fiction.

In your book, you have a Thought Wall, where anyone can write anything with sharpies. I truly appreciate the idea of encouraging free expression. Is something you have done yourself?

One of my favorite pizza places growing up allowed and encouraged patrons to scribble on the wood tables. I also heard about a coffee shop where people could put Post-it notes on a bulletin board. I think that’s such a fun idea. Of course, because I love words, but also that it’s so random – you can read someone’s silly, humorous, or thought-provoking message, and they can read yours. I also love that it’s not online but something more tangible and present. That the office for the cabins along Renn Lake would have a Thought Wall for guests just delighted me, and this goes along with the plot because the messages change when the lake is in trouble.

I love that Annalise’s friend Maya is trying to bring back Yiddish. Is Yiddish a language that you know?

My grandparents, two of whom were immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, spoke Yiddish. It’s interesting to me that the language was spoken by Jews in many linked geographical areas, unlike a language that’s a country’s official dialect. I fondly remember my grandparents uttering words like “chutzpah” and “mishegas” that didn’t have an exact English translation. As I’m getting older, I find myself using several Yiddish words, and now my kids are too! Maya starts saying some Yiddish words because her aunt is trying to bring back the language. The phrases aptly describe several situations in the story and might encourage readers to look up their meanings!

There are several mysteries going on this book. Annalise is a foundling and we also don’t know exactly how the bloom got started and what will happen. How did you come up with this idea of Annalise’s abandonment and tying that into the themes of the novel?

In my initial draft, Annalise focused on searching for her origins, but that direction didn’t feel fresh or original. That story had been told before. But I started thinking, what if you choose not to or can’t find the answer to your most troubling question? How do you come to terms with that and move forward? That shift led to a much stronger theme of roots. Instead of searching for where she came from, Annalise decides to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots also tie into the theme as Annalise and her friend Zach discover a possible way to help Renn. So Annalise’s abandonment and the crisis with the lake are woven together, and the river, Tru, plays an essential role in orchestrating this.

I really enjoyed Zach’s science knowledge (his magnifying glass) and the fact that his father is a novelist who isn’t always getting to his work. I have to ask you—who did you base that dad on?

Ha! The frustrated writer part is absolutely based on me! I’ve never sequestered myself in a lakeside cabin in order to write like Zach’s dad does, but I’ve definitely experienced many a time when I couldn’t concentrate and displayed hermit-like behavior – staying in pajamas all day, forgetting to brush my teeth, not leaving the house, talking to the walls. 😊

This novel does end up supplying reasons for the bloom—how it all starts on land—fertilizers, detergent, cleaning products, and pesticides that all end up in our waterways. In addition to the environmental devastation, you don’t shrink from the economic consequences of the toxicity. Is this something you have first-hand knowledge of?

While this is fiction, I referred to my research constantly during the writing process. My editor also asked me numerous questions, as we both wanted to be as factual as possible and offer accurate details that helped shape the narrative. I met with a technician who cleans up polluted lakes and when he said the problem starts on land, not the water, it really struck me how everything we do – pouring something down the sink or washing our car in the driveway – can negatively affect a nearby body of water.

In this text, you play with who has a voice and who is voiceless. Can you talk a little bit about that?

It makes me incredibly sad to see the harm people have done and are doing to nature. Our actions are tipping everything on this planet out of balance. I have this weird sense that nature is reacting, almost lashing out in a way, with the climate disruptions we’re seeing – fires and floods and hurricanes. But water, trees, land – they’re silent. I think it really deepened this story to know how a lake would feel if it was covered with a toxic algal bloom and couldn’t breathe. There are a few chilling last sentences from Zach that make me tear up every time I read them.

Annalise’s younger sister JessiKa (her creative spelling) is such an intriguing character. At times, she’s pretty annoying to her older sister, yet you can’t help but admire her determination to become an actress. At times, she reminded me of Amy in Little Women. I’d love to know a little bit about your process for creating her?

My younger daughter inspired Jess’s character. As a kid, my daughter always had something on her agenda and pursued it doggedly, like ten-year old Jess does with her desire to become an actress. At one point my daughter wanted our family to move to L.A. (we live in Chicago) so she could get on a TV show. 😊 While Jess’s relentless nagging tries her parents’ patience and certainly annoys Annalise, her tenacity proves to be worthwhile in the end, of course!

I love Jess’ line— “Just because something’s small doesn’t mean it can’t do big things.”

Definitely! Jess is small but tough as nails. I was the shortest kid in my kindergarten class. When we were doing a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, I was cast as the giant! I learned to speak up when I needed to, and so does spunky Jess.

Without giving anything away, did you know that it would be kids and specifically Annalise and her friends who would try to save the lake?

Absolutely. I knew the kids wouldn’t be satisfied when the town authorities take a “wait and see” approach with the algal bloom issue. Kids possess an urgency and passion that adults sometimes lack. I am in awe of the kids who have been marching, protesting, and speaking out on the climate crisis. There are some amazing things that happen in this story because of the kids’ determination.

In a post script to the novel, I truly loved how the information about lakes, rivers and algal blooms was from Zach’s point of view!

I find that sometimes the informational back matter of a book can be dull and boring, and I didn’t want it to be! Zach, adorable science nerd that he is, was the perfect character to share info for readers who are interested in learning more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms. All the links are also on my website.

Did you learn something from this novel that was new in terms of writing?

I learned to trust my instincts more. Deep down, I knew Renn was an essential narrator but I was hesitant to try writing in the voice of a lake. I kept coming up with reasons why it wouldn’t work or readers might not get it. Finally, I just tuned out those negative thoughts and dove in.

Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the book?

I hope readers will feel inspired to do something in their community – no matter how big or small. The climate crisis is such an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable issue. If we stop using plastic water bottles or recycle every scrap of paper, will these actions really make a difference? And I just want to answer, yes! All of my books end on a hopeful note. I believe in humanity and our inventiveness and adaptability to solve crises. We will find a way forward, and nature can help us come up with solutions.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the forthcoming Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Book Gratitude: 18 MG Authors Share Their Favorites

I was eight, or maybe nine, when I discovered a mysterious blue box in my parents’ medicine cabinet. The box was labeled “Tampax,” and I had no idea what it was. Curious, I asked my mom.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” she said, moving the box to a higher shelf. “You don’t need to worry about this now.”

I wasn’t worried… just intrigued. So as soon my mom left to make dinner, I peeked inside the Tampax box and discovered an army of tubular, paper-wrapped soldiers. What on earth were these things? And how was I going to find out?

Luckily Judy Blume had the answer. Okay, not Judy Blume herself, but her classic MG novel, Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which explores puberty and periods, with candor and care. The book wasn’t a replacement for a much-needed talk with my mom (that would come later), but for the moment, Margaret was the next best thing. I was grateful for this honest, informative, and true-to-life novel. I still am.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, and giving thanks to great books, I asked 18 middle-grade authors to share a book they’re most grateful for. Here’s what they had to say…

SUPRIYA KELKAR, author of Ahimsa, The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, and the upcoming American as Paneer Pie (5/12/20).

“The one book I’m most thankful for is Hot, Hot, Roti for Dada-Ji (Lee and Low Books) by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min because it was the first time my kids saw themselves in a book.”

CHRIS BARON, author of the MG debut novel in verse, All of Me.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson taught me that it was completely okay for me to be friends with a girl, something so important for the environment I was in. Even more deeply, it helped make a little more sense of the complex and difficult world I experienced at that age. It taught me that grief and hope are not enemies; that challenges are an important part of life, and that we are never alone.”

JANAE MARKS, author of the soon-to-be-released MG debut, From the Desk of Zoe Washington (1/14/20).

“I loved The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin as a kid, and in elementary school wrote Ann M. Martin a letter! I got a very nice form reply back, which made me so happy. What I loved most about these books was the friendships. I’m an only child, so friendships were really important to me. Reading about the books’ characters and their close relationships with each other was both entertaining and comforting. One of my best friends at the time was also into the books, and we bonded over our love for them.”

DEBBI MICHIKO FLORENCE, author of the Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series and the upcoming Keep It Together, Keiko Carter (5/5/20).

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee was one of the first books my daughter and I read together that had a contemporary Asian-American character. I had craved books like that when I was in middle school, and  it gave me hope that the stories I wanted to write might find a publishing home some day. And my dreams came true!”

RONALD L. SMITH, author of HoodooThe Mesmerist, and Black Panther: The Young Prince.

“The book I’m thankful for is The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by British writer Eleanor Cameron. I think I discovered it in middle school, and it swept me away to Mars, with two kids who build a spaceship in their basement. When I do school visits, I like to show a slide of the cover and point out how old I am by the price being only fifty cents. I have a vague memory of being home from school one day, perhaps I was sick or just feigning. Rain was pattering on the window. The book put me in a state of mind I had never experienced before. I now know that experience as “falling into the page,” something I try to do today with my own writing. Over the years, I have found readers of a certain age who still have fond memories of the book. It’s a timeless classic!”

SANDY STARK-McGINNIS author of Extraordinary Birds and the The Space Between Lost and Found (4/28/20).

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros was the first book I read where I said to myself, ‘I want to write like that.’ For me, it’s the perfect balance of accessible but layered, lyrical prose. When I need a reminder of why I love to write, I always come back to this book.”

JONATHAN ROSEN, author of Night of the Cuddle Bunnies and From Sunset Till Sunrise.

“I devoured the Choose Your Own Adventure series as a kid, because the hero was always me. The books were written in second person: “You did this,” and “You thought that,” making it easier for me to picture myself in the various situations. Plus, my dad would always buy me the next one in the series whenever we went to the bookstore, so it makes me think of him and that time in my life.”

CELIA C. PEREZ, author of  The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton came into my life when I was a seventh grader. Friendships were changing, and I was beginning to think about myself on a deeper level, to think about identity, about how others saw me and how I saw myself. Pony Boy was the first fictional character I remember identifying with. Like him, I felt that the world labeled me and made decisions about who I was without knowing me. I was a dreamer and lived in my head, like Pony Boy did. And like Pony Boy, I appreciated the power of writing; of the stories I read and of the stories I could someday write. I’ve read the book many times since I first read it decades ago, most recently to my eighth grader. The story is timeless, and I’m grateful for its lasting impact on my life as a reader and writer.”

HENRY LIEN, author of Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword and Peasprout Chen: A Battle of Champions.

“There are few books that make me feel true joy, wonder, and peace like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s a wordless, illustrated book done in beautiful, sepia-toned drawings and paintings that echo vintage photographs. It starts out looking like it’s going to be a historical piece, and that the main character is leaving some European country in the early twentieth century and emigrating to a new country. But when he arrives in the new country, you realize this place is like nothing you’ve seen before.  It’s like stepping into Oz, except Oz stays gloriously sepia-toned.

What Tan has done is given every reader the experience of being an immigrant, because everyone feels bewildered and lost. But it’s also a bright, warm immigration story because for every intimidating or strange encounter, there is an act of kindness and gentleness to remind the viewer that they might not be from here, but that they are welcome here. And here’s my greatest testament to the book’s power: I gave it to my father who came to America by himself, before the rest of our family followed. When he finished the book, he simply said, ‘This is exactly how it was for me.'”

SALLY J. PLA, author of The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine.

“My elementary school library had this biography series, sort of a prehistoric version of today’s “Who Was” books (I was a kid in the 60s/70s, so yes, prehistoric). Marie Curie. Eleanor Roosevelt. Rosa Parks. Helen Keller. Thomas Alva Edison. I lived for these books. Not because of the fame of the people, but because they were people, explained. Their struggles laid open, thoughts, actions and experiences illuminated. Their stories gave me hope, because I felt as if I were struggling all the time. When I found them on the shelf in room 5B, I felt like I’d stumbled on this treasure trove of field guides into the mystery of how humans worked (or should work). I know that sounds weird, like I was some kind of robot alien child. Maybe I sort of was!”

ALICIA D. WILLIAMS, author of the MG debut, Genesis Begins Again.

Blubber by Judy Blume was one of my favorite childhood books. Not only is Ms. Blume’s writing very funny, but that book spoke to me simply because I was Blubber. I was rather chunky, and horribly teased, and reading that story made me know that I wasn’t alone. I so identified with the characters and how bullying affects friendships. You can say that I’m both Linda and Jill.”

WENDY McLEOD MacKNIGHT, author of It’s a Mystery, Pig-FaceThe Frame-Up and The Copy Cat (3/10/20).

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery entered my life when I was nine years old, and sick with a nasty cold. My mother, anxious to get me away from the clutches of Midday Matinee, a local program that aired exquisitely bad movies, passed me a green hardbound book that would forever change my life.

Why am I thankful for Anne? Anne gave me permission to let my spunk flag fly. She was eccentric, romantic, brilliant, all the things that I either was or desired to be. She loved her friends and family unabashedly. She loved her community. She loved her books. She made mistakes and owned up to them, even if they weren’t hers (hello, amethyst brooch). She wasn’t beautiful, but she was better than beautiful: she was interesting and clever, a beacon for every interesting and clever girl.

A confession: I wasn’t sick the next day, but I faked sick, because I couldn’t bear not to know what happened. As I sobbed uncontrollably during that awful scene toward the end, Anne taught how important it is to love and be loved, whatever the cost. So thank you, Anne. You continue to be my north star, the literary light that reminds me that being different is a pretty swell thing to be.”

MELISSA SARNO, author of Just Under the Clouds and A Swirl of Ocean.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett taught me that there is magic in the natural world and magic within myself. Its message is one I take with me every day: we can help one another grow.”

GREG HOWARD, author of The Whispers and the upcoming Middle School’s a Drag, You Better Werk! (2/11/20).

“I’m grateful to have discovered Sounder by William H. Armstrong at a young age. It taught me empathy, and helped me better understand a culture I was completely unfamiliar with. Not only that of a different race, but of a level of poverty for which I had no concept because of my privileged upbringing.”

MELANIE SUMROW, author of The Prophet Calls and The Inside Battle (3/3/20).

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is probably the first example of a middle-grade book that felt edgy to me in the best way possible. A true coming of age story, Brian is forced to cross the precipice from childhood to adulthood in order to survive. I adore Brian’s story because, in spite of his fear, self-pity and doubt, he discovers his own resilience—an important lesson for all of us.”

RYAN CALEJO, author of Charlie Hernandez and the League of Shadows and Charle Hernandez and the Castle of Bones.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White is the first book I remember reading in school, and the first book I fell in love with. It’s a story about friendship, compassion, and accepting one another. I can’t think of a book more in the spirit of Thanksgiving than this gem.”

ROB VLOCK, author of Sven Carter & the Trashmouth Effect and Sven Carter & the Android Army.

“Having just lost my dad, who taught me to love reading and books, I’d say I’m grateful for every single book he read to me at bedtime. These were those magical moments that made me realize how amazing the experience of reading books could be. Among the hundreds of titles we loved together: The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, Treasure IslandThe HobbitAlice in WonderlandWar of the Worlds20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and David Copperfield. Without these experiences, I wouldn’t be an author today. Thanks, Dad! I’m more grateful than I can express.”

JESSICA KIM, author of the upcoming MG debut, Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (3/17/20).

“I am also so thankful for Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius because it was the first middle-grade book cover I ever saw that featured a contemporary Asian-American character! I also appreciated that it was a hilarious, heartwarming story about friendship, and the plot did not have to revolve around her “other” identity.”

MG Novels in Verse: 5 Authors Share Their Love for the Genre

If you’ve read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, or Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, or Laura Shovan’s The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, or Margarita Engle’s The Surrender Tree — or any other beautifully crafted novel in verse — you know how powerful this form of the written word can be. Here, five authors of middle-grade verse novels, Thanhhà Lại, Chris Baron, Aida Salazar, Skila Brown, and Ellie Terry, share their love for the genre…and why verse speaks to them in ways prose can’t.

Meet the authors and their books:

Thanhhà Lại is the New York Times bestselling author of INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN (2011), her debut novel in verse, which won both a National Book Award and a Newbery Honor. Praised by Kirkus as “poignant and unexpectedly funny,” INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN is inspired by Lại’s experience as a refugee, fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama. Lại’s other books include the YA debut BUTTERLY YELLOW (HarperCollins, 2019), and LISTEN, SLOWLY (2015), a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year. Learn more about Lại on her website.

Chris Baron, a poet, and professor of English at San Diego City College and director of the Writing Center, is the author of the novel in verse, ALL OF ME (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, 2019). Described by Booklist magazine as “[A] beautifully written and psychologically acute debut,” ALL OF ME follows 13-year-old Ari Rosensweig on a journey of self-acceptance as he battles with his weight, self-harm, and bullying; witnesses his parents’ rocky marriage; and deals with his burgeoning feelings of attraction for his elusive friend, Lisa. Learn more about Baron on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Aida Salazar is a writer, arts advocate, and home-schooling mother whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. Her MG debut novel in verse, THE MOON WITHIN (Scholastic, 2019), was hailed by Kirkus as “a worthy successor to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and the first-middle grade novel to reflect menstruation from the Latinx perspective. Salazar’s forthcoming novel, THE LAND OF THE CRANES (Fall, 2020), and picture book JOVITA WORE PANTS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTIONARY FIGHTER (Spring, 2021), are also published by Scholastic. Salazaar lives with her family  in Oakland, CA.  Learn more about Salazar on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Skila Brown is the author of verse novels CAMINAR (2014), inspired by events during Guatemala’s 1981 civil war, and TO STAY ALIVE (2016), told from the viewpoint of one of the members of the Donner Party and described by Horn Book as “a nuanced and haunting portrayal of the indomitable human spirit.” Her two books of poetry, SLICKETY QUICK (2016) and CLACKETY TRACK (2019), are also published by Candlewick. Brown, who received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee and now lives in Indiana where she writes books for readers of all ages. Learn more about Brown on her website.

Ellie Terry is the debut author of FORGET ME NOT (2017, Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan), a novel in verse that centers on astronomy-loving Calliope June, a 12-year-old who struggles with Tourette syndrome—all the while navigating seventh grade at a new school, in a new town. A novel of self-acceptance and the meaning of friendship, School Library Journal hailed Terry’s debut as one that “will stay in the hearts and minds of readers for a long time.”  She lives in southern Utah with her husband, three kids, two zebra finches, and a Russian tortoise. Visit Terry’s website and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

And now, without further ado, the questions…

MR: Authors, your debut novels are written in verse. What is it about this form that appeals to you?

Thanhhà Lại:  I struggled for years writing in prose about a refugee family. Still, the voice never rang true because my long sentences couldn’t convey what it’s like to think in Vietnamese. Once I found prose poems, where sentences were broken into a cadence and where images could be infused into thoughts, I knew I had happened upon the best way for English words to land on a page for my characters.

Chris Baron: Poetry speaks to the heart. We see with more than just our eyes, and the music of poetry helps words sing directly to us. I have always loved the way poetry says more with less; the way the images evoke the emotion in unexpected ways that are sometimes stunning, sometimes subtle. Personally, I feel the most comfortable writing poetry.  I don’t think the world always flows in a linear way all the time anyway, so the idea of finding the right imagery and language to explore what is going on around us, and then articulating the images we see in order to convey meaningful emotion and connection, is a very powerful way to discover stories.

Also, I am drawn to images, and I love the idea that a single image can be foundational to a story. I have always been someone who records things, images, and ideas. When I was a middle grader, I was captured by the Narnia stories–and then I read this C.S. Lewis Quote: ‘The Lion all began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself, ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.'” Something clicked for me then, and I thought: I better write stuff down because you never know when a simple image might become the next story!

Aida Salazar: The first pages I wrote came in verse and in my main character Celi’s voice as clear as day. I had recently read Andrea Davis Pinkney’s verse novel, The Red Pencil. It reminded me to trust my origins as a poet. I remembered that poetry, like love, is powerful and deepens the meaning in our lives. The story I wanted to tell about the blossoming of brown and queer kids lent itself perfectly to the form. I followed the muse in this way until I finished the manuscript.

Poetry is my manantial, the spring from which all my writing flows. Though I also write prose, I always aim for my prose to be infused with poetry and lyricism. This is the kind of writing I like to read and find most intriguing — writing that is rich in metaphor, imagery, and unusual phrasing; writing that enters the emotional essence of a character to show us a truth about humanity that we don’t often see. I love verse novels for these very same qualities. There is a tension at play between elements poetry gives us (economy of words, metaphor, simile, line breaks, white space, etc.) and the standard elements in crafting a story (conflict, plot, character arc, etc.). I love the hybridity of this space. I love this tension. With verse novels you can’t spend too much time waxing poetic because you do have a story to tell but you can bring the poetic point of view into every speech, action and plot point as you go. Verse novels are a wonderful space from which to tell a story that is unique, vulnerable and compelling at once.

Skila Brown: I think poetry is a great way to narrate something that’s hard to digest. Starvation and genocide are tough topics for any reader. Using a poet’s tools, such as white space and symbolism, allow readers of all ages to process what they are able to process in a way that suits them best. Poetry makes these stories more accessible.

Ellie Terry: I love working with words on a smaller scale and getting to literally play with them and arrange them however I want; you know, being able to show readers how the story develops in my brain.

MR: What are the biggest challenges of writing in verse? The biggest rewards?

Thanhhà Lại:  I naturally think in verse because I grew up listening to my mother recite poetry all day. That is how she talks. It is much easier for me to write in prose poems. The challenge lies in using verse for characters who are not thinking in Vietnamese. I haven’t found a way to do that yet.

Chris Baron: I think there are practical challenges. While there are the core elements of fiction at work, plot, character setting, etc., they don’t always function in a traditional way. Dialogue, for example, can often feel uneven compared to the internal thoughts. Or, form… I like to use free verse, but I use many different poetic conventions: syllabics, figurative language, accentual meter. This is all joy, but it can also be challenging because if it isn’t measured or cared for, it can create a sort of anti-rhythm that challenges the reader in an unwelcoming way. I have to spend a lot of time crafting and “performing” the poem out loud to hear the cadences and breaths in the writing. Each poem (or section) must be strong enough to stand on its own. This is true for any chapter, but there is a lot of pressure on the already compressed and concise words in a novel in verse, so even though fewer words are being used, this can sometimes take a lot of time.

I think there is a lot of power in the idea that author is not only focusing on the use of words but also use of all the empty space on the page. Every part of it matters, so authors writing in verse contend with the entire page, the placement of words, and how they come together everywhere. Also, the form allows for the reader to hopefully jump right into the action since the language is so concise. I try to make sure that every poem carries its weight, moves the story, can stand alone, and supply value for the reader–not just in the overall story, but in the immediate moment of reading that specific poem.

Aida Salazar: The challenge in writing a verse novel is to synchronize story and verse so that one does not overshadow the other; to craft them in such a way that they dance beautifully together. In my process, after the initial draft of the story is done, I go back and ask myself a series of questions pertaining to poetry. What is the rhythm of the line? Is there metaphor? Is there figurative and unusual use of language? How do the lines break? Do the line breaks serve the piece? Do the lines perform the text…? When I’ve answered all of these questions exhaustively, and made corrections and enhancements, that is where I find the biggest reward.

Skila Brown: I think dialogue in verse is tricky. Most of us don’t authentically speak in poetic ways in everyday conversation, so writing what our character says aloud can be tough. The biggest reward of writing verse novels for me is definitely hearing from teachers how much reluctant readers and ENL students lovereading verse novels. The smaller word-count and quick page-turns go a long way to keep some readers engaged in the story.

Ellie Terry: The biggest challenge/frustration for me is revision. When writing regular prose, I can easily remove/rearrange words, sentences, but when I’m working with verse, changing just one word often affects the entire stanza/page/poem and then I have to re-work everything. The biggest reward is when a poem comes together to explain exactly how the character is feeling . . . and it hits the reader in the heart.

MR: Somehow, the novel-in-verse form is able to capture characters’ emotions in a way that prose often cannot. What is it about this form that strikes such an emotional chord with the reader?

Thanhhà Lại: Fewer words loaded with images. I combed through INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN and deleted every unneeded word, much like boiling gallons of sap to get a pint of syrup. Without having to wade through a dense fog of sentences, readers can breathe and feel the words allowed on a page.

Chris Baron: There is room in a poem to be raw, vulnerable, and completely imperfect. I think that the novel-in-verse form creates an intimacy with a reader that is immediate, personal, and allows them to hear the tone and cadence of a character’s voice. I think this can create even stronger connections for readers because the form provides greater access to the internal landscape of a character. Poetry also relates to all kinds of readers. There is space on the page, measured breaks, pacing, music, and movement of lines that a reader of almost any level can find their way into. The imagery in a poem is not just about giving the setting but about the way the setting directly interacts and connects with characters’ minds, actions, and emotions.

Aida Salazar: As with all writing, the relationship between the reader and the text is ultimately personal. The power of story is profound. However, with verse, a more intimate layer is accessed because it is one focused on artistry. Through selective and precise language, the poet brings the reader into feelings and thoughts such as a vivid childhood memory, a trivial or deep idea about the world, the helplessness of falling in love, or a struggle with the spirit. The goal is not only to communicate a conflict and a plot but to create art that ignites the senses and the heart and speaks to the humanity in us all.

Skila Brown: I think dialogue in verse is tricky. Most of us don’t authentically speak in poetic ways in everyday conversation, so writing what our character says aloud can be tough. The biggest reward of writing verse novels for me is definitely hearing from teachers how much reluctant readers and ENL students lovereading verse novels. The smaller word-count and quick page-turns go a long way to keep some readers engaged in the story.

Ellie Terry: This kind of goes along with what I was saying above. Poetry is meant to make the reader feel an emotion. If it doesn’t make the reader laugh, cry, get angry, jealous, feel like they got punched in the gut, etc. it isn’t poetry. Also, you know that saying, “Sometimes less is more?” I think that’s true for verse novels. Sometimes less words = more emotional impact.

MR: What advice would you give to aspiring writers of novels-in-verse? Does one need a background in poetry to write one?

Thanhhà Lại:  I didn’t study poetry. I don’t call myself a poet. I write inside a character and if prose poems represent an authentic way to convey that character’s thoughts, then I write in verse. So I am not the best person to detail the preparations involved in a poet’s craft.

Chris Baron: So many kidlit authors have incredibly poetic, lyrical lines in their prose, so the gap isn’t always that wide. I think what has helped me the most is to read novels-in-verse, learn from what master authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Margarita Engle, Joy McCullough, Nicky Grimes, Thanhhà Lại, Kwame Alexander, and others. It always helps to be in a writing community that appreciates and understands the genre. And, I think taking a class or a poetry workshop never fails to inspire, and at the very least, help us to produce more work!

Skila Brown: To me, a “background in poetry” is really about experience with poems. If you’re wanting to write a verse novel, you should obviously read some of the great verse novels that are out there. Lots of them. But you should also spend time absorbing poems. Poems that rhyme. Poems that don’t. Poems for small children and poems for pretentious adults. Songs are great to study too, not just for the lyrics but also for the sound of putting it all together. Hearing the words beat out a rhythm in your soul—that’s poetic training.

Ellie Terry: I don’t think it’s necessary for an aspiring verse novelist to have a background in poetry, but it would certainly be beneficial! Verse is so much more than adding random line breaks to regular prose. It’s about creating white space and directing the readers’ attention to specific words. It’s about syntax and using poetic techniques such as alliteration and metaphors. Reading published verse novels and becoming familiar with poetic devices would be a great place to start!

MR: Thanhhà, Chris, and Ellie: Your debut novels are loosely autobiographical. What are the main differences between you and your protagonists? The similarities?

Thanhhà Lại: Hà [in INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN] and I both were born in Vietnam and dropped at age ten into this strange land called Alabama. We both have fathers missing in action. Our mothers are especially similar. Fictional Hà is much spunkier than I ever was. She envisions an upward trajectory within one year whereas it took me a decade to feel like I will be fine. And she’s much funnier. I don’t remember being funny. Mostly I stood alone and shot laser eyes at everyone while trying to make sense of life among Alabamians.

Chris Baron: Ari [in ALL OF ME] is definitely a character born from my experiences, both internally and externally. Like Ari, I have an artist mom, and my parents were just very busy parents. And I had to deal with my weight issues. I had a lot of fun growing up, but it was really hard. I think Ari learns a lot faster than me, though, and he does a good job of listening and learning from his friends. I wish I had done that.  Also, I think Ari is really brave. (I’m working on that too.) The other side of Ari is that he is more of a gentle soul, and I’ve known so many kids like this growing up; kids who would adventure, take risks, challenge themselves, but don’t necessarily want to step on anyone as part of it. I wanted to give some voice for them too.

Ellie Terry: FORGET ME NOT is definitely a work of fiction; however, I did use parts of my life (especially the tics and compulsions and the feelings that go along with those) and incorporate them into the novel and into my main character, Calli. We have a lot in common, but we have a few differences too. For example, Calli is an only child, while I have seven siblings! Calli is also much braver that I was at her age.

MR: Skila: You have published two books of poetry as well. Do you feel as if you need to inhabit a different headspace to write poems?

Skila Brown: Yes. Absolutely. I don’t think in poems usually, so when I’m trying to write a poem, I have to open my mind and loosen my thoughts and really think about a subject from an “outside the box” angle. I need to think not just about content, but about sound and the physical appearance of the words on the page. It’s much more complicated than writing in prose, from that angle. But the precision of it feels very freeing.

MR: Aida: THE MOON WITHIN focuses heavily on issues that often accompany puberty: body image, self-acceptance, sexuality, and sexual identity. What prompted you to explore—and celebrate—these vitally important topics?

Aida Salazar:  I was inspired to write THE MOON WITHIN as my eleven-year-old daughter began to ask questions about her changing body. As a Xicana feminist, I wanted to offer her a different way into the understanding of this important transformation than I had been given. I wanted her experience to be grounded in body positive self-knowledge and self-love, in a connection to her ancestry, and the power that is inherent in all of that beauty. I’ve been a moon disciple for decades — marveling, exploring, and ritualizing our connection to her — through astrology, astronomy, spirituality, and the study of pre-colonial Mexican history. We held a ceremony to honor my daughter’s menstruation that was informed by this love of the moon. As a writer, I wanted to share our experience of this magical ritual through story with other children. I was very intentional about sharing ideas of the beauty and power of menstruation Mesoamerican traditions teach us that departed from the often-negative views of our current patriarchal and colonized society. I wanted to reframe the conversation around menstruation by showing what would happen if we, in fact, honored and revered these processes instead.

To follow up on what you said Aida, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was written almost half a century ago (eek!). Why do you think it’s taken this long for the topic to reappear?

Aida Salazar: This reality is really absurd. How is it that every single person on this planet came from a menstruator and yet, the topic of menstruation is virtually absent in middle grade fictional literature? This is arguably the time when it is most life-altering, when it matters most. It is clear to me that this gaping hole in literature but also in the larger dialectic has to do with the colonial, patriarchal, and puritanical beliefs that are dominant today. These inform how societies, the world over, view menstruation and the feminine body. Girls, women and menstruators of all genders have internalized these predominantly negative views relegating nearly every aspect of our cycles into secrecy and shame.

When I went to search for books to help me present puberty to my own daughter, I found dozens of non-fiction books for adults and girls that were written from a Western European perspective and only a couple from a US indigenous lens. When I looked to fiction, I rediscovered Judy Blume’s novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret– a personal favorite of mine when I was a child. There were no books that spoke to it from a Latina perspective and certainly none from a Mexican indigenous perspective in either fiction or nonfiction. So, I set out to write a novel that would fill that gap for her and other Latina girls. I wanted this book to be “the book” that they passed among friends, as I did with Judy Blume’s book in the 80’s, because they saw themselves in it as girls but especially as Latinas. I wanted to invoke the beauty and magic that happens during such a tender time but one that was grounded in ancestral tradition. My intention was to have Celi’s story help redefine the conversation – the dominant narrative that girls bodies and menstruation in particular are dirty, to be feared or loathed – into a conversation that celebrates our bodies, honors our natural cycles and our natural connection to the moon. I hope this is only the beginning of this reframing.