For Teachers

Interview with Heidi Lang: Drawing from Personal Experience

Imagine packing up all of your belongings and living in a van. Do you think you could do it? Author Heidi Lang did. And she used her own experience as inspiration for her upcoming novel, Wrong Way Summer. After enjoying this read myself, I had the opportunity to interview her and learn more about how her own life (including her own #vanlife) helped shape this book.

Thank you for sharing Wrong Way Summer with me. Can you give a short summary about the book?

Claire used to love her dad’s fantastical stories, especially tales about her absent mom—who could have been off with the circus or stolen by the troll king, depending on the day. But now that she’s 12, Claire thinks she’s old enough to know the truth. When her dad sells the house and moves her and her brother into a converted van, she’s tired of the tall tales and refuses to pretend it’s all some grand adventure, despite how enthusiastically her little brother embraces this newest adventure. Claire is faced with a choice: Will she play along with the stories her dad is spinning for her little brother, or will she force her family to face reality once and for all? Equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, Wrong Way Summer is a road-trip journey and coming-of-age story about one girl’s struggle to understand when a lie is really a lie and when it’s something more: hope.

A moving summer road-trip story for fans of Crenshaw and The Someday Birds.

What would you say was the spark for Wrong Way Summer? What came next? And what component organically fell into place later on?

There were a few sparks. For instance, I’ve always wanted to write a story about stories, something to explore my grandfather’s favorite motto. And then, of course, I fell in love with the idea of living in a van. But I’d say the real spark for this story actually happened before I ever heard of #vanlife. This spark hit me while I was listening to an episode of “This American Life,” where a woman recounted a childhood memory.

In this episode, the narrator talks about the day her parents gave her and her older sister painted metal tissue boxes for Christmas. At first she was devastated, until her older sister said the boxes had been painted by trained gorillas. And suddenly her gift went from being a terrible disappointment to becoming one of her prized possessions. Much later, the narrator found an old school report her sister had written where she’d talked about that gift. Only in that report, the sister said she’d made up the origin story of the tissue boxes because she knew her parents couldn’t afford gifts, and knew the boxes were something her dad’s friend had given as charity, and also knew what it had cost her parents to ask for that charity. And as she looked at her little sister’s tear-filled face, and looked up at her mom, and knew she was about to cry, too, this story about trained gorillas just spilled out of her. It saved the day, and everyone was happy. Except for this older sister, who went upstairs to her room and cried and cried. She wasn’t crying because of the gift, or even because of their financial situation. She was crying because she felt like, in that moment, she’d chosen to grow up before she was really ready for it.

That episode stuck with me. And I knew someday I wanted to write a story where a character is put in a similar position of “choosing” adulthood and all it entails in order to protect a younger sibling. But it took many years before I found the right way to tell that story.

You mention in your Author’s Note how you also lived the #vanlife. Did you know at the time that a story/book would form from your own Grand Adventure? If so, did you struggle at how to pursue it or was it obvious to you?

I actually became interested in #vanlife back in 2012, before I’d thought of writing Wrong Way Summer or even published my first book. My husband and I needed to get another vehicle for our dog walking business and started looking at Sprinter vans. From there, we discovered this whole world of people traveling, and even living full-time in their vans. I got caught up in watching youtube vidoes of DIY van conversions and reading blogs about boondocking, and when we bought our own Sprinter, we talked about converting it ourselves someday in the future.

But as we all know when it comes to social media, it only paints part of the picture. The romantic pictures I saw and the exciting posts I read were very different from what I began to notice right there in front of me: a lot of people living in their vehicles, just to get by. Most of them hadn’t chosen #vanlife for the fun of it. It was just the only way they could afford to stay in the area for school, or work, or family. And as rent in our area climbed higher, we realized there was a good possibility that if our landlord ever sold our place, we wouldn’t be able to find something affordable right away that would take our dogs. So the van went from exciting future travel vehicle to back-up home safety net.

When we sold our dog walking business in 2017 so I could try to write full-time, we decided the best way to afford that would be to actually try #vanlife living. So we moved in with my in-laws and began working on the van conversion. By that point, I did know I wanted to write a story about the experience, and I knew I wanted it to highlight both the good and bad of #vanlife living: the glamor and romanticism of being able to get away from it all and live a more free life on the road, as well as the desperation that often underlays that choice. The rest of the story formed pretty organically from my desire to show both of these aspects.

What is your connection with the dad’s storytelling? Are you a storyteller?

I would love to be a good storyteller! But I’m definitely much better at writing stories than I am at speaking them. However, I was fortunate to grow up around storytellers. My grandpep was actually the first person who ever told me, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I guess it was something his older brother used to say all the time, too, and when I was a kid, I soaked it in as our family motto. Maybe that’s why I decided to become a fiction writer.

I enjoyed traveling with Claire, Patrick, and their dad. How did you choose the locations where they stopped?

That was definitely the hardest part of writing this book! There are so many cool places to see, I could have written about a hundred more pages, so narrowing it down was really tricky. I wanted to have a variety of experiences for the characters in my book, but I also needed them to stop at locations that would make sense for a family on a limited budget. In the end, I picked places that I’d been to that were meaningful to me, as well as places that I wanted to go to, so I could live vicariously through Claire and her family. I also ended up taking a solo train trip back and forth across the country before I started drafting Wrong Way Summer as a way to really get a feel for the changing landscape and see more areas than I might otherwise have had time to cover.

How much of Claire do you see in yourself?

Originally when I sat down to write Claire, I thought about one of my cousins, and what she was like at twelve years old. Her personality became the foundation of Claire, but as with every character I write, Claire also reflects different aspects of my own personality. For instance, I’m definitely a rule follower. Even if it’s a rule no one else is following, I feel anxious breaking it. And like Claire, I’m also trying to figure out that line between fact and fiction, and I’m very interested in the different ways a story can be used to hide or reveal the truth, and to inspire or manipulate other people. But one of the wonderful things about writing is how characters take on their own life, and I definitely feel that Claire evolved away from my cousin, and from me, to become someone all her own.

What ended up taking more time that you anticipated when researching/writing/revising?

Definitely planning Claire’s route and deciding on her family’s stops along the way. But part of that was because I was having a little too much fun researching and revisiting these places vicariously, so I took my time with it.

How can teachers use this book in their classrooms?

When I was young I basically assumed everyone’s lives were more or less just like mine. Just as I thought something was either true or false, right or wrong. I was very much a kid with well-defined edges. It was only as I slowly wandered into adulthood that I became aware of all those spaces in between, and how different everyone’s personal experiences can be. I think that it’s in middle school when kids start to become aware of those gray areas, and from there that they start to question the beliefs they always took for granted. To me, that’s the most important use of any book: the ability to open minds and make the reader ask questions. I’m hoping this book can do a little of that.

When does Wrong Way Summer come out?

This book will be out in the world on April 21st, 2020.

How can we learn more about you? 

Devi Pride Photography

I share a website with my sometime co-writer Kati Bartkowski at www.HeidiandKatibooks.com, or you can find me on Instagram and on twitter at the same handle, @hidlang.

 

Wow, so fascinating. And can you imagine how intriguing this book will be for kids? It is such a great example of using life to write a story.

And if you can’t wait for the release of her new book Wrong Way Summer, check out her other books, including Rules of the Ruff, which is also inspired by her life as a dog walker.

Go Visual-Spatial with Maps and Middle Grade Books

I came across the phrase “carto-literate” in an article last week. The author was referring to geography skills, but it made me think of all the cool map-based activities one can offer readers of middle grade books. Maps, globes, and online mapping tools maintain a strong role in the study of history, geography, science, and math; however, the great benefits of using maps as learning tools can be extended to the reading experience, as well.  If you haven’t thought about utilizing map activities for literature selections in your classroom, home school, or library, consider these awesome benefits:

  • Maps immediately call up the use of Visual-Spatial skills, and might engage readers who are not quite as Verbal-Linguistic as others.
  • Maps promote flexible, creative thinking through the use of to-scale renderings and symbols.
  • Maps directly connect to math, science, technology, and research skills, and they promote discussions on cultural topics of inclusivity and acceptance. They also encourage an understanding of history, as borders and place names change over time due to migration, conflict, and political transition.
  • Maps also inspire the imagination with the notion of travel and adventure; after all, it’s easy to envision yourself as an explorer or treasure-seeker when you have a map in hand!

These activity ideas involving maps might inspire a more fulfilling reading experience, and will promote thinking and discussion on these and other titles.

1. Using a world map, locate and mark the literary settings of books that might be new to your library or books on suggested or curricular reading lists. Settings can be approximate or specific; sometimes, while specific names of roads or towns are fictionalized, the state or region is identified—giving students just enough context to pinpoint the setting on a map. For example, these recent MG books have specific or general settings that are “mappable”:

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman (Chennai, India)

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (Northern CA)

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Medieval France)

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (Chicago, IL)

North to Benjamin by Alan Cumyn (Dawson, Yukon)

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (South Florida)

2. Use Google Maps to explore a realistic, named setting and discuss plot conflicts in terms of the story’s geography. Students can zoom in on locations, study city layouts, and even “drive around” neighborhoods in Street View. For example, when reading Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ninth Ward, students can investigate through Google Maps the geography of New Orleans, and make connections to the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

3. Pinpoint the settings of books that share a historical time period on a map, and consider the ways in which location and culture impacted the plot and characters. For example, on a map of the world, mark the literary settings of books like these that take place in the time of WWII:

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli (Warsaw, Poland)

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (London, England and vicinity)

The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff (Rockaway, NY)

 

4. Maps can help promote comprehension and increase the emotional value of a story when used in conjunction with the travels of a character. For example, readers can use a world map to trace the journey of Ebo, a refugee from Ghana, in Illegal, a graphic novel by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano.

 

5. In an exploration of their own world-building skills, readers can create maps for middle grade fiction with geography context clues. For example, readers can use close reading skills, logic, and imagination to draw a map of locations in Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe, or for works that have a fantasy or purely fictionalized setting. Many MG fantasies showcase beautiful maps of the story’s settings, like Jaleigh Johnson’s The Door to the Lost. Readers can use these already-created maps to note plot points and trace the paths of characters.

6. A start-of-the-year icebreaker I’ve tried with success involves a world map, displayed in the classroom: each student shares the location farthest from home to which he or she has traveled and pins a marker on the map. Put a literary spin on this idea, and have readers share the book title they’ve read with a setting that is farthest from home. Each student can mark the map with the book title and author. A longer project idea might involve individual student presentations of plot summaries or book reviews.

Perhaps you’ll find a map activity here that suits your reader or students! Good luck to parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and readers of MG as we all head back to the classroom this school year.

Middle Grade Books About Friendship

There’s a line that pops up on social media from time to time that says, “People come into your path for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” It’s been playing in my head this past week, ever since I learned that one of my closest friends is dying. Thinking about our too short friendship has got me thinking about the various other people I have had the fortune to call my friend. It’s also got me thinking about how friendships grow and change over time. Which is why I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite Middle Grade Books about friendship. Consider it a tribute to friendships old and new, long and short, loved and lost.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe Last Great Adventure of the PB & J Society
by Janet Sumner Johnson

When her best friend’s house is threatened with foreclosure, young Annie Jenkins is full of ideas to save the home: selling her appendix on eBay, winning the lottery, facing down the bankers . . . anything to keep Jason from moving. But Jason’s out-of-work dad blows up at the smallest things, and he’s not very happy with Annie’s interventions, which always seem to get them into more trouble. But when Annie tracks a lost treasure to Jason’s backyard, she’s sure the booty will be enough to save Jason’s family. Pirate treasure in the Midwest seems far-fetched, even to Annie, but it could be the answer to all their problems. Now all she has to do is convince Jason. As the two hunt for answers and the pressure gets to Jason and his family, Annie discovers that the best-laid plans aren’t always enough and there are worse things than moving away.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgYou Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockard and eleven-year-old Ben Boxer are separated by more than a thousand miles. On the surface, their lives seem vastly different—Charlotte lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while Ben is in the small town of Lanester, Louisiana.

Charlotte wants to be a geologist and keeps a rock collection in her room. Ben is obsessed with Harry Potter, presidential history, and recycling. But the two have more in common than they think. They’re both highly gifted. They’re both experiencing family turmoil. And they both sit alone at lunch.

During the course of one week, Charlotte and Ben—friends connected only by an online Scrabble game—will intersect in unexpected ways as they struggle to navigate the turmoil of middle school. The New York Times-bestselling novel You Go First reminds us that no matter how hard it is to keep our heads above troubled water, we never struggle alone.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgRaymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

Raymie Clarke has come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on her. And she has a plan. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with the wispy, frequently fainting Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and the fiery, stubborn Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest. But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls into an unlikely friendship — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

Caleb Franklin and his big brother Bobby Gene are excited to have adventures in the woods behind their house. But Caleb dreams of venturing beyond their ordinary small town.

Then Caleb and Bobby Gene meet new neighbor Styx Malone. Styx is sixteen and oozes cool. Styx promises the brothers that together, the three of them can pull off the Great Escalator Trade–exchanging one small thing for something better until they achieve their wildest dream. But as the trades get bigger, the brothers soon find themselves in over their heads. Styx has secrets–secrets so big they could ruin everything.

 

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgRoll by Darcy Miller

When Lauren (but call him “Ren,” pretty please) Hall sees birds falling from the sky, he knows something is wrong. But just as he’s starting to worry, he realizes that the birds are plummeting toward the ground on purpose.

Turns out they’re Birmingham Roller Pigeons, and his new neighbor Sutton is training them for a competition.

Sure, it’s strange, but Ren’s best and only friend Aiden has picked this summer to start hanging with the popular kids. So Ren starts training pigeons with Sutton—what’s the worst that could happen? A bird falls on his head?

 

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe Right Hook of Devin Velma by Jake Burt

Devin wants to hit it big on the internet by pulling a stunt at an NBA game—one the entire nation will be watching. Addison can’t turn Devin down, but he can barely manage talking to his teachers without freezing up. How’s he supposed to handle the possibility of being a viral sensation?

Addi’s not sure why Devin is bent on pulling off this almost-impossible feat. Maybe it has something to do with Devin’s dad’s hospital bills. Maybe it all goes back to the Double-Barreled Monkey Bar Backflip of Doom. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. No matter what, though, it’s risky for both of them, and when the big day finally comes, Devin’s plan threatens more than just their friendship.

 

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgStanley Will Probably Be Fine by Sally J. Pla

Nobody knows comics trivia like Stanley knows comics trivia.

It’s what he takes comfort in when the world around him gets to be too much. And after he faints during a safety assembly, Stanley takes his love of comics up a level by inventing his own imaginary superhero, named John Lockdown, to help him through.

Help is what he needs, because Stanley’s entered Trivia Quest—a giant comics-trivia treasure hunt—to prove he can tackle his worries, score VIP passes to Comic Fest, and win back his ex-best friend. Partnered with his fearless new neighbor Liberty, Stanley faces his most epic, overwhelming, challenging day ever.

What would John Lockdown do?

Stanley’s about to find out.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWish by Barbara O’Connor

Eleven-year-old Charlie Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. She even has a list of all the ways there are to make the wish, such as cutting off the pointed end of a slice of pie and wishing on it as she takes the last bite.

But when she is sent to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to live with family she barely knows, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is, until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard, a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in serious danger of discovering that what she thought she wanted may not be what she needs at all.

From award-winning author Barbara O’Connor comes a middle-grade novel about a girl who, with the help of a true-blue friend, a big-hearted aunt and uncle, and the dog of her dreams, unexpectedly learns the true meaning of family in the least likely of places.

 

What are some of your favorite Middle Grade books about friendship? Please, share in the comments section.