Giveaways

Kurt Kirchmeier’s THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS + Giveaway

I’ve been looking forward to telling you all about Kurt Kirchmeier’s recent middle-grade novel, The Absence of Sparrows (a Junior Library Guild Selection), for a couple of weeks now. It’s been described as Stranger Things meets Alfred Hitchcock. So all you fans of the hit Netflix series and the Master of Suspense: settle in and read all about the book, the author, and how the novel came to be. (For a chance to win a copy of the book, leave a comment.)

 

In the small town of Griever’s Mill, eleven-year-old Ben Cameron is expecting to finish off his summer of relaxing and bird-watching without a hitch. But everything goes wrong when dark clouds roll in.

Old Man Crandall is the first to change–human one minute and a glass statue the next. Soon it’s happening across the world. Dark clouds fill the sky and, at random, people are turned into frozen versions of themselves. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no one knows how to stop it.

With his mom on the verge of a breakdown, and his brother intent on following the dubious plans put forth by a nameless voice on the radio, Ben must hold out hope that his town’s missing sparrows will return with everyone’s souls before the glass plague takes them away forever.

 

Kurt Kirchmeier lives and writes in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and has a soft spot for contemporary fantasy and dark coming-of-age stories. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines including Shimmer, Space & Time, Weird Tales, Tesseracts 15, and elsewhereWhen he isn’t reading or working on his next middle grade novel, he can often be found outside, connecting with nature and photographing birds. Visit Kurt on Twitter at https://twitter.com/saskwriter or at his website www.kurtkirchmeier.net.

 

 

 

What was the inspiration behind The Absence of Sparrows?

The idea for this story sprang from a dream I had of my own father turning to obsidian. I explored the concept first in a piece of short fiction, which was published in a speculative fiction magazine in Ireland back in 2009. I thought that would be the end of it, but the two brothers from that story wouldn’t leave me alone, and kept on pestering me until finally I decided I needed to give them a larger stage. Books like Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury inspired me to make it a coming-of-age story.

 

Are you a birder like your character or did you become one for the novel?

I am indeed a bird-lover like my main character, Ben. I got into birding and bird photography maybe two or three years before I started to write this book, and some of my own experiences with certain species—bohemian waxwings, notably—are mirrored in the story. All of the species represented in the book are species that appear here in Saskatchewan. There were others I wanted to include, but since the bird insights are used to help Ben glean truths about the human condition as well, I couldn’t always make it work. I still wish I’d found a place for an owl!

 

I love the title The Absence of Sparrows. What was the inspiration behind it?

In the book, the main character comes up with a theory about why his neighborhood sparrows are missing and what their absence might mean for him and his family, so that’s part of the inspiration. The title also has a dual meaning in that birds are often seen as being symbolic of freedom, and the loss of freedom and control is very much central to the story.

 

What would you like readers to come away with after reading the novel?

First and foremost, I would hope they would come away thinking that what they just read was thrilling and cool, and that birds might be more interesting than they previously imagined. It’s also my hope that this book will resonate with kids who, for whatever reason, have had their childhoods cut short and who might be feeling lonely or isolated in their situation. Lastly, I’d like readers to come away wanting to think and talk about some of the challenges Ben faces in the book, like having to stand against his own brother, and weighing the fate of his own family against the fate of the community at large. These would be hard things for anyone to deal with, let alone an eleven-year-old boy.

 

Readers have called The Absence of Sparrows a page-turner. Do you have any tips on how to write that type of suspense that keeps readers engaged?

I think the unpredictable nature of the glass plague kind of lends itself to suspense, but I guess the important thing is for the stakes to be real and present so that momentum can build and be sustained. Lively pacing goes a long way, too. I try to omit unnecessary description and exposition wherever I can so the narrative never becomes “dense.” Huge blocks of unbroken text can slow readers down and cause their minds to wander. There’s no suspense in a wandering mind.

 

What are you working on now?

I just recently finished working on an upper MG novel that’s sort of a mix of adventure fantasy and post-apocalyptic road story, featuring dual protagonists (one boy, one girl), parallel storylines, and a twist on dragons. I’m also working on another MG novel about two boys who are obsessed with comic books and superheroes, and who are trying to solve a local mystery that might offer clues about a larger mystery going on in the world. This one has an environmental twist, and has been a lot of fun to write so far.

 

Thanks so much, Kurt, for this great interview!

 

For a chance to win a copy of The Absence of Sparrows, leave a comment. I’ll choose a winner at random on Sunday afternoon at 3 PM, and announce a winner shortly after. (U.S. Only, please.)

Interview with author Kayla Miller and a giveaway of Kayla’s latest, CAMP!

Today we welcome Kayla Miller to the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors blog. Kayla is the author/illustrator of the graphic novels CLICK and CAMP, and here Kayla talks about their process for creating their novels; what it is about sleepaway camp that makes it a perfect setting for a middle-grade book; and their short-lived career as high school talent show host. Read on, and then enter to win a copy of CAMP below.


Mixed-Up Files: We see from your bio that you did not always want to be a cartoonist, and that wanted to be a paranormal investigator with a specialty in ghosts and aliens. That is hilarious! Why do you think you came up with that career path?
Kayla: I loved anything spooky or weird as a kid. My middle school library had this series of books about paranormal phenomenon and cryptozoological creatures that explained the history of each topic and had examples of people’s experiences. I was obsessed. When I was younger than that, I had wanted to be a private eye and had a bunch of toy evidence collecting kits and “spy tool” kits. Becoming a paranormal investigator seemed like a natural combination of those two interests.

Mixed-Up Files: So when did you decide you wanted to draw and write for a living?
Kayla: High school. My favorite subjects were always Art and English. When I was looking at colleges I was torn between doing something art related or something writing related. In the end art won and I went to school for illustration, but I kept writing while I was in art school and would complicate my illustration assignments by making them into comics. When I graduated, I thought my career would be as an illustrator/cartoonist putting pictures to other people’s stories and writing would be a hobby. I honestly didn’t know I’d be lucky enough to write as part of my job until an editor approached me and asked if I wanted to illustrate and write a comic.
Click by Kayla Miller
Mixed-Up Files: Your first graphic novel was CLICK. Can you talk about where the inspiration for that came from?
Kayla: The idea for setting a book at a school variety show came from my agent (then editor) Elizabeth, whose daughter had just participated in one. It’s partially inspired by her experience of how being asked to break into groups for a project can strain friendships, something I can definitely remember being an issue when I was a kid, and partially inspired by my own experience hosting my high school talent show. My co-host and I had come up with a series of skits and gags to do between the other students’ acts that we considered to be Vaudevillian or like the banter from the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour… but were mainly just very silly.

Mixed-Up Files: Re: CAMP — we’re assuming you went to sleepaway camp. Is that right? What did you want to capture when writing about this rite of passage for so many kids?
Kayla: I went to Girl Scout camp as a kid and I worked at an Arts & Sports summer camp as a counselor when I was in college. Camp is many kids’ first time being away from their family and I think that’s a big step. Camp gives kids a place where they can assert themselves and make their own decisions in a way they might not be able to at school or home. I wanted to capture how that freedom is both exciting and stressful at times.
Camp by Kayla Miller
Mixed-Up Files: For people who don’t really know much about making a graphic novel, can you explain the process to us a little bit? Do you write the story first with little sketches? Draw each panel as you write?
Kayla: I always write the whole story first. I start with an outline and then move on to writing a script with dialog, a breakdown of how many panels will be on the page, and descriptions of the images. After that I make “thumbnails” which are very tiny sketches that help me figure out how the panels will be laid out on the page and a rough idea of where the characters and objects will be in the panel. Then I move on to sketching, inking, lettering, and coloring.

Mixed-Up Files: Was the process different with your second book? What did you learn from your first one?
Kayla: I think I was more organized with the second book. CLICK was the longer than all the pages of every other comic I’d ever made combined, so it was really a big undertaking and I don’t think I realized how much harder it was to keep track of things on that scale. I tried to be more orderly with CAMP. CLICK was also the first time I worked with a designer or a colorist on comics, so I had to get used to passing files between multiple people and communicating about changes. It’s been a big adjustment from working on webcomics alone, but I think I’ve finally got it down.

Mixed-Up Files: Can you suggest a few of your favorite graphic novels that our middle-grade readers might want to check out?
Kayla: If you like CAMP, I’d check out Vera Brosgol’s BE PREPARED. It’s also about a summer camp, but a very different kind of camp than the one Olive and Willow go to– it’s actually kind of like the camps I went to as a kid. I also love Kristen Gudsnuk’s MAKING FRIENDS and Brenna Thummler’s SHEETS!

Enter here to win an autographed copy of CAMP!

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Sherri Winston’s JADA SLY, ARTIST & SPY + Giveaway

Today, I’m thrilled to introduce you all to Sherri Winston and her newest middle-grade novel Jada Sly, Artist & Spy, which hit shelves this week. While Sherri has published several middle-grade novels, this is the first she illustrated as well. Read all about Sherri and Jada Sly, and then leave a comment for a chance to win an autographed copy of the book!

 

Sherri Winston is a lover of cakes, sarcasm, and wish fulfillment. She grew up in Michigan before spending several years as an award-winning newspaper columnist and journalist in sunny South Florida.

Sherri is the author of President of the Whole Fifth Grade (a Sunshine State Young Readers Award selection), President of the Whole Sixth Grade (a Kids’ Indie Next pick), President of the Whole Sixth Grade: Girl Code, The Sweetest Sound, (a Sunshine State Young Readers Award Selection) and The Kayla Chronicles. She lives with her family in Florida. Connect with her on Twitter: @sherriwinston and Instagram: @jada_sly_may14

 

Jada Sly, a hilarious and spunky artist and spy, is on a mission to find her mom in this illustrated novel from acclaimed author Sherri Winston.

Ten-year-old Jada Sly is an artist and a spy-in-training. When she isn’t studying the art from her idols like Jackie Ormes, the first-known African American cartoonist, she’s chronicling her spy training and other observations in her art journal.

Back home in New York City, after living in France for five years, Jada is ready to embark on her first and greatest spy adventure yet. She plans to scour New York City in search of her missing mother, even though everyone thinks her mom died in a plane crash. Except Jada, who is certain her mom was a spy too.

With the stakes high and danger lurking around every corner, Jada will use one spy technique after another to unlock the mystery of her mother’s disappearance–some with hilarious results. After all, she’s still learning.

 

What was the inspiration behind Jada Sly?

I love museums. When I worked for the Sun-Sentinel I spent a lot of time visiting the Flagler. They had a section with antique dollhouses and toys. I used to think how wonderful and mysterious it would be to be a kid whose family owned the museum. It was years later before the idea came back and I developed the character. I love this book.
 
This is your first illustrated novel. Did you have an art background and how difficult was it to adapt to this format?
 
I minored in art in college but hadn’t drawn in 20 years. When the concept came to me I spent eight years re-learning teaching myself how to draw and use digital technology. Jada was drawn entirely in an iPad Pro.
 
What kind of research did you do for all the spy details in the novel?
 
Honey, a lifetime of James Bond, Nancy Drew and Harriet The Spy.

I see that Jada Sly is going to be a series. Can you give us a hint as to what she’ll be up to in the next book.
 
Well, if there are future books, the next one will focus more on the art world. I have a sinister plot involving a menacing 10-year-old art collector.
 
Can you give our readers some tips on how to write a mystery for middle grade readers?
 
Girrrrrrrl, I’m looking for someone to help me with the same. My best advice is to organize the steps of the mystery but start at the end. You have to work out where you’re going in a good mystery.
 
 
 
Thanks, Sherri! For a chance to win an autographed copy of Jada Sly: Artist & Spy, leave a comment below. I’ll pick a winner at random on Saturday night, May 18 at 11:59 PM, and announce it on Sunday, May 19. (U.S. Residents Only, please.)