For Writers

The Real Scoop on Middle-Grade Interviews

For my first post I’d like to write about something I get very excited about while doing research for one of my science books—interviews! Interviews get you out of your head during the research process and out into the action of doing science. They help bring the soul into your science writing.

Interviews are important for any topic though—they reveal the story behind the data. Uncovering that story is your job as the writer, so how do you do it? And what does it bring to your book? I have a few ideas (KLK) and I asked fellow MUF bloggers Jennifer A. Swanson (JAS) and Heather Murphy Capps (HMC) for their thoughts too. Here’s what we all had to say about doing interviews for nonfiction books.

What do you think interviews add to a nonfiction book?

  • KLK: I think interviews add a voice and perspective that you cannot get from traditional research. By doing interviews, you can uncover dramatic and unusual details that suck middle grade readers right in and allow experts to speak directly to them.
  • JAS:  Interviews add authenticity. Unfortunately, I don’t get to experience the thrill of discovering new science, the excitement of going into space or diving deep in the ocean, or even the construction of new technology in person. I get to read about them. Interviews add a spice of life and reality to liven up the subject. They also ensure that I am accurate in my explanations.
  • HMC: What I like about the interview is that it adds texture and also interesting perspective from a subject matter expert. You can throw all the facts you want into a book, but without the anecdotes and personal relationships a SME has with a subject, it can – and often does – fall flat.

How do you find people to interview? How do you contact them?

  • HMC: I usually reach out to the thought leaders on the subject I’m working with. As a reporter, those thought leaders were often local, and usually were excited to be given an opportunity to talk about something they love. Sometimes it wasn’t so easy – if the subject was controversial. Also, sometimes if I was reaching out to a person with large national visibility, the time it took to get an interview was challenging.
  • KLK: I often look on science publications. I can usually find the authors’ contact information on the paper or online. I also try contacting the PR department at a university to ask them if any professors might be willing to be interviewed. Be persistent and patient (but never pushy) when trying to schedule an interview. One time it took me six months to get an interview scheduled, but it was so worth the wait!
  • JAS: I spend a lot of time searching for contacts online. I tend to look at universities and colleges first. Since that is where a lot of the cutting-edge research starts. When I find someone that I want to interview, I simply send them an email asking if they’d be willing to speak with me. Many of them are happy to do so. Others take a little more persistence to get them to respond, and some just never respond. That’s fine. They are busy people and I respect that.

Do you like to do recorded phone interviews, take notes while speaking, or email your questions? If you record interviews, how do you do so? And what do you do if you have technical difficulties?

  • JAS: For me, it’s up to what is best for the scientist or engineer. Phone interviews take more time than answering emails. Some experts have the time for a phone interview. If you do that, be sure to record it. But ask their permission first—on the record. You wouldn’t want to be accused of recording them without their permission. Others I will just send questions within the email. I’ve been surprised before, though. A few times when I just needed the answer to one or two quick questions, the expert wanted to have a phone call and it ended up lasting an hour. I learn so much from those interactions. There are many different apps that you can download. Be sure to test the app before the actual interview. For example, once I found out that a recording app I had used successfully before DID NOT record if I had my headphones plugged in. OOPS! Yeah, I didn’t find out until after the interview. UGH. So I do take notes as I go along, too. Yes, I’ve had technical difficulties, I mean it’s technology. You just do the best you can. But if you test and prepare in advance, you should do fine.
  • KLK: I prefer recorded phone interviews, because they result in more natural speaking language and I get more quotable material. Sometimes written answers can be very formal and highly technical, especially when coming from someone used to academic writing. I use an app to record, and have had some issues. I think it’s best to have a backup recording device available, like a handheld tape recorder. Sometimes recorded interviews aren’t convenient for the person you are interviewing, though, especially if you are in different time zones or don’t speak the same native languages. So email interviews work best in those cases.
  • HMC: As a TV reporter, all of my interviews were recorded. However, as an author I find most people prefer the flexibility of emailed interview questions, which they then have time to edit and research before hitting “send.” When I do the rare phone interview, I do it old-school—scribbling notes on a legal pad.

What are some of the most interesting details you’ve discovered through interviews?

  • HMC: I have discovered fascinating details about the search for genetic cures (CRISPR-Cas9) to diseases that plague us, like malaria and cystic fibrosis.
  • KLK: When doing research for my book Extreme Longevity: Discovering Earth’s Oldest Organisms, I was fascinated by the different coincidences and accidents that led to different discoveries. Like Italian biologist Ferdinando Boero and his team, who forgot to feed some jellyfish they were raising to document their life cycle, After two days, they realized their mistake and saw the jellyfish had regenerated into new ones. That’s how they discovered the immortal jellyfish! Another was when Danish biologist Julius Nielsen was in a college seminar and heard that the largest Greenland shark was caught more than 100 years ago. But he knew this was incorrect, because he had recently been on a research vessel that had caught an even larger shark. Hearing this, Nielsen decided to investigate Greenland shark size and age, and discovered that they may live longer than 500 years! I love hearing the connections like these between the events that made a scientist curious about something to the results of their investigations.
  • JAS: That’s a tough one. There are SO many! Some of the most notable such as Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, the first US female astronaut to walk in space and also at the time of theinterview who was the head of NOAA, were so profound, that I could have listened to her for hours. I mean what she has personally done to further women in the field of science and technology is awesome. That was for my Astronaut-Aquanaut Dr. Sullivan is both. I also got to speak and actually meet Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau, my childhood hero. That was awesome! Fabien was very easy to talk to and we had a lot of fun. I spoke with a few of the top climate change scientists in the world about carbon capture and reforestation. For my Super Gear book, my expert is a material scientist who now has his own medical device company that is changing the face of medicine!

 

And here are a few extra tips from the three of us:

  • Be polite. Be professional. Be aware of their time. Remember that you are asking these people to give up a portion of their very valuable time to speak with you. So you should be prompt, prepared, and keep to your topic.
  • Plan your interview as carefully as you can by planning your book so that you iron out any questions about direction, detail, level of difficulty, etc.
  • Remind interview subjects that you are writing for a middle-grade audience, which means the language used to describe the topic has to be accessible to the 8-14 age range.
  • Be sure to listen and let them speak. But also listen to ensure that you get what you need for your book.  If you need them to talk about a specific topic, then make sure it’s covered.
  • See if your interviewees have any photos they might be willing to share with you for the book. Photos from the field are hard to come by on stock photo sites. Also ask if they can recommend any papers or books for your further research.
  • People sometimes get a little nervous when what they say appears in a book. Offer to send interviewees what you write about them for their review.
  • Add a “special thanks” section to the book and be sure to recognize the contributions of the people you interviewed.
  • Send your interview subjects a thank you and copy of the book. That is not required, but definitely a nice gesture. It sometimes works in your favor. I sent a copy of my climate change book to an expert and he did a huge shout out on Twitter about it. Went to a lot of his colleagues who all said they’d buy the book. You never know… 🙂

 

Thanks so much to Jennifer A. Swanson and Heather Murphy Capps for contributing to this post! Here’s a bit more about each of them.

Science Rocks! And so do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 30 nonfiction books for children. She has presented at numerous SCBWI conferences, BEA, ALA, NSTA conferences, the Highlights Foundation, and also the World Science Festival. You can find Jennifer through her website www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com.

 

Heather Murphy Capps writes middle grade novels that weave together all her favorite things: science, magic, baseball, and poetry. She is an #ownvoices author committed to increasing diversity in publishing.

 

 

 

Now it’s your turn! What do you like about doing interviews? And what are your tips? Tell us in comments what you like to do!

South Asian Awards for Children and Young Adult Literature : Author Interview with Uma Krishnaswami

APALA is a professional library organization dedicated to cultivating Asian Pacific American leadership through mentorship and professional engagement, advancing social justice, and providing opportunities for dialogue and networking to promote the needs of Asian/Pacific American professionals and those who serve Asian/Pacific American communities.

Every year, the association (APALA) honors and recognizes individual work about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage, based on literature and artistic merit. This year, author Uma Krishnaswami won the award in the children’s literature category for her book, “Step Up To The Plate, Maria Singh”.

 

Today at MUF, Uma talks about her award, her writing life over the years,  and some of the key diversity issues in children’s and young adult literature.

 

Congratulations on the APALA award, Uma! What was it like winning the award for Step Up To the Plate, Maria Singh?

Uma: It’s a tremendous honor. Writing is such a solitary occupation. Even after all the work that goes into writing a book and nurturing it through successive revisions, through the editorial process and all the way to publication, you never know whether anyone’s going to pay attention to it. A book isn’t complete until readers have read it, and children can’t choose a book until some adult has first placed that book on a personal or library shelf. So the APALA award was a tremendous vote of confidence for my book. I’m deeply grateful.

 

In your interview at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations Blog, you mention that there is a groundswell movement with organizations like We Need Diverse Books and independent publishers like Lee & Low Books, Cinco Puntos Press, and Enchanted Lion to draw attention to diverse books as well as international and translated books. What are some initiatives that make these organizations and publishing houses effective?

Uma: Lee & Low was founded with a mission of diversifying children’s books, long before diversity became trendy. Their blog called early attention to the diversity gap in children’s publishing. Cinco Puntos is more specialized with its roots on the border of the US and Mexico, and they too have beautiful books like All Around Us by Xelena González and Rudolfo Anaya’s Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez.

To me, WNDB represents the next generation of writers and activists pushing for change. They are doing terrific work. They offer grants and awards for writers, retreats, internships in publishing, mentorships, book giveaways and they have been a powerful force in the movement to diversify not only books for young readers but the range of voices engaged in the creation and publication of those books. They are fierce and committed and they remind us that we can’t get complacent.

 

To what extent does incorrect representation of culture in diverse children’s books harbor the danger of inauthenticity and marginalize people of color?

Uma: I think it’s about complexity—being aware of how easy it is to resort to a stereotypical depiction of characters or a simplistic view of history. We have to be willing to do the work as writers to go beyond that, whoever we are. And we have to be respectful of the people we’re writing about, and aware of what our relationship is to those people. We have to know where our own boundaries and limitations lie. That is the best way to get around issues of inauthentic work. I’ll give you an example. There was a time when it was considered fine for a white writer to write an array of books, each set in a different country, each using a particular “foreign” culture as the driving plot element. So you’d have books getting rave reviews (we’re talking back in the 1990s) with, say, spunky girl characters, and all the settings would feel like tourist videos. The reviewers never got that, so who would even know, right? Well, young readers from those places, or from immigrant communities with roots in those places, would know. Of course they’d know. And they’d want to duck their heads under their desks when those books were being praised in classrooms. This certainly happened with books set in South Asian countries, written by well-meaning writers who’d never set foot in the region.

It’s changing. Publishers are more aware of the pitfalls of writing culturally specific books. But we can’t take our eyes off that target of diversity because it will keep moving and there will always be pushback.

 

From your experience of writing and teaching at Vermont College Of Fine Arts for many years, do you think the lack of adequate diverse representation in children’s and young adult literature is part of a broader set of issues relating to inclusivity?

Uma: Absolutely. Until diverse voices get included at every level—in student bodies and faculty at writing programs and retreats and conferences, and at every level of publishing—publishing and marketing and distribution choices will continue to be made with a narrow view.

 

What are some common misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions about South Asian characters in North America? How do you see South Asian literature developing in the US in the foreseeable future?

Uma: I wrote about that years ago, but to tell you the truth, I haven’t studied a bunch of books lately to see if those trends persist. Do Americans still think Indian kids go to school on elephants? I have no idea.

But as to your second question, relative to literature for young readers, I see some very exciting new work coming out from talented writers. I’ll mention just a few: Sayantani DasGupta’s middle grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret. Book 2 in that series is out next year. It’s a wonderful mashup of mythic fantasy drawn from Bengali traditions, rollicking adventure, and utterly contemporary kid sensibility. Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar is historical fiction set against the backdrop of India’s independence movement. Nidhi Chanani’s graphic novel, Pashmina, takes on immigrant identity and the silence between a mother and a daughter with a fresh and genuine energy. I think what makes these books ring so true is that they come from deep, personal roots. In each, the author cares deeply about context and worldview, culture and connections. And so each is complicated, as all cultures are, but they’re not explained by the text. In each, the story comes first.

Not so much what I see but what I’d like to see: more YA, more humor—oh please, more humor! More stories for younger readers. Chapter books. Fantasy. Fewer oppression tales about girls fighting unjust societies.

 

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out as a writer?

Uma: What a good question. I had to think about this.

At first, I often felt misunderstood. Early on, someone once asked me why I didn’t just write about “regular” kids instead of always focusing on kids with Indian connections—as if that was somehow “irregular!” And the opposite as well—a few in the Indian community were affronted that I’d put a divorce into my first novel, Naming Maya, as if that reflected badly on us as an immigrant group or something. So I sometimes wonder if it would have easier if those criticisms hadn’t cropped up. But I don’t think so. They gave me something to push against, and in all they strengthened my resolve to keep going.

If anything, I wish no one had given me any advice at all. Much of the advice I did get about conflict, character development, story structure, and so on never fit any of the stories I was writing, which led to a lot of wasted time while I tried unsuccessfully to make my stories fit into boxes that weren’t built for them. In the end I did best when I dumped a lot of it and paid more attention to my own instincts.

To learn more about Uma and her books, visit her website at https://umakrishnaswami.org/.

 

Librarians and Teachers, Take Note! Debut Author Groups Are Great Resources

Kidlit authors Julia Nobel (Novel Nineteens) and Joy McCullough (Electric Eighteens) talk to us about how you can take advantage of author debut groups to introduce the year’s hottest new fiction to your middle-grade readers.

Author debut groups are a great way for librarians and teachers to get an early preview of books coming out for kids. They also help educators get to know their authors more personally. “I think debut groups can really help the children’s book market in general,” says Julia Nobel. Nobel founded the Novel Nineteens for middle-grade and young adult authors debuting in 2019. “Some books that might be overlooked get more exposure because there are a lot of other authors talking about them.” Nobel, whose first novel for middle graders, THE MYSTERY OF BLACK HOLLOW LANE appears next year, says that some debut groups concentrate on marketing. Others are focused on mutual support. They all share a mission to introduce their books to new readers.

Joy McCullough is a member of the Electric Eighteens whose debut verse novel BLOOD WATER PAINT published this year. McCullough says debut groups are a place for authors “to ask questions, vent frustrations, and remember that whatever we’re going through, someone else is probably going through the exact same thing.”

“Writing can be a fairly solitary experience,” McCullough says. “When going through the publishing experience for the first time, that solitude is paired with heaps of anxiety and uncertainty and the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of the publishing business. Having a group of people who are all on similar journeys and timelines can be incredibly comforting and encouraging. There are no expectations to promote each other’s books, though that happens organically as we form relationships with each other and read each other’s books. But the primary purpose, as I see it, is as a support group.”

For Librarians and Teachers: School Visits, Giveaways, and Personal Author Connections

Debut groups offer a wealth of information for teachers and librarians looking for new fiction to share with young readers. The groups’ websites provide summaries of the novels, author bios and social media links. There are also opportunities for giveaways and promotions. This year, Nobel added a feature to the Novel 19s website specifically for teachers and librarians.

Nobel says the feature includes “an author locator for those of us who do school visits, and a list of comparative titles (in case you’re looking for a new book that’s similar to Harry Potter). It also features a document that organizes books thematically. So, for example, if you’re looking a book with LGBTQIA+ characters, you will find a list of titles to explore.”

Use the Hashtag: #Novel19s

Librarians and teachers can also plug in the debut group’s hashtag to keep up with other resources, contests, and giveaways.

“We are really encouraging our authors use the hashtag when they are doing giveaways,” Nobel says. “That way, people can easily find them. Type the phrase #Novel19s into the Twitter search bar. You’ll find authors who are doing book giveaways, pre-order thank you gifts, newsletter goodies, and lots more. You’ll also be able to find new authors you want to connect with. A lot of us love interacting with educators on social media!”

McCullough agrees. “New authors are a great opportunity for schools and libraries to get in on school and Skype visits with an author at the ground floor. It’s important for authors to be paid for these visits. But at the same time, brand new authors are often charging lower rates. And some may not be charging at all as they get their feet under them with school visits. As for things like teacher guides and mailing lists, authors are super eager to connect with teachers and librarians. Author newsletters are a great source of insider info. You’ll find information on the process of publishing, extra content, and a way to connect with authors. A teacher or librarian who reaches out to a debut group asking for swag, teacher guides, etc., is likely to get lots of response!”

Big Trends in Middle Grade

I asked McCullough and Nobel if they were seeing any themes or trends in middle grade books debuting in their respective years.

“Contemporary is king in 2019! The majority of MG books in our group are set in our current time and place,” Nobel says. “Although a handful of those have a twist of magic thrown in. There are only a few fantasy novels, but they really are exceptional. Family dynamics are a common theme in every genre. So is dealing with loss. I’m excited by the number of different ways authors are approaching both those themes. With subjects including the war on drugs, baking competitions, secret societies, and living with nuns, no two books are alike, that’s for sure!

McCullough adds, “It’s been strange for me to debut as a young adult author, since I wrote a ton of middle grade before I got my debut. As a Pitchwars mentor, I’ve always worked with middle grade authors. I really feel like I am a middle grade author! Some middle-grade stand-outs [from 2018], from what I’ve read so far, include PEASPROUT CHEN: FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE & SWORD by Henry Lien, THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC by Amanda Rawson Hill, PS I MISS YOU by Jen Petro-Roy, THE UNICORN QUEST by Kamilla Benko, and LOVE SUGAR MAGIC by Anna Meriano. A few I’m super excited to read include EVERLASTING NORA by Marie Miranda Cruz, MEET YASMIN by Saadia Faruqui, FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang, THE HOTEL BETWEEN by Sean Easley.

A Community for Writers

Debut groups also offer a huge learning opportunity for writers. McCullough says, “It’s been fascinating to see the very wide a range of experiences in the publishing journey. It’s really helpful to have fellow travelers on the journey. It’s also incredibly important to keep your eyes on your own suitcase.” Nobel concurs. She says she’s amazed how many authors genuinely want to support each other. “There are a lot of people taking time out from their extremely busy schedules to work on the website, host Twitter chats, and create documents. Or to simply be there to answer questions and offer support. So far it’s been really great!”

Visit the Electric Eighteens at www.Electriceighteens.com and the Novel Nineteens at www.Novelnineteens.com.

**

Julia Nobel is a middle grade author from Victoria, Canada. Her childhood obsession with The Babysitters Club turned into a lifelong passion for reading and writing children’s literature. She offers writing master classes and courses for writers in all genres. Nobel was also a Pitch Wars Mentor in 2017. Her 4-year-old daughter likes to help her write by unplugging her computer and pressing the escape key. Her debut middle grade novel, The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane, will be published by Sourcebooks Jaberwocky in Spring 2019.

http://julianobel.com; @nobeljulia

 

Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate. Blood Water Paint is her debut novel.
www.joymccullough.com; @jmcwrites