Interview and Giveaway with Author Varian Johnson

Varian Johnson is the author of several novels for children and young adults, including The Great Greene Heist, which was an ALA Notable Children’s Book, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2014, and a Texas Library Association Lone Star List selection, and To Catch a Cheat, another Jackson Greene adventure and a Kids’ Indie Next List pick. He lives with his family near Austin, Texas. You can find him on the web at www.varianjohnson.com and @varianjohnson.

Photo credit: Kenneth B. Gall

Varian’s newest book, The Parker Inheritance (Arthur A. Levine/ Scholastic) will come out next week, and has received starred reviews from School Library Journal, The Horn Book, and Kirkus, and is a Junior Library Guild Spring 2018 Selection.   

About the book:

“When Candice finds a letter in an old attic in Lambert, South Carolina, she isn’t sure she should read it. It’s addressed to her grandmother, who left the town in shame. But the letter describes a young woman. An injustice that happened decades ago. A mystery enfolding the letter-writer. And the fortune that awaits the person who solves the puzzle.

So with the help of Brandon Jones, the quiet boy across the street, she begins to decipher the clues. The challenge will lead them deep into Lambert’s history, full of ugly deeds, forgotten heroes, and one great love; and deeper into their own families, with their own unspoken secrets. Can they find the fortune and fulfill the letter’s promise before the answers slip into the past yet again?”

How does your engineering background inform your writing?

The Parker Inheritance was probably influenced by my engineering career more than any of my other books. There are a lot of math terms in the book, much of which I learned while getting my civil engineering degree. But there’s also a very big difference between designing bridges and writing books. And as much as I liked my engineering job, I’m very happy now be a full-time children’s book author.


The Parker Inheritance pays homage to the classic puzzle novel, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. (The Cooperative Children’s’ Book Center at UW-Madison has many of her notes and drafts archived here.) Can you tell us about your process for constructing the Parker puzzle(s) and deciding how the clues would reveal the answer?

The novel that would eventually become The Parker Inheritance started off as two separate novel ideas, with one being a puzzle mystery and the other being a historical multi-generational novel. I tinkered with both on and off for years, but neither idea was strong enough to stand alone. It wasn’t until rereading Holes that I got the idea to combine the ideas. The puzzle was pretty well developed when I began writing the book—and it was surprising how well the puzzle fit into the larger historical story. Even though I was consciously writing two books, maybe my subconscious always knew that the stories belonged together.

Like your Jackson Greene books, The Parker Inheritance involves complex details for the characters to put together, but in a sort of reverse way. Instead of building the details into a caper like “Gang Greene,” Candice and Brandon are breaking down a mystery by revealing the details. Did that difference influence your approach to the writing?

Oh, totally. Candice and Brandon’s strategies mirror the real-life sleuthing I did to create and “solve” the puzzle. I ran each of the web searches that they performed in order to see what popped up—to make sure that the answer to a clue wasn’t revealed too quickly. In many ways, it was easy to write about the techniques that Candice and Brandon used for deciphering the letter, as I had performed that very same research to write the book.

What made you decide to use flashbacks and multiple points of view to tell part of the story instead of sticking with Candice’s POV?

I thought it was important to see the lives of the people from the puzzle through their own eyes—not just Candice and Brandon’s viewpoints. I also thought it would be interesting to show how race relations have improved from the 1950s to today…and unfortunately to also show how race relations have stayed the same.

If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from The Parker Inheritance what would it be?

If anything, I want readers to think about the preferences and preconceptions that they bring into any interaction. I want readers to question what they believe when they see someone; when they speak with someone. I want reader to step past their internal biases in order to see the real person standing in front of them.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed The Parker Inheritance?

The Westing Game, obviously! But also The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963, Holes, March Book 3, and When You Reach Me.

And now for the giveaway:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Read Me a Story, Ink

Hey, everybody! I’m so excited to introduce an amazing website you might not have heard of before: READ ME A STORY, INK.

Robert Topp runs the Hermitage bookstore in Denver Colorado, but a few years ago he started the READ ME A STORY, INK website to give teachers, parents, librarians and kids the chance to read some of the great children’s stories from magazines like Highlights and the Cricket Magazine Group. Robert has indexed by topic, age range, and author more than 1,560 of short stories and put them all in one place. What a great resource!

You know what else is super cool? Robert reads aloud dozens of the stories, recording them in his wonderful, warm voice with special sound effects. Each story only takes a few minutes and can be used at home with your own kids in a variety of scenarios. Perhaps you’d like your children – or students – to do something besides watch television or glued to the iPad or computer screen. Perhaps you don’t have time to read aloud to them. Perhaps they’re in the early  learning stages of reading, and listening to a wonderful story (especially for kids with short attention spans) is a great alternative. Listen to stories in the car while running errands or during road trips.

All the recordings can be found on the website, absolutely free.

I met Robert a few months ago when he contacted me to get copies of my stories that were published in Cricket Magazine several years ago–and he recorded some of them! What a treat to hear my stories read aloud in his wonderful, warm voice. Listen in on our conversation . . .

Robert: Many years ago when my kids were in elementary school, I started reading to both of their classes once a week. Reading aloud was a nightly activity in our house so taking it into the school was a natural progression. After they graduated – they are now 31 and 29 – a few of the teachers that had taught our kids asked me if I would like to continue reading aloud. Once word got around the school, other teachers asked if I would read to their classes as well. I currently read to 13 classes, first through fifth grades. I started to collect and specialize in short stories because I only read to any given class once a month and I don’t have the continuity or time for chapter books.

Kimberley: How did you come up with the idea to create the website?

Robert: As my collection of short stories grew, I found it increasingly difficult to remember which book contained the stories I wanted to share. I started an index for my own use but when it grew to over 800 stories, I realized there might be some value in the index for teachers and parents. With the help of a friend, I turned the index into a website. As with most projects, Read Me a Story, Ink started to grow in numerous directions. I added recommended reading lists based on family and personal favorites, then links to other children’s sites I personally found useful. Stories that were in the public domain I added as printable stories and eventually started contacting current authors for permission to include their stories. The latest offshoot is audio stories.

Kimberley: Where does your love for children’s literature come from?

Robert: When our first child, Harrison, was born in 1986, I bought Harrison and myself matching t-shirts that read, “If you love me, read me a story.” I thought it good advice and reading aloud became a nightly routine continuing until the boys were in their mid-teens. The love for the literature was coincident with the shared journey of discovery with our kids. Since I own a rare and out-of-print bookshop we always had a wonderful flow of books to choose from. To this day my wife and I and the boys all recommend books to each other constantly. I still have the t-shirt.

Kimberley: Tell us about the process of recording the stories on audio. They are SO well done and beautiful! Are you the narrator in all of them? Do you have your own studio?

Robert: When I first thought to add audio selections to Read Me a Story, Ink, a friend suggested a share-ware audio program called Audacity put together by a team of sound engineers. That, some good advice from the folks at Guitar Center on microphones, and the gift of a sound deadening backdrop from my wife and I had my own 8 x 8 ft studio. Since my site is not commercial, I can’t afford to pay professionals to read so I do all of the narration. I do have a friend that I pay to do musical introductions but beyond that I am a one-man band.

Kimberley: What’s the most rewarding part of running the website?

Robert: Next to the time spent in classrooms reading to kids, by far the most rewarding part of creating and maintaining Read Me a Story, Ink is the contact I have with authors, parents and teachers who share a common interest in children’s and YA literature.

Kimberley: Do you ever get to meet the authors that you feature in person? Any fun stories to share?

Robert: Sadly, though I consider many of the authors that I correspond with good friends, my contact remains virtual with one exception. I kept running into stories in Cricket Magazine by an author named Robert Culp. I absolutely loved the warmth and humor in his stories about best friends Cotton and Rooster set in 1940’s Arkansas. For two years I periodically did Google searches trying to find something about the author but all I ever turned up was an astro-physics professor. In one final, last ditch effort I paged down seemingly countless pages in my Google search and discovered that the professor was, in fact, the author of the Cotton and Rooster stories. I contacted him via his Facebook page only to discover that he was a professor in Boulder, Colorado, just a few miles from my store. Within the week we met at the store to our mutual delight.

Robert’s philosophy:

Reading aloud is one of the absolute nicest activities for adults and children to share. It creates warm bonds, opens a child’s mind to new ideas, forms topics of discussion thus keeping lines of communication open and creates a positive role model for the child to become a lifetime reader.

Thank you so much for being with us today, Robert, and please check out Read Me a Story Ink! everyone! Let Robert read a story to your kids, students, or library patrons today!

Printable stories page: https://readmeastoryink.com/readnow.php

Audio stories page: https://readmeastoryink.com/listennow.php

Rattlesnake Rain by Kimberley Griffiths Little Audio: https://readmeastoryink.com/sounds/rattlesnake_rain.mp3

Banat er Rih: Daughter of the Wind by Kimberley Griffiths Little Print  https://readmeastoryink.com/stories/banat_er_rih.pdf

Kimberley Griffiths Little is the award-winning author of ten Middle-Grade and Young Adult novels with Scholastic and Harpercollins. She’s been juggling drafting new book proposals, eating too many cookies, and wrangling a household that never sleeps . . . On location book trailers and Teacher’s Guides at Kimberley’s website: www.KimberleyGriffithsLittle.com. Friend her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kimberleygriffithslittle


Maureen Crisp, Recipient of the Betty Gilderdale award!

As many of you know, when my publisher closed in 2016, I decided to take the leap into indie publishing. You can read that post here. As with anything new, there has been a steep learning curve, but I jumped in and joined multiple Facebook groups. It has been wonderful gleaning from other authors there and meeting some truly brilliant gems. One such person is the fabulous Maureen Crisp. Not only is she a wealth of information but she has done so much for kid lit in her country and online. Maureen was recently recognized by her peers for her contribution to children’s literature. She is the 2017 winner of the Betty Gilderdale award! Through our online interactions, I knew an interview with her would be an invaluable asset to our blog. I’m so thrilled that she has agreed to join us today!

The Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award honours Betty Gilderdale, a lifelong advocate and supporter of children’s literature, through her academic research, work as a reviewer and 30 years’ committee service to Auckland’s Children’s Literature Association. Prior to 2000, the award was known as the Children’s Literature Association’s Award for Services to Children’s Literature.
The Award is given for outstanding service to children’s literature and literacy. You can read more about the award and Maureen’s acknowledgment here. And you can read Maureen’s lecture here.

AMIE:  Tell us a bit about your publishing journey. How you got your agent, how many books you have published, what it was like working with your publisher, etc.

MAUREEN: New Zealand has nearly 5 million people. In the publishing industry there are few agents. Agents specialising in children’s publishing about 1 and a half. They do not make their living solely as agents. Writers wait for submission days that some Traditional publishers across NZ and Australia have. Some are twice yearly, some are monthly. A lot of publishing houses that used to have editorial offices in New Zealand have now gone. This is a result of the changes and/or amalgamation of publishers. Acquiring decisions are made out of Australia with very mixed results for Kiwi writers.

Writers submit directly to editors if they have had a previous relationship with them.

I have published in the New Zealand School Journal which is an eductional resource provided to New Zealand schools as part of the curriculum. The journal has a mix of plays, nonfiction and fiction articles, poems and activities and is published four times a year across four different age bands. Many children’s writers and illustrators get their start writing for the journal. I published Bones with Penguin as they seemed to have the best fit for a longer story. It had originally been a 10,000 word novel but they wanted it shorter to fit into a new line they were marketing for junior novels so I had to cut it down to 6000 words. That was an education!

AMIE: You mentioned BONES. Tell us a little about it. What was your inspiration?

MAUREEN: Bones was an idea that wouldn’t let go. What if your dog came back with a human bone… I wondered where the bone had come from and things developed from there. I interviewed Detectives about the idea and found out more than I wanted to know… (Apparently this is common and that’s how police find suicides). To make it more kid friendly I made the skeleton really old. So then I had to interview Museum staff. This was also topical as repatriation of human remains in museums is a big deal here.

By making it a mystery with lots of comic moments I could tell a story where the events could still be factually based without being gruesome.

Police are digging up the garden at Danny and Nicki’s house. Can their dog Patch, the chief suspect, help solve the mystery of the bones? *Bones by Maureen Crisp *Penguin, Puffin imprint * ISBN 978-0-14-330399-2

AMIEYou run some pretty awesome websites and conferences, as well as provide other resources for children’s writers. What was the motivating factor in your creating and implementing these things?

MAUREEN: To be completely honest…. because I wanted them for myself. There wasn’t any conferences here for writers let alone children’s writers. Being far away from the rest of the world has made attending conferences really really expensive. (Everyone dreams of attending SCBWI LA- the cost would be astronomical and we are very poorly paid as writers here.)

I had lived and worked in a Retreat house so I knew how to put a weekend together; food, small group sessions, practical nuts and bolts things. Then it was a case of looking to see what I wanted to learn, asking other writers what they wanted to learn and then finding some people who would teach us. I got a team together and we worked for 18 months to put the first conference for 100 people together. It sold out in two hours so we knew the need was really there. Since then the conferences have been every two years and moved around the country to give everyone a chance to attend without paying huge amounts of money in travel. Each conference team has copied the format we started but have put their own slant/theme on them. Organisers of the conferences pick my brains for what topics are being discussed overseas that would have relevance here and use my weekly blog for ideas.

My weekly blog came about the same way. I wanted to learn about marketing and publishing. I didn’t have a website so a writing friend suggested I start a blog. I combined the blog with sharing what I was finding out  and now it’s been going over ten years. Apparently it is the must-read homework of a lot of writers here in New Zealand. (LOL)

FaBo Story came about after a Facebook conversation about getting kids into writing and helping out teachers with writing prompts. We started a weekly competition where we wrote an episodic cliff hanger story every week, with prizes for the best story we received from kids who wrote what they thought happened next. It was hard work!!! Each of the original writers involved committed to two episodes and judged the entries for their week. That meant writing their chapter following on from the last writer. We were working a week ahead. The story took on a life of its own and mostly through word of mouth went a bit crazy. By the end of the story we were getting over 150 entries from around the world every week. It wasn’t until we finished that we realised what we had done; a first web serial story, a first multi author story for kids! So after eight years of trial and error we have made it a lot simpler to manage by just offering story prompts and judging what comes in while sharing tips about writing to kids and teachers. Although every now and then someone harks back to the great time they had with the pressure and energy of a short deadline and a cliffhanger chapter to write… until someone slaps me and says wake up.

AMIE: Haha! I can totally relate. Thanks for sharing all of that with us. These services are such an incredible resource to adults and children alike. Thank you so much for not only being inspired to create them but being willing to follow through with the inspiration. I know I’m guilty of great ideas but failing to execute them. It’s wonderful you stuck it out. 

We’ve talked a bit online and you’ve mentioned that you suffer from imposter syndrome (don’t we all!). What are some of the reasons you most feel like an imposter? Do you have advice for combating/overcoming it?

MAUREEN: When I first got the phonecall telling me I had been awarded the Betty Gilderdale Award, I was so stunned I couldn’t articulate anything but chicken noises on the phone. I then went into a panic that she had called me by mistake. Once I calmed down and tried to accept graciously (tho i think I was incoherent)  I went into a spiral of self doubt. I haven’t done enough. I don’t know enough, I haven’t published enough, won a major award for my work, and on and on…

Then I had to write a speech. I have attended a few of these speeches down through the years and the award winners were always so poised and calm and just looked like they had invisible crowns on their heads… and were worthy. And my friends besides laughing at me asked why I didn’t think I was worthy. While I reiterated the long list they refuted it one by one. (Treasure your writer friends!)

I recently read a comment about how writers always focus on the one star review and never the five star review. We give more attention and credence to that One star because secretly we are all worrying about being found out…. that we don’t deserve our place in the sun. One of our most talented multi award winners struggles with self doubt so much it is almost paralysing.

The Five Star review is just as valid as the One Star. Save every one in a document so that when imposter syndrome strikes you can read it and get back up on the horse ( you don’t need to save the one stars…).

The award flipped me up a level when I was told I was judging the National Children’s Book Awards… Imposter syndrome derailed me most of November and into December. At my Award ceremony the speech went well. I didn’t faint when I saw who was in the room, tho my knuckles were white on the lectern… and I was given copies of the nominating documents which made me a blubbering mess… (Thank God it wasn’t before.) I still feel like I know nothing but now I know it with authority. I review twice in my head what I say before I say it instead of once. I keep learning because I have to and sharing what I have learned because that is how I consolidate it. And fame is fleeting. ( LOL!)

AMIE:  I can relate to those bad reviews. They stay with me much longer than they deserve. 

Obviously working with kids is something you enjoy. Tell us why you like to write for children, especially middle-grade readers.

MAUREEN: They are the hardest to write for!  A good children’s story explores the human condition without talking down or dumbing down. To get an idea or story told in as few words as possible which is funny, memorable and profound is the pinnacle I aim for. I never reach it but I aim for it…

AMIE: Oh, I’m sure you reach it more than you know! What’s the most rewarding part of being a writer?

MAUREEN: Telling lies and getting paid for it… was my first thought… then I had to laugh about the getting paid for it part. If that was my focus I would have gone into advertising. Actually getting my first review from a child who loved my story. Nothing tops that!

AMIE: Haha! There is definitely truth to that! So it’s my understanding you’ve self published some titles. Tell me about your journey from traditional publishing to indie publishing. What’s that been like? 

MAUREEN: I was the first children’s writer to write an ebook here in New Zealand (2010) and I did it because I was asked to so I could tell everyone how to do it. Yeah…. sucker. It was after that experience that I started to look at adding lots of marketing ideas into my blog. Apparently just putting an ebook up on Amazon doesn’t equal instant money… who knew? (LOL)

With the contraction of the publishing industry here we were faced with very few outlets for stories across NZ and Australia. There has been a rise in authors straddling both Indie and Traditional press publishing. My blog was reflecting this move by 2012 and I thought that I may as well give it a go.  I love writing SciFi for kids but publishers kept telling me there was no market for it here. I ended up with a drawer full of stories and nowhere to publish them. Series seemed to be one way that was making some money so I started to plan and write a series of junior fiction stories and along the way start a micro press because why not? Unfortunately cancer caught up and derailed my plans for a few years. But now I’m back and learning loads about production, kerning, widows and orphans, dpi and jpeg, png and PDF.

Over the years I have had a ringside seat to what’s happening globally. Witnessed bad contracts and tanked writing careers. Having new tools to take control over the whole process and to make publishing more accessible has opened up new opportunities for writers. I want to learn how to do it. Setting up an indie micro press for myself seems to be the way to go forward. I have been watching in our national book awards the rise of books being ‘self published’ hitting the shortlists.  A few years ago it was one out of 20 shortlisted books. Last year it was  1 in 4.  I’m on the judging team this year and the quality of the ‘self published’ books is getting better and better. I prefer the term Indie myself. ‘Self published’ still has that taint of vanity about it. Indie publishers are serious in their work and publish for a wide audience.

AMIE: I definitely agree there. Indie authors are dedicated to their craft. They hire editors, cover designers, and write to market. Most of the stigma seems to have dissipated except when it comes to children’s books. Hopefully that will lift eventually as well. What advice would you give aspiring children’s writers?

MAUREEN: READ READ READ! Read in your genre and especially recent books. Study what has been published lately. If you are Indie publishing look at the production values of books coming out and match them.

Have fun channeling your inner child for writing the story but put on your Big Kid clothes for publishing. A stapled hand drawn illustrated picture book about an ugly duckling who turns into a swan is not going to cut it in an award submission. Sadly these types of stories do get submitted. (It’s heart breaking really… there is so much valuable information out there…) Research Research Research!

AMIE: Thanks so much for joining us today, Maureen! It’s been an absolute pleasure. On behalf of myself, and all of us here at From the Mixed-Up Files, I wish you all the best on your future endeavors. And congratulations on your much deserved award!

Maureen Crisp lives in New Zealand where she dreams up stories to get her out of any boring things she has to do. She loves writing for children and has published plays and junior fiction in the New Zealand School Journal and for Penguin. Maureen is a primary school teacher by trade and a geek by inclination. She writes a mix of contemporary and science fiction stories to disguise the fact that she is overly fascinated by Mars, the robot landers and space exploration.

Maureen is active in the New Zealand children’s writing community where she has planned and run two national conferences for children’s writers. She has been writing a weekly blog on publishing news from around the world along with writing and marketing tips for authors for over ten years. Maureen is a member of the FaBo collective of writers who write competition story prompts for children in New Zealand schools and the Convener of the Wellington Children’s Book Association.

In 2017 her peers awarded her the Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award for outstanding services to Children’s Literature. Currently Maureen is reading a lot more books than usual, as she is one of the 2018 judges for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

You can find Maureen here.

Visit the Wellington Children’s Book Association here.