Giveaways

B’nai Mitzvah books + a giveaway!

My bat mitzvah reception was held at Roma di Notte, an Italian nightclub in Midtown Manhattan. Described by New York magazine as the perfect spot for an “after-hours rendezvous,” the club boasted an impressive collection of Roman statues, medallions, and urns. Hidden caves, or “grottos,” insured ultimate privacy for lovers indulging in “a romantic nightcap.”

Mystery of the White Gym Socks

Why my parents chose this particular venue to fête my coming of age as a Jew is beyond me. Another mystery is why I wore a pink floor-length dress best suited for a five-year-old flower girl at a fancy wedding. Or why my mom allowed me to wear white gym socks with my patent-leather T-straps.

Turning the Tables

Another thing I don’t get? Why I didn’t claim my rightful place at the head of the kids’ table instead of way down at the end, next to my dorky cousin Jordan. (I dare you to find me in the picture, below.)

A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words

These details aren’t important, of course. I’m telling you this because, to be brutally honest, it’s all I can remember about my mitzvah. The day went by in a blur.

Sure, I have photographic evidence of the event, courtesy of my shutterbug cousin Keith, and I know I read from the Book of Leviticus, which details how and when religious offerings should be made to God. (I won’t go into specifics, but let’s just say I learned more about animal sacrifice than a 13-year-old old should ever know.) Other than that…? Nada.

That’s why, when I was asked to write a short story for the upcoming Jewish MG anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’nai Mitzvah Stories, out from Albert Whitman & Company on April 19, I chose not to borrow from my own bat-mitzvah experience. I had too many unanswered questions, and no one to answer them for me. Fiction felt more real—and more immediate—than anything my memory could provide.

With that in mind, here’s a collection of middle-grade novels that feature characters preparing for a b’nai mitzvah. Their fictional memories are way more reliable than mine. 🙂

PLUS don’t miss a chance to win a copy of Coming of Age: 13 B’nai Mitzvah Stories if you enter the giveaway. Scroll down for details! 👇👇👇

B’nai Mitzvah Books

Beyond Lucky by Sarah Aronson

Ari Fish, who’s in the throes of studying for his bar mitzvah, believes in two things: his hero-Wayne Timcoe, the greatest soccer goalie to ever come out of Somerset Valley—and luck. So, when Ari finds a rare and valuable Wayne Timcoe trading card, he’s sure his luck has changed for the better. Especially when he’s picked to be the starting goalie on his team. But when the card is stolen—and his best friend and the new girl on the team accuse each other of taking it—suddenly Ari can’t save a goal, everyone is fighting, and he doesn’t know who, or what, to believe in. Before the team falls apart, Ari must learn how to make his own luck—and figure out what it truly means to be a hero.

The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Seventh-grader Caroline Weeks has a Jewish mom and a non-Jewish dad. When Caroline’s nana dies around the same time that Caroline’s best friend, Rachel, is having her bat mitzvah, Caroline starts to become more interested in her Jewish identity.

The Long Trail Home by Kiersi Burkhardt and Amber J. Keyser

Rivka can’t wait to get away from her family for the summer. Since that terrible day last year, she wants no part in their Jewish community. At least at Quartz Creek Ranch, she feels worlds away from home among the Colorado scenery, goofy ranch owners, and baby animals. Other parts of Quartz Creek, however, are too familiar, including the unsettling wave of anti-immigrant threats to ranch workers. On a trip to the country, Rivka is also surprised to learn the history of Jewish pioneers in the area. When she and her defiant cabinmate, Cat, face disaster in the wild, Rivka will need to find strength deep within her to help them both get home safely.

The Queen of Likes by Hillary Homzie

Karma Cooper is a seventh grader with thousands of followers on SnappyPic. Before Karma became a social-media celebrity, she wasn’t part of the in-crowd at Merton Middle School. But thanks to one serendipitous photo, Karma has become a popular poster on SnappyPic. Like most kids at MMS, her smartphone—a bejeweled pink number Karma nicknamed Floyd—is like a body part she could never live without. But after breaking some basic phone rules, Karma’s parents take Floyd away, and for Karma, her world comes to a screeching halt. Can Karma learn to go cold turkey and live her life fully unplugged?

My Basmati Bar Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

During the fall leading up to her bat mitzvah, Tara (Hindi for “star”) Feinstein has a lot more than her Torah portion on her mind. Between Hebrew school and study sessions with the rabbi, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to hang out with her best friend, Ben-O―who might also be her boyfriend―and her other best friend, Rebecca, who’s getting a little too cozy with the snotty Sheila Rosenberg. Not to mention working on her robotics project with the class clown, Ryan Berger, or figuring out what to do with a priceless heirloom sari that she accidentally ruined. Amid all this drama, Tara considers how to balance her Indian and Jewish identities and what it means to have a bat mitzvah while questioning her faith.

Recipe for Disaster by Aimee Lucido

Hannah Malfa-Adler is Jew . . . ish. Not that she really thinks about it. She’d prefer to focus on her favorite pastime: baking delicious food. But when her best friend has a beyond-awesome Bat Mitzvah, Hannah starts to feel a little envious …and a little left out. Despite her parents’ firm no, Hannah knows that if she can learn enough about her own faith, she can convince her friends that the party is still in motion. As the secrets mount, a few are bound to explode. When they do, Hannah learns that being Jewish isn’t about having a big party and a fancy dress and a first kiss—it’s about actually being Jewish. Most importantly, Hannah realizes that the only person’s permission she needs to be Jewish is her own.

This Is Just a Test by Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan Long Shang

Twelve-year-old David Da-Wei Horowitz has a lot on his plate. Preparing for his upcoming bar mitzvah would be enough work even if it didn’t involve trying to please his Jewish and Chinese grandmothers, who argue about everything. But David just wants everyone to be happy. That includes his friend, Scott, who is determined to win their upcoming trivia tournament but doesn’t like their teammate: David’s best friend, Hector. Scott and David begin digging a fallout shelter just in case this Cold War stuff with the Soviets turns south… but David’s not so convinced he wants to spend forever in an underground bunker with Scott. Maybe it would be better if Hector and Kelli Ann came with them. But that would mean David has to figure out how to stand up for Hector and talk to Kelli Ann. Some days, surviving nuclear war feels like the least of David’s problems.

Echo Still by Tim Tibbitts

Twelve-year-old Fig’s life at school is perfectly normal: He’s sure his science teacher hates him, his dad is forcing him to attend Bar Mitzvah classes because his mom would have wanted it, and he’s just been passed over for the football team in favor of Gus Starks, a ball hog and a bully. And, as if Fig’s life needed one more complication, his grandmother Gigi is unexpectedly coming to stay with him and his dad for a while. As Gigi helps Fig navigate the obstacles of school and a tough football season, Fig comes to understand some important things: about his religion, about his family, and about Fig himself.

Pink Slippers, Bat Mitzvah Blues by Ferida Wolff

After her Bat Mitzvah, all Alyssa wanted to do was dance. She loved the practice sessions at the studio. And she loved performing. But suddenly there were so many other pressures. The persistent but sympathetic rabbi wanted her to join the confirmation class. Alyssa’s best friend was very sick and needed her badly. And if Alyssa missed another dance rehearsal, she would be thrown out of the Nutcracker. If only she could decide what to do.

And last but not least…

Coming of Age: 13 B’nai Mitzvah Stories edited by Jonathan Rosen and Henry Herz

What does it mean to become an adult in your faith? Join thirteen diverse characters as they experience anxiety, doubt, and self-discovery while preparing for their b’nai mitzvah. And whether celebrating with a lavish party or in reception room A with an accordion player, the Jewish rite of passage remains the same. Filled with humor, hope, and history, there’s something in this anthology for every reader, regardless of their faith.

Giveaway!

For a chance to win a copy of COMING OF AGE: 13 B’NAI MITZVAH STORIEScomment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends 3/25/22; U.S. only, please.)

Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge, 2017), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Company). An active blogger for the popular MG website, From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-grade AuthorsMelissa lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Author Spotlight: Jake Burt + a Giveaway!

My amazing 2017 Debuts author pal Jake Burt has recently released his fifth novel (!!!), but this is his FIRST time chatting with us on the Mixed-Up Files!!! Can you tell how excited that makes me? Well, CAN YOU…? 🙂

Before I turn the mic over to the mega-talented Jake Burt (besides being an author, Jake is a fifth-grade teacher, an Ultimate Frisbee champ, and a gifted banjo player), here’s a short summary of his latest MG novel, The Ghoul of Windydown Vale (Feiwel and Friends).

(Oh, and don’t miss the chance to win TWO signed copies of Jake’s books–GHOUL and Cleo Porter and the Body Electric–if you enter the giveaway. Scroll down for details! 👇👇👇)

The Ghoul of Windydown Vale

Copper Inskeep holds Windydown Vale’s deepest and darkest secret: He is the ghoul that haunts the Vale, donning a gruesome costume to scare travelers and townsfolk away from the dangers of the surrounding swamps. When a terrified girl claims she and her father were attacked by a creature—one that could not have been Copper—it threatens not just Copper’s secret, but the fate of all Windydown.

Without further ado… heeeeere’s Jake!

Interview with Jake Burt

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, my friend!

JB: Thank you, Melissa! My pleasure to (finally) be here!

MR: Your latest book, The Ghoul of Windydown Vale, has been described as “scarier than Scooby-Doo, but not too scary to read [to kids] at night.” What is the secret to writing a spooky book for middle-grade readers? Is there anything specific you aimed for—or avoided—during the writing of this novel?

JB: To me, the best spooky stuff is that which is unknown. I’ve never been a big fan of slasher horror, for instance: if you know from the first scene or chapter that the menace is a guy with a chainsaw, then the rest of the movie/book is just about seeing what inventive/gruesome ways said guy can terrorize people with a chainsaw. But a creeping, unseen dread? That, to me, is compelling and chilling in all the best ways. It’s particularly effective for middle grade novels, too, since ideally, we’re trying to avoid subjecting young readers to Friday the 13th-level bloodshed. I elected to go with first person present as my narrative style, too, because I wanted the reader to have that close, closed experience of navigating the spooky things right alongside my main character. 

Windydown Vale and its  (Vaguely) Pioneer Past

MR: Windydown Vale is set in an unspecified historical era, in an unspecified geographical location. What was the inspiration behind these fictional choices? Was it meant to reflect the secret behind the Ghoul’s true identity? Or maybe something else…?

JB: By keeping the location very local, and by locking the setting into a nebulous, vaguely pioneer past, my goal was to “trap” the reader. You don’t know what else is out there, except that Windydown Vale is surrounded in the immediate sense by deadly swamps. Better to stay in town than to risk a journey elsewhere, no? And an ahistorical time period lends itself to the tone of the book. Even if ghouls aren’t real, our characters don’t have the technology to prove it. I wanted the lore of the book to sit solidly in a temporal framework where legends and monsters are part of the science, since scary things are much more fun when everyone believes in them.

Cleo Porter and the Body Electric + a Global Pandemic

MR: Your previous novel, Cleo Porter and the Body Electric, takes place in the aftermath of a fictional pandemic—“influenza D.” Cleo Porter, the 12-year-old protagonist, experiences life from the confines of her germ-free apartment, takes classes via Virtual Adaptive Instructional Network, and enjoys computer-simulated playdates with her friends. Interestingly, this book was written a year before the appearance of Covid-19. You’re an amazing guy, Jake, but I know you’re not psychic. How on earth did you come up with this idea? Also, what was it like to have a book come out during a global pandemic—about a global pandemic?

JB: Having Cleo launch in the midst of COVID was surreal, to say the least. I was certainly worried that it would be a “too soon” situation, but reception of the book has been universally positive. Part of the reason, I think, is that the book doesn’t actually center on the pandemic; it’s about the long-term aftermath. Still, many of the themes (isolation, compassion, the value of science) are relevant. Teachers and librarians have reported finding Cleo to be a compelling resource for book groups and classroom discussions, and I’m honored that it has served that purpose, in addition to being a fast-paced, twisty adventure. Part of the reason it rings so true is that it’s based on my experience during a real pandemic–not COVID, but  SARS, back in 2013. I lived in China at the time, and we went into full lockdown as the country sought to manage the spread. It was upon that time that I based Cleo’s setting.

Reviews and Feedback

MR: As a follow-up, Jake, what kind of feedback did you receive from readers following the publication of Cleo Porter? I’m guessing kids found solace in Cleo’s plight, considering that many of them were in similar circumstances. Did any of the feedback surprise you—from kids or reviewers?

JB: I was pleasantly surprised by the reception; it was certainly nerve-wracking waiting for reviews to come in! To be honest, the biggest surprise came from the New York Times. I didn’t expect them to review it, much less do so in such a positive way. It was definitely a career milestone. (To read the Times’ glowing review of Cleo Porter and the Body Electric click here.)

The Tornado + Bullying

MR: To switch gears, your 2019 novel, The Tornado (2019), focuses on two characters who are the victims of bullying but handle it in vastly different ways. Bell Kirby hides from his tormenter while Daelynn Gower—a new girl with outrageous clothes and rainbow-colored hair—confronts the perpetrators head-on. Not to stir up unpleasant memories, but were you bullied as a child? If so, how did you handle it? Also, what advice would you give to fellow educators who confront bullying in their classrooms?

JB: Heavy questions, Melissa! And important ones. Yes, I was bullied. Parker Hellickson, the bully in Tornado, is based on the guy who bullied me throughout elementary school. Everything Parker inflicts on Bell is something my bully did to me. How did I handle it? Not well. I wilted. Thus, when I saw him bullying other kids, I didn’t say a word. I hid, and in some cases, I even laughed along with my “Parker,” hoping that by supporting him, I’d stay out of his crosshairs. It didn’t work, and it left others feeling as alone as I did. Tornado is, in part, a way to explore that bystander guilt.

My advice to educators, based on my own experiences and what I’ve seen in twenty-two years in the classroom, is to call a spade a spade. Don’t be afraid to label bullying behavior as such. “Bully” is a necessarily loaded term, but attempts to tiptoe around it or explain away bullying behaviors as simply “kidding around,” “accidental,” or “a one-time thing” subtly erode an educator’s ability to address the root causes of the behavior and to put measures in place to protect the victim. I’d also advise bringing in administrators and families as soon as possible to be part of the dialogue. A teacher shouldn’t have to handle something as serious as bullying in a vacuum, and multiple perspectives can be helpful in correctly diagnosing bullying as such.

The Right Hook of Devin Velma + Social Anxiety

MR: The Right Hook of Devin Velma (2018) features a character who suffers from social anxiety. As an example, Addison “freezes” when he’s feeling particularly anxious, or when he speaks to certain adults. He’s also majorly stressed about social media. What prompted you to write about social anxiety? What sort of research was involved?

JB: Addison’s anxiety was a way to explore my own, particularly around the topic of social media. When my first novel was published, one of the requests Macmillan made was that I jump onto Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. to help spread the word. I was deeply unsure about how that would go, though it turns out that all my fears are shared by a considerable number of other authors on those platforms: I don’t have anything interesting to post; I will over-post and annoy people; I will seem like an egomaniac; I will bore people and turn them away from my books with my inane ‘netprattle. Fortunately, none of that has come to pass…or just as fortunately, I’ve made friends kindly enough not to embarrass me by telling me my online act has grown stale.

Of course, social media anxiety isn’t social anxiety disorder, and so I did need to do considerable research into how it manifests, how those who have it cope, and how therapists try to address the issue and help people live with it. Like with so many anxiety-based disorders, there is no one way people experience SAD, so I tried to make Addison’s journey as authentic to him as I could, while staying true to the narratives of folks with SAD writ large. For example, there is no quick fix; Addison doesn’t suddenly wake up one day “cured” of his anxiety. He manages it as best he can, enjoying the small victories where he can claim them, in the hopes that they will ultimately build to a life more comfortable to live.

Genius at Work

MR: Of all your five books, which was the hardest to write? The most fun…? Also, what about titles? Do you come up with them yourself?

JB: Hardest: The Ghoul of Windydown Vale. Genius that I am, I decided to try to write this one during the school year. All my others I manuscripted over the summer. Trying to balance writing and teaching was daunting, and likely something I won’t attempt again any time soon. The most fun to write was Cleo. Her pragmatism and overly literal way of looking at the world made her a tremendously entertaining character to shepherd through a sci-fi world. Plus, giant insectoid drone battles are a ton of fun to choreograph.

Carving Out Writing Time

MR: In addition to being a prolific novelist, you’re a fifth-grade teacher and parent to a young daughter. When do you find the time to write? Do you have a specific writing routine?

JB: I thought I had a routine, and then COVID hit, and then I tried to write during the school year, and then I didn’t have a great routine anymore. I think many of us are in the same boat, re-learning how to be creative and productive. When I’ve got all my ducks in a row, my writing arc goes something like this: Brainstorm, outline, and research in the spring (especially spring break). Begin manuscript writing in mid-June. Finish manuscript and revise through late July. Get manuscript to second readers at the start of August. Revise again. Send manuscript to agent at the end of August. Wait for feedback. Revise more throughout the fall, until my editor is ready to proceed with copyedits. Take care of those over winter break. Then the novel is pretty much out of my hands, and I can turn my attention to the next one.

The Pedaler

MR: Rumor has it that you write while pedaling an exercise bike. I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time! How on earth do you do this? Enquiring minds want to know.

JB: It’s true: I’m actually responding to these questions right now while on a bike. I’ve found that cycling (stationary, of course) helps settle my body and quiet my mind. If I simply sit, my legs get twitchy and I’m distracted. I should note, though, that I’m not on a Peloton or something of the sort. I ride what’s usually called an “exercise desk.” Imagine a bike with a desk surface where the handlebars should be, and you’ve pretty much got it.

Meet Jake’s Next Book Projects

MR: What are you working on now, Jake? Can you give us a teaser?

JB: Only the vaguest of teasers, but yes…in question form:

Q: “What do you call a kid with three wishes?”

A: “The single greatest threat to global security the world has ever seen.”

Lightning Round!

MR: One last thing. As you know, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack?

Nothing. Sticky fingers + keyboard = disaster.

Coffee or tea?

TEA!

Dog or Cat?

(I think this photo speaks for itself. 🙂 — MR)

Favorite song you can play on the banjo?

“Wildwood Flower.”

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

As in “Would I survive?” Yea. Totally yea. I’m up-to-date on all my literature. As in “Do you want one?” Nay. Very nay. 

Superpower?

I used to go with teleportation. Then I switched to telekinesis. Now it’s “the ability to craft the details of my own afterlife.”

Favorite place on Earth?

I do love me some Disney World…

Hidden talent (besides strumming the banjo, pedaling your desk bike, and playing Ultimate Frisbee)?

After twenty-two years of practice, I think I’m really, really good at reading middle-grade fiction aloud to an audience. 

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?

Teleportation, telekinesis, and the ability to craft the details of my own afterlife. 

MR: Thanks for participating, Jake. And congrats on the publication of The Ghoul of Windydown Vale!

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!

For a chance to win TWO signed copies of Jake’s books, The Ghoul of Windydown Vale and Cleo Porter and the Body Electric, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends 2/21/22 EST.) U.S. only, please. 

All About Jake

Jake Burt is the author of the middle-grade novels Greetings from Witness Protection!, an Indie Next selection, The Right Hook of Devin Velma, a Junior Library Guild selection, and The Tornado, which School Library Journal called “one of the best stories about bullying for middle grades,” in a starred review. His novel Cleo Porter and the Body Electric was praised as a “thrilling sci-fi adventure” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Alan Gratz. His latest book, The Ghoul of Windydown Vale, is available now. Jake teaches fifth grade and lives in Hamden, CT, with his wife and their daughter. Learn more about Jake on his website and follow him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

GHOUL Art by Larissa Brown Marantz

 

A Serendipitious Interview and Giveaway

Code Name: Serendipity CoverI recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Amber Smith’s middle grade debut Code Name: Serendipity about a misunderstood girl  named Sadie who discovers that she can hear the thoughts of a stray dog that she finds in the forest behind her house. In her quest to rescue the dog, Sadie finds that Dewey, the dog, can hear her thoughts as well, and a friendship forms between them. Soon, through her rescue efforts, Sadie is making more unlikely friends. This is a book to hand to anyone who loves animals and who has ever felt misunderstood. So, when an opportunity to interview the author arrived, I jumped at the chance. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Amber.

MUF: Tell us about Code Name: Serendipity?

A: Code Name: Serendipity tells the story of eleven-year-old Sadie, a lonely misfit whose life seems to be going all wrong lately — she can’t get along with her older brother, her best friend moved away, and it seems no one understands her. That is until she meets a stray dog and realizes that they have a very special connection: They can communicate telepathically. Sadie sets out on a mission to rescue the dog, but in the process, she might just rescue herself too.

MUF: You’ve written several great young adult novels, and Code Name: Serendipity is your first MG? How was the experience different?

A: In terms of process and structure, it wasn’t too different to switch from writing YA to MG. But I found that it took me quite a while to find Sadie’s voice. As I was drafting, I struggled to balance her youth and maturity in a natural way, one that was so different from the older characters I have been writing for years now. Once I found it, though, the pieces of the puzzle just started falling into place!

MUF: Your bio says that Code Name: Serendipity was inspired by your own experiences rescuing animals. Are there any particular animals that inspired Dewey? Are there any stories from your time rescuing animals that particularly inspired this story?

A: Definitely! My wife and I are both huge animal lovers – we currently have seven rescues (two dogs and five cats). There are little pieces of each of these sweet furbabies threaded throughout the story, but the one who really inspired it was a third dog, Darwin. I rescued him from a shelter when he was still a puppy and he was with me his whole life, up until he was a senior, and eventually passed. I always refer to him as my “soul dog” because we had such a close bond that at times, it really did feel as if we knew what each other were thinking. Not quite telepathy, like Sadie and Dewey, but pretty close! So, I started writing this book in memory of him, and how much joy and love he broughtDarwin, the inspiration for Dewey in Code Name: Serendipity into my life.

MUF: Not gonna lie, I really wish that I had Sadie’s power not only with my own cats but also the cat that I TNR’d. (Trapped, Neutered, Released) Have there ever been animal rescue experiences where you wished that you had Sadie’s power?

A: First, I love that you participate in a TNR program!

This is how we have ended up with the majority of our rescue cats. Former members of feral colonies, who, when brought in for spay/neutering, were found to have health issues that prevented them from being re-released back into their feral colonies. These kitties can have such weird and sometimes aggressive behavioral issues that prevent them from being (or staying) adopted — after all, they’ve never been a part of a household or family. So, my wife and I have become known as the “crazy cat ladies” the shelters call to take the cats who have run out of options. I have definitely wished I could telepathically communicate with some of these cats (we have five of them currently) to explain what it means to transition from feral-to-house cat. They get it eventually, but it would be so much easier if we could just talk it out!

MUF: Code Name: Serendipity deals with some weighty issues with Sadie’s grandfather’s illness, her LD, and also what could happen to Dewey if she’s not rescued from the shelter. How do you approach writing about these topics for MG. Is it different from how you’d approach writing them for YA, and how so?

A: My YA novels have all dealt with some pretty heavy, hard-hitting topics that sometimes get into dark places, and while I definitely wanted to touch on serious real-world topics in Code Name, I was very conscious of not wanting any of Sadie’s problems and challenges to ever feel insurmountable. One of the ways I tried to achieve this was to show her finding tools, help, and allies along the way – so there was always a light at the end of every tunnel.

Amber Smith with DarwinMUF: Why does Gramps call Sadie Sassafras?

A: Gramps has a lot of what Sadie refers to as “Grampsisms” – or his own unique made-up expressions – old-timey sayings, but with a twist! When I was brainstorming nicknames he might have for Sadie, I kept thinking he’d probably want to express his admiration for Sadie’s spirited (or, some might say, sassy) nature. I thought at first, he could call her “Sassy,” but I wanted it to be something a bit more endearing and special, so in true Gramps style, Sassy became “Sassafras.”

MUF: Your descriptions of food in this story are awesome. I ended up buying a box of Uncrustables because I was craving PBJ after this. Were there any foods that you wrote, that you were hungry for after describing them?

A: Yes, I ate many a late-night PBJ sandwich while writing this book – and I still don’t know whether it was my snack that inspired the recurring PBJs in the book or the book that made me crave the recurring sandwiches. Also, Sadie has a penchant for French toast and big weekend breakfasts with her family, which is something I always looked forward to as a kid!

MUF: Sadie’s very gifted with art. I loved the scene where she’s drawing out the word problem. Do you draw? Or do origami like Macy? (Fun side note, I tried to learn origami in Japanese class in college because we did this whole Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes thing, and I literally made one sad, pathetic paper crane because like Sadie, I cannot figure it out.)

A: I actually do have a background in visual art – I went to college for Painting and grad school for Art History, so I love to incorporate creative and artistic themes in my books. I honestly don’t practice art too much these days, but it will always hold a special place in my heart as my first creative love. (Side note: I probably logged at least 100 hours of YouTube tutorials on origami while writing this book because I wanted to get the descriptions of Macy’s creations just right!)

MUF: Also, in a similar vein, throughout the story, we see Sadie working on her graphic novel. Are you a fan of graphic novels? If so, what are your favorites?

A: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an illustrator, but my wife is the true graphic novel aficionado in the family, so I borrowed that interest of hers for Sadie.

MUF: What are your favorite books?

A: I have too many to name (and the list is always growing), but on the middle-grade side I love anything by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Kate DiCamillo – Because of Winn-Dixie has been a long-time favorite of mine, and definitely inspired Code Name!

MUF: What are you working on now?

A: I am in the beginning stages of a new middle-grade novel that I’m super excited about (all I can say right now is that it involves another special animal – this time, a cat).

How can readers find you online?

A: I love connecting with readers! You can find me online at www.AmberSmithAuthor.com, @ambersmithauthor on Instagram and Facebook, or @ASmithAuthor on Twitter.

Thanks for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!

Code Name: Serendipity is out now, and here at Mixed-Up Files, we’re giving away a copy to one lucky reader.

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