WNDMG

WNDMG Wednesday Author Interview with Nicole Melleby

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

Welcome to WNDMG Wednesday and happy September to you all. I’m excited to share my interview with author Nicole Melleby, on her latest book: THE SCIENCE OF BEING ANGRY (Algonquin Young Readers, May 2022).

Book cover with the title The Science of Being Angry featuring a figure in the center of a re-orange circle - with two people looking on at the main figure

About the Science of Being Angry

Eleven-year-old Joey is angry. All the time. And she doesn’t understand why. She has two loving moms, a supportive older half brother, and, as a triplet, she’s never without company. Her life is good. But sometimes she loses her temper and lashes out, like the time she threw a soccer ball—hard—at a boy in gym class and bruised his collarbone. Or when jealousy made her push her (former) best friend (and crush), Layla, a little bit too roughly.

After a meltdown at Joey’s apartment building leads to her family’s eviction, Joey is desperate to figure out why she’s so mad. A new unit in science class makes her wonder if the reason is genetics. Does she lose control because of something she inherited from the donor her mothers chose?

A warm WNDMG welcome to Nicole Melleby (and welcome back to MUF!)!

A Two-Mom Household

MUF: What’s the origin story for your book?

NM: During the early days of the pandemic, I binge-watched a lot of the TV show the Fosters. It’s one of the only shows I had seen that had lesbian moms as the head of the family. It was representation I didn’t realize I was craving. And I realized that I hadn’t yet written a book with a family dynamic that could resemble the one I would have someday. So I knew then that I wanted to write a book with two moms, and tell a story about what their family might look like. I also wanted to tackle childhood anger, and with all of these things in place, Joey came to be. With Joey’s anger, and her two-mom household, it naturally developed into a story about nature vs. nurture and what makes us worthy or not of love from there.

The Science of Being Angry

MUF: Your main character, Joey, is searching for answers about why she is the way she is – and since it’s in the title, (!!) I guess it’s no spoiler to say she’s wondering about why she’s always so angry. You’ve framed a thoroughly 21st century perspective to this age-old but also complicated question. How did you work through the challenge of exploring the science and the question itself for a middle-grade audience?

NM: I think that what it came down to for me was to show that Joey’s anger causes a lot of issues, but that Joey herself doesn’t mean to be this way. She hates that she’s this way and can’t control it. And while yes, her actions need to have consequences, I wanted to show that Joey isn’t unlovable because of it. She deserves love and she deserves to feel safe regardless of her anger issues. In her search for those answers, she ends up on an ancestry website to find out why she is the way she is, and I think having those sort of answers at her fingertips with the internet is a very 21st century middle grade thing. It’s messier when you pair the internet with any sort of soul searching, regardless of how old you are!

An Unconditional Love

MUF: I was particularly struck by a moment in the book where (no spoilers here) your main character, Joey, expresses concern that one of her mothers will want to give her up because of her anger. I think all of us have those moments where we worry that the love we get from others is conditional. Why was this scene important for the book?

NM: I wanted to show that DNA doesn’t make a family, love does, and that Joey’s anger doesn’t make her any less worthy of that love. That who she is, regardless of where her DNA came from and which parent she shares a biological connection with, doesn’t mean that any one of her family members could just walk away from her. It’s a struggle for everyone to learn how to understand one another, but at the end of the day, they are there for Joey no matter what.

These are Important Stories

MUF: At WNDMG, part of our canon is that representation matters, but in this current (loud) culture of book banning, that message sometimes gets shouted down. Have you faced challenges to your book?

NM: I have! And it’s hard, and it sucks, and it’s easy to get caught up in it in a “woe is me” kind of way. But, really, you need to use it to fuel you to keep pushing. I’m going to keep writing these stories because they’re important and these kids need them. And, well, the more books like this I publish, the less of a chance they can ban all of them, right?

MUF: Right!!!!! You never name Joey’s diagnosis – curious to know whether you were describing Oppositional Defiance Disorder?

NM: I purposely didn’t name Joey’s diagnosis because I wanted to show that it could take time to get one. Hopefully they find a good solution, but it was more about everyone understanding one another. When I was writing, I looked up a bunch of different reasons a kid like Joey could have these anger issues—Oppositional Defiance Disorder was one of them, so was ADHD, sensory issues, and a whole slew of others. I took the time to decide what Joey’s anger looked like, and realistically what it could look like, and shaped it from there. I have my own theories as to what she would be diagnosed with, but I never sat down and pin-pointed one specific thing.

((Enjoying this interview? Here’s another from the last time she visited with MUF during her 2019 debut of Hurricane Season))

Keeping Track of the Triplets

MUF: What parts of this book were hard to write?

NM: Honestly, the hardest thing was balancing triplets!!!! I originally write it as quadruplets, but it was way too many siblings and I kept losing track of one of them. So, they became triplets, and even that was a lot to keep track of! I kept forgetting who was in a scene and who wasn’t. Those poor brothers of Joey.

Valid and Worthy of Love

MUF: What resonates most for you?

NM: Getting to write about and see this particular type of family in a published book meant a lot to me.

MUF: Who did you write this book for?

NM: I wrote it for the kids of same-sex parents, for the angry kids, for the queer kids. I want them to know that I see them and that they’re valid and worthy of love.

What’s Next

MUF: What are you working on next?

NM: I have a lot to look forward to in 2023! My very first picture book, Sunny & Oswaldo, comes out from Algonquin Young Readers in Februray, and my very first co-written middle grade project, Camp QUILTBAG, written with A. J. Sass, comes out in March!

Cover illustration featuring two young people, one with an arm slung around the other, both smiling.

We Love Easter Eggs

MUF: The Wild Card question: is there anything I didn’t ask but you wish I had? Feel free to use this space for closing remarks if you like!

NM: Are there any Easter Eggs in The Science of Being Angry? Why, yes! Like every single one of my books so far, Joey and her family live in my hometown of the New Jersey shore. And, because of this, in every one of my books the characters get pizza from Timoney’s pizza (the pizzeria Pluto and her mom own in my book How to Become a Planet!) Though, unfortunately for Joey, she doesn’t get to eat the pizza so much as she’s hit in the face with it…..

 

About Nicole Melleby

headshot of author Nicole Melleby, a brown-haired smiling woman in an outdoor setting

Photo Credit: Liz Welch

Nicole Melleby, a New Jersey native, is the author of highly praised middle-grade books, including the Lambda Literary finalist Hurricane Season and ALA Notable book How to Become a Planet. She lives with her wife and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule. Visit her online at nicolemelleby.com and @LadyMelleby on Twitter.

To buy Nicole’s Books:

Workman Publishers

Bookshop.org

 

 

Interview with Anika Fajardo, Author of MEET ME HALFWAY


I’m excited to welcome Anika Fajardo back to  the blog today to talk about her new MG novel Meet Me Halfway, which releases on September 13 from Simon & Schuster. Anika was born in Colombia and
raised in Minnesota and is the author of a book about that experience: Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family. Her books for middle-grade readers include the award-winning What If a Fish, Meet Me Halfway, and the Disney tie-in novel Encanto: A Tale of Three Sisters.

Karen: Thanks for joining us today, Anika! Can you tell us about your new book?
Anika: Meet Me Halfway is the story of seventh-graders Mattie Gomez and Mercedes Miller. Despite looking alike, they have nothing in common, and finding out that they’re half-sisters, doesn’t help them get along. But when they discover that their Colombian father—whom neither has met—is a visiting professor at a nearby college, they have to figure out how to work together as they embark on a road trip/adventure to find him.

Karen: What was your inspiration for this story?
Anika: I’m endlessly fascinated by non-traditional families and the search for identity, but I also wanted to write a book for kids that had fun, adventure, and hijinks. I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler when I was a kid, and I wanted to write a story that took readers someplace unexpected. I spent many years as an academic librarian at a liberal arts college, so setting the adventure at a college was really fun. During my years as a librarian, I also saw many first-generation college students, and I wanted to write a story that inspired kids to pursue higher education—especially for kids whose families might not be familiar with college life.

Karen: Oh, that book was the inspiration for this blog! How interesting! So, many of your stories seem to center around being displaced, with characters separated from their original culture or family. Can you tell me what drives you to write about this theme?
Anika: I first wrote about this in my memoir, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). That book is about my own experience as the only child of a Colombian father and American mother. When my parents got divorced when I was a toddler, I was separated from my birthplace in Colombia and my father, and we didn’t meet again until I was a young adult. Although not everyone has such a dramatic family background, I think the theme of lost and found family resonates with many readers.

Karen: What pieces of the characters are reflections of yourself?
Anika: Both Mattie and Mercedes have quirks that reflect my experience. Like me, Mattie struggles with anxiety, and Mercedes has a quick temper like I did when I was a child.

Karen: What message or idea do you hope readers will take away from Meet Me Halfway?
Anika: First, I really hope readers have fun reading about the girls’ adventure! I also hope readers see how families—and friendships—can look different and still be positive. Last, I hope that kids get a picture of what college might be like and that the story inspires kids who might not have been thinking about college to explore that option in the future.

Karen: We all know it can be a long path to becoming a published author. Can you tell us about your path to publication?
Anika: I always wanted to be a writer, but I took a few detours, first as an elementary teacher and then as a librarian. I started writing seriously about 15 years ago, taking classes and joining writing groups. My first full manuscript was a chick lit novel that luckily no one will ever read. But the exercise of writing a book length work helped when I was writing my memoir. My first publications were essays in literary magazines. Thanks to some awards and grant funding, I was able to stretch and learn. I published my first book, my memoir, almost a decade after I wrote the first pages. The manuscript of my middle-grade debut, What If a Fish, was chosen for #PitchWars (an online mentoring program) and helped me land my agent.

Karen: What are your top three pieces of writing advice for our Mixed-Up Files readers who’d like become published someday?
Anika: 1) Write like crazy. Write the best book you can and then work on it some more! 2) Be part of the writing community. Whether that means going to in-person readings or volunteering in your community or meeting other writers online, be open to connecting with people. 3) Persevere. Publishing is not in the writer’s control, so you have to be patient. If you’ve worked hard and written the best book you can, sometimes you just have to work and wait until it’s your turn.

Karen: Great advice, Anika. Can you tell us about the books Mixed-Up Files readers can expect to see from you in the future?
Anika: I’m currently working on both a middle-grade novel and a novel for adult readers.

Karen: How can we learn more about you?
Check out my website anikafajardo.com and follow me on social media @anikwriter

 

Thanks so much for joining us today, Anika! Be sure to check out Anika’s new book, Meet Me Halfway, which launches next month!

 

WNDMG Wednesday – Guest Post by Jorrel Brinkley

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Wednesday Guest Post by Jorrel Brinkely

We Need DIverse MG is delighted to host a new author this week.  Jorrel reached out to WNDMG a few months ago with an idea for connecting his work as an author and school psychologist to the importance of diverse representation in middle-grade fiction, and we were excited to be able to feature a fresh voice on this always-timely topic. Thanks for your post, Jorrel!

My Journey, by Jorrel Brinkley

Hey everyone! I’m so excited to write a blog post this month for “From the Mixed-Up Files… of Middle-Grade Authors.” Having written a middle-grade novel and working as a school psychologist, I’d like to take this time to talk a little bit about the importance of diverse books and early literacy in reaching children in high-needs elementary schools.

Stereotypes and Microaggressions

As a teenager and in my adult years, I’ve been on the receiving end of various stereotypes and microaggressions:

“Do you rap or play basketball?”

“Imagining you riding a horse is like imagining Tupac riding a horse.”

“You look like someone I saw on a ‘Most Wanted’ billboard.”

I would say, “C’mon guys, read a book!” But given the small amount of prominent diverse books available when I was a kid, I guess I’m not surprised. I’m not disparaging any of those books, but we definitely needed more.

The White Default

Growing up, I can recall only a few books that I read in school featuring Black authors or characters. More often than not, the ones I read featured historical figures (e.g. think days of slavery or around the Civil Rights era) or were African folktales. Important for sure, but not always relatable. Most of the books that I’ve read centered around White characters. I remember that while I was writing my debut book, Gus & Major: Obedience School, I had an idea for another story. As I imagined what the cover of that book might look like, I realized that I had envisioned a White protagonist. Why was that? In my head, I saw a main character that fit with most of who I’ve seen my entire life in books, TV shows, and movies.

“This Boy Looks Like Me!”

It is important for children to not only see characters or authors who look like them but are also relatable. There can be much encouragement and hope for children when they read a book and realize they are not alone. It also gives them an idea of what they could be besides the stereotypical representations found in media. On a personal level, my three year old son was looking at a picture book. He is half-black, half-Latino. As he perused the pictures, he looked up with excitement and said, “This boy looks like me! And this is you, Daddy!”

Lacking Early Literacy Skills

As I mentioned earlier, not only am I an author, but I am also a school psychologist working in a high-needs elementary school. Most of the evaluations that I conduct with students deal with reading difficulties. Many times, I’ve found that the students I’ve tested do not have a learning disability. Rather, they simply lack the early literacy skills that are usually acquired before entering Kindergarten. Now, there are a multitude of factors that play into this, but that’s a discussion for another time. As they go through school, what I’ve typically seen is that they lack foundational reading skills. These skills build on each other every year as the curriculum becomes more challenging. The issue is that by the time the students are in their middle grade years, many have been unable to overcome the ever-increasing gap; that is their expected performance and their actual performance. Mix in a grade retention or two, and we have a serious problem. The students are over-age and seem to have lost interest in school, especially in reading. They do not see its importance; many have told me that reading is too hard. On top of that, when you place a book in front of them with characters that do not look like them or with an unrelatable story, reading it is the last thing they want to do. And let’s face it, smartphones and social media are stiff competition.

Enter diverse middle grade books.

Relatability in Diverse Books

Admittedly, my debut book features animal characters, BUT I was very intentional in writing a story that the students at my school and similar schools would find relatable. Why? In my experience, the children I’ve worked with are more interested in stories with diverse characters or those with similar experiences. They also seem to be more invested in the outcome of certain characters. In addition, when they can empathize with the author, that is a bonus. Not only are children interested in the story, but they are more willing to read other books by said author.

BookCoverWebImage_500x800

Each year at my school, I typically mentor a group of fifth-grade boys in which we discuss music and think about the messages conveyed in songs. When I ask them about their favorite rappers and why they listen to their music, I’m often told that they can relate to some of the rappers’ struggles. They feel like they’re not alone and that there’s hope that they can make it past their own personal struggles too. Without examining the veracity of some rappers’ statements, it’s important that we don’t miss that gold nugget. These boys connected with artists that looked like them, talked like them, and had relatable stories. I can almost guarantee that they would read a book written by their favorite rapper!

((For more articles on why representation matters, check out our WNDMG Wednesday archives))

Making Connections

What does this have to do with diverse middle grade books, Jorrel? I’m glad you asked. It’s all about making connections. Making connections with children through diverse books can help them process their emotions, provide language to what they are experiencing, and may even provide a framework for overcoming various challenges.

How do you attract students who don’t find curling up with a good book on a rainy day as exhilarating as you do? Give them diverse authors and/or characters and a relatable, compelling story. What if they are a struggling reader? Well, if they’re sitting and engaging with the book, that’s half the battle! It’s easier to target some of those foundational reading skills when interest and motivation are high.

On a few occasions, I’ve read part of my book, Gus & Major: Obedience School, to a group of third graders at my school. In it, I touch on topics such as fatherlessness, behavioral problems, and forgiveness. Most of the story is drawn from my time working with children. The students were immediately able to relate to the story and characters, saying things like, “So-and-so does that in my class all the time,” or “I used to act like him in the beginning of the year.”

I’m grateful that there is an increasing number of diverse books being published. What messages do we want to send to our children? How do we ignite a love of reading in children lacking basic reading skills and maintain their interest? Let’s expand their imaginations to what else is out there, and let’s introduce them to more diverse voices early.

About Jorrel Brinkley

Jorrel Brinkley is a school psychologist and the author of his debut chapter book Gus & Major: Obedience School. He has worked with elementary school-aged children from a variety of backgrounds for over 15 years. His goal is to engage children’s imagination through entertaining, relatable, and thoughtful stories. When he is not writing, he is spending time with his wife and two boys.

Connect with Jorrel

 Instagram

Website