Diversity

Author Spotlight: Lakita Wilson + a GIVEAWAY

In today’s Author Spotlight, Lakita Wilson chats about her MG debut, Be Real, Macy Weaverout tomorrow, July 12, from Viking—as well as how she juggles her job as a college professor with her writing life. Plus, scroll down for a chance to win a copy of Be Real, Macy Weaver! 

Book Summary

Eleven-year-old Macy Weaver knows relationships are complicated. Fresh off her latest friendship breakup, she’s spent most of her summer break on her own. So, when Macy’s mother decides to go back to college three states away, Macy jumps on the chance to move—anything for a fresh start.

But Macy’s new home isn’t exactly what she expected. Her mother’s never around and her dad’s always working. Lonelier than ever, Macy sets her sights on finding a new best friend. When she meets Brynn, who’s smart and kind and already seems to have her whole life figured out—down to her future as a fashion model—Macy knows she’s it. The only problem is that Brynn already has a BFF and, as everyone knows, you can only have one.

Resorting to old habits, Macy turns one small lie into a whole new life—full of fantastic fashion and haute couture—but it isn’t long before everything really falls apart. Ultimately, Macy must determine how to make things right and be true to herself—rather than chasing after the person she thinks she’s supposed to be.

Interview with Lakita Wilson

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Lakita! Thanks for joining us today.

LW: Thank you, for having me!

MR: First, I have to tell you how much I enjoyed Be Real, Macy Weaver. It’s the kind of book I would have been drawn to as a tween, because—like Macy—I was desperate to have a best friend. I’m guessing the desire for a close friendship was something you craved, too?

LW: Of course. I think, for me, it took so long to find my community because I still struggled to find myself. It’s kind of hard finding people who get you, if you haven’t quite gotten yourself yet.

Would I Lie to You?

MR: Macy, the fashion-forward protagonist, weaves a web of lies to impress Brynn, the object of her BFF affection. At the same time, the lies cause Macy untold guilt, shame, and anxiety (i.e., she gets the “creepy-crawlies” whenever she tells a lie and/or feels anxious). What is it about lying that makes most of us get the “creepy-crawlies”? And what were you trying to say about lying in general?

LW: Macy told pretty big lies throughout the story. Other characters told smaller lies, or let lies linger to cover up things they didn’t want to reveal either. I truly believe that people want to be their most authentic selves, but there’s often an inner voice telling us that our truest self isn’t good enough. So, lying becomes a shield to protect us from the potential rejection of our peers. I think the conflict of needing to live in our truth, yet fearing such vulnerability creates anxiety. Describing the creepy crawly feeling Macy felt on her arms and legs, was my way of showing how this anxiety doesn’t just stay inside of us, but shows up in physical ways.

Significance of Symbolism

MR: Speaking of webs, Macy befriends a spider—Charlotte—with whom she shares her secrets, worries, and fears. I know this is an homage to Charlotte’s Web, but it’s also a symbolic choice. Other bits of symbolism include Macy’s first and last names (i.e., Macy’s = a department store/Macy is into fashion; Weaver = weaver of lies/weaving of fabric). Labels are symbolic, too (clothing labels/labeling oneself and others). I’m guessing these were purposeful choices. Why is symbolism important to you as a writer?

 LW: Okay, here’s the funny thing about Macy’s name. I chose Weaver on purpose. Here is a girl who constantly weaves a web of lies and she’s learning to sew in the book. So, it made sense. However, the first name wasn’t an intentional choice. I love Macy Gray, and I think the name Macy is pretty—so that’s how I chose her first name. The ridiculous thing is, I live in walking distance of a Macy’s department store. You would think I would’ve connected the two a LOT sooner than I did. I still shake my head over this all the time!

MR: In addition to friendship, abandonment is a predominant theme in your book. For instance, Macy’s mom uproots the family so she can attend college in another state—and then promptly checks out of Macy’s life. How does this feeling of abandonment affect Macy in terms of the choices she makes, and the lies she tells?

Attachment Theory

LW: As I was writing Macy’s story, I needed to figure out why she was so needy. Everyone wants a best friend, but there was a certain desperation that Macy had about needing a best friend, right from the beginning. And that level of neediness doesn’t come out of nowhere.

When it comes to parenting, there are four different attachment styles. I teach my college students that parents who are present and responsive to their child’s needs help create a secure-attachment. Children who develop a secure-attachment are more confident, trusting, and able to explore the world and interact with peers, knowing that they have this safe base to always go back to—even if situations get a little tough. But Macy didn’t have that with her Mom.

When a parent is sporadic with their time, attention and affection, this creates an anxious-insecure attachment. These children often know deep down they can’t rely on the parent, so they become clingy—with that parent, and other relationships. These children become needy, angry and distrustful. We see this play out in Macy’s behavior almost from the very beginning of the story. She’s very needy in her friendships, clinging to them like they are her only hope. She quickly becomes angry or anxious when her expectations are dashed. And she never gives anyone the true version of Macy, because she’s not only distrustful of others, she doesn’t trust herself to be loveable or worthy of friendship.

Switching it Up

MR: Turning back to writing, Be Real, Macy Weaver is your first MG novel, but you’ve written a YA novel, too (Last Chance Dance is coming out in spring 2023), as well as nonfiction (What Is Black Lives Matter?) and biographies of such luminaries as Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Michelle Obama. Is it tricky to switch it up? Or just fun?

 LW: For me, it’s super fun. I’m interested in a lot of things, and super curious about the world around me. Being able to write in different genres and for different age groups gives me multiple lanes and strategies in which to talk to children about the world around us.

A Writer’s Juggling Act

MR: In addition to being a children’s book author, you are a college professor. How do you juggle your writing career with your day job? What does your writing routine look like? 

LW: I don’t know if I would be able to write as much if I had a typical nine-to-five job. Even though I am full-time faculty at my college, I don’t go into the office Monday-Friday from nine to five. Faculty are fortunate enough to stack our schedules with courses on certain days, freeing other days for things like writing. So, in order to keep up with my teaching responsibilities and write, I usually keep a pretty strict, consistent schedule. I also use a planner that I write down a schedule and a to-do list. I used to get up every day at 5 a.m and write for a few hours while the world slept. Then I would go to work, or run errands. But the pandemic has ruined me. I’m up all night, wandering my house like the resident ghost. So, I’ve switched my writing schedule according to when my kids are in school. When my daughter is home from college, I tend to write overnight because during the day we distract each other with invitations to watch the latest reality show. 🙂

Social Media Star

MR: Lakita, I noticed that you’re killing it on social media, with an impressive 23K followers on Instagram (LakitaReads). What is the secret to your success? Any tips for other writers trying to up their social-media game? Do you have a preferred platform? Also, how much time do you spend on social media?

LW: Yes. I am killing my social media accounts—and not in a good way. Ha! In 2017/2018, I was book blogging and sticking to strict schedules, and posting three times a day, every day. Instagram was my go-to platform. My followers consistently went up, and I formed many cool relationships from the experience. Now I post sporadically, and it’s killing my engagement, and my followers are dropping off by the dozens. Sometimes I feel guilty about wasting a great platform and I just want to donate it to an organization that’s willing to bring it back to life. But, there’s also the hope that one day I’ll revive that page and bring it back to its glory days. Poor @LakitaReads, lol.

Next Project

MR: What are you working on now, Lakita? Can you give us a hint?

LW: Right now, I am finishing up a draft of my second middle-grade novel. I will give you a one-word hint: bald. I’m also working on a non-fiction project centering hip hop and feminism.

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Chipotle. I know this isn’t technically a “snack”, but it’s what I prefer. I need to cut down though. I eat it way too much when the kids are at school.

Coffee or tea? Pepsi.

Cat or dog? Two dogs. One old. One young—to give you the perfect balance.

Favorite designer? Alexander McQueen

Favorite model? Naomi Campbell

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay. I scream when a leaf blows by my window. Do you honestly think I can handle zombies?!

Superpower? I just taught my puppy to push a button when he wants a treat. Is that a superpower, or do I now work on-call for my puppy? Hmm…

Favorite place on earth? My bed. Sleep is the best!

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? A functional Chipotle restaurant (staffed), one of those inflatable floaties, and Megan Thee Stallion—we’re on a deserted island, so she’ll have plenty of time to teach me to dance! (You know, I almost gave a more acceptable answer here, but in honor of Macy I’m choosing to Be Real, ha!)

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Lakita—and congratulations on the publication of Be Real, Macy Weaver. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

LW: Thank you for having me!

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!

For a chance to win a copy of Be Real, Macy Weavercomment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends 7/13/22 EST.) U.S. only, please. 

About Lakita

Lakita Wilson is a Professor of Education, writer, and advocate for diverse and inclusive children’s literature. A 2017 recipient of SCBWI’s On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Award, Lakita also obtained her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Lakita lives in Maryland with her two children and Shih-Tzu. Learn more about Lakita on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram: Lakitareads and Lakitawrites.

Under the Mike-roscope: Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith

If I were a book reviewer, I’d be the world’s worst book reviewer. Honestly, I stink at it. That said, I’m not a book reviewer; I’m a microbiologist. A scientist. I like to read and write middle-grade books not only for enjoyment but study them and learn from them as well. 

  • What techniques and skills do the author incorporate into their work?
  • What kept me turning pages?
  • Why did I forget to do my chores when reading this book?

And any additional questions as to why a book takes over my brain.

Today, I’m sharing Sisters of the Neverseas by Cynthia Leitich Smith, a book that has taken over my brain.

I’ll spare you my version of a summary of the book because it’ll sound a lot like my almost 4-year-old grandson describing the fireworks display on the Fourth of July. All over the place and delivered with terrific, over-the-top, and breathless enthusiasm. Instead, I’ll sum up my take on Sisters of the Neversea in three words.  

READ THIS BOOK!

As a fan of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s work, I admit I had high expectations for Sisters of the Neversea. It was on my reader radar for quite a while before its release. When I finally got my hands on a copy and read it, it did not disappoint. If fact, I’m currently listening to the audiobook immediately following a listen of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. 

One of the many things that blew my socks off with Sisters of the Neversea is in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. Being a middle-grade writer with an interest in how authors put together their books, I’ll often read the author’s notes or acknowledgments before I read the book. This time I was so stoked to start reading, that the thought to read anything but the book itself never crossed my mind. When I finished and read the Author’s Note, here’s that bit that caught my eye and hooked my storyteller radar.

“One of the most interesting and powerful things about Story is that it invites future storytellers to build on it, to reinvent, and to talk back. Like any other kind of magic, stories can harm or offer hope, even healing.”  

                                             – Cynthia Leitich Smith, Sisters of the Neversea Author’s Note

That’s money. Bulletin board material to post above the writing desk. I’m still bouncing it around in my brain.

Sisters of the Neversea is a masterclass on reinventing a classic story, especially a classic wrought with questionable representation. Cynthia Leitich Smith tells a better story than the traditional Peter Pan story. She expands the story world, and its characters, adding depth to both. The setting of Neverland itself becomes a player in the tale. Best of all, she “talks back” to the original work in a way that’s believable and imaginative.

She doesn’t hide, bury, or run from the questionable representation of the original. She addressed it and attacks it head-on. Her answer to the “redskins” and “injuns” and to the role of girls and women in Barrie’s creation, is to create fully-fleshed Native characters from different Nations and backgrounds and strong female characters throughout. 

She seamlessly weaves the reinvented narrative into the existing framework of Barrie’s work. It has this amazing way of feeling like Barrie’s original Peter Pan yet tells its own unique and contemporary story.  

One of the parts of Sisters of the Neversea I particularly enjoyed was the family dynamic. The weight and burden of the blended Roberts-Darling family’s problems seem insurmountable to Lily and Wendy. This leads to a lot of anger between them and a growing rift. Their home in Oklahoma, their parent’s marriage, and their future as sisters are all on the line. 

However, when they get separated and enter Neverland, Lily and Wendy begin to see each other and their family’s problems in a new light. By taking a step back from the day-to-day struggles at home, the step-sisters realize their problems, no matter how large, can be dealt with as a family. Talk about story magic bringing hope and healing!

Good literature makes the world a little brighter. Great literature transforms it. With Sisters of the Neversea, Cynthia Leitich Smith completely transforms the world we’ve come to associate with Peter Pan and Neverland with luminosity and truth. Under her skilled hand, the Neverland story becomes something entirely different. Something better. Much, much better.

I hope the Sister of the Neversea finds its way into the hands of young readers. I also hope it sparks them to read Barrie’s original and realize the attitudes and mindsets of yesteryear don’t have to be the attitudes and mindsets of today. Things can, and should, change as knowledge changes.

Finally, I can’t wind up this look at Sisters of the Neversea without admitting there’s a wide smile on my face. No, it’s not the amazing cover art by the late Floyd Cooper.* The smile is because I ran across a recent social media post from Cynthia about how she’s drafting a new middle-grade novel. This makes me happy for young readers. The potential for a new, transformative Cynthia Leitich Smith book has this reader on Cloud Nine.

*Judge a book by its cover, please! Floyd Cooper’s artwork captures the characters and the story in perfect fashion. No need for Peter Pan here! Lily, Wendy, and Michael beckon you to the adventure. Come on in for the ride, my friends! We are going to miss Floyd Cooper.

Note: In case you can’t tell,  I am a fan of Cynthia Leitich Smith. In the work she does on the page. In the work she does with and for the Native writing community. In the work she does for the We Need Diverse Books community and leading the Heartdrum Imprint at Harper Collins. She is a force in the kidlit industry while being one of the nicest people in the business. (Perhaps the most remarkable example of how skilled she is as a writer is the fact she had me riveted to her Tantalize YA vampire series back before I was even aware of her other work. Me! Reading YA vampire fantasy! Now that’s writing talent!)

Diversity in MG Lit #37 June 2022

Here’s a round up of new and diverse books on sale this June. It is by no means a complete list of every diverse book published this month. Please add your own favorites into the comments below.
book cover Days of InfamyLet’s start with non fiction. What I like about Days of Infamy: How a centurey of bigotry led to Japanese American internment by Lawrence Goldstone is that it takes a larger slice of history, giving context and detail to story of discrimination against the Asian American community. In addition to historical photographs, maps, and documents throughout, the book contains an index, bibliography and detailed sources notes. Bravo, Scholastic and Lawrence Goldstone for including the extras to refute doubters and give curious readers more information.
Horse Country: Friends Like These by Yamile Saide Méndez is the second in a new series. I highlighted the first in March and I’m happy to see that a sequel is just as charming and has followed so closely. A third in the series, Where There’s Smoke, will be out in the fall. As a bookseller trying to get MG readers hooked on a new series it really helps to have the first books roll out quickly.
The Beautiful Country by Jane Kuo is a debut novel in verse about author’s childhood. Her family immigrates from Taiwan in the 1980s and opens a small restaurant. The story is beautifully told. I found my self really rooting for this family. There was nothing extraordinary about their struggles, but they faced them with grace and courage that will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to make a go of a new business.
book cover Onyeka and the Academy of the sunOnyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tolá Okogwu is a celebration of black hair–vibrant, curly, and big! The twelve year old hero is a mythical being from Nigerian folk lore, a Solari. Her powers emanate from her magnificent black hair, and she must used them to be a force for good in her new superhero school The Academy of the Sun. Great fun for fans of the Marvel franchise.
book cover Punky AlohaPunky Aloha By Shar Tuiasoa is a vibrantly illustrated chapter book about gathering your courage and going out in the big world. Set in Hawaii, Punky takes her grandmothers sunglasses and the spirit of Aloha on her very first solo errand to a neighborhood shop. If you are charmed by the Netflix show Old Enough, you’ll love Punky Aloha.
All Four Quarters of the Moon by Chinese-Australian writer Shirley Marris a novel about love and resilience interwoven with Chinese mythology, a world made entirely of paper, and an ever changing moon. Fans of When You Trap a Tigerwill appreciate its powerful and compassionate voice.
book cover Undercover LatinaKids at the older end of the MG span will appreciate the smart, entertaining, and politically astute debut MG novel of Aya De León. It’s called Undercover Latina, and it’s about a Latina who goes undercover as a white girl to infiltrate a white nationalist group and bring them to justice. This one has a bit of a bite to it, but young social justice warriors are going to love Andréa Hernández-Baldoquín and her undercover persona Andrea Burke.
Everyone knows that middle school is the great training ground for extortionists. In Destiny Howell’s book High Score the hero Darius James, the new kid at the neighborhood middle school, is trying to figure out how to help his friend Connor who owes the biggest bully on the block. 100,000 arcade tickets. Fortunately DJ, knows all about running scams. This fast paced and engaging story will make a perfect summer vacation read.
Do you have a favorite diverse summer read? Give it a shout in the comments below.