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Author Interview + Giveaway: THE VERDIGRIS PAWN by Alysa Wishingrad

We’re so pleased to welcome author Alysa Wishingrad to MUF, here to talk about her new middlegrade novel, THE VERDIGRIS PAWN. She tells us about the book, what the title means, and more about her career and journey to kidlit author.  

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is the story of Beau, heir to the ruler of the Land, a man so frightening, people only dare call him Himself. Beau has been raised isolated and alone. And despite the harsh and judgmental treatment he gets from his father, Beau has no idea of the brutal tyranny Himself unleashes upon his subjects, and how hated and feared their family is.  This all changes when he meets Cressi, a young servant, who opens his eyes to the realities of life in the Land – especially about Mastery House, a terrible and brutal place where the children of the poor are sent to be raised and trained to be servants in exchange for payment of their families taxes.

The Verdigris Pawn by Alysa Wishingrad

This discovery of the truth sets Beau off on an epic adventure as he tries to undo the poisoned legacy of his family. But in order to restore fairness and equality to the Land, he must think of things like a real-life game of Fist (a board game similar to chess!)  But when you’re reviled throughout the Land and false heroes lurk around every corner, leading a rebellion is easier said than done.  This is a story about how appearances aren’t always what they seem and how real power can come from the most unlikely places.

MUF: What does the title mean?
AW: The title refers to the key game piece in Fist, in which either the king must knock the verdigris pawn off the board, or the pawn will unseat the king. As for Verdigris, it’s an alchemical reaction that turns copper and brass a beautiful blue-ish green color when it oxidizes. A great example that we can all call to mind is the Statue of Liberty. Just as the pawn in fist can be transformed into the king, Beau, Cressi and Nate, my three central characters, all also go through life-changing transformations.

MUF: This is your debut kidlit novel. What career path led you to write a book? Why MG?
AW: 
I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was constantly telling and writing stories as a kid. I graduated college with a degree in playwriting and moved back to NYC with the intention of writing plays. But life and work, and a measure of insecurity about my words, got in the way. I followed another career path for about 15 years, but writing would not leave me alone. It was when I moved up to the country to raise my kids that I got back to it.

As for why I write MG, simply put, I love this age. I think MG readers are truly some of the smartest and open people there are. It’s this beautiful knife’s edge time between childhood and the teen years, before the cynicism and deep seeded doubts can take hold. It’s a time of realizing you have a voice and striving to use it. This is fertile terrain both for telling stories and for learning about ourselves.

MUF: You say that your novel is, a “new take on the classic middle grade books we all grew up with.” Can you speak more to that? 

AW: There’s a very classic feel to this story, to the way it’s constructed, and I think in the writing as well. It might bring to mind classic fantasies such as the Chronicles of Prydain and Diana Wynn Jones’s work. But while it nods to those stories, it also poses questions that are urgently relevant to our world while challenging some deeply held cultural assumptions.

One of the themes the story explores is who gets to write history, and how is it even possible to tell the entire story from all sides. I like to think that the book will encourage readers to examine issues around power; what does it mean to have it, how can you claim your power when you feel powerless, and can power be wielded to enhance rather than sacrifice the greater good.

Author Alysa Wishingrad

MUF: Speaking of classics, what are a few of your favorite classic MG titles?
AW: I used to get lost in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers books for hours on end– oh, how I wanted to have little people living in the walls of my house. I loved how resourceful they were, how clever and united as a family they were, especially through all the very hard times they faced

This one I mention with a caveat that I haven’t re-read it in a very long time, and I’m sure there are elements that do not hold up today, but E.B. White’s Stuart Little was another book I re-read so many times. I loved that here was this mouse who was unconditionally welcomed into the family. That no one questioned that he was different was a picture of the world as it ought to be. And then somehow he aged at twice the rate of his sibling and was ready to go off and explore the world long before they were. There was so much hope and inspiration in that story for me. The blending of the world as we know it with the potential for the fantastical is still the terrain I like to explore as a writer.

MUF:  What new MG book(s) do you love? 

AW:  Oh gosh! How much time do we have?

I have been blown away by so many of my fellow 2021 debuts – but I’ll just stick to the fantasy titles for now since that’s where my heart lives.

Root Magic by Eden Royce is gorgeous, magical historical fiction.

The Gilded Girl by Alyssa Colman is a wonderful magical retelling of The Little Princess with a social conscious.

I love the infusion of mythology with adventure in Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne.

And last but not least, The Wolf’s Curse by Jessica Vitalis, which will be out in September, is a lyrical and fantastic examination of grief, love and life.

MUF: Can you tell us one thing you learned while writing The Verdigris Pawn?
AW: I learned that white paging a book  (starting over from the blank page) is nothing to fear. In fact,  it’s incredibly liberating. Sometimes beginning anew is the best way to get to the heart of a story.

I’ll explain.

I had a meeting early on with my editors to address some issues on how the story was rolling out. The longer we talked the more I realized that I couldn’t patch it, I couldn’t revise my way to a fix. So, I metaphorically balled the book up into a giant 375 page wad, threw it over my shoulder and started over.

The arc of the story has always been the same, but how it rolled out changed – and so very much for the better!

That experience of doing what I once thought of as the unthinkable has made me more daring, and freer as a writer.

Find Alysa on Twitter @agwishingrad, on Instagram @alysawishingradwrites, and her website at www.AlysaWishingrad.com  (where you might find some Pawn-ish treats and facts).

Thank you so much for having me, I’ve loved chatting with you!

Enter for your chance to win a free copy of THE VERDIGRIS PAWN!

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Interview with Jess Rinker and Giveaway

Our guest today is Jess Rinker, author of the middle-grade novels Out of Time: Lost on the Titanic, The Dare Sisters, and The Dare Sisters: Shipwrecked (coming this September). Jess has also written picture book biographies on feminist Gloria Steinem and Brenda Berkman, one of the first female firefighters for the New York City Fire Department.

Thanks so much, Jess for joining us at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors! It has been fun witnessing your publishing success since meeting at the Highlights Foundation workshop several years ago. Can you offer a bit about your journey?

Thank YOU for having me! It’s funny, I always think about our time at Highlights as if it was “last summer”, when in fact it was four years ago! Wow. A lot has happened since then for sure—it’s amazing how connected we’ve all remained and hopefully, we’ll begin to cross actual paths again soon.

My journey started way before then, probably more around 2005 when I went from one of those people who said “someday I’ll write a book” to someone who actually sat down and wrote a book. It would be the first of many shelved manuscripts, but learning I could write a novel changed my life trajectory. Fast forward through years of practice, attending conferences, and taking classes, by 2014 I graduated with an MFA, signed with an agent the following year, and sold my first book Gloria Takes a Stand in 2016. I definitely put in my “10,000 hours” as Malcolm Gladwell says. 2018 was a bit of an explosion for me regarding book sales, and so now I just turned in my third middle-grade novel, which brings me to a total of six books by next summer. Whew.

I know you love the outdoors and rural settings, which shines through in your middle-grade works of fiction. Would you share your inspiration for these settings?

So far, yes, all of my middle grade takes place in rural/small town settings. (Even the super secret one we’re just about to pitch to my editor) I grew up in rural NJ and PA in the ’70s-’80s and my parents were pretty hands-off so I was free to explore all of the woods and creeks and rivers around me. Other than a library card, it was probably the biggest gift they gave me. I had few friends as a young child and the woods and wildlife became my entire world—the perfect place for an imagination to blossom. My mom gave me countless nature books as well, and so learning the names of flowers, trees, bugs, animals, even fish, and frogs, became a way for me to “know” the wildlife around me, as well as order my otherwise chaotic world. I think my mom always had an innate understanding that when you give something a name (or learn its name), you gain an appreciation for it. In my upcoming book The Hike to Home, I give my mom and my young self a little nod in that the main character has a similar proclivity to know all the names of the natural things around her. It’s something I still do and now living in a brand-new place—West Virginia—there are so many new creatures to get to know! West Virginia is an incredibly biologically diverse state with New River Gorge (The nation’s most recent National Park!) being the highest, I believe.

Your picture book biographies feature strong, independent women. Your middle-grade fictional work shares the adventures of strong and independent girls. Tell us a little bit about the background behind these stories.

To be completely honest, I never intended to “brand” myself and when I first started, I was writing angsty YA that didn’t sell. I’ve always approached the writing life—and publishing as much as possible—as someone who just truly loves writing stories. I don’t have a very altruistic sense until the book is on the shelf. Once it’s out there, it’s on its own, but before that it’s all mine and I treasure that creative stage. So ideas come and go and whatever grabs a hold of me the most, I write it. I have plenty of stories and ideas that are not strong-girl stories per se.

That being said, back in 2015 I was reading Gloria Steinem’s canon of literature and that, paired with the sale of the biography, fueled me in a new way as a woman and as a writer. I absolutely became conscious of wanting to write characters who had agency in their lives. I had next-to-none as a child, and many children are powerless because of their circumstances. I chose not to write about those circumstances (yet) and instead write stories that showed children the power they CAN have. Somehow, that turned into strong girls, strong women. I’m not complaining! But it was a natural evolution, driven by my own education and internal revolution, the love of storytelling, and a desire to empower children in whatever little way I can.

I know that you and your family experienced a tragic fire, which engulfed and destroyed your home, including all of your childhood journals. How has writing helped you move forward through that loss?

That was a huge blow, for sure. Sometimes I don’t even remember it happened until someone mentions it and other times I look in my closet and mourn the loss of my favorite summer dress or those precious journals. I mentioned earlier that 2018 was a bit of an explosion for me book-wise, and I think that’s what really helped me quickly recover from that trauma—which was also caused by a literal explosion! I don’t know that we will ever be “over it”, only through the worst of it, but we have found a secure new normal since then. The book sales kept me focused. I’d lost everything I owned, but I still had my family and my job, and it completely kept me going. I’d also been married only a week before the fire, so while it slightly marred our anniversary month, which is August, we had a lot of love and joy.

Exactly a week after the fire, even though we were technically homeless, we still had our wedding party that had been planned for months. Sometimes I wish we could do it over again since my husband and I were in a bit of a fog, but I’m grateful we were able to celebrate. In another wonderful, but long story my wedding dress had been somewhat spared from flame and smoke because of the way it was stored, so a dear friend of mine stole it away, had it cleaned and repaired, and I got to wear it again at the party. We made the news for the fire and the dress. Kind of a beautiful juxtaposing, I think. Everything is writing material, right?!

Whenever I do school visits, both students and teachers are interested in my writing process. Tell us about yours.

Gosh, it changes so much all the time—especially with writing under a few different categories. This question is always tough to answer, but I suppose my main process is to first let myself be entirely swept away with an idea. Whether nonfiction or fiction, I dive into research, notetaking, scene ideas, dialogue, and especially character development before I really write anything. When I’m drafting, I’m in my PJ’s on the couch. Sometimes I try to get away to a place like Highlights where I don’t have to think about normal day-to-day stuff, but that’s not possible as much anymore since I’m also teaching now. I don’t have any fun rituals or anything—it’s just me, silence (when possible), the notebook or computer, and a comfy place to sit.

What stories did you enjoy reading as a child?

Everything. I was never once told I wasn’t allowed to read something so I read everything from the nature books to kids’ books to my mom’s collection of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. My favorite stories often involved survival aspects, like Island of the Blue Dolphin, or My Side of the Mountain, but I also loved classics like Little Women and The Secret Garden.  (Which, come to think of it, have survival aspects in other ways) All of EB White and Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Katherine Paterson. But I quickly graduated to adult books and loved horror and dystopian. I weirdly enjoyed reading about grown-ups. I also really loved my grandparents’ shelves of encyclopedias and would page through them quite a bit. It wasn’t until having my own kids, and especially while working on my MFA, that I really got a good dose of the huge variety of children’s books.

I know you teach writers at the collegiate level. What have you learned through this process?

My husband and I were just talking about this! Teaching writing forces you to be a better writer and that’s one of the reasons we both really enjoy it. (Although don’t ask me that when I have 25 essays to grade in two days) Teaching stretches you, keeps you on your toes. Not only for the college but with freelance clients as well. We team up as a couple to coach writers through their projects and we bring different skills and insights to the table, so it becomes a pretty well-rounded process. When you have to help someone craft and revise an essay or plot a novel, it reminds you of all the things you do on a more subconscious level. It’s very eye-opening. My favorite part of teaching, however, is encouraging young writers who want to be better, assuring them that it is a lifetime of practice and devotion, and none of us masters it. We just get better. Hopefully.

As you are married to children’s book author Joe McGee, what is it like working and living with a fellow creative soul?

It’s pretty wonderful. I won’t say there haven’t been some tough spots, because when we first partnered, he was a bit “ahead” of me in the business. I was struggling to sell anything, as well as unable to find a decent job. I had a couple of years of a lot of disheartening “No’s” seemingly coming from everyone and we struggled financially. Those couple years were hard on me. I wasn’t competing with him, but I remember thinking if nothing ever happened for me, and I had to settle for retail jobs for the rest of my life, I didn’t know if I could survive the relationship. This came from my own personal baggage of always feeling like the cheerleader in my previous marriage, and I was very aware of that, and so was Joe. With patience and continued determination, it obviously all panned out. And Joe is probably my biggest cheerleader. 

I’m often asked which is my favorite book that I’ve written…do you have a favorite?

I get that question a lot too—especially from kids. I always tell them my favorite is the one I’m writing right now because it’s true! It’s that special creative time where the story is all mine and I can be lost in it before handing it over to the world. So right now, my favorite book is the one we’re about to pitch to my editor…hopefully more on that very soon!

What is your absolute favorite thing about writing for children?

I do not know. How’s that for an answer! But I really am not sure how to choose one thing. Writing is what I love and it just happens to be for children. I’ve been writing for myself since I was a kid, and then when my kids were little, and I read to them all the time, I thought, “I could totally do this”. So, I did and I never looked back. I’ve never tried writing an adult book, I never have ideas for adult books, and I’m fine with that. I could get super psychological and really pull it apart on a deeper level that has to do with suffering a lot of trauma as a child, and the fact I was treated like a peer to my parents from day one, and so never had a true, care-free childhood….but nah. It doesn’t really matter. Because those very things also made me the writer I am. The fact is, the ideas and voices in my head are always kids and teens, and I just love writing their stories. When a young reader tells me they loved the book, or a parent tells me that it’s the first book their kid ever finished, that is a major heart-warming bonus, for sure. But I’d keep writing regardless.

 

Thank you, Jess! To learn more about Jess, visit her website, www.jessrinker.com. Jess has graciously offered to give a copy of both The Dare Sisters and the upcoming Dare Sisters: Shipwrecked to one lucky winner. Enter here by July 15 for your chance to win. Note: Only residents of the contiguous United States, please.

 

 

Digging Into Journey Beyond the Burrow

Hi Mixed-Up Filers! We dug into all kinds of nature topics with author Rina Heisel, author of the upcoming Journey Beyond the Burrow.

MUF: Welcome Rina. Thanks for joining us today. I’m really excited to be talking to you about this book.

Rina Heisel: Thanks. I’m excited to be here.

MUF: So, tell us about Journey Beyond the Burrow.

Rina Heisel: Journey Beyond the Burrow is an adventure story about a young mouse, Tobin. He’s the top weather scout in his burrow, and he’s an expert in the Rules of Rodentia. He’s very proud of this, and always follows the Rules, until a big storm introduces a new predator that scuttles off with Tobin’s new baby brother. The Rules say to never pursue a predator, but Tobin goes on a rescue mission, along with his best friend and his little sister.

MUF: Speaking of the new predator, they definitely freaked me out, but not as much as the part where Tobin winds up in a nest of snakes. I had to put the book down at that part. Snakes scare me.

Rina Heisel: I’ve actually heard that from a few reviewers. Some people go into Journey Beyond the Burrow expecting a cute animal story, and it is that. But it’s also got some pretty scary, intense parts. Those are some of my favorites because I always loved those types of books when I was a kid.

MUF: Speaking of books that you enjoyed as a child, can you tell us some of the books that influenced you?

Rina Heisel: I read a lot of animal fantasy: Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I liked horse books and animal rescue books, but I also loved ghost stories, especially books by Mary Downing Hahn, and the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

MUF: Oh! Those were so good. I saw on your website that you worked on nature shows for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, how did your time there influence Journey Beyond the Burrow?

Rina Heisel: The natural science shows were my favorite projects. I spent a lot of time in the Badlands getting prairie dog footage and observing them and their burrows. It got me thinking about the relationship between predator and prey.

MUF: So, you started with prairie dogs, why is the story about mice?

Rina Heisel: Mice are so expressive, and they have fingers. It’s so helpful in writing animals that an animal is able to hold something because it’s such a human quality.

Also, I had a pet mouse in college that I rescued from a tarantula cage. The owner tried to feed the mouse to the tarantula, but the spider was scared of this little baby mouse and just clung to the top of its cage. I had a very understanding roommate who let me take the mouse back to our room. We named it Lucky, and it lived on cafeteria food.

MUF: Oh! That’s awesome. So, are the Arakni in the story based on that tarantula then?

Huntsman Spider

“Hunstman Spider (Heteropoda sp.)” by GeeC is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Rina Heisel: Arakni are based on tarantulas, yes, but also on Hunstman spiders, and A. Eximius spiders, which are spiders that live in colonies. I basically took the most terrifying traits of several spider species and combined them to make the Arakni, much to my agent’s chagrin. She had to go over all of the

different versions of the cover with spiders on them.

MUF: Wait! There’s a spider on the cover? I never noticed.

Rina Heisel: Yes! The mice that Paul Canavan drew are so expressive that they just pull you in, but there’s definitely a spider on the cover if you look for it.

MUF: Oh, I see it now. It’s kind of … menacing. So, tell us about the Rules of Rodentia. How did you come up with them?

Rina Heisel: The Rules come from nature and the relationships that animals have with each other. I got the idea from a biologist who talked about rabbits and the trails that they memorize. I thought about how all animals have these codes that they follow instinctively, and I wondered what that would look like written down.

MUF: Are there more rules that weren’t covered in the book?

Rina Heisel: There’s a little wiggle room in the numbering. So, there may be new rules, but there’s also a gray area. In life, it’s not just black and white. There’s this whole murky gray area.

MUF: That really feels like Tobin’s arc is finding that out. Rules of Rodentia would have made a pretty good title too.

Rina Heisel: It’s funny that you bring that up. Rules of Rodentia was my title, but my editor, Alice Jerman, wanted a title that would convey more of the story. So, my daughter and I brainstormed about 10 titles, and Journey Beyond the Burrow was one of my daughter’s suggestions.

MUF: Ha! That’s awesome. Can you tell us about your writing journey so far?

Rina Heisel: This story has been with me for about 15 years. The idea for the plot came to me in the Black Hills when we were interviewing a biologist about symbiotic relationships between animals, and I wondered “What would make a mouse and a snake team up?” I carried that little kernel of an idea around for a year or so. Then, the spiders came into play, and I wrote a summary. Then, I went to SCBWI classes and conferences to learn about writing for kids. It was around that time that my family moved to Florida, and I met my amazing writing group, The OWLS. I My first meeting with them I brought a 15 page first chapter of this animal fantasy that started out with Tobin just thinking about life. The OWLS were very patient with me, and I learned so much from them.

“Giant Batfish!” by montereydiver is licensed under CC BY 2.0

MUF: So, would that be your advice to new writers? Find a good group?

Rina Heisel: Yes, a supportive group is the biggest blessing, and SCBWI is a good resource. I learned so much by going to conferences, and going to conferences with my writing group was like imagination fuel.

MUF: Speaking of imagination fuel, what are you working on next?

Rina Heisel: I have an idea for a possible sequel to Journey Beyond the Burrow sketched out, but, right now, I’m working on an MG ghost story about siblings who visit a haunted hunting lodge in the North Woods.

MUF: Sounds spooky! Only a few more questions. What is something that readers would be surprised to find out about you?

Rina Heisel: Well, I love nature and being outside, but I’m scared of big fish. I went scuba diving with a friend near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and we saw a huge batfish. My poor diving partner, when we surfaced, said, “You kn

ow, for a small person, you have the most vice-like grip.” I was terrified!

MUF: That sounds like nightmare fuel. How can readers find you on social media?

Rina 

Heisel: I’m on Twitter: @rinaheisel. Instagram: rina.heisel and my Facebook page is Author Rina Heisel.

MUF: Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Journey Beyond the Burrow comes out July 13th, but one lucky winner will have a chance to win a sneak peek by entering our giveaway below.

 

Journey Beyond the Burrow Prize Pack
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